In his newest book Letters for the Church, Darian Lockett, professor of New Testament at Biola University, reads the seven letters of James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, and Jude as canon. Instead of reading them as completely separate letters that have no relationship to one another (with some believing the author of 2 Peter isn’t the same author as 1 Peter), Lockett looks for themes and connections that connect these seven letters.
He first writes about their importance when he writes, “The Catholic Epistles give us a unique window into early Christian theology and practice” (1). They highlight loving your fellow Christian (1 Peter and 1 John) and your neighbor (James). Trials and testing that come are “ultimately from God” and are sent to strengthen your faith (James and 1 Peter). You cannot give your allegiance to both the world and to God (James and 1 John). True faith leads to a transformed life (1 John and James). False teaching, its effects, and immoral living needs to be corrected by correct doctrine (2 Peter, 1 John, and Jude).
The Catholic Epistles (“catholic” or “universal” letters because they weren’t sent to specific audiences but to different churches in general) don’t give us the “Romans Road,” and they barely talk about justification. Why are they so important? Lockett argues that Christians received these letters “as part of Holy Scripture from the beginning” (5). They deserve our focus because “the early church thought they were written in order to defend orthodox faith and morals against the rising challenge of heretics” (5). As well, these seven letters “make it clear that Christian faith is a matter of practice as well as of formal belief” (5).
What is significant about this book is that Lockett argues that these seven letters were always (or at least usually) grouped together. Early church sources frequently speak of these seven letters as a group. Instead of seeing these letters as “one-off writings to disconnected communities,” we should read them together as a group because “they are a coherent collection of Christian texts that have a unified vision of God and his work in the world through Jesus Christ” (6).
Lockett’s hope is for you to read how these letters are both full of theology and practical insights. You’ll find those insights through reading the letter in its context as well as through “viewing these seven letters together as a coherent witness to early faith in Jesus Christ” (7). Lockett looks at connections between each letter and the ones next to it. James is compared with Jude (both are brothers to Jesus), 1 Peter is connected with James, 2 Peter with 1 Peter, 1 John with 2 Peter, 2-3 John with 1 John, and Jude with 1 John (instead of 2 Peter). These sections aren’t as long as I’d hoped (considering the book’s subtitle concerns reading these seven letters as canon), but this section still gave me new insights.
The layout of each chapter goes like this:
- Thematic connections with the previous letter and some of the other letters.
- Occasion and Setting outlines the letter and discusses the author, audience, and genre.
- Next, Lockett gives the letter’s overall structure and provides a section-by-section commentary that traces the flow of thought for the entire letter. This helps you understand the main idea and the theology of the letter without getting bogged in lengthy word studies.
- Going Deeper sections focus on background issues in the letter, such as… .
- Other boxes highlight themes and theological issues, such as .
- Each chapter ends with suggested books and commentaries for further reading.
An Example from James
To give an example of what you can expect to read, the letter of James begins with a contrast between the person who is mature and complete with the person who is “double-minded.” In what sounds like a rather harsh statement, James writes that the person who “doubts” will not receive wisdom. Lockett notes, “For James, the word perfect entails wholehearted or single-minded devotion to God. The key term teleios appears several times throughout the letter as a noun or verb (Jas 1:4 [2x], 15, 17, 25; 2:8, 22; 3:2; 5:11)” (19). While James certainly wished we would all be morally perfect, “perfection” encompasses more than simply not doing what is wrong. It includes doing what is right. They stand tests and trials (1:12). They are “slow to anger” and “quick to listen” (1:19-21). They hear the word and obey (1:22-25). They show care and concern for the poor (1:27; 2:15-17).
The double-minded person, on the other hand, isn’t someone who occasionally has doubts and wonders if God is really there. It isn’t the person who struggles through trials (because then it wouldn’t be a trial). The double-minded person is one who says they believe God but live in a different way. They hear the word and forget about it (1:22, 24). They forget that every good gift comes from God, and so when they don’t have what they want they covet, fight, and quarrel (4:2). They forget that they serve the “Lord of glory” (2:1) who died on a cross, and they dishonor the poor man (2:6) in favor of the rich who wear gold rings (2:2). Yet even the rich person’s gold will corrode and melt one day in the heat of God’s judgment (5:3).
Canonical Connections with 1 John
Both 1 John and 2 Peter both highlight the knowledge one gains at conversion (2 Pet 1:3, 8; 2:20; 1 Jn 2:3; 5:13). Both letters refer to “false prophets” (with a Greek word only used in these two letters–pseudoprophetes) who are also identified as teachers (2 Peter 2:1; 1 Jn 2:27) who “deny” (arneomai) an important aspect of Christ (2 Pet 2:1; 1 Jn 2:22-23) (p. 124). Both authors “ground the authority of their message in their eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry” (124).
If you’re going to be teaching on any of these books, wanting further study, or even if you just want to have a book on hand when you read this Bible, Lockett’s book is very helpful. I really enjoyed how he traces the thought of each letter and draws appropriate connections throughout the letter, showing how each author connected their letter with themes and ideas, as well as how all seven letters are rightfully grouped together.
- Author: Darian R. Lockett
- Publisher : IVP Academic (March 9, 2021)
- Paperback: 248 pages
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Disclosure: I received this book free from IVP Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.