Would Mark’s Jesus have us handle snakes and drink poison? (part 1 of 2) (BibleWorks 9 review, continued)

First century snake handler?

Many believe that Mark’s Gospel ends rather abruptly at 16:8 (“for they were afraid”), but others have found it difficult to think of a Gospel ending with Jesus’ followers’ being afraid to say anything to anyone about the resurrection.

So there is the so-called shorter (add-on) ending of Mark, which adds to the above, “…the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation” (RSV). This has 10 words that otherwise appear nowhere else in the book.  In my view the vocabulary and style of the shorter ending do not seem to fit well with the rest of the Gospel, and have the feel of an effort to give the book closure well after the fact of the writing.

Then there is the so-called longer ending of Mark, which is also not satisfied in ending with his followers’ fear. This records Jesus’ appearance to some of his followers, as well as the commissioning of his disciples, including the hard-to-understand reference to picking up snakes and drinking poison.

Mark could well have ended with “For they were afraid”–Mark is not unknown for being abrupt—nor would he have a problem upbraiding (or reporting Jesus’ upbraiding) people for their lack of faith or for their fear.  But would someone who started so positively with a proclamation of Jesus as “Son of God” in 1:1 have truly ended on such a dour note?  One possibility is that Mark’s original ending was lost.  R.T. France says, “It is one thing to emphasise and exploit paradoxical elements within the story of Jesus’ ministry and passion, as we have seen Mark doing again and again, but quite another to conclude his gospel with a note which appears to undermine not only his own message but also the received tradition of the church within which he was writing” (683).

Of course, lacking evidence of such a “lost” ending means that to postulate one is speculative, and it is perhaps a wiser hermeneutic to accept the text as we have it to be the intended one.

Can BibleWorks help here? One of the major new features in BibleWorks 9 is the BibleWorks Manuscript Project. From the BibleWorks site:

This massive project has been years in the making. BibleWorks 9 includes the first installment of this ongoing work. The BibleWorks Manuscript Project’s initial release covers the following:

  • Sinaiticus
  • Vaticanus
  • Alexandrinus
  • Bezae
  • Washingtonianus
  • Boernerianus
  • GA1141

For these manuscripts, the BibleWorks Manuscript Project includes the following:

  • New full NT transcriptions
  • Complete NT digital image sets (over 7.5 GB!!)
  • Verse location tagging in images
  • Extensive transcription notes
  • MSS comparison tool
  • Morphological tagging (not complete for all manuscripts but updates will be provided free of charge to BibleWorks 9 users as they become available)

Manuscripts are fully searchable and integrated with the full array of BibleWorks analysis tools. As you change verses in BibleWorks, the MS image display tracks with the current verse. Compare, inspect, and analyze the text and images of key original manuscripts. Tweak and enhance the manuscript images using the sophisticated image processing panel now included in BibleWorks.

Before I could even get into the manuscripts, there were two ways BibleWorks immediately helped me to explore this issue. First, with my NET Bible notes open in the Verse Tab (which I review here), I see a nice, lengthy note that explains the options–with manuscript evidence–for Mark’s possible ending. (You can see the NET note itself by clicking on footnote 9 here.) That much I’ve come to expect from BibleWorks.

What pleasantly caught me by surprise was that the NET note mentions a section in Wallace’s Greek Grammar that discusses the grammar of the contested snake-handling verses. I quickly and easily navigated over to the “Resources” tab in my analysis window and looked it up (click for larger image, or open in a new tab):

Wallace’s grammar is free with BibleWorks, a nice bonus. And it’s set up so that as you’re working your way through a text, Wallace tracks with you, so you can easily look up what he has to say about a given verse or grammatical topic.

Already some great help from BibleWorks in exploring a difficult textual issue. In my next post, I’ll use BibleWorks to get into the Mark manuscripts themselves, exploring the possible endings of the Gospel of Mark.

See all that’s new in BibleWorks 9 here.

I received a free upgrade to BibleWorks 9 in exchange for an unbiased review. See my prolegomenon to a review here, part 1 (setup and layout) here, and part 2 (the Verse tab) here. You can order the full program here or upgrade here. It’s on Amazon, too.

James (Zondervan ECNT), reviewed

James is no “epistle of straw,” as Martin Luther once (in)famously said of the book. But many–with Luther–find it difficult to reconcile Paul and James on faith and works.

Paul: “A person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

James: “A person is considered righteous [i.e., justified] by what they do and not by faith alone.”

Here I review James by Craig L. Blomberg and Mariam J. Kamell, from Zondervan’s Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (ZECNT) series. (Click here to find my review of Luke in that same series; below I use some of my same wording from that post to introduce the ZECNT series more generally.)

Like the rest of the ZECNT series, James is “designed for the pastor and Bible teacher.” The authors assume a basic knowledge of Greek, but Greek is not required to understand the commentary. For each passage the commentary gives the broader literary context, the main idea (great for preachers!), an original translation of the Greek and its graphical layout, the structure, an outline, explanation, and “theology in application” section.

The introduction covers an outline and structure of James, the circumstances surrounding its writing, authorship and date, and significance of the book. It is shorter and less detailed than the introductions in Douglas Moo’s James commentary and that of Peter Davids. Immediately I looked for how the authors would resolve the Paul/James (alleged) discrepancy, but they note in the introduction that they discuss James’s theology after “the commentary proper.” (The ZECNT series has a separate “Theology” section at the back of the book that most other commentaries include as part of the introduction.)

They give just two paragraphs in their theology section–with a bit more in the body of the commentary–to “Faith and Works” (compare Moo’s lengthier discussion in his introduction), but they have their reasons for this:

Contrary to what the extent of the discussion of the topic might suggest, faith and works is not the main focus of James’s letter. It is a subordinate point that grows out of his concern for the poor and the dispossessed (2:14-26; cf. 2:1-13).

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that this idea of faith and works as a subordinate point in James had not really occurred to me prior to working with this commentary. (A good trait in a commentary to produce such thoughts!) But if you click on the references above or look through James 2 (and the rest of James) in your Bible, it’s easy to see where the authors are coming from.

In fact, the “three key topics” in James, according to Blomberg and Kamell, are “trials in the Christian life,” “wisdom,” and “riches and poverty.” They follow Davids here, and note that James 1:2-11 lays out each of the major themes, which James then restates in 1:12-27. 2:1-5:18 then consist of “the three themes expanded,” in reverse order, followed by a closing in 5:19-20.

Blomberg and Kamell are “the first to grant that we may still be imposing more structure on the text than James had in mind.” All the same, their outline of James makes it easier to work through the book, and then finally does, I think, justify their claim in the theology section that “faith and works” is not the central theme of the letter and should be considered in its broader context. Still, they do have a good way forward in understanding Paul and James together: “But this action, these deeds or works, are not put forward in any attempt to merit God’s favor but as the natural, spiritual outgrowth of one’s faith.”

As with Luke, the graphical layout of each passage (in original English translation) is a unique contribution in James. Being able to see main clauses in bold with subordinate clauses indented under them (plus how they relate back to the main clause) gives the reader a quick, visual grasp of the entire passage at hand. See page 45 of the commentary in this sample pdf to see how it looks. This is a highlight of the ZECNT series, and the fact that it’s in English makes it all the more accessible. The translation is smooth and readable, doing great justice to both the Greek it translates and the English language.

James has the full Greek text of James, verse by verse, and the full English translation (passage by passage in the graphical layout, then again verse by verse next to the Greek). As I’ve said before, a value for me in using reference works is not having to pull five more reference works off the shelf to use the first reference work! The authors make comments like this one in 1:5 throughout the work, wedding grammatical and lexical analysis to exegetical application:

We are told to ask of the “giving God” (διδόντος θεοῦ). Here the present participle suggests that “giving” represents a continuous characteristic of God.

