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The General Epistles: Where Do They Fit In?

by David M. Havard

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Introduction

Those of us who understand Paul’s unique apostleship and message usually have a pretty clear understanding of his epistles and how they apply to us today. We also tend to have a good grasp of the prophetic nature of the gospels and how they fit into the kingdom program. Through the gospels and up to and through Paul’s epistles, we seem to recognize the proper dispensational distinctives. But after Paul’s epistles things seem to get a little fuzzy for some of us. “What about the General Epistles? Where do they fit in? How do they apply to the Body of Christ today?” Such questions are typical of those we receive here at BBS about the books that follow Paul’s Epistles.

While many Grace pastors preach and write about Paul’s epistles (which they certainly should do), some of them unfortunately neglect the rest of the Bible. This leaves many Grace folks having to get their instruction on the General Epistles from teachers who do not understand Paul’s unique apostleship and message. While we certainly want to emphasize the teaching and preaching of the dispensation of the grace of God committed to the Apostle Paul, we do not want to neglect the other Scriptures because we know that “ALL Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” Our goal should be to know and understand the entire Bible in light of Paul’s gospel.

Why are the General Epistles seemingly ignored when it comes to sermons and dispensational commentaries? Go to just about any dispensational Bible conference and you will likely find numerous commentaries on Paul’s Epistles but nothing dealing with the General Epistles. Perhaps part of the reason is that the General Epistles raise some issues and questions not found in the Gospels or Paul’s Epistles.

Those of us who understand Paul’s unique apostleship and message usually have a pretty clear grasp of where the gospels fit in dispensationally. We understand that the gospels present Jesus’ prophesied earthly ministry to the nation of Israel. (Even some non-Pauline dispensationalists understand that Christ’s earthly ministry was “but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and did not include the Body of Christ—and how could it, since even according to an Acts 2 dispensationalist the Body of Christ did not start until Pentecost?) Up until Paul, we know that God had been dealing specifically with Israel.

Everything in the gospel accounts has to do with the prophesied earthly kingdom and salvation coming to Israel. In the book of Acts we see the offer of the kingdom to Israel—an offer which they reject. Following Israel’s rejection of the kingdom proclaimed by Peter, we see the transition from Law to Grace at the calling of Paul after the stoning of Stephen. By the end of the book of Acts we know that the Law (and Israel’s position as the chosen nation) has been set aside and that the gospel of the grace of God is now the salvational message for this dispensation.

Up until this point, most Grace believers are in agreement. Up to and through Paul’s epistles there is confidence and clarity as to the right division of Scripture. Why then do we see hesitancy and confusion as to how to rightly divide the Scripures after Paul’s epistles?

12 In or Out?

There may be a number of issues that cause Grace expositors to be more tentative when it comes to teaching on the General Epistles. One issue that has clouded the understanding of some regarding the General Epistles is whether or not the 12 Apostles and the kingdom saints became members of the Body of Christ. In the past, a person’s position as to the “12 in or out” has caused needless division and loss of fellowship between believers. And because (it is commonly said) our position on this issue will affect our interpretation of these books, this potentially divisive issue may be why more Grace teachers have not dared to venture into exposition of the General Epistles.

Some are reluctant to teach on the General Epistles because they believe that they will have to stake out a claim as to whether or not the 12 are in the Body of Christ. And since they do not want to cause any dissension or division over the 12 in or out issue, they simply avoid the General Epistles altogether. This is unfortunate because such an issue should not really affect our understanding of the General Epistles.

Even if the 12 Apostles and the rest of the kingdom saints became members of the Body of Christ, it should not change our interpretation and application of the General Epistles. Merging kingdom saints into the Body does not change the fact that Paul is our apostle, not Peter, James, Jude, or John. It does not alter the fact that our doctrine has to come from Paul’s epistles. Paul never tells us to learn from any epistles other than his own (although Peter does tell the Jews to learn from Paul (II Pet. 3:15-16).

In addition, if kingdom saints became members of the Body of Christ, it would not change the prophetic and kingdom nature of the General Epistles. Regardless of where we place the 12 and kingdom saints after the formation of the Body of Christ, it does not change to whom these books are written.

