Teach the Text: Luke by R.T. France

R.T. France
R.T. France

I’ve always had a hard time answering who my “favorite author” was (how could I pick just one?), but when it comes to people who have written about the Bible, R.T. France is definitely in the top three. I found myself moved to tears several times when reading through his highly technical (read: supposed to be dry) commentary on Mark.

So I was thrilled when I learned that Baker’s Teach the Text Commentary Series (TTT) had R.T. France as the author of its Luke volume. France died in February 2012, so to have this posthumous work of his is a real treat–especially since he already has a major commentary on Matthew and one on Mark. This rounds out France’s writing on the Synoptic Gospels.

So far the TTT series is a strong entry into the already highly populated world of commentaries. I reviewed the Romans volume here. Baker has a fantastic series Website here with plenty of information, videos, and samples from the series.

How France Teaches Luke

France divides the 24 chapters of Luke into 65 text units (or passages), each of which receives six pages of commentary. It breaks down in this way: 

“Big Idea” at the beginning of each commentary passage.This is a short Tweet-length summary of the passage. For example, the Big Idea for Luke 1:57-80 (“The Birth of John”) is: “Both the extraordinary circumstances of his birth and his father’s inspired utterance testify to John’s pivotal role in the plan of salvation.”

A “Key Themes” sidebar. This is a set of bullet points that gives the highlights of each passage.

“Understanding the Text.” Here France offers:

  • The Text in Context (one of his real gifts is a sense of always knowing the larger literary context, and reminding the reader of it)
  • Outline/Structure
  • Historical and Cultural Background
  • Verse-by-verse Interpretive Insights
  • Theological Insights

France is especially adept in the Theological Insights section. He is reliable, creative, and faithful to the text. His experience as both scholar and pastor seems to have helped here.

“Teaching the Text.” France offers specific suggestions for how the preacher might approach the sermon on each text.

“Illustrating the Text.” Whether it’s a personal story, someone else’s anecdote, history, literature, film, or art, France gives ideas for how the preacher or teacher can illustrate the message.

France’s introduction to Luke is a mere seven pages (which includes commentary on Luke 1:1-4), but his awareness of literary and biblical context throughout the book offers what one might otherwise miss by way of introductory matters.

How France Treats a Passage (Luke 17:1-19)

Luke by FranceTo explore a sample passage more in depth, France combines Luke 17:1-19 into one passage, on which he spends the requisite six pages. The decision to treat Luke 17:1-19 as a single passage limits how much he can offer, and occasionally the reader will experience the results of such space limitations in TTT. (This is part of the purpose of the series, though, and is perhaps just indicative of my desire for more France.) Luke 17:1-10 (itself consisting of “four separate units of teaching”) and 17:11-19 probably ought to be treated as two separate passages–the Revised Common Lectionary, among other places, does.

His “Big Idea” in this section (“True discipleship cannot be undertaken causally; the service of God demands all that we can bring to it”) is more relevant to vv. 1-10 than it is to vv. 11-19.  (By contrast, this similarly-targeted Luke commentary has, “Faith recognizes Jesus as the source of healing and expresses itself in gratitude and praise to him,” for vv. 11-19.)

Even so, France has this good insight to offer on verse 19:

This formula [‘your faith has made you well’] is often a ‘performative utterance,’ but not here, since the cure of the ten has already taken place, all of them presumably through similar ‘faith.’ But this man’s overt praise of God is evidence of a spiritual health that Jews would not expect to find in a Samaritan.

And his “Teaching the Text” portion does suggest ways to preach from vv. 1-10 and vv. 11-19 as separate passages. On the latter he writes:

France on Luke 17_1France on Luke 17_2

In “Illustrating the Text” France moves between a 1962 film (Days of Wine and Roses, about leading another into alcoholism), a personal anecdote on forgiveness by Cardinal Bernardin, and a quotation by author Lewis B. Smedes on gratitude and happiness.

As with the Romans Teach the Text volume, the illustrations throughout help the reader better envision what’s going on in the biblical text. Here’s a portion from the passage that describes Zacchaeus’s encounter with Jesus:

Zacchaeus's Sycamore Tree
Zacchaeus’s Sycamore Tree

An added bonus is the high quality of the book materials. The hardcover looks pretty indestructible, the binding is sewn, and the pages are thick and glossy (but not too glossy to accept notes from a writing utensil). The full-color pages throughout are a nice touch, too. Translation: this commentary will make it through multiple series and preaching cycles on Luke. I’ve even been able to use it recently as I preach through Matthew, consulting the parallel passages here.

There are already five TTT volumes available, with more on the way. If the quality of this series continue to match that of France and Pate (Romans), I’ll want to keep consulting this series, and other preachers and teachers will want to, as well.

