[clears throat] BOOOOOOOK.
Hello, and this is BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I am Josh Way. We are rapidly approaching the end of our endeavor, but there is still much work to be done so let’s get to it. Today we’ll look at the seven remaining epistles, short letters written by apostolic figures from the church’s first century. This is a diverse bunch of writings, which run the gamut from benign to angry to contested. Let’s get started. First up is James…
The author of our first epistle identifies himself as “James,” and tradition says this is James, son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus. No such claims are made in the text, and so this author is either very humble or someone else. The general tone of James is very positive and affirming, even as some of the theology seems to clash with what we’ve read elsewhere. In fact, James is one of a handful of books that Martin Luther wished he could delete from the Protestant Bible due to its message. What could be so controversial? We’ll see in a moment.
James addresses “the twelve tribes,” a common apostolic way of addressing early Christians and an attempt to draw a comparison between the Messiah movement and biblical Israel. He piles up encouragements, one after another, for Christian readers facing all manner of challenges. When you find yourselves in trouble, “look at it with complete joy!” When faith is put to the test, “what comes out is patience!” If you lack wisdom, “ask God for some!” For the author of James God is always good, and if we suffer, it’s not God testing us, it’s our own muddled desires that leads us astray. God is the giver of “every good gift.” And so, Christians should be quick to listen and slow to speak, slow to get angry. They should learn to control their tongue, and to do good deeds like visiting widows and orphans. He then goes on a short rant about rich people in the church, whom he calls “blasphemers,” whereas the poor will “inherit the kingdom.”
James’ next topic is faith, and this is where he steps on some Protestant toes. This is why Luther wanted James out of his Bible. Consider these two verses back-to-back. First, this is from Paul, in Galatians 2:16:
But we know that a person is not justified by works, but by faith in Messiah.
And here’s James 2:14:
What use is it if someone says they have faith when they don’t have works? Can faith save them?
On the surface, we see the apparent contradiction. Paul says it’s what you believe that’s important, not what you do, and James says that faith without action is worthless. This is a problem, IF you read the bible as a technical manual for how to “get saved” and “go to heaven.” Which is it? Faith or works?? But in context, of course, neither apostle is talking about technical “salvation.” Paul is telling Jews and Gentiles that they are “justified” by faith in Messiah, not by keeping Torah. He’s talking about the practicalities of what it means to belong to their specific community. James is telling his audience of Christians that their beliefs and ideas are of little significance if they are not demonstrated with acts of kindness. Paul and James may or may not have disagreed about theology, but here they are just saying two very different things.
James’ letter is mostly bright and cheery, but he does have a warning for his readers: “Not many of you should become teachers, because you know that you will be judged more severely.” People who tell others how to live their lives should be held to a high level of accountability. This is why, says James, the tongue is the most dangerous part of a human. It can sink ships, burn down forests, and an irresponsible tongue can “defile the whole body.” What comes out of a person’s mouth, says James, is an indication of what’s inside their heart. So Christians should hold their tongues, seek God’s wisdom, and above all be humble.
The letter’s almost done, but James has a few more choice words for his wealthy Christian friends: “Look here, you rich, weep and wail for the horrible things that are going to happen to you!” (5:1) He accuses these rich citizens of hoarding resources, exploiting the poor, and fattening their own hearts “for the day of slaughter.” (5:5) Ouch. Maybe today James would have his own show on MSNBC. James closes the letter by imploring his flock to wait patiently for the Messiah’s “appearing,” and reminds them to pray their way through hard times as a community. That’s the epistle of James.
Next we have two epistles attributed to Peter, Jesus’ trusted right-hand-man and a major presence in both Acts and the gospels. There are also gospels and apocalypses attributed to Peter among the early church writings, but only these two epistles were deemed authentic and canonized. Actually, evidence suggests that the authorship of 2 Peter was in question even before it was canonized, and today a majority of scholars doubt that Peter could be its author. Both of these letters are intense and sort of outrageous, as they were written to communities of Christians undergoing some form of persecution. Since the earliest known coordinated persecutions of Christians took place well after the time of Peter, we are left to speculate as to what exactly the church was dealing with at the time of 1 Peter.
