Review: The Servant of the Lord and His Servant People

The Servant of the Lord and His Servant People (New Studies in Biblical Theology #54), Matthew S. Harmon. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A study of the application of the term “servant” to a number of key figures in scripture culminating in Jesus, and the way these were used by God to form a servant people.

In most contexts the idea of servitude at very least is an undesirable state, and, if involuntary, a breach of human rights. Yet one of the curious themes in scripture underscored by this book, is the idea of being a “servant of the Lord.” Matthew S. Harmon notes the cultural overtones, but also addresses the dignity of those who serve the Lord.

This work centers on key figures who “serve the Lord” through scripture: Adam, Moses, Joshua, David, the servant of Isaiah, Jesus, and the apostles. There is another group as well. Throughout scripture, it becomes clear that God is out to form a servant people–first Israel and then the church. Harmon devotes a chapter to each of these key people or groups of people.

We begin with Adam the servant of the Lord who rules over all creation and is the priest and guard of God’s garden-temple. Adam fails in his task, but in his descendants God continues to call servants–Noah, Abraham, and the patriarchs through whom God begins to form a people. Then Moses becomes the servant of God, a kind of prophet, priest, and king. Harmon traces the language of “servant” relative to Moses through the Torah and the Prophets and Writings. Then Joshua follows as the faithful servant who does what Moses commands, through whom God works similar acts, and who calls Israel as a people to serve the Lord at the end of his life.

Yet when the generation who led with Joshua dies, Israel turns to serve other gods, and are given over by God as prey for the surrounding nations. They want a king. Saul fails to serve God wholeheartedly and David is anointed and becomes the next servant of the Lord. He is not only the king through whom God gives Israel rest in the land from their enemies, but priest who prepares for the construction of the temple, and prophet who wrote songs to God. One of the songs is about David’s greater son. Solomon starts out well but is drawn off to other gods, as are most of his successors. Israel and Israel’s kings have failed at their servant calling. Isaiah writes about this failure and about the servant who will fulfill the service in which Israel fail, suffering for the sins of the people as he does so.

And so we come to Jesus, the culmination toward which all the other servants looked. One of the distinctive aspects of Harmon’s treatment is that he shows how Jesus fulfills what the other servants anticipate. He reverses Adam’s failure in his victory over Satan in the wilderness. He is the prophet greater than Moses, the Joshua who brings his people into eschatological rest. He is the Davidic king whose rule never ends. His whole history from his exile in Egypt on recapitulates Israel’s story. He is the servant whose death and resurrection save his people–all people.

The final two chapters focus on groups. First there are the apostles who speak of themselves as servants of the Lord, even his two brothers, James and Jude. He traces this through the letters they wrote. But there is another group, and we are part of it. The church is portrayed as the servant people of God. It is a people who follow Jesus in his sufferings, but also fulfill the Adamic call to reflect the character of God to all things.

In his conclusion, Harmon considers the implications of this call to be a servant people. It is a call to a new freedom from the tyranny to self, sin and Satan. It is a call to be shaped in a community in the form of love that serves each other, washing each others’ feet. It is a call to be a light to the surrounding world, that others would find their way into this community as we did through repentance and faith. Finally, it is a call to become servant leaders, exercising the kind of kingship of the king who stoops to serve and even die.

This monograph cannot help challenge the contemporary church’s quest for power and influence, the celebrity culture, and the obsession with political influence and access at the expense of humble service. It indicates how little the Servant of the Lord captures our imagination and our allegiance. What may be equally challenging to think about is why we hear so little of this overarching biblical theme from the pulpits of many of our churches. It may be that we are working off the wrong script.

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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: Death and the Afterlife

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Death and the Afterlife (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Paul R. Williamson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: A discussion of the biblical texts concerning death and what follows: the state of the dead post-mortem, the resurrection, judgement, hell, and heaven.

One of the most indisputable statistics is that one out of one die. While many other things differentiate us as human beings, the terminus of our lives is one thing we all have in common.  Our responses to this vary, from denial to despair, to mute acceptance that when we die, that is all, to some hope for continued existence beyond the grave. What we believe about these things profoundly shapes how we live.

In this monograph, Paul S. Williamson explores these questions in light of contemporary and ancient thought, and biblical teaching. He writes at the outset, “My primary focus, however, is not the theological case that proponents of various views can mount but rather the prior question: What does the Bible say?” In his opening chapter, he summarizes various views, both ancient and modern, and some of the areas disputed even by evangelical interpreters.

Following this he explores first the biblical materials surrounding what happens to us at death. While acknowledging the limits of the evidence, he recognizes the possibility of some form of post-mortem existence, although this involves a radical separation from embodied life and is thus interim. The ultimate destiny is resurrection. He considers but dismisses the idea of the dead being outside time, and thus the resurrection “immediate.” He traces the idea of resurrection and its development in later OT and intertestamental periods, to its full blossoming following the resurrection of Christ. His chapter on judgement particularly deals with tracing the idea of divine recompense for one’s deeds and how this might be reconciled with salvation by grace alone. He contends that saving faith is trust in action through persistence in doing good, that reflects the transforming work of God in our lives.

Many will turn to the final two chapters on hell, and on heaven, and the contention that ultimately all will wind up in heaven. On hell, while he argues that the language of fire and darkness may well be metaphor, we cannot ignore the language of torment that is everlasting, dismissing the language arguments that deny this. He would argue that annihilation must be read into the text. On heaven, he would contend from scripture that this is the interim resting place of those who die in Christ, but that God’s intention is for a new creation which the resurrected will inhabit. He responds to the arguments of “Gregory MacDonald” for a final universal salvation in which those in hell are brought to post-mortem repentance, showing that this case cannot be made from scripture.

The outcome of Williamson’s study is to uphold the traditional teaching of the church and contend that this is rooted in scripture. There is evidence for an interim state between death and resurrection, for the final resurrection and judgement of all and for eternal conscious punishment in hell. Following some newer interpreters, he would argue that the ultimate destiny for new believers is eternal life with God in the new creation, where heaven “comes down” to a transformed and renewed earth.

No doubt, this is contrary to what interpreters like Rob Bell (“love wins”) or “Gregory MacDonald” (“God wins”) would contend. What Williamson makes the case for is that while such opinions may be popular, they are wanting in terms of biblical evidence. For those who really care about searching such things out, this book is a good, careful statement of the traditional understanding of what scripture affirms, cautious in acknowledging what is not known, and equally cautious in not speculating on what scripture does not say. It makes clear the hope of the resurrection, how we may hear God’s “well done” in the judgment, and how one may enjoy eternal life in God’s new creation as well as warning of what faces the unrepentant. As much as we struggle with the hard truth of the latter, this book poses the question of dare we go beyond what scripture has plainly affirmed?

Review: Finding Favour in the Sight of God

Finding Favour

Finding Favour in the Sight of God (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Richard P. Belcher, Jr. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: A study of the message and theology of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes concluding with an exploration of Jesus and wisdom.

The wisdom literature of the Old Testament is both treasured and puzzled over. Sometimes as we read Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, we wonder “what do we make of these books?” Once we get beyond the first nine chapters of Proverbs and Proverbs 31, is there any structure or order to these sayings? How should we understand the message of Job? Of Ecclesiastes? These books seem very different from the rest of the Old Testament, so much so that Richard P. Belcher, Jr. notes that these books are sometimes referred to as the orphans of Old Testament theology.

This study seeks to address this challenge, beginning with rooting the wisdom books on a foundation of creation, in which wisdom is grounded in observing, interacting with, reflecting on, and drawing conclusions from creation, rather than revelation from God, which helps connect these texts to other parts of the Old Testament. After discussing these issues, Belcher outlines the plan of the book which is three chapters on each of the three wisdom books, considering their message, interpretation, and theology, with a concluding epilogue on Jesus and how wisdom was evident in his person, life, and teaching.

In his chapters on Proverbs, he explores the message of the first nine chapters including the two ways and the person of Lady Wisdom. He then tackles the hermeneutics of proverbs and the question of whether proverbs should be understood as absolute statements. Finally, he considers the theology of Proverbs focusing on the sovereignty of God and the how the Proverbs reflects the creation order within which we seek to live wisely and well. He concludes with a fascinating discussion of “life” in Proverbs, proposing that the horizon of this life, though a focus of Proverbs, is insufficient to understand all references.

The study of Job begins with a discussion of the theology of the first three chapters followed by a discussion of the speeches of Job 4-26. He characterizes Eliphaz as the counselor who misses the mark, Bildad as the defender of God’s justice, and Zophar as the interpreter of God’s ways. None credit the possibility that sometimes the innocent suffer. This sets up his concluding chapter on Job 27-42, in which it becomes clear that wisdom is not to be found among men but only as revealed in Job’s encounter with God, where both his innocence is vindicated and the folly of his challenge to God is revealed. The book stands as a challenge to an inflexible doctrine of divine retribution and looks ahead to the ultimate innocent sufferer, Jesus.

