Philippians is rightly one of the most popular letters of Paul. Highly quotable verses such as Philippians 1:6; 1:21; 2:5; 3:13-14; 3:20-21; 4:6-7; 4:8; 4:13; and 4:19 are lodged in the minds of many. As such, fresh study of the letter is always enjoyable. I had heard good things about Matthew Harmon’s Philippians commentary, and so I used it in my recent preaching through the letter. Let me say up front, it is truly excellent!
The commentary begins with a thorough 46 page introduction, including authorship, historical and social situation, Paul’s circumstances, provenance, integrity, literary structure, purpose, identity of opponents, key theological themes, the use of the OT, and oddly, an excursus on the OT background to Phil 2:5-11 (why not include it in the commentary?). He takes traditional positions on authorship, provenance (Roman imprisonment), and unity of the letter. Though Harmon does not suggest anything unconventional in his introduction, it is thorough and well-reasoned. What’s more, it reflects recent scholarly interests such as the imperial cult, use of the OT, and the influence of Isaiah.
In the commentary proper, each unit of text begins with a basic outline, summary, verse by verse commentary, and suggestions for preaching/teaching. All technical details are placed in the footnotes, and the body text is uncluttered and readable. Commentary includes information on Greek words, social setting, theology, and flow of thought. I did not find my own views of the letter substantially challenged, but freshly invigorated. Particularly useful was Harmon’s literary structure of the letter; the best I’ve encountered so far.
Harmon has skilfully produced an approachable commentary with deep scholarly foundations. Somehow he manages to walk that tightrope and makes it look simple. Having taught through Philippians several times at a Bible college, I knew how useful Silva and especially Fee could be. However, I constantly found myself returning to Harmon because he managed to capture the most useful and pertinent information for my preaching.
Philippians is recommended for pastors and Bible teachers as well as interested laymen. Pastors who want sustained engagement with the Greek would want to supplement this with Fee (NICNT) or Silva (BECNT). This is not to say that Harmon is a slouch in this area; it’s just not the focus of the series. As he says, “my focus [is] on those serving in ministry” (p8). Harmon somehow juggles pastoral sensitivity, exegetical depth, scholarly foundations, practical sermon advice and brevity. If a teacher picked up only one commentary, as much as Fee remains my personal favourite, I would now recommend Harmon’s Philippians as providing a perfect balance for the teacher’s task.
Many thanks to Christian Focus for providing a review copy!
Buy Philippians (Mentor) on Amazon
Just a very hastily typed post to recommend The Bible Project, a group that I absolutely love. They have a Bible reading plan that links up with videos overviewing the literary and theological features of each Biblical book. They finished this last year and I watched virtually all of them. It’s not too late to start this year!
Here is their reading plan.
Here is an app that tracks your reading and links to their videos.
Let 2017 be a year in which you fuel your love for and understanding of God’s word. Using the app means you can read at your own pace too. Take as long as you need; just read the Bible!
Here’s the first of the videos.
For me (and many others), December is a month for retrospection. Every New Year’s Eve, Natasha (my wife) and I discuss our hopes for the following year and what we saw in the year now past. This seems a good place to do something similar with books and the ideas that have influenced me. Below are my 9 most impacting Biblical studies books I read this year. These are books that profoundly excited new interest in, opened my mind to, or deepened my love for, a given subject. I also think these are objectively great books, but since there are tons of great books, this list is entirely subjective.
2016 in Books
Books are in random order. Links in title direct to Amazon.
My interest in the Psalter, particularly in its structure, skyrocketed last year and this classic, provocative, and idiosyncratic work from Mitchell in many ways brought my interest to a peak. Basically, Mitchell argues that the structure of the Psalter is eschatological and presents a similar sequence of events to that of Ezekiel 37-49 and Zechariah 9-14. It answered questions but mostly raised more fascinating possibilities that deserve further thought.
Michael Morales – Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord | Review
I always knew I needed to study Leviticus. This year I finally did so, and Morales’ book was the perfect introduction for me. Leviticus is best read when in context of the OT and with one eye on the NT. This is surely among the best 5-10 volumes in the NSBT series.
