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.

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.