Book Review: Biblical Theology According to the Apostles (IVP, 2020)

The fifty second volume in the New Studies on Biblical Theology series, edited by Don Carson, addresses the topic of the Apostles engaging in Biblical Theology, specifically in the utilisation and exposition of Summaries of Israel’s Story (hereafter SIS). Biblical Theology according to the Apostles: How the earliest Christians told the story of Israel is a fantastic book, and this reviewer would thoroughly commend it to the reader.

Working with a simple and regimented criteria of what defines the SIS (7 “[an attempt] to show the historical progression of Israel’s story”) with which the authors are concerned, this volume explores seven SIS found in the New Testament. Their goal is not to engage with every aspect of the apostles’ Biblical theology, but instead to consider these clearly defined SIS, and through the application of a practical and simple methodology the authors successfully approach this task.

Methodology

The authors (Chris Bruno, Jared Compton and Kevin McFadden) set out a simply methodology by which they will approach each SIS. Starting first with the context of the story, they move to consider the content, before finally discussing the contribution that each story makes. Such an approach provides a simple structure by which each chapter operates, and allows the authors to offer a concise picture of each SIS. It is with this threefold approach that the SIS found in Matthew, Luke/Acts, Galatians, Romans and Hebrews are considered.

In, for example, the SIS found in Matthew’s Gospel, the approach allows the authors to build around the conclusion that (28-29) “Matthew’s genealogy is a story of unexpected salvation to preserve the line of promise and keep God’s covenant commitments… the goal of Matthew’s genealogy is to summarise the history of Israel with a particular emphasis on the coming of the Messiah, in spite of obstacles to the contrary.” In the SIS of Luke/Acts, the authors illustrate how (80) “the SIS in Acts instruct us about the story’s climax in the life, death, resurrection and reign of Jesus.”

This simple and coherent methodology allows each SIS to be analysed and discussed in an engaging manner, confronting controversies whilst helpfully tackling the word of God.

Textual Engagement

And it is the approach to God’s word that particularly struck me. As the authors consider the seven SIS found in the New Testament (conceding that this is not an exhaustive study) their primary concern was to look to and faithfully work through Scripture. Each study makes therefore a brilliant contribution to the examination of these SIS in the New Testament.

The authors flesh out in their conclusion how each of the seven SIS discussed in this book reveal different aspects of the Apostle’s Biblical theology (184-185). This, in turn, exposes the richness of the parallels between the Old and New Testaments. As each SIS is examined in this book, the incredible depths of Scripture are probed, and God’s word gives up some wonderful truths.

There is a real variety to these SIS. Their structure and content vary wildly, from the genealogy of Matthew to the focus on Abraham in Galatians. But regardless of their differences, each of these SIS expose the God behind Scripture. It is this faithful God, and His merciful gift of His own Son, that so clearly shines through in this book.

Summary

Having explored the biblical theology of the Apostles through the lens of these Summaries of Israel’s Story, the authors draw their thoughts together in a conclusion that in itself is worth the price of the book! They offer helpful thoughts and measured discussion on many of their wider arguments, helpfully applying their study to our own Christian lives. Through this examination of the SIS, the authors illustrate the immense benefit of a worked biblical theology:

“We submit, then, that in our own biblical theology we should read the story both backwards and forwards. The OT witness to Christ is seen more clearly through the lense of the NT and thus we should use the end of the story to enlighten the beginning. On the other hand, we should also read the story forwards. We should expect the OT, as the very Word of God, to bear prophetic witness to the person and work of Jesus Christ.” (187)

The conclusion pulls together a brilliant book with valuable lessons for both our reading of the New Testament, and our attempts to develop our own Biblical theology. Perhaps most helpfully of all, the authors end with a clear indication of what they have been trying to say all along. The Apostles present Christ as the climax of these SIS. Because it is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on which all of history rests, and to which all helpful theology will point us.

“The SIS in the NT ought to reorient our priorities when reading the OT and retelling this story. These summaries instruct us about the climax of the story with Christ, the continuation of the story in the church and the conclusion of the story in the new creation.” (200)

Christ is the beautiful climax of the story of both Israel and Creation. The Church is living proof of that, and we can look with confidence to the conclusion of this story when Christ returns. This is a wonderfully helpful book, and a fascinating study in the Biblical theology of the first Christians. But more than that, it is an edifying read that will help equip us to handle our Bibles better.

https://ivpbooks.com/biblical-theology-according-to-the-apostles

IVP kindly supplied me with a prepublication copy of this book, and I hope this has not coloured my review in any way. I think it is a genuinely helpful book, and would gladly recommend it!

Easter Saturday: The Dark of the Tomb

Mark: An Illustrated Commentary: Mark 16:1-8-- The Unsatisfying End

Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid.

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.

Mark 15:43-16:1

After the events and horror of Good Friday, Saturday brings silence. Joseph, the fearful but faithful follower of Jesus asks Pilate for his body late on Friday. Surprised to learn that He is already dead, Pilate grants this request. Joseph generously but quickly prepares the body, and seals it in the tomb.

