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Series 3 - The Great Teachings of the Bible and What They Mean for You: Exploring the Bible

Hello, friends! Welcome to this Bible study series on "Exploring the Bible." This lesson covers the seven letters written by James, Peter, John and Jude, often known as the General Epistles. These letters are full of inspiration and practical advice for Christians living in a hostile and ungodly world, while anticipating the wonderful promises of the Kingdom of God.

We pray this lesson will give you helpful information you can use in your further studies of God's inspired Word.

Lesson 9: The General Epistles and You

The letters written by James, Peter, John and Jude have helped inspire, encourage and motivate Christians for centuries. What lessons can we learn and how can we apply them in today's world?Exploring the Bible

In his letter, James used the story of the prophet Elijah as an example of the power of prayer.

"Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.

"Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit" (James 5:16-18).

God had sent Elijah to warn evil King Ahab of the drought that would come because of the sins he had led his people into. After the three and a half years of no rain, God sent Elijah to Ahab again. Elijah told Ahab to call all Israel together to see a contest between the pagan prophets of Baal and the true God. Whoever could call down fire from heaven to burn up a sacrifice would be known to be the real God.

The prophets of Baal did their rituals all day with no answer. Elijah then poured precious water all over his sacrifice, drenching the wood and altar.

"And it came to pass, at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near and said, 'Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that You are God in Israel and I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your word. Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that You are the Lord God, and that You have turned their hearts back to You again.'

"Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood and the stones and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench.

"Now when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, 'The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God!'

"And Elijah said to them, 'Seize the prophets of Baal! Do not let one of them escape!' So they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Brook Kishon and executed them there.

"Then Elijah said to Ahab, 'Go up, eat and drink; for there is the sound of abundance of rain.'

"So Ahab went up to eat and drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; then he bowed down on the ground, and put his face between his knees, and said to his servant, 'Go up now, look toward the sea.' So he went up and looked, and said, 'There is nothing.' And seven times he said, 'Go again.'

"Then it came to pass the seventh time, that he said, 'There is a cloud, as small as a man's hand, rising out of the sea!' So he said, 'Go up, say to Ahab, "Prepare your chariot, and go down before the rain stops you."'

"Now it happened in the meantime that the sky became black with clouds and wind, and there was a heavy rain. So Ahab rode away and went to Jezreel" (1 Kings 18:36-45).

God answered Elijah's short prayer for fire dramatically and immediately, while requiring Elijah to pray fervently seven times before sending the rain. In the end, righteous Elijah's fervent, persistent prayers were very effective!


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The letter James wrote was not to a specific congregation or person, so it is often called a General Epistle. Since there are four individuals named James mentioned in the New Testament, we aren't told exactly who the author was. "But the most likely candidate is the James who was Jesus' brother. He became a Christian when he saw the risen Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:7) and went on to become a leader in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:13ff.; 21:18)" (Eerdmans' Handbook to the Bible, 1973, p. 633).

The epistle of James is a very practical "how-to" guide to Christian living in troubled times, highlighting the need for actions to back up our beliefs. James says that faith without works is dead (James 2:17). The book gives helpful advice about a wide variety of subjects, from trials and temptations to treating everyone with respect, from living faith to the dangers of the tongue, from patience to prayer and healing.

"In many ways James' epistle resembles Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, loaded as it is with encouragement and filled with gems to help build Christian character…

"The epistle of James presents many problems to those who hold to the view that Jesus taught we no longer need to keep God's laws, or that those laws were somehow abolished at Christ's death and resurrection. But, if anyone knew how Jesus lived and what He taught and believed, it was James, a member of Christ's own household.

"James repeatedly upholds the need to keep God's laws, emphasizing the Ten Commandments. He refers to God's law not as something unnecessary or optional, but as 'the royal law' (James 2:8). He specifically mentions several of the Ten Commandments, then calls them 'the law of liberty' (verses 11-12).

"Why that designation? Because James understood that only by obeying God's laws can mankind experience true freedom—freedom from want, sorrow and suffering, from the degrading and painful consequences of sin. He encourages each of us to be a 'doer of the law' (James 4:11) ("Profiles of Faith: James: Half Brother of Jesus").

What practical advice does James give that sums up several of his main themes?