Belcher approaches Ecclesiastes or Qohelet as largely written from an “under the sun” perspective and that the “wisdom” derived from such a perspective is ultimately hebel or futile. Positive passages are offset by the bleak ones. Human wisdom is revealed to be unable to answer either “what is good?” or “what will come in the future.” Belcher believes the postscript is key for countering this bleak assessment in its encouragements to fear God and keep God’s commands–a wisdom from “above the sun.”

The epilogue concludes with connecting wisdom in the teaching, person, and work of Christ with the wisdom books. He draws helpful parallels between Proverbs and the Sermon on the Mount, and discusses how Christ’s person and work fulfills wisdom.

I found three things that were helpful in this study. One was the care given to how we read the wisdom books. The second was a clarity in his summaries the message of the books, probably as clear as I’ve found anywhere. Thirdly, the discussion of the connection of wisdom to creation order as well as the fulfillment of wisdom in the person of Christ addresses the orphan character of these books. It seemed to me the author hit all the important aspects to be addressed in these books within the limits of te format of this series.

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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: God’s Mediators

God's Mediators

God’s Mediators: A Biblical Theology of the Priesthood (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Andrew S. Malone. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: A study of the biblical material on priesthood, considering both God’s individual priests, and the corporate priesthoods of Israel and the church, and some implications of this material for our contemporary understanding of priesthood.

The language of priesthood can mean quite a number of different things in church circles. We may think of ordained religious workers who lead the church in its liturgical and eucharistic functions, particularly in Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox settings. Depending on what part of the Christian family we are part of, we may regard this favorably, neutrally, or unfavorably. Then there is this stuff about the “priesthood of all believers” that particularly arose out of the Reformation, contending that every believer has access to God through Christ, and may minister for God in the world.

The purpose of this work is to look at the biblical theology of priesthood. That is, looking at the passages that speak about priesthood in Old and New Testaments, and formulating from this, the Bible’s teaching about priesthood, mindful of other doctrines and how they intersect with the truths we uncover.

The book divides in two parts reflecting two major threads in the biblical material about priesthood. The first are individuals who are set apart by God both to represent God to people, and to act on behalf of people with God. The second set of references are corporate in character, referring first to Israel, and later the church as a “kingdom of priests.” After an introductory chapter, the book devotes four chapters to individuals as priests, and two chapters to corporate priesthood, with concluding reflections on the relevance of this material.

In Part One, Malone focuses first on the Aaronic priesthood of Exodus, and the clear restriction of that priesthood to Aaron and his familial descendants. Only they may approach, under strict commands, the Lord. But they act such that other Israelites, may “draw near” God, and that through them, God communicates with Israel. Then Malone steps back and considers antecedents to the Aaronic priesthood including a fascinating section on Eden as a garden sanctuary, Adam and Eve as priests, priestly behaviors of the patriarchs, Melchizedek, other priests, and the priestly activity of Moses. Particularly, the activity of setting up altars and the offering of sacrifice certainly antedates the Aaronic priesthood.

The story of the priesthood after entering the land is one of decline, with occasional exceptions, prophetic denunciations, and a glimmer of hope for the future. The priesthood continues into the New Testament period, often portrayed in conflict with Christ and the nascent Christian movement. He studies the hints of Jesus as priest in the gospels (the Son of God, the Holy One of Israel, the prayer of John 17, and the connection between Jesus and the Temple). Clearly, Hebrews represents the culmination of the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus as great high priest, superior in every way to the priesthood that had gone before it.

Part Two turns to corporate priesthoods beginning with that of Israel in Exodus 19:5-6:

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine,  you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites. (Exodus 19:5-6, NIV).

The question is whether this priesthood derives from the Aaronic priesthood. In fact it precedes that priesthood, and Malone suggests “perhaps God instituted a class of priests in order to illustrate what the nation’s corporate identity might look like.” As a people, they had a “priestly” role in representing the character of God by the character of their national life to the nations. Sadly, much of the story is one of failure to fulfill this destiny.

Attention then turns to the church’s priestly commission, particularly the echoes in Peters words in 1 Peter 2: 4-10 of Exodus 19:6, the regal priesthood language of Revelation, and the access to God Hebrews speaks of through the priestly work of Christ. Perhaps most fascinating is his exploration of the priestly language Paul uses in describing his ministry to the Gentiles. The sense throughout is not taking the place of Christ as mediator, the great high priest, but fulfilling the priestly mission of the people of God among the nations, both representing God to the nations and bringing the nations to God.

