The 7 General Letters — James, 1&2 Peter, 1,2,&3 John and Jude

The name “the General Letters” is given to a group of seven New Testament Letters: James; 1 & 2 Peter; 1, 2, &3 John” and Jude.  These letters are called “general letters” because they were not written to a specific congregation but to the whole Church in general … hence the name.

James is the first for these letters, and showed up during a time of hot controversy in the early church over the importance of faith and works in Christian belief and practice — and James entered the fray on the side of works.

During the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther famously called this letter “an epistle of straw” in contrast to the pure gold of the Gospel as found in Romans and Galatians. Luther felt that James did not properly teach Christ and the true way of salvation as set forth in the writings of Paul.

Today, the Letter of James is looked on more sympathetically as a valid protest against antinomianism which  is a form of heresy which exalted faith to the neglect of deeds. Most interpreters now believe that Paul would have agreed with James that a faith which is not expressed in moral conduct is not Christian faith. James argues powerfully (and correctly) that faith needs hands and feet — a point that Paul also stressed.

James, the half-brother of Jesus, is traditionally accepted as the author of this letter.  He is mentioned twice in the gospels — in Matthew 13:5 and Mark 6:3.  In both references he is listed as one of the brothers of Jesus.  However, according to Mark 3:21 and John 7:1-10, James did not become a follower of Jesus until after the Resurrection.  According to 1 Cor 15:7, James received a special visit from Jesus after the Resurrection, and that visit probably resulted in James’ salvation; the next time we see James, he’s waiting for the Holy Spirit in the upper Room, along with the other believers (Acts 1:14). When Peter left Jerusalem (in Acts 12:17), James became the leader of the Church in Jerusalem.  It was also James who moderated the First Council of the Church in Acts 15.

James’ letter is a protest against hypocrisy.  His whole point is that salvation by faith results in holy living and that a faith that does not produce works is a dead faith.

The key verse is James 1:22 — “Do not deceive yourselves by just listening to [God’s] Word; instead put it into practice.”

James explains why a Christian is allowed to have problems. See 1:2-4 — “When your faith succeeds in facing trials, the result is the ability to endure.”

James warns us over and over that it isn’t enough to hear the Word of God in a great sermon or a good Bible study.  We need to DO the Word of God.

Then James goes on for several chapters giving practical instruction (paranesis) using many vivid figures of speech which makes James fun to read.

He deals with a variety of topics such as riches and poverty, temptation, good conduct, prejudice, faith and actions, the use of the tongue, wisdom, quarreling, pride and humility, judging others, boasting, patience, and prayer.

In summary, the Letter of James emphasizes the importance of actions along with faith in the practice of Christianity.

1 & 2 Peter

1 Peter was written by the apostle Peter near the end of his life.  After Jesus called him, Peter had quickly become the leader and spokesman for the 12 disciples.  He was one of the inner circle — Peter, James and John (a different James from the one who wrote the Epistle of James). Peter was one of the inner circle who was allowed to see Jesus in His glory before the Resurrection (at The Transfiguration).

However, when Jesus stood trial, Peter denied even knowing him, a fact Peter would never forget and all the rest of the Church would always know.  From Luke 24:34, we know that on Easter Day itself, the resurrected Jesus had a private conversation with Peter.  We don’t know exactly what Jesus said to Peter, but whatever it was, Peter knew Jesus forgave him for denying that he even knew Jesus on the night of His trial.  John 21: 15-19 tells the story of Jesus’ restoration of Peter to leadership in the Church. And tradition says that Peter asked to be crucified upside down because he felt unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord.

1 Peter was written during a time of persecution, probably under Nero about 65 AD.  When fire destroyed much of Rome in 64 AD, Nero blamed the Christians for setting it.  They were a hated minority — so, why not? He tortured and killed many of them, and even burned some of them at night to light up his gardens.

1 Peter was written to encourage persecuted Christians and to challenge them to live such worthy lives that the false charges made against them would be seen as the lies they were.  1 Peter is full of comfort, reassurance, and encouragement.  He encourages us to make sure that whatever suffering may come to us is UN-deserved and that we are suffering for doing RIGHT because in that way our consciences will be clear and our persecutors will become ashamed of themselves.  In this way we can also be thankful that we are Christian and are following in Christ’s footsteps.

