By James H. Brookes
The General Epistles
Some one has well said that when we leave the holy of holies, the epistle to the Hebrews, James takes us by the hand, and leads us through the world. It is eminently practical in its character, and may be regarded as the book of Proverbs of the New Testament. That it occupies an important place in the canon of Sacred Scripture will be gratefully acknowledged by all who bow to the authority of God's word; and if any true Christians have thought that its teachings are not in perfect harmony with the tone of the gospel, it is because they have failed to see the design of the epistle.
The opening verse informs us that it was written "to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad." True that ten of these tribes had been lost from human view for many centuries, but they still existed in the purpose of God, and to the eye of the Holy Ghost; and we find them here addressed, as if they had remained in the land which was given to their fathers for an everlasting possession. Among these twelve tribes were some who were Christians, and some of course who had never advanced beyond Jewish faith; and if this fact is remembered, every apparent difficulty can be readily explained. It is Jehovah's last, formal call to Israel, until the second advent, to live in the spirit and in the power of the Old Testament scriptures, that pointed to Christ as the only Deliverer.
Hence the Apostle, who was our Lord's brother according to the flesh, is careful at the outset to call himself "a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ." Hence too amid the directions he gives concerning trials, the way to obtain wisdom, riches and poverty, he reminds his brethren that God of His own will begets us with the word of truth, and that the new nature thus received will lay an arrest upon the unruly tongue and turbulent heart. He also calls the gospel "the perfect law of liberty," and tells us that "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this. To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." The former part of this definition is often quoted, and it suits unregenerate men, who can get credit for visiting the fatherless and widows; but the latter part is nearly always left out, because it it is impossible for the flesh to be unspotted from the world, chap. i.
The inspired writer, therefore, proceeds to show that Christian practice must rest on Christian faith, and speaks of our Lord Jesus Christ as the true glory, the shechinah of the temple around which their hopes had formerly clustered. This brightness fell upon the poorest saint, so that the brother of low degree might " glory in his sublimity," as Manson renders it, (i. 9), and any distinction between rich and poor in the house of God was most offensive to Him, who made it His crowning achievement that "the poor have the gospel preached to them," (Matt. xi. 5). But then as now there was a disposition to rely upon mere forms and ordinances for salvation, and consequently the faith that saves is shown to be a fruitful and powerful thing. There is not the slightest difference between Paul and James, but they present precisely the same truth from different standpoints. The former says, faith works by love, (Gal. v. 6), and so does the latter who says, "what doth it profit, my brethren, though a man SAY he hath faith, and have not works? Again he says, "YE SEE then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only." Upon these two words, say and see, depends the meaning of James, who cites Abraham and Rahab, as Paul does, but at different periods, to show that while they were justified before God by faith alone, they were justified before men by works, chap. ii.
This is followed by a picture of the terrible evils and mischiefs wrought by an ungoverned tongue, which in graphic description surpasses anything in the range of uninspired literature; and it closes with a beautiful definition of the wisdom that is from above as "first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality [margin, wrangling], and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace," chap. iii.
Then comes a stirring admonition against the love of worldly pleasures, the fountain of restless desire and brawlings, the secret of unanswered prayer, and denounced as spiritual adultery. " Do ye think the scripture saith in vain. The Spirit that He placed in us jealously desireth us?" (vs. 5, Alford's reading). Humility, submission to God, resistance of the devil, downright earnestness, cessation of evil speaking, a deep sense of the uncertainty of life and of entire dependence upon the providence of the Lord every day, must characterize those who live according to His will, chap. iv.
Again does the warning sound forth against inordinate desire for riches, as specially suited to Jewish habits of thought, and the corrective of the tendency is the fixed expectation of the coming of the Lord. Lands and houses were not worth much as the year of Jubilee drew nigh, (Lev. xxv.). Meanwhile they were to be patient in affliction, remembering the tender mercy of the Lord in dealing with His chastened saints of old, and not forgetting that "very strong is the working supplication of a righteous man," (vs. 16, Young's translation). The conversion of one sinner shall save a soul from death, covering from God's sight a multitude of that soul's sins, and hence it is worth a thousand worlds like this, against the dangerous influence of which the epistle was designed to put us on our guard, chap. v.
