This is part eight of sixteen in the series, “The Bible Is…“
Sometimes people like to summarizing the Bible as “God’s love letter to his people.” Rightly understood, that can be a handy summary of the idea and purpose of the Bible, though very little of it reads like a letter at all. The New Testament, however, does contain over twenty letters, usually grouped in two: the 13 Epistles written by St. Paul and the General Epistles. The General Epistles are also sometimes called the Catholic Epistles, because they were written to the Church Catholic, with no one particular audience in mind, like those of Paul. These include Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2, & 3 John, and Jude. The book of Revelation is also, strictly speaking, an epistle, but because it contains primary apocalyptic writings, it is treated as a category of its own. Hebrews and James have already been considered in the previous section, so now remains the epistles of Peter, John, and Jude.
The First Epistle of Saint Peter names several regions in modern-day Turkey as its intended audience. The list itself is informative, as it covers several remote areas where the missionary journeys of Saint Paul never reached. So although the New Testament doesn’t record how, it reveals that the preaching of the Gospel was considerably more widespread than the book of Acts reports in its narrow scope. To this large and scattered audience, Peter write about Christian endurance in suffering, the Christian hope in the Parousia (Christ’s return), and the Christian identity as God’s own people. While unpacking these three big subjects, Peter also manages to speak to the subjects of godly relationships, Holy Baptism, Christ’s descent among the dead, and pastoral leadership.
The Second Epistle of Saint Peter, in some ways, feels very different from the first. So different, in fact, that this book was rather slow to be accepted by all as belonging among the New Testament writings. It, too, speaks to the subject of Christian endurance, but it takes a different focus, looking more at the centrality of the Bible (both Old and New Testament) in bringing us God’s Word, and at the final judgment that is to come.
The Epistle of Saint Jude has sometimes been described as the rough draft of 2 Peter. Both epistles emphasize the importance of persevering in the faith in light of the coming judgment. This one is shorter and quotes the Book of Enoch, an apocryphal writing from Jewish religious literature that was popular among the first couple generations of Christianity but is in nobody’s Bible except for some extreme outliers, such as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Comparing it to 2 Peter, and especially considering Peter’s letter a “correction” to Jude, is not necessary. Both speak to the same theme of Christian endurance amidst suffering because persecution was beginning to mount against Christians in various quarters, so there was need to “contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (v3).
The three Epistles of Saint John are very similar to one another in tone and content. They all emphasize the centrality of love fulfilling the commandments. They all express John’s desire to see his letters’ recipients in person rather than communicate via pen and ink. They all highlight God’s initiative, frequently referring to God’s “elect” in Christ. The First Epistle is the longest, and begins with a prologue reminiscent of the beginning of John’s Gospel (1:1-18). The importance of “witness” is a resounding theme in the First Epistle – both of Christ to the Apostles and of the Apostles to the world. This witness yields fellowship and love, and eventually, the end of sin, which the Epistle explores throughout its pages.
The General Epistles are perhaps the easiest New Testament letters for the modern reader to read and understand. Without specific audiences in mind undergoing very specific issues, these epistles could speak to universal experiences and provide teachings more obviously applicable to all Christians. Even though St. Paul’s epistles are often more well-known today, it is probably the General Epistles that make an easier entry point into reading the New Testament letters.