Our church loves to spend time in the big and juicy books of the New Testament. I’m talking about beefy books like Romans, John, 1 Corinthians. But what about the itty bitty ones? Some books in the New Testament are so small they easily escape our attention. If, as Christians, we take all of scripture to be the inspired word of God, it’s worth having a good understanding of the smaller books too.
With these books, we get the advantage of having an effective, concise message. Below, I take a look at the three shortest books in the New Testament to give you a brief overview, themes, and applications for everyday life.
As the shortest book in the entire Bible, 3 John easily escapes our notice. This book and the book of Philemon are the only ones written to a specific person (Acts, for example, was written to a man named Theophilus, but it was intended to be read aloud to the church.) Theologian Zane C. Hodges points out that this book is valuable as a fragment of early Christian correspondence. Today, its form would be as an email or text sent out from one church leader to another.
Three individuals are mentioned in John’s letter:
- Gaius – The intended recipient. John educates him about another leader’s (Diotrephes) folly.
- Diotrephes – The main subject of John’s letter. He is a power-hungry leader of the church who does evil by not welcoming outside believers and sending people out of the church unjustly.
- Demetrius – John holds this person up as a positive example. He is a person who is “well spoken of”.
John’s purpose is to call out Diotrephes’s sin of not being hospitable to outside Christian believers. It is likely Demetrius is mentioned because he is at risk of being sent out of the church by the autocratic Diotrephes. John ends the letter by letting Gaius know he intends to visit the church and will deal with the situation personally when he arrives.
Time to read: 45 seconds.
In all of his epistles, John shows a huge concern for love, community, and hospitality. A leader acting on his own authority to send people away and reject them damages a loving community because it is the opposite of hospitality.
- Preserve a hospitable, welcoming, and loving atmosphere in your church. Ask yourself “What am I doing to make visitors to my church feel welcome?”
- Receive believers from outside our church warmly
- Plurality of leadership – leadership in the hands of a single individual can have damaging consequences
No specific individual is mentioned in John’s second epistle. Instead, it is addressed to “The lady and her children”, which is a literary form meant to represent the church and its members. This is apparent since elsewhere John and even Paul use the metaphor of marriage to describe the church’s relationship to Jesus – Jesus as groom and church as the bride. In the letter, John starts by encouraging the church to continue in their love relationships with one another. He then gets to his true purpose: to denounce false teachers who claim Jesus is not really the messiah.
Time to read: 45 seconds
2 John’s themes are similar to those found in John’s other books: truth, love, and discernment. Beware of those who preach contrary truth.
- Persevere in love relationships within the church because it helps you take a stand against false teachings
- Jesus is not just a good teacher or wise sage, he is the messiah (anointed one)
- Be careful with people who have a sinister agenda. There are people who visit church meetings because they are honest seekers, and there are others who come to push their own agenda. Know the difference.
- Remove people from your midst who are deliberately seeking to undo the faith of church members. If left unchecked, this will lead to division
Theologian Edwin C. Deibler calls Philemon the most personal of the Apostle Paul’s letters. Writing from prison, Paul pleads with Philemon to forgive and receive back his runaway slave – Onesimus. Onesimus got in contact with Paul after fleeing Philemon and apparently received Christ. Paul plans to send Onesimus back to his master and entreats Philemon to receive him back is if it was Paul himself coming to him. Philemon is a wealthy worker in a church that meets at his house, and Paul clearly considers him a friend.
Time to read: 1 minute 30 seconds
Forgiveness and grace are the strongest themes in the letter. Slavery in the first century was different than how we tend to think of slavery today. In all likelihood, Onesimus worked for Philemon as someone who owed a debt. For him to run away is a serious breach in contract, and Philemon is well within his right to demand reparations. Rather than command Philemon to receive his slave back in forgiveness, Paul appeals to him on the basis of love. In a huge break from cultural norms of that day, Paul encourages Philemon to see his slave as an equal – a fellow brother in Christ. This would be a tremendous thing to ask of him, but this is the power of forgiveness. We also get an incredible illustration of Christ’s atoning work on the cross as Paul offers to pay Onesimus’ debts.
- If a fellow brother or sister in Christ wrongs you, forgive them.
- See your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ as equals. No one is more valued by God than another.
- There is no need to boss people around to do something good when you can instead appeal to them in love.
- Exemplify Grace at every opportunity, like how Paul offers to pay Onesimus’s debts.