Solid Food: A Layman’s Study of Hebrews

Solid Food-J-Leith (196x300) Solid Food: A Layman’s Study of Hebrews
Jeffrey Leath
Outskirts Press Inc., 2014
ISBN: 978-1-4787-2801-6

Jeffrey Leath faithfully prepares and teaches a weekly adult Sunday School class at Pine Grove Church in Bowmansville, Pennsylvania. While he could choose to use one of the many excellent curriculums available from a multitude of evangelical Christian publishers, Leath has embraced the challenge of studying and preparing his own materials.

At the encouragement of those who benefit from his weekly teaching, Leath has made this study of Hebrews available to the wider Christian public. In doing so, he illustrates the cherished doctrine of the priesthood of the believer – every Christian is privileged and responsible to study and meditate on the Word of God.

Written at a popular level, Solid Food is not an academic study; though extensive footnotes demonstrate Leath’s commitment to drawing from a wide swath of evangelical scholars. This is a great example for the scores of laypersons called upon to lead groups and teach classes in evangelical churches everywhere. English-speaking Christians have a deep well of resources from which to draw, and Leath shows how this can enrich one’s personal study and subsequent teaching of others. Hopefully Solid Food will encourage other lay people in developing their own material for use in their respective ministries.

Following an introductory meditation on how Christ, the Passover Lamb, fulfills the Mosaic Law, the core themes of Hebrews are laid out in thirteen chapters.

Table of Contents

Preface To My Children

Introduction: Christ, the Passover Lamb, Fulfills the Law

Chapter 1. Heavenly View
Chapter 2. 1-4 Earthly View
Chapter 2. 5-18 Earthly View
Addendum to Chapter 2. 5-18, the Preacher’s Use of Psalm 8
Chapter 3. Jesus is Greater Than Moses
Chapter 4. The Rest of Faith
Chapter 5. Jesus the Superior High Priest
Chapter 6. Forward to Maturity
Chapter 7. Order of Melchizedek
Chapter 8. Better Covenant
Chapter 9. Better Sanctuary
Chapter 10. Better Sacrifice
Chapter 11. Faithful Lives
Chapter 12. Support Each Other
Chapter 13. Final Words from the Preacher

Drawing from Jewish literature (e.g. apocryphal writings and the Talmud), Leath reminds readers that the New Testament book of Hebrews was first written to early Jewish believers. Knowing the Jewish background to Hebrews provides a richer study, and strengthens the student’s understanding of the unity of Scripture – how the Old and New Testament tell the same wonderful story of redemption.

If you are seeking an easy-to-follow study guide for your class or small group, or a resource for your own personal study, Solid Food is a good option.

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The answer is not ditching technology

c-s-lewis-a-life--a-mcgrathAlister McGrath’s, C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Tyndale House Publishers, 2103), is a comprehensive look at one the 20th centuries most influential apologists for the Christian faith.

McGrath’s biography is comprehensive, readable, and surprising in some of its details. If you appreciate the writings of C.S. Lewis, this biography will not disappoint.

Below is a sampling of reviews already published online:

Jerry Root – Does C.S. Lewis Have Something to Hide?
Michael Dirda – C.S. Lewis: A Life, by Alister McGrath
Tim Challies – Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet

While there are many parts of the story that fascinated me, this short excerpt has me thinking about the benefits and drawbacks of digital texts. In chapter 13, covering Lewis’s move from Oxford to a teaching post at Magdalene College (Cambridge), McGrath quotes British historian Keith Thomas with reference to “extended periods of direct textual engagement” – that is, how individuals read and annotated texts in the period known as the Renaissance.

Thomas says:

It was common for Renaissance readers to mark key passages by underlining them or drawing lines and pointing fingers in the margin – the early modern equivalent of the yellow highlighter. According to the Jacobean educational writer John Brinsley, ‘the choicest books of most great learned men, and the notables students’ were marked through, ‘with little lines under or above’ or ‘by some prickes, or whatsoever letter or mark may best help to call the knowledge of the thing to remembrance’.

McGrath follows up this quote by observing that both Keith Thomas and C.S. Lewis shared a commitment to “extended, active reading of primary sources.” I suspect that all competent scholars would share this priority.

However, the advent of digital texts is dramatically transforming the reading habits of researchers. Continuing to reference Keith Thomas, McGrath notes:

Researchers no longer read books from cover to cover; they use search engines to find words or passages. But this approach has made researchers less sensitive to the deeper structures and inner logic of the texts they are discussing, and much less likely to make the ‘unexpected discoveries which come from serendipity.’ As Thomas ruefully remarked, the sad truth was that what once took a lifetime to learn by slow and painful accumulation can now ‘be achieved by a moderately diligent student in the course of a morning.’

