From Acts to the Epistles
Arlen L. Chitwood
The General Epistles
Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.. (Jude 3)
The seven epistles extending from James through Jude are usually referred to as “the general epistles.” Hebrews is not normally included in the list, for many believe Paul wrote Hebrews and class the book among his epistles. And others, though questioning the Pauline authorship, are usually inclined to leave the book in a separate and unique category — placed neither among the Pauline nor among the general epistles.
Hebrews though should really be looked upon as the first of the general epistles, not the last of the Pauline epistles or placed in a category by itself. The authorship of Hebrews is unknown and cannot be ascertained. Certain things about Hebrews would appear to indicate that Paul didn’t write the book (e.g., the structure of the Greek text, the sparse use of the word “gospel,” and several references to “the saving of the soul”), but there is no data to work with concerning who did write the book. Thus, to simplify matters, Hebrews will be classed among the general epistles in this study.
All eight of the general epistles have to do with the same subject matter, which is the same as the subject matter dealt with throughout all of the preceding thirteen Pauline epistles. The New Testament epistles, whether Pauline or general, have to do with different facets of the same subject matter dealt with throughout preceding Scripture — not only in immediately preceding Scripture (the gospel accounts and the book of Acts), but also in Scripture preceding that as well (the Old Testament). And the writing of the epistles was made necessary because of the existence of a completely new entity (the new creation “in Christ,” the “one new man” [2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 2:13-15]) to be the recipient of that which had been offered to and rejected by Israel, the kingdom of the heavens.
The existence of this new entity — this “one new man,” completely separate from Israel and not under the Mosaic economy — necessitated God supplying additional revelation that would have to do specifically with the message surrounding the proffered kingdom in relation to this new man. And, in this respect, it could only naturally follow that the epistles would have to do with the same heavenly sphere of the kingdom that had previously been offered to Israel in the gospel accounts, reoffered to the nation in the book of Acts, and now offered to the new creation “in Christ.”
However, neither this additional revelation nor the new creation “in Christ” could be looked upon as completely new per se. Rather, this additional revelation could only be looked upon as having its roots in the Old Testament Scriptures. It could only be looked upon as revelation that would open numerous parts of the Old Testament Scriptures to one’s understanding, parts that had to do with the new creation “in Christ” and parts that would remain closed without this additional revelation. And this additional revelation would bring about its intended purpose mainly through providing information that would open up the vast storehouse of previously established types, beginning with the writings of Moses.
God chose to begin opening the Old Testament Scriptures after this fashion by first taking one man, Paul, aside and revealing these things to him alone (similar to His creating only one man in the beginning [through whom His plans and purposes would ultimately be realized], or similar to His calling only one man out of Ur [through whom His plans and purposes would ultimately be realized], or similar to the Church being looked upon collectively as one new man [through whom His plans and purposes would ultimately be realized]).
Then, after calling and setting Paul aside, the Lord would use this one man to carry the message to others. And this task would be accomplished through his traversing the land proclaiming the message, through his teaching “faithful men” who would “be able to teach others also” (1 Timothy 1:18; 2 Timothy 2:2), and through his writing thirteen epistles to not only Christians of that day but epistles remaining with Christians throughout the entire dispensation.
(Note that the pattern for the God-ordained ministry of the one new man “in Christ” is set forth in the calling of the one man, Paul, in the beginning [1 Timothy 1:15, 16]. Those comprising the one new man are to take the epistles [and other parts of Scripture], traverse the land, and teach “faithful men” who will “be able to teach others also.” And the central message is, accordingly, to be the same as Paul’s, seen throughout the epistles — the good news surrounding Christians in relation to the coming glory of Christ.)
God took Paul aside shortly after his conversion and revealed to him what is called in Scripture, “the mystery” (Ephesians 3:1-11). And Paul took this revelation, which was simply an opening of numerous parts of the Old Testament Scriptures having to do with the new creation “in Christ,” and began proclaiming this message in accordance with his calling.
This will explain Paul singling out Peter and spending fifteen days with him on his second visit to Jerusalem following his conversion. Paul had gone to Jerusalem shortly after his conversion and spent time with the apostles, apparently all eleven (Acts 9:27, 28).
But following his subsequently being taught the things surrounding “the mystery” by the Lord in Arabia, Paul went up to Jerusalem again, specifically to see and to spend time with Peter. And, on this trip to Jerusalem, Paul called attention to the fact that he didn’t even see the other apostles, except James. He spent the time with Peter alone (Galatians 1:11-19).
