Listen to this episode via your favourite podcast players here.
“In a day of polarization to extremes and consequent fragmentation of churches and individual lives, we need to heed his [the Apostle John’s] call to hold together truth and love on the basis of God’s self-revelation throughout the Scriptures and especially in this text [the Epistles of John].” That was a prescient quote from 1988 by David Jackman in his book, “The Message of John’s Letters”.
What revelation does the Apostle John’s letters have for us? If you want to know more, don’t go away.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. When I can, I try to squeeze in a Logos Free Book of the Month, depending on what Logos is giving away. For this month, it’s “Exalting Jesus in 1, 2, 3 John” by Daniel L. Akin.
Confidence to Review a Commentary
Coincidentally or providentially, my senior pastor just completed a sermon series on 1 John. And after him, I preached a sermon on 2 John. With the Apostle John still ringing in my mind, I feel more confident on reviewing this 288 page commentary on his letters.
“Exalting Jesus in 1,2,3 John” is part of the Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary, CCE for short, which boasts 35 books so far with more in progress. Let me read the Amazon description of the commentary series:
Rather than a verse-by-verse approach, the authors have crafted chapters that explain and apply key passages in their assigned Bible books. Readers will learn to see Christ in all aspects of Scripture, and they will be encouraged by the devotional nature of each exposition.
The nature of the book gives added confidence that I could finish the review before the free promotion ends.
The series editors, David Platt, Daniel Akin and Tony Merida explain:
… the Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary series has pastors in view. While we hope others will read this series, such as parents, teachers, small-group leaders, and student ministers, we desire to provide a commentary busy pastors will use for weekly preparation of biblically faithful and gospel-saturated sermons. This series is not academic in nature. Our aim is to present a readable and pastoral style of commentaries.
And if the CCE’s commentary on 1,2,3 John is any indicator, then they have achieved their aims of “a readable and pastoral style of commentaries”.
Although I must point out to my listeners that easy to read is relative. If you are in a teaching position in church or you are a keen student of the Bible, if you understand or want to understand what is hermeneutics and homiletics, then you’ll appreciate this review.
If not, then please know that most book reviews in this podcast are not commentaries. For example, you can listen to my review of children’s books by S.D. Smith and Andrew Peterson or “Redeeming Money” by Paul Tripp.
Structure and Author
Coming back to “Exalting Jesus in 1,2,3 John”, to make this review on a commentary interesting, this the structure. I’ll tell you two things I like, two things I don’t like. And I’ll do that by comparing it with another commentary on 1, 2, 3 John. I’ll call this other commentary, Commentary X. Near the end of the episode, I’ll reveal the title and author of this mysterious Commentary X. In doing this side-by-side review, you will not just learn more about this month’s free commentary from Logos but you will hear how to compare two different commentaries, which could be important if you are out shopping for one.
First, let me give a quick brief on the author. Daniel, or Danny, Akin is the President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. So it’s a good thing I’m not reviewing his book as an assignment in his seminary because that would be a bit intimidating… given what I have to say. On his website, he lists 25 books he has written which includes 12 books for the Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary series, and among many books, there is with an eye-catching title, “God on Sex”. If I did a review on that book, maybe I’ll get more subscribers. I hear that sex sells. I should ask Akin if his book sales confirm it. In short, Akin has an impressive CV and has written for both scholars and general readers. How did he do for his 2014 book, the CCE Commentary on 1, 2, 3 John?
Positives: Readable and Contemporary
The first positive is, as I’ve mentioned, it’s readable. Non-academic. Non-technical. Any reader, without any theological training, can pick this book up and profit from it. Every chapter begins with a one sentence ‘Main Idea’ followed by a catchy outline. For example, chapter one which covers 1 John 1:1-4, begins with the following one sentence Main Idea:
Jesus Christ is the God-man who is the one basis of true Christian fellowship and eternal life.
Next is the outline:
- Have a Passion to Know This Life
- Have a Passion to Share This Life
- Have a Passion to Enjoy This Life
Easy to read, easy to digest, easy to remember. The Main Idea and outline is helpful to guide the pastor or confirm his initial forays into the text.
The second positive is the contemporary voice. Akin references John Piper, Chris Tomlin and other contemporary voices. He also addresses questions ordinary people ask today not questions scholars ask many decades ago.
Negative: Sometimes Little Added
Now, I’ll move to the negatives which will be longer because I try to substantiate my criticisms by comparing it with Commentary X.
The first negative is in some parts (not all!) it feels like he is just paraphrasing what the passage says.
For example, the Apostle John writes in 1 John 2:8: “At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.”
We read this today and wonder, how is this commandment new? Listen to how Akin explains it here:
And the newness is threefold. First, it is new and true in Jesus. Second, it is true and new in us, those who “walk just as He walked” (v. 6). Third, it is true and new in us because “the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” (cf. John 1:5, 9).