McGrath tells us that Lewis’s “heavily annotated personal library” demonstrates an intense engagement with primary text. It is this kind of “detailed textual engagement and conceptual mastery” that McGrath says Thomas believes to be in “terminal decline through the rise of technology.”

I have been thinking about these comments for the past couple of days, setting them alongside my own move from studying mainly from print-based texts to digital.

For example, there is no question that Logos Bible Software has transformed my approach to sermon preparation, saving me much time in researching texts and commentaries. The ability to have numerous resources open simultaneously and synced together is a fabulous experience. Searching for words, phrases and themes is so easy. I love using Logos 6 for sermon preparation.

But I have also noticed that sustained reading in digital texts is quite different from print-based reading. I confess to missing the ability to easily flip back and forth between sections of a book. Digital texts do not allow the visual sense of progress through a book. And in most cases, I am not able to let my eyes drop down to a footnote while staying connected to the text of the page itself.

I do believe there is something to be said for the loss of “detailed textual engagement and conceptual mastery.” Researching text electronically allows one to zero in on specific words and phrases, but it also tempts one to neglect the wider reading of a text. No question but that researching an electronic text is faster and more efficient in terms of finding information. But are we in danger of trading conceptual wisdom and mastery of a text for bits and bytes of bare facts?

The answer is not, I believe, ditching the use of technology, but of wisely using it while recognizing the temptation to engage in a sort of hit and run scholarship – of digging into a text for a few words and phrases, while neglecting to master the full argument of the scholar or text in question.

Purchase this book now.
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Spurgeon Commentary: Galatians

Spurgeon Commentary Series - GalatiansSpurgeon Commentary: Galatians
Charles Spurgeon
Elliot Ritzema, Editor
Lexham Press, 2013

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the renowned 19th Century British Baptist pastor was a man of the Bible. Whether preaching, lecturing, writing, or in casual conversation, Biblical words, phrases and themes were rarely absent. Though he produced only two commentaries – a six-volume treatment of the Psalms (Treasury of David),  and one volume on Matthew (The Gospel of the Kingdom), he was a prolific writer. Alongside numerous books and articles related to pastoral ministry, Spurgeon’s published sermons fill 63 volumes. These are a goldmine of topical and expositional Bible preaching. Spurgeon’s published works are a treasure trove of biblical material, available both in print and online, but accessing Spurgeon’s comments on particular texts of Scripture is a huge time commitment – one that many busy pastors just cannot afford.

For example, I have several print volumes of The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit. When I am preparing a sermon and want to know what Spurgeon might have said about that text, I have to take out each volume and search through the individual sermon listings, chapter titles, or the Scripture Index to see if my text if referenced. This is both time-consuming and incomplete, and to top it off, I have only a small sampling of Spurgeon’s writings. But things are looking up.

spurgeon-commentary-collection-new-testament-lettersThe Logos Spurgeon Commentary Series will breathe new life into the ongoing influence of Charles Spurgeon. Volume one covers Spurgeon’s teaching on the book of Galatians. Nine more volumes are in development and, at the time of this writing, still on pre-order status at considerable savings. (Order now as the volumes are scheduled to ship on January 15, 2015.)

Ritzema describes the project in his Introduction to this first volume:

The idea behind this series is simple: take material from Spurgeon’s sermons and writings and organize it into commentary format. The series includes several features that I believe will be helpful for both the devotional reader and the preacher preparing for a sermon.

Each section of the commentary includes three kinds of comments from Spurgeon: exposition, illustration, and application. The expositions do not simply deal with a block of biblical text as a whole; they are organized by verse as well as by words within that verse. This means that you can easily find what Spurgeon says about a particular verse or phrase. The individual phrases that Spurgeon comments on within a verse are set in bold text. Some verses have long paragraphs of exposition, while others have a little or none at all. This reflects how much Spurgeon wrote on each verse. I have tried to include as much content as possible in places where Spurgeon wrote a lot, but unfortunately I have had to be selective at times.

Ritzema has updated some language for greater readability: “thee” and “thou” become “you” and archaic terms unfamiliar to contemporary readers have been replaced with modern equivalents. This commentary uses the modern Lexham English Bible (LEB) in place of the King James Version (KJV), though where Spurgeon emphasized a particular word of phrase, the original KJV phrasing has been retained.

By organizing the expositional comments phrase-by-phrase, and drawing commentary from multiple sources, what might have become a choppy, disjointed text is really quite smooth and readable in its own right. Ritzema has done an excellent job of editing.

Some of Spurgeon’s best illustrations are interspersed throughout the expositional comments. And with the illustrations being tagged with preaching themes, they are searchable through the Sermon Starter Guide in Logos 6.

All preaching calls for response, and Spurgeon always applied his text, calling for a response from his audience.  Not only do the applications provided in this resource call contemporary listeners to action, they serve as a teaching tool for today’s preachers, helping us learn how to effectively apply the teaching of Scripture to our own circumstances.

