New Testament Backgrounds: Galatians through Colossians


Galatians

By Edward J. Brandt

Written to:

The epistle to the Galatians is a circular letter written to church units established in numerous cities throughout the Roman province of Galatia, as well as in the geographical area of the same name.

Author:

The apostle Paul.

Where written:

It is generally accepted that the epistle was written from Corinth, in Greece. (Acts 20:2–3.)

When written:

During the fall of A.D. 57. (Acts 20:2–3.)

Purpose of the letter:

The apostle wrote to members of this region because unauthorized teachers were declaring apostate and false principles. (Gal. 1:6–9; Gal. 2:4; Gal 5:10.) Many Jewish converts were found in these churches, along with the gentile members. Some of them, known as “Judaizers” because of their continued zeal for the teachings of the lesser law, were declaring that all gentile converts were required to observe the Mosaic law. (See Acts 15:5.) This matter had already been settled by revelation in a council of church authorities (Acts 15:6–21), and an official letter had been sent to the church units for instruction (Acts 15:22–31; Acts 16:4). Paul’s epistle was to further instruct and strengthen the members against this continuing problem.

Major Themes:

Paul writes within the context of the apostate problem, and the dominant themes might be categorized as follows:

1. The relationship of the law of Moses and the gospel of Jesus Christ—The bulk of the epistle deals with this topic. (See Gal. 1–4.) Paul emphasizes that justification comes not “by the works of the law [of Moses]” but through the gospel of Jesus Christ. (Gal. 2:16; see also 2 Ne. 2:5; 2 Ne. 25:23–25.) To illustrate the weakness of the argument of the Judaizers, he reminds them that Abraham, the father of the faithful, received these promises before the law of Moses was even given to Israel. (Gal. 3:16–19.) “The law [of Moses] was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” (Gal. 3:24.)

2. Contrast between the works of flesh and fruits of the Spirit—The apostle warns the church of the results of following lusts of the flesh: “They which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” (See Gal 5:16–21.) The fruits of living in the true spirit of the gospel, i.e., “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Gal. 5:22–23), lift one above the effects of the law of Moses.

3. The Laws of the Harvest—The “law of the harvest” is a characterization of a part of the doctrine of restoration. (See Alma 41:2–15.) Galatians itself is a clear declaration of these important truths: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. …” (Gal. 6:7)

Difficult Passages (selected):

“When Peter was come … I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed.” (Gal. 2:11.) Of this passage, Elder Bruce R. McConkie has written:

“Peter and Paul—both of whom were apostles, both of whom received revelations, saw angels, and were approved of the Lord, and both of whom shall inherit the fulness of the Father’s kingdom—these same righteous and mighty preachers disagreed on a basic matter of church policy. Peter was the President of the Church; Paul, an apostle and Peter’s junior in the church hierarchy, was subject to the direction of the chief apostle. But Paul was right and Peter was wrong. …

“The heads of the Church, in council assembled, with the Holy Ghost guiding their minds and directing their decisions, had determined that the Gentiles who received the gospel should not be subject to the law of Moses. (Acts 15:1–35.) [ … But] Peter sided with them [the “Judaizers”]; Paul publicly withstood the chief apostle and won the debate, as could not otherwise have been the case. Without question, if we had the full account, we would find Peter reversing himself and doing all in his power to get the Jewish saints to believe that the law of Moses was fulfilled in Christ and no longer applied to anyone either Jew or Gentile.” (Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, Bookcraft, 1970, 2:463–64.)

Ephesians

By Edward J. Brandt

Written to:

Members of the church in Ephesus (Asia Minor). Some question whether the letter was to the Ephesian Saints alone and suggest it may have also had circulation among other branches of the church.

Author:

The apostle Paul.

Where written:

From Rome. Paul mentions his imprisonment there in this epistle. (Eph. 3:1; Eph. 4:1; Eph. 6:20; Acts 28:16, 30–31.)

When written:

About A.D. 62. Paul’s first Roman imprisonment is usually dated about A.D. 61–63.

Purpose of the letter:

The epistle was given to commend church members for their faithfulness. He also adds exhortation, counsel, and instruction, to further encourage and strengthen them.

