Chapter 2

Paul's Letters in Context

In this chapter we will briefly survey the missionary journeys of Paul and the letters written during those journeys. In our New Testament, Paul’s letters are ordered according to their length (with letters to churches first; then letters to individuals), not their chronological order. The following chart indicates the biblical order on the left and the likely chronological order on the right.

Letters to Churches (9)
1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians
1 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians
Letters to
Individuals (4)
1 Timothy
2 Timothy
Galatians….. ad 49
1st Missionary Journey: Galatia (acts 13–14; ad 48–49)
1 Thessalonians….. ad 52
2 Thessalonians….. ad 52
2nd Missionary Journey: Greece (acts 16–18; ad 50–52)
1 Corinthians….. ad 55
2 Corinthians….. ad 56
Romans….. ad 56
3rd Missionary Journey: Asia Minor (acts 19; ad 53–56)
Ephesians….. ad 60–62
Philippians….. ad 60–62
Colossians….. ad 60–62
Philemon….. ad 60–62
Arrest, Trial, & Journey to Rome (acts 20–28; ad 57–62)
1 Timothy. ad 62–64?
Titus….. ad 62–64?
After Acts: Release & further travels (ad 62–64?)
2 Timothy….. ad 65?
Second Imprisonment (ad 65–67?)


The Gospel to Galatia

Paul and Barnabas were working together in Antioch (acts 11:19–29) when the Holy Spirit called for their first missionary journey (i.e., major outreach): “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (acts 13:2). They set out, preaching the gospel to spread the word of a new kind of kingdom first on the Island of Cyprus, Barnabas’s homeland, and then traveling north into what is modern central Turkey, the Roman province of Galatia. In Galatia, they started churches in Antioch-Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. Paul’s incredible tenacity is evident in Lystra, where an angry mob stones him, leaving him for dead. Amazingly, Paul gets up and the next day moves on to preach in the next town! (acts 14:19–20). The gospel is unstoppable because it is the work of God.

After retracing their steps and appointing elders in the churches, the missionaries return to Antioch, reporting that God “had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles”! (acts 14:27). A movement had begun! But when God is at work, Satan responds to oppose him, and the Galatian churches are soon under attack.


The Gospel to Greece

The issue of whether Gentiles needed to keep the Jewish law in order to be saved was a major question for the church, and so when Judaizers began preaching their false gospel in Antioch, a council was called in Jerusalem (acts 15:1–35). The decision reached at the Council of Jerusalem was that Jews and Gentiles were both saved by faith, and so Gentiles should not be required to be circumcised. They should, however, avoid certain behaviors that would be offensive to their Jewish brothers and sisters (15:20–21, 29). The good news of God’s grace was affirmed.

On his second missionary journey (this time with Silas and Timothy), Paul revisited the churches in Galatia that had been started on the first journey. Along with several co-workers, he then tried to go west into the province of Asia Minor, but the Holy Spirit prevented them. They turned north toward the province of Bithynia, but Jesus prevented this as well. When they came to the city of Troas, on the northwestern shore of modern Turkey, Paul had a vision of a man beckoning them to cross over into Macedonia (acts 16:6–10). They did so and Luke reports Paul’s preaching in five cities in Greece, three in Macedonia (northern Greece: Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea) and two in Achaia (southern Greece: Athens and Corinth). The gospel has now arrived in Europe!

Two letters were written during this journey.

On this second missionary journey, Paul spent eighteen months in Corinth, establishing the church there (acts 18). He then returned to Jerusalem and to Antioch in Syria. On the way home, he stopped briefly in Ephesus, the chief city of the Roman province of Asia Minor. The people there wanted him to stay, so he promised to return (18:18–22). This set the stage for his third missionary journey.


The Gospel to Asia Minor

On Paul’s third missionary journey he traveled through Galatia to the Roman province of Asia Minor (western modern Turkey), ministering in Ephesus for three years (acts 18:23; 19:1–41). From this base of operations “all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (acts 19:10). We have three letters written during this period, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians and Romans.


The Gospel to Rome:

Following his third missionary journey Paul returned to Jerusalem with the collection he had been gathering for the poor Christians in Judea (1 corinthians 16:1–4; 2 corinthians 8–9; romans 15:25–28). He planned to go from there to Rome and then to Spain. But God had other plans. While in Jerusalem Paul was falsely accused of taking Gentiles into the temple area reserved for Jews. A riot broke out and Paul was arrested by the Romans and placed in protective custody (acts 21–22). The Roman commander first brought Paul to face charges before the Jewish Sanhedrin and then—when a plot to assassinate Paul was discovered transferred him to Caesarea on the coast, where Paul stayed for two years, appearing before the two Roman governors, Felix and Festus, and the Jewish King Herod Agrippa II (act 23–26). When the governor Festus threatened to send Paul back to Jerusalem for trial, Paul appealed to Caesar—a right of every Roman citizen. So Festus sent Paul to Rome to appear before Caesar.

The book of Acts ends with an eventful sea voyage (acts 27–28) and Paul’s arrival in Rome, where he remains under house arrest for two years awaiting trial. From a human perspective, Paul’s ministry seems to be over. But God is at work, carrying his gospel forward. Luke ended the book by noting: “For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (acts 28:30–31). You can chain up the gospel messenger, but the gospel message is unstoppable, because it is the work of God!

The four “Prison Epistles”—Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon—were written during Paul’s first Roman imprisonment.


The Pastoral Letters

The book of Acts ends with Paul in Rome awaiting trial. Was he tried and convicted? Was he released? Paul’s comments in Philippians 1:25–26 suggest that he expects to be released. This makes sense, since his opponents from Jerusalem probably never made the long journey to Rome to press charges against him. Furthermore, the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 timothy, titus) do not fit well in the chronology of Paul’s life prior to this and so were likely written after Paul’s release from this first Roman imprisonment.

At some time during his subsequent travels, Paul left Timothy in Ephesus (1 timothy, titus 1:3) and Titus on the island of Crete (titus 1:5). He wrote letters of instruction to each.

Some time after writing 1 Timothy and Titus, Paul was arrested again, probably in Troas (2 timothy 4:13), and taken back to Rome. This time the charges against him were much more serious and he was imprisoned in the dark and dismal Mamertine prison, much harsher conditions than his previous house arrest. He was martyred shortly afterward. During the final days of his life, Paul wrote the letter we call Second Timothy.


1. Can you name the thirteen letters of Paul and put them in their chronological order? What is the central message of each?

2. What do you think motivated Paul to keep going despite incredible suffering and hardship?

3. What characteristics or attributes from Paul’s life would you like to see more strongly in your life?