At the end of each section of Scripture commented upon, Ritzema lists the sources for Spurgeon’s comments, illustrations and applications – all available in Logos. The only drawback to this, as far as I can see, is that I am now tempted to purchase the 149-volume Charles Spurgeon Collection to my already extensive Logos package!

charles-spurgeon-collectionIf you already own the 149-volume Charles Spurgeon Collection, you may feel this new resource is not necessary. While you could create the search parameters for yourself, this new commentary series will dramatically lessen your sermon preparation time. And if you want to see Spurgeon comments in their original context, you can access them directly from this new commentary itself.

This looks to be a great resource for time-starved preachers and teachers.

[Other than a publisher-provided review copy, no remuneration was received for this review.]

Resources mentioned in this review can be purchased online here:

Spurgeon Commentary: Galatians

Spurgeon Commentary Collection

Charles Spurgeon Collection

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Anne Steele and Her Spiritual Vision

anne-steele-and-her-spiritual-vision-priscilla-wongAnne Steele and Her Spiritual Vision: Seeing God in the Peaks, Valleys, and Plateaus of Life
Priscilla Wong
Reformation Heritage Books, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-60178-185-7

According to Michael Haykin, internationally recognized Christian historian, “Anne Steele was the most significant Baptist hymn writer and poetess of the ‘long’ eighteenth century.” And yet, though her hymns nurtured generations of earlier English-speaking Baptists on both sides of the Atlantic, I dare say the vast majority of 21st century Christians, including Baptists, have never heard her name.

Recent years have uncovered a renewed interest in Anne Steele. Among the significant new works, Michael Haykin, notes that the eight-volume Nonconformist Women Writers, 1720-1840, edited by Timothy Whelan and Julia Griffin (Pickering and Chatto, 2011, ISBN: 978-1851961443) includes an “erudite and critical edition of the entire Steele corpus” provided by Julia Griffin.

If an “erudite and critical” edition of Steele’s work sounds intimidating, there is good news. Priscilla Wong’s book is a perfect introduction to the work of a deserves-to-be-better-known evangelical hymnist.

Anne Steele (1717-1778) was the daughter of Baptist pastor William Steele. Though her poetry was originally intended for “personal devotional reflection,” her father introduced some of her hymns into the worship life at the Broughton (England) church where he was pastor. In God’s providence, her father’s recognition of his daughter’s lyrical giftedness led to her life of hymn-writing – a life that enriched generations of evangelical Baptist worshipers. Wong tells us that Steele went on to write “144 hymns, set thirty-four psalms to verse, and composed numerous poems and prose meditations.”

Wong’s book began life as a dissertation submitted to The Toronto Baptist Seminary in fulfillment of the requirements for a Master of Theological Studies (M.T.S.) degree. As such, it demonstrates the potential for such study to provide important theological and historical material in an accessible format for the reading public.

The opening chapter provides a brief introduction to Anne Steele, surveying the way in which Steele’s hymnody came to the worshiping public. Along the way, Wong reviews the more significant works that have been devoted to the life and work of Anne Steele. This is a great introduction to readers who may wish to pursue their own study of this gifted 18th Century hymnodist.

Anne Steele had the spiritual perception to see God’s hand at work in her circumstances. And she faced some difficult things in her life: her fiancé drowned a few hours before their wedding ceremony; being raised in a family of Dissenters, experiencing painful illnesses throughout her life, including periods of depression. Her writing reveals a woman in touch with the sustaining grace of a sovereign God.

Three major themes in Steele’s writing provide the body of Priscilla Wong’s study.

The Glory of God in Creation
Faith in the Face of Suffering
Hope in the Promised Glory

Devoting a chapter to each theme, Wong first explores the pertinent theology behind the theme, drawing from the theological writings of  Steele’s contemporary, English Baptist pastor and theologian, John Gill (1697-1771). With that theological foundation, Wong explores the lyrics of Steele’s hymns, revealing how Anne Steele saw God in all aspects of life.

In the final chapter, Wong discusses how Steele’s hymns provide a window into the spiritual journey of the hymn writer. Through her hymns, Steele was transparently honest about her fears, doubts and discouragements, but always coming back to the sure foundation of a sovereign God who has everything in control, and very much loves his children.

Extensive footnoting and a helpful bibliography round out this introductory and thematic study of Anne Steele’s spiritual journey.

Readers wishing to pursue further study into the life and work of Anne Steele can visit the author’s site for a listing of books and resources (primary and secondary literature) devoted to Anne Steele. Included are links to musicians who are reintroducing the hymns of Anne Steele with updated music.