Thanks to Baker Publishing for the review copy of Luke. Its Baker product page is here, and it is for sale at Amazon here.

Teach the Text Commentary Series: Romans, reviewed

First things first: Do we really need another commentary series? This video from Baker Publishing offers an (affirmative) answer, as it introduces the new Teach the Text Commentary Series:

I agree. As I’ve worked through the Romans volume in the Teach the Text (TTT) series, by C. Marvin Pate, I’ve appreciated the way it balances “the best of biblical scholarship” with the actual end product of the sermon in view. TTT has a fantastic accompanying Website.

TTTBaker has summarized the layout of the commentary well here. Each text unit (or passage) is “six pages of focused commentary,” consisting of the following:

“Big Idea” at the head of each passage. This is not to be confused with “big idea” preaching, as this commentary’s “big idea” tends to stay within the world and era of the biblical text.

A “Key Themes” sidebar. This expands a bit on the “big idea” in bullet-point format to draw out key points from a given passage.

“Understanding the Text.” This is the meat of the commentary, and covers literary context, outline and structure, historical background, theology, and interpretation.

“Teaching the Text.” Here Pate offers guidance in how one could preach and/or teach the text, with an eye specifically to application. Pate suggests what sermons/sermon topics come to mind for him in a given passage. More technical or scholarly commentaries tend not to include this step.

“Illustrating the Text.” This feels like the added bonus section. Having a topic in mind is just a first step. Culling from history, literature, art, the social sciences, and more, Pate gives ideas for how the preacher or teacher could help make the sermon or lesson come alive via illustration.

The full-color photographs throughout the text are of high quality, and help connect the reader visually to the ancient world.

From the commentary: Corinth, where Paul wrote Romans
From the commentary: Corinth, where Paul wrote Romans

There are also “Additional Insights” throughout the commentary, that more fully develop themes like “The Backgrounds of Christian Baptism,” “Faith and Law in Paul,” and others.

Pate’s 15-page introduction to Romans covers Paul’s world(s), letters, theology, composition, Romans in history, date and place of writing, recipients, theme, purpose, and genre. He writes:

Paul therefore writes Romans to defend his gospel of the grace of God through Christ by arguing that it is rooted in the Old Testament (Rom. 2-5), providing the disclaimer that it is not antinomian in ethic (God’s grace is not a license to sin [so Rom. 6-8]), and holding out a future for Israel (Rom. 9-11).

Not all will agree with Pate’s view of “Romans as Paul’s official doctrinal statement,” but, then again, many will. I was wishing the introduction had given more attention to Paul’s theme of a justification by faith that is decidedly pan-ethnic. Pate does talk about “the end-time conversion of the nations,” but there is also a sense in which Paul is interested in multiethnic justification (where all are saved by faith, whether Jew or Gentile) now. Fortunately the body of the commentary does address this theme in places (e.g., in Rom. 3:21-26–“So Paul’s point is that God offers justification equitably to all”).

Roman empire map
From the commentary: map of the Roman Empire

Pate is able to interpret from multiple vantage points, synthesizing material across centuries that will benefit preachers in their sermon preparation. He moves from lexical analysis (Greek is transliterated) to 1st century historical background to practical theology in a fairly seamless manner. The illustrations are on point, too. He points out, for example, in Romans 13:13-14, that Augustine’s conversion story included meditation on these verses. The same unit includes an illustration involving Jean Valjean and Les Mis. Movie illustrations and hymn quotations are particularly present throughout, though preachers will also want to use their own, original illustrations, too.

The series claims to be “an essential commentary for pastors.” If and as pastoral budgets permit, I’d echo the sentiment and recommend this series as a worthy bookshelf addition.

More TTT volumes are on the way, including a posthumous Luke volume by the blessed R.T. France. Lord willing, as I continue to preach through Luke, I’ll review France’s volume in the future. A full-color pdf sample of Romans (including the introduction and first passage) is here.

Thanks to Baker Publishing for the review copy of Romans. Its Baker product page is here, and it is for sale at Amazon here.

Congratulations to…

… Clifford Kvidahl, the winner of the Ephesians ZECNT commentary giveaway. Congratulations, Clifford, and enjoy your new book!

Thank you to everyone who entered the giveaway. I’ll do another one in the not-so-distant future, so keep coming back. You can subscribe to this blog using the “Follow” button on the right sidebar, or follow me on Twitter. Here’s my weekend recap of Words on the Word posts:

BibleWorks and the Septuagint / How to Speed Read / Best pastoring site

Also, in today’s Magnificent Monograph Monday, I review Leslie C. Allen’s “Pastoral Commentary” on Lamentations, A Liturgy of Grief (amazon). Review here.

By the way, what I would ask Paul over coffee: “Can you tell me more about Junia?”