10. Pauls Epistles: The Prison Epistles

 The Sacred Scrolls of the Scriptures


HAVING perceived the unparalleled importance of Paul’s epistles for the present period, it will pay us to pursue our studies of the opening words of each of his epistles.

The most vital and interesting of all is found in the foreword to the so-called epistle to the Ephesians. We will continue to call it “Ephesians” because of custom and convenience and because it is almost a certainty that it was sent to Ephesus. But we are practically certain that it was a circular letter addressed to all the believers in Christ Jesus, and that the introduction has been marred by the addition of the words “in Ephesus.”

This was done so soon that the evidence for its removal is largely derived from sources earlier than our best manuscripts. So much depends on this reading that we shall present some of the facts and reasons which lead us to leave out “in Ephesus” and thus read the epistle as addressed “to all the saints who are also believers in Christ Jesus.”

The best manuscript we have, Vaticanus, was originally written without “in Ephesus.” It was added in the margin. This manuscript was written with great care, and it is not easy to see how the words “in Ephesus” would be left out by accident.

The next best text, Sinaiticus, was also written without “in Ephesus,” which was inserted by a later corrector. So that both of the best manuscripts we have were originally written without these words.

The early and almost universal tradition that it was sent to the Ephesians does not seem to have been based on the text itself, for Marcion gave this epistle the title “To the Laodicenes.” He could hardly have done this unless he found the epistle without the words “in Ephesus” as part of the text.

No man, in the early centuries, made as thorough a study of the text of Scripture as Origen. Living in the early part of the third century, he was already examining manuscripts, and classified readings as occurring “in most MSS,” or “in the oldest MSS.” He does not seem to have had any evidence for “in Ephesus,” and his interpretation of the words “which are” are criticized by a later writer, when the sentence had become meaningless because the special force of the title “Christ Jesus” had been lost.

Basil, a writer of the fourth century, consulted the texts of his day and reported that the older manuscripts omitted “in Ephesus,” while the later ones included it. This is especially interesting, in view of the fact that the two oldest manuscripts we have were written about the time he conducted his investigation. They were both originally without the words, which were added later to conform with the trend of the times.

It seems beyond any reasonable doubt, then, that, as originally written, the words “in Ephesus” were not a part of the text. Some have proposed the theory that copies were made for many places, and that one of these, which was sent to Ephesus, contained these words. Another, sent to Laodicea, was addressed to the Laodiceans, and so for each copy that was made. But this does not agree with Origen’s rendering of the passage, and would certainly have called for some remark by a writer early enough to see or hear of such copies.

Besides the difficulty which the interpolation is supposed to solve is aggravated rather than removed. The real objection to the true reading lies in the fact that it is not addressed to all saints, but only to those who believe in Christ Jesus. The insertion of “in Ephesus” does not delete this limitation but localizes it. Not all the saints in Ephesus, but only those believing in Christ Jesus, are in view. The addition only robs the distinction between all saints and those who believe in Christ Jesus, of its clearness.

May we rejoice in the recovery of this primitive truth, so that we can receive and appreciate the original reading. For those who have never exulted in the title of His present glory, “Christ Jesus,” as contrasted with “Jesus Christ,” the badge of His humiliation, the passage lacks all point and purpose. But once that distinction is realized it becomes the key to unlock the truth of the present secret economy.

We conclude then that the passage should read, “to all the saints who are also believers in Christ Jesus.” We deduce from this that it was not written to the saints of the Circumcision who knew Him only as Jesus Christ, rejected on earth, whose glory awaits the era of His unveiling. It was not meant to include those to whom Hebrews were addressed, or James, Peter, John, or Jude. It was confined to those to whom Paul ministered, directly or indirectly, whether by word of mouth, or by his epistles.

