Book Review – The Message of Thessalonians (John Stott)

The Message of ThessaloniansThis is actually the second time I have read (and reviewed) this book in the Bible Speaks Today series, but since I was recently going through Thessalonians again, I wanted to re-read it. I feel I have a great collection of commentaries on Thessalonians as I also really enjoyed the ones by Green and Fee. But I always appreciate Stott’s insights, and this volume has the advantage of being more concise (200 pages).

The introduction provides a brief outline of the Acts account. Stott sees the lesson of 1 Thessalonians as “the gospel and the church” and breaks it into five sections which roughly correspond to the five chapters:

  • Christian evangelism
  • Christian ministry
  • Christian behaviour
  • Christian hope
  • Christian community

Stott has a knack for breaking passages down into structures that might seem implausibly neat at first, but after he goes through the passage, you begin to think that Paul himself probably had the exact same headings in mind.

There is also a brief introduction to 2 Thessalonians, whose structure is broken down as:

  • Revelation of Christ
  • Rebellion of Antichrist
  • Responsibility of Christians meanwhile

I’ll pick out a few highlights from his commentary, which as always is insightful, devotional and practical. On the triad of “faith, hope and love” mentioned in 1 Thess 1:3, he notes that these three virtues are outgoing (faith towards God, love towards others, hope towards the future) and productive (“faith works, love labours and hope endures”).

In the section on “Christian Ministry” (1 Thess 2:1-3:13) he highlights the minister’s dual responsibility, first to the Word of God and second to the people of God. In the section on “Christian Responsibility” (1 Thess 4:1-12) he argues that “There is an urgent need for us, as pluralism and relativism spread world-wide to follow Paul’s example and give people plain, practical, ethical teaching”.

right from the beginning, converts must be told that the new life in Christ is a holy life, a life bent on pleasing God by obeying his commandments.

Although this is by no means an academic commentary series, Stott will refer to the Greek where neccessary, such as discussing the meaning of σκεῦος and κτᾶσθαι in 1 Thess 4:4.

There are a couple of places where I am not sure I agree with his conclusions. For example, he argues that the most likely explanation that some of the “idle” had stopped working was due to their imminent expectation of the Parousia. And his fitting of the “idle, timid and weak” in 1 Thess 5:14 very neatly into groups discussed earlier (so for example the “weak” are the sexually immoral) is ingenious if perhaps a little contrived. I did find his argument that the commands of 1 Thess 5:16-18 are in the context of a church service to make a lot of sense, and it is not an option I had considered before.

As I mentioned in my previous review, he provides a level-headed approach to the teaching on the second coming and antichrist. He also takes opportunities in both books to firmly underscore his opposition to the thought of modern-day apostles.

Overall, I would say that this is classic John Stott, and a fine example of how Biblical exposition should be done. Unless you need the more detailed analysis of Fee or Green, this is a great starting point for getting to grips with the teaching of these two often neglected epistles.

Book Review – The Message of Kings (John Olley)

I must start by apologizing to my handful of readers for the long delay since my last post. The last few months I have been busy working on a few different projects (writing some software, and running a leadership training course), and so I had to put blogging to the side for a while. Here’s a review of a book I finished earlier this year but never got round to reviewing.

This is the most recent addition to the Bible Speaks Today series, which is now only a few volumes away from being completed. It’s a fairly substantial 374 pages, so there is good coverage of the text of the two books.

Olley describes Kings as a story of decline and complete reversal from the high point of Solomon’s peace and security. It is storytelling with a purpose: “Kings tells the story of the past so that, in light of Yahweh’s purposes and promises, people will change their lifestyles in the present.”

The introduction includes some helpful tables such as a list showing prophesies and their fulfilments (p31). “The Kings writer repeatedly reminds his hearers that it is Yahweh who is sovereign, his word is not sovereign”. Another helpful table (p36) visualises the kings of the North and the South, showing their timelines in relation to other key events.