To take another example, on James 2:20, which they translate, “Do you want to know, O empty person, that faith without works is workless?” they write:

James incorporates a pun on the word “work” (ἔργον), using the negative adjective from the same root–“workless” (ἀργή). The term can also mean idle or useless. Faith that lacks works does not work! In other words, it is entirely ineffective to save.

Teachers and preachers especially will appreciate the “Theology in Application” section that concludes each passage. James may already strike the preacher as a book that just preaches itself, but the authors do well in helping the preacher connect the text with today’s concerns. For example, for 2:14-17 they note that although James

provides no treatise on the most effective ways to help the poor…, true believers will take some kind of action. At the very least, they must cultivate generous, even sacrificial giving to help the poor as part of their ongoing personal and corporate stewardship of their possessions. But in light of systemic injustice, we probably need to do much more.

Amen. The authors go on, “James certainly would share the concern of liberation theologians to do far more for the poor, individually and systemically, than many branches of recent Christianity have attempted” (my italics). Moo agrees–though he wants to distance himself “from an extreme ‘liberation’ perspective,” he says “we must be careful not to rob his denunciation of the rich of its power.” And James 5:1-6 are pretty damning of the powerful rich who use their power to oppress the poor.

The authors write,

[These oppressors] are the financially wealthy in a world where the rich occupied a miniscule percentage of the population. James does not call them to change their behavior. Instead, he warns them of impending disaster in their lives by commanding them to mourn their coming fate. …”Wail” [ὀλολύζοντες] appears in the LXX of the Prophets in contexts of judgment and can refer to inarticulate shrieks of terror. …James makes it clear that these rich people are going to undergo a terrible ordeal.

There were a few times in the “Theology in Application” section that I wondered (as other reviewers have) whether the authors weren’t getting a bit off-topic from the text. For example, on 3:9-12 they say,

Abortion and euthanasia offend God deeply because they take lives made in his image. But abuse or neglect of the poor and outcast (including the homosexual) proves equally offensive because such treatments likewise demean individuals God made to reflect himself.

They say this to argue against the “stereotypical agendas of both the political and religious ‘right’ and ‘left,'” but it was hard for me to decide whether this was a case of applying an ancient text well to a contemporary set of issues, or if it was an anachronistic stretch. Nothing they say here is incongruent with James, but I did wonder here (and in another place) whether those verses in James really speak to issues like abortion and homosexuality. A minor critique, though.

Those working their way through the Greek of James may still want to have Davids on hand. But as with the Luke volume in this series, the combination of close attention to the Greek text with contemporary application makes James a commentary very much worth using. I know I will want to go back to this commentary right away when I am doing work with the book of James in the future.

(I am grateful to Zondervan for the free review copy of this commentary, which was sent to me with the understanding that I would then write an unbiased review. You can find the book on Amazon or at Zondervan.)

What language did Jesus speak?

In my top 10 reasons why you need the Septuagint I conclude with the #1 reason being that the Gospel writers record Jesus’ words as occasionally matching the Old Greek of the Hebrew Bible against the Hebrew. This has become a new research interest of mine, and there is no lack of scholarly opinion on the issue! It’s hard to tell if there’s scholarly consensus. The conventional wisdom seems to be that Jesus spoke Aramaic and read from and recited Hebrew scrolls, but that’s certainly not a universal view, from what I can tell. For example, Stanley E. Porter suggests:

… Jesus not only had sufficient linguistic competence to converse with others in Greek but also even to teach in Greek during his ministry. 

I believe that, first, it can be firmly established that Jesus did speak Greek and that we do indeed have some of his actual words. 

Porter explores the question “Did Jesus Ever Teach in Greek?” here (pdf). Thanks to the LXX Yahoo! group for the link.

Forsaken: Did God the Father kill Jesus on the cross?

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

“I and the Father are one.”

Wondering how these three verses of Scripture fit together? I often have. Cognitive dissonance finally got the better of me, and I decided I should try to think through this one a little more deeply. To that end I read Thomas H. McCall’s Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters (InterVarsity Press, 2012). Here, on Magnificent Monograph Monday, I offer a review of the book. (Thanks to IVP for the free review copy, in exchange for an unbiased review.)