It is new and true in Jesus. It is new and true in us. But that’s just what the original verse said, I quote, “a new commandment … which is true in him and in you”. And as part of his reason Akin quotes back to us the verse, “the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining”.
This is as if I asked you, “Why is the sky blue?”
And you answer, “Because it is blue.” It sounds Zen but that’s not an explanation or exposition. And if reading the bible verse back to you helps you, then you don’t need this commentary.
Thankfully, if Akin doesn’t stop there. Otherwise, my criticism would be sharper. He elaborates. But is the elaboration helpful? Listen to how he continues:
In Christ the command to love one another is strengthened, deepened, expanded, and given a depth of meaning and understanding never seen before His coming in the incarnation. And now that same kind of supernatural love is being seen and experienced in those who love Him and abide in Him. But there’s more! Perfect love as revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has dealt a death blow to darkness. Darkness is on the run and it cannot outrun the light. In fact the darkness is already departing and the true light already shines! The light of the world (John 8:12) has come. The King of light and love is already reigning, and the fullness and consummation of that reign is just around the corner. How we love one another gives evidence of all of this.
The way I read it, his elaboration midway turns to spontaneous doxology, to praise. Which I can appreciate, except I wanted to know what 1 John 2:8 means. If I knew what it meant, I too would like to burst into praise.
Perhaps the problem with the repeated paraphrasing here is due to the nature of the letter itself. If you are familiar with 1 John, you know that it ‘suffers’ from thematic repetition. Perhaps it is the repetitive nature that is responsible for the tiredness in this reader-reviewer. It’s not CCE’s fault because the source material is the way it is.
Except… when I read Commentary X’s exposition on this same verse, I am enlightened. Remember the question I posed of 1 John 2:8 is “How is the commandment new?”
In Commentary X, it says:
The law of love is new in the sense that it is seen in Jesus and established by him through his death and resurrection. This command is also new in that Jesus by his obedience fulfilled the whole of the law and gave it “a depth of meaning that it had never known before” (John 13:34b, 35). Finally, this command is new because for those who believe it makes possible a new and eternal life in which they are motivated by the grace of God to fulfill the law of self-sacrificing, Christlike love.
In comparison, Commentary X is here saying almost the same thing but saying it better and to the point. Does every chapter in the CCE have this same problem? No. And not always in the way I just described. Sometimes the disconnect appears as a list of facts, Bible verses or a lengthy quote that seems out of place in the flow of the argument.
Negative: Unsatisfactory Difficult Passages
The second thing I don’t like about the CCE’s commentary on 1,2,3 John is when he deals with a difficult passage, he doesn’t present the merits of the different views. Now I understand the goal is not to be academic, which to some conjures up pages and pages of exhaustively listing and debating every minutia of data to arrive at no conclusion. First of all that is not true. Depending on which audience it aims for, an academic commentary can give concise and conclusive arguments.
The CCE doesn’t handle well the tension between being devotional on one hand and expositional on the other, especially for difficult passages.
1 John 5:6, “water and blood”
I’ll give you an example. The Apostle John writes in 1 John 5:6, “This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.”
The obvious question is “What is the water and blood?”
Christ-Centered Exposition (CCE)
This is what CCE has:
Some see [the water] as a reference to the water of physical birth, the water that flowed from our Lord’s side when He was pierced on the cross (John 19:34–35), or even the two sacraments or ordinances of baptism (water) and the Lord’s Supper (blood). This last perspective was held by both Martin Luther and John Calvin. However, the historical context of refuting the false teachings of Cerinthus, who said the Christ-spirit descended on the man Jesus at His baptism but abandoned Him on the cross, points strongly in the direction that John had the baptism of Jesus in mind.
Why is Martin Luther and John Calvin wrong? Akin doesn’t say. We don’t have enough data to weigh the merits or to understand how and why Akin made his conclusion.
On the other hand, this is what Commentary X has concerning Luther and Calvin’s interpretation:
First, John is concerned with combating false teachers who denied the human nature of Jesus. It is therefore unlikely that John would now switch topics. Second, John uses the past tense (ho elthōn, “the one who came”) which reflects a past, completed event in history, whereas baptism and the Lord’s Supper are recurring observances. Third, although water seems to be a likely synonym for baptism, the same is not true for blood and the Lord’s Supper.
He explains why Luther and Calvin are wrong. And this is a small part of a larger section explaining how other views came to be and why they too are wrong, before settling to the same conclusion as Akin’s in the CCE.
NICNT, TNTC, WBC
On the question of water and blood, I checked the academic commentaries I have: Howard Marshall’s New International Commentary on the New Testament (the venerable NICNT), John Stott’s Tyndale New Testament Commentary (TNTC), Stephen Smalley’s Word Biblical Commentary (WBC). These commentaries gave helpful insights to the question which is to be expected because they give nitty gritty details often at the expense of accessibility. Although I think the Tyndale New Testament Commentary or TNTC as a series manages to give a good balance in a concise volume.
