LETTERS: HEBREWS, JOHN, JAMES, PETER, JUDE
Commentary by Philip G. Roets STL, SSL
JOANINE LETTERS: HEBREWS, 1 JOHN, 2 JOHN, 3 JOHN.
Letter to the Hebrews: Its Importance.
Hebrews is clearly a letter that should be read in its entirety because of the depth of its insights and the clarity of its application to life in all ages. The question of author is of minor importance and yet most of the writing is done on this point rather than on the contents.
Questions Related to Hebrews.
This letter to the Hebrews has raised many a question over the centuries. The questions are: Who wrote it? Who was the intended audience? Why are particular points being stressed so much? Was the author trying to instruct non-Christians, to bring back someone who had lost interest, or simply trying to develop basic ideas further?
For a long time this letter was included with the collection of Pauline letters. However, Paul did not sign it, and many of the early Fathers of the Church did not think it originated with Paul. So the claim to Pauline authorship was dropped.
I believe Hebrews was written by John. The author was someone who was well known and accepted by the whole community. The letter is a product of the Joannine community. The stress on the priesthood of Christ, and the participation of his followers in that priesthood, fit well with the ideas of John. You can decide the authorship.
Additional information on authorship of Letter to the Hebrews:
excerpt from Journals of Phil Roets, July 27, 1997.
I read my commentary of John’s Gospel and his letters. I also have Hebrews with that disk (computer file) because we don’t know who wrote it but I think it is closest to the ideas and style of John. However, it does not have the clarity of ideas or expression found in John. It clearly is in a class by itself but it has always been accepted as canonical even by the earliest Father of the Church. So it was left in the Canon by Trent. It’s one contribution is about the priesthood of Christ being ‘according to the order of Melchisedech.’ Therefore, it precedes the Levitical priesthood.”
Content of Letter to the Hebrews.
Here are the highlights of the letter; the teaching is clear and direct. The central emphasis is given to the priesthood of Jesus Christ. The important emphasis is the eternity of this priesthood and the manner in which all mankind is called to participate in this priesthood.
Jesus gave us the fulfillment of what Moses had promised. Jesus Christ was greater than all the angels because his message announced everything that the Father wanted to say. Redemption was brought to us by Jesus Christ, not by the angels. Jesus was greater than Moses who was a forerunner and gave us the Old Law. The saving power of the death of Jesus was assured, not by the resurrection, but by Jesus' entrance into heaven and his glorification.
The two major segments of the letter are: 1:1-10:18 and 10:19-13:25.
The first segment deals with Christ the high priest who brought a new covenant to be accepted in faith and fidelity. Christ was superior to the angels and Moses, and his priesthood was from Melchisedech who antedates Abraham. When the priesthood of Jesus was described in this letter to the Hebrews, we are told explicitly that his priesthood is according to the order of Melchisedech. It is the priesthood of the new and eternal covenant and the fulfillment of all priesthood. The priesthood of Jesus was the reality and the shadow must disappear.
The second segment is concerned with fidelity to the New Covenant and the way in which the faithful advance toward the eternal city. Chapter 11 is exceptional because it gives a long list of people who were examples of faith from the past.
Suggestion for Studying Hebrews.
This letter should be read carefully and totally. The ideas stand out clearly in the words themselves.
Now we have three works of John the Apostle who was also the author of the Book of Revelation and the source of the Fourth Gospel. The first of these three works is a truly pastoral letter - 1 John. The other two works are short notes of importance - 2 John and 3 John.
In this first letter, John was concerned with the great mystery or truth to be revealed by the lives of Christians individually and with each other in the midst of a world that hated them. Christians are not to love in mere words or empty talk. Their love is to be the foundation of their good conscience.
John stressed that Christians live in a world of darkness. This means that the Light which is Christ does not shine in it. The Christians, by their sharing with each other and their example, are to dispel the darkness and turn the world into Light.
This first letter of John is best summarized from the letter itself.
“If we cannot be condemned by our own conscience, we need not be afraid in the presence of God. Whatever we ask him we shall receive because we obey his commandments and lead the kind of life he recommends. His commandments are these: Believe in the name of his son, Jesus Christ, and love one another as he told us to. Whoever follows these commandments lives in God and God in him. We know that he lives in us by the Breath that he has given us.” 1 J.3:21-24.
“Anyone who says, ‘I love God’, and hates his brother is a liar. For a person who does not love his brother, whom he can see, cannot love God whom he cannot see. This is the commandment he has given us: Anyone who loves God must love his brother.” 1J.4:20-21.
Second John is only twenty-three lines long. John reaffirms the commandment of love and then warns against false teachers who were denying that Christ was even born. This falsehood was insidious and John warned against it.
This third note of John is a warning. False teachers were making the rounds trying to undermine the authority of John. From what we know of the first Christian communities, this seemed to have been a favorite attack by the Jewish leaders. When the Jews saw their followers deserting their ranks to become Christians, they sent out teachers to lure them back.