First, the very short summary of my review, if you want to cut to the chase and head off and do something else after this next paragraph.

McCall tackles some difficult questions: “Did God forsake Jesus [on the cross]? Did the Father turn his back on the Son in rage? Was the Trinity ruptured or broken on that day?” His answers and arguments are rooted in Scripture, the history of interpretation of that Scripture, and are consistently compelling. McCall really helped me through my own struggles to grasp some of these questions, leading me to a fuller understanding of the life of the Trinity and the relationship between its persons, particularly in terms of what happened on the cross. And he spells out the implications of his assertions beautifully. God is not divided, he concludes, but God–all of God–is for us. So we can rejoice and rest secure in that. Five stars, no doubt.

McCall writes “not for other scholars…but for pastors, students and friends–indeed, for anyone genuinely interested in moving toward a deeper understanding of God’s being and actions.” Forsaken is heavy theological lifting for a non-scholar (and not lightweight for a scholar, either), but the effort is well worth it. McCall answers some very common questions people ask (or are scared to ask and should ask) about the Trinity, also showing ramifications for our relationship to God.

Forsaken has four chapters. Each asks a theological question, addresses it, then concludes with some theological assertions to avoid, some to affirm, and why it matters.

The first chapter asks, “Was the Trinity Broken?” Here McCall discusses the theological concept of “dereliction,” or the idea that Jesus was abandoned by God on the cross. Recent theology notwithstanding, McCall makes a strong Scriptural case that God the Father did not forsake the Son on the Cross. Understanding Psalm 22 as an “interpretive key” to Jesus’ death, McCall writes:

No, the only text of Scripture that we can understand to address this question directly, Psalm 22:24, says that the Father did not hide his face from his Son. To the contrary, he has “listened to his cry for help.”

Not only that, the author argues, but if God truly had forsaken Jesus, why would Jesus bother–after his cry–to say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”? Jesus “prefaces his last words with a sense of deep relational intimacy: Jesus addresses his ‘Father.'”

In chapter two McCall asks, “Just what are we to make of the biblical witness to the wrath of God? Is it opposed to his love? Is it a ‘dark side’ to God that is inconsistent with his holiness or with his mercy?” He makes a pretty hard-to-argue-with case that “the biblical witness does not set love and wrath in opposition to one another.” McCall, I thought, was at his best in this chapter when he highlighted multiple New Testament references to wrath–not only the wrath of God generally, but Jesus’ wrath specifically. So there’s no Old Testament God=wrath, New Testament God=mercy conclusion to be drawn from the Bible. The author utilizes the theological categories of divine impassibility and simplicity to show that “wrath” as God exhibits it is not what we might envision in human anger; rather, it is an expression of holy love.

McCall’s third chapter asks whether God’s divine foreknowledge means that God killed Jesus, since he knew it was going to happen, could have stopped it, but didn’t. “God’s plan was to use the death of Jesus for his purposes and for our good,” but God himself did not cause the death. As Acts so often makes clear, McCall points out, “The apostolic proclamation of the gospel places the fault and blame on the sinners who are responsible for the death of Jesus.”

Chapter four articulates a robust theology of justification (forensic; instantaneous; by which I enter into the life of God) and sanctification (separation unto God; progressive; by which I grow in communion with God). Page 145 and following has a brilliant interpretation of Paul’s famous Romans 7:14-25 passage where he (seemingly) wrestles with sin.

One difficult implication of this book for me as a worship leader (and coach of worship leaders) is that, if McCall is right, we may be singing some not-quite-right theology in two well-known songs. “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” has a line that says, “The Father turns his face away.” And the song “In Christ Alone” says, “…till on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” McCall addresses these two claims head on and (in my opinion, successfully) refutes them. The Father did not turn his face away (see the block quote above). And to say that God the Son mollified the wrath of God the Father is to bifurcate the Trinity in some unorthodox ways. (!)

