Review: Strength in Weakness

Strength in Weakness: An Introduction to 2 Corinthians, Jonathan Lamb. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Langham Preaching Resources, 2020.

Summary: A concise exposition of 2 Corinthians designed as a resource for pastors, and for personal and small group study.

If there were a Facebook status for the relationship between Paul and the Corinthian church, it would probably be “it’s complicated.” He spent eighteen months helping establish this church, second in length only to his time in Ephesus. The correspondence we have occupies more space than any other Pauline correspondence to a church, and internal evidence suggests we have only two of four letters Paul wrote to them. This was no mere dispatching of an email, instant message, or even a letter in a mail box. Letters were often drafted and then re-written by a scribe and had to be hand carried to their intended recipient.

What we have as 2 Corinthians was probably the fourth letter Paul sent. Those who study and preach it find it challenging to figure out. It jumps around, touching on a variety of topics, seemingly unconnected: Paul’s non-visit, forgiving an offender, an extended defense of the character of his ministry against the claims of “super-apostles,” a fund-raising appeal for generosity, Another defense of his ministry focused on his sufferings and works among them, and his final encouragements. Some even think this might have represented a splicing together of a couple letters, although there is no manuscript evidence of this.

What Jonathan Lamb does in this book is provide an expository introduction of this challenging book. This is not a verse by verse commentary but a section by section content summary. Running through this “introduction” to 2 Corinthians is Paul’s emphasis on the character of Christ-dependent ministry. It is marked by integrity, service, and suffering for the sake of those ministered to. It forgives as the mercy of God in Christ has been extended to us. It exercises discipline when sin threatens the progress of individuals and communities from Spirit-given transformation from one degree of glory to another as they gaze on Christ. It invites generosity in offerings trusting God to supply needs and multiply the fruit of their righteous trust.

Lamb also pulls together the evidence of the text to delineate the character of the “super-apostles” who threatened the Corinthians allegiance to Christ and affection for Paul. We see individuals who boast of eloquence, that they “charge” the Corinthians for their service, and deride Paul for his self-supporting ministry and his sufferings. In doing so the contrast between Paul, whose ministry credential is the very church at Corinth, and the claims of these spurious apostles is apparent.

Lamb goes lightly on application leaving that to the 3-4 questions at the end of each section. I did appreciate his discussion of Paul’s pains to ensure the trustworthy handling of the offering he was sending emissaries to collect from Corinth. He writes, commenting on 8:20-21:

“It is important to be honest here. The temptation to misuse funds probably comes a close second to sexual temptation, not only among leaders but among all believers, although leaders sometimes face more opportunities to be tempted than the rest of us. Since it can be a device of Satan to exploit potential weaknesses, it is always important in church affairs to ensure that there is careful administration similar to that which Paul put in place here. Even the most trustworthy treasurer needs others to work with him in counting money, signing cheques or making bank transfers, so that we take ‘pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men’ (v. 21).”

Jonathan Lamb, p. 118.

Oh, that every church and ministry would heed this counsel!

In addition to the section by section summaries of passages, Lamb includes short explanatory articles throughout on such matters as the different letters to Corinth, the offender in 2 Corinthians 2, discussions of covenant, universalism, resurrection, and atonement, and the unity of 2 Corinthians. All of this combines to provide a clear and concise introduction to 2 Corinthians readily accessible for anyone who would study and preach it. In doing so, Lamb points us to the source of true strength for gospel ministry that exalts Christ and serves people.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World

Matthew 5-10

Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World D. A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018 (originally published as two separate works 1978, 1987).

Summary: An expository study of Matthew 5-10 that focuses on the call to a distinctive life for the disciples of Jesus.

D. A. Carson published a number of his biblical expositions with Baker back in the late 1970’s and 1980’s. Baker is introducing a new generation of students of scripture to these studies with re-packaged versions of these earlier works, still strikingly relevant as careful expositions of the biblical text.

