Book Review – Hebrews For Everyone (Tom Wright)

Series Overview

The “For Everyone” series is Tom Wright’s project to write an accessible commentary / devotional on the entire New Testament. He brings his massive scholarly learning to the table, but these volumes are anything but dry academic tomes.

The unique features of the series include the author’s own translation, which is a fairly loose paraphrase in many places. There is no book “introduction”, so if authorship and dating are covered, it is only in passing as he goes through. And he always starts each section with a brief anecdote, from his seemingly endless supply of illustrations, almost all of which prove helpful in illuminating the text although there are rare occasions where one suspects he was a little short of ideas.

His quirky approach to capitalisation from his more academic tomes also shows up in these books (e.g. “holy spirit”), although “God” does get capitalised throughout. Finally, there is a glossary at the back in which he defines several key terms which are highlighted in bold throughout the book.

Hebrews Commentary

Hebrews rests heavily on Old Testament quotations and allusions, and Tom Wright does a good job of explaining first the sense of the OT passage before showing how it functions in the author of Hebrews’ argument.

A strong theme comes out of Jesus as the climax of biblical history. Wright explains that the law is a good thing, but a temporary, preparatory thing, and so why go back to it, now the real thing has arrived. Moses matters – but Jesus matters even more.

Much of his familiar work on our future hope can be detected in this commentary, as he reminds us that we are not expecting to go from a material present to a spiritual (i.e. non-material) future, but rather we look to a world in which evil has at last no place. He does see a reference to the second coming in Heb 9:28, although is somewhat equivocal about Heb 10:37 which he starts off calling a reference to the second coming, but ends up linking it to the temple destruction in AD70.

Whilst he does not engage in the “once-saved always saved” debate in the way that other evangelicals might, he does tip his hand towards a perseverance of the saints position, saying that Rom 5-8 shows you can’t become a Christian and lose it all. Along with most interpreters he sees a major purpose of the author to encourage his readers to keep persevering in the face of persecution.


Tom Wright has the knack for bringing a fresh perspective to just about every topic he approaches and this is no exception. Preachers will find this especially useful as a source for illustrations and fresh ways of saying things. It shouldn’t be the only thing you read on Hebrews, but it nevertheless is well worth getting hold of, especially if, like me, you sometimes find Hebrews a bit heavy-going.

Book Review – Tyndale NT Commentary on Colossians & Philemon (N T Wright)

The Tyndale New Testament Commentary series is pitched at a level that falls somewhere in the middle between academic and devotional focuses. They are relatively small paperback volumes, but there is enough space for each verse to be covered with at least a couple of paragraphs. Despite its age, IVP are in the process republishing the entire series which is testament to how highly regarded they are.

This volume, covering Colossians and Philemon was written by the prolific author and historian, N T Wright in 1986. The thing that immediately stands out is his engaging writing style. There are few commentators who have such a way with words. Although the Tyndale Series is primarily intended to be exegetical rather than expositional, Wright has a knack of drawing out penetrating insights and points of application with a remarkable economy of words (e.g. on Col 3:20-21 "Children need discipline; so do parents.").

I read this commentary at the same time as working through Douglas Moo’s much larger and more technical commentary on Colossians and Philemon. Many of the points made are of course very similar, but Wright does bring a fresh perspective to most subjects he looks at, and this commentary is no exception.

He argues that the false teaching Paul opposes in Colosse was actually simply Judaism, which is a minority view amongst evangelical commentators. He does a good job of showing how this holds together, although I was not entirely convinced. He views the main emphasis of the letter as a call to maturity, and agrees with O’Brien that we can view Paul as the author.

Some of the concepts I found helpful in his commentary on Colossians were his emphasis on the "new Genesis", and "new Exodus" that Christ represents, as well as his explanation of the significance of baptism as a transition from old to new "solidarities". Wright spends considerable time analysing the poem of Col 1:15-20, which he views as presenting Christ as God’s Wisdom, his Torah.

On Col 3:6 Wright explains his conception of hell as a place where people become less and less human, until the image of God is obliterated in them, but rejects the suggestion that hell does not exist, or that it will be unpopulated.

