Religious tradition calls the seven epistles of James, Peter, John, and Jude the “general” or “catholic” epistles. (Catholic in this context means ‘universal’ and is not a reference to the Roman religion and their non-canonical books.)
It is claimed that the reason for this label is that the audience is not stated by the writers, and so they must be written to a general audience and not specific churches or persons as in many of Paul’s epistles.
Though this sounds legitimate, when we simply start reading the epistles, it is obvious that the tradition of not reading and believing the Bible has a long history.
Perpetuating the claim that these epistles have no known audience has contributed to the general wrong application of these epistles to the church today.
Upon closer examination of the authors, the ministry they were given, and the doctrinal content, the audience can be clearly identified.
To Whom Are They Writing?
The very first verse of the book of James says clearly who he is writing to:
“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting.” – James 1:1
The only way the epistle of James is general, is that the twelve tribes were scattered to general locations, but the audience is clear. It is the remnant of Israel, the church in Jerusalem, that was scattered in Acts 8:1, except for the apostles.
How does the body of Christ, made of all nations, fit into the audience written to the twelve tribes of Israel? It doesn’t.
Peter writes to the same audience as James.
“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia…” – 1 Peter 1:1
Though they may be scattered in locations, the intended audience is clear: strangers scattered in those places. These strangers are Jewish, because they were not at home in these places. It is not coincidence that these places are the same places where the men of Israel came from at Pentecost (Acts 2:8-11).
2nd Peter was written to the same audience as 1st Peter (2 Peter 3:1): the believers of Israel who were scattered in Acts 8:1.
2 John is written to the “elect lady”, and 3rd John is clearly written to “Gaius”. Though we can debate who these people are, it is simply not true that the so-called general epistles do not state to whom they are writing.
Who Is Writing?
There is a way to determine the audience by the author. However, this method seems to only be used by dispensational Bible students who appreciate the changing operation and ministry of the Lord.
Jesus said he was “not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24). We should conclude from this that although we can learn from reading the gospels (all scripture is profitable), that Jesus’ ministry on earth was to the audience of Israel.
This is confirmed by Paul in Romans 15:8:
“Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers:” – Romans 15:8
This is helpful, because Jesus told his chosen twelve apostles, “as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you” (John 20:21). The twelve apostles were sent with the same ministry to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
This is confirmed by Luke’s statement that the apostles stayed in Jerusalem despite persecution in Acts 8:1, and that their followers, even when scattered, went only to Israel.
“Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only.” – Acts 11:19
If any of the so-called “general” epistles were written between Acts 1 and Acts 11 they were written to Israel. This might explain James and 1 Peter.
To the Circumcision
Years after Paul’s ministry began, he met in Jerusalem with the chief apostles, namely Peter, James, and John.
After their meeting where they acknowledge Paul’s apostleship from the Lord, they make an agreement about to whom they should minister upon separation. Here is the conclusion:
“…when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision.” – Galatians 2:9
Peter, James, and John agreed that their ministry audience would be the circumcision. More clearly stated, their audience would be the believing remnant of Israel, the twelve tribes scattered abroad.
Since all of the “general” epistles were written by the apostles of the circumcision, it follows that their intended audience was the circumcision. This aligns perfectly with the repeated references to the Gentiles and lands in which the audience resides and the stated audiences found in some of the epistles.
We can safely say as a result of the apostolic agreement, that any of the so-called “general” epistles that were written by the twelve apostles after the Acts 15 agreement with Paul were written to the circumcision.
It is not coincidence that the very books that do not name a church or person were all written by apostles of the Lord’s ministry to Israel. (Yes, even Jude was an apostle – see Luke 6:16).
There was no need to identify a church by name, or a leader of one, because Israel is not the mystery church and was being led by the twelve apostles themselves.
Specific and Clear is Not General
It should now be clear that the only thing general and universal about the epistles written by the twelve apostles is the general ignorance about who the Bible says is their audience.
The audience is clear when we study the Bible dispensationally.
Not one of those epistles speaks about the mystery of Christ, the body of Christ, or the dispensation of the grace of God. Instead, they speak about promises of Israel’s coming kingdom, fulfilled prophecy, obeying the commandments, and not making the same mistakes they did in the past (being Israel).
Epistles written specifically by Israel’s apostles, about Israel’s promises, speaking to the scattered remnant of Israel are anything but general in audience.
These final books of the Bible would more appropriately be called, along with Hebrews and Revelation, the Hebrew epistles.
If they are written to Hebrews, they were not written to the new creature that is the church today.