Reviews

“Colossians and Philemon: A Commentary for Biblical Preaching and Teaching” (Kerux Commentaries) – A Book Review

Adam Copenhaver and Jeffrey D. Arthurs have contributed a commentary designed for preachers and teachers. I received a copy of this commentary from the publisher, Kregel, in exchange for an honest review. When evaluating commentaries, I typically look at three areas: 1) key features (usually dictated by the commentary series); 2) discussion regarding introductory issues (authorship, date, provenance, etc.); and 3) interpretation of specific disputed passages. In this review, I have selected specific items from each category pertinent to Paul’s Letter to the Colossians and to Philemon.

Adam Coopenhaver (PhD, University of Aberdeen) pastors Mabton Grace Brethren Church in Mabton, Washington, and teaches biblical studies courses for the Ezra Bible Institute. His recent publications include Reconstructing the Historical Background of Paul’s Rhetoric in the Letter to the Colossians.

Jeffrey D. Arthurs (PhD, Purdue University) is Robinson Chair of Preaching and Communication and Dean at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, S. Hamilton, Mass. He is an active scholar, regularly presenting papers at conferences and writing articles for several leading periodicals. His other books include Preaching with Variety and Devote Yourself to the Public Reading of Scripture.

Key Features

Written with busy pastors and teachers (keruxes) in mind, the Kerux Commentaries Series seeks to bridge scholarly exegesis and homiletics. It accomplishes this task by having an exegetical author and a homiletic author partnering together. The publisher describes this series this way:

Based on the popular “big idea” preaching model, Kerux commentaries uniquely combine the insights of those trained in biblical interpretation (exegetes) and those trained in preaching (Homileticians).”

Methodology

The methodology employed here is sound. First, the exegete explains the essential message for the original listeners or readers (the “exegetical idea”). Second, he unpacks the timeless truth of that message (“theological focus”). Third, the homiletician states that truth in a contemporary way (“preaching idea”). Finally, he provides communication insights for conveying the biblical concept (“preaching pointers”).

In Colossians 1:15–23, they took this theological focus:

Believers must remain in the faith they learned in the gospel, for Christ is exalted over all things in creation and redemption, and he has even reconciled believers to God in order to present them perfect before God.”

and turned it into this preaching idea:

Christ is above all, he has done it all, and now we have it all—so don’t move at all.”

Not all preaching ideas here are this cheesy, but the authors carefully transform timeless truths into digestible and relevant sermon theses.

Exposition

A brief discussion on literary structure and themes of a passage precedes the verse-by-verse commentary. Then the main commentary section analyzes Greek syntax, word studies, background info (on sidebars), and even translation issues. The authors also include diagrams and charts throughout the commentary (e.g., contrast of Jewish traditions and pagan religions on Col 2:8–23 is provided on p. 148).

Preaching and Teaching Strategies

After the main commentary section, a discussion on preaching tips follows. It begins with summarizing the exegetical and theological contents of the exposition section. Then it provides contemporary connections through helpful illustrations to illuminate meaning. Here is an example of applying Colossians 3:1–4,

What does it mean to live on earth by thinking of Christ in heaven? The idea suggests that the way we think, and what we think about, affects our behavior. Athletes know that. The golfer visualizes himself making the perfect shot before beginning his backstroke. The skier in the starting gate sees herself entering each gate at the perfect angle, shifting her weight this way and that.

“Thinking of Christ in heaven” means remembering that we are included in his death, resurrection, and return. This helps us “live on earth.” The rest of the letter will specify what that looks like in practical terms: forgiving one another, being humble, giving thanks, submitting, loving, praying, and so forth.”

p. 175

This section is followed by a defense which anticipates objections, and afterwards comes the application. Finally, a variety of more illustrations are suggested, including analogies, object lessons, film examples, and even hymn suggestions. For those studying Scripture in a group Bible study, discussion questions are provided at the very end of each preaching section.

Introductory Matters

This commentary represents conservative evangelical scholarship. It affirms Pauline authorship for both Colossians and Philemon. It includes discussion on the historical setting of Colossae in context of the Roman Empire and a discussion on slavery.

Three interesting points from the introductory matters stood out for me: the provenance of Colossians, the relationship between Colossians and Philemon, and a controversial discussion on Paul’s view of slavery.

First, it is interesting how the authors take Ephesus as the provenance of both Colossians and Philemon. While they list the strengths of Rome or Caesarea as other candidates for these letters’ provenance, they conclude with Ephesus despite no record of Paul being imprisoned here. It is mostly motivated by the proximity of Ephesus to Colossae and the occasion of Philemon’s meeting with Paul in prison.

Second, regarding the relationship between Colossians and Philemon, two ideas stood out. The authors point out the common themes of the two letters: peace and reconciliation, unity of believers, bearing together and forgiving one another, and instructions for slaves and masters. They suggest that the letter to Philemon is a specific application of the theology of Colossians. They put it this way:

If Philemon can adopt Paul’s teaching in Colossians, then he will have the theological framework and perspective he needs to sincerely live out Paul’s personal appeal regarding Onesimus. He will walk worthy of the Lord Jesus by receiving Onesimus as his brother in Christ. And if the entire church can adopt Paul’s teaching in Colossians, then they will provide the encouragement and accountability both Philemon and Onesimus need to put this into practice, and they will be transformed together through this experience and be compelled to continue growing to maturity in their walk with Christ.”

p. 45

Thus, they suggest introducing the relationship between these two letters by preaching a couple sermons on Philemon before preaching through Colossians.