His commentary on Philemon is equally strong. He draws out fellowship (koinonia) as the key theme of the letter. His best material is on the parallels between Paul’s work of reconciling Philemon and Onesimus, and Christ’s reconciling work in the gospel:

Here, at the climax of the letter, we witness nothing less than the radical application of the doctrine of justification to everyday living. No Christian has a right to refuse a welcome to one whom God has welcomed. Faith in Christ, the basis of justification, is the basis also of koinonia. … Onesimus’ debts are to be put in the ledger under Paul’s name: and there they will find that they are more than cancelled out. They disappear as totally as the sins placed to Christ’s account on the cross.

So I highly recommend this commentary to anyone wanting to study or preach from Colossians or Philemon. It is hard to imagine you could read it without benefit, even if you had access to some of the more in depth commentaries such as those by O’Brien or Moo.

Book Review – John For Everyone (Tom Wright)

The gospel of John is covered in two volumes of Tom Wright’s “For Everyone” series. The basically format is that he provides his own translation of the text (say 10-20 verses) followed by a page or two of expositional and devotional thoughts. These usually begin with a brief anecdote or illustration, and go on to expound the meaning of the passage in question. The format lends itself particularly to being used in daily devotions.

Wright is well known in theological circles for his work on both the gospels, and on Paul, bringing his own unique perspective to many passages, while remaining in the evangelical tradition. As I mentioned recently, many in reformed circles are unsure whether to take him as a friend or a foe. However, at the very least his historical expertise is able to shed much light onto many passages, even if not all his theological conclusions are agreed with.

The gospel of John actually provides less opportunity for controversy, as Wright’s preterist approach to many of the parables and eschatological teaching of the Synoptics does not occur, and the “exile” theme is not so prominent. In fact, I was reading this at the same time as reading Don Carson’s commentary on John, and noticed many places where the two are in close agreement with their interpretation and application of key passages.

Wright uses his historical knowledge to bring many passages to life, and he emphasises Jesus as the alternative to the Temple early on. In the first book, he encourages us to see that John is listing seven signs that point to who Jesus is. In some places, he notes where the authenticity of some of Jesus’ sayings have been doubted, but encourages us to believe, giving brief reasons why they should not be doubted on historical terms. He particularly sees echoes of the Old Testament exodus and passover stories in much of John’s material. There was also a very interesting link with the story of David’s three warriors getting water for him in the “drinking blood” part of John 6.

The second volume on John covers chapters 11-21 and does not presuppose that you have read the first volume. In the discussion on the true vine in chapter 15, Wright emphasises Jesus as the true Israel. The chapter also includes criticism of historical wars in the name of Christianity.

As well as the exodus theme, Wright sees links with the Genesis creation story in more than just the prologue, such as seeing Gethsemane the new garden of Eden where the true Adam is sent to his death by the false ones.

In the trial scene, Wright does not attempt to provide a harmonisation of the order of events with the synoptics, but does seek to defend the gospel’s portrayal of Pilate. Pilate’s two motivations of avoiding trouble and snubbing the Jews reveal his actions as historically plausible. Unlike many schemes, Wright sees the cross itself as the seventh sign in John (walking on the water is not counted).

As he deals with Jesus’ death and resurrection Wright’s focus is more devotional. We are encouraged to stand in awe and wonder at the event, and called to appreciate Easter rather than Christmas as the high point of the Christian calendar. He sees chapter 21 as a later addition but still talks as though he accepts Johannine authorship of it.

Despite his interest in historical matters, these certainly do not dominate the discussion, and Wright consistently looks for ways to apply the text. Sometimes this is in the form of a challenging question intended for further reflection, while in other places he spells out some of the practical implications. As with so many others in the “For Everyone” series, I can recommend these two volumes on John as a very helpful study guide. They will broaden your understanding of the theology, historical background, and ongoing challenge of the gospel of John.

Book Review – Luke for Everyone (Tom Wright)

Tom Wright has been churning out new volumes of the “For Everyone” series at an impressive rate. The series features his own translation of the New Testament, broken into chunks of around 10 verses followed by a page or two of comments. The series is aimed at a broad readership, and most sections of comments are begun with an anecdote. Luke is covered in one relatively thick volume (about 300 pages). As usual key words are highlighted in bold, and defined in a glossary at the back.

