Why Didn’t Paul Use Parables?

As much as I have sought to meditate on the words of Jesus and the apostle Paul, one significant thought had never occurred to me:

“Interestingly, Jesus’s mode of parabolic discourse was generally not emulated in the early Christian tradition.”

That’s from Richard Hays, George Washington Ivey Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Duke Divinity School. It comes from an essay in his remarkable book Reading with the Grain of Scripture.

In other words, why didn’t Paul and James and Peter and John and Jude and Priscilla/Barnabas/Luke/Clement use parables?

Intent as they all were on imitating Jesus and carrying on his teaching, why did they not also imitate Jesus by carrying on his teaching method of using parables?

(As I’ve begun to reflect on this, I think James may come the closest to using parable-like discourse.)

As best as I can tell, it might just come down to this: the rest of the New Testament writers seemed to understand their calling and giftedness as teachers/writers differently.

Still, even if they’re not going to use parables themselves, why don’t Paul and the others at least reflect more on the parables of Jesus?

Titus For You, Reviewed

Tim Keller’s For You series now includes contributions from other authors. I reviewed Keller’s Romans 1-7 For You here. In this post I review Tim Chester’s Titus For You.

But allow me to allow Chester to introduce the book. Here he is:


The books in the For You series claim to not be commentaries. Instead, the Titus For You product page describes what kind of book it is:

Written for people of every age and stage, from new believers to pastors and teachers, this flexible resource is for you to:

• READ: As a guide to this wonderful letter, exciting and equipping you to live out the truth in your life.
• FEED: As a daily devotional to help you grow in Christ as you read and meditate on this portion of God’s word.
• LEAD: As notes to aid you in explaining, illustrating and applying Titus as you preach or lead a Bible study.

Titus For YouThe book is short and its tone conversational. Chester begins with a short introduction to the book, then divides Titus into seven units (each of them split again into two parts) for comment. Reflection questions throughout help the reader digest the book, and could also be used in small group settings. At the close is a short glossary and six-book bibliography of sorts.

What folks will find most beneficial about Chester’s book is his ability to re-state Paul in easy-to-understand terms. For example, when discussing Titus 1:7-11 Chester says:

There are two common dangers in pastoral ministry and Paul is alert to both of them. They are what we might call over-pastoring and under-pastoring.

He elaborates on each kind of pastoring to help explain Paul’s exhortations to Titus in this first chapter.

Similarly helpful was Chester’s description in the section on Titus 2 (especially verse 14) of the Christian’s identity:

In Christ, we are members of the royal family of the universe. That is our status, and we cannot lose it. And our behaviour should match who we are. Royal children have royal manners.

One can easily see Chester’s concern with practical application of Paul’s letter in broader contexts. This makes it suitable as a go-to for devotional reading.

The introduction to Titus was not as substantive as I’d have liked. Or, at least, I wouldn’t feel prepared to lead a small group through the book from just having read this short introduction. (There was hardly anything about Crete, Titus’s setting.) Even the introduction in a good Study Bible (of similar or shorter length) could be more elucidating as to how to understand and read Titus.

I appreciated Chester’s interpretation of Titus as having to do with church “succession planning.” He (rightly, in my opinion) distinguishes between instructions for church structures that are “context-specific” and those that are “for ministry in every time and place.”

Nonetheless, I disagree with Chester’s interpretation that eldership in the church is to be male-only. This is a piece of Paul’s letter that I take to be context-specific and not universally binding–though I’m not sure Paul even intended in Titus to be talking about an elder’s sex, as such. Even as I tried to have an open mind on the issue, I didn’t think that the author made much of a case for his interpretation of Titus. And the idea of men as “good leaders in their home” does not really appear in Titus at all–not even in a context-specific instance.

