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Archive for March, 2010

Book Review: Scandalous

Special thanks to Connie of Crossway for a review copy of this book.

D A Carson is one of the most prolific and respected evangelical teachers alive today.  Not only is he an outstanding New Testament scholar, but he is a dedicated churchman.  His most recent book is Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus.  The five chapters of this book are actually printed (and slightly edited) versions of sermons he gave at a conference at Mars Hill Church in Seattle (previously linked to here).  If you’re wondering how a world-class Bible scholar would sound outside of the classroom and in the pulpit of a church, this is your chance.

The book’s subtitle gives away the subject matter, though this is hardly a collections of topical sermons.  Instead, each chapter deals with a biblical text, with the death and resurrection of Jesus being the unifying theme.  The texts and titles are:

  • The Ironies of the Cross (Matthew 27:27-51a)
  • The Center of the Whole Bible (Romans 3:21-26)
  • The Strange Triumph of the Slaughtered Lamb (Revelation 12)
  • A Miracle Full of Surprises (John 11:1-53)
  • Doubting the Resurrection of Jesus (John 20:24-31)

These sermons turned chapters are probably more detailed (theologically and exegetically) than most sermons we hear preached Sunday after Sunday.  But they are not simply mini-commentaries, though I suppose it’s significant he’s written commentaries on Matthew and John, and is working on a Revelation commentary.  Carson’s goal isn’t simply to mine the text for intellectually exciting nuggets, but to apply the text faithfully. 

While all of these chapters were excellent, my favorite were the ones from the gospels.  The first chapter, from Matthew’s recording of Jesus’ torture and crucifixion is less “practical” in that one doesn’t come away with a “now, go do this…” application.  It is, however, quite moving as it reveals the true nature and mission of Jesus in a powerful way, which is a noble end in its own right.  The two chapters from John encourage us in understanding the surprising love of God and the nature and reasons of doubt (and the redemption of those who do). 

I don’t want to make it seem, however, that the other two chapters were in any way subpar.  In fact, I’m having the students in our church training school listen to audio from the Revelation sermon to get an idea of how to approach and preach this confusing book.  It is simply the nature of apocalyptic literature, not to mention the (unfortunately, in my opinion) strong influence of purely futurist readings of Revelation, that this chapter may require more than one reading. 

The chapter on Romans 3:21-26 is the most theologically and exegetically dense of the book.  Carson tackles the issue of God’s wrath and propitiation, and handles it admirably well considering the sermonic nature of the medium.  He also dives (albeit, shallowly) into the pistis Christou debate, arguing for “faith in Christ” rather than “faithfulness of Christ.”  But, given his acknowledgment of the need to handle the passage “phrase by phrase” (p39), I kept wondering why he never discussed the “righteousness of God.”  In fact, he alternates between “righteousness from God” and “righteousness of God,” which would be referring to two different things, at least ostensibly.  Again, I want to reiterate that because of the nature of a sermon, Carson couldn’t address every exegetical detail.  But by any reckoning, the meaning of “righteousness of God” is hugely important for the meaning of this passage, not to mention the book of Romans. 

In the end, this is yet another fine addition to Carson’s books of short expositions intended to reach a non-academic audience.  What makes this one unique, perhaps, is that it is not based on a single Biblical book or passage.  It does serve, however, to demonstrate the centrality of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the biblical storyline.  Anyone looking for an enlightening and uplifting study on this topic would do well to pick up a copy of Scandalous.

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Special thanks to India of Broadman & Holman for a review copy of this book.

Over a year ago, I noted that Craig Blomberg’s Jesus and the Gospels is the single best book on… well… Jesus and the Gospels.  I also noted that a new edition would be coming out later that year, which I’m now happy to review.  My feelings regarding the book haven’t changed at all over time.  I’m just as excited about it now as I was when I first read it 10 years ago. 

The book is divided into 5 main sections: Historical Background for Studying the Gospels, Critical Methods for Studying the Gospels, Introduction to the Four Gospels, A Survery of the Life of Christ and Historical and Theological Synthesis.  Each section can be read on their own and out of order, though of course it is helpful to take the material in the order given.  The book is “textbookish,” which shouldn’t be surprising since it was written as a textbook.  Blomberg does a phenomenal job of weaving through debates in a concise but informative manner, along with giving suggestions for further reading.  He offers his opinions when there are differing options, but he represents other viewpoints well and doesn’t force his reading on the text.

I’ll select two sections to highlight.  First, his opening section on the historical background is extremely helpful, especially for those who have little knowledge of the culture and historical circumstances in which Jesus was born, lived and died.  Whether Blomberg’s discussing the Maccabean Revolt or the religious groups in 1st century Israel (Pharisees, Sadducees, etc), the reader walks away with a clear understanding of the major players and events that form the backdrop of the Gospels.  And- this is very important- you won’t find yourself nodding off like you did in ancient history class (or was that just me?).

Second, Blomberg’s Survey of the Life of Christ functions as a wonderful mini-commentary on the Gospels.  Blomberg deals with issues of historicity and harmonization (perhaps a bit more than I would), as well as offering thoughts on each episode in the life of Christ as seen in the Gospels.  I’m consistently impressed with just how much information is fit into a relatively short space, with attention given to distinctives in each Gospel, interpretive options and short, but crucial, exegetical notes.  You won’t have all your questions answered in this section, but you’d be surprised just how many are. 

There are probably a few places where I disagree with Blomberg on matters of interpretation, but honestly I can only think of 2 off the top of my head.  1) Blomberg sees Jesus’ death as happening in 33AD, whereas I lean (ever so slightly) to a 30AD date.  2) I don’t think the Temple “clearing” (Blomberg’s preferred term) found in John 2 is a separate event from the one seen toward the end of the Synoptic Gospels.  That’s it.  These aren’t exactly the issues denominations divide over.  Like I said, I’m sure there’s probably more, but that’s all I can came up with at the moment.

There will be some who own the 1st edition and will be wondering if they need to get the 2nd edition.  I’m not sure you need to run out and buy it right away if you own the 1st, but I’d make room in my budget to update it at some point.  And if you don’t own this book in any editon, you should.   It would be helpful if this book existed in paperback in order to drop the price a bit.  If it were a tad cheaper, I could see this book used in a church class (as it is, it certainly could be, I just know people in my church will struggle with the thought of dropping $30 on a book). 

So who would benefit most from this book?  Honestly, pretty much anyone can.  Laypeople will find this book an accessible guide to Jesus and the Gospels.  The only section that may not interest most laypeople would be the Critical Methods chapter, but it wouldn’t be because it’s over their head.  Pastors and teachers couldn’t ask for a better book to help them in their personal study and preparations to teach the material.  As I’ve said in the past, I’ve been using this book for years and see absolutely no reason to stop now.  Simply put, I’ve yet to find a guide as reliable as Blomberg or a book as well-written.

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In the comments of a previous post, Marcus asked what books I’m using in my study of Ezekiel.  For those who know me, it doesn’t take much to get me talking about books, especially commentaries.  But I thought I’d use this as an opportunity to stress how I use commentaries and other resources in the process of studying a book of the Bible.  Obviously commentaries serve well as resevoirs for “quick answers,” but are even better used over a long period of study.

I want to put all of this in context.  Sometime in the fall, I decided to embark on a prolonged study in the Book of Ezekiel.  I picked Ezekiel for a few reasons: of the major prophets, it’s the one I know the least; I’ve often found it confusing; I wanted to justify my purchase of Daniel Block’s two volume commentary; and Ian Boxall’s commentary on Revelation convinced me that Ezekiel was important to John’s Revelation. 

So here are the steps I am taking in my study of Ezekiel.  Mind you, I’m actually only 7 chapters in; I’m moving intentionally slow (and I took a bit of a break when my computer died).  I also don’t want to give the impression that I really think of studying the Bible in a mechanical, step-by-step process.  The crucial thing about these steps is that I never jump forward, but I may move backward.  That is, just because I move on to a new step doesn’t mean I won’t go back and redo a previous one.  But I try not to get ahead in the process, for reasons I’ll explain as I go. 

The one step I’m leaving out of the list is actually the most important.  I pray a lot as I’m studying, through every step.  Not only do I pray the words of Scripture (which can be difficult in a book like Ezekiel), but I pray that the Spirit of God give me wisdom as I go.  If, after all, He inspired the book, I’d rather seek His insight than anyone else’s.

Read the Text

Sounds obvious, huh?  It doesn’t get any more basic and necessary than this.  I try to read the entire book every now and then.  I read large sections at a time, then narrow down to smaller sections as I see them (chapter divisions in Ezekiel are generally pretty good, though chapters can be grouped together, more on that in a second).  I’ve been using the TNIV, though when I start to look at smaller chunks of verses, I compare other translations.  For this study, I’ve opted not to do my own translation work, or at least not the entire book.  I’ve done that before for other books, and will continue to do so.  But, honestly, it would take me far too long to study Ezekiel if I tried to translate the entire thing. 