So what may be concluded? First of all, he contends that the corporate priesthood of the church derives, not from the individual priesthood of Jesus, but as the fulfillment of the priesthood of Israel. What then of the contemporary priesthood as a vocation for individuals? He addresses the lack of basis in the biblical accounts–the priesthood of Jesus is unique and a class of those who mediate, as in the Aaronic priesthood are not necessary. He also observes the difficulty of language, where our usage of “priest” derives from the word used for elder (presbyter) rather than the biblical idea of one who offers sacrifices. His argument is not that the church leaders who are set apart under this term are not important but that a vocational priesthood, in the same sense as the term is used in scripture has problems with aligning with the biblical usage of the term because of the definitive work of Christ. Rather, the work of such individuals is one of calling the whole church to its holy priestly mission in the world.

Certainly, some of this might arouse a fierce response on the part of some who would defend the ordained priesthood. It is significant that Malone writes this as a member of the Anglican communion where this terminology is used. What I found in his writing was great exegetical care throughout to claim neither more nor less than could be established from the biblical texts. I found this especially in his handling of gospel texts that some might press further in arguing Jesus’ priestly role. He is content to focus on Hebrews as well as some material in Revelation, where this is more clearly established. He is also careful to not derive the priesthood of believers from Jesus, where evidence of this is lacking.

Yet the effect here is not to arrive at a place of simply telling us what the Bible does not say. Rather, the conclusion I derived is a deepened appreciation of both the high priestly work of Jesus that fulfilled where the Aaronic priesthood failed, and the noble calling of the church as a holy kingdom of priest, representing God’s reconciling work to the world. There is plenty here both for worship, and our work in the world.

 

New Studies in Biblical Theology

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Yesterday, I reviewed W. Ross Blackburn’s The God Who Makes Himself Known. This is one of forty-four volumes currently in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series (with more forthcoming) jointly published by the Apollos imprint of InterVarsity Press in the United Kingdom and InterVarsity Press in the United States. The series strives for readability, avoiding specialist jargon or untransliterated terms in the biblical languages. D. A. Carson is the series editor and has articulated the goals as follows:

New Studies in Biblical Theology volumes focus on three areas:

  • the nature and status of biblical theology, including its relationship to other disciplines
  • the articulation and exposition of the structure of thought from a particular biblical writer or text
  • the delineation of a biblical theme across the biblical corpus

I try to pick up new volumes as they are released because I have found them of high quality, combining scholarship and devotional insight. Here are the reviews that have appeared in posts at Bob on Books over the years, to give you a sampling of this series. You can count on more in the future.

The God Who Became Human (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Graham Cole. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. A biblical theology of the incarnation. Review

Hear My Son (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Daniel J. Estes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000. Studies on the first nine chapters of Proverbs. Review

Covenant and Commandment, Bradley G. Green. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. In light of the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace through faith, Green considers the place of works, obedience and faithfulness in the Christian life. Review

With the Clouds of Heaven (New Studies in Biblical Theology), James M. Hamilton, Jr. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. A study of the biblical theology of Daniel, including its structure, key themes, how the book influences both early Jewish literature and the New Testament, and how it connects to key themes throughout scripture. Review

Preaching in the New Testament (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Jonathan L. Griffiths. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. An exegetical and biblical theology of preaching from the texts of the New Testament. Review

The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Andrew T. Abernethy. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. A thematic approach to understanding Isaiah organized around the idea of ‘kingdom’ exploring the nature of the king, the agents of the king, and the realm and people of the king as elaborated throughout the book. Review

Unceasing Kindness (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Peter H. W. Lau and Gregory Goswell. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. A study of the theological themes that may be discerned in the various placements of Ruth in the canon, and the broader themes of unceasing kindness, famine, redemption, divine and human initiative, and the mission of God connecting Ruth with the rest of scripture. Review

The God Who Makes Himself Known (New Studies in Biblical Theology), W. Ross Blackburn. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012. A study of the theology of the book of Exodus contending that it reflects God’s missionary purpose to make himself known to the nations through Israel. Review

The distinctive cover design looks good on your bookshelves. If you’ve acquired some of these and would like to fill out your set, InterVarsity Press offers a special discount as high as 50% off depending on the number of titles you are purchasing at their website. Of greater importance is that these works are great references at a reasonable price that complement the teacher’s personal study of biblical texts or theological themes in scripture.