Section 1: Opening Prayer
Gracious God, help us to see the wisdom of faith that has been passed down through the ages. Help us to know in times of struggle or pain that we can count on that faith to carry us. Teach us to see that we can lean on the faith of others as an example for our own. Amen.
Section 2: The Story
Epistle is not a word you hear pretty much anywhere but church. At its most basic, it means “Letter”. I don’t know if anyone gets letters much any more. Not personal ones anyway. We get Christmas letters, but those are usually copies of the same exact letter that goes to a bunch of people. I get emails, but not even that many of those are really personal either. Most of that happens on social media or text messages. But when I do get a letter, a handwritten letter, it means something. Someone took time to write it, get a stamp out and mail it.
Letters were even more rare in the time of the early church. Think about the process of a letter today. You write something, stick it in an envelope, write the address, put on a stamp that cost less than half a dollar, and put it in your mailbox. For that 49 cents, someone comes to your house (or down the block if your mailbox isn’t right outside), picks up your letter, and hands it off to a string of steps. Within a couple of days, another person will hand deliver that letter to anywhere in the country. It almost never gets lost. Maybe once a year I get something that got messed up in the process. The whole cost is less than 60 cents for the stamp, the paper and the envelope. It is cheap enough to do for fun. I remember writing letters to my grandmother that pretty much said nothing at all, just a picture or something. But it was easy and cheap and made her happy.
Now let’s go to the time of the early church, when the epistles were being written. There weren’t any mailboxes because there wasn’t any mail. Epistles that went out were hand carried by the same person, or maybe handed off. But you pretty well had to know or find someone heading to wherever your letter needed to go. Then you had to trust them to carry it there. Most travel was done by walking, maybe going by boat if it was far enough. It would take weeks, maybe months. And you may not know exactly if it made it, or at least not for a long time. Along with that, paper wasn’t everywhere like it is today. It was hard to make, and there wasn’t a need for it. Not everyone could read to begin with… In the United States, literacy is quite high… very few (less than 1%) healthy adults cannot read. In the early days of the church, very few could. For most people, reading was so unimportant that no one kept any sort of data that would tell us. From historical sources, we know that there were many towns in Israel where only one person knew how to read for worship. So it may have been less than one in one hundred people in some areas. So a letter was rare and a big deal. To go to that much trouble, it would have to be something important.
So when we have a letter in the New Testament, it is important. They were written to share the faith, to encourage people in times of persecution, to explain the faith in the face of false teachings, and to ask for help for Christians in need. The most of the letters in the New Testament were written by Paul, and you studied them last week. The other letters, sometimes called the “Catholic” or “General” epistles (catholic means ‘universal’) were written by different authors.
One thing about the amount of work that went in to writing a letter is that they were highly prized. The General Epistles get that name because they were not written to a specific audience. Where Paul wrote to specific places and the letters got passed around eventually, the other writers whose letters are in the New Testament seem to be writing toward a more general audience. This would be like the difference between a note your teacher sends home to your parents specifically (which in my experience is either a really good thing or a really bad thing), or a letter that is sent home to everyone’s parents. The second is more of a general information nature. And so it is with the general epistles. Where Paul was writing to specific people about specific things, the other writings do not get as specific.
Section 3: The Message
Hebrews: We don’t have any idea really who wrote this, and it doesn’t tell us. Some Bible’s say “The Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews” but that was only a guess and had no basis. The letter is written to Jewish Christians who seem to have begun to question if Jesus is the Messiah, because they were expecting a military king. Despite the resurrection, the people’s faith was shaken because the followers of the Messiah were being persecuted. The letter goes into detail to explain that the Messiah was more of a priest than a king, and that his role was as a sacrificial offering to God. The role of Jesus as King was yet to come according to this letter.