This man who claimed to be the King of the World, the Son of God Himself, now lies, stiff and cold, in a dark rock tomb.

Mark skips straight over the Sabbath in his account of this first Easter weekend. The tomb is sealed late on Friday, and the next line takes us straight to Sunday morning. John likewise omits the Sabbath day from his record of events. Luke’s eyewitness account tells us only that “the women who had come with Jesus…went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rest on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.” It is only Matthew’s Gospel which gives us a hint of the action, or lack thereof, on this Easter Sabbath day.

The Dark of the Tomb

Each one of the four Gospel accounts is at pains to tell its readers that Jesus was buried, sealed in a rock hewn tomb. Their accounts match up perfectly, and are clear in the chain of events. Jesus dies on that dark Friday afternoon. The diligence of the Roman executioners is evident across the Gospel accounts, even piercing the body with a spear when they are called to check on their work. Again, Mark stresses that Pilate sent soldiers to confirm the death before the body is released to Joseph. As mentioned yesterday, the Roman historian Tacitus likewise confirms that “Christus… was put to death by Pontius Pilate.” He is buried quickly and simply, the tomb is sealed, and the disciples scatter. The German scholar Rudolf Bultmann called the burial of Jesus “a historical account which creates no impression of being a legend.” This man died and was buried, we can be confident of that.

And so we are left with a tomb. A dead body in a cold rock tomb. As Christ’s head dropped to His chest on that cross, hope seemed lost. The Messiah was dead, defeated, gone. The darkness of Friday lingered into the Sabbath. The disciples sheltered in their dark upper room, other followers of Jesus scattered. It was over. The hints that Jesus Himself had offered: that He had to die, but that after three days He would rise, had been long forgotten. What hope did such words really hold now?

The Fear of the Pharisees

One Gospel account tells us that these words were not totally forgotten. Matthew gives us a small detail of the events of that Sabbath. As the day began, the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate…

The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”

“Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.

Matthew 27:62-65

The Pharisees, the very group that had condemned Jesus to death, remembered His words. His promises had not been totally forgotten, and so, in order to counter any hoax or trick that the disciples could somehow pull off, the tomb is made even more secure. A crack team of Roman soldiers is stationed there. The greatest army in the world in the first century, and part of it guarded the tomb of this so-called Messiah. No one was getting in or out, especially a disheartened band of fishermen and tax collectors from Galilee. Matthew includes this detail for two reasons. It shows the situation for what it was. Humanly speaking, all hope was gone. The tomb was made as secure as the soldiers of the Roman Empire knew how. There was no human hope of a trick or deception here. But secondly, Matthew reminds us, the reader, of these words of Jesus. Christ Himself made it abundantly clear that He came to die, and that He would rise again.

John’s Gospel tells us some words of Jesus to one Jewish leader. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son. That whoever believes in Him, shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Jesus taught that mankind was headed for death, and we all know that to be true. But Jesus taught that mankind embrace sin – the evil that we do, that we love and enjoy – and so God’s punishment for sin was on us all: eternal separation from God and His goodness. Separation from the very God that gives goodness and life. Eternal death and punishment. But Jesus taught that He, the perfect Son of Man, would give His life as a ransom for us all. He would die, and rise, defeating death, and offering His life once and for all for ours. All you must do, is believe in this wonderful Son of God.

Jesus had taught this message for all His earthly ministry. He had repeated the claim that He would die and rise again over and over. Yet still the disciples missed the point. Only the Pharisees remembered those words, and not out of faith, but rather fear that the body would become a political tool.

But other than Matthew’s Gospel – which reminds us of these words of Jesus – Easter Saturday is quickly passed over. As seen with Mark above, the account moves from Friday to Sunday. Because this isn’t a story about Jesus being dead. This is the story about how He conquered death. How He died and rose again, taking the guilt and punishment that mankind deserve. So the Gospel accounts move quickly to the first day of the week. The dark of the tomb isn’t the end of the story.

Early in the Morning...

Because as each Gospel account tells us, the story continues on Sunday morning.

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week…

Matthew 28:1

Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise…

Mark 16:2

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning…

Luke 24:1

On the first day of the week, while it was still dark…

John 20:1

As that first Easter Sunday dawns, the dark of the tomb is forgotten, as something of earth-shattering proportions was about to unfold…

Because Easter Means Hope.

Rockin’ around the Saturnalia tree? Christmas in the Early Church.

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Wednesday is Christmas day. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been buying presents, going along to carol services, and decorating your tree. The prospect of a week off of work looms large and joyful, and time spent with family and friends fills you with joy/despair (delete as appropriate).

The Early Church celebrated many things together. They ate meals as church families regularly (far more than we do today), they celebrated the resurrection as the sure foundation of their faith. But for the first three hundred years of Church History, it doesn’t seem that they celebrated Christmas.

Indeed, it’s only in 356 that we find the words “25th Dec, natus Christus in Betleem Judae.” Quite literally, 25th December, Christ is born in Bethlehem, Judea. So for three hundred years, we have no record of the Church or any other Christian group celebrating Christmas. The death of Christ and of notable saints or historic Christian figures received much more attention than their birth, and at Epiphany celebrations on the 6th January the Church was more concerned with reflecting on Christ’s baptism than His birth. It seems that Christ’s birth was not something reflected with a special day of celebration.