And the reason is evident. Peter had been called to proclaim “the gospel” (referring to the good news surrounding the coming glory of Christ rather than the good news surrounding the grace of God) to “the circumcision,” and Paul had been called to proclaim this same gospel to “the uncircumcision” (Galatians 2:7). And this good news is what “the mystery” revealed to Paul had to do with (cf. Romans 16:25, 26; Galatians 1:11, 12; Ephesians 3:1-6; Colossians 1:25-29; I Timothy 1:11).
Paul, traveling to Jerusalem for the purpose of seeing Peter after the mystery had been revealed to him (after the Old Testament scriptures pertaining to the matter at hand had been opened to his understanding) could only have had one thing in mind. He could only have had in mind providing instruction for Peter concerning matters in which he himself had been instructed, for Peter was God’s counterpart to Paul insofar as the message being carried to Jewish believers was concerned.
The message that Paul was about to carry into the Gentile world, whether spoken or written, centered on “the mystery” revealed to him in Arabia. And this message would ultimately be proclaimed by Paul and others, during the course of their lifetime, “to every creature under heaven” (cf. Romans 10:18; Colossians 1:5, 6, 23).
Thus, the epistles written during this time — Paul’s epistles extending from Romans through Philemon, and the general epistles extending from Hebrews through Jude (and also the seven epistles in Revelation 2, 3) — can only be looked upon as having to do with this same message. The spoken and written message of that day had to do with instructions for Christians relative to their calling.
The new creation “in Christ” had been brought into existence to realize heavenly positions as co-heirs with Christ in the coming kingdom. And that which the Lord taught Paul in Arabia — that Paul, in turn, taught others and proclaimed throughout the Gentile world — had to do with this proffered kingdom. It had to do with the kingdom of the heavens, taken from Israel and now being offered to an entirely new entity — the new creation “in Christ.”
The spoken and written message of Paul and others (Peter, James, John; et al.) provided instructions and warnings for Christians relative to their calling. And these instructions and warnings, in a new and different form, were made necessary because of the bringing into existence of a new and different entity, the one new man.
However, as previously stated, the epistles do not and cannot stand alone. Everything in the ministry of the apostles — verbal or written — remained connected with that which proceeded, going all the way back to the opening chapters of Genesis. And Christians today, seeking to properly understand the message as it is seen in the epistles, must go back behind the epistles and first have at least some understanding of that part of God’s revelation that leads into the epistles.
The epistles lie toward the end of Scripture, with only the book of Revelation (which provides the capstone for all Scripture) following. And the place that the epistles occupy in Scripture and the information in the epistles must be understood in the light of that which precedes (that dealt with from Genesis through Acts) and that which follows (that dealt with in the book of Revelation). They draw from that which proceeds, and the consummation is seen in that which follows. Thus, the more a person understands about surrounding Scripture, the better equipped that person will be to understand the message of the epistles.
Hebrews through Jude
The epistles, much more often than not, are viewed by Christians within a completely incorrect framework. They are looked upon incorrectly, they are taught incorrectly, and Christians in general have an incorrect understanding of the subject matter therein. And it is a simple matter to see and understand why this is the case.
The present has not been properly aligned with the past and future. There is little understanding all the way around of the preliminary data that one must possess in order to grasp the central message of the epistles. And, resultantly, the picture which one sees, as it pertains to the whole of God’s plans and purposes, can only be completely out of focus.
The epistles have been severed from those things that God gave to open up and explain the epistles, and the result has been mass confusion in Christian circles. Practically everything is being taught from the epistles but the central teaching that the writers of the epistles dealt with.
The existing problem can be illustrated from any of the New Testament epistles; but, since this study has to do primarily with the general epistles, brief remarks on different things within these eight epistles will suffice to illustrate the matter at hand.
The book of Hebrews — as the remainder of the general epistles, or as all of the Pauline epistles — is a book which deals with the saving of the soul (cf. 4:12, 13; 6:18, 19; 10:35-39). This book is built around five major warnings, written to Christians. And the Spirit of God drew these warnings entirely from different parts of Old Testament typology.
These warnings have to do with firstborn sons (cf. 2:10; 12:16, 17). And with sonship in view, the subject matter surrounding the warnings in Hebrews can be clearly seen. These warnings simply have to do with different facets of teaching surrounding Christians either realizing or not realizing the rights of the firstborn at a future time, and the things taught in this book are drawn from the experiences of the Israelites (both national [chapters 2-4, 6] and individual [chapter 12]) as they either realized or failed to realize the rights of the firstborn in past time.