Thus we open the door, long since shut and barred and bolted, which opens into the treasuries of present truth. Ephesians is the charter of the church, the foundation of its faith. It is a systematic treatise on the doctrine for today. It is to be taken fully and without reservations or restrictions. All of Paul’s epistles apply to the present, but all others contain personal or local allusions, which we can take only in a secondary sense. The prison epistles are especially in point, but even Philippians and Colossians contain matters of local or temporal application.

All of Paul’s epistles are involved in the Ephesian epistle. The accompanying prison epistles, Philippians and Colossians, are not revelations of fresh truth, but corrective commentaries based upon Ephesian truth. The other epistles are included in and modified by its teaching. The Promise Epistles, written to the Thessalonians, are distinctly included in present truth by the reference to those who have a prior expectation (Eph.1:12), the one expectation (Eph.4:4), and the helmet, the hope of salvation (Eph.6:17).

The Preparatory Epistles, Romans, Corinthians and Galatians, are included by the fact that we have become joint participants of the evangel which Paul had preached (Eph.3:6), which is fully expounded in this group of epistles. The references to righteousness (Eph.6:14) and the evangel of peace (Eph.6:15) are pointed references to Paul’s previous ministry. Thus we may take all of Paul’s writings as our present guide, with due deference to the transcendent and ruling revelation contained in Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians.


Having once realized the importance of the title, “Christ Jesus” in defining those who are the recipients of the present grace, we naturally expect that the companion epistles of Ephesians– Philippians and Colossians–will enforce the same distinction. In this, we shall not be disappointed. Paul associates himself with this title as a slave in Philippians and as an apostle in Colossians.

Not only are they written from one who is in Christ Jesus, but they are addressed to those in Him as well. Philippians is to “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, together with the supervisors and servants.” In Colossians, there is some question as to the correct reading. The two best manuscripts read, “to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ in Colosse.” Codex Alexandrinus, however, adds His personal name, making it possible to render the passage “to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ Jesus, in Colosse.” As scribes were so much more liable to omit such a name than to add it, the evidence of a single first-class manuscript like Alexandrinus is almost enough to justify its insertion in the text.

Even as it is, this truth is more pointedly exemplified in the fourth verse, where the apostle speaks of their faith in Christ Jesus, but their love for all the saints. Their faith could not be shared by all the saints, but this did not hinder the outflow of their love to those who did not have the same faith. The Circumcision were to be included in the circle of their affections, even though they could not apprehend the transcendent faith which could be founded only on Christ in His present exaltation in the heavens, which had little appeal to those whose expectation was anchored on earth, who looked forward to the Messiah of the prophets. In the fifth verse, this very thought is suggested by the apostle when he describes their expectation as “reserved in the heavens.” It crops out again and again, especially where the Colossians are exhorted to be concerned with that which is above, not to that on the earth (3:2).

The remarkable statement in the closing salutation (4:10,11) can be explained only in this light, “Greeting you is Aristarchus, my fellow captive, and Mark, cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you obtained directions: if he should be coming to you, receive him) and Jesus, termed Justus, who are of the Circumcision. These are the only fellow workers for the kingdom of God who became a solace to me.”

It is needless to insist that he had other fellow workers who were a solace to him. What of Tychicus, who carried this letter (4:7), of Timothy, who is one with him in writing it? But they were not fellow workers for the kingdom of God in the sense that the Circumcision were. These three men–Artistarchus, Mark, and Justus–were within that limited circle of fellowship which Paul had with the Circumcision. Just as he gave James, Cephas, and John the right hand of fellowship many years before (Gal.2:9) so he had continued to have fellowship with those connected with them, even though his transcendent revelations continued to widen the gulf between them in the sphere of doctrine.

This, it seems, accounts for the special admonition to receive Mark. Why should they not receive him? His failure as a servant (Acts 15:37-39) was no ground for refusing fellowship. It seems clear that the rest of the Circumcision were hardly welcome among the saints to whom Paul wrote. They were continually stirring up strife and contending for the observance of the law of Moses, and could not grasp the grace which gave the despised aliens a place of equality with them (Titus 1:10; 1 Tim.1:7; Gal.5:12). In Philippians he bids the saints beware of the maim-cision as he contemptuously calls the Circumcision, who based their prerogatives upon a mutilation of the flesh.