Major Themes:

Among the many profitable topics treated in this letter, the following have particular significance for the Church in the latter days:

1. Dispensation of the Fulness of Times—Paul prophetically refers to the future establishment of the kingdom as a period when all things will be gathered together in one for the culmination of God’s work, preparatory to the ushering in of the long-awaited Millennium. (Eph. 1:10.)

2. Holy Spirit of Promise—Paul calls this sealing “the earnest of our inheritance.” (Eph. 1:14.) “Earnest” is used here in exactly the same sense as it is used today in the phrase “earnest money”—a payment received with the assurance that the remainder will also be given. Joseph Smith quoted verses 13 and 14 of this chapter and stated that this sealing power was the same as having one’s calling and election made sure. (See Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 149.)

3. Importance of Church Officers—Paul testifies of the foundation status of apostles and prophets in the establishment of the church. (Eph. 2:19–22.) He further reminds them of other church officers who are to serve others, strengthen the saints, and build up the kingdom of God. (Eph. 4:11–16.)

4. “Put on the Whole Armour of God” (Eph. 6:11–18; see also D&C 27:15–18)—In a beautiful analogy that serves as a summary, Paul likens key principles and precepts of the gospel unto an ancient suit of armor, a means of protection from the forces of Satan.

Difficult Passages (selected):

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” (Eph. 2:8.) This verse is often used to suggest that man has no individual responsibility for his salvation. Such an interpretation ignores the context of the verse as well as the consistent message of the gospel. The “grace” spoken of is the power of the atonement of Christ which is only fully obtained “through faith.” The “faith” spoken of is the active and affirmative kind of trust in Christ, his commandments, and plan which produces righteousness in the lives of those who follow him.

“Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath.” (Eph. 4:26.) The Prophet Joseph Smith corrected this contradiction: “Can ye be angry, and not sin?” (JST, Eph. 4:26.)

Philippians

By J. Lewis Taylor

Written to:

The church at Philippi in Macedonia, probably the first branch established in Europe. (See Acts 16.)

Author:

The apostle Paul.

Where written:

Traditionally from Rome (Philip. 1:13, Philip. 4:22), where Paul was held prisoner awaiting trial “in my bonds” (Philip. 1:7, 13, 16).

When written:

Apparently near the end of Paul’s first imprisonment at Rome, about A.D. 61–62.

Purpose of the letter:

The Philippian saints had sent Epaphroditus to Rome to take gifts to Paul (Philip. 4:18) and to minister to his needs (Philip. 2:25). Paul sensed the longing of Epaphroditus to return home after a near-fatal illness and decided to send him back. This decision furnished an occasion for the letter.

Unlike most of Paul’s other epistles, this one did not seem to be prompted by major doctrinal squabbles or moral difficulties among the saints, but was rather “a letter of friendship, full of affection, confidence, good counsel and good cheer. It is the happiest of St. Paul’s writings, for the Philippians were the dearest of his children in the faith.” (J. R. Dummelow, The One Volume Bible Commentary, New York: MacMillan Co., 1936, p. 969.)

Major Themes:

What does an apostle say to a branch of the church that is doing quite well in living the gospel?

1. Since Christ is the basis of your true life, seek always “the things which are Jesus Christ’s” (Philip. 2:21), live in and rejoice in him—Jesus assumed “the form of a servant” (Philip. 2:7) in mortality, and by his obedience and atonement was exalted by the Father “above every name” (Philip. 2:9). Thus to him every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is indeed our Lord (Philip. 2:10–11). For Paul, to “win Christ” (Philip. 3:8) is the supreme achievement of life.

2. “Press toward the mark” (Philip. 3:14)—Many modern Christians claim to be saved, through the pure grace of Christ and by witness of the Spirit, before they have necessarily demonstrated their complete faithfulness. Yet as Paul indicates, to achieve salvation, even with the indispensable aid of Christ, is not easy or instantaneous. One must work at it, even “with fear and trembling.” (Philip. 2:12.) Even near the end of his dedicated life, Paul himself announced that he had not attained perfection. He was still reaching, still pressing toward the mark for “the prize” of eternal life. (Philip. 3:12–14.) Regardless of how well the Philippian saints were living, Paul counseled them to do better.