Why December 25th?

Quite why we celebrate Christ’s birth on the 25th of December then remains a mystery. Some have posited that it super-ceded the Roman festival of the Saturnalia, others suggest that as the Catholic Church began to celebrate Christ’s conception on March 25th, his birth naturally falls nine months later.

The former seems more likely, and the 25th of December reflects not only the Roman festival in honour of Saturn but also the Persian festival to Mithra. These major festivals may naturally have become usurped by a growing Christian population in the Roman world, keen to encourage pagans to comfortably assimilate to the new religion.

Either way, it seems unlikely that Christ was born on the 25th December, and the Bible certainly gives no date or time. Regardless of quite why the 25th was picked as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the most important thing to not was that it was. And for hundreds of years, Christians have taken time to celebrate this birth, of a baby boy to a humble carpenter in Bethlehem, some two thousand years ago.

Why Celebrate at all?

Christians celebrate because this baby is special. When Mary became pregnant, the Lord said to her husband Joseph:

“She will give birth to a Son, and you shall give Him the name Jesus, because He has come to save His people from their sins.”

Matthew 1:21 (NIV).

Jesus came to save. Jesus, this baby in a Manger, was born to save men and women across the world and throughout history, from themselves.

Because we all need it. Look at the world around us, look at our own hearts. So often the biggest problem we deal with is ourselves. We cause trouble for ourselves, we make foolish and unkind decisions. Our actions, words and thoughts can be dirty, cruel and selfish. And the Bible says that’s wrong. And we know in our hearts that it is.

The Bible also says that this wrongdoing, what the Bible calls sin, is punishable by death. That’s why death is the certainty we all face. But on Christmas day two thousand years ago, a baby was born to challenge that. A baby was born to die. When the wise men visited, they brought gifts fit for a king (gold) a god (frankincense) and a corpse (myrrh). Myrrh, an embalming oil for bodies in the tomb. Christ was born to face death. Not in the way we are, as an inevitable end to our lives, but to face it head on.

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, by taking upon His perfect and divine shoulders, the punishment of death our sins deserve. And in its place, He gives us His goodness, His right standing with God, and we walk free. Not just in this life, but for all eternity. The baby in the manger came to bring hope to a world that seems so hopeless.

That’s why we celebrate Him. A baby born to die. A King born to save.

Maybe this Christmas you could meet this King for the first time? The links below are just to help you explore who He is, and think about why it is we celebrate Christmas quite so enthusiastically, every year.

https://www.ligonier.org/blog/real-meaning-christmas/

http://speaklife.org.uk/HeCameDown/

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+1&version=NIV

Trouble from the start?

False teaching. Heresy. Harmful doctrines robbing people of their salvation. There’s nothing new under the sun.

The New Testament warns us of the dangers, but also the reality of false teachers. Scripture tells us that they will rise up, that the Evil One will attack through preachers and teachers deceiving people and leading them astray.

At that time many will fall away and will betray and hate one another, and many false prophets will arise and mislead many.

Matthew 24: 10-11.

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

2 Timothy 4:3-4.

These are just a few of the many New Testament warnings that in the time between Christ’s first and second comings, many will try to lead God’s people astray.

The Early Church faced the reality of these false teachings. As the faith began to establish itself in the Roman empire, false teachers spread with the true faith. Orthodox Christians were soon writing documents called Adversus Haereses, literally ‘Against Heresies.’ These documents preserve many of the heresies that arose during the early years, and Tertullian’s work of this name had this to say of these false teachings:

Some men prefer wondering at heresies, which bring with them eternal death and the heat of a stronger fire… but heresies would have no power…

Tertullian, Against the Heretics, 2.


Tertullian knew that many people came under the sway of these teachings, but he also knew they had no power. They had no true promise of eternal life, their end was destruction.

One of the earliest and most famous heretics to arise in the church was Marcion. This man taught that there was a god split into two parts: a higher being ruling a lower, creating god. This teaching rejected the commandments of Scripture, the divinity of Christ, and the wonder of the Gospel. Yet many believed this man and his false teachings. Many were led astray. And he was not alone in teachings lies and falsehoods. Heretics arose throughout the Roman world. Some, like the Emperor Elagabalus, incorporated Jesus into the Roman pantheon of gods. Some, like Marcion, led hundreds astray. Others, like the leaders of the Arian or Donatist movements, beguiled thousands. In contrast others merely corrupted the local church, twisting Scripture in order to line their own pockets and feed their own bellies.

But all of these men and women had one thing in common. Their teachings were untrue, their spirituality a fraud, and their end was in the promised destruction of all who corrupt the truth of the Gospel.

False teaching was a serious problem as the Church established itself in the ancient world, but it was not unexpected. And in confidence, the Church could proclaim the Gospel, clinging faithfully to Scripture in the knowledge that their God was faithful to keep them, redeem them, and do away with the false teachers. Just as He had promised.

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)— if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority.

2 Peter 2:1-10.