Short Scripture: The 4 One-Page Books of the New Testament
Sacred Scripture has infinite depth to it, and one could spend the entirety of his or her life reflecting on the gospels. The letters of St. Paul helped build the Church into what it is today; the faithful have not exhausted the meaning and application of those letters in 2,000 years of Christianity.
As much as the New Testament has been studied, the one-page books often get left out. They are Philemon, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude. They are so short that none of them are divided up by chapter—only by verse. Here is some information and a few reflections on each of those books. Given the length of them, be sure to read them for yourself!
This is a letter written by St. Paul to a man named Philemon, a “fellow worker” (verse 1), which could mean that he was a leader in the early Church. Philemon owned a slave named Onesimus, who escaped, then became a Christian himself under Paul’s tutelage. At the instruction of Paul, Onesimus returned to Philemon’s household, presumably with this letter in hand. Paul was in prison at the time, and closes with a greeting from five other fellow Christians: Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke (v. 23-24). These same five are also mentioned at the end of Colossians (4:10-14) as well as Onesimus himself (4:9). It’s likely that the letters to the Colossians and to Philemon were written at the same time (Ignatius Study Bible, pg. 412). Another figure mentioned in both epistles is Archippus—in Colossians (4:17) and at the beginning of the letter to Philemon. “Given that it is a short, private letter, the reference to Appia and Archippus suggests that these may have been members of Philemon’s family, possibly his wife and son” (Navarre Bible: Captivity Epistles, pg. 199).
On the one hand, Paul aims to use some leverage on his friend Philemon. “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required”—that is, grant a runaway slave his freedom—“yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you… for my child, Onesimus” (v. 8-10). He appeals for Onesimus’ freedom: “so if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me” (v. 17). Paul offers to reimburse Philemon for any expenses incurred, promising, “I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ” (v. 19-20). Paul then promises a visit to Philemon—not really asking, but informing. The Apostle closes out this brief letter expressing confidence in Philemon doing the right thing.
Cynics might point to this as an early, and a very fine, example of Catholic guilt. Yet to read the letter only through that lens misses two important points. First, Paul repeatedly expresses affection for Philemon. Given that factor, the only possible Christian way to read this letter is to take the foundation of Christian charity first and build the confrontation on top of it. If the confrontation is the only focus, then Paul’s words of affection and descriptions of charity take on a tone of manipulation and coercion. Paul had no qualms about confronting leaders like Peter (see Galatians 2:11-21) and entire communities (see Galatians 1, 3:1)—and his language in those instances has a far different tone than how he wrote to Philemon.
The second point to pull from this short letter is not to pull punches. Paul confronted his friend and fellow Christian, essentially saying: this situation is tough, but we are dealing with a question (slavery) that has only one answer. Certain moral truths by their very nature remain incompatible with the Christian faith. To pretend otherwise would make Paul himself complicit in moral evil.
Do you have a thorny issue that’s difficult to confront? Entreat the intercession of St. Paul and St. Onesimus.
2 John & 3 John
Out of St. John the Evangelist’s three letters in the New Testament, 1 John is the longest at 5 chapters. 2 John contains just 13 verses, and 3 John stops at 15 verses. Both epistles begin with a veiled author, “the elder.” Although the verses themselves do not call St. John by name, Christian tradition has held that these came from the apostle and evangelist.
In 2 John, the theme of love sounds very similar to St. John’s other writings: “And now I beg you, lady, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning, that we love one another” (v. 5). This is the same teaching found in St. John’s gospel, especially 15: 9, 12, 17. It is also in 1 John 3:11, 23-24. There is even a story in Patristic tradition (small ‘t’ that is, not capital ‘T’) that appears in St. Jerome’s Commentary on Galatians. Men from the community at Ephesus, where St. John lived, would have to carry the elderly apostle to church. When asked to teach, he would always say, “little children, love one another.” This eventually got tiresome and the community asked him why he always said that. “Because it is the Lord’s commandment and if it alone is kept, it is sufficient” (pg. 260).
Love is the greatest of the theological virtues. St. John’s teaching and repetition on love underscores the simplicity of the Christian life. Everything in the deposit of faith, the Church herself, the missionary nature of the Church, the moral life, and all that we know as the Catholic faith has its roots in this one commandment of love. Not only does love serve as the foundation of the Christian life, but it also serves as evidence: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). St. John confronts this in his third epistle, but in the negative fashion. Unfortunately, a man named Diotrephes distinguished himself in love of self and in refusing to welcome his fellow Christians (v. 9-10).
It’s a vital question to ask ourselves: do I love others as Christ would love them?
The letter of Jude comes in at just 25 verses. The author identifies himself as the brother of James, both of whom likely being the same kinsman of Jesus mentioned in Matthew 13:55. For its short length, St. Jude’s letter contains a fair amount of warnings, exhortations, and a few allusions to non-canonical Jewish tradition. And a cameo of St. Michael the Archangel!
However bad the current times are, we cannot forget that becoming a Christian in the first two centuries of the Church had a high price. So many Catholics today are born into the faith—and praise God for that! For those of us that grew up in a Catholic household, religion was just part of the air we breathed. The earliest Christians, however, lived with the potential of persecution and martyrdom depending on the whims of the Roman emperor.
St. Jude counsels his readers to take solace that the apostles predicted such times. “‘In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.’ It is these who set up divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit” (v. 17-18). St. Jude continues with the simple instructions: “build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (v. 20-21). A solid faith sustains through difficult times, martyrdom or no. The Holy Spirit guides, refreshes, and inspires individuals and the Church as a whole. No matter what shape the Church is in, the Holy Spirit is the divine life flowing through its veins. The love of God gives meaning to life; it is the origin of salvation history, the means of our salvation, and the ultimate goal of our lives.
Sitting down with these short epistles is a great way to grow in faith and in knowledge of the Bible. Pick up a Bible today and read them!
More like this: