We now come to the final eight epistles of the New Testament canon, seven of which have often been called the General Epistles, though Hebrews has been excluded from this description. The term General was used in the sense of general or universal to distinguish them from the Pauline Epistles which were addressed to churches or persons. In their addresses (with the exception of 2 and 3 John) they were not limited to a single locality. As an illustration, James is addressed “to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad” (1:1), which is a designation for believers everywhere (likely all Jewish Christians at that early date). Then 1 Peter is addressed “to those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,” a designation to believers in these various areas. The epistles of 2 and 3 John have also been included in this group even though they were addressed to specific individuals. Because of these differences, in this study these eight books are simply being called “the Non-Pauline Epistles.” It should be noted that the Pauline Epistles are titled according to their addressees, but, with the exception of Hebrews, all these epistles are titled according to the names of their authors.
The letters written by James, Peter, John and Jude have helped inspire, encourage and motivate Christians for centuries. What lessons can we learn and how can we apply them in today’s world?
In his letter, James used the story of the prophet Elijah as an example of the power of prayer.
“Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.
Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months.
And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.” James 5:16-18 (KJV)
God had sent Elijah to warn evil King Ahab of the drought that would come because of the sins he had led his people into. After the three and a half years of no rain, God sent Elijah to Ahab again. Elijah told Ahab to call all Israel together to see a contest between the pagan prophets of Baal and the true God. Whoever could call down fire from heaven to burn up a sacrifice would be known to be the real God.
The prophets of Baal did their rituals all day with no answer. Elijah then poured precious water all over his sacrifice, drenching the wood and altar.
“And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word.
Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again.
Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.
And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God.
And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.
And Elijah said unto Ahab, Get thee up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of abundance of rain.
So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; and he cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees,
And said to his servant, Go up now, look toward the sea. And he went up, and looked, and said, There is nothing. And he said, Go again seven times.
And it came to pass at the seventh time, that he said, Behold, there ariseth a little cloud out of the sea, like a man’s hand. And he said, Go up, say unto Ahab, Prepare thy chariot, and get thee down that the rain stop thee not.
And it came to pass in the mean while, that the heaven was black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode, and went to Jezreel.” 1 Kings 18:36-45 (KJV)
God answered Elijah’s short prayer for fire dramatically and immediately, while requiring Elijah to pray fervently seven times before sending the rain. In the end, righteous Elijah’s fervent, persistent prayers were very effective!
The letter James wrote was not to a specific congregation or person, so it is often called a General Epistle. Since there are four individuals named James mentioned in the New Testament, we aren’t told exactly who the author was. “But the most likely candidate is the James who was Jesus’ brother. He became a Christian when he saw the risen Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:7) and went on to become a leader in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:13ff.; 21:18)”.
The epistle of James is a very practical “how-to” guide to Christian living in troubled times, highlighting the need for actions to back up our beliefs. James says that faith without works is dead (James 2:17). The book gives helpful advice about a wide variety of subjects, from trials and temptations to treating everyone with respect, from living faith to the dangers of the tongue, from patience to prayer and healing.
In many ways James epistle resembles Jesus Sermon on the Mount, loaded as it is with encouragement and filled with gems to help build Christian character.
The epistle of James presents many problems to those who hold to the view that Jesus taught we no longer need to keep God’s laws, or that those laws were somehow abolished at Christ’s death and resurrection. But, if anyone knew how Jesus lived and what He taught and believed, it was James, a member of Christ’s own household.
James repeatedly upholds the need to keep God’s laws, emphasizing the Ten Commandments. He refers to God’s law not as something unnecessary or optional, but as ‘the royal law’ (James 2:8). He specifically mentions several of the Ten Commandments, then calls them ‘the law of liberty’ (verses 11-12).
Why that designation? Because James understood that only by obeying God’s laws can mankind experience true freedom—freedom from want, sorrow and suffering, from the degrading and painful consequences of sin. He encourages each of us to be a ‘doer of the law’ (James 4:11.)
Now for those that say: “See! We earn our salvation by works and the LAW!” remember who James was written to, the church at Jerusalem and for the Jews not the gentiles.
What practical advice does James give that sums up several of his main themes?
“Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath:
For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” James 1:19-20 (KJV)
The Nelson Study Bible uses this passage as its overall outline of James:
- Being swift to hear, James 1:21-2:26.
- Being slow to speak, 3:1-18.
- Being slow to wrath, 4:1-5:12.
Peter, the bold and impetuous disciple, had taken seriously Christ’s command to “feed My sheep” (John 21:17) and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, had become a loving shepherd for the Church. Peter’s first epistle was written to the brethren in the regions that are now northern Turkey. Life was hard for those brethren as it has been hard for those living in Satan’s world through the ages.
Peter’s pastoral purpose was to help these early believers see their temporary sufferings in the full light of the coming eternal glory. In the midst of all their discouragements, the sovereign God would keep them and enable them by faith to have joy. Jesus Christ by his patient suffering and glorious future destiny had given them the pattern to follow and also a living hope. Life in a pagan society was difficult and required humility and submission. The immediate future for the church was an increase in the conflict with the world (4:7-18). But God would provide the grace to enable the community of the faithful to grow into maturity. They must help one another and show loving concern lest the members of God’s flock be injured (4:8, 10; 5:1-2).
Peter was focused on the hope of the return of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. From beginning to end of the letter the second coming is in the forefront of the writer’s mind. It is the motive for steadfastness in the faith, for the loyal living of the Christian life and for gallant endurance amidst the sufferings which have come upon them.
What warning, instruction and encouragement does Peter end 1 Peter with?
“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time:
Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.
Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour:
Whom resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world.
But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you.