UPDATE, 6/30/14: I glossed over this before, but wanted to mention (along similar lines as the above) that I found his application of Titus 2 to be offensive. I’m sure he didn’t intend it to be, but nonetheless: “It is not that younger women cannot have a career. But if they are wives and mothers, home is the primary place where they are to serve.” On the contrary, this is not a biblical mandate, and God calls plenty of “wives and mothers” to serve outside of the home, even to have robust careers… just as God calls “husbands and fathers” to the same!

There are some typos scattered throughout the book (including erroneously spelled Greek, as was also true in the Keller Romans volume) that the reader will have to try to ignore.

I did find Titus For You a largely worthwhile read (in spite of interpretive disagreements I had at other spots, too), but I think that for background and Bible study and teaching preparation, readers might want to start elsewhere. Then, perhaps, one could turn to Titus For You for some helpful suggestions as to how to understand and teach the application of the passages–theological caveat above notwithstanding.

Thanks to Cross-Focused Reviews and The Good Book Company for the review copy. You can find Titus For You on Amazon here.

Before and After #NoFilter

A sermon on Romans 6:1-11, on the day of ocean baptisms.

I’ve always been a little suspicious of Before and After photos. It’s as if Before photos are bad on purpose, and After photos do everything they can to try to enhance the actual improvements that have taken place, whether the subject is a human body or a newly improved, re-stained back deck.

I just found an article about a Before and After set of photos of an Australian fitness trainer. On first glance the After photo looks like about three months worth of exercise and nutritional improvement, compared to the Before.

Before and After

But, in fact, one scrolls down past the Before and After to see a note: “Check out my transformation! It took me 15 minutes.” Meaning, the Before and After photos were 15 minutes apart.

A paragraph accompanying the photos goes on, in part:

Wanna know my secret?  I…. smothered on some fake tan, clipped in my hair extensions, stood up a bit taller, sucked in my guts, popped my hip, threw in a skinny arm, stood a bit wider…pulled my shoulders back…Zoomed in on the before pic, zoomed out on the after and added a filter. Cause filters make everything awesome.

It seems that actual transformation–whether it’s of our bodies or of our inner selves–is elusive. We often try to short-change the process, or make things look better than they really are. And yet it’s a burning human desire to be different, to look better, to grow, to change.

Paul’s Before and After

The apostle Paul understands that. He speaks in Romans 6 of true transformation, a fundamental shift in the selfhood of the one who believes in Jesus. There is no doctoring of Before or After photos needed, because the picture of transformation that Paul paints is the most real kind of personal change there is.

For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.

When we give ourselves to Jesus, we understand that sin does not rule over us. We are free from having to sin. We are free from the inevitability of it.

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Even as we are being sanctified, we’re far from sinless–and the next chapter in Romans will emphasize this frustrating reality. But we are to consider ourselves dead to sin, or, we might say, that sin is dead to us, because we are “alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

This is “Before and After” for the child of God:

Before: living in a body of sin, slaves to sin, an old, listless, aimless self.

After: dead to sin, alive to God, united with Jesus in his death, and so united also with him–and other Christians–in his resurrection glory, in new life.

This true transformation, the Christian’s inward change, Paul points out, is marked by baptism:

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

The old self walks to the edge of the water, wades in, is dipped under–washed in the ocean of God’s love and forgiveness–and the new self comes up, freed to live a new life in Jesus.

Or as God’s prophet Ezekiel so eloquently put it:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

What Baptism Is

Baptism is a physical, visible, experiential sign of this inward transformation that takes place when a person says, “Yes,” to the gift of God’s grace.

In just a few moments I will ask our candidates, “Do you renounce the powers of evil and desire the freedom of new life in Christ?” They will say, “I do.” Before: we were slaves to sin, afraid to even try to cast off the “powers of evil.” Or maybe we didn’t want to. After: we have renounced those powers. We celebrate our freedom. We have new life in Christ.