In this volume, two of Carson’s earlier works (on Matthew 5-7 and 8-10, hence the long, compound title) have been combined in one reasonably priced book. Part One covers in six chapters the Sermon on the Mount:

  1. The Kingdom of Heaven: Its Norms and Witness (5:3-16)
  2. The Kingdom of Heaven: Its Demands in Relation to the Old Testament (5:17-48)
  3. Religious Hypocrisy: Its Description and Overthrow (6:1-18)
  4. Kingdom Perspectives (6:19-34)
  5. Balance and Perfection (7:1-12)
  6. Conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount (7:13-28)

In this part of the work, I especially appreciated Carson’s discussion of the relation of Jesus and his teaching to the Old Testament, articulating in what way Jesus fulfills the Old Testament. I also appreciated Carson’s unflinching warnings of the judgment awaiting those who fail to heed the words of Jesus.

The second part, also in six chapters, Matthew 8 through 10 under the heading of Jesus’s Confrontation with the World. They are as follows:

  1. The Authority of Jesus (8:1-17)
  2. The Authentic Jesus (8:18-34)
  3. The Mission of Jesus (9:1-17)
  4. The Trustworthiness of Jesus (9:18-34)
  5. The Compassion of Jesus (9:35-10:15)
  6. The Divisiveness of Jesus (10:16-42)

I particularly appreciated his treatment of the authentic Jesus in showing how Jesus breaks all our stereotypes with his personal and costly demands, the surpassing wonder of his authority over all creation, his priority of spiritual and human realities above all else, and his way of repeatedly defying common expectations.

He also makes trenchant observations about the divisiveness of Jesus:

“Clearly then, the fact that the divisiveness of Jesus leads to opposition by the world, and sometimes to outright persecution, is no cause for either paranoid glee or rough belligerence among the people of God. Instead it is cause for sober reflection, careful counting of the cost, wise assessment that fully expects trouble and is grateful when it passes us by. We are no better than fellow Christians in parts of the world where being a Christian can exact a high toll. Often we are less mature, because less tested. The principle laid down in this passage, however is that we as disciples of Jesus should expect opposition, sometimes of the crudest kind, and view it as part of our calling. That is the way the Master went” (p. 335).

While not a technical commentary (he has written a commentary on Matthew in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary), this work, lightly revised from expository messages, traces the arc from textual meaning to contemporary relevance, as for example, in his exposition of what it means to be “poor in spirit.” He establishes the connection between “poor” and the idea of lowly or humble, a sense of one’s spiritual poverty, and then applies the text pointedly:

“I suspect that there is no pride more deadly than that which finds its roots in great learning, great external piety, or a showy defense of orthodoxy. My suspicion does not call into question the value of learning, piety, or orthodoxy; rather it exposes professing believers to the full glare of this beatitude. Pride based on genuine virtues has the greatest potential for self-deception; but our Lord will allow none of it. Poverty of spirit he insists on–a full, honest, factual, conscious, and conscientious recognition before God of personal moral worth. It is, as I have said, the deepest form of repentance” (p. 22).

The book concludes with two appendices, addressing more technical matters related to the Sermon on the Mount. In the first, he addresses critical issues, that tend to undermine confidence in there being such an address in the ministry of Jesus. The second concerns itself with the different theological approaches to the text, and particularly whether, and how it ought apply to the believer.

As one considers the text of Matthew 5-10, one cannot help but consider who is this teacher, and what will be our response to the life of the kingdom he articulates for those who will follow him. This is a rich text for devotional reading if one is prepared for more than an inspiring or blessed thought. The danger in reading such work is it may make us, in some cases, ask why we do not hear such preaching in our churches. Carson demonstrates the power of expository preaching, which is not in the preacher, but in bringing out what the text says, means, and means for us as God’s people.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Books in this series previously reviewed:

The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of JesusD. A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1980, repackaged edition 2018. Review

The Cross and Christian MinistryD. A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018 (repackaged edition, originally published 1993). Review