Matthew Bates – The Birth of the Trinity | Review
Another element of the Psalter that fascinated me is the abundance of quotations or allusions in the NT, particularly those applied to Christ. The usual approach to these psalms is either typology or direct prophesy, nether of which sat quite right to me. My reading of Acts 2 concluded that the NT authors saw Christ as speaker of the Psalms but it wasn’t until this year when I read Bates’ work that o understood how it worked (prosopological exegesis) and just how prominent it was in the early church (NT and beyond). Now what remains is a rereading of the Psalms in this way.
Michael Heiser – The Unseen Realm | Review
Heiser’s work on the divine council shook everything up for me. It was thoroughly biblical and strangely familiar, and yet revolutionary and controversial at the same time. The Bible has so much more to say about the unseen realm than we think. I awaited this book with great excitement and was not disappointed.
Peter Leithart – Delivered from the Elements of the World | Review
Peter Leithart’s magnum opus. I already struggled to review it, so I won’t attempt again to do so here. Suffice to say, I’m about ready to reread it, just a few months later, because it is so expansive and so chock full of ideas. Though it’s hard to decide, his chapter on flesh and Levitical sacrifices was most provocative
Justin Bass – The Battle for the Keys
The idea that Chridt descended to hades (often called hell) between death and resurrection seems strange to many modern readers, yet it has an rich and abundant heritage. Bass makes the doctrine abundantly clear through tracing the OT, ANE, second temple and NT text alongside Christian writers ancient and medieval.
David Mitchell – Messiah Ben Joseph | Review forthcoming
A study on the ancient and abiding Jewish tradition of a suffering and rising messiah that comes from Joseph. Mitchell presents a comprehensive tracing of this tradition and argues that it goes back to the Pentateuch itself. It’s hard to argue with David Mitchell’s evidence, but what does it all mean? I aim to read everything Mitchell writes as he’s always fascinating, but unfortunately I’ve now achieved that goal!
Matthew Thiessen – Paul and the Gentile Problem | Review forthcoming
For a while now I’ve been reconsidering Israel and seeking to come to my conclusions through Scripture rather than my immediate heritage (of which I am most grateful). I am yet to reach a satisfactory conclusion or find any one paradigm entirely persuasive but this book has opened me to “Paul Within Judaism” and, more broadly, to messianic Jewish interpretation that does not denigrate the law and sees unity and equality, but with distinction, between Jewish and gentile believers in this age. I’ve only got my toes wet but their viewpoints contain some of the most exciting and sensible ideas I’ve come across (but also some real yet-unconvincing head-scratchers).
Peter Leithart – 1 & 2 Kings (Brazos)
This commentary is renowned and now I know why. An impressive blend of literary analysis and theological, social, and political insight.
What books impacted you the most this year? Let me know in the comments!
Sometimes we miss what is right in front of us. Sometimes we are distracted by the abstract that we miss the obvious. Sadly this easily happens when we read Scripture. Jerome Creach, in his The Destiny of the Righteous in the Psalms, has drawn us back to see what’s in front of us, “it might well be concluded that the destiny of the righteous is the primary subject of the Psalms” (p1). When thinking about the Psalms, we often lose sight of the obvious: that it’s a collection of songs about the righteous, their struggles, their hopes, and ultimately, their destiny. This is seen in the introductory Psalm 1. The righteous will stand in the judgment, but the wicked will be like chaff in the wind.
The Destiny of the Righteous in the Psalms
The Destiny of the Righteous in the Psalms develops as follows. In Part 1 the character and destiny of the righteous is traced. First, their relationship with God by means of prayers (ch 1); the activity of the righteous, primarily prayers (ch 2); and the reward of the righteous (ch 3). Part 2 demonstrate the role of the righteous influence the shaping of the Psalter. Psalms 1-89 show the suffering of David, the anointed one (ch 4), while Psalms 90-150 encourage faith in Yahweh’s kingship and a future David (ch 5). Part 3 develops three important aspects of the righteous’ hope. First is David, both as an example of the righteous sufferer (ch 6) and a sign post of a future king (ch 7). Next, the glory (ch 8) and hope (ch 9) of Zion is forefront in the mind of the righteous. Finally, God’s instruction (Torah) is a source of protection and security (ch 10).
One is in danger of self-congratulation by adopting the label “righteous”, but Creach believes it is a mistake to conceive of righteousness as moral purity or superiority. True, one can be free of guilt in a given situation (Ps 17:1) but the Psalms do not disagree with Paul (Rom 3:10). In fact, to argue for unrighteousness of all, Paul uses the Psalms “as his main authority!” (p3). Righteousness in the Psalms refers to one who fulfills obligations in relationships. In other words, the righteous are those faithful in a loving relationship with Yahweh their God. Behavior flows from this relationship. Redirecting our focus to the centrality of the righteous in the Psalms will help the church form a “constructive understanding of divine judgment”, “dialogue with people of other faiths who are also concerned with issues of justice”, have “words to address to the consumer-driven society” and provide a resource for “theological reflection on the plight of the poor and oppressed” (p12-13).
There is much to commend in this book. First, it is a concise scholarly yet devotional treatment of this most prominent of the Psalter’s features. Second, the book is clearly laid out, with each theme being developed through exegesis of relevant Psalms. Third, Creach holds to a Davidic hope in the Psalter: “the Psalter creates the expectation of a new David who will stand with the lowly as their defender” (p9).
Most of all, the righteous (their character, hope, and destiny) is proven to be both fundamental to the Psalter and profitable for contemplation. Creach highlights why the Psalms are so beloved: one can find solace in the songs of other faithful believers. Hope for a righteous and future David, security in God’s instruction, and hope for His presence are all deeply resonant issues for the believer today. Through a thematic and comprehensive treatment on these themes, the reader profits from an enhanced wide-lens view of what the Psalter has to say. This is where the book shines most bright.
Ancient Songs for Today
The Psalter has for generations been the prayerbook of God’s righteous. Though grounded in scholarly research of Israel’s ancient songs, The Destiny of the Righteous in the Psalms is deeply devotional and relevant for building the faith of the church. In fact, Creach puts it well:
“Jesus does not make obsolete what the Psalter says about the righteous and their reliance on David, Zion and torah. On the contrary, the Psalms create the form and foundation of this faith of the church.” (p16).
In other words, the Psalter is ever “for us” today.
The Destiny of the Righteous in the Psalms is a book from which any believer would benefit. A lover of the Psalms would do well to read this book. It would also serve well as an introductory textbook to the themes of the Psalter. The character, activity and destiny of the righteous remains ever the same. A reminder of who we are, what we do, and for what we long is ever needed, it is so easy to lose sight of that which is most obvious.
Many thanks to Chalice Press for providing a review copy.
Buy The Destiny of the Righteous in the Psalms
I must confess. I have procrastinated reviewing Delivered from the Elements of the World. It’s not because it is a dull book; far from it. Rather, more than anything I’ve yet reviewed, I am daunted at the prospect of doing justice to this book’s vastness and creativity. Peter Leithart is known to be a singular, provocative and eloquent thinker, and Delivered from the Elements of the World is surely his magnum opus.
Put simply, Delivered from the Elements of the World is Leithart’s attempt to answer how Jesus’ death and resurrection changed the world. That, of course, is an incredibly vast question already, but Leithart uses “world” in a broad manner to include social, economic and political factors. Thus, he’s also asking how a Galilean’s death “[carried] a message of hope for the salvation of human society” (p14). For Leithart, the answer is found in the “elements”, which he understands as “the fundamental physics of every socioreligious, cultural-religious formation [that consist] of practices concerning holiness, purity and sacrifice” (p12). So how does Jesus’ death change the rules of purity and sacrifice inherent to all world religions? Delivered from the Elements of the World is a book on the atonement, but in widescreen.
For Leithart, a successful theory of the atonement must meet the following criteria:
- Historical plausibility. The first-century Jewish context cannot be ignored (sadly, it often has).
- Levitical. Jesus’ death must be congruent with and bring fulfillment to Levitical ritual.
- Evangelical. Atonement theology must arise naturally from within the Gospels.
- Pauline. It must also arise from Paul’s writings.
- Inevitable. Jesus must be the inevitable and natural response to the human condition (Luk 24:26)
- Fruitful. It must also explain the subsequent history of the church and the world, and show how it “worked”.
