[Editor’s Note: This review is taken from the March issue of Credo Magazine, “Make Disciples of All Nations.”]
Thielman, Frank. Ephesians. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010. 544pp.
Review by Joshua Greever
Ephesians by Frank Thielman is a commentary worth owning for those who desire to study or teach Ephesians. It is a technical commentary that exemplifies solid, evangelical scholarship, and it has many more strengths than weaknesses.
First, Thielman rightly recognizes the significance of the Old Testament background in understanding Ephesians. For instance, he shows that God’s election of believers in 1:4 echoes God’s election of Israel in the Old Testament (cf. Deut. 7:8; 14:2; Isa. 44:2). The same is true in 1:18, where God’s rich inheritance alludes to the inheritance of his people in the Old Testament (LXX, Deut. 32:9; 1 Sam. 10:1; 26:19; et al.). Further, God’s love, rich kindness, and grace in 2:4-9 echo the language of texts like Exodus 34:6-7 and Psalm 25:6-7. The kindness and compassion believers should show towards one another (4:32) are the same actions that God himself has done for his people (cf. Pss. 34:8; 52:9; 69:16; 100:5; et al.). The call to imitate God in 4:32-5:2 is the call that God himself issued in Leviticus 11:45, “You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” Finally, the spiritual warfare passage in Ephesians 6:10-20 resembles the Messiah who fights with righteousness and truth (Isa. 11:5) and Israel’s God who clothes himself with a breastplate of righteousness and a helmet of salvation for his people (Isa. 59:17; cf. 424-28). Thielman’s recognition of this Old Testament background provides insight into the meaning of the text. And, although I will argue below that he could have discussed the Old Testament influence in Ephesians to a greater degree, by and large this aspect of the commentary is a real strength.
Second, Thielman pays close attention to the text itself. Instead of conforming the text to his own presuppositions, Thielman seems to listen to the voice of Ephesians. For instance, he rightly pays attention to the syntax of 4:12 (278-80), which is a verse much debated concerning the roles of church leaders and church members. Some commentators have argued that the three prepositional phrases in v. 12 are coordinate and therefore describe the responsibility of the church leaders Christ has given in v. 11. But against this, Thielman notes that the noun katartismos (“equipping”) is a verbal noun and can therefore be modified by a prepositional phrase to indicate the purpose of its inherent verbal action. He also notes that the preposition pros (“for”) is followed by two eis (“for”) prepositional phrases, suggesting that the phrases are not coordinate. Rather, the latter are parallel phrases indicating the purpose of the former. In other words, 4:12 could be translated, “for [pros] the equipping [katartismos] of the saints, for the purpose of [eis] the work of ministry, for the purpose of [eis] building up the body of Christ.” This may seem only a technicality, but the difference is significant. If Thielman is right, then the responsibility for the work of ministry in the church falls primarily on every church member, and church leaders are then responsible fundamentally to equip church members to do their work of ministry.
Another example of his close attention to the text is in his discussion of slavery in 6:5-9 (404-10). Again, some commentators have argued from this passage that Paul supported or was neutral towards slavery, for he does not condemn the institution outright. But Thielman rightly notes the radical soundings against slavery in Paul’s words. For instance, in 6:5 Paul calls the slave masters “earthly” (kata sarka), which subtly indicates there is a greater master in heaven. In 6:8-9, Paul makes this very point explicit when he affirms that, whether slave or free, a person’s good work will be rewarded by the master in heaven, who is no respecter of persons. Even the enigmatic command in v. 9 (“Do the same things to them”) suggests Paul’s affirmation of the Jesus tradition that those in authority are to serve those under their authority (cf. Mark 10:41-45; John 13:1-17). Finally, when Paul in v. 9 prohibited slave masters from making threats, he removed their power, without which the institution of slavery cannot long abide. This proves Paul ultimately saw no difference between slave and master in God’s eyes, and thus he subtly undermined the institution of slavery. These two are but small examples among many that show the close attention Thielman pays to the text.
Third, he rightly emphasizes the substitutionary death of Christ and the necessity of faith for salvation. On 1:7, Thielman rightly argues that Jesus’ blood was the price paid to procure forgiveness of sins, and that his death was the means by which God redeemed and rescued his people from their slavery to sin (59-60). On 2:13-18, the plight of the Gentiles was dramatically solved “in Christ” and “by his blood” (158). The actions of Christ are highlighted in 2:13-18. On 6:15, the “gospel of peace” is central for the believer’s reconciliation with God and others (426; cf. his discussion on 5:2, 25-27). Further, faith is necessary for salvation in Ephesians. It is only when one believes in the gospel that one receives the Holy Spirit (1:13-14) and finds present salvation (2:8-9). Also, the phrase en pasin (“in all circumstances”) in 6:16 sets apart the shield of faith from all the other pieces of armor (426-27). In short, one gets the sense that Thielman is a man who cherishes the gospel of God in Christ, and who wants to see that gospel appropriated by the church and spread to the nations.
