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.

John Stott on Unity and Credibility

John Stott on Eph 2:11-22 in The Message of Ephesians, p111

It is simply impossible, with any shred of Christian integrity, to go on proclaiming that Jesus by his cross has abolished the old divisions and created a new single humanity of love, while at the same time we are contradicting our message by tolerating racial or social or other barriers within our church fellowship. 

We need to get the failures of the church on our conscience, to feel the offence to Christ and the world which these failures are, to weep over the credibility gap between the church’s talk and the church’s walk, to repent of our readiness to excuse and even condone our failures and to determine to do something about it. I wonder if anything is more urgent today, for the honour of Christ and for the spread of the gospel, than that the church should be, and should be seen to be, what by God’s purpose and Christ’s achievement it already is – a single new humanity, a model of human community, a family of reconciled brothers and sisters who love their Father and love each other, the evident dwelling place of God by his Spirit. Only then will the world believe in Christ as Peacemaker. Only then will God receive the glory due to his name.

Book Review – The Pillar New Testament Commentary on Ephesians (Peter T O’Brien)

Peter O’Brien has earned himself the reputation of being a fine scholar and commentary writer, specialising in the Prison epistles, having written highly acclaimed volumes on Philippians for the New International Greek Testament Commentary and Colossians and Philemon for the Word Biblical Commentary. This work on Ephesians thus completes the set, and although the Pillar Series isn’t as technical as the other series he has written for, this is by no means a basic level commentary.

It weighs in at 500 pages of commentary, 80 of which are devoted to the introduction. This is perhaps longer than might be expected for this series, but a good deal of this is given to providing a robust defence of Pauline authorship. Andrew Lincoln (author of the Word Biblical Commentary on Ephesians) is his main sparring partner, and he sets out Lincoln’s argument in detail before responding point by point. His thorough argument firmly puts the burden of proof back onto the doubters. He also takes some time to express serious misgivings about the validity of the rhetorical approach of interpretation taken by some commentators.

The commentary proper follows broadly the same format as the other Pillar volumes, and includes the text of Ephesians in the NIV. I would have preferred his own translation though, as in a number of places he favours significantly different sentence constructions. Each section and subsection of the book has a summary introduction outlining the flow of argument that will follow. Comments are then provided on one or occasionally two verses at a time. Sections are usually ended with another summary of the flow of argument often highlighting how the themes in the section under consideration fit with the rest of the book. There are six chapters of commentary – one for each of the chapters of Ephesians.

The long sentences of Ephesians 1 mean that fairly technical discussions of Greek grammar are inevitable, but O’Brien manages well to keep it from becoming inaccessible to the non-specialist. Any Greek is both transliterated and translated, although the footnotes contain Greek font but still provide a translation. Where a phrase has been interpreted in many different ways, O’Brien takes time to enumerate the main options before revealing his own preference.

O’Brien writes from a conservative evangelical perspective, and while he rarely preaches (preferring to let Paul do the preaching), he shows concern for contemporary application. The contentious section on wives in chapter 5 is given extra space to allow him to defend a traditional complimentarian position, but attempting to address some concerns that egalitarians may have with this approach. He believes Grudem’s paper rejecting the translation of kephale as ‘source’ rather than ‘head’ is decisive, and so this part of the debate is largely left to the footnotes.

Having said this, he does not feel the need to weigh in on every modern theological debate. For example the reader will only find hints of what he believes about “apostles for today” or “spiritual warfare techniques”, without explicitly mentioning the views he rejects.

Although the main discussion of Pauline authorship is confined to the introduction, where relevant O’Brien does make additional points, particularly with regards to the supposed “over-realised eschatology” of the author. O’Brien’s contention is that the theology of the letter fits well with Paul’s other writings and he demonstrates this wherever possible.

Ephesians is a book that is rich in both theologically and practical application. In this commentary O’Brien does a fine job of revealing Paul’s meaning as well as his flow of thought. The section on the familiar 2:8-10 is outstanding, and his careful exegesis sheds much light on some of the difficult to understand passages (e.g. 3:14-19 and 5:13,14). This is a commentary best suited to those who want to do some research for teaching of their own, and seems set to be the standard evangelical Ephesians commentary for some time to come. I highly recommend it to all Bible students or teachers.