Perhaps an illustration will help. Let us compare the Body of Christ to the United States and the kingdom Church to a Territory. In this analogy, Paul is the president of the United States and Peter is the governor of the Territory. Years later, we find a directive written by Peter. We ask the question, “How does Peter’s directive apply to us as citizens of the United States?” “Did Peter’s Territory become a state?” “Was it a part of the United States?”

Maybe you know where this analogy is going. You see, whether the Territory became a state or not does not really affect the impact of Peter’s directive on us. Whether a state or a Territory, Peter’s citizens can only be kingdom Jews; we cannot belong to Peter’s group—we are not eligible for citizenship. If Peter’s group remained a Territory, it is obvious that what he wrote does not apply to us because we are in a different country. This would be equivalent to saying that the 12 did not become members of the Body of Christ.

Now let us say that Peter’s Territory did indeed become a member of the United States (the equivalent of the 12 becoming members of the Body of Christ). Now what effect would Peter’s directive have on us? It would be the same; nothing has changed. Even if the kingdom Jews were a state, something written by their governor would have no jurisdiction on the residents of another state.

An individual state is a subset of the United States. The federal government can dictate to the states, but a state cannot dictate to other states or to the federal government. If the 12 became members of the Body of Christ (subsets), Paul could write to them (just as the president can give directives to the states), but Peter could still write only to his subset, the Jews (or returning to our analogy, as governor of a state, Peter could still write to residents of his state but it would not have juristiction or authority over the other states).

Because Paul is our Apostle and because we get our doctrine from his epistles alone, we know that the General Epistles are written for us, but not to us. In practical terms, this means that their primary application is to Israel. The General Epistles will find their primary application to the kingdom saints during the tribulation. We may draw applications and principles from the General Epistles but we must never forget that they are written to kingdom saints with a decidedly prophetic emphasis. 1

With that lengthy introduction, let us try applying what we have said to I Peter and see if we can answer a few basic questions.

First Things First

There are some basic questions that we must ask before we can properly understand any portion of Scripture. The first question of authorship is not debated. Peter, one of the twelve apostles, wrote I Peter. The next thing to determine is to whom the epistles were written. The fact that Peter wrote these epistles should let us know that they are not written to us since we know that Paul is ourapostle. But even if we don’t know that fact, the first verse of I Peter tells us that Peter wrote to “strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,” i.e., Peter wrote these epistles to the dispersed Jews.

Therefore, verse 1 gives us two reasons why I Peter is written for us but not to us: (1) It is written by Peter, not Paul and (2) It is written to the dispersed Jews, not to the Body of Christ. Even if we do not agree that Paul is our unique Apostle, we still cannot escape the fact that Peter’s epistle is written to the Jews and not to us.

Answering these first two questions correctly is very important. People often ask us a question because they are concerned about a verse or passage in either the Gospels or the General Epistles. At first glance the passage in question seems to say that we can lose our salvation, or that we have to work for salvation, or that we could be guilty of the unpardonable sin (just to name a few). But when we ask these two questions about the particular passage, we see right away that they are not written by our apostle and neither are they written to us. We must never lose sight of these basic principles of biblical interpretation (or to use the fancy word, hermeneutics).

Now What?

Having established the authorship and audience of Peter’s epis-tle, now what? What exactly do we mean when we say that a book of the Bible is written for us versus to us? Books that are written to us are those books from which we build our doctrine. As members of the Body of Christ, that means that we must be careful to make sure that all of our doctrines are founded upon Paul’s epistles (Romans through Philemon). Books that are written for us include all of the rest of the Bible. Because all Scripture is profitable we can find principles and applications from the entire Bible, but we must be careful to build our doctrine on Paul’s epistles alone. This does not mean, however, that we throw out the rest of the Bible. It simply means that until we can properly understand the primary interpretation of a passage of Scripture (who wrote it, to whom, and why) we will be unable to make a proper application of the passage.

Why?

Now that we have established the authorship and audience of Peter’s epistle, we need to understand why he wrote the books. What condition or problem was he trying to address?

Referring back to verse 1, we see that Peter is writing to the Jews who are “scattered abroad.” Why are they scattered abroad? They were scattered abroad following the persecution of the kingdom church that followed the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1; 11:19; James 1:1).

What It Meant to Them Then

When you compare I Peter to what he said in the book of Acts, you see that some things have definitely changed. In Acts, we see that Peter was preaching the immediate return of Christ and the inauguration of the millennial kingdom—contingent upon Israel repenting and believing on Jesus Christ as her Messiah (Acts 3:19-26).

