By Mitch Pacwa, S.J.
In St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, the apostle wrote that he wanted people to consider him and his fellow missionaries as “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor 4:1). The term “mysteries” has a range of meanings, including those things which had remained hidden since the foundation of the world, but were now revealed by Christ (Eph 1:4; 3:9; Col 1:26; 1 Cor 2:7), and the mystery of why the Jewish people will not accept Jesus as their Messiah until the full number of Gentiles become Christian (Rom 11:25). In the Eastern churches, both Eastern-rite Catholic churches and Orthodox churches, “mysteries” is the term for the seven signs instituted by Christ to effect and signify holiness and righteousness. The Vulgate (St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible) uses the word sacramentum to translate the Greek word musterion — that is, “mystery.” It is in this last sense that this book speaks of St. Paul as a “steward of the mysteries of God,” in order to use this phrase as a jumping-off point to discuss the apostle’s teaching on the sacraments.
Receiving the sacraments is a defining characteristic of Catholic life: newborn babies are baptized; young children make their first confession and receive their first Holy Communion. Later in childhood, they receive Confirmation. As adults, Catholics may enter Holy Matrimony or be ordained to the priesthood. Sinners confess throughout their lives, and the sick receive the Anointing of the Sick. The dying receive last rites, which, when possible, include the celebration of three sacraments — Penance, Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Communion. One cannot help but notice that each sacrament includes some specific actions — pouring water, telling one’s sins, receiving Holy Communion, having hands laid upon one’s head, or being anointed. In addition, the actions include ceremonies where Scripture is read, prayers are recited, and the recipients of each sacrament make professions of faith and commitments to God and one another. These words confer a set of rich meanings to these otherwise simple actions. Neither these specific actions nor the accompanying words are — nor can be — omitted for a sacrament to be true and effective in one’s life. Catholics willingly receive these sacraments, and they find tremendous personal peace in them and communal celebration. They even find, during severe crises, that the sacraments are worth dying for.
This is why Catholics cherish the gift that Christ conveys to his people through these mysteries. The sacraments are not merely precepts of a Church that some might argue are irrelevant distractions at best or construed fabrications at worst. Rather, they are biblically founded means that convey Christ’s efficacious grace upon his Church, signifying the spiritual realities they represent through physical signs and actions. It is none other than St. Paul of Tarsus himself who most prominently extols the sacraments in the New Testament after the resurrection of Christ.
This study will highlight St. Paul’s teachings about the sacraments, which are interwoven throughout his letters. His message about the sacraments is not limited to one letter or some small aspect of his teaching. Rather, the sacraments, and the teaching about the Church itself, belong to the very essence of his teaching. St. Paul is a truly Catholic apostle, as is evidenced by the prominence of his epistles among the readings at Mass on Sundays and weekdays alike. Catholics need to immerse themselves in St. Paul’s writings in order to better understand the teachings of their Church.
Before beginning this Bible study of St. Paul and his teaching on the sacraments, you might want to take a little time to familiarize yourself with St. Paul.
St. Paul has been a controversial figure throughout history. He was born in a peaceful enough city — Tarsus, in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). His parents belonged to the Israelite tribe of Benjamin and held Roman citizenship (which included civil rights), into which Saul (his Jewish name) was born and which he would need to claim during the frequent crises of his adult life (Acts 22:25-28). However, as members of the Pharisee party of Jews (Phil 3:5), they sent Saul to study in Jerusalem under Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), a scholar so highly esteemed that when he died it was written that “the glory of the Law ceased and purity and abstinence died” (Mishnah, Sotah 9:15).
Saul excelled among the rabbinical students of his time (Gal 1:14), which apparently motivated him to actively persecute the early Church in the A.D. 30s. He participated in the execution of St. Stephen, the first martyr (Acts 7:58; 8:1), and then in the subsequent persecution of the whole Church. With authorization from the chief priests, he went to arrest Christians in Damascus. However, on the road he was stopped by a vision of light that asked him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul did not recognize the voice and was then told, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4, 5). Upon Jesus’ instructions, Saul, now blinded by the apparition, was led into Damascus, where he was baptized by Ananias (Acts 9:17-18).
Saul began preaching about Jesus so fervently that his life was at risk (Acts 9:22-25). He went to Jerusalem, where again his preaching evoked threats against his life (Acts 9:26-30).
Stop here and read Paul’s account of the suffering he endured to preach the Gospel, in 2 Corinthians 11:21-29.
From there he went to Tarsus, where he remained until Barnabas called for him to help teach new Gentile converts in the city of Antioch (Acts 11:25-26). Christian prophets were inspired to have the Church send Saul and Barnabas on a mission to other Gentile cities and regions, first to Cyprus and Asia Minor, and on a second trip to Asia Minor and Europe. A third journey followed, with a probable fourth trip, which occurs after the Acts of the Apostles ends its history of the early Church in A.D. 62, with Paul under house arrest in Rome awaiting trial by Nero.
Both the Acts of the Apostles (written by St. Paul’s traveling companion, St. Luke) and Paul’s own letters frequently mention the arrests, beatings, and riots caused by Paul’s preaching throughout the Mediterranean world. Later in history, St. Paul’s epistles would continue to cause controversy and strife, particularly during the Protestant Reformation and later. Some people even think that Paul is for Protestants and that Catholicism is based on other parts of the New Testament, but as you will see in this study, this clearly is not the case.
Look up the passages listed in the table below and then enter what “crisis” St. Paul had to deal with in that passage.
Passage CrisisActs 17-18
Acts 22:17-26 2 Corinthians 6:3-10
2 Corinthians 11:23-282 Timothy 1:8-12
2 Timothy 3:10-13
The order of St. Paul’s epistles in the New Testament is dependent, first, upon the length of each letter (beginning with the longest, Romans) and, second, by the audience (to a community — that is, from Romans through 2 Thessalonians; and to individuals — from 1 Timothy through Philemon), and not the chronology when the letter was actually composed. Though scholars debate and disagree about some letters, there is a general consensus about many of them:
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