Olley notes that although we call the book “Kings”, it is often prophets who take the lead. He makes an interesting contrast between David’s “wisdom” in 1 Kings 1 to kill his enemies, with the wisdom of God to benefit the powerless in 1 Kings 3. In 1 Kings 9, he is critical of the way Solomon focuses on gold, acting like the rulers of other nations, to earn their admiration.

Whilst he defends the historicity of the accounts, he does accept that some of the numbers are exaggerated, following the pattern of ancient Near Eastern “numerical hyperbole”.

In 1 Kings 2, he highlights a number of ways in which Elisha’s ministry foreshadows the compassionate ministry of Jesus. He has some interesting reflections on the difficult issue of violence in the name of God in 2 Kings 10 and some helpful material on idols in the section on 2 Kings 17.

As always, this BST volume will prove helpful for anyone studying or preaching their way through the book. Leithart’s commentary remains my favourite on 1 & 2 Kings, but the two are quite different in their approaches, so complement each other very well.

Book Review–The Message of Romans (John Stott)

I heard the news of John Stott’s death only a couple of days after I started re-reading this Romans commentary. It was one of the first of the Bible Speaks Today series that I read, and for all the numerous things he will rightly be remembered for, I feel especially thankful for his contributions to and editorship of this series. In this volume, as with his other commentaries, John Stott models a truly evangelical approach to Scripture. He comes reverently to the Bible, believing it to be the very Word of God, eager to learn, ready to engage with difficulties of exegesis and doctrine, and most of all, expecting to encounter God through it.

A book like Romans of course is a daunting task for any Bible expositor. So many notable expositors and scholars have already tackled it in great depth. And there are many tricky theological issues it raises. What is “the righteousness of God”? What is the correct understanding of the doctrine of election? What place does the people and nation of Israel have in God’s ongoing plan? Who is the conflicted man of Romans 7? Was Junia an apostle? Whatever positions you take, you certainly can’t please all of the people all of the time in a commentary on Romans.

Stott starts with a preliminary essay, which includes several pages devoted to the New Perspective on Paul. He is to be commended on two counts for including this. First, that he pays any attention to it at all. By my reckoning, it is only the likes of Tom Wright that have really brought the NPP into the general evangelical consciousness in recent years.  Yet Stott clearly saw back in 1994 that this was going to become a debating point, and tackled it head on. Second, the way he seeks to correctly understand and fairly represent the opinions of the likes of Stendahl, Dunn and Sanders is also commendable. In some places I felt he articulated their points better than they did, such is his gift for clarity. Having said that, he does not go along with the conclusions of the NPP. I have previously blogged about John Stott’s take on the New Perspective here.

One key interpretive issue in Romans is the role and purpose of the “law”. Stott explains that “For justification we look to the cross, not the law, and for sanctification we look to the Spirit, not the law.” However, he wants to disagree with those who deny the law a place in the Christian life. “The moral law remains a revelation of God’s will which he still expects his people to ‘fulfil’ by living lives of righteousness”. He attempts to find a balance between the errors of legalism and antinomianism by saying “Legalists fear the law and are in bondage to it. Antinomians hate the law and repudiate it. Law-abiding free people love the law and fulfil it.” Do Christians have to obey the law? Yes and no … “not because the law is our master and we have to but because Christ is our husband and we want to.” The Spirit empowers us to keep the law – our freedom from the law is not freedom to disobey it.

As he ponders what the “righteousness of God” is, he notes three explanations often given. Is it (1) a divine attribute (2) a divine activity (his saving intervention), or (3) a divine achievement (the righteous status we are given)? He asks why we have to choose – “it is at one and the same time a quality, an activity and a gift”. He then expands on this to define the righteousness of God as “God’s righteous initiative in putting sinners right with himself by bestowing on them a righteousness which is not their own but his.”

He takes some time to defend the biblical concept of the “wrath of God”, from those who find this doctrine objectionable (again pre-empting a debate that has gained much momentum more recently in evangelical circles). “God’s wrath is his holy hostility to evil his refusal to condone it or come to terms with it his just judgment upon it.” The human predicament is not only sin, but God’s wrath upon sin.