Also in just a few moments, all of us, as a congregation, will say: “Out of the waters of baptism, we rise with new life, forgiven of sin, and one in Christ, members of Christ’s body.” We affirm this “Before and After” that baptism represents, and we do it in a larger, communal context. We are “one in Christ, members of Christ’s body.”

Ancient Baptismal Pool (Source: Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary)
Ancient Baptismal Pool (Source: Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary)

As we’ve gone through our high school confirmation class last month and this month, we’ve been talking about baptism and confirmation as a multi-faceted commitment. On the one hand, baptismal candidates and confirmands are themselves making a public commitment to God in the presence of us, the church. And on the other hand, we promise our commitment to them as they seek to carry out their baptismal vows. Ultimately, the waters of baptism signify God’s commitment to us to continue and one day complete his work in us.

So please do support these young people who are about to be baptized, as best you are able. When they go out of state for college and then come back on breaks to worship here, ask them how they’re doing–not just in school, but in their relationship to God. Seek them out during coffee hours in future Sundays. Commit to pray for them. You might even pick one or two of the folks you see being baptized today and decide that you will pray for them by name, for the next month, six months, two years.


We began our confirmation class with a short teaching video and discussion centered around the question, “Who Am I?” How do I understand my identity as a person? We watched and discussed a short video by a teacher from Grand Rapids, Michigan named Rob Bell.

Bell talked about our tendencies to compare ourselves with others, to measure ourselves against those around us. As he talked, the camera followed a cast of actors who had t-shirts with a single word printed on the back: baker, consultant, double degree, Southern, apathetic, ashamed, listener… single words that can define how we think about ourselves, especially in relation to others.

But Bell says:

We need to be saved from all the times we haven’t been our true selves. All the times we’ve tried to be someone else.

All of the lies we’ve believed about who God made when God made us. All the times we’ve asked the wrong questions:

‘What about him? What about her? What about them?’

And we’ve missed the voice of Jesus saying, ‘You, follow me.’

To those who are about to be baptized, I want to say, this is who you are: one who is loved dearly by God, one who is saying “yes” to Jesus’ invitation to follow him. You are choosing to not miss that voice. You are saying, “Yes, I will follow.”

Your decision to be baptized means that you are affirming your identity in Jesus–as one who is “forgiven of sin, and one in Christ with the members of Christ’s body, the church.” “The old has gone, the new has come,” as Scripture says. Baptism is a physical sign of the ultimate “Before and After” transformation.

Remember Your Baptism

This Baptism Sunday is also a chance us who have already been baptized to remember our baptism. We know that we at times wander away from God, but we can never be un-baptized. We always come back to our fundamental identity as ones forgiven by God’s grace, and given new life.

So, whether your baptism was years ago or is about to happen today: remember your baptism.

Whenever you look at the ocean, may God remind you of the cleansing, washing power of his forgiveness.

May the vast waters call to mind the immensity and intensity of Christ’s love for you.

Remember who you were before you said “yes” to following Jesus, but especially remember the new life to which you are now called.

Just as Jesus Christ died, was buried, and rose again, “In the same way, Paul says, “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Scripture quotations above are from the 1984 NIV. See my other sermons gathered here.

Of Paul, James, Mattathias, and Phinehas: Works and Reckoned Righteousness

From Jesus to the Church Welcome to today’s stop of the book blog tour of Craig A. Evans’s From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian GenerationI’m covering chapter 4, “Phinehan Zeal and Works of the Law: What Paul and James Are Really Saying.” Brian at Near Emmaus introduces the book here, and quotes from the introduction, which is worth repeating:

The present study is not a history of the early church; it is not even a history of its first generation. It is, rather, a study narrowly focused on the clash between the family of high priest Annas and the family of Jesus of Nazareth, a class inaugurated by a Jeremiah-related prophecy of the temple’s doom, uttered by Jesus, and ended by another Jeremiah-related prophecy, uttered by another man named Jesus.

The title, then, is a bit misleading, or at least more general than the actual contents of the book.