The gospels are of course one of Wright’s acknowledged areas of expertise, and many of the themes he develops in “Jesus and the Victory of God” may be found in layman’s terms here. As you might expect, there are plenty of pieces of historical information to help us truly appreciate the culture of the day, and the impact that Jesus’ words would have had on his original audience.

Wright’s typical emphases on the Temple, Exodus and Exile can be detected throughout. He also may surprise new readers with his interpretation of the parables traditionally thought to be about the “second coming” and the “end times”. In Wright’s view, they describe the destruction of the temple in AD70 and the vindication that this event brought to Jesus, although they are not without contemporary relevance.

This is not however a merely academic analysis brought to a wider audience. The comments often encourage practical response and application as well as encourage Christians to think more deeply about how their faith should be put into action. The book ends with some themes from Wright’s “Resurrection of the Son of God”, describing what the Christian understanding of the significance and future hope or resurrection is all about.

This book will prove useful to those wanting a fresh look at the gospel of Luke from an evangelical historian’s perspective. It’s format lends itself to being used for daily devotions. It will get you thinking again about the meaning of Jesus’ parables, and brings a deeper understanding of the significance of Jesus’ message. Throughout it respects Luke as a first class historian in his own right, and seeks to interpret the way he has organised the material in the gospel.

October Book Reviews

Hebrews: The Radiance of His Glory (John Piper) 5/5

OK, this isn’t a book, but there is more than enough material in these 52 sermons on the book of Hebrews to put together a commentary. Whilst not going through the book as slowly as he is currently going through Romans (170 sermons and counting!), he does not rush through, usually tackling 3-4 verses in each 30-45 minute sermon. And as anyone who has heard Piper before will tell you, this is not dry and academic expository material – Piper is passionate about getting his message across.

The book of Hebrews may seem a surprising book to choose for someone as vocally Calvinist as Piper because of its passages that seem to teach that you can lose your salvation. He deals with this, in my view, brilliantly, demonstrating that the author of Hebrews himself teaches the “perseverance of the saints” elsewhere in the very same book. So believing that the author was not confused, and did not contradict himself, he shows that endurance is the only true sign of a genuine faith (bringing him, not surprisingly, into line with the standard teaching of the Puritans).

The call to persevere in faith flows through the book, with John Piper repeatedly warning about the dangers of drifting in the Christian life. In fact, it would seem that much of the material for his recent (and excellent) book “Don’t waste your life” came from this sermon series.

Also prominent throughout the series is John Piper’s characteristicly honest treatment of the subject of suffering. Everyone experiences suffering in their life, and everyone will one day die. Add to that the fact that many great saints of Bible times and throughout church history have had do endure tremendous suffering and it is a wonder that preachers do not address this subject more often. John Piper doesn’t believe in the “I’ll worry about that when it happens” approach. His heart is for people who are ready and willing to suffer and die for the cause of the gospel, and who know how to make sense of it when it comes in whatever form (whether for the gospel or not).

You will need quite a lot of spare time to work your way through this series, but it will be time well spent. It would be ideal material for listening to on a daily commute. Prepare to be challenged to a seriously radical discipleship.

Power Through Prayer (E M Bounds) 4/5

This is just one of seven books E M Bounds has written on prayer. It is broken up into 20 chapters, each of which are fairly short making it easy to work your way through slowly. The book is directed at preachers and uncompromisingly calls them to put prayer as their top priority. Bounds argues that without prayer, a preaching ministry is useless, even if on the surface of things it seems to have some good qualities or results. The early chapters urge the preacher to spend more time in prayer, drawing repeatedly on the examples of great preachers from church history, demonstrating their own reliance on prayer. He is critical of those who are willing to put much time into studying theology or developing their rhetorical technique while neglecting prayer.

He sees prayer as the key to a successful and Holy Spirit anointed preaching ministry, almost to the point of saying that prayer is the only thing you need to get right – the rest will just follow. You could perhaps criticise him for coming across as legalistic in some places, and anti-intellectual in others but that would be to miss his main point. A preaching ministry is dead without prayer as surely as a human being is dead without oxygen. Don’t think you need to be a preacher to appreciate this book though, its call to prayer is a vital message for all Christians.