THE EPISTLES OF PETER.
It is a suggestive fact that four of the New Testament epistles have special reference to the Jews. It shows God's loving remembrance of His ancient people, and, although no distinction exists, between Jew and Gentile in Christ, it intimates His purpose to have them ever in view as a people, and, when "the fulness of the Gentiles be come in," to restore them to covenant relationship to Himself. "Even unto this day, when Moses is read, the vail is upon their heart. Nevertheless, when it shall turn to the Lord, the vail shall be taken away," (2 Cor. iii. 15, 16).
The first epistle of Peter is addressed to believing Jews, touchingly called "the strangers," or as the Revised Version has it, the "sojourners of the Dispersion," scattered through Asia Minor. But whatever they were in man's sight, they were " elect according to the foreknowledge of God;" looking forward with a living hope "to an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away;" rejoicing "with joy unspeakable and full of glory," although in the midst of sore trials; called as obedient children to separate themselves from everything that dishonored their Father; knowing that they had been redeemed with the precious blood of Christ; and resting their faith, amid the swift changes of earth, upon the word of God, by which they were born again unto a life that, like the word, abideth forever, chap. i.
Upon this statement of facts as to their position before God is based a practical exhortation to grow in the knowledge of the word; to act worthy of their high vocation as a holy priesthood in their relation to Jehovah, and as a royal priesthood in their relation to the world; to adore the sovereign mercy which had made them a people in the time of Israel's rejection; to keep aloof as strangers and Pilgrims from entangling alliances with the world; to walk among the Gentiles with a sincerity, a conscientiousness, a lofty integrity that would constrain the recognition of God; to be subject to civil rulers, however vile in themselves; to make Christ their example in humility and meekness; "who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness," chap. ii.
Then follow directions to wives and to husbands, which, if heeded, would make the marriage relation sweet and sacred; directions to govern believers in their conduct toward one another, directions to be ready always with an answer to every man who asks for a reason of the Christian's hope; directions to suffer uncomplainingly if it be God's will, remembering that "Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God." Ages ago the Spirit of Christ in Noah preached to the ante-diluvian world, but, rejecting the testimony of the word, they are now shut up in prison, while Noah and his family passed through the water as a symbol of death and resurrection, of which baptism is still the figure, chap. iii.
The sufferings of Christ form the greatest incentive to courage and constancy and complete separation from the old life of sin, for even if death passes upon believers, they still live according to God in the spirit, and are patiently waiting for the end, which is represented as at hand. Hence they are to keep the Master always before the mind, and thus to rejoice in all sufferings endured for His sake. Judgment must begin at the house of God, winnowing the chaff from the wheat, but a far more appalling judgment will fall upon those who obey not the gospel, chap. iv.
Those therefore who have the charge and oversight of the flock must live in the power of the certain appearing of the Chief Shepherd; and, so far from indulging the pride and self-sufficiency natural to man, all Christians are to be clothed with humility, or, as the Greek word signifies, to tie it on fast with a knot, remembering that they have a watchful and powerful adversary, who is ever seeking their destruction. "But the God of all grace, who hath called ue unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered awhile, stablish, strengthen, settle you,'' chap. v.
The Second Epistle, like the other second epistles, is largely occupied with the last days. Hence the urgent exhortation to press forward with diligence to higher and still higher attainments, so that an entrance may be ministered abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, of which we have a beautiful sample in the glory of the transfiguration making more sure the word of prophecy, to which we do well that we give heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, and always remembering that holy men of old spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost, chap. i.
But notwithstanding the divine certainty and infinite sufficiency of God's word, we are plainly warned that false teachers will arise, for whom the most terrible damnation is in store. Balaam is their type, and although they may be regarded as fountains of learning, they are wells without water; although their beautiful language may soar to the skies, they are clouds that are carried with a tempest, to whom the mist of darkness is reserved for ever. Through their pernicious influence many professed Christians will turn like a dog to his vomit, and like a sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire, for they were never anything, amid all their pretentious profession, but dogs and swine, chap. ii.
