There are five books in the Bible that have only one chapter. In the New Testament, there is Jude, Paul’s letter to Philemon, and John’s second and third epistles. In the Old Testament, there is the book by minor prophet Obadiah.
It’s interesting that the four authors are at the extremes with regard to the height of their profiles. Paul and John are the New Testament’s most prolific authors, with Paul authoring thirteen books and John five. (To be sure, some would challenge Paul’s authorship of one or more of these books, but some would add Hebrews to his tally, and you might give him some credit for his protege, the also-prolific Luke; and there is also dispute about which John wrote which book attributed to him.) On the other hand, Jude has a low profile: This is his only letter, and not a lot is known about him. Likewise, we have only this one book by Obadiah’s hand, and very little is known about him either.
I’ll confess that I stumbled on the idea for this post because I was looking for parts of the New Testament on which to practice translating from the Greek, and it’s less daunting to tackle a short book than a long one, but let’s see if there are any interesting points to be made by focusing on these diminutive books.
Let’s start by listing the lessons to be drawn from each book; here I’m borrowing from the separate posts on each book from this blogsite (you can find them by looking at the first part of the blogsite map, “Posts on the Bible itself”).
Lesson from Obadiah: God will destroy the enemies of His people.
Lessons from Philemon: (1) Preaching for Christ is worth going to prison for; (2) peace is important; (3) love and faith are important; and (4) Christian brotherhood transcends slavery (but the secular law is still followed).
Lessons from II John: (1) Jesus had a physical body; (2) those who stray from God’s laws will have no relationship with Him and no reward; (3) we should give the cold shoulder to heretics; and (4) love and truth are important.
Lessons from III John: (1) There is a soul/body distinction; (2) truth is important; (3) we should help evangelists; (4) peace is good; and (5) some people/church members help the church and others hurt it; the latter should not be followed.
Lessons from Jude: (1) God cares about our physical actions (including sexual perversions); (2) He wants us to help one another and obey Him: Hate the sin, but rescue/show mercy on the sinners; (3) God loves us; (4) we are to be servants/slaves of Christ; (5) those who act immorally will be punished (in this life or the next); (6) don’t brag, grumble, or complain; (7) God will make us perfect in His presence; and (8) you need to watch out for those who would lead you astray.
In format, Obadiah (which is the only book here written in verse, by the way) is general prophecy; at the other extreme, Philemon is written to one specific person with a quite specific focus. In between is III John, written to a particular person but with a more general focus; Jude, conversely, is written to all Christians but with an eye on a particular problem, namely the infiltration of the believers’ ranks by the ungodly. Finally, II John is literally addressed, “To the chosen lady and her children,” but that is quite naturally interpreted to mean a church and its members, and its focus is indeed broad.
Note, not incidentally, that the format of Scripture can itself itself tell us something about God and how we are to relate to Him and to one another.
Obadiah is aimed at outside mortal enemies of believers (it sounds more tribal); John and Jude are concerned more about no-less-dangerous spiritual enemies from within; Paul, while writing from prison, is rather ironically concerned with neither, but simply with persuading one believer to do right by another.
Obadiah offers condemnation to the enemies and reassurance to the faithful; John and Jude are not really talking to the enemies of the faithful at all, at least not directly, nor is Paul.
Note that both Jude and III John involve intrachurch strife. Implicit in both letters is that there is truth and falsity, and that we should resist the latter and those advocating it. Tolerance and open-mindedness go only so far. And II John is not namby-pamby either: There is truth, and those who embrace it will be embraced in turn by God and rewarded by Him — but not those who don’t. Indeed, God won’t have anything to do with them, and neither should we.
In Philemon, note the acknowledgment that God works in this world in subtle ways (verses 15-16). It’s therefore appropriate to be looking for ways that God might be nudging us. Note also in Philemon that Paul is not ashamed to be a prisoner and is also not reluctant to use tact, even flattery. In a very serious situation, he uses humor (the punning on the slave’s name Oresimus, verse 11). He also offers to pay Philemon back for anything Oresimus owes (probably from theft), and he calls in an important chit, namely that Paul led Philemon to Christ and, therefore, “you owe me your very self” (verse 19). As William F. Buckley, Jr., often said, quoting his friend Whittaker Chambers: “To live is to maneuver.”
You would expect a one-chapter Bible book to be stripped down to the essentials and get right to the point, and that’s what we find.
An anthropologist visiting from Mars who read these books could, I think, draw some accurate conclusions about the beliefs of those whose faith is rooted in them, and about what’s likely to be in the other 61 books of the Bible. There is not complete overlap among these five books, but there are no inconsistencies either, and there are recurrent themes:
There is God, and human beings are to love and faithfully follow Him and his commands, and to love and be peaceful with and look out for one another. Our actions in this regard matter, and we should make good choices. There are good and bad people, and life on this earth is not always easy for the former. We belong to communities and we are individuals.
All that may sound trite to you, dear reader, but it would not to the man from Mars: None of that has to be true — I’ll discuss the one possible exception in a second — and most of it is ignored or rejected by many, many people a great deal of the time and throughout much history.
Now, the one sentence that might be characterized as boringly obvious in the italicized paragraph above is the last one, but what makes it less so is the little word “and.” That is, there are undeniably communities, and we are undeniably individuals, but the point here is that we must act as caring individuals for others in our community, so that we neither cut ourselves off from others, on the one hand, nor refuse to think for ourselves, on the other.