Review: Now and Not Yet

Now and Not Yet (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Dean R. Ulrich. Downers Grove: IVP Academic/London: Apollos, 2021 (Apollos-UK publisher webpage).

Summary: A study of the biblical theology of Ezra-Nehemiah that situates the books within an account of redemptive history, emphasizing both what already had been fulfilled and what yet remained.

Dean Ulrich believes that the combined books of Ezra-Nehemiah have not received the scholarly attention they are due. In this monograph, he situates these books within the arc of redemptive history, particularly with regard to the promises of restoration made to Israel’s exiles.

He divides the structure of these books into three parts, with the second part covering a significant part of the two books with three stages.

Ezra 1-2: The decree of Cyrus and the exiles who returned. Not only does Cyrus decree the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple in fulfillment of prophecy but he returns the vessels seized when Jerusalem fell and permits the exiles to return with offerings of silver and gold and livestock to support the rebuilding. God has kept his promise and there is hope for the future.

Ezra 3:1-Nehemiah 7:73a: The performance of Cyrus’ decree in three stages:

  • Stage one: The temple is rebuilt over a twenty year period. Expecting the promise of Isaiah 60 that the nations would participate in the rebuilding, instead they encounter local resistance and apathy, addressed under the leadership of Sheshbazzar, Zerubbabel, Joshua, Haggai, and Zechariah. Yes, the temple is rebuilt, but with nothing like its former glory and not yet realizing the positive response of the nations.
  • Stage two: Ezra returns in 458 BC to rebuild the people so that the new temple is not defiled. Ezra teaches the people and calls on people to dissolve intermarriages unless the wives convert. Ezra leads the people in corporate repentance. They are back in the land but still prone to pursue the patterns of sin that led to exile.
  • Stage three: Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem empowered by Artaxerxes to rebuild the walls and gates, critical to protecting the sanctity of the temple from those who are unfit spiritually to worship there (an idea I’ve not encountered before). Yet keeping out the unfit may also keep out the nations who would come to worship, a conflict with Zechariah’s vision.

At this point the temple is rebuilt, the people are being instructed in the holy life to which God calls them and the holiness of the temple is protected. But the promised glory, the king to come and the blessing to the nations awaits.

Nehemiah 7:73b-13:31: The continued reformation of the people. The charging of interest for loans with fellow Jews reveals the community renewal needed beyond the physical construction of a wall. Nehemiah and Ezra lead in the instruction of the people in God’s Word, leading to the confession of sin and the obedience of God’s command. Yet reformation is a continuous process as Nehemiah has to address intermarriage and commerce on the sabbath, and the graft of Tobiah, even after the glorious celebration at the dedication of the walls. This glimpse of glory was not enough to remove the need for continued repentance and reformation.

Ulrich moves between Ezra-Nehemiah and the greater fulfillment in Christ, yet also draws parallels between the “now and not yet” of Ezra-Nehemiah and the similar reality we face as we both live out kingdom come and await its full realization. In particular, the continued need for instruction in the Word, repentance, obedience and fulfillment of God’s mission are realities both for the returned exiles and we who are “exiles and strangers” awaiting our future hope. This is a useful study both in understanding the place of Ezra-Nehemiah in redemptive history and our own.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: The Glory of God and Paul

The Glory of God and Paul (New Studies in Biblical Theology #58), Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson. Downers Grove and London: IVP Academic and Apollos, 2022. (Link to UK publisher)

Summary: A study of the theme of the glory of God in scripture, with a particular focus on the writings of Paul.

At an Urbana Missions Convention, I remember being provoked to thought by a statement of John R. W. Stott to the effect that the highest motive for the church’s mission in the world was neither obedience to the Great Commission nor concern for those who did not know Christ, but rather zeal for the glory of Christ (a remark reproduced on p. 230 of this book). It didn’t make sense at the time but it has increasingly over the years. In my university work, I walk through hallways with displays of research posters and read news of incredible research being done in a multitude of fields, uncovering the wonders of the creation (only one aspect of God’s glory), yet rarely acknowledging its source. Increasingly I find myself praying and working that these researchers would know and acknowledge and glorify the One who is the source of all these wonders, who has illumined and delights in their research.

This may seem an odd way into a review of The Glory of God and Paul. It is not however, because I sense the same motive behind the writing of these two authors, as John Stott spoke of, to foster in us a zeal for the glory of God in all of the manifold excellencies of that glory. They do so by primarily focusing on the theme of God’s glory in the writings of the apostle Paul, who was certainly captivated by the glory he beheld in the risen Lord.