So the apostacy will go, until in the last days scoffers shall arise among those claiming to be Christians, and sneering on scientific grounds at the truth of our Lord's personal return to the earth. But return He will, ushering in that day which will last a thousand years, and terminate in a conflagration which will introduce the eternal state. All believers who would make their calling and election sure must be looking for, and hasting the coming of that day, ever rejoicing in the long suffering of our Lord, and accounting every part of His precious word as above all price. '* To Him be glory, both now and to the day of the age. Amen,'' (Young's translation).
FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN.
The gospel of John is about the Son of God, while this beautiful epistle is chiefly occupied about the sons of God. Hence He who was "in the beginning "is here seen '" from the beginning" moving for the deliverance of those whom the Father had given to Him out of the world. The epistle commences where the gospel closes, with a saved sinner in the bosom of incarnate love; and the whole family are viewed in their relation to the Father, to the elder Brother, to one another, to the world, to sin, to the Holy Spirit, and to prayer. It must not be forgotten that the entire epistle is addressed to believers, and only to believers.
First, we have eternal life in the Son of God, bringing us into fellowship or partnership with the Father and with the Son, causing us no longer to shrink from the light, revealing the efficacy of the blood of Christ as keeping pace with every flash of that increasing light, pointing out the provision made to meet our failures in the ministry of the word and the advocacy of Jesus Christ, and making it certain that whosoever abideth in Him will walk even as He walked. In order to do this the heart must be established in the knowledge of present salvation, and hence the Holy Ghost says, '' I write unto you, little children, because your sins ARE forgiven you for his name's sake," i., ii. 1-12.
Second, this happy household is then divided into three groups, according to their age, experience, practical attainments, and service, designated as fathers, young men, and little children; but the word rendered " little children" is altogether different from that so translated in ii. 1, 12, 28; iii. 7, 18 5 iv. 4; v. 21. It implies a very young child, or infant, and yet it is presumed that they know enough to know the Father, and to be warned of the antichrist, and to shun unitarianism as thoroughly antichristian, and to rejoice in the anointing of the Spirit, and to be independent of man's teaching. Each class is twice appropriately addressed, ii. 13-27.
Third, the household is brought together again, and told to abide in Christ in view of His second coming, to walk in righteousness as those born of God, as sons of God, as destined to shine in the likeness of Jesus at His appearing, as obtaining real victory over sin and the devil on their way to meet Him in the glory, for that which is born of God in them, the new nature, can not sin, ii. 28, 29: iii. 1-10.
Fourth, the children of the family are then viewed in their relation to one another, and it is a relation of love under the influence of His example, who did lay down His life for us, so that we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. Thus we have confidence toward God, and keep His commandments, which are not like the old commandments that said, "Love God," and "Love thy neighbor," but, "Believe in God's love for you," and, "Love one another," iii. 11-21.
Fifth, this is followed by a statement of their relation to the Holy Spirit, who has come to testify of Christ, and to glorify Christ, (John xv. 26; xvi. 14); and hence any teaching that does not exalt Christ, any teaching that puts self, experience, culture, progress, church, or what else above Christ, is not of the Spirit of God, and does not flow from the manifested love of God in the gift of His only begotten Son, but is essentially antichristian in its origin and end, iv. 1-10.
Sixth, whatever measure of love we have for Him and for His children is but the faint reflection, the feeble response, given in answer to His perfect love, that imparts boldness in anticipation of the day of judgment, that makes us in this world even as Christ is in heaven, that sets forth the way of salvation in such sweet simplicity we can say in unquestioning confidence, "Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God,'' and that secures in the power of the new nature, and continuing faith in Christ, complete victory over the world, according to the witness of the Spirit, iv. 11-21; v. 1-8.
Seventh, the witness of God is the sure foundation of our faith and hope, and this witness extends to the present possession of eternal life through His Son, to the knowledge of the fact by what is written, to confidence in prayer, to intercession for others, to the privilege of being kept by the power of God from the very touch of that wicked one in whom the whole world lieth until the Son of God shall come. Hence the importance of keeping ourselves from idols in the joy of that blessed hope, v. 9-21.
SECOND EPISTLE OF JOHN.