Paul For Everyone – Galatians & Thessalonians (N T Wright) 3/5

I had been looking forward to reading this book for quite some time, as the books of Galatians and Thessalonians contain subjects on which Wright has some unique things to say. Galatians of course brings up the issue of the “New Perspective on Paul”. As expected Wright does not see the book as an attack on teaching that the way for an individual to be saved is by works. Instead, he explains that faith, rather than circumcision is the “badge of membership” of God’s people, and that the issue at stake was God wanting to create a people from all nations rather than by Gentiles having to conform to Jewish law. While rejecting the Lutheran view of the law, Wright describes the law as a “babysitter”, performing a useful function, but no longer required when maturity is reached.

Thessalonians brings up the controversial issues of the rapture and the antichrist. Wright has argued strongly in other publications that the “coming” passages in the gospels are not to be read as prophecies of Christ’s “second coming”. Rather, they are seen as mirroring the Daniel 7 “coming” of the Son of Man to heaven (as opposed to from), or the long awaited return of YHWH and the end of the exile. The passage on the rapture is seen as symbolic language rather than literal. Wright provides good insight into the situation at the church in Thessalonica, linking up with the Acts accounts and demonstrating the relevance of Paul’s comments to them. In 2 Thessalonians, he avoids getting into debate on the identity of a future antichrist, favouring a partial preterist approach (he sees it as being fulfilled in AD70).

The Message of Daniel (Ronald Wallace) 4/5

Any commentary on the book of Daniel is in danger of getting bogged down in argument about dating and authorship and an overwhelming amount of background historical information. Wallace does well to provide a basic overview of the main arguments and necessary history as well as making his own case for Daniel as author without letting the introduction become unmanageably long.

The commentary itself is never far from practical application, particularly due to the parallels with Daniel’s situation for modern Western Christians. Like him, we are trying to live for God in a pagan culture, wondering what aspects of our culture we may accept, and what we ought to stand against. Wallace also draws out lessons from the contrasting attitudes of kings Nebuchadnezzar and Belteshazzar, both received judgement and mercy from God but responded very differently.

Whilst the first part of the book of Daniel is well known and loved, the second part is taken up with some vivid apocalyptic imagery which Christians either tend to skip over quickly or else come up with very fanciful interpretations of which 21st century characters and organisations it is refering to. Wallace takes a balanced approach, briefly explaining the options and drawing out relevant encouragements for us without feeling the need to explicitly determine who the 6th horn on the 4th beast is. He helpfully distinguishes between those prophecies clearly already fulfilled, and those that speak of the “end times”.

The Message of Hosea (Derek Kidner) 4/5

Of all the symbolic actions the Old Testament prophets were required by God to perform, Hosea’s is surely the most emotionally taxing. He married a prostitute, who bore three children, only one of whom was his, and then left him. Hosea then graphically modelled God’s grace and love by buying her back at great cost to be his wife again. Kidner has been careful to help the reader get a good overview of the flow of the book and its historical setting by providing some useful appendices (in fact, it would be nice if some of the other BST volumes could follow suit in this regard).

He breaks the book into two sections – the first being Hosea’s acted out parable of God’s love and then the prophetic message. In both parts, a vision of both the love and holiness of God shine through as the people are confronted for their sin and unfaithfulness yet the deserved judgement to come is not without hope because of God’s amazing grace. In the second part Kidner shows how Hosea consistently reveals their self-sufficiency, half-hearted religion and shallow repentance. The book ends with the amazing grace of God as he offers healing, refreshing and fruitfulness to those who will genuinely repent.

September Book Reviews

Paul for Everyone – The Pastorals (N T Wright) 3/5

Another highly readable volume in this series from Tom Wright. The books of 1 Timothy and Titus have a lot of practical teaching in them which he highlights nicely. In a volume this size, he doesn’t have space to argue the case for his interpretation of some of the gender-specific commands, but gives a brief defense of his egalitarian reading of them. For 2 Timothy, I prefer Stott’s BST volume, which better emphasises Paul’s passion for the safe handing over of the gospel. As one would expect though, Wright does an admirable job of highlighting some of the subversive use of vocabulary (e.g. good news, saviour) that challenges the claims of the Roman empire.