I heartily recommend this study in the hopes that it will rekindle an interest in the rich heritage of hymnody that is too rapidly disappearing, and provide a worthy antidote to the avalanche of generic worship music sweeping through the evangelical world.

[Other than a publisher-provided review copy, no remuneration was received for this review.]

Purchase this book now.

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The Unity Factor: One Lord, One Church, One Mission

unity-factorThe Unity Factor: One Lord, One Church, One Mission
John Armstrong
Christian’s Library Press, 2011
ISBN-13: 978-1880595907

It was his final Sunday as pastor when John Armstrong’s expositional journey through the gospel of John brought him to the prayer of Jesus for his followers.

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23 NIV)

As he prepared to preach on this text he had read countless times, he “could not escape the truth of what Jesus was asking the Father. He prayed for the oneness of all his followers.” And while he had some sense of what it did mean, he was certain that it had “absolutely nothing to do with what is commonly called ecumenism” – the effort by Christian leaders and churches to create a movement of greater visible unity or cooperation. However, the Spirit of God was working in his own heart and life. Understanding and applying this call has occupied much of Armstrong’s life ever since.

John Armstrong, the president and founder of ACT 3 Network (Advancing the Christian Tradition in the Third Millennium), has wide experience in many contexts. Having served in pastoral ministry for 20 years, and now, along with his ACT 3 Network responsibilities, he serves as adjunct professor of evangelism at Wheaton College Graduate School. He travels extensively, speaking and consulting with leaders and organizations around the world in a quest to promote “missional-ecumenism” – to ignite a movement of “world-changing leaders who will intentionally invest their lives in the kingdom of God.”

He seeks a “gospel-focused and Scripture-based” approach to Christian unity. Without question early Christians had disagreements as any New Testament reader readily recognizes, and yet, the defining identity for the disciples of Jesus is their genuine love for one another. Armstrong has embraced the spirit of Christ’s prayer for unity and is on a quest to convince all believers of its vital importance. In the words of Jesus:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 ESV)

Of this Christ-spoken appeal, Armstrong writes:

“What distinctly marks those who belong to Christ? What truly distinguishes them from those who are (italics) not (end italics) the church in this present age? It is not a cluster of doctrinal beliefs, as important as beliefs and doctrines are for healthy religious life. It is not a label or a particular social marker. Rather, is not the true mark of the church love? Furthermore, is not this love both Christ’s love for his flock and their love for their shepherd and one another?

Love for Christ is, in a profound way, (italics) the defining mark of true Christians (1 John 3:11, 14, 16-18, 23). We can ask a myriad of questions about our own profession of faith in Christ. However, at the end of the day, it comes down to the same question Jesus asked Peter: ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ (John 21:15-17). And as John’s epistle clearly notes, genuine love for Jesus will be seen in our love for one another.”

Armstrong believes the only way Christians will adequately respond to the call for unity is to recognize three foundational truths – “three ones” as he calls them – one Lord, one Church, and on Mission. The first three chapters of the book explore the meaning and implications of these “three ones.”

Following his study of the “three ones”, Armstrong answers the question, “What does the unity factor look like?” This chapter will provide insight into Armstrong’s personal journey toward his understanding of “missional-ecumenism.”

The final chapter provides practical counsel for those who wish to pursue the unity factor as outlined in this book. “The vision we need to grasp,” writes Armstrong, “is one of visible unity in reconciled diversity.” For churches and mission organizations wishing to take seriously the biblical mandate to unity, Armstrong provides six practical steps toward missional-ecumenism.

This is not a call to dismiss doctrinal convictions, nor is it an attempt to pretend that we do not have real differences. But it is a challenge to recognize that every person truly believing in the Lord Jesus Christ belongs to Christ and so to one another. And as such, we are one Church universal, and we have one mission to proclaim the gospel of this one Lord.

Timothy George, founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University (Birmingham, Alabama), in his Foreword to the book, reminds readers of English Baptist pastor William Carey’s (1761-1834) call for a coordinated approach to world evangelization in 1810. And though nothing much came of Carey’s call, Timothy George notes that 100 years later the International Missionary Conference convened in Edinburgh, and 200 years later the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization was held in Cape Town, South Africa. Timothy George then observes:

“The modern quest for Christian unity was born on the mission field. Its aim was not the building of a supra-ecclesiastical bureaucracy but rather the unhindered declaration of Jesus Christ, the sole and sufficient Savior of the World.”

If you, like John Armstrong, find the current state of the Christian church – “deeply divided by social, cultural, racial, and doctrinal fault lines” – a serious obstacle to the unity Jesus prayed for, you must secure a copy of The Unity Factor. Written in language accessible to all, this book requires relatively little time to read, but its message – whether or not you accept everything Armstrong says – will provide a life-time of serious reflection.

[Other than a publisher-provided review copy, no remuneration was received for this review.]

Purchase this book now.

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