05 June 2015

Book review — Philippians: A Mentor Commentary, by Matthew S. Harmon

by Dan Phillips

TitlePhilippians: A Mentor Commentary
Author: Matthew S. Harmon
PublisherChristian Focus Publications
Date: 2015

BackstoryMatt Harmon is professor of New Testament studies at Grace College and Grace Theological Seminary, in Winona Lake, Indiana. Harmon has contributed to various books and academic journals in the past, in the former category including a chapter in Crossway's recent work on particular redemption, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her.

I know Dr. Matt because he was kind enough to be a reader for The World-Tilting Gospel. I wanted a professional academic to assess my translations and my remarks on the Greek text, to make sure they were accurate. Matt was so gracious as to do me that great favor. We became cyber-friends, finally meeting in person at Together for the Gospel.

So when Matt asked me to return the favor by reading his manuscript for a commentary on Philippians, and specifically provide pastoral feedback, I was delighted to accept.

Now, of course, one is always a bit concerned in such situations. One good brother asked me to look at a manuscript some time back, and I immediately saw that I would need to suggest radical edits just about every paragraph, starting with the first. I knew I'd never have the time. What would it be like, reading Matt's manuscript? Being an academic and a good brother doesn't n ecessarily make one a good writer.

OverallAs I read, my concerns vanished, turning to great joy. As I often do, let me anticipate my bottom-line: this is an excellent commentary, one I expect to serve for many years. It transcends both series and publisher, and deserves to become a standard go-to resource for preachers, professors, teachers, and serious students alike.

In saying that I mean no snub to the publisher per se. But perhaps most of us don't think of Mentor right-off when we think of leading commentary series; perhaps we think of NIC, or Pillar, or another. I am saying that this book easily walks in that company.

What makes Harmon's commentary so exceptional is its effortless combination of two factors often missing even in useful commentaries. Often a commentary is either academically sound and dives deeply into the text qua text, or it is warmly devotional and breathes a heart of love for Christ, His Gospel, and His church. One may read (say) Boice or Lloyd-Jones for the latter, and (say) Bruce or Marshall for the former.

Harmon's Philippians bridges the gap to unite both strengths. Harmon very thoroughly (and readably) expounds the Greek text, right down to the lexicography and syntax, and he also communicates it in a way fitting to its message. One can recognize the facts of a text without giving any evidence of tasting its beauties and implications. Harmon's commentary does both. He makes this clear in his initial note to the reader, where he outlines his intent, and then calls on the reader to engage prayerfully with the text as with God's word. I don't recall Bruce, Guthrie, or even P. E. Hughes every doing that!

Specifics. Harmon does his exposition in the body of the text proper, relegating scholarly interaction with the Greek text and the sciences to the footnotes. In this way he equally serves both readerships.

Introduction. The book opens with a thorough 46-page introduction. In it Harmon deals with customary matters such as authorship, destination, and place of origin. After discussing the various options, Harmon comes down in favor of Rome, in the timeframe of 60-62 AD (43). One helpful facet not shared by all Mentor volumes is the outline that Harmon gives, which he then uses to structure the rest of the commentary. That way the reader keeps track of the flow of Paul's thought.

In the introduction Harmon treats the more recently prominent issue of the imperial cult (27-29, with extensive footnote documentation), and brings in data from Acts to discuss the presence of Jews in Philippi. Harmon sees a multi-pronged purpose in Paul's writing this letter, including thanks for financial support, assurance that Epaphroditus is welcomed warmly, and updates for the Philippians as to Paul's own circumstances (45-46). Paul's overarching purpose in all of these is the pastoral goal of calling "for the Philippians to live joyfully as citizens of God's kingdom in a manner worthy of the gospel even in the face of internal and external pressures," which means pointing "them to Jesus Christ as the one who made them citizens of God's kingdom through His death and resurrection and now empowers them by His Spirit to be blameless and innocent children of God who sine as lights in this dark world" (46).

Harmon also discusses the opponents and false teachers (47-50), and opens up the book's key themes: the Gospel, Jesus Christ, the day of Christ, already/not-yet, joy, fellowship, and "mindset" (50-56). Two and a half pages on the use of the OT are followed by an excursus of over 7 pages (with tables) on the OT background to the "Christ-hymn" of 2:5-11.

Commentary. The commentary proper is over 400 pages long. Harmon introduces each section with a discussion of its thought-flow, which will be very useful for all teachers and preachers. Then Harmon comments verse by verse, reproducing the ESV text then expounds it from the perspective of the Greek text. All Greek words are transliterated, both in the body and in the footnotes, which broadens the scope of its usefulness. Harmon interacts with the Greek text in the body in an expository way that is accessible to any reader; the deeper explorations of lexicography and syntax are confined to the footnotes, which sometimes take 1/3 (356) to 1/2 (358) of the page. I love that, as you know!