I’m not sure if it’s generally accepted for a book reviewer to admit to shedding tears when reading a review copy. (Objectivity! Right?) No matter. McCall’s concluding postscript (“A Personal Theological Testimony”) moved me to tears, as he recounted the difference “the trinitarian gospel” made for him and his family as they processed the death of his father.

Getting the theological details of the Trinity right (as best we can!) matters. It matters for our understanding of God, our relationship with him, and for all of life. In the life and truths of the Trinity–properly understood, and I think McCall a good guide here–there is great comfort. We see a God who, as McCall says, is for us. We find a God who has granted us victory over sin and death, making it possible for us to enter into communion with the triune God of love.

You can find Forsaken here at the IVP product page or on Amazon.

William L. Lane free downloads on the Gospel of Mark

Here’s a link to a Mark teaching series that Dr. William L. Lane led at Christ Community Church in Franklin, TN in 1998. He’s the author of the commentary pictured at right, one of the best for the Gospel of Mark. (Click on the image to look inside the book at Amazon.) From the By/For site:

This Mark teaching series is led by Dr. William L. Lane, author of The Gospel According to Mark from the New International Commentary on the New Testament series. This series was the final time Dr. Lane lectured on Mark.

The study page includes a pdf file of class notes and 13 lectures by Dr. Lane. See it all here.

The reactions Jesus generated (Blog Tour of Theology of Luke and Acts, by Bock)

Luke and Acts, Darrell L. Bock says, is “a very Trinitarian story.” Indeed. The two volumes taken together go a long way to instruct the reader in the mutual relationship God shares as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They also detail the founding of the early church and show how it continued Jesus’ ministry and mission.

The above video is from Zondervan, in promotion of their blog tour of Bock’s new book, A Theology of Luke and Acts. Blog tour participants each select a chapter on which to focus their review, i.e., a major theological theme. (Posts from Round 1 of the tour are all here.)

I focus my review on chapter 16, “How Response to Jesus Divides: The Opponents, the Crowds, and Rome as Observer of Events in Luke-Acts.” Having last semester taken an exegesis course on Mark, I had already become interested in how groups of people could have such radically different responses to the same person and message.

But first, the book more generally.

A Theology of Luke and Acts consists of three parts. Part One briefly addresses introductory matters (context, unity of Luke-Acts, extensive book outlines, etc.). Part Two covers the theology of Luke-Acts. (For the Contents and a sample chapter, see the pdf here.) Part Three then briefly concludes with Luke-Acts’s place in and contribution to the New Testament canon.

Bock makes the case right away for why study of Luke and Acts is important:

The biblical material from Luke-Acts is probably the largest and most neglected portion of the NT. Of the 7,947 verses in the NT, Luke-Acts comprises 2,157 verses, or 27.1 percent. …In addition, only Luke-Acts tells the story of Jesus Christ from his birth through the beginning of the church into the ministry of Paul. This linkage is important, for it gives perspective to the sequence of these events. …So thinking biblically, it is important to keep Luke and Acts together and tell the story of Acts with an eye on Luke.

Bock has spent the last 30 years in Luke and Acts. Many (myself included) consider his Baker commentaries on each book (Luke here; Acts here) to be the standard among recent evangelical Luke-Acts commentaries. Bock writes that this new volume “has allowed me to put together in one place many things I have said before in many distinct volumes.”

The author balances in-depth scholarship (extensive footnotes and a 16-page bibliography give the reader more to explore) with winsome, practical insight into the Biblical text. Of “discipleship and ethics in the new community” (chapter 15), for example, he writes,

Discipleship is both demanding and rewarding. According to Luke, it is people-focused, showing love for God and then treating others with love that parallels the love of the Father. In Acts, one sees little of the church serving itself and much of the church reaching out to those who need the Lord. For Luke, the people in the highly effective early church look outward.

For the preacher, teacher, or student working his or her way through Luke and Acts, this is a book to have at hand.

