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General Epistles

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
January 5, 2024 12:01 am

General Epistles

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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January 5, 2024 12:01 am

The General Epistles are a collection of New Testament letters addressed to the ancient church, yet their messages bear timeless significance. Today, R.C. Sproul articulates why these letters are so vital to our Christian growth.

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That little piece of flesh that is in our mouth can change the course of our lives, and it's like a spark that can set a forest on fire, and it's like an animal that can't be tamed. And he goes on and said, we have been able to achieve mastery and dominion over the animal world and have been able to tame all kinds of beasts of the field, but no one as of yet has been able to tame the tongue. James chapter 3 deals with the tongue and communication, the power that this small organ has to bless or to curse.

And if there's anything we all need more help with living in this digital and social media age, it's wisdom when it comes to speech. You're listening to Renewing Your Mind as we conclude a week-long study in the letters of the New Testament. James's letter in particular is filled with practical insights and wisdom. It would be easy reading the third chapter to assume it was written in 2024 to help the church reflect on some of the dangers of social media.

Today's message from R.C. Sproul will introduce you to James and other epistles in the New Testament. If you'd like to study the entire Bible with Dr. Sproul, today is the final day to request his overview from Genesis to Revelation for a donation of any amount at

Well, here's R.C. Sproul on the letters of James, Peter, and John. In the New Testament we have that group of books that is called the general epistles and which is normally incorporated the book of Hebrews, but in addition to Hebrews we have some other books such as the book of James, then we have the book of Jude, the epistles of Saint Peter, and the epistles of John.

Now, for the most part these are all short and brief writings, and so we're going to lump them all together for this segment today. And we'll start by looking first of all at the book of James. And James is important for several reasons, the first of which is that of all of the books in the New Testament, James is the only one that follows a particular literary genre that we recognize as being wisdom literature. We recall when we looked at the wisdom literature of the Old Testament that I mentioned at the time that there was one book in the New Testament that also was subsumed under this category of wisdom literature, and that is the book of James. And James, of course, was Jewish, and his writings sound very Jewish.

I don't know that they sound that way if you read them aloud, but they have the flavor of a Jewish author. And we don't know for sure who wrote the book of James, but if there is a consensus, the consensus would be that the book of James was written by James the brother of Jesus, James who presided at the council of Jerusalem in the early church. We know that this blood brother of Jesus, one of the later children of Joseph and Mary, was not a believer in Jesus during his earthly ministry, but by his own testimony became a believer after the resurrection and rose to a position of prominence in the early church.

His nickname was James the Just, and sometimes he was referred to affectionately as Old Camel Knees because the man spent so much time praying that he developed these large and noticeable calluses on his knees. But the other thing that is distinctive about his book is that we find in that little book of James more quotations that sound so similar to the style of aphorisms that were used by Jesus than we find in any other book of the New Testament. And so there is this idea that when we're reading the book of James, we're getting some information from the original teachings of Jesus that can't be found anywhere else in the New Testament, and that gives us a certain richness to the book. But following the style of wisdom literature, we find many short pithy statements that are used throughout the epistle, and it doesn't follow a unified chronological order of one major theme, but James jumps around between different themes or among different themes as the case would be. And he's fond of speaking of ethical concerns that confront the Christian community, and often such things in a parallelistic format, many times antithetical parallelism.

If you recall, we learned how the wisdom literature used that device of parallelism, and John will speak in couplets and so on. At the beginning of his epistle, he is concerned to give encouragement to people who are enduring trials and tribulations. He says, at the beginning, James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, verse 2, my brothers, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.

But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. And if any one of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord.

He is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. And so, he immediately addresses a situation of affliction of suffering that his fellow believers are enduring, and then talks in very practical terms about what it takes to endure in the midst of suffering and persecution, to understand that the trials that we experience on a human level are tests of our faith, ways in which God brings us to a higher level of sanctification, and the way in which we are to face these difficulties is with wisdom. And if you recall, in the Old Testament study, that the Jew understood wisdom not in an abstract philosophical sense, but wisdom to the Jew was the practical knowledge and understanding of how to live a godly life, how to live a life devoted to righteousness. And that's the motif, that's the accent that James gives us in his epistle. He has much to say about the law of God and of works, and some thereby have set his writings in opposition to the writing of Paul, since Paul speaks about our being justified by faith and not by the works of the law, and yet James is zealous to show us that true faith will always work itself out in terms of obedience, that yes, we are free from the law of God, but that freedom is what James calls a royal liberty, that we have not been freed to the point of licentiousness, and the freedom of the Christian is not a license to sin, but rather it is a freedom to be empowered by the Spirit of God to please God by our obedience. And again, much of this teaching that he gives is reminiscent of the teaching of Jesus.

