Book Review–The Message of Ephesians (John Stott)

This is my second reading of this volume in the Bible Speaks Today series, and it was just as enjoyable as I remembered it being first time round. All of John Stott’s contributions are excellent, and this is one of his best.

Published originally in 1979, this volume is slightly different from others in that there is no introduction. I actually think this is a good move, as Stott deals with issues of authorship, dating, recipients in his comments on the opening verses and draws out key themes of the letter as he goes along.

Perhaps the biggest eye-opener for me (the first time through anyway) was recognising the theme of “God’s new society”. We have become so accustomed to reading the Bible individualistically that we can miss the implications for the church community. Instead of interpreting the blessings and commands in an entirely personal way (“what do I get, how should I behave”), Stott does a brilliant job of highlighting the corporate emphasis running through the letter.

The one place I found myself disagreeing with Stott (or at least wanting to say “yes, but…”) was in his discussion of the “Ephesians 4 ministries”, in which he made clear his reservations about the charismatic movement’s understanding of the need for ongoing “apostolic” and “prophetic” ministries. He makes clear that in his estimation, by far the most important gift is that of teaching. I agree with its great importance, but it seems to me that he undermines the very point he has just made so forcefully about the need for a diversity of gifts.

He devotes considerable space to the contentious issue of submission, arguing that there is indeed a creation principle of male ‘headship’, but is very careful to explain what is not meant by this.

“Certainly, ‘headship’ implies a degree of leadership and initiative, as when Christ came to woo and to win his bride. But more specifically it implies sacrifice, self-giving for the sake of the beloved, as when Christ Gave himself for his bride. If ‘headship’ means ‘power’ in any sense, then it is power to care not to crush, power to serve to not dominate, power to facilitate self-fulfilment, not to frustrate or destroy it.”

In fact if anything, Stott’s commentary on Eph 5:21-6:9 focuses more on what the text is not saying than what it is. For example, he includes a section explaining why the NT does not explicitly call for the abolition of slavery.

Though this is not an academic commentary, Stott is not afraid to get involved in exegetical debates where necessary. For example, he spends several pages surveying the history of the idea that the “powers and authorities” are not demons but socio-political structures. His thoughtful critique of the position (which is still popular) concludes that it is “ingenious” yet “contrived”.

“in reaffirming that the principalities and powers are personal supernatural agencies, I am not at all denying that they can use structures, traditions, institutions, etc. For good or ill; I am only wishing to avoid the confusion which comes from identifying them. … Advocates of the new theory warn us against deifying structures; I want to warn them against demonizing them.”

Stott also makes good use of the best quotes from other commentators, which makes this a rich treasure trove of source material for those preaching on Ephesians. It contains a marvellous combination of careful exegesis and pastoral wisdom, which makes it an excellent choice for anyone wanting to study the book of Ephesians in greater depth.

Commentary Reading 2010 and 2011

In December I usually take a look back at the books I’ve read in the previous year, and plan my reading for the next year. Readers of my blog will know that this year has mainly been one of commentary reviews (sorry, I know that for most of you that makes for very dull reading). This is because after a year of listening to the Bible in 2009, I am back to my usual morning routine of reading one chapter of the Bible and then reading the corresponding section of a commentary.

2010 Commentary Reading

In 2010 I focussed on three main goals for my commentary reading:

  • Fill in the gaps of some books I haven’t yet read a commentary on. I started the year working through the minor prophets using the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary.
  • I also decided to read a commentary on all the books beginning with E – Exodus, Ezra, Esther (and another), Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel, and Ephesians (not quite finished yet!), as they are nice spread throughout the various genres of Biblical literature.
  • Finally, I wanted to revisit some of the best volumes from the Bible Speaks Today series that I had previously read but not yet reviewed on this site.

In addition to my morning reading, I try to study a New Testament book in a bit more depth in my evenings where possible. This year I finally finished John (using Kostenberger and Carson) and got through Colossians and Philemon (using Moo and Wright) and James (using Moo and Blomberg & Kammell). I’ve written my own mini commentaries on 12 books of the New Testament so far, and have plans to publish them on this blog at some point (after getting a few friends to proof-read them first).

Buy Less, Borrow and Re-Read More

Another goal I have had for a few years, is to read more books than I buy. This is partially financially motivated – I can’t afford to buy as many books as I used to be able to. But also, I have become more concerned that even when buying things as apparently good and spiritual as Christian books, I can succumb to the temptations of greed, covetousness, and even pride at having a comprehensive book collection. In my library of Christian books (around 300 of them currently) there are at least 50 that I either haven’t read, or would be well worth a re-read. In 2010 I bought 11 books, and was given 5 more, but I have read just over 40 books, so feel I am moving in the right direction, and making the most out of the investment I have already made. I’m also trying to borrow more, rather than feeling I have to own every book I read (although it is very frustrating not being able to underline).

