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SIMPLIFIED JOURNEY (29): General Letters


What Is a “General Epistle”?

The General Letters are called that because they are (for the most part) not addressed to particular individuals or churches. Second & Third John are exceptions to that statement, but the individuals (or churches) are not named, or cannot be identified with certainty.

Hebrews was likely written to Jewish Christians who are slipping away from their faith in Jesus – but this is not stated in the epistle. James is addressed “To the twelve tribes scattered abroad” (James 1:1), that is to Jewish Christians of the Dispersion. Peter wrote his first letter to “God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1) – five provinces between the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Since 2 Peter says, “this is now my second letter to you” (2 Peter 3:1), we presume it is to the same people in the same broad area.

First John does not name a recipient group – though John frequently calls them “dear friends” or “beloved.” Presumably, this would indicate a former intimate association with them. Second John is “To the chosen lady and her children” (2 John 1) – but who she is, is unknown. Was this to a woman of John’s acquaintance with her family? Or was it to a church that he calls “the chosen lady” and its members?

Third John is “to my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth” (3 John 1). This is possibly the Gaius of Pergamum mentioned in the 3rd – 4th century collection, The Apostolic Constitutions, as being bishop in the church there. It does not seem likely that this Gaius is the same as any of the other four of that name listed in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.

Jude addressed his brief epistle “To those who have been called, who are loved by God the Father and kept by Jesus Christ” (Jude 1).

With only one of these letters naming a specific recipient, and most having a very generic address, you can see why we call them General Epistles. Yet, they have general interest to us. They are of great significance.

Hebrews:

Hebrews is more than 2/3’s as long as the other seven combined. Perhaps that is why it is first – or it may be placed between Paul’s Epistles and the others because there is a chance that Paul is the author, though I believe that to be unlikely (many disagree with me on this, though).

This book shows the superiority of Jesus and the gospel over Moses and the law. God has spoken in the later days through His Son, not through angels or dreams. Jesus, as the Son, is greater than Moses who was a faithful servant in God’s house. Jesus, as High Priest, is greater than was Aaron. Jesus is High Priest forever after the order of Melchizedek; Aaron and his sons served as priests only until they died while Jesus is our undying priest under a new covenant. The sacrifice Jesus offers is superior to the bulls and goats offered by Aaron and his sons. It is a once-for-all sacrifice that does not need to be repeated as did the sacrifice of bulls and goats.

In Christ, then, we have confidence to come boldly to God with full assurance that He will hear us. Throughout the book there is exhortation and encouragement to remain faithful “as long as it is called today.” The example of faithful people from the past calls  us to faithful lives as well. There are also warnings against falling away after having tasted the good things that are in the gospel of Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit He has given.

James

James calls himself “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). In the last of the General Epistles, Jude calls himself “a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James” (Jude 1:1). With James and Jude being brothers, it is likely that these were two of the brothers of our Lord (see Matthew 13:33, where Judas is a variant of Jude).

Some call James “The New Testament Proverbs.” Others compare its teaching to that of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. There is value in each of these descriptions. While some believe it is a random collection of teachings, there is a thread running through it as it points us to true wisdom.

James speaks also of a practical faith that expresses itself in deeds. While Martin Luther thought James and Paul were irreconcilably at odds (cf. James 2:20-26 and Romans 4:1-3), James looked at the practical result of faith, which is faithful service, while Paul was looking at faith as our entrance into the grace by which we are saved. Paul himself reconciled himself with James in Galatians 5:6.

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. [ESV translation]

1 Peter

Peter wrote to people who were suffering persecution. Much of his epistle is encouragement to those who suffer.

Some have also looked at 1 Peter as a sermon on baptism, or possibly to a group of people about to be baptized. These see 3:21 as one of the key passages in the epistle. There, after saying that Noah and family were “saved through water,” he adds:

…and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

He follows this with exhortation as to how we are to live in view of Christ’s suffering (i.e., His death for us). In 1:3 he had said, “He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” This links our baptism through the resurrection of Jesus to the new birth to a new kind of life. This new life is to be lived for God.

2 Peter

This epistle, written when Peter was anticipating his death would be soon, is designed to encourage and to warn.

He encourages by speaking of the certainty of our faith. In 1:5-7, he lists the “Christian Virtues” – faith, goodness (virtue) knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love. These things, he said keep you “from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

He warns against the danger of false teachers. His description of the false teacher is a man who is morally corrupt, not one who is merely mistaken in some understanding of Scripture.

The final chapter is an encouragement to continue steadfastly, even though scoffers laugh because Jesus has not yet returned. “The day of the Lord will come,” he said, “as a thief in the night” – language similar to that used by Jesus.

1 John

John weaves three pairs of contrasts together to show the difference between true discipleship and pseudo discipleship: light & darkness, life & death, and love & hate.

We call John the apostle of love – but there is still a trace of the youthful “Son of Thunder,” as he has no problem calling people liars when they

  • say they are without sin (1:8)
  • say we know the Lord but do not do what he says (2:4)
  • deny Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh (2:22)
  • say they love God but hate a brother (4:20)

The three pairs of contrasts are synonymous: light is life is love and darkness is death is hate. He goes from one of these to another throughout the book.

2 & 3 John

I like to study these two short books together because either one by itself can make us unbalanced.

In 2 John, he warns against receiving the false teacher. In 3 John, he warns against rejecting true messengers of the gospel. Some are so careful to reject false teachers that they end up as Diotrophes who rejected even the apostle himself (see 3 John 9). On the other hand, some are so accepting that that accept even those who deny the Lord (see 2 John 7-11).

That is why I prefer to teach these in combination.

Jude

Jude is very similar in content to 2 Peter 2. Some believe that either Jude copied Peter or Peter copied Jude. I doubt it, but what if one did copy the other? There is still enough difference in them to make the study of both worthwhile.

As you read Jude, notice the “triplets.” Here are a few of them:

  • called, loved, and kept (v. 1)
  • mercy, peace and love (v. 2)
  • Some pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings (v. 8)
  • Some men divide you, follow natural instincts, and do not have the Spirit (v. 19)

It is interesting to see how many of these you can find in this book that closes with a triplet: “before all ages, now, and forevermore!” Id bet Jude even preached with three points!

Except for Hebrews, these General Epistles are to the Epistles of Paul what the Minor Prophets are to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel in the Old Testament. Being shorter, they are often easier to comprehend.

NEXT: SIMPLIFIED JOURNEY (30) – Revelation

PREVIOUS: SIMPLIFIED JOURNEY (28) – Letters of Paul

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