Whatever the case, the author of the epistle is writing to encourage his audience, whom he calls “God’s chosen ones living as foreigners” among the provinces of Asia Minor. These are Jewish Christians, most likely, who are attempting to find an identity and a voice in the volatile world of the first century Roman Empire. They are alienated from their Jewish neighbors by their belief in Jesus as Messiah, and they face an even bigger challenge among pagans. As Christianity evolves from a Jewish faction into a full-blown new religion, its adherents forfeited the comforts and perks enjoyed by Judaism, which was respected by pagans for being so old. Ancient religions were privileged in the Roman world, and new beliefs were considered strange and suspicious.
Peter writes to Christians in this climate who fear for their well-being, and who may have already faced some form of victimization. And his message is, “hang in there!” He says this in the letter’s opening:
6 … Yet it may well be necessary that, for a while, you may have to suffer trials and tests of all sorts. 7 But this is so that the true value of your faith may be discovered. It is worth more than gold, which is tested by fire even though it can be destroyed. The result will be praise, glory, and honor when Jesus the Messiah is revealed.
This is an apt summary of the whole letter. You suffer, but suffering will refine you like fire, and it will strengthen your faith until Messiah comes back. Peter is fixated on the parousia of Jesus. This is what traditional Christianity calls the “second coming,” the Greek translates “appearance,” and it connotes the long-awaited presence of a ruler among his people. This is very much in tune with Paul’s vision, not of a rapture of believers someday in the long distant future, but of the imminent return of the Messiah to rescue and rule the world. This is a one-way parousia, not an escape plan, and it’s the reason Peter tells his readers that they can not only endure suffering and persecution, but actually “celebrate” because of it.
Peter’s name means “rock” or “stone” and he uses the word as an entry point into the Hebrew Bible to make a point about Jesus. God has laid a “cornerstone” in Zion (Isaiah 28), which the builders “rejected” (Psalm 118), but which has now become a “stumbling block” (Isaiah 8) to those who don’t believe. His point is this: Israel may have rejected Jesus, but God has not. So Christians should not be discouraged or deterred. Here Peter also says, rather unexpectedly, that his readers should be “subject to every human institution” and even “honor the emperor.” Scholars wonder if this isn’t here to placate any imperial officials who might have read the letter as it passes through their territory, but Peter says this is “God’s will: He wants you to behave well and so to silence foolish and ignorant people.” (2:15)
The author rounds out his letter with practical ethical advice for his readers. Wives should be “subject” to their husbands, not out of duty or inferiority, but so that wayward husbands might be “won” over. Husbands should pay their wives “full respect,” since they are both “heirs of the same grace.” Christians should be “like-minded, sympathetic, and loving to one another.” If they are to suffer, it should be for standing up for what is right, not for doing what is wrong or cowardly. “The end of all things is upon us,” so Christians ought to put aside foolish ways of life and live worthy of the Messiah. For all their recorded differences of opinion, here Paul and Peter seem to have very similar visions for their churches. His final word is to the “elders” or “shepherds” among the people, who must live as examples for their communities of humility and love. “Peace to you all in Messiah.”
The second epistle attributed to Peter is a shorter and very different text. We’ve seen how the first letter works and how much it ultimately reminds us of Paul’s writing, but some of the material in 2 Peter seems to come from a darker sort of place. To complicate matters even more, several passages throughout the letter are identical or similar to passages from the epistle of Judah, which we’ll look at a little later on. I think it’s safe to say that, from all perspectives, 2 Peter is what we call a difficult text.
The letter starts off in familiar territory, urging its readers to compound “faith” with “virtue,” “virtue with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self control with patience, patience with piety, piety with affection, and affection with love.” (1:5-7) This is what grants one entrance into the “Kingdom of God’s coming age, the Kingdom of our Lord and savior Jesus the Messiah.” Peter then alludes to his own impending demise, and we’re not sure whether this is a message from prison or a general prediction of his own passing. He proceeds to explain that he is writing that they may never forget the witness that the apostles bore to them. “I was there,” he says, “when a voice spoke from above saying, ‘This is my beloved one, in whom I am well pleased.’” Unlike the first epistle, this one sees Peter quoting gospel traditions to establish his credibility. He pleads with his readers to “hold on” to this prophetic word. And why? Well, because it’s true, but also because there are false teachers among you, offering false prophecies and leading you to destruction.