James 1:19-20
So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

The Nelson Study Bible uses this passage as its overall outline of James:

Our lesson on "Keys to Good Communication" also expands on these themes.

1 Peter

Peter, the bold and impetuous disciple, had taken seriously Christ's command to "feed My sheep" (John 21:17) and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, had become a loving shepherd for the Church. Peter's first epistle was written to the brethren in the regions that are now northern Turkey. Life was hard for those brethren as it has been hard for those living in Satan's world through the ages.

"Peter's pastoral purpose was to help these early believers see their temporary sufferings in the full light of the coming eternal glory. In the midst of all their discouragements, the sovereign God would keep them and enable them by faith to have joy. Jesus Christ by his patient suffering and glorious future destiny had given them the pattern to follow and also a living hope. Life in a pagan society was difficult and required humility and submission. The immediate future for the church was an increase in the conflict with the world (4:7-18). But God would provide the grace to enable the community of the faithful to grow into maturity. They must help one another and show loving concern lest the members of God's flock be injured (4:8, 10; 5:1-2)" (Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary, Vol. 2: New Testament, 1994, p. 1041).

Peter was focused on the hope of the return of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. "From beginning to end of the letter the second coming is in the forefront of the writer's mind. It is the motive for steadfastness in the faith, for the loyal living of the Christian life and for gallant endurance amidst the sufferings which have come upon them" (William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter, Revised Edition, 1976, p. 139).

What warning, instruction and encouragement does Peter end 1 Peter with?

1 Peter 5:6-11
Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.
Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.
Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world.
But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you.
To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.

In a world where our enemy, the devil, is always seeking to destroy us, it is truly comforting to know that the all-powerful God cares for us! He can use even our sufferings to "perfect, strengthen and settle" us.

2 Peter

When Peter wrote 2 Peter, he knew he was going to die soon: "Moreover I will be careful to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my decease" (2 Peter 1:15). He had important last words he wanted the Church to remember.

What does Peter discuss immediately after mentioning he wanted them to remember "these things"?

2 Peter 1:16-18
For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty.
For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."
And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.

"In the next few verses Peter talks about the reality of Jesus Christ. He talks about the transfiguration of Christ when he, James and John saw Christ transfigured in His glory (verses 16-18; Matthew 17:1-9). He said that Christ wasn't a myth, He wasn't a 'cunningly devised fable,' but He was real—real enough for Peter to give his life for Him. Then Peter adds, 'And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts' (verse 19).

"What is this 'prophetic word'? He is referring to the return of Jesus Christ, which will happen when 'the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.' This also ties in with the transfiguration, when Peter saw Jesus Christ in His glorified state as He will appear when He returns" ("The Old Testament in the New Testament").

Peter also warns of false teachers who will try to distract us from focusing on following Christ and preparing for His Kingdom. "Christians must beware of false teachers (2:1-22) who deny the imminent return of the Lord (3:3-4) and live immoral and greedy lives. These teachers are clever and claim scriptural support from Paul's letters for their views of liberty, but they pervert the letters and are headed for damnation (3:15-16). The church is to be alert to error and growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ (3:17-18)" (Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary, Vol. 2: New Testament, 1994, p. 1063).

1 John

Tradition and the similarity of vocabulary and style with John's Gospel provide convincing evidence that the apostle John wrote these three letters, though he does not identify himself in them.

"John writes as someone who knew Jesus, as the Son of God and also as a real man. Anyone who claims to know God must live as Jesus did (chapters 1 and 2). Christians are the children of God. They have his nature and cannot go on persistently sinning. Those who believe in Jesus will love each other, too (chapter 3). In chapter 4 John contrasts the true and the false. 'God is love,' John declares. 'We love because God first loved us.' Chapter 5 speaks of victory over the world, and of God's gift of eternal life" (Eerdmans' Family Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1978, p. 95).

How did John define godly love?

1 John 5:3
For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.

"John knew the source of godly love, understood it and practiced it. He realized that God communicates His love through the laws He gives us, the laws by which we are to live.

"Jesus Himself said that God's law can be summarized in two great commandments: Love God with all your heart, soul and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36-40). John similarly summarized God's very nature and character when he wrote, 'God is love' (1 John 4:8, 16)" ("Profiles of Faith: John: An Apostle of Godly Love").

How did John describe godly love and its effects?

1 John 4:18-21
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love Him because He first loved us.
If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.

"John recognized the contradiction in the concept that someone could love God yet hate his brother. He knew that we humans can distort the concept of love to make it mean just about anything we want it to mean. But God's love isn't like that. Godly love always puts care and concern for the other person first" ("Profiles of Faith: John: An Apostle of Godly Love").

2 John

"John wrote this letter 'to the elect lady and her children.' This is either a figurative reference to a church community or a literal reference to a specific person… The proof is not conclusive for either possibility, so the true identity of John's audience for this letter probably will always remain unknown. Yet the message of the letter remains clear: Vigilantly guard against false teachings, and persevere in the truth" (The Nelson Study Bible, introduction to 2 John).

Does John continue his theme of love in this letter?

2 John 6
This is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, that as you have heard from the beginning, you should walk in it.

We show love for God by doing the things He wants us to do. He designed the commandments to show us how to love. And the commandments are designed to benefit us if we obey them, which demonstrates God's love for us.

3 John

John wrote this short letter to Gaius, a beloved Christian who set a good example in serving fellow Christians who traveled through his area. In contrast, a man named Diotrephes was acting like a dictator and mistreating brethren.

In spite of Diotrephes' opposition, what did John encourage Gaius (and us) to do?

3 John 5-6
Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the brethren and for strangers, who have borne witness of your love before the church. If you send them forward on their journey in a manner worthy of God, you will do well…

John praised Gaius' example of hospitality and his support of those who were doing God's work. This love for the brethren is to be a hallmark of God's Church (John 13:35).


Jude mentions that he is the brother of James. It seems likely that the James he refers to is the James who presided at the Jerusalem conference (Acts 15:13), wrote the book of James and was the half brother of Jesus. If so, why didn't Jude mention he himself was the half brother of Jesus? Likely his readers would have known that already, and perhaps it would have seemed pretentious to mention it.

Jude explains that he had planned to write about "our common salvation" (Jude 3), but "alarming news of false teaching made him pen this short, vigorous letter with all speed" (Eerdmans' Handbook to the Bible, 1973, p. 644). Jude used many Old Testament references as well as using two references that appear to be from Jewish apocryphal writings. (Of course, quoting from nonbiblical sources does not mean that Jude endorsed everything in those writings.)

"Jude is dealing with a situation very like that dealt with in 2 Peter. And in fact the bulk of Jude's letter is paralleled in 2 Peter 2. The two are so similar that either one made use of the other, or both drew on an existing tract which countered false teachings" (ibid.).

"Jude emphasizes the importance of contending for the faith. Error must be refuted. He warns that God's judgment will fall on the apostates even as it fell upon Cain, Korah, and Balaam" (The Amplified Bible, introduction to Jude).

What does Jude advise Christians to do when faced with false teachings?

Jude 20-21
But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.

We must be building on the body of truth we have been given, praying in the power of the Holy Spirit and guarding ourselves with the love of God. Through God's mercy we can receive the salvation and eternal life that Jude had intended to write about in the first place.


Apply Now

Choose one of the General Epistles to read through. Pray for understanding, study the passages carefully and think about how they can be applied in your life today. Write down three or more things you learn, and plan to work on them this week.

If you would like further help in making your Bible study effective for spiritual growth, see these practical "Keys to Understanding the Bible."

Next Lesson: Lesson 10: The Book of Revelation and You

Questions about this lesson? Feedback about this lesson?

Related Resources:

Profiles of Faith: James: Half Brother of Jesus

The Book of James: An "Epistle of Straw"? from the booklet You Can Have Living Faith

Keys to Good Communication

Taming Our Tongues

Profiles of Faith: Peter: From Fisherman to Fisher of Men

A Cycle for Christian Growth

Profiles of Faith: John: An Apostle of Godly Love

The Apostles, the Old Testament and God's Law from the booklet The New Covenant: Does It Abolish God's Law?

The Bible and Archaeology: Archaeology and the Epistles

Keys to Understanding the Bible from the booklet How to Understand the Bible