Continue reading “Of Paul, James, Mattathias, and Phinehas: Works and Reckoned Righteousness”

Timothy Keller’s Romans 1-7 For You

Timothy Keller introduces his Romans 1-7 For You:

The books in the For You series are accessible guides, useful for individual reading or for preparing to teach a group or lead a Bible study on a book of the Bible. The book’s product page puts it like this:

Written for people of every age and stage, from enquirers to new believers to pastors and teachers, this flexible resource is for you to:

• READ: As a guide to this wonderful letter, helping you appreciate the great gift of righteousness with God.
• FEED: As a daily devotional to help you grow in Christ as you read and meditate on this portion of God’s word.
• LEAD: As notes to aid you in explaining, illustrating and applying Romans 1–7 as you preach or lead a Bible study.

Whoever you are, and however you use it, this is… Romans 1-7 For You

I used Keller’s Galatians For You when preaching through Galatians this summer, and found it a helpful guide. Like the Galatians volume, Romans 1-7 generally succeeds in its aim to help readers “read, feed, and lead.” Keller presents his exposition of Romans in an accessible way. He says, “Romans is, at its heart, a letter about the gospel.”

From the first chapter the passage-by-passage comments bring the reader into the world of the text. Paul’s self-identification as “a servant of Christ Jesus” in Romans 1:1 means:

He has direct authority from Christ to teach. What he writes is Scripture. What follows is true.

Like many commentators before him, Keller takes Romans 1:16-17 to be “Paul’s nutshell summary of the gospel–his central thesis statement out of which flows the rest of the letter.” Throughout the rest of the book Keller refers to Paul’s gospel and shows how the rest of chapters 1-7 connect to the thesis statement. Keller not only shows a good sense of how the book fits together, but he also brings in other passages for a fairly robust biblical theology. This has helped me to see how Romans fits in with the rest of Scripture.

Romans 1-7 For You_KellerKeller’s writing is simple and engaging. There are some memorable lines, like this one, referring to the Old and New Testaments: “Every page that God wrote before outlines what he has now declared in full color.”

Each section concludes with “Questions for reflection,” which work well on an individual level and could also be employed in a group setting.

The devotional application is strong here, too. Readers rarely will have to wonder how a given text relates to them, and how it is calling them to live in light of it. This was perhaps what I most appreciated about the guide.

In so doing, however, the book does at times seem to go beyond what Paul himself is writing. For example, it wasn’t clear to me how Keller could conclude from Romans 1:16-17: “The gospel message is actually the power of God in verbal, cognitive form.” Though Keller is right, I think, that Paul says the gospel itself is power, I can’t find support in the text for its being explicitly verbal or “cognitive.” There were other times I felt Keller’s efforts at application or biblical theology went farther afield than Paul might have intended.

Though the series assumes no knowledge of biblical languages, there are a few Greek transliterated words and definitions. Unfortunately, three of those words are misspelled, which would make it difficult for someone who didn’t otherwise know Greek to look them up. There are a few other typos in the book, too–nothing egregious, but distracting, nonetheless.

There is a simple glossary at the back, as well as appendices. The appendices are three:

  • A detailed 11-page “Summary of Romans 1-7”
  • “Identifying the Idols of the Heart”
  • A few pages of Keller’s assessment of the “new perspective” on Paul

I’ve written more about Romans, and interacted with a number of Romans commentaries here.

The book’s accessibility, Keller’s obvious love for Jesus, and his emphasis on personal application all commend it, though I’d also suggest using it in tandem with something else (Moo and Stott come to mind, both listed in Keller’s bibliography) for the sake of balance and thoroughness.

Thanks to Cross-Focused Reviews and The Good Book Company for the review copy. You can find Romans 1-7 on Amazon here.

