It’s a special thing when God mails a letter.
A couple of people I know traveled on an educational mission to an undeveloped country. As often happens when living long-term overseas, you tend to miss food from your homeland. For an American, it’s usually sweets missed most, especially where markets are dominated with raw, dirty vegetables, and pigs hanging upside down on hooks.
But one day, oddly enough, they spied a platter of sweet rolls for sale. Hardly thinking, they bought all of them, took them home, and bit into one. Inside were numerous tiny bits of inedible matter, like chunks of newspaper. It was filler, cooked right into the pastry.
That sort of reminds me how contemporary Christians get suckered into feeding on anything as long as it is labeled “Jesus,” or borrows phrases and ideas from Scripture–love, justice, etc. Unfortunately a lot of such content contains spiritually inedible ideas and beliefs that will not lead a believer into conformation to Jesus Christ.
It matters to God that we feed on genuinely apostolic content. Not just uplifting, or encouraging, or even edifying content, but apostolic.
Second Thessalonians 3:16 says,
“Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all”.
This concern for peace comes from 2 Thess. 2:2, where Paul told the Thessalonians “not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.”
It’s always troubling to serious Christians when opinions arise that contradict apostolic truth. Especially when it’s coming from a celebrity pulpit over issues that ought not to be up for debate at all, ever.
In ancient times as well, with so little accountability, apostolic fraud became a real possibility. Enter Paul’s way of dealing with it:
“I Paul write this greeting with my own hand” (2 Thess. 3:17a).
First of all, “greeting” does not mean the whole letter, just the last few verses (16-18). This should make us wonder, If your hand wrote only these, then where did all the rest of the earlier letter come from? Whose hand wrote it? Well, it was a very popular first-century convention for someone writing a letter to hire a secretary to do the actual writing.
This person was trained in handwriting, and knew how to organize a letter properly. They would show up with a little bag of tools–rulers, inks, and quills, write it legibly, and arrange the columns so the letters wouldn’t run off the edge of the page. After dictating the contents, the author would write a bit of it in their own hand to authenticate it.
And the apostle used such services often.
“I Paul write this greeting with my own hand” (1 Cor. 16:21).
“I Paul write this greeting with my own hand” (Col. 4:18).
“I Paul write this with my own hand” (Phile 19).
Eventually in the Book of Romans, Paul allows the secretary to self-identify: “I, Tertius, who wrote this letter greet you in the Lord” (Rom. 16:22). Apparently the man was not only a believer, but he knew people in Rome who were meeting with the church.
When we think about Paul writing a letter, we envision him all by himself sitting down at a desk, picking up a quill, and going at it, all alone. This hardly approximates reality, since the apostle always seemed to be with a group of co-laborers (as reflected in his letters).
We also erroneously think of him as retiring to some back bedroom for his writing, which historical and archaeological research will demonstrate would have made an unsuitable place for penning lengthy correspondences. Bedrooms were notoriously small and under-lit; not a good place for a man who had eyesight problems (like Paul had), let alone adding a secretary as well, with all necessary tools and writing gear. Epistles were more than likely written in a well-lit, more expansive communal area like a living room, or even out-of-doors.
All of this was not a simple individual task, even to write a letter as short as Second Thessalonians, nor was it cheap. The typical letter of the day was more like a long text message, but Paul’s letters were unusually long. Even his shortest letter to Philemon might have been considered on the long side. This could frequently become expensive. Says E. Randolph Richard in his book, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, a voluminous letter like Romans may have cost some $2,275 in today’s money,1 a king’s ransom for an apostolic group that was living day-to-day. Comparatively, a project like Second Thessalonians might have cost $255, still no inconsequential amount.
Paul wasn’t just into mailing letters the way we think of it; he was into publishing. Though he wasn’t aware of it at the time, the most ambitious and far reaching project of all time was shaping up and reaching a final form—the Bible. This large work was being overseen by God himself, through the human agency of Paul. The apostle probably didn’t conceive (but God did) that these letters would need to endure for another twenty centuries or more, and would need the exact power, undiminished, from one century to the next.
