AS WORKERS in the cause of God we can learn much from the apostle Paul in the art of letter writing. "[Mark carefully these closing words of mine]," he writes. "See with what large letters I am writing them with my own hand" (Gal. 6:11, Amplified).*
Dr. Phillips' footnote translation of this verse is, "Notice how heavily I underline these words to you."
Paul was a great writer of letters. Doubtless he carried on a voluminous correspondence. In our New Testament, fourteen of these letters have been preserved. Probably many more were lost. Most of Paul's letters were written to the churches and had to do with doctrine, practical godliness, or the business of the church. However, some of his letters were written to individuals. These contained official business, personal and pastoral appeals, and counsel.
His Epistle to Philemon is a delightful little personal letter filled, as one writer says, with love and grace. Most of Paul's letters were written by an amanuensis, or secretary, but his letters to the Galatians and Philemon, we believe, were written by his own hand.
Paul had good reason for doing so much letter writing. Sometimes he was in prison. His only means of keeping in touch with the churches and the believers was through correspondence. Also, in Paul's day transportation facilities were extremely limited. Obviously there were no trains, or planes. or motorcars. Visits to the believers were of necessity limited, and sometimes many months or even years elapsed between contacts. During these absences letters kept the apostle in contact with the members and conveyed his pastoral appeals and burdens to the members whom he had learned to love dearly.
All through the Bible, letters played an important role in the developing work of God. In the Old Testament, letters are frequently mentioned. In the New Testament, twenty-one of the twenty-seven books are epistles to individuals or church groups. As we study the letters of the Bible carefully we are impressed that for weal or woe they made a tremendous impact upon the work of God.
Today also letters play an important role in the work and the progress of the remnant church. All around the world, on every level of administration and contact, letters written by leaders and workers affect the spirituality of the church, the progress of the work. They aid in the solution of problems or they create problems. They affect the morale of the workers. Some encourage; some discourage. In certain areas of the world field, communication facilities are not always available and travel budgets are limited, so letters play a very important part in carrying on the work of God. Christian letter writing is important, and all of us can profitably give careful study to this important art.
Two Kinds of Letters
Two kinds of letters come from the pens and the typewriters of God's workers. There are those letters that discourage and even embitter the workers who receive them. There are those that heal the wounded heart and challenge the flagging spirit. Most of us know what it is to receive both kinds. When my mail is placed on my desk I frequently find myself dividing the letters. One group I know will be filled with good news, courage, confidence, and will cheer and buoy my heart. I am not so sure of some of the others. They may or may not be courageous and inspiring. Paul speaks of "terrifying letters" (2 Cor. 10:9, Phillips), written by "one who scares you by the letters he writes" (N.E.B.)4:
I have read letters written by some workers to others that made me cringe. I could scarcely believe that a Christian leader could write such a letter to a fellow worker. How sad when men, proclaiming the love of God, looking forward to the coming of Jesus, write harsh, cutting things to brothers in Christ.
Then I have read many very fine, encouraging letters, letters that elicit a response such as one worker in the mission field wrote to his president. "Your letters are so sweet. They warm my heart and attract me to write to you." These are the letters that build up fellow workers, encouraging and challenging them to do their best in the work of God.
And now back to the letters that Paul wrote. Let us notice some of their outstanding characteristics.
Letters of Love and Grace
The old apostle opened and closed his letters with warm assurances of Christian love. Hear him as he writes to the church at Rome: "I thank God through Jesus Christ for you. .. . I am longing to see you." "Give my love to the little church that meets in their [Priscilla and Aquila's] house" (Rom. 1:8-11; 16:5, Phillips). He wrote similarly to the believers in Thessalonica, Colosse, and Philippi. "We are bound to thank God always for you" (2 Thess. 1:3). "To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ" (Col. 1:2). "Salute every saint in Christ Jesus. The brethren which are with me greet you" (Phil. 4:21).
Paul's letters are so full of God's saving grace that it has been said: "The opening of a Pauline letter reads like a call to fellowship and prayer as well as praise. The salutation at the end is like a benediction when the service is over."—JAMES MOFFATT, Grace in the New Testament, p. 135.
We are busy men. We have much to do. There are apparently endless details demanding our attention. Yet what a blessing when some of this Pauline love and thoughtfulness is included in our correspondence—little heartfelt expressions of Christian love and appreciation.
Letters of Courage
Paul's letters were full of courage. When the apostle wrote to the Philippians, they were passing through a period of test and trial. Note how his letter to the Philippians breathed courage: "You are partners in grace with me, both in my bonds, and in my defense and confirmation of the gospel."—WiwAm BARcLAy, on Phil. 1:7, The Daily Study Bible, p. 16. "Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice" (Phil. 4:4). He wished to inspire the believers at Philippi with courage. Though Paul himself was in prison at the time, with death imminent, he was still a man who spoke courage. "Rejoice, be of good courage," he was saying. "I know some of the problems and difficulties through which you are passing, but be of good courage. It is all worth it."