But as we know, Israel did not accept Jesus as her Christ (Acts 4:1-3). While a few thousand Jews believed, Israel as a nation continued in unbelief. Then, in Acts 7 we have the stoning of Stephen, followed by the dispersion of the Little Flock from Jerusalem. As we read in Acts 8:1, “And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles.”

We should be aware of a prime mover in this persecution. Acts 8:3 tells us that Saul (Paul) “made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.”

Rather than experiencing the earthly blessings of the prophesied and long-awaited kingdom, the Jews were persecuted, imprisoned, killed, and dispersed. It is to address these trying circumstances that Peter writes his epistles to the kingdom Jews scattered throughout the Roman Empire.

I Peter has double application for the Jews. When it was written, Peter’s first epistle addressed the problem of the kingdom saints’ dispersion from Jerusalem and of their persecution under an Antichrist of sorts—Saul of Tarsus. Speaking of Saul in his preconversion state, we read in Acts 9:1 that he was “yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord.” Just like the Antichrist who is to come, Saul was intent on destroying the followers of Jesus.

These early saints were no doubt confused as to God’s plan for them. After all, hadn’t they believed on Jesus as their Messiah? Had not God promised them the kingdom? Had they not been given a foretaste of the kingdom to come (Acts 2:1-21; Heb. 6:4)? But instead of experiencing the utopia of God’s kingdom come to earth, they were being pursued and persecuted for their faith. Has God forsaken Israel? What about the promises to Abraham? What about the promised kingdom? It is to answer questions such as these the Peter wrote his epistles to the Jews.

What It Will Mean to Them Later

Likewise, these same questions will need to be answered by the tribulation saints. They too will be persecuted, pursued, imprisoned, and killed by the real Antichrist, of whom Saul of Tarsus was just a prefiguring. The Antichrist will have the same hatred and single-minded intent of eradicating the followers of Jesus. It is during this time of the Great Tribulation that I Peter will have its primary application to the Jews. I Peter tells them how to persevere with hope and holiness under God’s planned time of suffering for them. The theme of I Peter is suffering, sanctification, and salvation. Just as kingdom saints of years ago were comforted and challenged by its message of victory over suffering, tribulation saints will be likewise edified by what Peter wrote by the inspiration of God. That Peter fully understands God’s gracious purpose in all of these things is indicated by his conclusion in I Peter 5:10:

“But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you.”

What It Means to Us

While we do not receive direct application of I Peter, we can learn many vital lessons about how we should respond to suffering in this dispensation of Grace. I Peter can teach us the principles of submitting ourselves to God’s sovereignty in the midst of suffering.

Suffering as a tool of God is common in all dispensations. Human nature seems to be such that our best lessons are learned through the fire of suffering. To a great extent, responding properly to such things will determine our practical growth as believers.

Even in this dispensation of Grace, God allows suffering to play a part in our spiritual development. The Apostle Paul wrote about the place of suffering and tribulation in our lives today—something of which he had first-hand experience (II Cor. 12:7-10). He also warned us in II Timothy 3:12 that “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.”

Conclusion

While I Peter can give us edification and teach us how to have the proper outlook regarding suffering in our lives, we must not forget that it’s primary application is to Israel’s tribulation saints.

The General Epistles and especially the book of Revelation make much more sense when we understand their unique application to the prophetic program. The kingdom phraseology and emphasis that used to make us wonder now makes perfect sense in light of its proper dispensational context. See if you notice the difference when you read them now too!

Notes:

  1. Some are confused by what they consider “Paulinisms” in the General Epistles. Whether the 12 technically became members of the Body of Christ or not, it seems obvious that they read and learned from Paul’s epistles. Apparently it was from Paul that Peter fully learned why the kingdom was put on hold (Rom. 9-11; II Pet. 3:15-16). Therefore, it is no wonder that we find the influence of Paul in Peter’s later epistles. Just as Peter’s epistles are for us but not to us, likewise Paul’s epistles were for the kingdom saints but not to them. Of course, this depends on your view of 12 in or out. If you believe the 12 were in, then you would say that Paul’s epistles were to them. But either way—to them or for them, they learned from Paul’s epistles about the new dispensation of Grace and why Israel’s kingdom was not forthcoming.