The Message of Psalms 1-72 – The Bible Speaks Today (Michael Wilcock) 3/5

There is a lot of material for a book of this size to cover, so don’t expect a verse by verse exposition. Given this limitation, Michael Wilcock devotes a surprising amount of space to discussing the historical situation behind the writing of each psalm. In most cases, of course, this is guesswork, but he makes some good cases for the links he proposes. The remainder of the space allotted to each psalm is spent considering the structure of the psalm, with general comments on each section. Another useful feature of the book is that during the early Psalms he highlights key words and phrases that will reoccur throughout the Psalter and provides definitions for them.

The Message of Thessalonians – The Bible Speaks Today (John Stott) 3/5

As with many of the BST volumes on shorter books, this one is more like a standard commentary with comments on almost every verse. Stott sees the overriding theme of 1 Thessalonians as Paul’s preoccupation with the gospel – its proclamation to the world and implications for the church. There is a useful and balanced discussion of the Parousia and rapture. Stott characterstically takes pains to differentiate between Paul’s apostolic gifting, which in his view is no longer available, and our current situation with the canon of Scripture complete.

The analysis of 2 Thessalonians continues along similar lines, with more teaching on the second coming and the problem of the antichrist to deal with as well. Again, Stott links Paul’s apostolic authority with his mandate to write Scripture which gives him an yet another opportunity to vigorously champion an evangelical commitment to the Bible.

Jesus and the Victory of God (N T Wright) 5/5

This substantial work, volume 2 of Wright’s “Christian Origins and the Question of God” series is widely recognised as a hugely important contribution to the “third quest” for the historical Jesus. Wright begins by surveying the recent trends in historical investigation into the life of Jesus. He takes the opportunity to provide a robust critique of the Jesus seminar’s findings (something that he has also done admirably elsewhere in various papers). He then proposes a method for examining the various accounts of the life of Jesus (the four canonical gospels, and the gospel of Thomas) with their stories and sayings and coming to an informed conclusion as to “what really happened”. Rather than, as many scholars favour, taking individual sayings and asking “did Jesus say that?” – which rarely leads to any kind of certain conclusion, he approaches it from a different angle. He looks at some of the key themes running through Jesus’ life. Celebratory meals, riddles, symbolic actions, remarkable healings, kingdom sayings and so on are to be found in “triple tradition” which gives us confidence that Jesus did actually do these type of things.

Wright shows how Jesus through symbolic praxis and subversive riddles predicted the downfall of the temple cult, effectively replacing the temple and Torah with himself. To answer the charge that many sayings or miracles of Jesus were simply invented by the early church to prove various points, Wright introduces the criteria of double similarity and dissimilarity which
he uses to gain strong historical footings in each of the categories he examines.

Having examined the teaching and praxis of Jesus, Wright slowly builds up his picture of what Jesus’ own sense of vocation was – arguing that we can determine this without needing to psychoanalyse him. He does this by working through the material that gives us insight into Jesus’ own worldview. The book closes with an examination of the reasons for Jesus death – moving backwards from the Romans’ intention to the Jews and then to Jesus himself. Finally Wright considers the question of the return of Yahweh to his people. Forgiveness of sins for first century Jews meant a real end to the exile – something that they believed had not happened yet. The pagan forces would be thrown out and the temple would be the focal point of God’s presence. But Wright argues that Jesus saw himself not just as a prophet announcing that return, but that in himself and through his suffering he was actually bringing that forgiveness – the end of the exile and a new kingdom where the temple was superceded.

This is a tremendously valuable book for gaining a stronger understanding of Jesus’ own sense of identity and calling, as well as appreciating the first century culture in which he lived. Many of the parables, “apocalyptic sayings” and symbolic actions (such as the cleansing of the temple and the last supper) will take on a new light as a result of his careful analysis. He ably demonstrates that we can approach the gospel records without prejudging them to be either infallible or full of myths and discover that they contain a great deal of reliable material purely on the basis of level-headed historical investigation. The extreme skepticism of many liberals is shown to be unwarranted.

The subject of the resurrection is reserved for the third volume in the series, which I hope to tackle soon (it has taken me over a year to read this one). There is a lively discussion group on Yahoo that talk about Wright’s writings, so ifyou read this book and have any questions you can ask them there. The fourth volume (probably on Paul) is eagerly anticipated, but due to his new role as Bishop of Durham it might be a while in coming.

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.