For example, he reiterates the significance of letting your yay be yay and your nay be nay and not swearing unlawful oaths or swearing by things other than the person of God swearing by idols and so on, as Jesus Himself related in the Sermon on the Mount. We also find in James that magnificent treatment of the deadly power of the human tongue. Almost an entire chapter is devoted to the perils that we face when we live with tongues that are not that we face when we live with tongues that are not controlled. And you recall the imagery that James uses there when he describes the tongue as being like unto the rudder of a ship.

It's a very small piece of the ship, and yet that tiny little piece changes the whole direction, controls the whole movement of the huge boat. And so it is that little piece of flesh that is in our mouth can change the course of our lives, and it's like a spark that can set a forest on fire, and it's like an animal that can't be tamed. And he goes on and said, we have been able to achieve mastery and dominion over the animal world and have been able to tame all kinds of beasts of the field, but no one as of yet has been able to tame the tongue. And it's a masterpiece of practical application of the Word of God to our lives. Also, James goes into detail about the need for godly prayer, and he holds up Elijah as an example from the Old Testament of a man whose prayers were efficacious. And in his encouragement to the community of his own day to be forbearing in prayer, James says that Elijah was a man just like we are. And he, through his prayers, he was able to shut up the heavens for three years and then bring the rain when it was needed and so on. And he then gives us that classic statement, that the fervent, effectual prayer of a righteous man avails much. And so he stirs up his readers with these encouraging words, if anybody is hurting, if anybody lacks anything, let them pray. Call the brothers together.

Spend time on your knees. He's exhorting people to do the very thing that he did. And it's something that I guess, and this is speculation, but it's not all that risky speculation, it's a pattern of behavior that I'm sure he witnessed in the life of his own brother. And I've often said, if we were to have the opportunity to ask Jesus to boil down the essence of the faith that He delivered to His church and asked Him to give us the top priorities of our behavior, Jesus, what should we do more than anything else?

What should we be concerned about? I wonder what Jesus would say. Well, we don't know, because He never said that this is the one thing that it all comes down to. The next best thing would be to have the brother of Jesus come to us, and we say to the brother of Jesus, what's the most significant thing that we should be doing as believers to be pleasing God? And of course, the answer that James gives to that question is extraordinary. Few people guess it, but at the end of his epistle, after he's given all these exhortations and all these admonitions, he says, and above all, above all, let your yea be yea and your nay be nay. And then he says, the essence of true religion is the care of widows and orphans.

Do you see how practical James is in his concern and in his orientation? Who would imagine that any apostle would say that above all, first and foremost, let your yea be yea and your nay be nay. And yet, it's reminiscent not only of what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, but it's reminiscent of His words before Pontius Pilate when Pilate asked Him if He was a king. And Jesus dodged that question and said, for this purpose I came into the world to bear witness to the truth.

Because to the Jew of the Old Testament, speaking the truth included keeping your word. In fact, the thing that makes God so truthful is not only that what He says agrees with reality and corresponds to real states of affairs, but when God says yes, He means yes. And when God says no, He means no. And that when God makes a promise, He keeps it. When God makes a covenant, He fulfills it. And so it's not really surprising when we analyze how central it is to the sinful life of the breaking of promises and of the violation of our words that we find the manifestation of sin. And then it shouldn't surprise us that He says, above all, we are to be people of truth, people whose word can be trusted, people who are keepers of the covenant we have with God rather than breakers of it, or as James says, to be doers of the word and not hearers only. Well, if we move then to the epistles of Peter, we have only two that bear the name of that great apostle. And we see that the major theme in Peter's writings is similar to that that we've found elsewhere already, and that is that the major theme is encouragement for Christians who are engaged in suffering and affliction. Now, let me just say a word about that before we look at the text itself. A strange phenomenon has occurred in our day with preaching that we hear on television and elsewhere that has been called the prosperity or health and wealth gospel. And the basic essence of this is that God wills for His people nothing but blessing, prosperity, and happiness.

