Colossians & Philemon

By John MacArthur
Chicago, IL : Moody (1992). 249 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. James Rosscup
4.1 (Spring 1993) : 113-115

This lucid evangelical exposition with a brief section on introductory matters and a verse-by-verse commentary based on the NASB text has an appropriate title to fit each of its twenty chapters. Other works published in the MNTC to this point are on Matthew (4 vols.), Romans (1 vol. so far), 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, and Hebrews. The volume offers frequent help for teachers of Bible classes, pastors, students, and lay people as MacArthur answers most questions that readers may ask about the text. His fairly full, yet not tedious exposition has meaningful correlations with other Scriptures.

Positive factors are plentiful. Christ as "firstborn of all creation" (Col 1:15) receives elucidation. It is Paul's idea of Christ's preeminence in rank (as Lightfoot and many others), not that He was the first created being as taught erroneously by the Jehovah's Witnesses. The word choice and the context that views Christ as God support this.

In his discussion of the meaning of Christ's blood in reconciliation (1:20-21), MacArthur will not persuade all evangelicals that certain passages do not go back ultimately to literal blood as a beginning point when death occurs (cf. 63: e.g., Matt 23:30-35; 27:24, 25; Acts 5:28; 1 Cor 10:16). To recognize both death and instances of blood shed when death occurs does not at all commit one to the notion that Christ's blood has been caught up and preserved in some vessel in heaven, a view that sees the blood as applied to people physically to effect their forgiveness. MacArthur does not embrace such a conception, but contends that Christ's shedding of blood, so utterly important, atoned for sins in death, and not apart from death. Both the shedding of blood and death occurred (63, bottom). His blood shed, shed in death, purchased redemption (cf. Rom 5:9-10).

Clarity marks the explanation of the filling up of what is lacking in Christ's afflictions (77). Reference is not to Christ's sufferings on the cross, which He filled up and that need no addition. Rather the idea is bearing sufferings that persecutors of Christ inflict against Him by hurting His people. These are not atoning sufferings (for Jesus paid it all!), but affiliation sufferings. His people absorb them because they are identified with His cause.

The author illumines much in regard to legalism, mysticism, and asceticism (2:16-23). He casts much light on the Christian life in discussing 3:1-4:6. Sin's presence and power still affect us. He comments, "Sin is like a deposed monarch who no longer reigns nor has the ability to condemn, but works hard to debilitate and devastate all its former subjects. Sin is still potent, and success against it demands the Spirit's power" (135-36). The Christian combats sin by being strong in God's Word (cf. "the word of Christ," 3:16), the equivalent of Spirit-filled experience (Eph 5:18). Other remarks raise a question about the meaning of the brief statement that Christ is "our life" (cf. Phil 1:21). What does this mean?

On Philemon, a section discusses slavery in relation to Christianity. MacArthur also keynotes forgiveness, hence a threefold outline: spiritual character (vv. 4-7), action (vv. 8-18) and motivation (vv. 19-25). Forgiveness receives copious exposition (207-9), with ten statements that sum it up and a listing of its eight basic elements (218- 20).

An illustration of forgiveness at the end will be worth the price of the book for some. Mitsuo Fuchida, Japanese pilot in the attack on Pearl Harbor, later became a Christian. His conversion came after he received profound impressions of Christianity such as Peggy Covell's sacrificial service that displayed to the Japanese people a love that forgives, though the Japanese had killed her beloved parents (232-35).

A book may be a fine one, yet not satisfy all readers all the time. An example of the need for more explanation is how believers can walk "worthy of the Lord" (Col 1:10). They have been and are unworthy, and it requires God's grace to save and enable them. How can they be worthy, then? Of course, the answer is that God makes them worthy in their lifestyle by His enablement. To God be the glory. Another need for more explanation relates to how a Christian can be "totally controlled" by the Spirit, yet not be in some sense sinlessly perfect (28). Further, the statement that God removes the curse of Genesis 3 during the millennium (58) needs explanation. The removal of the curse does not seem complete until the new heavens and new earth after the millennium (Rev 21:3-5; 22:4-5).

Overall, this work is very rewarding. It will prove useful in the frequent cases where it makes special contributions, and many will appreciate what they glean from it.