Chapter 16 addresses “How Response to Jesus Divides: The Opponents, the Crowds, and Rome as Observer of Events in Luke-Acts.” Bock notes that in his pre-Jerusalem ministry, “it is the Pharisees and teachers of the law who interact the most with Jesus among representatives of official Judaism,” often occurring together in Luke as a pair: “Pharisees and teachers of the law” (οἱ γραμματεῖς καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι).  The Pharisees, who ridicule, question, and oppose Jesus, are “the key foil for Jesus until he gets to Jerusalem.” At that point, says Bock, “the chief priests and teachers of the law take over that role with much more hostility. …Their opposition is part of the picture of a divided Israel for Luke.” Jesus’ “new way” and claims of authority “brought reaction from those who liked the old wine.”

“Crowds” (ὄχλος), by contrast, “often note Jesus’ presence or press upon him in his ministry” in a non-oppositional way. Noting the blind man’s cry from the crowd of “Son of David” (“a messianic confession of great significance”), Bock says that those “on the fringe” or margins of the crowd are “often more sensitive” to the mission and message of Jesus. Jesus interacts with the crowd, Bock says, as teacher and healer, and yet “the crowd as a group thinks of him only as a prophet (Luke 9:18).” In Acts, the crowds are more easily swayed, “being incited or worked up to oppose the new movement.”

Rome is a mixed bag. “After Jesus, her actions protect the Christians from the hostile desires of Jewish leadership, but do so with an injustice that will not recognize their rights or release them.” And yet they are still for Luke “the unseen agent of providence in their acts,” even though they may not be aware of it.

It is easy to imagine Bock’s chapter on varied reactions to Jesus aiding the preacher or teacher, especially one who wants to elaborate on the famous “Who do you say that I am?” question of Jesus. Bock guides the reader through key texts in Luke and Acts to survey various Jewish, crowd, and Roman reactions to Jesus, whose coming, if nothing else, “generated a reaction.”

I can also easily envision someone referring to other similar chapters for a quick yet thorough overview of how Luke treats other theological themes: women and the poor (chapter 17), Israel (chapter 12), salvation (chapters 10 and 11), and so on. A Theology of Luke and Acts is worthy of Bock’s other work on those two texts, and serves as a useful reference guide.

See more about the book at Zondervan here. It is available for purchase through Amazon here.

As a blog tour participant, I received a free review copy of the book from Zondervan, but without obligation to write a positive review. The blog tour continues through the end of this week. You can follow it here.

Luke (Zondervan ECNT), reviewed

The last few weeks I’ve been spending time with David Garland’s Luke volume in Zondervan’s Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (ZECNT) series.

Garland’s commentary is more than 1,000 pages, but this should not be a surprise, since Luke is the longest Gospel. Like the rest of the ZECNT series, it is “designed for the pastor and Bible teacher.” Garland assumes a basic knowledge of Greek, but Greek is not required to understand his commentary. For each passage the commentary gives the broader literary context, the main idea (great for preachers!), an original translation of the Greek and its graphical layout, the structure, an outline, explanation, and “theology in application” section.

The graphical layout of each passage is a unique contribution that Garland’s Luke makes to Luke studies. Even though a narrative book like Luke is easier to follow than some of Paul’s detailed arguments, seeing main clauses in bold with subordinate clauses indented under them (plus how they relate back to the main clause) gives the reader a quick, visual grasp of the entire passage at hand. Garland does this well, too. Pages 50 and 62-63 of the commentary in this sample pdf give you a taste.

Luke has the full Greek text of Luke, verse by verse, and full English translation by Garland (passage by passage in the graphical layout, then again verse by verse next to the Greek). A value for me in using reference works is not having to pull five more reference works off the shelf to use the first reference work! This is about as portable as exegesis of Luke gets. Garland’s English translation is a bit wooden at times–just about every καὶ in the opening narrative of 1:5-25 receives the translation “and,” which it shouldn’t always. ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν in 10:27 becomes “He answered and said,” where just “He said,” would be preferred.