Stott’s take on the identity of the conflicted man in Romans 7 is interesting. He cannot see it as a believer, since “a slave to sin” cannot be a Christian, and yet neither can he accept the unbeliever explanation. He concludes that it is a “regenerate” man, but not one who has the Holy Spirit. For Stott this leaves him with no other option than saying that the ‘I’ is an Old Testament believer. Stott of course strongly rejects the Pentecostal view of a subsequent baptism in the Spirit for a believer (as he makes clear in his comments on Rom 8:14-17), so cannot entertain the possibility that this ‘I’ could be a believer fighting sin in human strength alone without the empowering of the Spirit.

Stott has occasion to touch on subjects such as election and predestination, and while he seems to accept a Calvinist position, he prefers to refer to the concept of “antinomy” – two seemingly conflicting truths being held together – such as divine sovereignty and human responsibility. I like his suggestion that “the perseverance of the saints” should be renamed “the perseverance of God with the saints”.

As he tackles the subject of Israel, Stott is eager to underscore the importance of evangelism for all people, including the Jews. He includes a brief “manifesto of evangelism” that summarising the teaching of Romans on evangelism.

Overall, despite not necessarily agreeing with his every viewpoint, I would say this is another excellent work and valuable for anyone personally studying or teaching through Romans. There are of course the works by Douglas Moo and Tom Schreiner which I would recommend to those wanting to go into more exegetical depth, but Stott should not be underestimated and there is plenty of well argued and thought-provoking material in here to help shape your understanding of this important New Testament book.

Book Review–The Message of Obadiah, Nahum & Zephaniah (Gordon Bridger)

This is the most recent addition to the Bible Speaks Today series, which is slowly approaching completion, filling in the few remaining gaps in the Old Testament. Bridger’s task is to cover three of the least well known of the minor prophets, whose short books are largely dominated by pronouncements of judgment.

The first thing that stands out is the length. Bridger has written over 300 pages on just 7 chapters of prophecy. This is both a strength and a weakness. It allows him plenty of space to highlight New Testament parallels and explore various areas for application. But at the same time I wonder whether it makes this less accessible than other BST volumes – this is longer than the commentaries on Isaiah and Jeremiah.

In the introduction, Bridger is keen to underscore the contemporary relevance of these books, by reminding us that all Scripture is God’s word to us. These books teach us the importance of facing up to sin and judgement and the importance of responding in repentance and faith.

Obadiah is divided into three sections – the sovereignty of God, the judgments of God and the triumph of God. Bridger has an interest in applying his teaching not just to individual Christians or churches, but also to the political arena and society in general. This is particularly true in the comments on Nahum, which he says has a particular message to super-powers. He tackles themes such as the legitimacy of war, climate change, and self-indulgent addiction to alcohol, sex and money. In his commentary on Zephaniah he draws several parallels between Baalism and the failings of our own society. Bridger writes from a British perspective, and illustrates his points with various recent events from the UK.

Although the general outlook of each of the three books is one of judgment, Bridger reminds us that the justice of God is a positive thing, and that a message of judgment is an implicit call to repentance. The day of the Lord is not just a day of destruction but also a day of deliverance. He defends the unity of Zephaniah against those who claim 3:9-20 is a later addition, and brings out an interesting alternative interpretation of the one well-known verse in these books (Zeph 3:17), in which he suggests that it may be God, rather than us, who is silent – he delights in us not just by singing, but by looking on in silence like a mother with her baby.

Overall, this is a thorough and solidly evangelical commentary on these three books. This shines through in the way Bridger makes several connections to other parts of Scripture, and New Testament teaching in particular. He demonstrates how these books point forward to Christ. The fact that the tone of the biblical material he covers is more gloomy than cheerful makes this a fairly sobering read in places, and by drawing out warnings for believers and the church Bridger himself takes on the mantle of a modern day prophet, calling God’s people and society as a whole to repentance.

