Book Reviews

Colossians & Philemon

David W. Pao Grand Rapids 2012-10-23

The volumes in this series will not replace major technical commentaries but will meet many of the exegetical, teaching, and preaching needs of their users.

Each biblical book is covered in three parts: introduction (including a bibliography), commentary, and theology. The commentary section divides the book into smaller literary units that are roughly parallel to paragraphs. The discussion of each literary unit includes a number of helpful features. First, a section called “literary context” places the section in the wider literary context of the book. This section also includes a brief portion of the full outline from the book’s introduction. Second, a brief one- or two-sentence “main idea” is presented to provide the central meaning of the passage. Third, the author’s translation is presented in an indented graphical layout showing the relationships between independent and subordinate clauses. Fourth, the structure of the passage is discussed in detail. Fifth, a brief exegetical outline explains the passage’s flow of thought. Sixth, the passage is discussed verse by verse. Seventh, a section called “theology in application” discusses the theology of the passage in the book and in contemporary application. The purposes of each of these sections are clear and all contribute to explaining the meaning and significance of the text. In addition to these formal sections, for Colossians there are three shaded boxes that include “in depth” information on specific topics: the Colossian hymn (pp. 89–93), vice and virtue lists (pp. 216–18), household code (pp. 263–66).

Pao states that Paul wrote Colossians from a prison in Rome in AD 60–62 (pp. 23–24) to address a threat from a form of syncretism that at its core was Jewish but included other elements (pp. 25–32).

Although not as detailed as some commentaries, this volume is clear, discusses various views on disputed passages, and comes to well-reasoned conclusions. The “if indeed” in Colossians 1:23 points to a real condition and the “focus is . . . on the conditionality of the statement as it functions as a call for the Colossian believers to be faithful to the gospel” (p. 109). Pao notes that what is “lacking in the afflictions of Christ” (1:24) is nothing deficient in Christ’s work; rather, it refers to messianic afflictions that believers will endure in the end times (pp. 125–26).

The chapter on the theology of Colossians gives a nice summary of the biblical theology of the book. Topics such as the deity of Christ, the victory of Christ, the lordship of Christ, responses to Christ’s lordship, mediation of the power of Christ’s lordship, and the final consummation of Christ’s lordship all serve to highlight the person of Christ.

Like Colossians, Paul wrote Philemon from prison in Rome in AD 60–62 (pp. 341–43). Although Pao is very cautious, he rejects the traditional position that Onesimus was a runaway slave and favors the view that Onesimus was sent by Philemon in order to help Paul (pp. 345–46). Paul then uses this letter to ask Philemon to free Onesimus so that the freed slave could serve him in ministry (p. 348).

Like Colossians, the commentary on Philemon helpfully navigates the reader through the text. In his discussion of Philemon 10, Pao considers possible options for the relationship expressed by Paul’s use of “child” for Onesimus whom Paul said “became [his] son during his imprisonment” (Pao’s translation, p. 386). This helpful discussion includes the observation that if a master of a household became converted, the entire household was “converted.” Whatever, the case with Onesimus’s conversion, this verse emphasizes the relationship between Paul and Onesimus and has a strong rhetorical force. In the chapter on theology Pao explores themes such as God the Father, Christ the Lord, redemption and reconciliation, new reality, community, the significance of conversion, identity, mission, moral life, authority, and obedience. These discussions are valuable and these themes certainly underlie Paul’s expression in Philemon, but at times such discussions seem forced.

The “theology in application” section discusses the theological and contemporary relevance of both books. However, the exegetical outline could have been much more detailed than is presented. An exegetical outline with well crafted developed ideas for each point could have an organized detailed expression of each passage’s flow of thought. The addition of summaries at the end of the explanation sections (and after some developed discussions) could have helped the reader stay focused on the flow of thought. However, the “main idea” section serves this purpose to some extent. Pao’s positions are well articulated and are defended appropriately. This reviewer’s only disappointment with the volume is its treatment of slavery, especially in its first-century context. Pao includes no significant discussion of difficulties that would arise in the lives of Christian slaves. Nor is there a discussion of what it would be like to simply be a slave as someone’s property. Pao discusses how the gospel impacted slaves; however, such discussions could have been enhanced if preceded by more substantial consideration of the experience of slaves.

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Joseph D. Fantin
Dr. Fantin believes an accurate understanding of God's Word will enable the believer to grow in his or her relationship with Christ, to love God and others, to bring Christ's love to a lost world, to build up the church, and most importantly, to glorify God. He is committed to teaching exegetical method in order to help students understand, apply, and teach the Bible in order to achieve these goals. His research interests include the prison epistles, the first-century world, Greek, linguistics, and relevance theory. He and his wife, Robin, have two children: Jillian and David.
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