What is Romans Really About? (Revisited)

Romans by Jewett

When I read Romans straight through in one sitting a couple of years ago, I was surprised to see Paul’s emphasis on a community of believers. The justification by faith theme was there, to be sure, but I did not see quite the emphasis on individual and personal justification that I had expected. Of course Paul cares about individual justification, but his larger concern seems to be this: justification by faith in Jesus is available to all people. Because God’s salvation is pan-ethnic, Jew and Gentile should not fight but should celebrate instead their unity–since they both sin and are justified in the same way.

I’ve been encouraged the last couple of years to see a number of commentaries understanding the book in this same way. Robert Jewett describes his journey through Romans as a similar one.

Fortress Press is already a purveyor of some good Romans commentaries and monographs. I write here about Krister Stendahl’s Final Account: Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Fortress also published the under-noticed Conflict and Identity in Romans by Philip Francis Esler, which I briefly note here. Jewett’s Romans: A Short Commentary is an abridgment of his more than 1,000 page Hermeneia volume on Romans. Kudos to Prof. Jewett and Fortress Press for publishing a shorter, more widely accessible, more affordable version of what has already become a bit of a classic among Romans commentaries.

In the Introduction to this short(er) commentary, Jewett writes:

The most troubling of [the interpretive] challenges was the slowly emerging awareness that the dominant paradigm for interpreting justification by faith as individual forgiveness of sins was not supported by the actual wording of Romans.

He states his case more strongly than I would, but he notes that the letter instead focuses on “honor and shame” and the effort to “bring together believing Jews and non-Jews in one community” (here he cites Halvor Moxnes). “I gradually recognized,” Jewett goes on, “that the central issue was setting the world right by overcoming its perverse systems of honor and shame.” The letter is “a magnificent example of evangelical persuasion.” In order to secure support for his missionary efforts in Spain, Paul would seek

that the gospel of impartial, divine righteousness revealed in Christ be clarified to rid it of prejudicial elements that were currently dividing the congregations in Rome. …The gospel offered grace to every group in equal measure, shattering the imperial premise of exceptionalism in virtue and honor.

The bigger brother
The bigger brother (click image for details)

This understanding of Romans is evident throughout the commentary. Though the 18 chapters proceed passage-by-passage, there is a lot of verse-level detail. There isn’t the same amount of text-critical or technical detail that you’d expect from a full-blown Hermeneia volume, but that’s the point. What is still very much present here is a sense of the theological import of each passage, as well as the important historical and literary background details.

Romans: A Short Commentary, like Stendhal’s volume, includes the author’s original translation of Romans at the back of the book. Having reference to the whole text is convenient, though this there is more flipping back and forth required than in Hermeneia, where the text is at the beginning of each commentary passage.

From the very beginning phrase, Jewett is at ease with the letter and draws the reader in with both expertise and readable style. On “Paul, slave of Christ Jesus,” a phrase which “sounds rather degrading to the modern ear,” Jewett notes, “This would have made perfect sense in a letter to Rome, where influential slaves in imperial service proudly bore the title ‘slave of Caesar.'” If there is a “single theme in Romans” (which Jewett seems to accept), it is “the gospel,” with Romans 1:16 “[setting] the tone for the entire letter.” His focus on the communal component of offering “your bodies as a sacrifice” in Romans 12 was fresh and interesting, too.

One unfortunate gap in the volume is exegesis of Romans 16:1-16 and 16:21-23. Though every other verse of Romans is otherwise covered, the commentary moves from “chapter 17” (which goes through 15:33) to “chapter 18” (which begins at 16:17). I can’t imagine this was an intentional oversight, especially given the importance of Romans 16 to Jewett’s read of the letter as a whole.

There is a page or so in the introduction where Jewett talks about those Paul greets and their congregations, but this shorter work does not further comment on the early part of chapter 16. The reader never gets to read Jewett’s elaboration on “the social structure of the Roman congregations,” even though he says elsewhere in this volume that “the actual climax of Paul’s letter runs from 15:14 through 16:24.”