As an aside, this list reveals the narrowness of most works claiming to be comprehensive treatments of atonement. Though most ignore #5-6, sadly many also ignore #1-3! So often, theological frameworks distort or smother the the Biblical data.
Delivered from the Elements of the World
To achieve Leithart’s criteria, the book develops as follows:
Part 1 consists of five chapters. After the introduction, chapter 2 argues that “elementary principles of the world” refer to the purity laws of any society: “sacred space, purity rules, sacrifice and priesthood thus constitute the foundational reality of religious and social life in the ancient world, both Jewish and Gentile…and it is these that Paul says have now lost their force” (p40-41). Chapter 3 takes a surprising turn into a fictional narrative of an ancient Jew (I won’t spoil his identity) encountering and dialoguing with an Egyptian, Babylonian and Greek about their respective purity laws. Turning an otherwise tedious comparison of religions into a fascinating narrative, Leithart’s concern here is to imagine the all-consuming rulership that “elementary principles of the world” had in all religions. Chapter 4 begins the story in Genesis, where God created an independent people, set apart by their own elementary principles that contain antisarkic (“anti-flesh”) symbolism. It is here that God begins his “saving war against enslaving flesh” (p90). Chapter 5 explains, through a detailed treatment of Levitical law, how being under Torah is being under elementary principles, but of a kind that contain a “parodic, antifleshly pedagogy” (p91). Though an incomplete system “accommodated to the fleshly condition of the human race” (p92) that could not bring one back to Eden, Levitical law instructed Israel to trust in the Lord by rejecting flesh and awaiting the Messiah.
Part 2 has two chapters. Chapter 6 begins to explore how Jesus is the demonstration of God’s righteousness and that he fulfilled and transcended Levitical expectations. In fact, Jesus’ disciples began to live with the Spirit and without the elementary principles, “[t]hrough his Torah-keeping and teaching, Jesus was forming within the flesh of Israel a new Israel that no longer lives [according to the flesh]” (p143). Chapter 7 explores why Jesus had to die, and not simply tell His followers of another way of living. For Leithart, Christ’s death was the pinnacle of flesh’s self-condemnation and penal substitution (as found in the Gospels, no less).
Part 3 also has two chapters. Chapter 8 turns to justification. Here Leithart argues that justification is more than an “outworking of the cross in the lives of individuals or the church” but more fundamentally “a way of naming the event of the cross and resurrection” (p180). In other words, Jesus was the first one to receive justification (1 Tim 3:16) and all future justifications are based upon His. Justification itself is slightly redefined and expanded from being merely a “judgment of God in favor of a sinner” to “[in] itself an act of deliverance” (p181). For example, Jesus was justified in that God judged in His favor by delivering Him from death (Rom 4:25). Therefore, justification is more than a verdict, it’s a verdict that also delivers. Leithart coins the term “deliverdict” to notify this distinction. Chapter 9 develops the previous chapter to examine living free from the law and under the Spirit.
Part 4 concludes the book with four chapters, the first three “offer[ing] sketchy reflections on the theology of mission that flows out of the atonement theology developed in the rest of this book” (p218). Chapter 10 outlines what the “atonement implies about the aims, goals and means of missions” (p218). Missions is more than individual conversion, but an invitation for society to be ‘saved’ from the elementary principles that rule and divide them. Chapter 11 examines current religions through the light of the “elementary principles”, and how Christianity has fundamentally reshaped these religions even if they are not saved. Chapter 12 traces the ways in which the church has lost its witness by returning to living under the elements through divisions. Finally, chapter 13 retraces the entire book in one concluding chapter.
If summarizing this book was difficult (and wordy), how do we evaluate it? I must admit that I am a little in awe of this book. This is not because I find it entirely convincing at every point, but because its fusing of scope and detail is breathtaking. While wading through this, I constantly found myself thinking “why do I read lesser books?” Virtually every page contained at least one breathtaking “aha” or “if that’s true, then ___!” moment. The majority of points of exegetical detail are compelling and fascinating, perhaps most so in the treatment of Leviticus.