The Bible Speaks Today (BST)
The Bible Speaks Today, BST for short, is a commentary series with similar aims to the CCE. David Jackman, whom I quoted in the beginning, is under similar constraints to Akin for the CCE.
Comparing how they treat 1 John 5:6 side by side, Jackman is more focused on expounding the text while Akin tends to drift towards… exalting Jesus. Akin would punctuate his commentary with statements like: “Jesus is the anointed Son”, “Jesus will be the suffering King”, “Jesus was not a mere man. He is the Son of God who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”, “Praise His name, He did come to die for us, and He did come to change us!” Akin’s writing is more exultation and less exposition.
Preaching the Word (PtW)
I want to make a special mention of David Allen of the Preaching the Word series. His commentary on this passage is a combination of creative writing and exposition. I quote:
As the courtroom comes to order, our eyes are riveted on an aged man who stands and approaches the front of the court. A former fisherman, he is now famous worldwide as the only surviving member of the original twelve disciples who followed Jesus. His name is John.
So Allen goes on a different track with this passage, he doesn’t weigh the merits of different views but rather brings out the testimony and witness feel of the passage.
1 John 5:16, “Sin that leads to death”
Coming back to my review of “Exalting Jesus in 1,2,3 John”, I had prepared another example for comparison. 1 John 5:16 which says, “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.”
This too is a puzzling verse. The question “What is the sin that does not lead to death and the sin that does lead to death?” arises naturally for any reader of this passage, and so more is expected from any commentary. And the CCE is found lacking.
While it tells us the three views, again it doesn’t explain how it came about or why we should accept CCE’s view in comparison to others. The conclusion is simply asserted. On the other hand, Commentary X explains the different views, compares the data and while it reaches the same conclusion in the CCE, it gives the reader confidence.
In my opinion, the preacher especially needs that confidence because his preaching is a result of that confidence. Not in his own ability but in what the Bible says. Hence the preacher studies as much as he can, given the time, money and ability he possesses. I’m not saying the preacher can publish a journal paper out of his studies, merely that his conclusions can be supported or defended from the text.
Revealing Commentary X
Now, what is this Commentary X that somehow always reaches the same conclusion as the CCE but substantiates them better? And I dare say communicates them better.
It can substantiate better because Commentary X is an academic commentary and is thus expected to substantiate arguments. But you ask, “How can it be fair to contrast the CCE with an academic commentary? The CCE is doing what it promised. A non-academic devotional commentary for the busy pastor that exalts Jesus. Comparison would be apples to oranges. Totally unfair!”
Ah… but I argue it’s not. It’s a delicious comparison! Because… Commentary X is the New American Commentary or NAC for short, on 1, 2, 3 John which is written in 2001 by a scholar by the name of Daniel L. Akin. Yes, the same Akin who wrote the CCE.
If you felt that I was a bit hard on Akin’s CCE work, it was because I have both his NAC and CCE in mind. So I knew Akin possessed the scholarly depth and writing flair to address my main concern with the CCE but did not because of it’s different purpose.
New American Commentary (NAC)
The NAC is an academic work. The book begins with a discussion on the author, date and place of writing, the occasion, purpose and theology of the epistle. Every chapter assumes some understanding or at least some appreciation of the Greek, textual criticism, theology and historical development. Thus, it’s not easy book to read hence why I didn’t and couldn’t read the whole book for this review. I only used it as a reference to the difficult passages in 1 John 5:6 and 16.
What sets apart this NAC book from all the other 1 John commentaries earlier and also showcases Akin’s scholarship is the marvellously long discussion on the structure of 1 John.
In this discussion, Akin presents:
- a summary of Raymond Brown’s survey of 26 outlines from different scholars,
- several outlines from more scholars using discourse analysis,
- even more outlines from another set of scholars this time using rhetorical criticism, before he finally presents
- his own proposed outline.
I’d like to think that the multiplicity of structures for 1 John validates my own struggles in outlining this epistle.
In case you haven’t caught on, I quite like the NAC compared to the CCE. Akin is more focused in the NAC and even with all the academic baggage, in my opinion the argument still reads and flows better.
In the CCE, sometimes the not-well-resolved tension between expounding and exalting makes the argument seem interrupted and lacks substance, which is a pity when we now know how much Akin can bring to the discussion.
Maybe you say the problem is I’m reading it as an argument when I should read it as a devotional. It’s a devotional man! Don’t expect something else from it. Just enjoy it! The thing is I do enjoy devotional commentaries. David Allen’s chapter was good and I thoroughly enjoy the Reformed Expository Commentary Series. I suspect, and this is only a suspicion, I’m not getting much out of the CCE because the material would come out better if it’s preached not read.