Break Off Natural Sections

As I noted above, chapters can be grouped together to form units.  For instance, chapters 1-3 go together, with chapter 1 and chapters 2-3 forming subunits.  Chapters 8-11 all go together.  And so on.  This is something I may adjust as I spend more time in the text, if needed.  These sections are the ones I study, so on my computer, there are separate documents for Ezekiel 1-3, 4-7 (4-5 & 6-7 go together), 8-11, etc.

Make a Rough Outline

My outlines are never super detailed, just enough to give me an idea of the flow of a passage.  When I broke down the vision of chapter 1 into 3 main parts (Vision of the 4 Living Creatures vv4-14, Vision of the 4 Wheels vv15-21, Vision of the Glory of YHWH vv22-28), it helped me make sense of what was otherwise a mess in my mind.  Again, I’m always willing to correct this outline, but I find it a good place to start.

Taking Notes & Asking Questions

Using my outline, I begin to take notes on what I think is important.  For example, in chapters 2-3 there is some ambuguity as to the identity of ruach, which can mean breath, wind or S/spirit.  I look at the text and come up with my own thoughts, and try to see if there is anything significant to it.  I note repeated phrases, of which there are many in Ezekiel (e.g., “then they will know that I am YHWH”).  I also write out any questions I have that I may not be able to answer myself, or that I’m unsure of the answer.  I was a bit confused by the 390 and 40 day periods in Ezekiel 4, so I made a note to check it out when I hit the commentaries (again, after I tried to come up with possible answers myself).  This step can take quite a while.

Theological Reflection

After I do the above (which would be termed “exegesis”), I begin writing out some of my thoughts on what the text teaches about God.  There may be a particular phrase that sticks out, an important action, etc.  I’m already thinking about this stuff as I’m taking notes, but now I spend more time thinking on it.  This is important for two reasons: the Bible teaches us about God (duh) and, in my opinion, the theology of the text is the key to hermeneutics.  In other words, if I can determine what a passage is teaching about the unchanging God, I will have a much better shot at faithfully applying a text that is written in a foreign language, to a foreign people living in a foreign world.

Application Ideas

This is where I write out some thoughts on how a text might be preached or taught.  I’m consistently going back to this, sometimes weeks after I’ve finished a section.  This area is a struggle, especially on the personal level, because I seek to apply it to my life before I go tell anyone else how they should live.  The first 3 chapters of Ezekiel really kicked my butt.  I was so powerfully struck by the immensity of what Ezekiel experienced, I couldn’t get it off my mind.  I remember going out for a run (don’t laugh) and realizing that I had actually been walking around aimlessly for 30 minutes, thinking about Ezekiel’s call.  Needless to say, I’ve had the tendency to become consumed with the book. 

Anyway, all that to say, applying a text is much harder than many assume, which is probably why Ezekiel doesn’t get preached on very often (unless you opt for “what’s the vision by the Kebar River in your life?”).   Maybe somewhere down the road I’ll dive into this even more, but this is already getting long enough.

Using Outside Resources

You’ll notice that this is the last item on this list (yes, we’re at the end).  When I was in school, I would always try to do my own exegetical work before I looked at anything else.  I would translate, diagram, work on syntax, etc, without looking at BibleWorks (only cheaters use it) or commentaries (or at least I tried, sometimes I’d get stuck and look something up, only to realize I probably could have figured it out myself).  In my experience, commentaries work best when you have already thought through a text yourself and are looking for specific insights.  Very few commentaries are so well written that you can just pick them up and start reading, gaining incredible wisdom.  Doing that virtually guarantees you’ll learn next-to-nothing.  But if you know what you’re looking for when you start, you’ll glean much that is useful.  I also check out a few other resources, which I’ll give below.

Commentaries

The two Ezekiel commentaries that I am using are Daniel Block’s previously mentioned two volume commentary in the NICOT series and Iain Duguid’s volume in the NIV Application series.  Both are outstanding.  I was already familiar with Block’s, and had heard good things about Duguid’s.  I have to be honest, I was skeptical at first, but am now a huge fan (so is my wife, for what it’s worth).  Although his space is limited, especially in comparison to the ginormous Block, he makes the most out of it, even including things missed by Block.  Once in a while his practical insights are a bit of a stretch, but I think they’re designed to get the reader thinking rather than suggesting sermon bullet points.  If you can’t afford Block, then I strongly recommend Duguid.  Even if you can afford Block, I’d strongly recommend Duguid.

Block has pretty much everything you’d want in a commentary.  He doesn’t just comment on the text, he interacts well with other writers, brings in helpful historical background and, best of all, takes time to discuss the theological implications of the text.  This commentary is worth the hype.