Book Review–The Message of 2 Timothy (John Stott)

This is, I think, one of the earliest volumes in the Bible Speaks Today series, originally published in 1973 by John Stott as a standalone exposition of 2 Timothy, entitled Guard the Gospel. Stott sums up the overall message as a call to “guard the gospel, suffer for the gospel, continue in the gospel, and proclaim the gospel”.

The introduction includes a brief survey of the debate over authorship, in which he makes many of the same points made in the intro to The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus. With over 100 pages of commentary devoted to the four chapters of 2 Timothy, he is able to take his time, discuss the meaning of each phrase, and, as always, draw out plenty of practical and devotional insights from the text.

He warns against the temptation to alter the substance of the gospel message, a call that is no less relevant almost 40 years after the first edition was published. He shows how faithfulness to the gospel involves more than just not modifying it, but we are also to live holy lives in accordance with it, demonstrating both purity of doctrine and purity of life. And we are not to hide away while doing so, but we are to proclaim the gospel, which will sooner or later involve us suffering for the gospel.

You can escape persecution by withdrawal from the world, or by assimilation to it. It is only for those who are both in the world and in Christ simultaneously that persecution becomes inevitable.

At the risk of regular readers of this blog finding the conclusions to these reviews predictable and repetitive, I have to say yet again that I highly recommend this for anyone wanting to study 2 Timothy or preparing to teach on it. Stott doesn’t just write with insight, but also with integrity, as his own lifelong passion has been to guard, to live and proclaim the gospel.

Book Review–The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus (John Stott)

Apologies for the lack of posts here recently. My energies recently have been focused on preparing some talks for Southampton and Solent CUs.

Although this commentary does not cover all three pastoral epistles, Stott uses the introduction to discuss the arguments for and against Pauline authorship for the pastorals as a whole. He does not go into exhaustive detail, but the discussion is fuller than normal for the Bible Speaks Today series.

He works verse by verse through the two letters in expository fashion, not just explaining the text, but applying it to contemporary church situations and is always willing to briefly comment on theological issues raised. Both letters contain plenty of material directed to church leaders, a passion that Stott shares, believing that “the health of the church depends very largely on the quality, faithfulness and teaching of its ordained ministers.”

His discussion of gender issues is sensitively handled, and he argues for a creation principle of male “headship” which has varying cultural expressions. This leads him to categorise women teaching alongside men raising their hands and women plaiting their hair – practises that may or may not be appropriate in different cultures as expressions of an underlying principle. It is an interesting suggestion, although it does require him to maintain that the first century cultural expression of this principle is the exact opposite of the modern one in this case.

He suggests that the ministry of deacons includes teachings, and that they functioned as assistants to the elders. The treatment of the subject of money in chapter six is particularly insightful, discussing simplicity and destitution. “Money is a drug, and covetousness a drug addiction”.

The letters of 1 Timothy and Titus have plenty to say on the importance of sound doctrine, a passion that Stott shares. He also highlights the emphasis on the importance of good works that permeates the letter to Titus. He describes Titus as being about “doctrine and duty” – in the church, the home, and the world. He argues that there is an “indissoluble connection” between doctrine and duty and that “any doctrine that does not promote godliness is manifestly bogus”.

As with all Stott’s contributions to the Bible Speaks Today Series, this is one that I would highly recommend for anyone wanting to go deeper in their personal Bible study.

Book Review–The Message of Matthew (Michael Green)

This volume was first one of the Bible Speaks Today series that I read, and the one that set me down the path of reading the whole series. I decided to re-read it in December, to see if it was as good as I remembered.

Michael Green had in fact already written a previous commentary on Matthew in 1988, which forms the basis for this one (published in 2000). The introduction covers the arguments for and against Matthean authorship and he devotes considerable space to discussion of structure, favouring a proposal by Elizabeth and Ian Billingham. He concludes the introduction with a brief, but fascinating overview of recent commentaries and literature on Matthew.