Leithart’s wide-lens vision feels traditionally Protestant and yet creative, taking some bold minority views. A few examples. He follows those who hold that “faith in Christ” should be translated “faithfulness of Christ”. Justification should be “deliverdict”. “Works of the Law” are not boundary markers, nor the doing of the law, but what the Law itself does (similar to “works of the flesh”). Insights from the New Perspective and Apocalyptic schools of Pauline theology are adopted. A lot of theology is read into the details of Levitical sacrifices. These ideas are interesting and many compelling, though I wonder if true, why the church was wrong for this long? Some of the ideas are so fresh that they appear untethered from church history.
It must be said that this book was truly enjoyable to read. This is due to the fresh ideas, the way that Leithart pulls together loose threads into a coherent whole, but perhaps mostly due to the fact that he’s an excellent writer. The narrative diversion in chapter 3 was a real highlight of creative scholarly writing. If only more books were this engaging!
As far as meeting his criteria, I believe Leithart has thoroughly succeeded, especially in #2-5. Whether he is right is another matter. I must admit that I am not well-read enough to opine on #6. I found Leithart’s ideas compelling but was less than entirely persuaded. I’ve already run out of space for deeper engagement, but Brad Littlejohn has offered more substantial appraisal and critique of Leithart’s arguments that is worth reading. Leithart has also replied to Littlejohn on his blog here and here.
In Delivered from the Elements of the World, Peter Leithart offers a fresh and creative wide-lens view of the atonement that has in view not simply theology or exegesis, but also history and sociology. It is a wild ride, but is one of those special books that has the potential to truly reshape one’s thinking. One need not be convinced by his entire argument for this work to be helpful in finding homes for those odd puzzle pieces lying untouched. Delivered from the Elements of the World is both a thoroughly exciting work of exegetical theology and a pleasure to read.
Many thanks to IVP for providing a review copy of this book
Leviticus is a difficult book to understand, and quite the challenge for pastors and teachers. One of the difficulties is that it’s impossible to dip one’s toe in and expect any payoff. To truly understand and benefit, one must plunge into the deep end of the Levitical world of sacrifices, rituals, and purity laws. That’s to say, the application is found in the strange and complex details, not apart from them. At the same time, it can become easy to start sinking in the details. What one needs is a sure-handed help to keep one’s head above the water; one that not only understands the details, but is able to simplify them and direct one to what matters most. This is exactly what one finds in the Tyndale (TOTC) Leviticus commentary by Jay Sklar. Sklar is fluent with Leviticus, but also gifted at clarifying the hazy, or bringing close the distant.
In his introduction Sklar notes that “God’s purpose for his people in Leviticus is in many ways a return to his purpose for humanity in creation” (p28). In other words, Leviticus, perhaps surprisingly, is a return to Eden. As to authorship, Moses “was the source and author of much of the book” (p35), but some portions may have had a later editor. Solar also explains important theological foundations to the book, such as covenant, redemption, sin, (im)purity, and atonement. In this latter section Sklar defends the notion that kipper refers to “ransom-puficiation” (p53): it both rescues from wrath (ransom), and cleanses sin and impurity (purification). Solar also tackles the notorious questions of “which laws apply to Christians”, and “how do they apply”, providing several useful categories that deal with the vast majority of instances. Finally, he treats the subject of Jesus’ fulfillment of Leviticus. Throughout this excellent survey, Sklar is a sure-footed and clear guide.
In the commentary proper, each unit is treated in three ways. First, the context is set. Next, there is the commentary on a single verse or, more usually, several linked verses. Finally, Sklar attempts to explain the meaning for OT Israel then and the NT church now. Solar is abundantly talented in making sense of complicated matters without dumbing them down. Aiding this goal is that numerous tables that visually simplify and summarize the details of Levitical law are scattered throughout.
Sklar’s commentary is a delight to read. Those wanting more thorough commentary, detailed engagement with the Hebrew text, literary analysis, or a survey and rebuttal of scholarly opinions will want to go elsewhere. That said, this should not be overlooked by teachers as a “popular level” commentary that has nothing to offer the serious student. As with most of the TOTC volumes (or their NT counterparts), the content is rich and concise. For the reader of Leviticus who wants a clear and short commentary that doesn’t overlook the details, I cannot recommend a better work than Sklar’s Leviticus.
Many thanks to IVP for providing a review copy of this series. I was not required to provide a positive review.