Israel has already been adopted in the type (Exodus 4:22, 23; Romans 9:4), but Christians are awaiting the adoption in the antitype (Romans 8:18-23). And the adoption must occur prior to Christians ascending the throne with Christ, for only “sons” can rule. That’s the way matters in God’s kingdom have always existed, and that’s the way matters in God’s kingdom will always continue to exist (ref. the author’s book, The Most High Ruleth).
That which is in view throughout Hebrews has to do with Israel realizing the rights of the firstborn in an earthly land (in the type) and with Christians realizing the rights of the firstborn in a heavenly land (in the antitype). And, in this respect, the whole of the subject matter in the book moves beyond the events of Exodus chapter twelve (the sacrifice of the paschal lambs, the application of the blood, the vicarious death of the firstborn, and God’s subsequent satisfaction).
But man in his finite understanding of matters, fails to make the proper connection of the things in Hebrews with that which proceeded. And he spends his time attempting to understand the book on the basis of events in Exodus chapter twelve (the death of the firstborn, the point of beginning) rather than going beyond the events of this chapter and looking at those Scriptures from which the things in the book are drawn (the rights of the firstborn, following a resurrection of the firstborn on the eastern banks of the Red Sea).
Man looks at the passage surrounding “so great salvation” in Hebrews 2:3 and attempts to teach things pertaining to salvation by grace through faith from the passage. And he does the same thing with the other warning passages, misapplying and misinterpreting Scripture in the process.
The passage in chapter six (vv. 4-6, the heart of the third of the five major warnings) that pertains to a falling away, with there being no possibility that the person who falls away can ever be renewed again to repentance, is often looked upon as one of the most difficult passages in Scripture. However, the opposite is, in reality, true. The passage is not difficult at all. The basic overall understanding of the passage is actually quite easy to grasp and understand.
Difficulty comes when a person attempts to apply the passage to things surrounding the Christians’ presently possessed salvation. And “difficult” is not really the proper word when this is done. Rather, attempting to read teachings surrounding salvation by grace through faith into Hebrews 6:4-6 makes the passage “impossible” to understand, for that’s not what this section of Scripture deals with.
However, on the other hand, if a person views the passage in the light of its context and has some understanding of the relationship of Hebrews (and all the other epistles as well) to that which has proceeded, the passage will, in reality, interpret itself.
The passage, contextually, flows out of and draws from the type-antitype structure of the preceding warning (chapters 3, 4); and also, contextually, the passage pertains to that time when Christ will exercise the Melchizedek priesthood (to that future time when He will be the great King-Priest in Jerusalem [chapter 5]). And the type-antitype structure, drawn from the previous warning, has to do with being overthrown relative to one’s calling, with there being no possibility that God will change His mind (repent) relative to that which He has decreed concerning those who are overthrown.
This is seen in the type as it pertains to the Israelites and an earthly calling at Kadesh-Barnea, and it must be equally true as it pertains to Christians and a heavenly calling in the antitype. The basic understanding of Hebrews 6:4-6 is that simple and easy.
And so it goes with the remainder of the book or the remainder of the general epistles. Understand some basics, and interpretation becomes quite simple; but misunderstand these basics, and interpretation becomes difficult to impossible.
James deals with the saving of the soul (1:21; 5:19, 20), which, contextually, within the book itself, has to do with crowned rulers realizing an inheritance with Christ in the coming kingdom (1:12; 2:5). And this is exactly the same subject matter seen throughout the surrounding epistles.
In connection with the saving of the soul, James deals extensively with faith and works (2:14-26); and the key to understanding this section of James, which many expositors seem to home in on (along with certain cult groups, seeking to teach salvation via faith and works), is twofold: (1) The passage deals with Christians relative to faithfulness and the coming kingdom, not with the unsaved relative to eternal verities; and (2) works emanate out of faithfulness, something that cannot occur among those who have not passed “from death unto life,” among those remaining spiritually dead.
Faithfulness, works, and fruit-bearing go hand-in-hand in this respect. Faithfulness will result in works and fruitfulness (bringing about the salvation of one’s soul), but unfaithfulness will result in no works and no fruit (bringing about the loss of one’s soul).
There are two main errors that expositors usually make when approaching James. They either relate the things in this epistle mainly to basic issues surrounding salvation by grace through faith, or they relate the things in this epistle mainly to the present experience of Christians (with little regard for or mention of the coming kingdom of Christ).
The epistle deals with the former only to the extent that a person must first pass “from death unto life” before he finds himself in a position to exercise faithfulness (e.g., 1:18), and the epistle deals with the latter only to the extent that faithfulness during the present time will have a direct bearing on the Christians’ position in the coming kingdom of Christ (e.g., 1:12; 2:5).