Every office, every church, every Adventist home, should be an island of hope and courage in a troubled world, and the letters we as workers and members write to one another should always be filled with courage. Never should they trace a line of discouragement or defeat.
Courtesy and Kindness
Paul's letters breathed a spirit of Christian courtesy and kindness. He was the type of worker and leader who always spoke the best he could of a man.
Epaphroditus, messenger from Philippi, who had brought gifts to Paul from the church in that center, fell ill while he was with the old apostle, and his return was delayed. When at last he set out to return to Philippi, Paul was fearful the Philippians might not welcome Epaphroditus, that they might think that he was a quitter. Paul sat down and wrote a helpful testimonial for his messenger and sent him back home with his flag at top mast. He does not refer to Epaphroditus in uncomplimentary terms. Rather he calls him "brother, fellow worker and comrade-inarms" (Phil. 2:25, Phillips).
Epaphroditus was brave. He stood by Paul. No doubt since the apostle was still in confinement there were times that Epaphroditus laid himself open to danger, and Paul wanted to make certain that he received the right kind of reception when he returned to Philippi. "Welcome him in the Lord with great joy! You should hold men like him in highest honor," he appealed to the brethren in Philippi (verse 29, Phillips).
Though Paul was himself in the shadow of death, he would manifest thoughtfulness, kindness, and Christian courtesy even under the most adverse circumstances. Yes, he smoothed the way for Epaphroditus, made it easier for him to return. What a lesson in Christian letter writing for us as leaders today! Let us be courteous and kind, always speaking and writing the very best we can of those with whom we associate.
This same thoughtfulness is manifest in Paul's relationship with Mark, whom at one time he considered a quitter. When he wrote to the church at Colosse, he said, "I believe I told you before about him; if he comes to you, make him welcome" (Col. 4:10, Phillips). Paul wrote the kind of letters always calculated to smooth the way for someone else. This was true in the experience of Onesimus, the runaway slave whom he sent back to Philemon. 'With him [Tychicus] is Onesimus, one of your own congregation (well loved and faithful, too)' (verse 9, Phillips). Read the little Epistle of Philemon again. How full of tact and Christian courtesy and love it is! Some men pride themselves on their frankness, when many times frankness is only rudeness. Paul spoke with Christian tact and love.
I once heard a radio speaker say, "A truly big man reveals his greatness by his courtesy even toward little men." Our task is to draw workers and the church together in love and understanding. After all, we are but one large family of God.
Paul spoke words of sincere appreciation or commendation when they were merited, sometimes to the person himself; sometimes to others. In either case they always encouraged and helped.
Paul commends the Hebrew Christians for their ministry to him. "These only are my fellow-workers unto the kingdom of God, which have been a comfort unto me" (Col. 4:11). He commended the Romans for their faith that was "spoken of throughout the whole world" (Rom. 1:8). Speaking of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, "They are a tonic to me and to you" (1 Cor. 16:18, Phillips). He commended Priscilla and Aquila for having "faced death for my sake" (Rom. 16:4, Phillips). Of Timothy he said, "He is as genuine a worker for the Lord as I am, and there is therefore no reason to look down on him" (1 Cor. 16:10, 11, Phillips).
In describing his joy over the church at Philippi, "I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that now at length you have made your thoughtfulness for me to blossom again." —BARCLAY, OP. Cit., On Phil. 4:10, p. 103. Gratitude and true appreciation are sadly rare in our old world. A typewriter, oiled with love and sincere appreciation, can be a great blessing in any office.
Paul wept and prayed over some of his letters.- "I shed tears over that letter," he once wrote (2 Cor. 2:2, Phillips). When we have a difficult letter to write that may include some disappointing news or some words of rebuke, it is well for us to remember that the letters we have shed tears over will be vouchsafed a safe delivery. If we talk to God before we write to man, the letters will be on a safe journey.
Full of Prayer
I note, too, in the Epistles of Paul that he frequently told his correspondents he was praying for them. In return he requested an interest in their prayers. He was never too big to ask for prayer. He was never too busy to pray for those with whom he served. What a lesson to us. "So then, go on comforting and building up one anbther" (1 Thess. 5:11, Basic English).§
May God help us as workers and leaders to write more letters like Paul wrote—kind letters, courteous letters, letters filled with courage, warm, reassuring letters that will bind the hearts of the saints together, letters that will kindle the right kind of fire in the hearts of those who receive them, letters that will comfort and build up one another in Christ Jesus. "So then, go on comforting and building up one another."
What kind of letters do you write?