What Are We Missing in the General Epistles?October 15, 2015
by Brandon Crowe
The Bible can be an overwhelming book. It’s easy to feel deluged by its depth and richness. The New Testament alone has 260 chapters. When you couple this many chapters with the profundity and implications of each verse, even the New Testament alone can be overwhelming. This can result in neglecting some portions of Scripture, however good our intentions. Yet if all Scripture is useful in all places and at all times, then those portions that may be overlooked must have an important, necessary, and timely word for us today.
This grouping of letters contains valuable treasure that often lies neglected.
Perhaps the most neglected portions of the New Testament are found among what is known as the General (or Catholic) Epistles: James, 1–2 Peter, 1–3 John, Jude. Three of these letters are only one chapter long, yet their length can be deceptive. This grouping of letters contains valuable treasure that often lies neglected (or misunderstood) at the periphery of our knowledge of Scripture.
That is why I wrote The Message of the General Epistles in the History of Redemption. Don’t let the pedestrian label “General Epistles” fool you. These authoritative letters speak specifically and insightfully to us and our world today. Here are five reasons (among many) to read the General Epistles:
1. The General Epistles provide mature reflections on the work of Christ.
All of these letters were written after the incarnate work, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. All of them agree that we do not save ourselves. Rather, we are saved by Christ’s work for us, which we can call the great “indicative,” and these letters provide expositions and explanations of that saving work. For example, we read that Jesus was the one who suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring us to God (1 Pet. 3:18). Jesus’ death is said to be a propitiation for our sins (1 John 2:2; 4:10), which has significant implications for how we understand the gospel. We also read that Jesus is the Lord of glory (James 2:1), who currently reigns in heaven and will return soon (2 Pet. 1:16; 3:9–10). These letters also reveal more explicitly than some other parts of Scripture the Trinitarian contours of our faith (1 Pet. 1:2; 1 John 3:23–24; 4:13–16).
James gives practical wisdom for life in the church, and challenges us with what discipleship really looks like.
2. The General Epistles provide practical instructions for daily life.
Not only do we read of the great “indicative” of Christ’s work for us in the General Epistles, but they also call us to the “imperative” of true discipleship. What should we make of claims that since we are saved by grace, our actions are of no consequence? Is it biblical to sing the ditty, “Saved by grace / O blessed condition / I can sin as I please / and still have remission”? In this light, the way that 2 Peter begins—by giving a litany of Christ-like virtues leading toward the goal of eternal life—is striking. Likewise, James gives practical wisdom for life in the church, and challenges us with what discipleship really looks like. Yet do these letters run the risk of saying we somehow play a role in saving ourselves? The General Epistles provide a consistent answer to that question as well.
3. The General Epistles were written to an audience in a similar moment to our own.
The General Epistles were written over a range of years, but they are all looking in the same direction. After Jesus’ ascension, the apostles led the way for the nascent church. And yet it soon became clear that the apostles were not going to be around forever. Therefore, the General Epistles provide warnings and guidance about true versus false doctrine, about how to live in the physical absence not only of Jesus, but also of his chosen, apostolic spokesmen, and about who to trust to lead the church down the proper path. This guidance is every bit as needed today as it was then.
4. The General Epistles provide a fresh perspective on the Christian faith.
The Christian faith is in many ways surprising, yet maybe we have heard the language for so long that it can feel routine. The voice of the General Epistles holds the potential to wake us from the slumber of spiritual stupefaction. We are typically not as familiar with many parts of these letters, and they sound a beautifully discordant note to cultural Christianity and misguided assumptions about the faith. How often do we think about the reality of angels kept in chains of gloomy darkness (2 Pet. 2:6)? Do we understand the image of a dog returning to its own vomit (2 Pet. 2:22)? What does the archangel Michael’s unwillingness to rebuke the devil say to us (Jude 9)? These surprising passages draw our attention to the gravitas and eternal significance of the realities that are addressed in the pages of Scripture.
The General Epistles provide a fresh perspective on the grace of God that enables us to persevere in faith.
5. The General Epistles provide hope for the future.
In spite of the warnings of the General Epistles, they also provide a fresh perspective on the grace of God that enables us to persevere in faith, despite anything this world may throw at us. As Jude concludes his letter:
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24–25, ESV)
Jude’s benediction closes the General Epistles and underscores the grace we encounter throughout these letters. The God who has intervened in our world to save us through his Son also promises to keep us from falling away from the faith until we reach the joy of his presence.
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For much more on the value of the General Epistles, see Dr. Crowe’s newly released, The Message of the General Epistles in the History of Redemption: Wisdom from James, Peter, John, and Jude.
How Do the General Epistles Speak to the Church Today?October 14, 2015
by Brandon Crowe