2011 Commentary Reading

Next year, I intend to continue my pattern of reading one chapter a day of the Bible with associated commentary. With our 5th child due in March, I’m expecting some sleep depravation to be coming my way, so I’m not going to be too ambitious with the commentaries I tackle, but God willing, here are my basic goals:

  • Read a commentary on 1 and 2 Kings. These are the only two books of the Bible I have yet to read a commentary on. I’m thinking of going for the volumes by Dale Ralph Davis in the Focus on the Bible series or Peter Leithart in the Brazos series, but I’m open to suggestions.
  • Re-read a few more of my favourite Bible Speaks Today commentaries. Romans, the Pastorals, Song of Songs, Chronicles and Isaiah are on the radar.
  • I’d also like to tackle Acts and Romans in Tom Wright’s For Everyone Series, and possibly Revelation in Phil Moore’s “Straight to the Heart” series, which looks excellent.
  • If I study a book in depth in the evenings, I am currently choosing between Acts (using Darrel Bock’s BEC commentary) or the Pastorals (using Philip Towner’s NICNT commentary)

Answers to Your Google Questions 2010

I had a browse through some of the search terms that people typed into Google to arrive at my site. Its mostly the same old stuff that has been generating most of my visits for the last 6 years (for some reason Google considers me to be an authority on the parable of the wise and foolish builders). But I always love it when people get here by typing in a question. It somehow makes me feel obligated to provide a reply. So here’s my brief answers to a few of your questions:

Are Newfrontiers a Cult?

There are a surprisingly large number of visitors who arrive at my blog asking this question (or a variation on the theme). Let me answer it for you. No, newfrontiers are not a cult.

In terms of belief, they hold to orthodox Trinitarian Christianity. They hold to no obscure or unique doctrines that are not also shared by many other Christians. In addition, they are not exclusivist, and often work in partnership with other groups of churches (particularly within the evangelical tradition). The leader, Terry Virgo, is not worshipped, nor does he exercise an authoritarian control over the churches – it may come as a surprise to some to note that not all newfrontiers church leaders share his doctrinal distinctives (for example plenty of the newfrontiers pastors in my area are not “reformed”).

Another concern people have over cults is that they are very difficult to leave, or that they attempt to exercise strict control over every aspect of people’s private lives. Neither of these are the case in newfrontiers churches. I am sure that regrettably there are from time to time instances of heavy-handed leadership, but no more so than in other groups of churches (or indeed any business or human organization).

Does the Spirit of God always agree with the Word of God?

Yes. Don’t believe a prophetic message that contradicts the Bible.

Is marriage a sexist view?


Matt Hosier women preachers?

I’m not entirely sure what this question means, but I think the answer is no. To clarify, Matt Hosier is not a woman but he is a preacher. I’ll leave it to him to state his position on women preachers. He does like Twilight though. No wonder he made it onto the false teacher list.

What does shala ba ba mean in tongues?

I’m afraid I don’t have the interpretation. Possibly it means something like “I just really wanna…”

Where to buy sweetheart by driscoll?

Nice to see that someone fell for my April Fool! If you’re wondering what my top post of 2010 was, that was it, by a very large margin.

Hermeneutics–Weight of Historic Interpretation

This post is just to raise a question about hermeneutics. How much weight should be put on the historic interpretation of a passage by the church, when you are trying to ascertain it’s meaning? In other words, does it matter if no one in the early church interpreted the passage the way you do? What if your interpretation first appeared at the 1600s, or in the early 1900s, or maybe even in this millennium?

For example, some argue that the “coming of the Son of Man” language in the eschatological discourses of the Synoptic gospels (e.g. Matt 16:27-28; Matt 24:27,30,37; Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27) refers not to the “second coming” of Jesus, but rather to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. Obviously before coming to a conclusion we would want to perform all the usual and proper hermeneutical steps, checking that we have correctly translated the passage, considered its context, examined Old Testament allusions and parallel passages etc. But suppose you came to the conclusion that the preterist interpretation was the most plausible exegetically. Would it matter whether or not there was any record of the early church expounding these texts to say that these prophecies had been fulfilled in AD70?

The actual exegetical issue I am currently considering is a different one, but it illustrates the problem. How much of a red flag is it that your interpretation is a novel one? Let me know what you think in the comments.

James 1:27 Pure Religion

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. Jas 1:27

It has become fashionable in recent years for evangelicals to say bad things about “religion”, about how Jesus came to save us from “religion” and that “religion sucks”. Whilst I understand the sentiment, I have always felt slightly uneasy with this way of speaking precisely because of this verse. James is not against religion per se, but he does recognise that there is good religion and bad religion.

There is a particularly neat balance to James’s brief description of pure religion. It is described positively (what we must do) and negatively (what we must avoid).

