A Guide to Bible Study by J. W. McGarvey

Chapter 16: The Catholic Epistles and the Apocalypse

The reader has probably noticed that the first epistle of John, and the epistles of James, Peter and Jude are styled in our printed Testament, "General Epistles." The original of the word "general" is katholike, catholic, and from this word these epistles have for a long time been known as the Catholic Epistles. Second and Third John are included in the title, although addressed to individuals, because it was not desirable to classify them separately from the greater epistle by the same author. There are then seven Catholic Epistles, and we shall speak of them in order in which we now find them.

1. James. There were three eminent disciples by this name, James the son of Zebedee, James the son of Alphaeus, both apostles; and James the brother of the Lord. For reasons too elaborate to be given here, the last is now very generally understood to be the author of the epistle. From the time of Peter's imprisonment by Herod, which occurred in the year of the Lord 44, till the death of James in the year 62, he seems to have resided continuously in the city of Jerusalem as the acknowledged head of that church in the absence of the apostles (Acts 12:17; Acts 15:13; Acts 21:17,18; Galatians 1:18,19; Galatians 2:9-12).

The epistle is address to "the twelve tribes of the Dispersion," which means those of the twelve tribes dispersed in other countries than Palestine (James 1:1). The persons addressed, as the contents of the epistle show, were the Christian Jews of the Dispersion, and not the unbelievers. There were very few such Christians until the apostles had been preaching many years, and had made converts in many lands; consequently the date of this epistle must have been near the close of the life of James, but in what year it is now impossible to ascertain {v}. The brethren addressed were suffering persecution, and the purpose of the writer is to encourage them to patient endurance of their afflictions. This purpose pervades the epistle. At the same time many warnings and admonitions are introduced that are appropriate to all times and places. The epistle is especially noted for the most elaborate lesson on the control of the tongue that is to be found in the Bible. It also touches briefly the subject of justification, showing that while, as Paul so abundantly teaches, we are not justified by works of law, yet those works which belong to the obedience of faith are necessary to justification.

This epistle has always been admired for the smoothness and elegance of the style in which it is written, being superior in these particulars to any other New Testament document.

{v} See note, Chapter 15.

2. First Peter. Peter addresses in part the same disciples addressed by James. They are "sojourners of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia as Bithynia" (1 Peter 1:1). These were provinces in the western and northern parts of what we call Asia Minor, and they were included in the more general Dispersion addressed by James. It was by Paul and his fellow-laborers that these provinces had been evangelized. The main purpose of the epistle is the same as that of James, to encourage these brethren under the persecution which they were enduring, and to prepare them for others that were in their future. Nothing could be better adapted to the purpose than the tender words and earnest appeals which the writer employs. The sentiment throughout reflects a maturity of Christian character and experience which make Peter stand before the reader in a far better light than in the Gospels. One familiar with him there could hardly recognize him here--a striking proof of the transforming power of a Christian life.

3. Second Peter. In this the apostle addresses the same persons, and mainly for the same purpose (2 Peter 3:1,2). It is chiefly remarkable, however, for two predictions which it contains, the first in the second chapter respecting false teachers who were to arise in the church; and the second, in the third chapter, respecting the coming of Christ to judgment, and the destruction of the present heavens and earth.

Many writers, both ancient and modern, have expressed doubts respecting the genuineness of this epistle; but their arguments have never succeeded in convincing the great mass of believers at any time. From its first to its last word it is worthy the pen of an apostle, and no epistle more positively affirms its own authorship.

4. First John. This epistle is not addressed to any particular class of disciples, and it is therefore in the strictest sense catholic or general. After an opening paragraph, in which the writer sets forth very emphatically the fulness of apostolic testimony to the resurrection of Jesus, the epistle is devoted to exhortations to shun sin, and incentives to the love of one another. The latter duty is more persistently set forth here than in any other portion of the New Testament; and this has led to styling the apostle John, The Apostle of Love. He was evidently a very old man when he wrote, for he addresses the disciples of all ages and classes as "Little children," "My little children" {1 John 2:1,12,13,18,28; 1 John 3:7,18; 1 John 4:4; 1 John 5:21}. This places the epistle among the latest of the New Testament writings, but without fixing its date more definitely. There is some uncertainty whether it or the Gospel of John was the earlier.

5. Second John. In this brief note, the writer designates himself by the title, "The Elder" {2 John 1:1}. A man, in order to be known by this designation, must have been well known for an age advanced beyond that of any others with whom he was associated. John outlived by very many years all of the other apostles; and before his death he was probably the oldest living member of the church. This would naturally cause everybody to recognize him by this title, and especially all those with whom he was intimate. The chief person addressed in this note, "the elect lady" {2 John 1:1}, was a lady not only in our American sense of the word, but in the aristocratic sense of the old world; that is, she was a woman of rank. Such is the meaning of the Greek word {Kuria} rendered lady.

As this lady and her children were not only people of rank, but also of great zeal and hospitality, corrupt men, such as the people call "religious tramps" in our day, got to seeking her hospitality, in order to make use of the fact of having been her guest to impose themselves on others. It was the main purpose of this epistle to caution her on this point. The apostle expected to visit here shortly, and this accounts for the brevity of the epistle. Incidentally, we learn that the epistle was written, not on parchment, but on paper. It was probably very soon copied on more enduring material or it might have perished.