Synergy: 1 + 1 = 3
I do have a reason for bringing up Akin’s NAC and it’s not to pit it against his CCE. Instead of saying which is better, which listeners would argue is not fair, and I agree, I’m comparing them because I want to propose to you that they are complement one another.
Instead of choosing between the NAC and CCE, why not just get both?
“What?! I barely can read one and you want me to get two?”
“Exalting Jesus in 1,2,3 John” is free for October so that’s a no-brainer but even if you had to pay for both books, it might be worth it. Let me explain the synergy. Synergy is what happens when the combined effect is greater than the sum of the parts, or 1 + 1 = 3.
When you get both the NAC and the CCE, a research commentary and a devotional commentary by the same author, you get a peek at what happens going from one stage to the next.
We can see sermons as a two-stage process. Hermeneutics then homiletics, or interpretation then delivery. If a sermon is a car, the first stage is to fill the tank, and the second stage is to drive it.
Sometimes the problem for the preacher is there isn’t enough fuel in the tank, and he ends up pushing the car on his own strength. Meaning the hermeneutics is weak, and the sermon over relies on addressing felt needs, personal testimonies, even dreams and visions.
Other times the problem is the pastor finds he has too much fuel and turns his car into an oil tank truck. What was supposed to be a Christ-exalting sermon becomes a lecture on Greek grammar.
How can preachers improve on moving from interpretation to delivery? Books on both hermeneutics and homiletics have chapters to bridge that gap but there is a limit to how many examples authors can squeeze into a book.
If only, we had an author who would take one whole book of the Bible, show us how he does the interpretative work for every verse in that book and then show us how he would put everything he learnt and deliver a series of sermons on that book. What would that book be… Genesis? Too many stories scattered all around. Matthew? Too long. Hmm… it would be good to have something shorter but not too short and thematically focused. Of all the books in the Bible, the epistles of John best fits that requirement.
That ladies and gentlemen, is the synergy you get by getting Akin’s NAC which is the interpretative work and Akin’s CCE which is the delivery work on 1, 2, 3 John. Even though it’s not a one to one correspondence, the books don’t refer to each other, I think it works really well to see how one man interprets a whole book and later puts it down as a series of sermons or in a devotional setting. You don’t often get this type of arrangement so I wanted to highlight that in this review.
In this review, I explained the difference between an academic and a devotional commentary. I also shared one way, not the only way, to evaluate a commentary is simply to see how it deals with a verse. Pick a verse that is confusing like “blood and water”, or controversial like, “women should be silent in the church”, or important like the atonement, and see how the commentary deals with it.
I have explained to a brother in Christ that we should not view commentaries as authoritative because only the Bible is authoritative. We should view commentaries as friends, knowledgeable friends for sure, friends who have dedicated a lifetime to understand a narrow part of the Scripture, but friends whom we can still argue with in a respectful way.
In conclusion, even though the Akin’s CCE and NAC are both commentaries on 1, 2, 3 John, they each serve different purposes. The NAC is an academic book. The CCE is a devotional commentary written for busy pastors. For lighter reading the CCE can be read cover to cover as food for the soul. As a reference on difficult passages, the NAC is better positioned to help you. If you get both together, you get the benefit of seeing how one man interprets and delivers from one book.
This is a Reading and Readers review of “Exalting Jesus in 1, 2, 3 John” by Daniel L. Akin. If you are listening to this in October, then this book is available for free only in October, only via Logos. And if you missed the offer, well, you should subscribe to Reading and Readers because every month I will review at least one free book for you.
You have a very special person in your life, who believes in Jesus, obeys Jesus and loves you in a way that no one else would. Yes, your pastor. If he doesn’t know it yet, you should tell him about the Logos free book of the month programme and even this podcast that reviews Christian books. October is Pastor Appreciation Month, so go and appreciate your pastor. Until next time, keep reading!
- “Exalting Jesus in 1, 2, 3 John (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary (CCE))” by Daniel L. Akin. Amazon. Logos.
- “1, 2, 3 John (New American Commentary (NAC))” by Daniel L. Akin. Amazon. Logos.
- “The Epistles of John (New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT))” by Howard I. Marshall. Amazon. Logos.
- “The Letters of John (Tyndale New Testament Commentary (TNTC))” by John Stott. Amazon. Logos.
- “1,2,3 John (Word Biblical Commentary (WBC))” by Stephen S. Smalley. Amazon. Logos.
- “The Message of John’s Letters (The Bible Speaks Today (BST)) by David Jackman. Amazon. Logos.
- “1-3 John: Fellowship in God’s Family (Preaching the Word (PtW))” by David L. Allen. Amazon. Logos.