1 Peter is also the book of the New Testament that tells us where Jesus spent those three days between His Crucifixion and His Resurrection. He spend the time in Hell: see 1 Peter 3:18-22.  Here’s where the Apostle’s Creed gets the affirmation “He descended into Hell. Now, Peter is making another point when he tells us where Jesus went, but Jesus clearly did not go there to suffer but to break down the gates of Hell.  And why did He go there? See 1 Peter 4:6.  He went there to preach to those who were there and to take with Him everybody who would go.

Did everybody go? The Bible doesn’t say, so we don’t know.  Part of me likes to think that Hell may be empty.  If it was up to Jesus, it would be. But the part of me that is so familiar with human willfulness is sadly sure that Hell is pretty full.  But it’s 1 Peter that tells us where Jesus went those 3 days and why He went there.

Aside: You may have heard it said that “Hell is the place where God is not.” Maybe that is so, but we know of at least one time when God chose to be there.

While 1 Peter was written to comfort Christians who were suffering external persecution, 2 Peter was written to encourage those who were facing dangers coming from  within the Church.

We are reminded in 2 Peter that it’s not enough just to be saved.  A Christian has to be continually growing spiritually.  To do that demands commitment and diligence.  We are warned in 2 Peter against both spiritual laziness and false teachers.  And we are reminded that Christ will return.  If He seems slow, remember that God does not see time the same way we do: “A day unto the Lord is as 1,000 years, and 1,000 years is as one day.” (2 Peter 3:8)

Some key verses in 2 Peter include the discussion about Peter’s approaching death we find in 2 Peter 1:12-15. Peter describes the Transfiguration in 2 Peter 1:16-17.  And he assures us that the “Day of the Lord” will come in 2 Peter 3:10-13, and so as you wait for that Day, do your best to be found pure and spotless when He comes.

1, 2, and 3 John were written by the same John who wrote the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation.

1 John is one of the New Testament’s most loved books.  It shares this distinction with the Gospel of John, with which it is strikingly similar.

Its appeal is due to many things — its tender tone, for one thing.  John was now living out his last days in Ephesus (present day Turkey) and was probably the only one of the original 12 disciples still living at this time.  He’s an old man by now speaking to his “little children in the faith” (as a grandfather speaks to his grandchildren).

Other contributors to the appeal of this book are its clarity on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus; its balance between doctrine and behavior; its gems of wisdom; its simplicity yet its profundity; its personal nature (“That which we have seen and heard we proclaim … to you”; and its joyful, victorious spirit.  For all of these reasons (and more) 1st John stands at or near the height of New Testament literature.

While the book has an identifiable central emphasis, its contents are somewhat disorganized.  Subjects don’t follow one another is strict logical relationship but recur frequently in new combinations like themes in a musical composition.

1st John has two major purposes: (1) to encourage its readers to live in fellowship with God the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ; (2) and to warn them against following false teaching that would destroy this fellowship.

This false teaching was that the physical world was evil and so Jesus Christ, the Son of God, could not really have been fully human as well as fully divine.  These false teachers claimed that to be saved was to be set free from concern with life in this world.  Also they taught that salvation had nothing to do with matters of morality or of love for other people.

Well, the author of 1st John very much opposes this heresy.  He clearly states that Jesus Christ was fully human, as well as being fully divine, and he emphasizes that all who believe in Jesus and claim to love God must also love one another.

2nd and 3rd John were written because false teachers were abusing the generosity of Christian people and some advice was needed to help them deal with the situation.

Jude‘s insistence that there is a moral demand deeply embedded in the Christian faith needs as much emphasis today as it did when Jude was written,

Who was Jude? Well, the early church thought that He was Jude, the brother of Jesus, and he might well be: in verse 1 he is identified as a brother of James.  But his letter is not read much today because its content is mostly negative, it refers to little-known people, and it quotes obscure apocryphal works. However Jude does urgently appeal to Christians to “contend for the faith which was once and for all delivered to the saints.”

Jude is best knows for the doxology with which it ends: “To Him who is able to keep you from falling and to bring you faultless and joyful before His glorious presence — to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, might, and authority, from all ages past and now, and forever and ever! Amen.”

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