General Letters and Revelation

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The final nine books of the New Testament are written in a number of styles by different writers. The first eight (Hebrews through Jude) are often referred to as the “General Letters.” Some of these are clearly written in letter form, similar to the style of Paul’s letters. These include James, 1 and 2 Peter, 2  and 3 John, and Jude. Hebrews is included in this group because it ends with personal greetings, though it reads more like a sermon or a series of sermons. First John does not begin with the usual greeting found in a letter, but its advice for Christians is given in a personal way that sounds like one friend writing to another.

In the process of pointing out the special nature of the early Christians, the eight General Letters include a number of warnings against following false teachers (2 Pet 2:1-3; 1 John 2:18-26; 4:1,2; Jude 3-13), as well as encouragement to live holy lives (Jas 2:14-26; 1 Pet 1:13-16; 2 Pet 1:5-11) and to love one another (Heb 13:1,2; 1 John 3:11-19; 2 John 5,6). Christians are called God’s chosen people (Heb 3:1; 1 Pet 2:9,10), but they are also warned that being chosen will not shield them from suffering or from having their faith  tested (Heb 13:3; Jas 1:12; 1 Pet 1:5-7; 3:13-17; 4:12-14). The persecution of Christians at the hands of the Romans appears to have greatly increased in the late first century A.D. during the rule of Emperor Domitian. Because many of the General Letters deal with the suffering of the Christians who lived during this time, it is likely that they were written in the last few decades of the first century A.D. or perhaps a bit later.

This tension between Christians and their enemies is especially clear in Revelation, the last book in this section. Revelation records the visions of John of Patmos and includes a number of letters written to churches in Asia Minor (Rev 2,3). Revelation is an example of Apocalyptic writing which is based, in part, on earlier Jewish Apocalyptic writings such as Daniel and Ezekiel. Such writings describe the ongoing battle between God and the forces of evil, and they tell how God will achieve the final victory in the end. But, in the meantime, those who follow God may face suffering or even be killed by the enemies of God. Apocalyptic writings use a number of symbols and colorful images—such as the beasts in Revelation 13—to provide a message that God’s people would understand but which would be confusing to their enemies. Another example of this “secret” type of imagery is the mention of the ancient city of Babylon (Rev 17:5–18:24). Christian readers in John’s day knew that this was really a reference to Rome, which they had come to see as the great enemy of God and God’s people.

Like many other apocalyptic writings, Revelation has violent scenes of God’s judgment, but the primary purpose of such books is to give hope and to encourage Christians to remain faithful in the midst of difficult times. The final chapters of the book provide a hopeful picture of the new heaven and new earth God will bring at the end of time.

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