Relative to the former, this is simply not the central subject matter of the epistle. James’ message pertains to the saved, not the unsaved. And relative to the latter, the epistle is being dealt with from a correct perspective as far as matters go. However, exposition is stopped far short of the revealed goal.
There must always be a proper biblical connection of the present experience of Christians with the proffered kingdom in view. And, in this respect, dealing only with the present experience of Christians from the epistle of James is accomplishing little more than proclaiming a half-truth.
3. 1 & 2 Peter
In his first epistle, Peter deals with an inheritance set before Christians (1:4, 5), which has to do with the goal of their faith, the salvation of their souls (1:9). And this salvation is connected with the present in the respect that it has to do with present sufferings (1:7, 11; 2:21; 4:12, 13), and it is connected with the future in the respect that it has to do with future glory (1:11, 13; 4:13; 5:4).
In his second epistle, Peter associates this inheritance, this salvation, with the greatest thing God could offer redeemed man; and he further associates it with Christ’s greatest regal magnificence (2 Peter:1:4, 16 [superlatives are used in both verses in the Greek text, and greatest regal magnificence is the thought behind the superlative translated “majesty” in v. 16]).
And, in the process, Peter deals with the importance of Christians understanding, receiving, and keeping the good news concerning this future salvation ever before them. Peter, knowing the importance of this matter, stated that he was going to keep on proclaiming these truths to the extent that those to whom he was writing could never forget them, even after his decease (2 Peter 1:12-15).
Then in 2 Peter chapters two and three, Peter sounds a warning against false teachers — teachers who would arise among Christians and teach things contrary to the message that he so strongly proclaimed. These false teachers would be saved individuals who had previously heard, understood, and accepted the message (2:20 [epignosis, “mature knowledge,” is used in the Greek text of this verse]); but, rather than remain within that which they had heard and accepted, they would turn from and teach things contrary to this message (2:1, 2).
Then Peter began to bring his second epistle to a close by calling attention to a septenary structure of Scripture, which he had referred to in chapter one and upon which the whole of Scripture rests. The kingdom of Christ is to be established after six days, on the seventh day (cf. Matthew 16:28-17:5; 2 Peter 1:16:18), which is a direct allusion back to Genesis 1:1-2:3 — verses forming a foundational framework at the very beginning, verses upon which the whole of subsequent Scripture rests.
And the length of each of these days in subsequent Scripture, in complete keeping with Scripture both preceding and following the epistles, is revealed to be 1,000 years (2 Peter 3:8).
4. 1, 2 & 3 John
The trend of thought throughout John’s three epistles takes a number of different turns, but the truths taught therein center on one thing — Christians walking in the truth (cf. 1 John 1:7; 2 John 4, 6; 3 John 3, 4). And a walk of this nature, set forth in either John’s epistles or in any of the other epistles, is with a view to overcoming and receiving a full reward in the coming kingdom of Christ (cf. 1 John 2:28-3:3; 5:1-5; 2 John 8).
A central crux in John’s first epistle has to do with Christ’s present high priestly ministry (1:6-2:2), reflecting on the fourth of the five major warnings in Hebrews (chapter 10). And teachings surrounding Christ’s high priestly ministry in John’s first epistle reflect, as well, on teachings drawn from his gospel.
In John 13:4-12 there is the account of Christ taking a towel, girding Himself, taking a basin of water, and beginning to individually wash the disciples’ feet. This was done to teach His disciples a spiritual lesson of vast importance; and, in so doing, Christ drew from the symbolism surrounding the priestly ministry in the tabernacle. And this was also the place from which John drew when dealing with the same matter in his first epistle.
The high priestly ministry of Christ — ministering in the sanctuary on the basis of shed blood, after the order of Aaron — was in view in both instances (though still future when the events of John 13:4-12 occurred). Christ, throughout the dispensation, is exercising a ministry in the heavenly sanctuary, providing a cleansing for the kingdom of priests that He is about to bring forth (the sons who will rule and reign with Him, His co-heirs).
And according to the teaching of both John chapter thirteen and 1 John chapters one and two — along with Hebrews chapter ten and other related passages — truths surrounding Christ’s present high priestly ministry form an integral part of the Word of the Kingdom.
Drawing from the typology of the Levitical system, where the entire body of a priest was washed upon his entrance into the priesthood, Christians today (New Testament priests) received a complete washing at the point of salvation (upon their entrance into the priesthood). And this washing in both type and antitype can never be repeated.
But also in keeping with the typology of the Levitical system, present defilement of the cleansed vessel through contact with the world requires subsequent partial washings — shown in the type through subsequent washings of parts of the body at the laver in the courtyard of the tabernacle. And, because of this, Christ, through His present high priestly ministry, is providing cleansing for Christians on the basis of His shed blood on the mercy seat in the heavenly tabernacle.