The author uses three examples to show how God deals with bad guys like these unnamed “false prophets:” 1) God took rebellious angels and threw them into an abyss to await judgment, 2) God sent the Genesis flood to blight the wicked, and 3) God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Notice anything odd about that trio? Not only are these dark and scary God stories, only two of them are actually from the Hebrew Bible as we know it. The story of the rebellious angels comes not from Genesis, but from the Book of Enoch, a sort of midrash on Genesis that was not considered scripture by the makers of our Western canons. This opens a strange kind of wormhole in biblical interpretation, as we have a canonical allusion to a non-canonical text. But getting back to the letter, the author points out that God rescued Noah and Lot from the destruction of the wicked ones around them, and he will do the same for the Christians.
Peter goes on to describe in angry detail just how foul and unrighteous these “blasphemous” teachers are: they are “arrogant,” “self-willed,” “like unreasoning beasts,” “born to be destroyed,” they “wallow in disgusting pleasures,” their “eyes are full of adultery,” and they “can’t get enough of sin.” The “depth of darkness has been reserved” for these people, and they should be avoided at all costs. And in the closing of the letter, Peter gets a little more specific about what these false teachers are saying. Apparently, they are asking why it’s taking so long for Jesus to come back, and questioning the idea of an imminent parousia. Peter’s response is that, as in the days of Noah, God is delaying the “day of judgment” as long as possible so that more might be ready to be rescued.
It’s easy to see how some of the more gloomy aspects of dispensationalist eschatology owe a great deal to this letter. While Paul rarely spoke about hell and punishment and fully expected immediate messianic appearance and rescue, the author of 2 Peter has a more drastic view of judgment and “the end times.” We can perhaps attribute this to his age, his impending martyrdom, or the general persecution faced by the church in his time, but we can see why interpreters from a range of ideological perspectives have been quick to either celebrate or dismiss 2 Peter.
Next we have three short epistles attributed to John. One of the letters claims no author, and the writer of the other two calls himself “The Elder,” but all three are traditionally attributed to John the Evangelist, the author of the Gospel of John, said to be one of the original disciples of Jesus. All three of these epistles read like the work of the same author, and there are striking similarities in style and content to John’s gospel, as we notice right away with the First Epistle of John:
1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have gazed at, and our hands have handled – concerning the Word of Life! 2 That life was displayed, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and we announce to you the life of God’s coming age, which was with the Father and was displayed to us.
Only two verses in and like the gospel author, this John invokes Genesis, refers to Jesus as the “Word,” or logos, and talks about “God’s coming age.” We’re in familiar territory. Unlike the two epistles that follow, 1 John looks more like a sermon or essay than a letter, and its message resonates with the portrayal of Jesus the author served up in his gospel. Jesus came to shine God’s light, which exposes our sin, but he also died to “atone” for our sin, and not just ours, but the sins of the “whole world.” And all of this happened because of God’s great love. Christians should respond by obeying God’s commandment, which is, of course, “love one another.” Again, all of this could be straight out of John’s gospel.
The flipside of this, however, is a warning. Don’t love the world, because it’s a kingdom that is passing away. And here, in chapter 2, John gives a warning that has ignited the imaginations of Christians throughout history. He says this:
18 Children, it is the last hour. You have heard that “antimessiah” is coming – and how many antimessiahs have appeared! That’s how we know that it is the last hour. 19 They went out from among us, but they were not really of our number.