Is Paul writing Romans 16:25-27 here?
Is Paul writing Romans 16:25-27 here?

The lack of any comment on these key verses is all the more felt by readers as a loss, since not all will find Jewett’s read of the rest of Romans 16 compelling. He says that the “varied endings of Paul’s letter” (16:17-20, 25-27) were “inserted into  Romans” after Paul died. This itself is not so bad (even if I’m not convinced), but part of his motivation for saying so is that these two endings are “anti-Pauline.” The “exhort” and “steer away” of 16:17, he says, are “angry, authoritarian, and discriminatory.” But how? What if Paul is chastising anti-Semites here?

And despite what I think is a convincing link between “obedience of faith to/for all the Gentiles” in 1:5 and 16:26, Jewett says that 16:25-27 is not by Paul. Worse, it has “encouraged the dominance of anti-Semitism in Christian theology,” since in it only Gentiles and not Jews are mentioned. He contrasts that with the opening chapter’s “the Jew first and then to the Greek.” While he makes a good case for the semantic style of this doxology being less like the rest of Romans, I think he over-reads the anti-Jewish element, which I don’t see at all. It comes across as an argument from silence to say that lack of mention of Jewish believers in 16:25-27 means that the writer now is “excluding” them.

So I would go elsewhere for exegesis on chapter 16.

The book is otherwise fairly well-reasoned, thoroughly-researched, and a nice distillation of Jewett’s massive work in the Hermeneia series. Readers will also note that Jewett is humble enough to offer adjustments of his exegesis from Hermeneia(E.g., “What I overlooked was….”) Readers, then, get even more up-to-date thinking and research from Prof. Jewett.

If you’re studying Romans in depth, you’ll still want to try to take a gander at the larger volume. But this smaller volume will do as an initial entry point into Jewett’s copious research on Paul’s important letter.

Thanks to Fortress Press for the review copy of Romans: A Shorter Commentary. Its publisher’s product page is here, and it is for sale at Amazon here.

What is the “Armor of God”? A Brief Reflection

armorEphesians 6:10-11 says, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God….”

This “of” is perhaps best understood to mean, “the armor that God himself wears, that is also available to you.” Isaiah 59:17 talks about the Lord (“Yahweh”) putting on righteousness like a breastplate and a helmet of salvation. Ephesians 6 mentions these same items.

The “armor” we are called to put on, then, is God’s own armor. We “put on” the attributes and characteristics of God. Because of his righteousness, we are called righteous. Because he is a God of peace, we can be at peace and make peace with others. Because of the faithfulness of Jesus, we can have faith.

And, what is more, God-as-Warrior is going on ahead of each of us, wearing that “armor,” fighting spiritual battles before us. As we follow him, we are given his same armor to wear.

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.

Colossians and Philemon (Zondervan ECNT), reviewed

col phil zecntI got an ad in the mail the other day for a new commentary series that claimed to avoid all the weaknesses of previous commentary series while building on their strengths. (!)

With how many good “old” commentaries there are, I think commentary users should critically examine new series, and certainly not take claims like the above too seriously. (Every commentary set has weaknesses.)

That said–Zondervan’s new Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series is a real winner. It adds important elements to the mix that are not present in previously published commentaries. As a preacher with a scholarly interest in Scripture, I find this series to cover many bases well. It would be good for a student, professor, preacher, or even someone who didn’t know Greek and wanted to go more deeply into a given book.

I’ve (favorably) reviewed James and Luke in the same ZECNT series. Like the rest of the series, Colossians and Philemon includes the following for each passage of Scripture:

  • The full Greek text of Colossians and Philemon, verse by verse
  • The author’s English translation
    • First, passage by passage in the graphical layout
    • Second, verse by verse next to the Greek
  • The broader “Literary Context” of each passage (within the larger book)
  • An outline of the passage in its surrounding context
  • The Main Idea (this is a great focus point for preachers)
  • Structure
  • A more detailed “Exegetical Outline”
  • “Explanation of the Text,” which includes the Greek and English mentioned above, as well as the commentary proper
  • “Theology in Application” concludes each passage

The fact that the commentary has within it all the Greek and English of the two books under examination means you can take the single book (and no other) with you for thorough study of Colossians and Philemon.