A few other strengths could be mentioned here. Thielman rightly believes that 1) Paul is the author of Ephesians (1-11); 2) kephalē (“head”) in context indicates authority (cf. 1:23; 5:23); 3) the unique realized eschatology of Ephesians does not contradict its future dimensions (cf. 2:5, 8; 5:6); 4) the Mosaic law is abolished in Christ but still finds usefulness for new covenant believers in the gospel (169-70; cf. Eph. 2:15; 6:2-3); 5) the mystery in Ephesians is that the Gentiles now have equal status with the Jews before God (204-05); 6) 5:8-14 is a call for believers to expose the sin of unbelievers and share the gospel with them, and is not an admonition to encourage other believers to stop sinning (326); and 7) marriage was instituted to be a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church (389).
Although Thielman’s commentary has many more strengths than weaknesses, here are a few of its weaknesses. First, although he rightly emphasizes the Old Testament background to Ephesians, he could have emphasized it even more. For instance, in 4:24 Thielman rightly notes the allusion to Genesis 1:26 (306) but does not develop the significance of this. The “righteousness and holiness” (dikaiosynē kai hosotēti) in v. 24 is not simply referring to “virtuous living as a whole” (307), but is a way of summing up the way Adam was to have lived toward God and others in Eden. It is a way of describing the total devotion of humanity to God and the love of humans for others in the context of a covenantal relationship (cf. Luke 1:75). And it is only in the “one new man,” Christ himself, that humans experience this Edenic condition.
A similar weakness is found in the next verse (4:25), where Thielman rightly notes that Paul is quoting from Zechariah 8:16 but then cautions against appropriating the near context of Zechariah for help in interpreting Ephesians. There is certainly a level of sobriety in this caution, but it is likely in 4:25 that Paul was thinking of Zechariah’s context. In Zechariah 8:8, for instance, there is the covenantal formula, “They shall be my people, and I will be their God.” Flowing from this formula come a description of the new temple to be built (Zech. 8:9-13) and what should be the actions of the people of God (8:16-19). Ephesians highlights not only these themes (new covenant, new temple) but also the way in which they are presented (indicative, imperative; cf. 2:11-22; 4:1ff). Again, caution is needed here, but it is more likely than not that Paul was thinking of the covenantal context of Zechariah, and such should inform our interpretation of Ephesians 4:25.
Again, Thielman rightly notes that Paul used Isaiah 11 and 59 in writing Ephesians 6:10-17. But then he argues the differences between Isaiah and Ephesians (e.g., in Isaiah the armor is for offensive, not defensive purposes, and God is the one who wears it, not his people) are such that we must conclude Paul was not reflecting on the broader context of Isaiah but was developing Isaiah’s imagery in his own way (425). But the broader context of Isaiah actually shows the similarities between Isaiah and Ephesians. For instance, Isaiah 61:10, which is proximate to the text Paul quotes (59:17), Isaiah rejoices in the Lord, “for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” Even in Isaiah, then, the righteousness and salvation God wears in 59:17 is given to his people to wear by his grace, and this armor is beautiful. More likely, then, Paul is thinking along similar lines when he argues that God in Christ fights for his people and makes them beautiful in righteousness by grace through faith (cf. 2:8-9; 4:24; 5:26-27; 6:10-17). In short, Paul is not developing imagery in his own way so much as explaining how the imagery in Isaiah is realized for believers in the gospel of Christ.
Finally, there were a few other problematic interpretations. 1) It is questionable to render the word peripoiēsis in 1:14 as “remnant” (84-86). Thielman’s is a possible rendering, but the word is more likely an allusion to Malachi 3:17, which itself alludes to Exodus 19:5, and means “treasured possession” (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9). 2) Thielman argues that the “shepherds and teachers” Christ gives in 4:11 are distinct offices (275). But the syntax suggests otherwise, for the first four offices are distinguished by men…tous de (“and [he gave] others”), whereas the last category, “shepherds and teachers,” are connected with a kai (“and”). The kai links the two gifts of shepherding and teaching, suggesting that both shepherds and teachers are the same people in the church with two functions. 3) Thielman thinks the long life promised to obedient children in 6:3 refers to physical life, and that this promise is generally true, although not without exception (400-01). But more likely it refers to eternal life, for the land promise in the Old Testament points forward to the rest found in the new creation, a theme explicated by Jesus himself (cf. Matt. 5:5). Believing children (6:1, “in the Lord”) who persevere in faith by obeying and honoring their parents will receive final salvation and rest in the new creation.
This commentary has many more strengths than weaknesses. It will be especially useful for those familiar with Greek, although knowledge of Greek is not necessary to use it. In keeping with its series, this commentary does not emphasize application but analyzes the grammatical, historical, and theological aspects of the text. In short, this is a solid, evangelical commentary and exemplifies good scholarship. It should find its place among the best commentaries on Ephesians.
Joshua Greever is a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Read other reviews in the March issue of Credo Magazine, “Make Disciples of All Nations.“
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