The work begins though by stepping back and attempting a summary of the “panorama” of God’s glory within which Paul’s writing is set: in major sections of scripture, in relation to key doctrines, at turning points in the biblical story, in different senses of “glory” in scripture (summarized as possessed, purposed, displayed, ascribed, and shared) as intrinsic and extrinsic, in biblical tensions (e.g transcendent and immanent), and in redemptive history. One could spend days just pondering this panoramic presentation!

In the second chapter, the authors turn from panorama to drama, considering the storyline of scripture and how every part of redemptive history reveals glory: the creation, the fall, the working our of redemption and the consummation of God’s purposes. These two chapters set the stage for chapters 3-7 which focus on five major sections of the Pauline corpus:

  • Chapter Three: Romans: The Glory of God in salvation
  • Chapter Four: 1 Corinthians 15: The Glory of God and the resurrection
  • Chapter Five: 2 Corinthians 3-4: The Glory of God and the new covenant
  • Chapter Six: Ephesians: The Glory of God and the church
  • Chapter Seven: 2 Thessalonians 1: The Glory of God and eschatology

Each chapter identifies multiple themes in the particular text relating to the major theme for the chapter. So much is offered here for reflection that I will only touch on a few personal highlights. In Romans, we see how glory suffuses every aspect of our salvation. I Corinthians 15 reveals the glory of the risen Christ as the second Adam and the glory we will share in Him. The discussion of the church in Ephesians is challenging in that we do not often think of the place of the church in the purpose of God as a showcase of the one new humanity united through the revealed mystery of Christ’s saving work.

The writers then draw all this together in two concluding chapters. In chapter 8, the biblical theologians address systematic theology, showing how the glory of God relates to the areas commonly discussed in systematic theology: God and his Word, humanity and sin, Christ’s person and work, the Holy Spirit and the new covenant, salvation, the church, the future, and ministry (under which the statement by Stott mentioned earlier appears). Finally, the writers turn to the Christian life and how God’s glory bears on love, provision, hope, mystery, boasting (no room for such!) and our worship.

I suspect that for many of us, John Calvin’s statement about our chief end being to glorify and enjoy God forever is just so much pious content without substance either in our thought, worship, or daily life. Likely, this follows from lack of instruction and personal reflection in a culture focused on “how to’s” and getting God to work for us, or at times simply a list of “ought to’s.” This work certainly represents one place to begin, by taking us into scripture, focusing on the many ways God’s glory shines through every aspect of life, inviting us from hum-drum workaday to wonder and worship and the mission of showcasing that glory to the world.

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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: Piercing Leviathan

Piercing Leviathan (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Eric Ortlund. Downers Grove and London: IVP Academic and Apollos, 2021. (Link for UK publisher).

Summary: A study of the book of Job that focuses on the second of the Lord’s speeches to Job, focused on describing Behemoth and Leviathan.

There is so much that is challenging to understand about the book of Job, from the willingness of God to permit Job’s loss and suffering to the seemingly endless speeches of Job’s friends and Job’s protestations of innocence and desire that God come and answer. In this book, Eric Ortlund covers all this material but focuses his treatment on God’s two speeches to Job, and especially the second and more baffling, where God at length discusses two imposing creatures: Behemoth and Leviathan. God never directly answers Job about why he has suffered, yet in the end, Job describes himself as having uttered what he did not understand and repents in dust and ashes.

Many of us have imagined ourselves responding, “But, but, but…” Why doesn’t Job? Have these strange answers truly given the answers Job needed, or is Job just acquiescing in the face of God’s awesome presence? Eric Ortlund contends the former, offering a close reading both of Job’s complaint and responses, and the speeches themselves, especially the second on Behemoth and Leviathan. In some sense, Ortlund’s whole book is a prologue to his discussion of this second speech. Even so, I found his elucidation of the Accuser’s test and the friends speeches assuming a retributive answer brought clarity to these chapters–both the inflexible fallback of the friends on the theory that Job must have sinned and thus deserved the tragedy that followed, and the insistence of Job that God has wrongly punished him and his desire to have God justify his ways.

Ortlund describes the first speech with its questions as a massive reminder of God’s good rule in creation, and that God is not the arbitrary deity who has punished Job without cause. And Job admits that his criticism of God’s rule was wrong, but that he has nothing else to say in response. Implicit is still this question of all the evil that has befallen him. Then God launches on the descriptions of the massive and threatening Behemoth and Leviathan, who may only be conquered by their Maker. Yet the conquest is not described here, only the formidable armament and power of these “evil” creatures.

Ortlund considers various possible interpretations for these creatures, contending that they represent supernatural chaos and evil. On this interpretation, the comfort to Job is that it is not simply God and Job in the story but that “a massive, writhing evil is loose in the creation.” There may be other possibilities than God unjustly afflicting Job, or Job having done something worth affliction. The massiveness of Leviathan offers reason to believe there is a source outside God for the terrible evil done Job. And the fact that God wields the sword and fishhook that will bring these creatures down, but not yet, offers hope for ultimate justice.