John warns of the “antichrist,” or rather, of many “antimessiahs,” and this language has been co-opted by dispensationalist Christians, mashed up with other texts from Daniel, Paul and Revelation to create a theological cocktail about a coming “Antichrist” figure who will usher in the end of the world. But comments here and elsewhere in the letter indicate that John understands “antimessiah” to be a spirit, or an attitude, not a human figure, and the point of this particular passage is clear, that some opponents of Messiah’s teachings have already left the movement. John goes on to explain what an “antimessiah” is: anyone who denies that Jesus is Messiah. These people, says John, deny the Father when they deny the son. This isn’t about a future evil guy who will take over the world, it’s about those who opposed the apostolic movement here in the First Century. We’ll talk more about this stuff in the Revelation podcast, which I can’t believe I get to write next…!
John gets back to the central message of the letter, which is “love one another!” The world hates us (the Christians), but we know love because Messiah willingly laid down his life for us, and so we should do the same for our brothers and sisters. And for John, as in his gospel, “faith in Jesus” means believing that he is God’s son, his true representative and the ultimate expression of his love. This, the apostle says, is how to “conquer the world.” (5:5) Three things bear witness to this: water, blood, and spirit, or rather, Jesus’ birth (or perhaps his baptism?), Jesus’ death, and Jesus’ resurrection. In conclusion, he invites his readers to confidently cling to these things, for they are the key to the life of the age to come.
The second epistle of John is extremely short, thirteen verses amounting to just a couple of paragraphs in English. It begins “from the Elder to the Chosen Lady,” which is a poetic way of talking about the church, and the letter reads like a summary of 1 John. Do not forsake the commandment of our Lord, “love one another,” and beware of deceivers and “antimessiahs” who deny that Jesus “came in the flesh.” Such people are to be avoided. He ends the letter abruptly, saying he would rather speak to his recipients in person.
3 John is just as short as 2 John, but unlike the first two letters it concerns particular individuals who are identified by name. The letter is addressed to “Gaius,” and the Elder praises him for his spiritual prowess and love for his fellow workers. He then calls out a troublemaker in the same church named Diotrephes, who has been speaking “slanderous words,” and briefly praises someone named Demetrius before closing the letter with almost the exact words from 2 John.
Judah is another very short epistle, and another contested bible book. Much like 2 Peter, it was canonized in spite of doubts about its authorship, length, theology, and its quotation of a non-canonical text. It also appears to have been a source document for the author of 2 Peter. This letter is traditionally referred to as “Jude,” to avoid the negative connotation of its author’s real name, Judah, or Judas. This Judah identifies himself as “brother of James,” which tradition says makes him another brother of Jesus, but this is uncertain.
Like many epistles before it, Judah is concerned with “false teachers” who have “sneaked” in among God’s people to lead them astray. As in 2 Peter, the author uses literary examples to demonstrate how God will rescue his faithful servants and punish the other guys. God rescued the Israelites out of Egypt, and “destroyed the unbelievers.” Likewise God banished the angels to await judgment day (another allusion to Enoch), and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Judah curses the false teachers, referencing an unknown story about an angel named Michael arguing with “the devil” over Moses’ corpse. After a few more literary allusions (they are like the wicked prophet Balaam, they are doomed like the Korahites), Judah actually quotes directly from the book of Enoch, a prophecy about YHWH coming with “ten thousand holy ones” to judge mankind. This is bad news for the false teachers, good news for Judah’s readers. The letter ends with an encouragement to those readers to stay the course and trust in the Messiah’s promise to return “in the last time.”
Its reliance on extra-biblical sources makes Judah one of the most problematic texts for critics and biblicists alike. The message and theology of the book are extreme, but not completely out of line with the other apostolic texts. There are some beliefs and presuppositions that pervade all of the New Testament texts: the supremacy of Jesus, Jesus as Messiah, the challenge of Christian identity in the pagan/Roman world, and the expectation of immediate divine rescue. Like the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, the apostolic writers considered it their vocation to speak hope and challenge to the self-proclaimed “people of God.” And our job, as with the prophets, is to reach back across time and culture and to use the tools at our disposal to try and hear their voices afresh, as clearly as we can, for our own day.
Friends, we have only one official episode of BOOK remaining. Next time we’ll crack open the book of Revelation, a loved, loathed, contested, and deeply misunderstood text. Talk about going out with a bang. I can’t wait…
This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at email@example.com. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and I’ll try to respond on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find lots more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, bible pals. I’ll catch you one more time…