First, pure religion is expressed in social action on behalf of the needy. It is interesting that instead of suggesting financial donations to orphans and widows (which I am sure James would heartily have approved of), he suggests we get personally involved and visit them (other versions have “look after”, or “care for”, with the implication being that more than simply talking to them is in mind – see Jas 2:15-16). In other words, we are to take the initiative in personally helping the most needy and vulnerable in our society.

Second, pure religion is expressed in personal holiness. Whilst the first requirement he sets out rules out the option of retreating from the world, nevertheless James is aware that it is possible for a believer to become “stained”, through picking up the ungodly habits and attitudes of the world.

When I was researching the “emerging church” several years back, I noticed that one difference between emerging and more traditional evangelicals was how they conceived of holiness. Emergents saw it primarily in terms of social action. A holy person is one who cares for the poor, and they tend to be less concerned about that person’s swearing, smoking or sexual activity. By contrast conservative evangelicals tend to view holiness much more in terms of sin avoidance. Thus you can be considered “holy” by avoiding a long list of sins, but without ever lifting a finger to serve the needy.

James’ balanced definition of pure religion is therefore one worth pondering right across the spectrum of evangelicalism. If “religion” has a bad name, it is at least in part, our fault. The problem is not that the church has too much religion, but that it does not have true religion.

James 1:26 Self-Deception

(Apologies that my attempt to do a series of posts on James kind of ran out of steam, but I had plenty planned so I’ll try to persevere, albeit more slowly than I had hoped)

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. (James 1:26)

In this verse, James describes someone who considers themself to be “religious” (this is not a negative term in James’s vocabulary, despite the way it is used today), and yet doesn’t keep control of their tongue. Such people are “self-deceived”, believing themselves to be “good” or “righteous” people, when in fact they are nothing of the sort.

But James doesn’t limit the category of self-deception to those who cannot control their tongues. It applies to anyone who hears the word but doesn’t put it into practice:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. (James 1:22)

Does this mean that every Christian is self-deceived? After all, none of us succeeds in putting everything we read in God’s word in to practice. I think James has something more subtle in mind. Self-deception occurs when we think that the right response to God’s word is simply to agree with it, but excuse ourselves from actually acting on it. I know I can be guilty of this when I hear a particularly “challenging” sermon and say afterwards how wonderful I thought it was, but fail to make any real change.

By definition, the self-deceived person is not aware that they are self-deceived. So how can I know whether this warning applies to me? Is my religion “worthless”?

Actually, I don’t think there is a great danger of being “self-deceived”, so long as we aren’t afraid of a bit of healthy introspection. “Introspection” has got bad press in recent years, with some even going so far as saying that it runs contrary to the gospel, since we should look to Christ, not at ourselves.

Although Christ is indeed the ground of our justification, nevertheless Paul is quite happy to encourage us to “examine” and “test” ourselves (2 Cor 13:5). We need times where we attempt to look at our lives in a brutally honest and objective light, and ask what evidence we see of the Spirit of God at work in us. James is adamant (along with all the NT writers) that there will always be fruit that accompanies genuine conversion (James 2:14).

If we are not willing to take a proper look in the mirror (to use James’ analogy) and see what we are really like, then the chances are, we will fail to recognise just how much we need more of the Spirit of God in order that we may be transformed more into the image of Christ, and bear genuine fruit.

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. Ps 139:23-24 NIV

Book Review–The Message of Nehemiah (Raymond Brown)

The volumes in the Bible Speaks Today series generally fall somewhere between being an expository sermon series and a commentary. This one definitely tends more towards the sermon side of things. With 260 pages at his disposal, Brown has time not only to give us a good explanation of what is going on in the book of Nehemiah, but to explore some of the related issues that each chapter raises. For example, he uses Neh 2:11 as a springboard to discuss the importance of taking rest.

Naturally, Brown picks up on the great leadership example of Nehemiah, but I was pleased to see that this was by no means the only or even primary message he draws out of the book. He draws just as much attention to Nehemiah’s prayer life, love for the Scriptures and commitment to holiness as to his leadership acumen.

Interestingly, Brown attempts to draw parallels between our present society (he is writing in 1998 in the UK) with that of Jerusalem at the time of the return from exile. Whilst this may seem a little far-fetched, he identifies forces of secularism, materialism and pluralism as being the common link between our contexts.

Brown is helpful in the way that he helps to put Nehemiah’s story in the context of biblical books of a similar era – Ezra, Haggai, Zechariah and especially Malachi, noting that the book of Nehemiah does not have a contrived “happy ending”, but shows the beginnings of spiritual decline that Malachi would have to address in the years to come.

He attempts to draw out principles from the various moral reforms that Nehemiah promoted, rather than arguing for either Christian adherence to Sabbath observance and tithing (for example), or for the irrelevance of these OT laws to believers under the New Covenant.

Overall I would recommend this to those wanting to explore the contemporary relevance of the book of Nehemiah for us today. Brown touches on a broad range of topics as he goes through the story, and there will be plenty of helpful ideas for those wanting to teach through the book of Nehemiah.