Thus it is evident that Paul wrote these epistles, not to all the saints, but only to those in Christ Jesus. The saints of the Circumcision, like Peter, never understood or appreciated the grace which is dispensed by him (2 Peter 3:15,16).

It is always essential to note the character in which Paul writes, and to interpret accordingly. Epaphroditus is the only apostle mentioned in the Philippian epistle. He was their commissioner to Paul. Paul never speaks of himself as an apostle in this letter, hence it is our wisdom to rigidly exclude this thought and all that flows from it. When a fresh revelation of truth is presented, as in Ephesians, a divine commission is necessary to enforce his words. We call for his authority and demand his credentials. None of this is needed in Philippians. So he writes in the character of a slave.

Service is the subject of the Philippian epistle. Paul is presented as a slave, Christ takes the form of a slave and the Philippians themselves are slaves. This should color and control the interpretation of every passage. While Ephesians and Colossians contain no examples for us to follow, after which we should fashion our conduct, Philippians affords four. These are living expressions of the evangel. “Holding forth the word of life” is, literally, “having on the word of life” or a living expression. Like the four examples, the Philippians are exhorted to preach by means of their lives as well as their lips. It is not the works of Christ which are presented for our imitation, but His humiliation from the heights to the death of the cross. Likewise, Paul is presented in his descent from a fancied superiority in flesh to a place in Christ Jesus. Timothy’s service and the sufferings of Epaphroditus complete the four-fold picture presented for our emulation.

It is evident from the whole tenor of the epistle that the experience of the believer in Christ Jesus is in point. Paul details his own experience, rather than definite doctrine and we are to copy his life as well as believe his words.

All this is suggested by the opening words, “Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus.”

This important position is much strengthened by the inclusion of supervisors, and servants in the salutation. These are those who are especially responsible for the conduct of the ecclesia. Some of them may have taught but that was not their function.

The old translation, “bishops and deacons” is misleading. The control of each ecclesia was in the hands of a number of overseers or supervisors, all of whom were directly concerned in the individuals under their eye, not, as now, an official over many churches, or rather, over many “ministers.” The “minister” of today has no counterpart in the divine picture of an ecclesia as set in order by the apostle Paul.

Neither was a “deacon” anything more than a servant or, better, servitor. The same term is translated “servant,” “minister,” or “deacon.” It denotes, not an office of honor, above the rest of the ecclesia, but a place lower than those who are served. It is used of those who waited on the guests at the wedding in Cana of Galilee (John 2:5,9). This illustrates the basic meaning of the word, for it carries the thought of serving out, dispensing. It is not so much doing things for others, as supplying their needs. The low place of the servant is shown when our Lord advises His ambitious disciples who wanted to be foremost, to take the lowest place. “Whosoever should be wanting to become great among you, let him be your servant, and whoever may be wanting to be foremost among you, let him be your slave” (Matt.20:26). We know of no translation which renders this passage “will be your deacon,” because it would reverse the sense, for a deacon is a position of honor above the rest when it should be a place of servitude below them.

The spirit of true service pervades the Philippian epistle. There is no desire for self-exaltation. All humble themselves and are exalted by God. Christ descended from the place supreme to the cross of shame. Timothy and Epaphroditus were true servants, unmindful of themselves but devoted to the saints. Paul’s case is especially instructive, for he, like his Master, stoops to serve. He casts to the dogs all his physical advantages through Judaism, which were of no mean value, because of the superiority found in Christ Jesus.

The prison epistles of Paul present the truth for the present. The key to their correct interpretation lies in the title used of our Lord. The teaching of the epistles themselves is tinged throughout with the truth that they are not designed for the Circumcision, but only for those chosen out of both Circumcision and Uncircumcision whose blessing and destiny is linked with Christ exalted in the heavens.

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