Of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament, twenty-one are letters or “epistles.” Of these, thirteen were written by the apostle Paul, one has unknown authorship (Hebrews), and seven were written by others. These seven are known as the “General Epistles.” “General” refers to the fact that they were written to more general audiences rather than to a single church or individual.
The Pauline epistles were named after the churches they were written to (Romans, 1–2 Corinthians; Galatians; Ephesians; Philippians; Colossians; 1–2 Thessalonians) or their individual recipients (1–2 Timothy; Titus; Philemon). Hebrews is named after the ethnicity of its recipients (Jewish Christians). The General Epistles are named after their authors: James, 1,2 Peter, 1,2,3 John, and Jude. Two of these authors—Peter and John—were members the Twelve, the apostles Jesus chose and commissioned as his closest disciples. The other two—James and Jude—were half-brothers of Jesus who assumed leadership roles in the church after Jesus’ resurrection.
The two most prominent themes in the General Epistles are external challenges to the church— trials, opposition and persecution—and internal dangers—the increasing threat of false teaching. While 1 Peter and James have a greater focus on external pressures, 2 Peter, 1–3 John and Jude deal with the growing threat of heresy from within.
Some of the greatest theological themes and most exalted prose in the New Testament are found in these letters. In the chapters that follow we will take a closer look at the authors, purposes and themes of the General Epistles.