It is very suggestive that the second epistle which, like the other second epistles, has special reference to the state of things in the latter times, was addressed by the Holy Ghost to a lady. It may come to pass very soon that only one here and another there will be considered worthy of a communication from heaven, but that one, though but a woman, will not be forgotten. Observe too how the word truth rings out five times, the Jewish number, in this little epistle, and how the elect lady and her children are put upon their guard against the many deceivers "who confess not that Jesus Christ is coming in the flesh," [see Greek]. It is that coming which stimulates to earnestness, "that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward;" and meanwhile, if any bring not with them the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine that honors Christ as the divine and eternal Son of the Father, the doctrine that presents Christ as the only Saviour of lost men, neither the lady nor ourselves are to receive such false teachers into our houses, nor bid them God speed. We are to be true to Him at any cost of what the world calls charity or courtesy, hoping to be with the saints in His presence, and to speak face to face, that our joy may be full.
THIRD EPISTLE OF JOHN.
This brief epistle, reaching on to the very last days, is also addressed to an individual, and seven times, the church number of completeness, does the word truth sound forth. The first epistle, like the first epistle of Peter, comforts believers amid trials arising from the world; but the second and third epistles, like the second of Peter, seek to confirm them against far greater trials arising: from within the church. As in the second epistle of Peter knowledge is mentioned seven times, so in the third epistle of John, brief as it is, truth is mentioned seven times, showing to what manifold and dangerous errors and lies believers will be exposed in the last days. As the second epistle of John tells us whom to reject, the third epistle tells us whom to receive, not merely as an act of charity, not simply as an expression of Christian courtesy, but "that we might be fellow-helpers to the truth." It is most significant that in this last of the inspired epistles, touching the condition of things in the last days, so much is made of the truth, and that the church is mentioned three times, though existing amid surrounding ruins. But the dear old apostle could lift up his eyes above earth's gloom to look for the "Bright and Morning Star," and in the expectation of soon beholding its golden light he could say, "I trust I shall shortly [immediately] see thee, and we shall speak face to face." There will not be many left, however, and hence he closes with the sweet and solemn words, "Greet the friends by name."
EPISTLE OF JUDE.
It was reserved for one who was called "the brother of the Lord," but who esteems it a privilege to call himself "the servant of Jesus Christ," to take us by the hand, and lead us to the threshold of the book of Revelation, thus introducing the appalling judgments there portrayed. Certain, ignorant commentators have asserted that Peter borrowed from Jude, or that Jude plagiarized from Peter; but apart from the fact that both wrote immediately under the direction of the Holy Ghost, any attentive reader can readily perceive that Peter wrote in his second epistle of sin, while Jude advances the thought to treat of apostacy. A comparison of 2 Pet. ii. 4 with Jude 6 will illustrate the difference.
The seven incidents which the Spirit of God here cites from the history of the past are evidently intended to mark the course o^ events that precede the coming of the Lord in judgment, and to explain the cause of what follows in the book of Revelation. The danger will arise, as everywhere asserted, from those within the church, "ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ."
First comes unbelief, (vs. 5), the source of all sin, the poisonous root of all evil, the beginning of all departure from God. Second, we have apostacy, illustrated by the angels who kept not their principality [margin], but left their own habitation, (vs. 6). Third, following this apostacy there will be, as in the past, gross sensuality leading to the unbridled indulgence of lust, (vs. 7). Fourth, lawlessness will abound, and contempt of constituted authority, impatience of restraint, communism, assassination of rulers, the overthrow of government when it does not meet the insane and insatiate demand of the mob, will succeed the apostacy, (vs. 8-10). Fifth, self-willed religiousness, choosing its own offerings, and despising the blood of atonement, as with Cain, is another characteristic of the days that will usher in wrath, (vs. 11). Sixth, then will be seen a bold invasion of the prophetic office, setting aside the authority of Christ as Teacher, as in the case of Balaam, who corrupted Israel by worldly alliances; and seventh, the crowning iniquity will be reached in the blasphemous denial of Christ's priesthood, substituting, like Korah, their own opinions for the testimony of the word concerning the worship that is acceptable to God, (vs. 11).
Well, the Lord is coming to vindicate His insulted majesty, and of this Enoch preached. We know not what beside he preached, but it is certain that he proclaimed the second coming of Christ. "Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy; to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen."