THE CATHOLIC LETTERS
James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2 and 3 John and Jude are called the “Catholic Epistles” or the “Catholic Letters.” This is because, unlike Paul’s letters, these letters are not addressed to a particular person or church. Rather, they are addressed to Christians in general and deal with matters that are important to all Christians. The word catholic means “universal,” and these letters are addressed to all Christians everywhere.
Suggested Readings: James 2:14-26, James 5:1-5, 13-15
James was a close relative of Jesus and leader of the Christian church in Jerusalem, until he was martyred in AD 62. Paul calls him “the brother of the Lord” (Galatians 1:19). St. Jerome, the fifth century translator of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, tells us that the word used for “brother” could just as well mean close relative. The Protoevangelium of James, a second century writing attributed to James, explains that Jesus’ siblings were by Joseph from a first marriage, thus preserving the ancient faith that Jesus was an only child and that Mary remained a virgin all her life. The Church no longer holds to the ancient tradition identifying James of Jerusalem with James the Less, the apostle and son of Alphaeus.
James was a leader of the Jewish Christians, those who held tightly to many of their Jewish traditions, even as they embraced Jesus as the Messiah, the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes. The tension that existed between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Indeed, the apostles met at the Council of Jerusalem to address the question of whether Gentile converts would be required to follow certain Jewish customs (Acts 15). Christianity began as a movement within Judaism, but eventually broke from the older tradition over the unique identity and mission of Jesus of Nazareth. Some scholars doubt that this letter was written by James himself, concluding it was more likely written years after his martyrdom by one of his disciples from within the Jewish Christian tradition, of which James was the champion.
The Letter of James begins with words of encouragement to Christians to remain faithful in the face of persecution, to pray with faith, and to put no stock in believing in Jesus unless we are willing to live like Christians. James mentions, in particular, anger and an uncontrolled tongue as problems, and gives instructions to care for orphans and widows (1:19-27). “What good is it, my brothers, if someone
says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?” (2:14). No, as a body is dead without spirit, so faith is dead without good works to back up what we say we believe (2:26).
James is concerned about the conflict between saying one thing and doing another. We say we believe in Jesus, and we praise God. But with the same tongue, we curse our neighbor. We say we have wisdom and understand God’s ways, but are filled with jealousy, bitterness and selfishness. We want to live the life of God, but we desire the pleasures and riches of this world, so we fight others for them. We judge others when only God can judge, and we make plans for our future without first considering God’s will for us. James has harsh words for the rich who put their hope in their wealth, do not pay their workers and kill the innocent. James says, “So submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you of two minds. … Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you” (4:7-8, 10).
James ends with a quick turn from righteous indignation and condemnation to one of counseling patience, praying for others, including the sick, confessing our sins, and the reward awaiting those who bring back to the faith those who have strayed.
1 and 2 Peter
Suggested Readings: 1 Peter 1:3-9, 1 Peter 3:13-22, 1 Peter 4:7-11, 1 Peter 5:8-11, 2 Peter 2:1-3, 2 Peter 3
After the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), the Acts of the Apostles focuses on the missionary efforts of St. Paul, to the exclusion of St. Peter. According to the testimony of the early Church, Peter engaged in his own missionary efforts, spending a good bit of time in Antioch of Syria, where he was instrumental in forming the church in that city. Eventually, the historical record shows that Peter made his way to Rome, where he led the Church as the first bishop of the Eternal City. He was executed in the middle 60s, during Nero’s persecution of the Christians. Excavations of the tombs under St. Peter’s Basilica in the 1960s turned up a tomb with the bones of a man in his sixties and the inscription “Peter is within.” In 1968, based on the archeological evidence, Pope Paul VI declared that the tomb of St. Peter had been found.
Like many other letters of the New Testament, the First Letter of Peter was written to encourage Christians to remain faithful to Christ in the face of insult and persecution. Those who had turned from their sinful lives of lust, drunkenness and idol worship were now being insulted by their former friends for refusing to join them in their sinful ways (4:4). Suffering is not a bad thing, if one is suffering for Christ. Harsh treatment and punishment are to be expected for those who behave badly, and there is no honor in this suffering. But, those who imitate Christ by suffering for their faith will be happy and blessed. “The God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory through Christ [Jesus] will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you after you have suffered a little. To him be dominion forever. Amen.” (5:10-11).
The Second Letter of Peter begins by ensuring Christians that, because they have knowledge of Jesus, God has given them everything they need to live a good and holy life. Just as there were false prophets in the past to tempt God’s people away from Him, false teachers are trying to pull people away from faith in Christ by raising doubts about His faithfulness to His promises, especially His promise to return. “Know this first of all, that in the last days scoffers will come [to] scoff, living according to their own desires and saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming?’” (3:3-4). What they fail to realize is that, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day” (3:8). The reason God is patient to return is to give people more time to turn to Him. In the meantime, “be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace” (3:14).
1, 2 and 3 John
These are three short letters attributed by Christian tradition to the apostle John. 1 John is a short sermon about “the Word of Life” (1:1) that assures believers that the life that was invisible was made visible in the person of Jesus; that God’s life was heard, seen and touched, so that all may share in eternal life, in fellowship with the Father. The letter exhorts Christians to live in the light of Christ, to avoid the darkness of sin, and to love one another. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love” (4:7-8).
2 John is a brief letter written by “the Presbyter” to “the chosen Lady and to her children whom I love” (1), and warns Christians to be on guard against those “who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ coming in the flesh” (7). There have always been those who reject God’s plan for saving His people from sin by becoming one with us, and so reject the full divinity or full humanity of Jesus. Regarding any false teacher, the Presbyter advises, “do not receive him in your house or even greet him” (10).
3 John is a letter written by “the Presbyter” to his friend, Gaius, in which he praises Gaius for being faithful to the truth and is displeased with a certain Diotrephes who is refusing to listen to the teachings of the Elder. “Whoever does what is good is of God; whoever does what is evil has never seen God” (11b). It does not get more straightforward than that!
While some scholars doubt that these three letters were actually written by the apostleJohn, there is general consensus that their origin, if not from John’s pen, is in the community founded by John and that held to his teachings about Jesus.
The Letter of Jude is one of the shortest books in the entire Bible, but it packs quite a punch in its twenty-five verses. Jude was the brother of James of Jerusalem and a relative of Jesus (Matthew 13:55). Jude has little sympathy for false teachers, those “godless persons, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and who deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (4). Their punishment will be severe! The apostles warned that this sort would come in the last days to insult people of faith. Jude encourages believers to resist false teachers and defend the faith that has been handed down to them by the apostles. “But you, beloved, build yourselves up in your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in the love of God and wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life” (20-21).
WHAT DO THE CATHOLIC LETTERS TEACH US ABOUT JESUS?
- It is not enough to listen to the Word of God. We must live like children of God. It is not enough to say we believe. We must take action to back up our faith.
- We should not be surprised if we suffer for our faith in Jesus. People may reject us, insult us and persecute us, but if we remain faithful, we will share in the glory of eternal life. God keeps His promises.
- The life of God that was invisible has been made visible for us in the person of Jesus, so that all may come to share in eternal life with God.
- We must reject false teachers and be always ready to defend the faith handed down to us by the apostles.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.