Otherwise, it would be unsettling to think of a Paul who might get bad news, and then grieving, or angry, run to a desk, sit down, and begin furiously firing off responses—not much different than the way keyboard warriors argue with each other today on social media. All of this is to say the epistles were not quick memos fired off from ancient hotel rooms. They were careful projects.
In advance of writing, Paul was likely to have prayed by himself and with his team. Perhaps over the course of days he might have assembled his own notes, then dictated the letter at a speed somewhere between syllable-by-syllable, and actual speaking. Likely though, it was not fast dictation, since secretaries who knew Greek shorthand were rarer, and far more expensive.
After dictation, Paul’s apostolic team would probably have read it and then read it aloud to Paul. This preparation was marked with care, since as in today, so also in the first century, they believed that this was Scripture.
Having been satisfied with the final product, the room would go quiet as Paul would then sit down and with his own hand write a couple of closing verses. He had a distinctive style of handwriting, which, he said, “is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine” (v. 17b), thus a protection against counterfeit epistles.
After finishing, he would bind up the manuscript and send it off through a trusted delivery person. The receiver on the other end would no doubt recognize the deliverer as one of Paul’s co-workers. That was security layer number one. Then the receiver would unroll the document, and check the handwriting “key,” verifying that it was actually from Paul—security layer number two. Paul alluded to this in Galatians 6:11 where he wrote, “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.” His large writing would have corresponded with his eyesight problems.
In verse 18, Paul wrote, “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.” It was his belief, as was the belief of the early saints and ours, that the very grace of God was embodied in the contents of that letter. As an apostle, Paul had been loaded with divine revelation and knowledge, so when he wrote, he saw it as discharging this cargo, off-loading it into the hearts of his readers.
All the autographed copies of Paul’s letters are gone now, perhaps destroyed through pogroms targeting early Christians. But not before a multitude of copies were made. Obviously we can’t base our receipt of those letters on Paul’s personal handwriting anymore. But we don’t have to. We have the united testimony of the early church that saw and approved it.
More importantly, two thousand years ago the church recognized the divine grace within those words, and we’ve gathered around them ever since.
It reminds me of what happened every time an Army buddy in my unit would get a box from home. Everyone seemed to know there would be cookies, candy, and chips inside. We would hover around the poor guy, because we all knew there was grace from Mom inside that package.
Sometimes I fear we handle the New Testament letters so much from a historical critical perspective that we mainly see them as products sent to other recipients at another time. But these were meant for us also, practically from their very inception—packaged grace intended to shape our very hearts.
Unfortunately these days, “grace” (as we call it), comes from any old material, as long as it seems edifying, encouraging, nifty, or enlightening. That metric lowers our standards of acceptance for whatever material is floating around out there.
I’ve noticed how easy it is for something to enter ministry subcultures and go viral in churches. For example, the enneagram. Suddenly this thing is everywhere. What is really just another tool to identify personality types and strengths, has taken over pulpits. I heard the other day there are now Enneagram Pastors. It’s weird, like saying someone is the Myers-Briggs Pastor, or Pastor of Jungian Archetypes. We don’t seem to notice when an issue starts to take center stage, and the Bible begins to exist only for offering scriptural justifications for that other thing’s existence. Some of us are protesting even now, “But that changed my life!” So? When I was eleven, I read Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs and that changed my life, too—at least from a literary standpoint. In all kinds of ways, a number of other things have helped change my life, as well. That hardly means I’ll be making any of them preachable, in effect, promoting any of them to equal status with the Word of God.
We also, as a religious culture, have developed an addiction for encouragement that comes from sound bites, that is, feel-goods that have little or no substance. I’m including the twitter “pearls” that roll through our feeds at a dizzying pace. I love encouragement as much as the next guy, but ultimately the content that does it for me speaks volumes as to what kind of man I really am. Folks who find motivation in the gracious truth of the Word generally won’t settle for clichés.
Given the superintendence He exercised in preparing His care package of epistles for the church, God obviously wants to make sure we’re neither starved, nor clueless, nor misshapen in our spiritual formation.
Join me in opening that package of delights, and honoring their sender.
1 E. Randolph Richards, p. 169.