I also own John Taylor’s commentary in the Tyndale series, but haven’t looked at it much.  I go back and look through it every so often, but there’s little in there that isn’t already covered by the other two.  My wife was using this one until I got Duguid for Christmas.  If I were living near a library that carried commentaries, I’d probably look at Allen, Zimmerli and Greenberg, but I don’t so I don’t.

Other Books

Every so often I consult a book that isn’t a commentary.  I would probably take a look at an OT introduction if I liked any.  I’ve poked around Bruce Waltke’s OT Theology to see what he says about Ezekiel, but for the most part, I stick to the commentaries. 

Online Classes

Another helpful resource is BiblicalTraining.org, which we’ve plugged multiple times.  Douglas Stuart has a lecture on Ezekiel, but it’s only 19 minutes, which is too short for anything more than a basic orientation.  On iTunesU, there is an entire prophets class for free taught by John Goldingay at Fuller Seminary.  His lecture on Ezekiel comes in close to 80 minutes, so naturally he covers more ground than Stuart.  Goldingay is left of where I am, but often has much that is helpful.

Sermons

I’ve mentioned before that Ezekiel is rarely preached on, at least in my circles.  I’ve found a few online; you can check out The Gospel Coaliton site for some examples.  Like commentaries, I won’t listen to anything until I’m done doing my own work.

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So there you have it, far more than you ever wanted to know about my process of studying a book of the Bible.  This process is always subject to revision, so if you have anything to add, I’d be happy to hear it out.  Let me end with this:

The more time I spend in Scripture, the more amazed I am at the treasures contained within.  I’ve spent years now studying the Word (and I have the school debt to prove it!), but on a consistent basis I find myself feeling like a novice.  It’s humbling to jump back on the bunny slopes, but humility’s definitely a good thing.  I had no idea Ezekiel, the book and the prophet, could be so compelling, challenging and God-exalting.  Lord help me (literally) if I ever lose the excitement I feel today.

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Revelation can be a difficult book to understand.  The are any number of reasons for this, many of which are obvious (you know, stuff like demonic frogs and giant hailstones falling from the sky).  One of the reasons for this difficulty, in my opinion, is that we tend not to read Revelation as a narrative.  I realize that it doesn’t work exactly like most narratives, such as the ones we find in the OT or even in the NT, like Acts.  After all, settings shift without much notice; characters come and go rather quickly, often without identifying themselves; and so on.

Yet, if we allow some features of a narrative to be present, we’ll notice how seemingly disconnected visions can work together.  I want to look at two questions that are posed in Revelation by unbelievers to demonstrate what I’m getting at.

  • As God is pouring out His judgment in 6:12-17 (the 6th seal), the people of the earth “called to the mountains and the rock, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!  For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?'”
  • In chapter 13, the beast is revealed and worshipped.  The people of the earth who follow the beast ask, “Who is like the beast?  Who can make war against it?” (v4- I take the second question as working in tandem with the first.)

These questions were intended to be rhetorical questions by those who ask them, the answer being “no one.”  No one, in their mind, can withstand the judgment of God; and no one can wage war against the mighty beast.

But in the narrative of Revelation, John takes these rhetorical questions and turns them around.  After the sixth seal is opened and the people of the earth ask who can withstand God’s wrath, John has another vision.  After hearing the number of those sealed, he sees a vision of a great multitude (I take these to be referring to one group, but that’s for another discussion) “standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (7:9).  Who can withstand God’s judgment?  Those who remain faithful to the Lamb and refuse to compromise even if it means their death. 

In the same way, the answer to the “rhetorical” question of 13:4 (who can make war against the beast?) is given in chapter 14 in another vision of the 144,000.  I’m following Richard Bauckham (and others) here in seeing the number “144,000” as a wartime census (which helps explain why they are men and not women), although my interpretation doesn’t depend on this point.  These righteous and holy people are the ones who can wage war against the beast; not in the manner that the beast would fight, but in the path of the Lamb himself.  And the Lamb is also the heavenly warrior who ultimately defeats the beast in Revelation 19:11-21.  The point is that there are, in fact, some who can successfully wage war against the mighty beast.  The beast’s power, vicious though it was, was only temporary and ultimately futile.  The irony is that those who suffered at the hands of the beast were actually winning the battle.

There is a purpose in having these rhetorical questions turn out to be not-so-rhetorical in the narrative.  These questions demonstrate the blindness of unbelief.  Those who do not submit themselves to the One who sits on the throne or to the Lamb honestly think they understand “the way things work.”  They think of God’s judgment as comprehensively unavoidable.  It seems capricious and arbitrary to those who do not have eyes to see.  But those who remain faithful will know that God’s judgment is anything but arbitrary.  It is just.  Even worse, their blindness prevents them from seeing the proper response- repentance (see also Revelation 9:20-21).  They seek help from inanimate objects rather than the Creator who is sovereign over all things, who is able and willing to extend mercy.