Green clearly has a lot of knowledge of the history, beliefs and customs of the first century, and these inform the commentary throughout, but he avoids becoming overly academic, and he keeps his main focus on the message of Matthew for us today. For example, he often applies Jesus’ warnings to Israel to the church, believing that we stand in real danger of making many of the same mistakes that the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day did.

His coverage of the Sermon on the Mount is good, but concise, probably because John Stott has a much fuller exposition which is also part of the Bible Speaks Today series and which complements the present volume nicely. Green’s passion for evangelism comes out in a challenging exposition of Matthew 10.

Green is also prepared to touch upon current trends in biblical interpretation, such as a section where he rejects Sanders’ presentation of the Pharisees with their “covenantal nomism”. Like Tom Wright, he favours interpreting the “coming of the Son of Man” as a reference to AD 70, leading him to interpret the “gathering of the elect” as describing world mission. He is also willing to occasionally discuss Matthew’s differences with the other Synoptics, offering resolutions to perceived contradictions, and highlighting where the other accounts shed additional light on the story.

He often arranges his comments thematically on a chapter rather than strictly commenting verse by verse. His understanding of the structure of Matthew leads him to look for common themes running through the major “teaching blocks” of Matthew. For example, he interprets chapter 18 as being about “internal relationships” in the kingdom.

He sees the woes of chapter 23 as a “studied parallel” with the beatitudes, and is even prepared to pronounce a few woes of his own on modern day church ministers. “There is nothing so repulsive as dead religion, and there is a lot of it about”.

He devotes a good amount of space to covering Jesus’ death and resurrection. One interesting suggestion was his idea that Matthew may not have intended us to take the accounts of the graves opening and holy people walking around (Matt 27:52-53) in a strictly literal sense – it may have been the “heavenly Jerusalem” in which they walked. Its not an idea I had heard before, and I am not fully convinced by it, since it does not adequately explain the inclusion of the phrase “appeared to many”. His chapter on the resurrection gives both evidence for believing  the resurrection, as well as a summary of its theological implications.

Overall I would say that this is an ideal book for someone who wants to go deeper in their study of this gospel, but perhaps doesn’t feel ready to tackle a full-blown commentary (D A Carson’s Matthew in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary remains one of my other favourites on this book). It will give you some fresh angles to look at Jesus’ teaching from, plenty of helpful bits of background information, a more cohesive picture of how the various parts of Matthew fit together into a whole, and perhaps its greatest strength is showing how all the teaching of Jesus in this gospel remains directly relevant to the present day church.

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.

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.

Book Review–The Message of Ezra and Haggai (Robert Fyall)

This is one of the most recent additions to the Bible Speaks Today series, and covers two books that fall into the post-exilic time-frame. Fyall recognizes that Ezra and Haggai are often neglected in favour of the slightly more accessible account of Nehemiah, and the more vivid prophecy of Zechariah. Nevertheless, he is determined to demonstrate to us that both books have a message for us today.

He identifies the main themes of Ezra as: God, the worship of God, the people of God, and Scripture and prayer. Its ongoing relevance is that it demonstrates that God never abandons his purpose or gives up on his people, but gives light for their guidance.

His approach is to work through the text, often making points of application along the way, but then a few pages at the end of each chapter are deliberately focused on what the contemporary message for the church is. Many of these points centre on the importance of the Word of God, the presence of God and the holiness of God.

The commentary on Haggai presents him as a prophet who had to confront a people like the church at Laodicea – tepid and complacent. Haggai’s style is blunt and succinct, with his prophecy a mixture of encouragement and rebuke. The temple for Haggai is the visible sign of God dwelling amongst his people by his Spirit. Fyall makes a point of showing how there is more going on here than simply a building project.

Overall I would say that I enjoyed working through this volume on two books of the Bible I don’t know particularly well. He gives enough background to help you piece together the timelines of the two books, but the focus throughout remains on finding what the Bible says today to our own situations.