Garland’s intro is short, but covers what it needs to. He attributes authorship to Luke and holds to Luke-Acts unity, as many scholars do. (“[Luke] is writing not simply about the life of Jesus but what Jesus inaugurated that continued in the deeds of his followers (Acts 1:1-8)” (27).) He understands Luke-Acts as fitting into the genre of “Hellenistic historiography.” He treats Luke’s potential sources, date of writing, readers, location, purpose, and structural outline. There is an additional “theology of Luke” section at the back of the commentary that complements the introduction. It doesn’t cover all the theological themes in Luke (healing/exorcism, for example, is absent), but it doesn’t claim to, either.

Where Garland really shines in this commentary is in his treatment of the Greek words and phrases that comprise the Luke text. He attends to the lexical meaning of given words, how they function in context, and their use in other parts of Scripture. This is helpful especially for parts of Luke where the Greek vocabulary is more obscure or difficult.

Teachers and preachers especially will appreciate the “Theology in Application” section that concludes each passage. To the pastor wondering how to preach on something like Luke’s prologue, Garland writes:

The purpose of the gospel is not to give information but certainty that will change lives. Erudition about Jesus is not the same as insight into Jesus. The history of Jesus is not to be divorced from the proclamation about Jesus, as if the two were somehow incompatible. (58)

This comes after a detailed exegesis of the first four verses. As someone with preaching experience, I can say this combination of thorough attention to the Greek text with contemporary application is pure gold.

Inevitably no commentary can say everything about every word in the text, but there are parts of Luke that I thought deserved more attention. For example, in Luke 8:31 the demons known as Legion beg Jesus not to cast them into the Abyss (Greek ἄβυσσος). Garland just offers, “The Abyss is the place of punishment for evil spirits” (358). Although he infers that this verse shows the “eschatological dimension” to exorcisms, nothing more is given about ἄβυσσος. For a word that appears just once in the Gospels yet multiple times in the Old Testament and Apocrypha, more background on this term would have been useful to the reader. This could, of course, merely reflect a space limitation in the commentary.

On the other hand, Garland’s commentary on the Good Samaritan parable (“merciful” as Garland has it) leaves out just about nothing. To provide needed historical context to the passage, Garland draws on what Josephus said about priests, what Sirach said about helping those in need, and includes an excursus on the “adversarial history” of Jews and Samaritans. Garland compellingly concludes from the parable:

The original Jewish audience must enter the ditch and accept a Samaritan as a savior, helper, and healer. They must experience being touched by this unclean enemy who treats a wounded man as a compatriot. (446)

Garland seeks to prove right the series claim that “all who strive to understand and teach the New Testament will find these books beneficial,” and he succeeds in this. Preachers or students of Luke will want to supplement Garland’s work with other works on Luke (Bock’s two volume set remains the standard), but the graphical layout of each passage and the theology in application sections alone are enough to warrant careful consideration of this volume.

(I am grateful to Zondervan for the free review copy of this commentary, which was offered to me in exchange for an unbiased review. You can find the book on Amazon here.)

UPDATE: Enter to win a free book giveaway of Ephesians from this same series.

Restoration in the Wilderness

From the wilderness comes restoration.

The wilderness for Israel was all too often a place of dissension and lack of trust in God’s promises.

Exodus 17:7 says, “Moses called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, on account of the quarreling of the children of Israel, and on account of their testing Yahweh, which they did by saying, ‘Is Yahweh in the midst of us or not?'” (AKJV) Massah means testing and Meribah means strife or quarreling. “Whining” would not be an inappropriate translation for Meribah. Psalm 78 (go here and scroll down to 78) details the repeated lack of faith Israel had in their delivering God.

(Disclaimer: I am not claiming I would have done better or have done better in wilderness settings.)

In the Gospels, however, Jesus redeems and transforms the wilderness experience on behalf of the entire people of God. In the New Testament Jesus serves as a stand-in for the people of God, both in the wilderness and on the cross.