In the same way, those who followed the beast honestly thought that the beast was unconquerable.  Awed by the brute force of the beast and the signs of the second beast (the “shock and awe” approach, if you will), they were deceived into thinking that they were witnessing the single most powerful entity in existence.  They were blind, however, to the true reality: that those who resist the beast and remain faithful to the Lamb will overcome the beast. 

So in John’s narrative, these rhetorical questions prove a point: that those who do not have eyes to see will be blind to true reality.  When we recognize these questions for what they are- false assumptions of a blind people- we are convicted and encouraged not to capitulate to such a worldview.  We are reminded to seek God, the One who sits on the throne, the One who is the merciful and sovereign King of Creation.

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There has been quite an uproar over a recent post written by Bill Streger called, “Uncool People Need Jesus Too.”  Streger is involved with the Acts 29 Network and is responsible for assessing applicants for church planting.  In this post, he notes that every church plant vision sounds the same and targets the same group of people.  I’ll let him tell it:

Not only is the language the same, but so is the target group. It’s amazing how many young pastors feel that they are distinctly called to reach the upwardly-mobile, young, culture-shaping professionals and artists. Can we just be honest? Young, upper-middle-class urban professionals have become the new “Saddleback Sam”.

Seriously, this is literally the only group I see proposals for. I have yet to assess a church planter who wants to move to a declining, smaller city and reach out to blue collar factory workers, mechanics, or construction crews. Not one with an evangelsitic strategy to go after the 50-something administrative assistant who’s been working at the same low-paying insurance firm for three decades now.

He has since written another post in attempt to clarify his statements, as he has apparently offended some of those involved with Acts 29.  I personally don’t think he needs to apologize for anything, as I thought he articulated a legitimate problem, but I don’t run in his circles, and thus I have no reason for offense. 

I thought of two things as I read his post.  First, I recalled Mack Ave Community Church in Detroit, a church I have previously mentioned.  Here is a church plant led by young and relatively “cool” men, who have opted to head straight into a more destitute community rather than a more upwardly mobile community. 

Second, I found myself ruminating on Rodney Stark’s book, The Rise of Christianity.  While it’s been a long time since I’ve looked at Stark’s book, I remember part of the reason he accounts for the rise of Christianity in the hostile culture of the Roman Empire is the willingness of Christians to stick it out during difficult times.  For instance, when a plague would hit a city, many would flee in hopes to protect themselves.  Some Christians, however, would often stay and help their neighbors who were in need.  In essence, when the going got tough, the Christians stayed put.  Because of this, there were opportunities for the faith to be shared, in word and in deed, and the church grew.

I can’t help but wonder if Streger is hitting on this issue.  There has always been a temptation for churches to focus on those who are most like them.  Since most pastors tend to be reasonably well-educated, middle class folks, they naturally gravitate toward that demographic.  I want to be very clear: I’m not throwing stones at Acts 29.  I know very little about them, and most of what I know comes from listening to the occasional Matt Chandler or Mark Driscoll sermon.  In fact, I find myself looking at my own church and church planting organization and see some of the same temptations at work.  Streger is talking just as much about me and my circle as he is about his own.

The question is, who is going to walk through life with the man who just lost his job at Ford?  Who is going to follow the example of the early Christians and help their sick neighbor while everyone else has fled to a bigger, better city?  Can we envision the rapid growth of the church through helping the most desperate in addition to targeting the next wave of “movers and shakers” in our country?  For the health of the church and for the sake of those in need, someone has to go.

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Over at Euangelion, Michael Bird has an interview with Sean McDonough, one of my former profs at Gordon-Conwell, on his new book, Christ as Creator.  I’d love to get my hands on this book, though the $100+ price tag is… well… not even an option.  So, interviews like this will have to do.  I recommend you check it out to get a glimpse.

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This was mentioned in a comment on a previous post, but I’ll post it here: Moore Theological College in Australia has posted 1700+ free sermons and lectures online.  I’ve already listened to Peter O’Brien’s 4 sermons on Romans 8 and thought they were outstanding (I’ll have to listen again and take notes).  There’s William J Dumbrell on eschatology, stuff from Brian Rosner, D A Carson, N T Wright, and so on.  I highly recommend you take the time to browse through and pick some good stuff out.  For anyone who’s already listened to some, I’d love to hear any recommendations in the comments.

(HT: New Testament Perspectives)

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