Questions might arise from 2:6 regarding Christ’s being “equal with God” [Philip. 2:6] in light of the Savior’s earlier statement, “My Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28.) Paradoxically, both statements are true. The Father will forever be preeminent in that (1) Jesus obtained the fulness of God’s glory from and through the Father (see D&C 93:16–17), and (2) as Jesus’ Father and Patriarch, our Heavenly Father is and will be forever the Chief Governor or Administrator in the affairs of his kingdom. At the same time, however, because of the very fact that he did receive all power and a fulness of the Father’s glory, he may quite properly be thought of as “equal with God.”

Colossians

By J. Lewis Taylor

Written to:

The saints at Colosse, a city in Asia Minor located about one hundred miles inland from Ephesus.

Author:

The apostle Paul.

Where written:

Likely from Rome, during Paul’s first imprisonment. (Col. 4:10.)

When written:

About the same time as Philippians, approximately A.D. 61–62.

Purpose of the letter:

Epaphras had made a journey from Colosse to Rome (Col. 4:12) and had likely brought a report to Paul concerning a dangerous heresy that had arisen in Colosse, threatening the church. (Col. 2:6–8.) The exact nature of the heresy is not clear, but it seems to have involved a blending of some Jewish notions with elements of a sprouting philosophical system known as Gnosticism. Borrowing heavily from Greek philosophy, mythology, and other sources to produce what amounted to a perversion of the true gnosis—a testimony—and true spiritual gifts, Gnosticism combined an air of mystery with sensationalism to attract a huge following, especially in the second century A.D.

The major thrust of this heresy was to undermine the person, position, mission, and power of Jesus Christ. Paul, therefore, wrote to settle both the doctrinal and practical problems arising from the heresy.

Major Themes:

1. The predominant theme of the letter is the preeminence of Christ. Paul denounced the Colossian heresy by stressing the supreme majesty, divinity, and power of the Savior. The saints were warned against seeking any person, philosophy, or tradition of men, however clever or sophisticated, as a substitute for the real thing—a life in the Savior. Because of the atonement, Jesus Christ is sufficient for all men in all things (Col. 1:18), the ritual of Judaism having been but “a shadow of things to come” (Col. 2:17). Thus, the saints were admonished to hold fast to him, to set their affections on him, and to “walk … in him.” (Col. 2:6–7; Col. 3:1–2.)

2. Paul denounced the doctrine of body-abasement or asceticism. He declared that the saints were not to punish the body, rather to mortify (put to death) the evils of the flesh. (Col. 2:5.)

3. Paul admonishes the saints not only to “put off the old man with his deeds,” but also to “put on the new man.” (Col. 3:9–10.) Just as Christ has risen in the resurrection, so the saints are to rise to the quality of a heavenly life (Col. 3:1–3), “after the image of him that created” them (Col. 3:10–11). Above all, they are to “put on charity [the pure love of Christ], which is the bond of perfectness.” (Col. 3:14.)

Difficult Passages (selected):

1. Christ “is the image of the invisible God.” (Col. 1:15; italics added.) Many have interpreted this passage to mean that since God is invisible, he must be only a spirit or essence. However, Paul’s intent in the passage seems to be to emphasize that Jesus is the manifestation and revelation of the Father.

Jesus himself expressed this idea when he said to Philip, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.” (John 14:9.) Since the Father has appeared personally to mortal man on but few occasions (and then only to bear witness of his Son), he may properly be said to be “invisible” to the mortal eye.

2. “For in [Christ] dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” (Col. 2:9.) Some have interpreted this passage to mean that the Godhead—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—are the same person, or three persons in one. Paul is anxious to combat the heretical notion that Christ was not a physical being and that his bodily suffering, death, and resurrection were only fictional. In countering this false notion, and in order to emphasize the supremacy of the Savior above man and angels, Paul teaches that the fulness of the Godhead’s glory, honor, and power is in Christ physically, or bodily—that is, nothing is lacking in the Savior that requires man to seek some other source or means of salvation.

[photo] Along the marble road to Ephesus. (Photography by Don Marshall.)