James: This letter is often attributed to one of the disciples named James, either James the son of Zebedee or James the son of Alphaeus. But James son of Zebedee was killed before this letter would have been written and James son of Alphaeus never has a prominent role in the scriptures and little is known of him. The letter simply says James. Instead of the two apostles, evidence points to James the brother of Jesus. He claims to be the brother of Jude, who was known as the brother of Jesus, so it seems he was family. The letter itself is about how we are justified (made right) before God. One of the most well known passages (and most argued about) is:
14What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?15If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
This passage is somewhat controversial through the history of the church. It led Martin Luther to discount the entire book because he saw it as disagreeing with a reliance on God’s grace and instead pushing the idea that we somehow work to earn our salvation. Luther stood behind Paul who insisted that we do not need to do good works to earn God’s love. But the reality is that Paul and James were dealing with different problems.
Paul was dealing with people who claimed that we had to do good works, that the things we did were to to earn salvation. So Paul points out that God loves us not because of what we do, but despite them. James on the other hand, was dealing with almost the entirely opposite problem. The people he was writing about had gone the other direction. They had basically said they could live any way that they wanted because God’s grace was free and we got it no matter what. Luther was dealing with people who were much like the ones Paul dealt with; the church in his day was selling forgiveness for money, and so naturally Paul’s writings were more helpful. James, who was saying that if we live our faith we will by necessity do good works, was not being as contrary to the faith as Luther seemed to see him being. He was simply reminding us that if we are forgiven, we ought to live new and changed lives, not to earn grace, but to honor it.
James also writes about worship, particularly about praying for and anointing those who are sick.
The Two Letters of Peter: Like the letter of James, we are fairly certain that the author claimed in the writing (Peter) is not the Apostle Peter. First off, the writing is too good. The writer of this letter was very familiar with formal Greek. Peter, as a Jewish person who lived in Israel, would not have been. Second, the events that the First Letter of Peter seems to be dealing with, the official persecution of Christians by the government, happened long after Saint Peter the Apostle was dead. The second letter also has signs that Peter the Apostle couldn’t have written it, and most scholars doubt that it was written by the same person as the first. But confusion of authorship was not uncommon… writing in someone else’s name was normal if you saw yourself as a follower of the more known person. Today we would never see that happen; even if I had a teacher who was well known, I would never be allowed to write something and put their name on it. But that was normal at one time.
First Peter deals with how to keep faith in times of persecution. Christians were being killed for their faith, and it was causing many to lose faith. So this letter was sent to help us keep strong. Second Peter is more of a general encouragement in the faith, and warns to beware of false teachers who lead astray.
Three Johns: These three letters, which all seem to be written by the same person. The traditional view says it was written by the same John who wrote the Gospel. But there are significant differences in language that make some question whether that is true or if the letter was simply written by someone influenced by that person. These three are mostly concerned with divisions in the community of believers, particularly caused by false teachers. The first letter is a sermon on God’s love, the other two are more specific about false teachers.
Jude: This letter is attributed to Jude the brother of Jesus. Aside from that, we do not know much about the author. It is one of the shortest books of the Bible: 25 verses. It is concerned with false teachers who lead the people astray, and warns people to remember the teachings of the apostles who shared the truth of Jesus.
There you have it… a brief synopsis of the General Epistles. These letters were instrumental in keeping the faith for early Christians. Despite different times, and not facing persecution or the other issues they did long ago, these letters still have deep meaning for us today as we seek to keep the faith.
Section 4: Learn & Engage
Quiz: Take the test at testmoz.com/493437 . Please use code TBFF and your first name.
Section 5: Closing Prayer
Almighty God, your Holy Spirit equips the church with a rich variety of gifts. Grant that we may use them to bear witness to Christ in lives that are built on faith and love. Make us ready to live the gospel and eager to do your will, so that we may share with all your church in the joys of eternal life; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Opening and Closing Prayers adapted from Sundays and Seasons.com. Copyright 2017 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission under Augsburg Fortress Liturgies Annual License #25165.