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Reformed Literature

Hebrews


Geoffrey B. Wilson


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One of the recent reviews on this site was of J.C. Ryle’s book, Knots Untied. The good Bishop after writing about Apostolic Fears and resisting temptation remarks on the importance of regularly reading our Bibles from beginning to end with daily diligence and constant prayer. Ryle goes on, I am well aware that there is no royal road to Bible knowledge. Without diligence and pains no one ever becomes ‘mighty in the Scriptures’. He then cites another equally evangelical Church of England minister, Charles Simeon. ‘Justification is by faith, but knowledge of the Bible comes by works.’

Ryle’s comments got me thinking, one of the issues that I reflected on was how few commentaries have been reviewed on this site. Church history helps to teach us how the Lord works in providence and the books of theology help us to understand the overall framework of ideas contained within the Bible. Yet it is surely dangerous to neglect the regular reading of a commentary as a means of deepening our understanding of a particular book in the Bible. I fear that the majority of commentaries sit on shelves to satisfy a sudden burst of curiosity when reading a particular text or to be dipped into at irregular intervals. I believe that we should all make a habit of trying to balance of reading schedules to include history, biography, theology and commentary amongst others. Every Christian will have his own favourite themes and types of books, but we should strive for balance and this means reading a cross section of books in an organised fashion.

A little while ago I read a book by Peter Masters on preaching (Physicians of Souls) and he commented that he thought he preached from the whole of the Bible, then one year he sat down and did a tick list of all the texts he had preached for the previous 12 months. He was surprised to find that most of his expositions rarely ventured from two or three books. I suspect most Christians feel that they read a balanced diet of literature and yet, if they were to do the same exercise they would find a similar result.

Hebrews is a popular book and the subject of many sermons. Growing up in Barnoldswick, we often had a series of verse by verse expositions for one end of the Sabbath services. Throughout my teenage years, we worked our way through this book and reached its crescendo with the Gallery of Faith in Chapter 11. Perhaps, these considerations led me to choose this book. Although, the commentary is quite a small one so deciding to read it from cover to cover is not an overwhelming undertaking.

Geoffrey B. Wilson published a series of these commentaries with the Banner throughout the 1960s and 70s. The Banner have now bound many of them together into a single book rather than keep them going as a bundle of separate small paperbacks.

An unfortunate aspects of the book is that the introduction contains the following comment, ‘the identity of the writer remains one of the unsolved mysteries of the New Testament… Its attribution to the Apostle Paul is more convenient than convincing, and the many modern attempts to dinf a more credible alternative to the Pauline authorship have signally failed to pierce this baffling veil of anonymity’. This almost made me put the book down. The Greek text that I have quite clearly states, ‘The Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Hebrews’, or more literally ‘The to Hebrews epistle of Paul’. It also ends with the ‘to the Hebrews written from Italy, by Timotheus’. Why on earth would anyone doubt this book was written by the great apostle to the Gentiles. The book reads like his epistle, it has his attribution at its start and we are told that it was written from Italy where he was imprisoned and sent by Timotheus. I think that we ought to be very clear in defence of Pauline authorship.

The commentary goes through the book verse by verse, it would be a mistake to assume that this means that the author (Wilson) has written each of these expositions. Instead, it is really a compendium or a digest, of the thinking of a variety of writers. Wilson has collated the thoughts of a whole panoply of writers and given a chosen author’s view of each verse. On occasion this author is Calvin or one of the Puritans, and on others it could be Arthur Pink or John Murray. While at first this might seem to be a novel approach that would put you off the book. I rather enjoyed the approach and because each of the authors wrote in their own style in helped to keep you on your toes as your read through the verses. It is clearly an approach that has not only worked in my estimation, as the books have sold and been reprinted – so others must find similar value.

It means that sometimes you are treated to a classic short exposition on a given topic, for example on ‘There remaineth therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God’, we get G. Vos in his Biblical Theology speaking about a Sabbatismos and its place as a creation ordinance. On Hebrews 11:9, we are treated to Jeremiah Burroughs who reflects ‘A little in the world will content a Christian for his passage, but all the world and ten thousand times more, will not content a Christian for his portion.’

Another advantage to reading a commentary in cover to cover fashion is that it develops your understanding of texts that you would otherwise neglect. ‘For there was a tabernacle made; the first, wherein was the candlestick, and the table, and the showbread; which is called the sanctuary’ seems very self-explanatory and I would almost certainly never have dipped in to look at it. In this exposition he uses W.E. Vine to doubt the translation ‘candlestick’ preferring the picture of a lamp that is supplied by oil which is in its symbolism figurative of the Holy Spirit.

A final example the advantages of this approach came with Hebrews 11:31 which is fairly clear quoting Rahab as an example of faith. On the text we get Calvin’s comment that she is only described as ‘the harlot’ in order to magnify the grace of God in reclaiming her from such a past, for it is certain that her faith is evidence of her repentance’. This was followed with – ‘Indeed she married a prince of Judah and shares with Ruth the Moabitess an honoured place in the genealogy of the Saviour himself’. Perhaps, this reflection will come as no surprise but it was the first time I had ever noticed this. The fact that Ruth married Boaz and gave birth to Obed was clear in my thinking – but who did Rahab marry? This sent me to the concordance and I was equally lost! Finally, a Bible dictionary opened up the mystery with the comment, ‘She is almost certainly to be identified with Rachab, the wife of Salmon and the mother of Boaz, ancestor of David, who is included in our Lord’s genealogy in Mt 1:5’.

I hope, if you were not already, that you are convinced of the value of reading your commentaries from cover to cover. Anything that helps to develop and enrich our understanding and knowledge of the Bible is surely something to be desired.