Drawing towards a close in this series, we come again to a gathering together of material which does not readily sit alongside what is around. The Letter to the Hebrews is a book with its own unique characteristics and the other letters are sometimes known as the ‘catholic epistles’ because they are addressed to general audiences.
The Letter to the Hebrews is written, if not to Jewish Christians, to those who were familiar with the Greek translation of the Old Testament, those who were familiar with the arguments that frequently caused divisions in the early church.
The writer of Hebrews says in Chapter 1 Verse 2, ’in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe’. God’s revelation has been completed in Jesus, the waiting that has marked the centuries of the history of God’s people is over. Jesus, who is both fully God and fully human, is greater than Moses, who has been the great figure for the Jewish people.
The writer draws on the Scriptures with which Jewish people would have been familiar, reflecting on the words of Psalm 95 in Chapters 3 and 4 to warn readers against unbelief and to talk of the rest that God promises to his people. Only those familiar with the role of the High Priest, offering the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement, would understand the description of Jesus as a high priest. Jesus is the fulfilment of the promises to Abraham and a priest like Melchizedek to whom Abraham gave tithes. The old covenant is superseded by the new covenant made by Jesus, Chapter 8 Verses 8-12 quote from Jeremiah Chapter 31 Verse 31-34, ‘This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord’, write Jeremiah and the writer of Hebrews. The blood of Christ will suffice once and for all, no repetition will ever be necessary.
The words of instruction in Hebrews are followed by words of encouragement, people are urged to persevere in faith, faith itself being defined in Chapter 11 Verse 1, ‘Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see’, and its impact is described in the verses that follow.
The writer sees the difficult times through which the people go as times of discipline part of the course they must follow, in Chapter 12 Verse 1, he writes, ‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us’.
The Letter of James comes from the hand of James, the brother of Jesus. It is natural that James would become the leader of the church in Jerusalem and his letter is addressed to all God’s people, ‘To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations’, he writes in Chapter 1 Verse 1.
James is looking for integrity in people’s faith. ‘Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says’, he urges in Chapter 1 Verse 22. The letter places emphasis upon deeds as well as words, ‘In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead’, he writes in Chapter 2 Verse 17.
Martin Luther disliked the letter, describing it as an ‘epistle of straw’ which had nothing of the Gospel, but James would have responded to Luther and the church of the Sixteenth Century as he did to the church of his own time. He addresses a church which has allowed inequality and condemns situations where the poor are exploited by the rich and the powerful. ‘God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble’, he says in Chapter 4 Verse 6.
James encourages his readers to a life of faith, endurance and prayer, writing cheeringly in Chapter 5 Verse 16, ‘The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective’.
The First Letter of Peter is addressed to ‘God’s elect’ in various churches in Asia Minor that are going through times of persecution. Peter reminds his readers of what their faith is about in Chapter 1 Verse 3, ’Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’, and, because of this hope, calls them to live holy lives.
Peter draws on the prophet Isaiah, on the deep spirituality and tradition of the past, to encourage people living in the times in which he was writing. He tells them in Chapter 2 Verse 11 that they are like ‘foreigners and exiles’. In Chapter 3, a five verse passage from Psalm 34 is quoted to remind his readers that they should live good lives and that God would watch over them; it is a reminder to us that the life of the synagogue and the Scriptures read there were important to the early Christians.
Chapter 3 Verse 19 says of Jesus, ’he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits’. It is that moment between Good Friday and Easter morning when Jesus is said to have harrowed hell.
The Second Letter of Peter is addressed to all believers, ‘To those who through the righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours’, he writes in Chapter 1 Verse 1. His concern is to confirm the faith of those who have believed, showing how that faith is the fulfilment of Scripture. Peter is blunt in his condemnation of those who are false teachers, those who have received the truth, but have then turned their back on it; ‘A dog returns to its vomit’, he writes in Chapter 2 Verse 22. People have become concerned that the day of the Lord has not come, but Peter reassures them in Chapter 3 Verse 8, ‘With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.’ The Letter is the first to treat the New Testament writings as Scripture, saying, in Chapter 3 Verse 16, of Paul’s writings, ‘His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction’.
While the opening lines of the Gospel of John talk about the divinity of Jesus, the opening lines of the First Letter of John talk about the humanity of Jesus, ‘which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched’, he writes in Chapter 1 Verse 1. John is concerned that true teaching be matched by correct conduct, ‘Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness’, he warns in Chapter 2 Verse 9. John is concerned about tensions in the church, he believes the last hour to be upon them and knows that this leads to all sorts of speculation. He leaves his readers in no doubt in Chapter 5 Verse 12, ’Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life’.
The Second Letter of John is addressed to ‘the lady’ though it may be a reference to the church rather than to an individual, in terms of the number of verses, just thirteen, it is the shortest book in the Bible. It takes up the question addressed in the First Letter of John, about whether Jesus was really human, ‘many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world’, writes John in verse 7. Docetism, the claim that Jesus only seemed to be human, was clearly very widespread in the days of the early church.
The Third Letter of John is the shortest book in the Bible in terms of the number of words—just 299. It appears to be a private letter but was adopted by the early church as having general application. There are problems in the church, it is being used for personal ambition and prejudice and believers are being excluded. ’Do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God, writes John in Verse 11.
The Letter of Jude is written by one who describes himself as ‘a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James’, perhaps another of Jesus’ brothers. It is very similar to the Second Letter of Peter Chapter 2 and shares the concern expresses throughout the Letters for true teaching and correct conduct, condemning, in Verse 8, ’these ungodly people pollute their own bodies, reject authority and heap abuse on celestial beings’.
What becomes apparent as we read the letters is that human nature does not change; that problems in the First Century are problems in the Twenty-First Century and that discipleship is never something easy.