Plus, Harmon's academic strengths are deep and broad; for instance in opening 1:23ff., in a footnote Harmon profitably applies the rhetorical devices synkrisis and dubitatio, with explanation and documentation (142, footnote 97). Harmon also notes the presence of chiasm (200). The text will satisfy "layman" and more scholarly reader alike.

The commentary itself opens on many levels. Harmon's focus is the meaning of the text as it left Paul's pen. But he also deals with it on a Biblical theology basis, setting it in the Canon, ultimately often commenting on the impact for systematics. Not only so, but Harmon also has an eye to the practical impact, the pastoral burden, and occasional clash with false teachings and other perversions of the text.

A good example illustrating Harmon's levels of concern is his treatment of Paul's prayer in 1:9 that the Philippians' "love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment." Taking just those last words ("all discernment"), Harmon first discusses the wording (98):
Other English versions translate this word 'insight" (NIV), 'understanding' (NLT) or 'judgment' (KJV). Part of the difficulty is that this Greek word (aisthēsis) appears nowhere else in the New Testament. It does occur frequently in [the Greek translation of] Proverbs, where it most often has the sense of insight or knowledge (e.g., Prov. 1:22; 2:10; 3:20). If it refers to discernment, the idea is of making necessary distinctions between right and wrong, good and bad, wise and foolish, etc. (cf. Heb. 5:14). But if it speaks of insights, the emphasis rests on a level of understanding that penetrates beneath the surface to the complexity of something along with its implications. The fact that the very next verse indicates the purpose of this growth of love is for the purpose of enabling the Philippians to approve the essential things may slightly tip the scales towards seeing a reference to discernment. By adding the word all Paul stresses the totality of the discernment.
So a flowing introduction to the range of meaning, the presentation of the two main alternatives, and then rather than moving on without a commitment (as is commonly done), Harmon provides a reason to favor one view. But Harmon is not done yet. Then he develops that Paul's concern reveals "at least three important truths," which are:

  1. "...although love must have some basis in basic knowledge, its depth, consistency and endurance in some sense depend on growing intimacy with the person or object loved. This point is worth emphasis in a day where mysticism often beckons away from  biblical reality. Knowledge is not the enemy of love for God, but a necessary condition for its existence" (98).
  2. "...the fact that Paul prays for this growth in knowledge and insight/discernment implies that it is God who must grant these realities. While it is our responsibility as believers to pursue growth in knowledge and discernment/insight through the available means such as the preaching of God's Word, reading/studying the Bible and helpful Christian literature, these activities are insufficient in and of themselves to produce the kind of knowledge...Paul speaks of here. Apart from the supernatural work of God's Spirit to use those efforts, the only kind of knowledge gained...is the kind that makes a person arrogant (cf. 1 Cor. 8:1)."
  3. "...for Paul, love is not a synonym for naivete. Popular depictions of Christian love as gullible credulity, easily taken in by false teachers, parasites, and hucksters, find no basis in the teaching of the apostles. Paul knew that a loving congregation could be a very vulnerable congregation, unless their love were tempered by a vigorously Biblical sense of knowledge and discernment such as is offered in Proverbs and the rest of the apostles' writings."
Each of those points is developed further, and this serves as a good representation of the commentary's strengths.

In his "Note to the Reader," Harmon announces his hope to serve "the pastor, the Sunday school teacher, the missionary, and the small-group leader." In keeping with this aim , Harmon crowns each section with "Suggestions for Preaching/Teaching and Application."

Also, the publisher made the wise decision in this volume (though not, alas, in others) of providing Harmon's extensive documentation in footnotes, not endnotes. A fourteen-page bibliography, a Scripture index, and a subject index close out the book.

In summary: I can't recommend this book highly enough. If you want to study Philippians closely, let alone teach it or preach it, I'd class it as a must-have, right alongside both classic and modern writers such as Eadie, Ellicott, Lightfoot and Alford, as well as O'Brien, Silva, or Hawthorne.

In fact, if you were about to buy your first commentary, or could have only one, Matthew Harmon's Mentor Commentary on Philippians would be the one I'd recommend. It's both the full package and the real deal, and I expect it to serve Christ's church for years to come.

Dan Phillips's signature


Donn R Arms said...

Logos has this on Pre-Pub for $13.99. I'm in!

DJP said...

Me too!

Michael said...

Put it on my wish list for when I turn to Philippians.

Daniel Mikesh said...

I'm preaching through Philippians right now - on my way into 1:12-18 this coming Sunday - and already I've decided that if I could only have one commentary on the book, I would choose Harmon's hands-down. In fact, the time I spent the first two weeks reading Fee and O'Brien is going down to about nothing. Harmon has all the detailed exegesis you need for thinking through the Greek text, and exactly the right kind of text-driven application. In fact, I like his application better than what I've found in Kent Hughes' and Dennis Johnson's preaching commentaries. That's my two-cents.

DJP said...

It's a good two cents! I'm both gratified and unsurprised to hear it.