We first meet Paul early in the book of Acts. Our first introduction is to him as what was known as a Pharisee – one of the strict teachers of the Jewish law. He is a persecutor of the early church and presides over the execution of one of the early Jesus followers, a man named Stephen.
In Acts 9, Saul (his original name) is traveling to Damascus when he is struck down by a light and he hears Jesus speaking to him. The next several chapters in Acts detail Saul (who then becomes Paul) being brought into the church as he tells his story and early followers have dreams about him.
What follows the rest of the way in Acts is mostly Paul’s journeys through the ancient Mediterranean world and the early movements of the Holy Spirit in different cities. The letters we have are tied to many of these places told about in Acts.
An important point about the letters…we have to remember we are reading someone else’s mail when we read these. Each of these letters was written to a specific group of people at a specific time for a specific purpose (or purposes). It is likely that Paul would not have been thrilled to find out somehow that his letters would be, several thousand years later, held up on the same level as what he understood as the Word of God. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t speak through them but we have to understand why Paul wrote what he did, what was happening in the places he wrote, and understand some of the cultural contexts behind them.
These letters provide a vital glimpse into the early life of the believers. It helps to understand how the church wrestled with the early questions of faith. And most of all, we have to be open to how the Spirit continues to speak to us through these words.