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 – EBC Matthew (D A Carson)

Despite being written back in 1984 and being part of a series that generally is not considered an “in depth” level of commentaries, Don Carson’s volume on Matthew still consistently finds its way to the top of most evangelical lists of recommended commentaries on the first gospel. It is, in fact, considerably more detailed than the EBC Mark and Luke volumes, and deliberately so, as it was intended to deal in more detail with issues of harmonization of the gospels.

It can be bought separately, rather unnecessarily bound in two volumes, or it can be bought much more cheaply as part of a large hardback edition including the Mark and Luke commentaries. There is a revised version of Expositor’s Bible Commentary currently in the process of being published. Rumour has it that Don Carson will be updating Matthew for the new series, which if true will doubtless reinforce its status as one of the best evangelical commentaries on Matthew available.

It is amazing how much Carson fits in. He is ready to jump in to almost any argument concerning the historicity, exegesis, theology or contemporary application of a passage. He manages this mainly due to his ability to write in a very concise fashion, enumerating his opponents’ views succinctly, before despatching his own verdict with the minimum of fuss.

The introduction is fairly comprehensive, and includes a discussion of the “synoptic problem”. He tentatively accepts a two source hypothesis and Matthean authorship. The commentary itself includes the NIV text, and sections are introduced with anything from a single paragraph to a long discussion of different interpretations. The comments are then based on one or two verses at a time. Greek and Hebrew terms are always transliterated and translated, but he assumes that readers are familiar with terms such as apodosis and chiasm.

Carson clearly loves the gospel of Matthew. Almost every section is introduced as being special or unique in some way. His great concern with New Testament usage of the Old also surfaces in many places. He has a special interest in the word “fulfil” (pleroo), in particular how it is that Jesus can be said to fulfil the entire Old Testament Scriptures.

The content of the commentary is well suited to Biblical expositors, who will want to grapple not only with the meaning of the text as Matthew intended it, but also to deal with the diverse issues that congregations will be interested in – historical (e.g. ‘discrepancies’ with other gospels), theological (e.g. do we still need to obey the law) and practical (e.g. can you remarry after divorce). He does this in a way that treats the Biblical text as the Word of God, but he is careful not to resort to contrived harmonisations, or pious but tenuous interpretations.

Throughout the commentary he shows willingness to interact with the views of other commentators (especially Hill on Matthew and Lane on Mark), often resulting in a long list of possible options. This has the effect of making the commentary somewhat uneven in coverage as the comments on some sections are only a paragraph, while on others a number of pages.

I’ll just single out two passages for particular comment. As might be expected, the Sermon on the Mount is given an excellent treatment, as Carson has written on this separately elsewhere. In the ‘Olivet Discourse’, he surveys the wide variety of interpretations, casting doubt on both Dispensational understandings and France’s idea that the fall of Jerusalem and the “coming of the Son of Man” are the same event (I would expect that the forthcoming revision will also interact with N T Wright on this point as well, and also with 21:20-22 on the mountain that is thrown into the sea). He ends up proposing that Jesus used the discourse to introduce a concept of a delay between the destruction of the temple and the Parousia, contrary to what his disciples were expecting.

In summary, any serious evangelical student and teacher of the Bible will greatly benefit from having this commentary as part of their library. It is especially useful in providing clarity on difficult passages. I haven’t read the Mark and Luke commentaries in the same volume yet, but the price is worth it for the Matthew commentary alone. Zondervan seem to be working backwards at a rate of two volumes a year in their revision of the series, so if you can wait until 2008 there may well be an even better volume available.

Book Review – The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (John Stott)

This exposition of the Sermon on the Mount was originally published under the title “Christian Counter-Culture”, before being added to the Bible Speaks Today series some years later. Although it only covers three chapters of Matthew, it is a worthy addition to the series, and allows the Sermon to be covered in much more depth than would otherwise be possible. The extra space however, is not devoted to surveys of the various theories about how the sermon came to be in the form it is, but the focus is always kept on practical application for today’s Christians.

While the book doesn’t strictly speaking have an introduction, the opening section on 5:1,2 effectively functions as one. Stott claims that the world is seeking for a counter-culture – a different, and better way to live, but have looked at the church and found confusion instead. He sees the sermon as a call to Christians to demonstrate a genuinely different way of life. He defends the sermon against criticism that it is inauthentic, irrelevant or unattainable. He also argues that it is not a gospel of righteousness by works, but it is a new law that leads us to Christ and shows us how to please God.