One of Mark’s first καὶ εὐθὺς statements has Jesus going into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. But unlike the people of God in Exodus, Jesus did not sin when he was tempted to walk away from God and worship another. I once heard a preacher say that where Adam failed, where Israel failed, and where all humanity failed… Jesus succeeded on behalf of all people when he refused to listen to Satan in the wilderness.

The wilderness, isolated place that it is, connects with hope to the whole of salvation history.  John the Baptist, the “voice of one crying in the wilderness,” hearkens back to Old Testament prophets that “prepare the way of the Lord.”  John self-identifies as the prophet par excellence who prepares the way for Jesus. The wilderness may be lonely and despairing, but it is also the place to which Jesus comes.

As R.T. France writes, “The wilderness was a place of hope, of new beginnings…in the wilderness God’s people would again find their true destiny.”

From the wilderness comes restoration—even if it’s only the beginning of the process of restoration. Saint Mark’s first listeners/readers saw the wilderness motif immediately at the beginning of the Gospel (no birth narrative!), with John as prophet in the wilderness and with Jesus conquering Satan’s temptation in the wilderness. This alerted them that something significant was about to happen.

“Is God in our midst or not?”

I confess I’m too quick to ask that question with Israel when I find myself in a proverbial desert. But the desert wilderness is the exact place to which God saw fit to send John, preaching the good news of forgiveness and calling people to a baptism of repentance. The desert wilderness is the exact place to which God saw fit to drive Jesus, so that he could resist the devil’s temptations, beginning to win for us a victory we could never win for ourselves. God in Jesus restores what we have made “Massah” and “Meribah” by our lack of trust and rush to complaint.

Next wilderness I come to, I’m going to try to ask myself… what restoration is on the other side of this?

Mark the Action Movie

And immediately!

Mark’s Gospel has earned a reputation as the fast-moving, action-oriented Gospel out of the four. It is shorter than the other two Synoptic Gospels and John (cool chart on NT book length here). At times Mark’s urgency in his narrative accounts feels like an action movie. He frequently uses the Greek  εὐθὺς (“at once” or “immediately” in most English translations) as he shifts from scene to scene, especially in his first chapter. And unlike the other Synoptic Gospels of Matthew and Luke, there is no birth story of Jesus, no genealogy. Instead, Mark announces right off the bat what his book is about: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God” (1:1), then quickly brings in John the Baptist to introduce a full-grown Jesus, who begins his ministry preparation by receiving John’s baptism.

And immediately, as he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove, and a voice came from the heavens: ‘You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased” (1:10-11).

And immediately the Spirit compelled him to go into the wilderness” (1:12)….

“And” (Greek  καὶ), “immediately” ( εὐθὺς), and “then immediately” ( καὶ εὐθὺς) are favorites of Mark’s. I once heard someone compare his storytelling style to an excited young kid who really wants to tell you a story: “And then… and then… and then!”  Mark’s enthusiasm, even coming through this one small literary device, is contagious to the reader who is listening to Mark tell about Jesus, the Son of God. Mark seems barely able to catch his breath as he recounts his gospel.

R.T. France on Mark

R.T. France’s commentary on Mark focuses on the Greek text, but I’d recommend it to anyone interested in carefully working through the Gospel of Mark, regardless of Greek knowledge. France takes the utmost care to interpret the text, providing much relevant background and comparison with other Gospels. Even as he is exegeting a single word or phrase from one verse, he always has the whole contour of the book in mind. While he does not formally have an application section as such, the conclusions he draws from the text are such that the careful reader could easily come up with applications from France’s insights.

France’s work is technical, yet easy enough to read, especially for a commentary. Beyond its superb quality as a technical/academic commentary, it has even gone so far as to more deeply inspire me in my own view of Jesus and his ministry. It’s well worth the money to purchase this book, and well worth the effort to work one’s way through it.

Sadly, France just passed away in February.  I was fortunate to be taking a class this past semester where this commentary was the primary textbook.