Unlike the writings of the apostle Paul, whose letters were addressed to specific individuals or audiences (Timothy, Titus, Philemon, or the saints in Rome, Corinth, et al.), by and large, the general epistles, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude, make no mention of specific audiences. James addressed his letter to “the twelve tribes” and Peter opened his first epistle to “the exiles in the dispersion,” while John made no mention of a recipient in his first letter. Just as the name implies, the general epistles were written to a general audience.
Here is a brief look at each of the general epistles in the Bible:
James: James was a half-brother of our Lord Jesus Christ. After his conversion, James became the leader of the Jerusalem church. His letter may be the oldest book in the New Testament. It is also among the most practical of the New Testament writings, for he reminds his readers that genuine faith is accompanied by works (James 2:17–18). This is not to suggest James believed in a works-based salvation; rather, James taught the believer’s works are an outward manifestation of the faith within. A faith that produces godly works is real, but a faith that yields no works is not genuine.
1 Peter: On the night of Jesus’ arrest, fear drove Peter to twice deny the Lord, but, later, as an apostle under constant fire, there was no fear in him. He faced intense persecution, and in this letter, Peter reminds us that we, too, have been called to suffer for Christ Jesus (1 Peter 1:6). Despite Satan’s fiery darts and cruel blows, the eternal rewards that come with perseverance far outweigh any hardships we endure in this life. Like James’ epistle, Peter’s letter is immensely practical and offers much hope to beleaguered Christians.
2 Peter: Just as Paul pronounced a curse upon purveyors of a false gospel (Galatians 1:6–9), Peter issued a similar warning against false teachers and their contemptible heresies (2 Peter 2:1–3). Two thousand years later, false teachers continue misleading people through empty promises and cunning words. Appropriately, Peter concluded his second letter by urging the saints to “take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people” (2 Peter 3:17, ESV). Biblical literacy is the best defense against false teachers.
1 John: A call for the teaching of sound Christian doctrine is more than a mere suggestion or an idea to consider—a faithful adherence to biblical truth is a command that must not be ignored (see Titus 2:1). In his first epistle, John warned against false teachers known as Gnostics who, if unopposed, would shipwreck the faith of many. John also reminded his readers that God is both light and love—two elements inconsistent with heretical teachings. In 1 John, the apostle also gives us a series of tests that we can use to examine ourselves and our faith.
2 John: As in John’s first epistle, John’s second letter contains a warning against godless teachers and their false doctrines. Specifically, John condemned heretics who denied our Lord’s bodily resurrection. Today, Jehovah’s Witnesses go door to door spreading the same heretical doctrine. John, who was an eyewitness of our Lord’s bodily resurrection, heartily condemned these false teachers, and we are to do the same.
3 John: In this brief letter, John commended two disciples, Gaius and Demetrius, for providing hospitality to the saints. Showing hospitality to our fellow believers is one means by which we are to demonstrate our love for one another. In the same letter, John condemned a false teacher named Diotrephes who refused to recognize apostolic authority. The origins of pseudo-Christian cults and isms can be traced to leaders claiming all Christendom is in error while he or she is God’s sole messenger of truth. Unity is not a virtue when false teachers are invited to the pulpit.
Jude: As Jesus warned of false teachers (Matthew 7:15), Jude, another of our Lord’s half-brothers, also sounded the alarm by urging believers to “earnestly contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3, ESV). According to this passage, the gospel in its entirety is in the hands of believers; there would be no new inspired writings, no new doctrines, and no new revelations. Believers who esteem God’s Word will not fall prey to pseudo-Christian cults like Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses who seek to pervert God’s truths with counterfeit gospel messages.
To summarize, the general epistles were written to bolster and strengthen the early church. As to doctrinal matters, the general epistles are in complete harmony with Paul’s letters. Contradictions between the writings of Paul and the letters penned by James, Peter, John, and Jude do not exist. Additionally, just as Paul warned against those teaching a “different gospel” (see Galatians 1), the general epistles unhesitatingly condemn false teachers motivated by the spirit of antichrist (see 1 John 4:3). Obviously, all roads do not lead to God. Though the general epistles were written two thousand years ago, their words of encouragement, instruction, and warning are no less relevant today.