LETTER OF JAMES . written 62 A.D.
Authorship of Letter
This is what we know about James. He was the “brother of the Lord,” a relative of Jesus. He worked in Jerusalem in the very early days of the ministry of the Word. He was killed by the Jews in 62 A.D. He was not an apostle. This is as far as we can get with real identification of the man.
He was familiar with the Old Testament and the teaching of Jesus. His writing style is Semitic but the letter was written in Greek. He had a rich vocabulary and the letter was skillfully put together. He addressed himself to Jewish Christians all over the Greco-Roman world. He presumed the readers are familiar with the Old Testament, especially the Wisdom literature, and the teachings of Jesus.
The key idea in The Letter of James is the necessity of “good works” to make your faith real. John said exactly the same thing about love.
The letter has had a varied history of acceptance. By the second century, it was clearly accepted into the official canon. It is often studied because of its explicit statement about the necessity of “good works” to establish the true faith in anyone’s life. (2:14-16) The letter came up for a lot of controversy at the Council of Trent but was finally included as part of the official canon of Sacred Scripture.
There are several interesting and important points of doctrine.
TEMPTATION. Temptation does not come from God but our inner self or the world about us. God tempts no one. James gave a basic rule. “When a person is tempted, let him never say he is tempted by God. A person is tempted by his own wrong desire. The desire gives birth to sin, and the sin, fully grown, has a child which is death.” (1:13-18)
RELIGION. “Pure, unspoiled religion in the eyes of God, our Father, is this: coming to aid of orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.” (1:27) Nothing is said about marching off to war at the head of the troops, building huge cathedrals, developing rituals and court procedures, writing many laws. In fact, nothing is said about a structure at all.
SOCIAL SEGREGATION. 2:1-4: Don’t judge by externals. Don’t put the rich person above the poor person. Judge the person on his/her own worth. He described someone coming into the gathering dressed in all his finery and showing off his wealth. Alongside him walked a poor unknown person. To the wealthy, well-dressed man, the usher said, “Come this way to the best seats.” To the poor man he said, “Go over there and stay out of the way.” Regardless of whether this distinction is made because of money, or office, or color, or any other accidental quality, it is the destruction of Christian ideals. (2: 1-4)
FAITH WITHOUT WORKS IS DEAD. There is no faith without good works. One of the brothers or sisters is in need of clothes or food or shelter and you say, “Take care! Keep warm! Eat plenty!” and you give that person nothing. Do you have faith? Absolutely not! Faith, like that, without good works, is dead. A body dies when it is separated from the breath, and in the same way faith is dead if it is separated from good works.” (2:14-26)
THE POWER OF THE TONGUE. The description of the tongue and its power is a classic of all ages. (3:1-12) “The tongue is only a tiny part of the body but it can proudly claim to do great things." James compared it to the bit in the mouth of a horse or the rudder on a ship in the hand of the helmsman. He said it is like a tiny flame that can set a whole forest on fire. He stressed that we had learned to tame all the fiercest of animals, but we had not learned to control the tongue. A blessing and a curse can come from the same tongue and no one seemed to notice the contradiction yet we would be amazed if we got fresh water and salt water from the same pipe.
PRAYER: EFFICACY AND CONDITIONS. Prayer is another basic necessity in the life of Faith. “Why you don’t have what you want is because you do not pray for it. Or, if you pray and don’t get your answer, it is because you are not praying the right way.” 4:1-3. You pray only for something to indulge your own desires.
ANOINTING OF THE SICK; PRAYER OVER THE SICK. This is described as a special practice from these early days. (5:14-16) When someone is sick, the elders or presbyteroi are to be called in. They are to anoint the sick person with oil in the name of the Lord and pray over him. If the sick person has committed any sins, they will be forgiven. So confess your sins to one another and pray for one another and this will cure you.” From these words were taken the rituals of the Sacrament of Extreme Unction or Sacrament of the Sick. Again, I feel that the ritual has destroyed the reality.
LETTERS OF PETER.
This first letter of the Bedrock, Kepha or Peter, is a marvelous memento of a great man. We know a lot about Peter from the Gospel stories. He was a forward, impetuous, outspoken man. He blurted out his ideas before he had time to think about them. Yet he was a natural leader. Jesus chose him as the foundation stone of his Church. Its unity, community and strength was to come from him.
Peter was the first to protest his undying loyalty, and the first to run and deny he had ever heard of Jesus. There is an ancient story told that he wept so often about his denial that there were furrows down his cheeks where the tears ran. There is another story that tells when it came time for him to be executed for his faith, he asked that he be crucified upside down because he did not deserve to die as died his master.
Peter died in 67 A.D., about 37 years after Jesus died. In those years he had established a strong Church -- well on its way to win the world for Christ and his ideals.