6. Third John. Another brief note from "The Elder" {3 John 1:1}, addressed to a brother named Gaius, who seems to have been as much noted in the church as the "elect lady" of the second epistle {2 John 1:1}, and for the same excellent qualities. He was particularly liberal in "forwarding on their way" such brethren as passed by him on their way to distant fields of labor {3 John 1:6}. The purpose of the epistle was to commend him for this, and to warn him against a certain brother named Diotrephes, who "loved to have the pre-eminence" {3 John 1:9}, and had lifted himself up against even the authority of the apostle. He lets Gaius understand that he will deal with this reprobate according to his deserts when he visits that church {3 John 1:10}. He has much to say to Gaius as he had to the "elect lady," but defers it until he can speak "face to face" {3 John 1:14}.

These two personal notes are of great value in that they throw light at once upon the loving relations existing between the aged apostle and his faithful to co-laborers, both men and women, and upon the unruly conduct of unconverted or half-converted men who even then had crept into the churches. This last circumstance prevents us from being surprised or disheartened when we see the same thing in our own day.

7. Jude. The real name of this writer, as we see from the first verse of the epistle, was Judas. The English translators probably adopted the improper name Jude, to prevent ignorant persons from thinking that it was Judas Iscariot. He calls himself "the brother of James" {Jude 1:1}, and it is now commonly believed among scholars that he means, brother of that James who was a brother of the Lord. If this is correct, he also was a brother of the Lord; but as the Lord had ascended to Heaven, it was more becoming to call himself brother of James than brother of the Lord. He declares it to be the purpose of his epistle to exhort the brethren to contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, in view of the fact that many bad men had crept into the churches who were corrupting both the faith and the morals of the brethren. His denunciations of these characters remind us of some of the similar denunciations of bad men by the Old Testament prophets, and of our Lord's denunciations of the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees. They resemble still more the second chapter of Second Peter. He reminds the brethren that the apostles had predicted the appearance of such men, and that their coming was therefore not a matter of surprise. He closes with a benediction which is one of the most beautiful and appropriate to be found in any literature.

8. The Apocalypse. The word apocalypse means "revelation"; but as other books as well as this contain revelations, there is a little confusion in calling this the book of revelation; hence the preference among scholars for the untranslated title. There is still another objection to the printed title, "The Revelation of St. John the Divine"; for John was no more a saint, and no more a divine than any of the other apostles. The real title of the book, that is, the one given by the writer himself, is found in the first verse; "The revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him to show unto his servants, even the things which must shortly come to pass; and he went and signified it by his angel unto his servant John, who bore witness of the word of God, and of the Testimony of Jesus Christ, even of all things that he saw" {Revelation 1:1,2}. As it was intended to show "things which must shortly come to pass," its contents must be in the main prophetic.

This fully stated title is followed by a salutation to the "Seven churches of Asia" {Revelation 1:4}, similar to the usual salutation of the epistles, and this by a doxology. Then the main body of the book opens with an account of the appearance to John on the island of Patmos, of the Lord Jesus himself in glory. The Lord commands him to write what he dictates, and there follow seven brief epistles from the Lord to the seven churches of Asia. The word Asia means the Roman province of which Ephesus was the principal city. By consulting any good map the reader will find the seven churches, or rather the cities in which they were located, almost in a circle. If this book was written about the year 96, as Irenaeus, a writer of the second century affirms, Jesus had now been in heaven about sixty-two years, and these seven churches had been in existence nearly forty years {w}. After the experience of this long period the Lord dictates a letter to each of them to let them know how he regarded their conduct since they were planted, and to give them warnings and exhortations for the future. When the epistle to each was publicly read to the assembled members, the occasion must have been one never to be forgotten. In reading them we should keep in mind a comparison with our own congregation, and so far as the conditions are similar we should take to ourselves the same warnings, or commendations, as the case may be.

After writing the words of the seven epistles as they fell from the lips of the Lord, John saw in a vision a door opened in heaven, and at the bidding of a voice he was caught up through it, and beheld a vision of the glory of God far transcending any vouchsafed before to any prophet or apostle. Then followed a vision of a book sealed with seven seals, which no one in heaven was found worthy to unseal except "The Lion of the Tribe of Judah" {Revelation 5:5}, a well-known title of our Lord Jesus Christ. When he took the book in his hand great glory was ascribed to him by all the inhabitants of heaven; and as he proceeded to open the seven seals there followed the opening of each a wonderful symbolic vision portending something to occur on earth (Revelation 4:1-7:17). When the seventh seal was opened seven angels stood forth with seven trumpets in their hands. They sounded their trumpets one by one, and there followed as many startling events (Revelation 8:1-9:19). The rest of the book (Revelation 12:1-22:21) is filled with a series of visions of quite a different character and too elaborate for description here, all terminating with a vision of the final judgment and of the New Jerusalem in which the saints are to dwell in the presence of God forever. Thus the Bible, which began with a vision of the creation of the present heavens and earth, in which sin was born and the Redeemer from sin was crucified, closes with a vision of a new heaven and a new earth where those redeemed from sin out of every nation, family and tongue, shall live perpetually in righteousness and bliss. The promise to Abraham has never been lost sight of since it was first announced in Ur of the Chaldees, and it is now fulfilled by the blessing which comes upon men of all nations through Abraham's seed.

{w} Many scholars believe the date of the apocalypse to have been about 68 A.D., shortly after the Neronian persecution, and during the earlier stages of the Jewish war, which culminated in the fall of Jerusalem (70 A.D.). This would make the apocalypse the earliest of the writings of John.--W.

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