Then more briefly, a discussion follows on the restoration of Job, and why God never fills Job in, as the reader is, on the specifics behind his suffering. Ortlund argues that any such explanation would have invalidated the test, saying that Job only repented and believed to have blessings restored. As told, while Job is restored, what he lost is lost, and throughout his life, he believes God for God’s sake.

To my mind, Ortlund offers a treatment of Job that coheres. More than that, he portrays a Job that believes God for God’s sake, even in his accusations, and a God who finally will defeat evil and is overwhelmingly good, even when this is not readily apparent in the chaos of the world. He treats other views of Leviathan in the course of this book. What I think Ortlund has done is establish an alternate proposal that other readings will have to address and helped make sense of Job’s ultimate response to God’s speeches.

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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: Changed Into His Likeness

Changed Into His Likeness (New Studies in Biblical Theology), J. Gary Miller. Downers Grove: IVP Academic/London: Apollos, 2021. (UK publisher link)

Summary: A biblical study of how personal transformation takes place in the life of a believer.

Change is hard. How many of us keep those New Year’s Resolutions? At the same time, one of the claims made by Christians is that new life in Christ is transformative. J. Gary Millar, in Changed Into His Likeness explores what may be asserted from the teaching of scripture about the change that is possible, avoiding the extremes of over- and under-realized eschatologies. He considers the clear teaching that we both have been changed in coming to new life in Christ, and we will be changed. Meanwhile, there is the question of what may be expected in between, where believers live their lives this side of eternity, which is the focus of this volume.

Before engaging this question, Millar asks the question of what do we mean by “us,” considering what is meant by the image of God, and the various words used addressing body, soul, spirit, mind, etc. This relates to current neurophysiological debates. If we are merely material, change is simply a matter of re-routing neural pathways. He seems most sympathetic to the idea of “holistic dualism.”

He then turns to the biblical account of change, considering first the Old Testament. His contention, considering case studies from Noah to Solomon showing that positive change was not possible for those who believe, but rather decline. He then asks an intriguing question: were Old Testament saints regenerate, particular if this Spirit was at most upon them rather than indwelling them? The theologians he references dance around the question and he leaves this unanswered as well. But the evidence shows that transformation is not evident in the Old Testament.

He then considers the New Testament. Jesus, unlike the Old Testament saints fulfilled the law and expanded his treatment from outward to inward, limiting the provisions for divorce, and transforming the lives of those who encounter him, like Zacchaeus and the Samaritan woman. He frees from sin, and promises the indwelling of the Spirit, through whom he would bear fruit in their lives. Paul likewise speaks of the gospel’s transforming work. Believers abound in love, please God more and more, learn to discern his will, increasingly reflect the character of Jesus, are strengthened to serve, filled with God’s fullness, show a work of God moving forward to completion, and reflect God’s glory in Christ. He also traces the contributions of other New Testament writers. His summary of Hebrews could preach: We will grow in our knowledge of truth, focus on encouraging others, and experience the kindly discipline and training of God

He then does a historical theological survey from Augustine to the present, including fascinating material on Calvin and John Owen. He also characterizes James K. A. Smith’s focus on replacing cultural liturgies with richer, thicker Christian ones to be a flirtation with legalism. I think he misreads Smith here and does not distinguish what Smith proposes from his own recommended practices of a Word-shaped life. He makes these observations: Biblical change is complex, God’s work, trinitarian, flows from union with Christ, is word-driven, requires piety, and is comprehensive. This sets the stage for his own biblical theology of personal transformation. He highlights that it is a work of God, occurs through the gospel, enabling us to respond with repentance and faith. This change comes through our life in the church and in the world, and involves perseverance. Perhaps more simply, we change as we gaze upon Christ and are changed increasingly into people who reflect his glorious image (2 Corinthians 3:18).

This is much needed work in an era where the gospel has been hi-jacked either for personal prosperity or political ends, all of which reveal a shrinking understanding of the true and glorious transforming power of the gospel. Only this holds hope for those who have been failed by all the self-help teachers and those in the grips of sin’s tyranny in all its forms–our idolatries, our besetting sins, our injustices, and our fearful animus toward our neighbors. God can transform all of these–not with a wave of a magic wand but as we focus on Christ, are discipled by his word, are impowered to repent, believe, and change by his Spirit, and drawn by a loving Father in a community of mutual encouragement. This theology of change speaks into the lives of quiet desperation of believers who wonder what there is between having first believed and going to be with the Lord and who feel they are just going through the motions. Millar’s study is a vital resource that I hope enjoys much use by pastors and all who commend the Lord who is changing us into his likeness.

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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: 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

Death and the Afterlife.jpg

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.