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It may aid us in making these epistles of Paul seem like real and living messages to recall, in general, some of the peculiar conditions and problems which called them forth. Paul’s world was divided between two classes of men, Jews, and Gentiles. Christianity took its rise in Judaism, but the people whose prophets had heralded the Messiah, for the most part, refused to recognize in Jesus the realization of their hopes. The first Christians were Jews, but they were a small and despised minority. As Christianity spread, it encountered opposition from Jews and Gentiles s alike. From both sides arose peculiar problems and conflicts. It was difficult to prevent Christians from compromising their faith and profession by concessions in doctrine and practice to Jewish and Gentile ideas and customs. Three illustrations of these difficulties may be cited:
(1) It was the current Jewish belief that unless men were circumcised after the custom of Moses, they could not be saved (Acts 15:1). The Jewish Christians had been brought up in this belief, and were in constant danger of lapsing back into it. This return to Jewish belief and practice Paul called “falling from grace” (Gal. 5:4), or “Judaizing” (Gal. 2:14). It was the special aim of his epistles to the Galatians and the Romans to show the inconsistency of this idea with the doctrine of a free and full salvation bestowed upon the sole condition of faith and prevent his readers from yielding to the demands of the Judaizers.
(2) The Greeks were accustomed to participating in idolatrous sacrificial feasts before their conversion. Their views regarding the relations of the sexes were also notoriously lax. It was natural that after their conversion, they should continue to cherish views on these subjects which were contrary to the demands of the Christian life. It was one of the principal objects of the Corinthian letters to correct faults of this character.
(3) In some parts of Asia Minor religious beliefs and observances had developed which were products of a union of Jewish and Gentile elements. Among these were asceticism, the worship of angels, reveling in supposed visions, and belief in emanations. Paul encountered these ideas at Colossæ and Ephesus, and it is impossible to understand some of the allusions in his letters to these churches without giving attention to these forms of error. More particular reference will be made to all these topics, as occasion may require, in the special introductions to the several epistles.
The reader of the apostle’s writings should remember that he lived, labored, and taught in a time of great religious and social unrest, that the religious life of Judaism was exceptionally hollow and formal, and that the Greek and Roman world, into which Christianity must win its way, was plunged into the lowest depths of frivolity and sensuality. The religion of a pure life, which Paul preached, was not adapted to win popularity. The wealth and learning of the time quickly allied themselves against it. The cross was an offense to Jew and Greek alike. Not many of the wise and influential were attracted to the faith of which it was the symbol. But God used the weak things to confound the mighty, and his heavenly wisdom of grace and salvation triumphed over all opposing powers.