Come to Jesus, all your problems will be over, that the gospel promises health and wealth and prosperity to all who put their trust in Christ. And all we have to do to experience these benefits from the hand of God is to name it and claim it. Well, you've heard all that name it and claim it business. And when I hear that, it's one thing to hear it. It's another thing to see the multitudes of people embrace it. And I think, how can people who are at the least bit conversant with the sacred Scriptures be fooled by that? Because the idea of the Christian's expectation of being involved in affliction and pain and persecution is on every page of the Bible. The whole history of redemption and the history of godliness is the history of people as Peter addresses them in the very first chapter of pilgrims, people who are living in this world as exiles, people who are participating in the humiliation of Christ. And so, the question in the New Testament is not, will we suffer, but only when and how will we suffer becomes of the utmost importance. And so, at the beginning of his epistle, in the first chapter, in verse 3, Peter says, "'Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation, ready to be revealed in the last time.'" Now, here he says, we have been born again to a lively hope.

The old has passed away, and what we have been reborn to is a heavenly inheritance that God has appointed for His people, that God has appointed for His people, and that appointment cannot fail to come to pass. That inheritance cannot rust. It is incorruptible. It cannot be defiled.

It is absolutely certain. And Peter says, in that we rejoice. That is in the heavenly treasure, in the heavenly promise, and in the heavenly inheritance. But what is the tendency in religion is to try to claim for ourselves right now the heavenly promise. We want to have the end of the Christian life at the beginning. We don't want to have to walk the Via Dolorosa. We don't want to have to go through the veil of tears and to the valley of the shadow of death.

We want it now. It's a premature grasping after the future promise. Now, we rejoice that this sure and certain inheritance has been treasured up for us in heaven. And so Peter says, in this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love, though now you do not see Him, yet believing you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith, the salvation of your souls. Now, that motif is the motif of the crucible, the place of the refiner's fire, the purpose of those fiery trials that we are called upon to endure is not to destroy us, but to refine us. That motif is in Paul. It's in Peter's writing. It's in John's writing. It's in the writing of James. It is the uniform apostolic testimony that God is using our pain for our purification, for our sanctification, that we may learn to look to Him for our comfort and our consolation, so that the pain, though it may be at times seemingly unbearable, is not futile.

It has an eternal purpose. And Peter finishes his work with a similar statement when he speaks to the people saying, not to think it strange, beloved, concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you. But rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. For if you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.

Don't think it a strange thing. But that's what happens when people are given false promises, when the preachers say, if you come to Jesus, you'll never have any pain, you'll never have any problem. That disturbs me because then when the pain comes, these people go through a crisis of faith, and they need to have their faith restored.

But they need to understand that God has not failed them because God never promised them a life without affliction. On the contrary, as both 1 and 2 Peter declare, God has called us to participate in these things, and we ought not to think it is strange when it happens. Now, in John's writing, in the three tiny little letters of John, the concern there is to show the love of God in the relationships of the church.

One of the main motifs is the charity that covers a multitude of sins, and that we are to live out a life of godliness that is manifested by faith. Now, again, one of the chief concerns of John in his writings is similar to the other writings that we've seen, the invasion of heresy into the life of the church. And John speaks about the spirit of the Antichrist that is already at work in the world. And the chief heresy that John disputes in his writings is that of Docetism. And the Docetists were a subgroup of the Gnostic heretics in the early church who denied the reality of the human nature of Jesus.

Greeks believed that matter or physical things were inherently evil, so it was unthinkable to them that God should ever take upon Himself human flesh. And so the spirit of the Antichrist at that day was a denial not so much of resurrection as it was of incarnation. And so we need to take heed and be careful that not only is it a very dangerous thing when people deny the deity of Christ, as many have, but it is also an extremely dangerous thing when we deny the humanity of Jesus. Both belong to the ministry of the spirit of the Antichrist.

That was R.C. Sproul, concluding this week's overview of the letters or epistles found in the New Testament. You're listening to Renewing Your Mind, and if you'd like to be helped in thinking rightly about the person and work of Christ, I would encourage you to read the brief and beautifully written statement that we released in 2016, the Christology Statement. You can find it at

Today is the final day to request R.C. Sproul's 57-message journey from Genesis to Revelation. As he walks you through each book in the Bible, he'll help you see the overall framework of the Bible and the key themes. Give a donation of any amount at or by calling us at 800-435-4343 and we'll send you the special edition DVD which isn't available for purchase and give you lifetime digital access to the messages and study guide. Give your gift at while there's still time. This offer ends at midnight. As we continue our theme of studying the Bible, next week R.C. Sproul will help us work through some of the hard sayings of the Bible. Hope you'll join us Monday here on Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-01-05 02:38:06 / 2024-01-05 02:46:35 / 8

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