Layers in the GIMP are a powerful tool allowing you to do many things. A good way to think of them is as layers of glass stacked up. Layers can be transparent, translucent or opaque.
The Layer Dialog
Go to Windows > Dockable Dialogs > Layers to open the layers dialogue. This dialogue is useful when editing with layers.
Open up the layers dialogue, and add as many layers as you like to the image. Note that any image editing or filters will only apply to your currently selected layers.
The Opacity slider controls the transparency or opaqueness of a specific layer. This will not affect the internal alpha channel of the layer.
A layer mask is a grayscale layer that controls the local transparency of a layer. This is useful for non-destructively deleting part of a layer, or only making part of a layer visible.
Using a Layer Mask to selectively edit an image
A layer mask is a very useful tool if you only want to edit part of an image. First duplicate the layer that you want to edit. Then make your changes to the bottom layer. Now add a black layer mask to the unchanged layer. Then use the white paint brush on the layer mask, to restore parts of the original version. A black area in a layer mask will have zero opacity, while a white (RGB 255,255,255) area will be completely opaque.