Question: What are the epistles, and how are they organized?
Answer: The Bible epistles are letters written by Church leaders to Saints in various parts of the world. The Apostle Paul wrote most of the epistles in the New Testament–starting with Romans and ending with Hebrews. His epistles are organized by length. This is the case except with the epistle to the Hebrews, which was placed last because some have questioned whether or not it was written by Paul. Although Romans is the first epistle in the New Testament, it was written near the end of Paul’s missionary journeys.
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An advantage in studying the epistles in chronological order is that the reader sees the differences in the types of problems the Church encountered as the years passed and circumstances changed.
Early membership was mostly Jewish, and problems included questions about the law of Moses. Later, when the gentile membership had increased, problems involved items of Greek philosophy.
Early persecution was from the Jews and the Judaizers. Later persecution came from the Roman government. These things are visible in the epistles by the gradual shift of emphasis.
It is from Paul’s writings that we learn the most about the New Testament Church, which were written for the use of men who were already members of the Church. Paul’s life is characterized by an extraordinary zeal for the Lord. His greatest contribution is what he tells us about Jesus.
Paul’s epistles may be divided into four groups. See Bible Dictionary, “Pauline Epistles” for these four groups.
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Angel Abrea, of the First Quorum of the Seventy:
At a time when persecution intensified toward the newly organized Church, the Lord said to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, “Be patient in afflictions, for thou shalt have many; but endure them, for, lo, I am with thee, even unto the end of thy days.” (D&C 24:8.)
Tribulation, afflictions, and trials will constantly be with us in our sojourn here in this segment of eternity, just as the Savior said, “In the world ye shall have tribulation.” (John 16:33.) Therefore, the great challenge in this earthly life is not to determine how to escape the afflictions and problems, but rather to carefully prepare ourselves to meet them. I say prepare ourselves because it demands persistent effort to develop patience as a personal attribute. In practicing patience, one comes to understand it and to acquire it.
From Liberty Jail, in a time of anguish and deep suffering for the gospel’s sake, the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote the following message to the Saints: “Dear brethren, do not think that our hearts faint, as though some strange thing had happened unto us, for we have seen and been assured of all these things beforehand, and have an assurance of a better hope than that of our persecutors. Therefore God hath made broad our shoulders for the burden. We glory in our tribulation, because we know that God is with us, that He is our friend, and that He will save our souls.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 123.)
We must have patience in order to withstand pain and grief without complaint or discouragement, which detract from the Spirit. It’s necessary to have patience in the face of tribulation and persecution for the cause of truth, which sets an example because the manner in which we bear our cross will be an influence to others to help lighten their load.
It must be in the same manner and in the same spirit as was that of the sons of Mosiah when they were entrusted with the task to “go forth among the Lamanites, thy brethren, and establish my word; yet ye shall be patient in long-suffering and afflictions, that ye may show forth good examples unto them in me, and I will make an instrument of thee in my hands unto the salvation of many souls.” (Alma 17:11.)...
It should be made clear that we are not talking here about a passive patience which waits only for the passing of time to heal or resolve things which happen to us, but rather a patience that is active, which makes things happen. Such was the patience Paul described in his epistle to the Romans when he used the words “by patient continuance in well doing.” (Rom. 2:7.)...
Patience in affliction and adversity means to persist firmly and never forsake that which we know to be true, standing firm with the hope that in the Lord’s due time we will gain an understanding of that which we do not understand now and which causes us suffering...
In the face of persecution and threats to which the early Christians were subjected, patience filled with testimony was manifest in their faith and hope in Christ as recorded in the words of Paul:
“We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;
“Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed;
“Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. …
“Knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you. …
“For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.
“For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” (2 Cor. 4:8–10, 14, 16–17.)
Patience in affliction and suffering describes the life of Christ, the great exemplar. In moments of great suffering and pain which transpired in Gethsemane, He was able to express in fervent prayer, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39), giving us the example and a frame of reference for a life of obedience and perseverance, despite circumstances or external conditions in which we could find ourselves.
How many times do we conclude our prayers with, “Let this cup pass from me”? Under circumstances when the symbolic cup might represent sickness, pain, anxiety, unemployment, or the suffering of a loved one, are we able to continue our prayer with, “Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt”? This very word, this key word nevertheless, conveys the firm conviction that we are placing everything in the hands of the Lord.
When at times on life’s journey it becomes our lot to travel with the criticism of skeptics, the hate of some, the rejection of others, the impatience of many, or a friend’s betrayal, we must be able to pray in such a manner that an abiding faith and a strong testimony that the Lord will be with us to the end will compel us to say, “Nevertheless, Father, Thy will be done, and with Thy help, in patience I will follow firmly on the path that takes me back to Thee.”..
How can we do otherwise than patiently endure the trials of life if we know God and understand that He is omnipotent? With Nephi we can say that “he is mightier than all the earth.” (1 Ne. 4:1.) We know and can testify of His omniscience, and with Lehi we can say, “All things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.” (2 Ne. 2:24.)
Based on that knowledge, cemented in a strong testimony of the attributes of our Heavenly Father, the faithful Latter-day Saint—instead of despairing because a goal on his or her agenda was not realized, because his or her timetable does not bring a solution to the problems, or comfort does not come to calm the troubles of today—waits patiently for fulfillment of promises, according to the Lord’s timetable, the Lord who “knoweth all the times which are appointed unto man.” (Alma 40:10.) The faithful Latter-day Saint waits patiently because, certainly, faith, “the assurance of things hoped for” (JST, Heb. 11:1), is exercised with the conviction that the promises will be fulfilled “in his own time, and in his own way, and according to his own will.” (D&C 88:68.)...
Therefore, in the words of Joseph Smith, “Stand fast, ye Saints of God, hold on a little while longer, and the storm of life will be past, and you will be rewarded by that God whose servants you are, and who will duly appreciate all your toils and afflictions for Christ’s sake and the Gospel’s.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 185.)
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Sources: Come, Follow Me–For Individuals and Families, p. 123; Excerpts from General Conference, April 1992, “Patience in Affliction,” by Angel Abrea, of the First Quorum of the Seventy.