Author David W. Pao makes frequent use of Greek throughout the commentary, but a non-Greek reader would also make profitable use of his comments.

Colossians has a 16-page introduction and 8-page bibliography; Philemon’s introduction is 13 pages, its bibliography 4. A “theology” section of 13 and 9 pages, respectively, concludes each book.

Regarding authorship of Colossians, Pao writes, “Among the various possibilities, to consider Paul as the author of Colossians is still the best hypothesis on which our reading can be constructed.” Like Murray J. Harris, Pao deduces this due to the various parallels (e.g., the opening greeting sections) between Colossians and Philemon, which is almost universally accepted as Pauline. He dates both letters to 60-62 AD, being written by Paul during his Roman imprisonment.

Pao is a good writer, too. This is from the introduction to Colossians, on its significance:

This letter that addresses a congregation challenged by a form of syncretism has significant contemporary application in a society in which the “virtues” of pluralism and tolerance are exalted as most important. Instead of simply pointing out the errors of the various practices and beliefs promoted by the false teachers, Paul begins and ends with an intense focus on Christ as the foundation of the believers’ existence. As a result, one finds powerful theoretical and practical outworkings of a robust Christology. In this letter, the readers encounter a detailed portrayal of the unique identity and final authority of Christ, and this portrayal enriches the high Christology found elsewhere in Paul’s letters.

This  slightly longer excerpt on Col. 3:3 shows how adeptly Pao blends lexical study with historical background in a way that incorporates today’s Christian settings… all from an appreciated doxological posture:

That this life “is hidden with Christ” is significant in a number of ways. First, the verb “to hide” (κρύπτω) can signify close association (cf. Luke 13:21), and this meaning is certainly present in light of Paul’s identification of Christ as “your life” (ἡ ζωὴ ὑμῶν). To be “hidden with Christ” reaffirms the believers’ participation in Christ’s death and resurrection as they anticipate the final consummation of God’s salvific act at the end of time.

Second, to be “hidden with Christ” necessarily implies the security that one finds in Christ. The following verse explains the purpose of this hiddenness as it guarantees the final participation of believers in the revelation of God’s glory. This security from the evil powers is also implied in the reference to their dying with Christ, an act that points to the freedom of the threats posed by the opposing spiritual powers (2:20).

Third, in light of 2:3, where Paul asserts that in Christ “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden,” Paul is here affirming that the lives of believers are also contained in Christ. This may serve a polemical purpose as Paul argues against those who continuously seek to get access to the heavenly mysteries. Paul’s response is that believers are already hidden with all the treasures in Christ. The sufficiency of Christ cannot be challenged, and to seek for these treasures elsewhere is to betray the true gospel. 

Out of all of the above features, the graphical layout is my favorite in this series and in this volume. It’s what makes the ZECNT something I’ll always reach for when preaching on a given passage–and early on in the process, too. Here’s what it looks like:

Col. 3:12-17
Col. 3:12-17

The main clauses are in bold, and subordinate clauses are indented under them. It’s easy to see, at a glance, how all the parts of a sentence and paragraph relate. The words in gray at left describe the function of each line (exhortation, expansion, etc.).

Pao is a refreshingly enjoyable writer who knows this terrain very well. Preaching or teaching from Colossians/Philemon (or even studying in depth on one’s own or with others) would be greatly enhanced by use of his commentary.

I am grateful to Zondervan for the gratis review copy of this commentary, which was offered to me in exchange for an unbiased review. You can find the book on Amazon here. The Zondervan product page is here. See a pdf sample of the book here.