To him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.” 1 Peter 5:6-11 (KJV)
In a world where our enemy, the devil, is always seeking to destroy us, it is truly comforting to know that the all-powerful God cares for us! He can use even our sufferings to “perfect, strengthen and settle” us.
When Peter wrote 2 Peter, he knew he was going to die soon.
“Moreover I will endeavour that ye may be able after my decease to have these things always in remembrance.” 2 Peter 1:15 (KJV)
He had important last words he wanted the Church to remember.
What does Peter discuss immediately after mentioning he wanted them to remember “these things”?
“For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.
For he received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount.” 2 Peter 1:16-18 (KJV)
In the next few verses Peter talks about the reality of Jesus Christ. He talks about the transfiguration of Christ when he, James and John saw Christ transfigured in His glory (verses 16-18; Matthew 17:1-9). He said that Christ wasn’t a myth, He wasn’t a ‘cunningly devised fable,’ but He was real—real enough for Peter to give his life for Him. Then Peter adds, ‘And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts’ (verse 19).
What is this ‘prophetic word’? He is referring to the return of Jesus Christ, which will happen when ‘the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.’ This also ties in with the transfiguration, when Peter saw Jesus Christ in His glorified state as He will appear when He returns
Peter also warns of false teachers who will try to distract us from focusing on following Christ and preparing for His Kingdom. Christians must beware of false teachers (2:1-22) who deny the imminent return of the Lord (3:3-4) and live immoral and greedy lives. These teachers are clever and claim scriptural support from Paul’s letters for their views of liberty, but they pervert the letters and are headed for damnation (3:15-16). The church is to be alert to error and growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ (3:17-18).
Tradition and the similarity of vocabulary and style with John’s Gospel provide convincing evidence that the apostle John wrote these three letters, though he does not identify himself in them.
John writes as someone who knew Jesus, as the Son of God and also as a real man. Anyone who claims to know God must live as Jesus did (chapters 1 and 2). Christians are the children of God. They have his nature and cannot go on persistently sinning. Those who believe in Jesus will love each other, too (chapter 3). In chapter 4 John contrasts the true and the false. ‘God is love,’ John declares. ‘We love because God first loved us.’ Chapter 5 speaks of victory over the world, and of God’s gift of eternal life.
How did John define godly love?
“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.” 1 John 5:3 (KJV)
John knew the source of godly love, understood it and practiced it. He realized that God communicates His love through the laws He gives us, the laws by which we are to live.
Jesus Himself said that God’s law can be summarized in two great commandments: Love God with all your heart, soul and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36-40). John similarly summarized God’s very nature and character when he wrote, ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8, 16).
How did John describe godly love and its effects?
“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.
We love him, because he first loved us.
If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?
And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.” 1 John 4:18-21 (KJV)
John recognized the contradiction in the concept that someone could love God yet hate his brother. He knew that we humans can distort the concept of love to make it mean just about anything we want it to mean, and people do nowadays! But God’s love isn’t like that. Godly love always puts care and concern for the other person first in the Biblical perspective.
John wrote this letter ‘to the elect lady and her children.’ This is either a figurative reference to a church community or a literal reference to a specific person. The proof is not conclusive for either possibility, so the true identity of John’s audience for this letter probably will always remain unknown. Yet the message of the letter remains clear: Vigilantly guard against false teachings, and persevere in the truth”.
Does John continue his theme of love in this letter?
“And this is love, that we walk after his commandments. This is the commandment, That, as ye have heard from the beginning, ye should walk in it.” 2 John 6 (KJV)
We show love for God by doing the things He wants us to do. He designed the commandments to show us how to love. And the commandments are designed to benefit us if we obey them, which demonstrates God’s love for us.
John wrote this short letter to Gaius, a beloved Christian who set a good example in serving fellow Christians who traveled through his area. In contrast, a man named Diotrephes was acting like a dictator and mistreating brethren.
In spite of Diotrephes’ opposition, what did John encourage Gaius (and us) to do?
“Beloved, thou doest faithfully whatsoever thou doest to the brethren, and to strangers;
Which have borne witness of thy charity before the church: whom if thou bring forward on their journey after a godly sort, thou shalt do well.” 3 John 5-6 (KJV)
John praised Gaius’ example of hospitality and his support of those who were doing God’s work. This love for the brethren is to be a hallmark of God’s Church (John 13:35).
Jude mentions that he is the brother of James. It seems likely that the James he refers to is the James who presided at the Jerusalem conference (Acts 15:13), wrote the book of James and was the half brother of Jesus. If so, why didn’t Jude mention he himself was the half brother of Jesus? Likely his readers would have known that already, and perhaps it would have seemed pretentious to mention it.
Jude explains that he had planned to write about our common salvation (Jude 3), but alarming news of false teaching made him pen this short, vigorous letter with all speed. Jude used many Old Testament references as well as using two references that appear to be from Jewish apocryphal writings.
Jude is dealing with a situation very like that dealt with in 2 Peter. And in fact the bulk of Jude’s letter is paralleled in 2 Peter 2. The two are so similar that either one made use of the other, or both drew on an existing tract which countered false teachings.
Jude emphasizes the importance of contending for the faith. Error must be refuted. He warns that God’s judgment will fall on the apostates even as it fell upon Cain, Korah, and Balaam.
What does Jude advise Christians to do when faced with false teachings?
“But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost,
Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.” Jude 20-21 (KJV)
We must be building on the body of truth we have been given, praying in the power of the Holy Spirit and guarding ourselves with the love of God. Through God’s mercy we can receive the salvation and eternal life that Jude had intended to write about in the first place.
Choose one of the General Epistles to read through. Pray for understanding, study the passages carefully and think about how they can be applied in your life today. Write down three or more things you learn, and plan to work on them this week.