Finally and briefly, regarding slavery, this quotation stood out as a helpful consideration:

In a way, Paul actually calls for something even more radical than abolition. Rather than leaning upon Christian masters like Philemon to simply free their slaves and have nothing more to do with them, he instead calls them to bear together with their slaves in a new way in Christ, where they learn to embrace one another as beloved brothers. They must forever set aside any notion that one is more than the other, that slaves are mere property, of a lesser nature even if set free, and must instead learn to walk together as equal slaves of their mutual Lord in heaven.”

Interpretation of Disputed Passages

For this commentary, I’m selecting two passages that are often difficult to understand.

What does it mean for Christ to be the “firstborn of creation”? (Col 1:15)

The debate on what it means to be “firstborn of creation” is not new. In fact, the authors of this commentary include a sidebar discussing the Arian Controversy and the Nicene Creed. Copenhaver correctly explains that “firstborn” (πρωτότοκος) could either mean first in order or first in rank. He cites Psalm 89:27 as an example of the “first in rank” meaning of “firstborn,” which also applies to Christ here in Colossians 1:15. He cites the immediate context where Paul emphatically teaches that “Christ is absolutely Creator over against absolutely “all” (πᾶς) of creation without exception. The preferred translation, then, is “firstborn over all creation” (NIV, NLT) as opposed to the ambiguous “firstborn of all creation” (ESV, KJV).

What does “rudiments of the world” refer to? (Col 2:8)

The word translated “rudiments” (στοιχεῖα) is a difficult term to translate due to its wide range of meaning. Copenhaver presents three possible meanings for στοιχεῖα: (1) the natural elements of the physical world (cf. 2 Pet 3:10, 12); (2) basic or elementary teachings as opposed to complex teachings (cf. Heb 5:12); and (3) spiritual beings such as gods, angels, or demons (cf. Gal 4:8–9).

Copenhaver makes a valid point that the ancient worldview did not make a sharp distinction between the material world and spiritual beings, making the first and third options not so far apart. Yet the immediate context referring to spiritual beings as “rulers and authorities” (cf. Col 1:16, 18; 2:15) makes option 3 the most likely use of στοιχεῖον in this context.

Analysis

Strengths

Copenhaver and Arthurs provide a strong combination to produce conservative scholarship, careful exegesis, and helpful illustrations and applications of the text.

Initially, when I read about the two-author concept (an exegete and a homiletician), I was not expecting for the second author to contribute much. What else needs to be done other than exegete the text? But after seeing the Preaching Strategies section, I realize the genius of this design. This provides what many preachers and teachers are looking for—helps in illustrating and applying the text.

The acronym IDEA helps me remember the four tasks in a sermon: illustrating, defending, explaining, and applying. The explaining section is a given for most expositional preachers. Many preachers are stumped when it comes to illustrating. Sadly, in many sermons defending and applying are almost nonexistent. The commentaries in this series, particularly this one on Colossians and Philemon, have provided many helps for pastors to illustrate, defend, and apply the text to their audience.

Weaknesses

I have two minor concerns, however, about this commentary. While this commentary will help preachers with sorting through the passages’ big idea, illustration, and applications, it has not provided an overall analysis of the big picture of each book. The overall theme of a biblical book, its “melodic line,” is a significant aspect that preachers should have in mind when preaching through a book series. Each preaching section is not a section divorced from the entirety of the book. So, how does each sermon contribute to the book’s overall focus?

Related to the previous concern is the lack of analysis on the structure of the book as a whole. Perhaps since the focus is on each sermon section, an analysis on the entire book as whole has taken the back seat. But the mega-structure is important for the preacher, not just the micro- structure, since the latter is based on the former.

Lastly, I have to ask: does this commentary series serve as a pastor’s crutch? Don’t get me wrong. I love this series and it has great potential for busy pastors. But I fear that many would use this tool the wrong way (i.e., copy it exactly to accomplish a 30-minute sermon prep). I hope this would not be the case. The exegesis, illustrations, and applications are helpful, but they are not a replacement for the pastor’s own study of the text itself. Yes, a pastor should consult this commentary—but not to the expense of neglecting his own duty of first-hand exegesis and prayer for illumination.  

My recommendation for pastors, then, just like my recommendation for all the hundreds of commentaries (yes, I think I have now reached three digits) on my physical shelf or on Logos is this: in preparing sermons, converse with these friends at the end of your process.

While I’m hesitant on putting this tool in the hands of pastors, I am eager to put this helpful tool in the hands of lay teachers. Someone with no formal training in Greek exegesis and cultural background will be greatly helped by this tool!

Conclusion

This is a kind of commentary that I would love to write. This is comparable to Baker’s Teach the Text series, but meatier and with more helps. I absolutely love this commentary and it makes me want to do a preaching series in Colossians.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.