About the year 64 A.D., three years before Peter was to suffer death for his faith, Peter wrote to the Gentile Christians in other parts of the world. His intent was clearly to give them a summary of what was expected of a true Christian in every aspect of life, and to tell them of the great meaning and value of being a follower of Jesus Christ.
Peter stressed that all Christians are a part of the “HOLY PRIESTHOOD” of Jesus and they share in this priesthood in their daily lives. He took society as it was at that time, and described the obligations and rights of each person.
Peter told how we are to act in relation to the non-Christians. He told of their attitude toward civil authority, and if they were slaves, how they were to approach and look upon their masters.
The love of Christians for each other must always be sincere and at full strength. This kind of love would cover all our sin (4:8). Peter gave a detailed description of the relationship between husbands and wives. Then he talked of the way in which Christians should get along with one another.
Perhaps, the most important bit of advice is contained in 3:15. Peter said that every Christian is “to be ready at all times with a thorough and personal explanation (APOLOGIA) of the HOPE that governs his life.” This statement presupposed that there was a conscious conviction in each Christian about his/her beliefs and that each was ready and willing to express and explain this conviction.
The elders/pastors were given a description on how they were to act in their office as leaders. They were to be shepherds of the flocks entrusted to them. They were to watch over their charges willingly because that was what God wanted. They were not to do their work simply because of money but eagerly. They were never to domineer over their charges but were to be an example that the whole flock could follow. When the chief shepherd came, then they would receive their crown (5:1-4).
This letter is exactly what would be expected from a man such as Peter. He knew the danger of over-confidence. He knew the source of true strength. He realized that the work of Jesus cannot be brought forward except through the sincerity and zeal of each Christian.
Since the Gospel according to Mark is the Good News as it was preached by Peter, this letter is a marvelous introduction to this Gospel. The letter stressed the points developed in Mark’s Gospel.
Second Letter of Peter.
Authorship of 2 Peter.
There is the same question as to the authorship. Did Peter write the letter himself? Would a Galilean fisherman be capable of such well written Greek? Was the letter traced to Peter as the source of the ideas but written by someone else?
We are certain that it was accepted as part of the Canon from earliest days. We know it had always been given the authority of Peter. How it goes back to him is not certain. If it comes from him directly, the date has to be prior to his death in 67 A.D. If it goes back to him only as a source, the date may be 80-90 A.D. as some scholars think.
This is a short note to Christians advising them about their conduct in specific instances. The Christian calling has 4 points (1:3-11):
1. The Christian calling brings with it: faith, goodness, understanding, self-control, patience, dedication, kindness, and love.
2. With these qualities, you will be effective and productive in your daily life.
3. Peter made a special reference to his presence at the Transfiguration: 1:18.
4. Observe the fate of false teachers: 2:1-22.
There had been false teachers or prophets who tried to win the Christian converts back to the ways of paganism. Peter emphasized that this was not something new. They were to look back through the history of the chosen people and they would find false prophets and lying teachers at every major step on the way. The fate of false teachers had always been the same: they seemed to succeed for a short time and then there was a dire punishment. The angels sinned and were punished by being cast into dark underground pits until the judgment. The world in the time of Noah was not spared punishment. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were wiped out but Lot and his family were spared. A donkey was used to speak to Balaam and put him on the right track. Only a pig goes back to wallow in the mud right after it has been bathed.
5. The PAROUSIA would come. (3:1-10) Jesus will return. It may seem a long time in coming but remember that time has no measure in eternity. The heavens and the earth were created by God and belong to him. They are to be used according to his purpose and plan. In the end they will disappear and only those will be saved who identify with Jesus. Then the new heavens and earth will appear, and on them will be seen the new righteousness.
Letter of Jude. written 70-80 A.D.
Author of Letter of Jude
Jude is a short note. There is no certainty as to the identity of this person. There is no doubt about the authenticity of the letter. Some hold that the author is the apostle, Jude or Thaddaeus. We simply do not know for sure who wrote the letter.
Content of Letter of Jude.
There is one main point and that is: be aware of and avoid false teachers who are deliberately trying to offset the ministry of the Word. He reminded the readers of the examples of punishment for false teachers in the past: the fall of the angels, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Cain, Balaam and the talking donkey, and Korah who rebelled against the authority of Moses. (Num. 16)
Some people have wondered why there were so many people eager to lead the Christians away from their faith. The answer is simple. The Romans made betrayal well worth their while, financially. The Romans saw the ideology of Jesus and his followers as totally opposed to their way of life. They had either to destroy the Christians and their ideals, or see their empire fold. It took about two and half centuries of persecution and death for the martyrs to make their point and win the Emperor himself over to Christ.
Faith must be the foundation of your life. Build on the foundation in the Holy Spirit (Creative Breath). Reassure those who are in doubt. Rescue those who are in danger. But be aware of and avoid those who are a danger to your own faith
The positive note in the letter is the description of the duties of love.