Exalting Christ in Ephesians (Book Review)

exalting-christ-ephesiansPaul’s letter to the Ephesians is one of my favorite Bible books to study with others.  I’ve led studies in Ephesians 4 times, and each time I learn new insights and grow spiritually.  It’s a book that reminds me who I am in my Savior Jesus Christ.  It summarizes the gospel that exalts Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It gives me a high view of the Church and God’s plan for her.  It teaches and stirs me to deeper, broader, and more specific prayer.  And it applies the gospel in very tangible and relevant ways to the life of the Christian.  I think it was John Stott who quipped, “Ephesians is the gospel for the Church.”  Because I return to Ephesians often, I’m often looking for good resources to understand and teach it to myself and others.

Tony Merida has written a helpful little commentary in the Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary series called Exalting Christ in Ephesians (ECE).  As an expository commentary, it is formatted and written like a series of sermons that works passage-by-passage and verse-by-verse through the text of the letter.  A technical commentary it is not.  So if you are looking for a technical and exegetical commentary, then ECE is probably not going to satisfy your need for in-depth study.  But if you desire an explanation of Ephesians with amble illustration (analogies, stories, quotes), comparison to other interpreters, a decent dose of life application, and questions for study, reflection, and discussion, then ECE would be an excellent choice.

The author is pastor of Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, NC, an “Acts 29” Baptist church in the evangelical tradition of faithful verse-by-verse biblical exposition.  Merida holds a Ph.D in preaching and also serves as an associate professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Thus ECE is a feast from the best of both worlds (the church and the academy).

Divided in 14 chapters, Merida guides the reader through the 6 short chapters of Ephesians.  Each chapter of the book is about 10-15 pages long, which I estimate to be a 30-50 minute sermon.  And what meaty sermons these are!  Short on fluff and long on theology and application, the reader is treated to a feast of God’s Word.  Happy is the church that hears sermons like this week in and week out.  Why?  Not because being happy is the goal, but because each chapter points to Christ as the purpose, end, and meaning of the passage.  Thus Ephesians and Merida’s pastoral exposition leads us into worship.

One insightful way to critique a commentary is to note which commentaries the author leans on the most.  Some of these sources include those by F.F. Bruce, John Calvin, Bryan Chapell, Charles Hodge, Kent Hughes, John MacArthur, Leon Morris, Peter O’Brien, Klyne Snodgrass, John Stott, and Frank Thielman.  Of note are Merida’s favorite preachers to cite: John Piper, Tim Keller, and most of all Charles Spurgeon.  It is obvious the author is drinking deeply from the historical well of broadly reformed evangelicalism, listening to the voices of the centuries without neglecting today’s influential voices.

One thing I appreciate about expositional commentaries is the attention to mnemonic textual outlines.  Most people have heard preachers force alliteration into a sermon outline that stretches the credulity of the exegesis.  “Does this point really arise from this passage, or did the preacher make the Bible say this because it harmonizes with his catchy outline?”  Maybe you’ve never thought a sermon outline was more cute than accurate, but I sense many have.  Even so, each passage outlined in ECE follows a tight, memorable, and sometimes catchy structure.  But I don’t get the sense the wording is forced despite the text.  That takes a lot of creativity, thought, and often more time than people think!  Merida’s passage outlines are the fruit of real labor, and you get to eat the fruit.  Here is an example from Ephesians 2:11-22 (copied from p. 54):

Main Idea: Paul makes another contrast in this passage, reminding believers of their prior alienation from God and His people, and what Christ has done to reconcile them to God and one another.

  1. Alienation: Who We Once Were (2:11-12)
    1. Christless (2:12a)
    2. Foreigners (2:12b)
    3. Hopeless and godless (2:12c)
  2. Reconciliation: What Christ Has Done (2:13-18)
    1. Christ has brought us peace (2:14a)
    2. Christ  has made us one (2:14b-16)
    3. Christ preached peace (2:17)
    4. Christ has given us access to God (2:18)
  3. Identification: Who We Have Now Become (2:19-22)
    1. Citizens of God’s kingdom (2:19a)
    2. Members of God’s family (2:19b)
    3. Stones in God’s temple (2:20-22)
  4. Application
    1. Let us elevate our concept of the local church
    2. Let us be part of a “red church”

My only quibble is that the commentary begins a bit slowly and proceeds at a pace that proved difficult for the busy Christians in my home group study to sustain interest.  But that may be more a function of the subject order of the book of Ephesians than Merida’s exposition.  Ephesians is neatly divided in halves.  In the first 3 chapters Paul explains and expounds the gospel by talking about God and his church.  These chapters are literally packed with dense theology, prayer, and doxology.  Not until chapters 4-6 does Paul move to applying the gospel for the church in various practical ways.  I’ve noticed that sometimes Christians have a harder time discussing Ephesians 1-3 for more than 2 or 3 weeks.  A skillful teacher will illustrate theological truths and draw the discussion toward meaning for life.  Good theology is always doctrine for living.  This is where Merida really shines.  His expositions of Ephesians 4-6 are gripping and provide much to ponder, discuss, and take away for immediate practice.  I especially appreciated his treatment of Ephesians 5:18-6:24 where he deals with the topics of marriage, family, work and vocation, and spiritual warfare.

Reading commentaries or listening to a sermon series are almost always more profitable stretched over time.  But the opposite is often true of books of the Bible.  Ephesians as a letter was meant to be read and heard in one sitting.  The theology of part 1 is meant to draw us in and lift us up in worship.  The application of part 2 is meant to ground us for daily living as Christians in a world that doesn’t understand us, won’t listen to us, and even hates us.  Thus I believe the best use of expositional commentaries is to read the Bible book first in as few sittings as possible.  Maybe even a few times until the sense and flow of the book is grasped.  Once the forest in clearly in view, the reader is prepared to venture into the forest to more carefully and methodically examine the trees, branches, and leaves.  This is why expositional commentaries, like those in the Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary series, are so valuable to the ordinary Christian.  We are encouraged to explore the forest, its trees, and a few noteworthy branches and leaves to get a thorough sampling of books of the Bible.  At just under 200 pages, ECE is a good personal or group choice to study Ephesians.

Resources

Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary series

The Message of Ephesians (sermon audio), by Mark Dever

Overview of Ephesians, compiled by Brian Sandifer

Lesson: Paul and the Ephesians, by Third Mill with Reggie Kidd

Forum: Paul and the Ephesians, by Third Mill with Reggie Kidd

Reviews

Amazon

Goodreads

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