Christ, when washing the disciples’ feet, not only drew from the typology of the tabernacle but He also reflected on His impending high priestly ministry. And Christ, to show the gravity of the matter, specifically told Peter, “If I do not wash you [referring to a part of his body, his feet], you have no part with Me” (John 13:8). Peter had already been washed completely (v. 10), but unless Peter allowed the Lord to cleanse him from worldly defilement following this previous complete washing, he could have no part with Christ in the coming kingdom.
John used the same teaching to which he had referred in his gospel to open his first epistle; and he directed the message, as in the gospel account, to saved people relative to present cleansing and the future kingdom.
And Christians can do one of two things relative to Christ’s present high priestly ministry on their behalf: (1) They can either avail themselves of Christ’s work as High Priest (receive cleansing from present defilement and look forward to having a part with Christ in His kingdom [cf. Hebrews 10:32-39; 1 John 1:9; 2:28-3:3]), or (2) they can refuse to avail themselves of Christ’s work as High Priest (not receive cleansing from present defilement and resultantly one day be denied a position with Christ in His kingdom [cf. Hebrews 10:19-31; 1 John 1:6, 8, 10; 2:1-4]).
According to Jude’s introductory remarks, he sought to write an epistle dealing specifically with salvation by grace through faith, but the Spirit of God constrained him and led him to write about something else.
Explaining the simple message of salvation by grace through faith was not the primary reason God gave the epistles. Adequate information necessary to open the types dealing with the simplicity of eternal salvation as set forth by Moses and the prophets had already been given prior to the writing of the epistles. Rather, God designed the epistles for those who were already saved, to provide instructions that would serve to open that part of the writings of Moses and the prophets pertaining to the Word of the Kingdom.
And, in keeping with the preceding thoughts, Jude, rather than being led to write an epistle dealing with salvation by grace through faith, was, instead, led to write an epistle exhorting Christians in the present race and warning Christians concerning false teachers. And both the exhortation and the various warnings seen throughout the epistle pertain to “the faith which was once delivered to the saints” (vv. 3ff).
The expression, “the faith,” as it is used in Jude 3, is simply another way of referring to the things surrounding Paul’s gospel (ref. chapters 4 & 10 of this book). Jude’s exhortation had to do with earnestly striving in the present race, with “the faith” in view; and his warnings — closely paralleling the warnings in Peter’s second epistle — had to do with false teachers arising and proclaiming things among Christians contrary to “the faith.”
And that’s the way in which the New Testament epistles are brought to a close — an exhortation to strain every muscle of one’s being in the present race of “the faith,” and warnings against false teachers proclaiming perverse things concerning “the faith.”
What are the ramifications of either seeing or not seeing the Pauline and/or general epistles in their correct setting relative to Scripture both preceding and following? Such ramifications are evident. All one has to do is compare conditions existing in the first-century Church with conditions existing in the Church today.
Christians in the first-century Church knew that the letters (epistles) being sent to them had to do with the same message being proclaimed throughout the churches by the apostles and others — a message having its roots in preceding revelation. And this message pertained to a completely new entity (separate and distinct from Israel) and with a proffered kingdom. This new entity had been called into existence to be the recipient of heavenly positions with Christ in the kingdom, and the message being proclaimed had to do with faithfulness during the present dispensation with a view to glory during the coming dispensation.
These things were consistently taught throughout the first-century Church. Christians during that day understood these things; and, understanding these things, they governed their lives accordingly.
But these things are not being taught at all in the twentieth-century Church, except in isolated instances. Christians during the present day know little to nothing about these things, and their lifestyle often negatively reflects this fact.
Everything begins in the past — actually in the eternal council chambers of God before the ages began — and moves toward a set goal. And this set goal — whether seen in Moses, the Psalms, the prophets, the gospels, Acts, or the epistles — is always revealed to be the same.
It is the same set goal seen throughout the first nineteen chapters of the closing book of Scripture and then realized in chapter twenty. It is always revealed to be the seventh day, the seventh millennium, the Sabbath rest awaiting the people of God.
Viewing the epistles within their correct setting will allow one to look upon the content therein from a correct perspective. Scripture in the epistles can be interpreted and applied correctly; and, through so doing, biblical interpretation will be perfectly in line with other parts of Scripture.
But erroneously viewing the epistles apart from their correct setting can only produce the opposite results. A correct interpretation, application, and alignment with other Scripture will be sadly lacking. And the true message in the epistles will be all but lost.