The beatitudes are set out as graces that all Christians need to manifest, and from the following verses he argues for Christians to be an influence for good in society. He sees Jesus’ antitheses as correcting distortions of the Mosaic law, to show that Christian righteousness is deeper than mere outward conformance to law.

Stott is careful not to make legalistic prescriptions about how the sermon should be applied, but still is willing to discuss many specific contemporary issues (e.g. pornography). His handling of the subject of divorce is gentle, and he includes an extended discussion of whether the non-retaliatory command should relate to the law courts. Basically, he tries to pick up on those verses which typical Christian readers might have questions about and works through the issues. As such it makes it a valuable resource for those who are studying or teaching their way through the sermon in a small group setting.

The first half of the sermon contains much material related to a Christian’s righteousness, while the second deals with prayer and Christian relationships. The sermon is broken down into 12 sections, and although he sometimes may be trying to be too neat with the structure he finds, it is a helpful way to organise the material.

There is not a great deal of discussion of how the sermon might have been heard by its original audience, and the political implications it would have had. He does however emphasise the multi-faceted “authority” of Jesus seen in the sermon, especially in the way he speaks of himself.

John Stott is convinced that the Sermon on the Mount is highly relevant teaching for today’s Christians. His practical focus throughout will mean that everyone will find something to challenge and inspire them. Reading through it should not prove difficult thanks to Stott’s good writing skills and devotional warmth. It will also serve as a good companion to any introductory commentary on Matthew, which will not typically be able to afford so much space to the sermon.

January Book Reviews

I’m going to start this blog off with some reviews of what I have been reading this year, and what I thought of it. I’ll do it a month at a time to keep the posts from getting too long

Read in January 2004:

Streams of Living Water (Richard Foster)
Rating: 4/5 – Thought provoking and inspiring
Examines a number of “streams” or “traditions” of Christianity, evaluating their strengths and weaknesses, highlighting their particular emphases through examples of famous Christians from church history, and examines their Biblical basis. The Contemplative, Holiness, Charismatic, Social Justice, Evangelical and Incarnational traditions are each given this treatment. I found the biographical sketches very inspirational, and he ably demonstrates that each of these streams does genuinely have something to teach the others. The one possible weakness is that he overlooks the fact that many of these streams, and indeed the example people from them would have very serious theological differences between them. Despite this, I can highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to get a broader picture of the body of Christ. It also contains a very useful dictionary of significant characters from church history who fit into each of these streams.

The Message of Ruth – Bible Speaks Today (David Atkinson)
Rating 3/5 – Good historical insights and practical applications
As with all the BST series, this will help the general reader get a good broad feel for the message of the book. The necessary historical background is filled in, and the author is always looking to draw out lessons for us.

Matthew for Everyone Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (Tom Wright)
Matthew for Everyone Part 2: Chapters 16-28 (Tom Wright)

Rating 4/5 – Jesus the first century Jewish Messiah
The format of these two small volumes is ideal for working your way through the Gospel of Matthew at a rate of about a chapter a day. Each chapter is broken down into chunks of about 10 verses, which Wright has himself translated into English. He then comments on each section, starting with an anecdote, before helping us understand the verses in question in their original historical context. This is of course, Tom Wright’s speciality as he is arguably the leading evangelical scholar in his field of historical Jesus studies. Be prepared for some surprises as he doesn’t always interpret a passage quite how you had heard it before. After reading this, you will have a much better understanding of some of the key issues (e.g. exile, temple, Messiahship, kingdom) that are required to appreciate the gospels properly.

The Awakening (Friedrich Zuendel)
Rating 3/5 – The Lord moves in mysterious ways
This is a biography of a 19th Century German pastor, Johann Christoph Blumhardt who had to deal with a woman in his church who was demon possessed. This resulted in a rather unusual two year “fight” with the forces of darkness, before he saw breakthrough. As a result there was a tremendous spiritual awakening in his village. Some of his methods caused theological controversy at the time, and still raise issues today, but for Blumhardt himself, he was simply trying to do what was right in what for him was uncharted territory. This little book will certainly cause you to spend some time thinking.