J.V. Fesko, Galatians

Article by   May 2012
feskoGalatians_95.jpgJ. V. Fesko, Galatians (Tolle Lege Press, 2012), xxvii + 180 pp.

In the last few decades, there has been a revival of lectio continua preaching, which is beginning to produce a harvest of expository commentaries. This can only have the happy effect of encouraging the practice of systematic expository preaching in our pulpits. With the publication of Galatians, Tolle Lege Press introduces The Lectio Continua Expository Commentary on the New Testament, which aims to provide lectio continua sermons, originally delivered to Reformed congregations, which clearly and faithfully communicate the context, meaning, gravity, and application of God's inerrant Word. Each volume of expositions aspires to be redemptive-historical, covenantal, Reformed and confessional, trinitarian, person-and-work-of-Christ-centered, and teeming with practical application (xviii).

The first volume of the series contains twenty-two sermons on Paul's letter to the Galatians, which are the fruit of Rev. John Fesko's gospel ministry at Geneva Orthodox Presbyterian Church. These sermons are focused on Christ and full of Christ. After explaining the meaning of each text, Fesko reflects on its theological significance and draws out practical applications. His judicious use of illustrations does not divert attention from the biblical text but rather draws the reader into the text.

Fesko identifies the chief subject of the epistle as "the justification of man," which he defines in a forensic, soteriological sense. "To be justified," he says, "is to be declared righteous before the tribunal of God" (xxiii). "In our justification by faith alone God imputes (or credits) the perfect law-keeping (or obedience) of Jesus to sinners and transfers the sinner's guilt and penalty for his violation of the law to Christ" (xxiv). While the book is essentially a positive statement of Paul's message, the author occasionally refutes certain theological errors, particularly those associated with the New Perspective on Paul and the Federal Vision.

One of the major strengths of the work is its emphasis on Paul's eschatological framework, which is the matrix of his theology. According to Paul,
the long-awaited new heavens and earth are not only a future but a present reality. They have dawned with the advent of Christ and his outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Hence, Paul stresses the fact that circumcision is a mark that belongs to the present evil age (1:4) and the elementary principles of the world (4:3, 9), and consequently it counts for nothing ... The new creation does not begin at the conclusion of all things but in the middle of history. At the consummation, however, Christ will close the present evil age and the only thing that will be left is the new creation and those who are a part of it by Christ's regenerating grace ... In the meantime, the Church is on a pilgrimage to the New Jerusalem as we follow Christ and walk by the Spirit, like Israel of old followed the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night (xxv).
Fesko often comes back to this eschatological perspective and uses it to interpret various passages in the letter. For example, concerning the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit, he writes,
The two realms, flesh and Spirit, are completely antithetical--there is no agreement between them. They are two different ages, what Paul has called the "present evil age" (1:4), and the new creation that has dawned in Christ; Paul elsewhere refers to the "age to come" (Eph. 1:21). Each age is marked by different conduct. The present evil age is marked by sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and the like (5:19-21). The age to come, the epoch that has dawned through the work of the last Adam and the outpouring of the life-giving Spirit, is marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (5:22-23) ... Paul wanted the Galatians to know that the power to manifest the fruit of the Spirit did not come from themselves but from Christ and the Spirit. Hence, Paul told the Galatians to breathe the air of the new creation, if you will. Were they to return to the bondage of the law, then they would breath the sin-polluted air of the present evil age; this would have an injurious effect on their sanctification. If they looked heavenward, to Christ seated in the heavenly places, and relied upon the Holy Spirit, then they would manifest his fruit. The air of the new creation would fill their lungs and enable them to live for Christ (139-40).
Here, Fesko brilliantly weaves together Paul's teaching concerning the fruit of the Spirit and his eschatology, particularly his two-age construct. Unfortunately, most commentaries on Galatians fail to recognize this eschatological dimension to Paul's teaching and, therefore, fail to make the connection between what Paul says in 1:4 with what he says throughout the letter.

Another feature of Fesko's commentary that sets it apart from the rest is his sensitivity to Paul's typological use of the Exodus narrative. "Paul's doctrine," he says, "is enrobed in Israel's narrative history--the Exodus" (138). For example, he writes,
Just like Israel wanting to return to the pots of meat in Egypt, so too the Gentile and Jewish Christians [in Galatia] were wanting to return to the bondage of the elementary principles of the world ... For both Jew and Gentile it was an attempt to turn back the clock and live as if Christ had never come ... To return to the law as a means of one's salvation is to return to a yoke of slavery... it is like Israel wanting to return to the slavery of Egypt after they had been delivered miraculously through the Red Sea (95, 96, 122).
We find another example of this typology in what Fesko writes concerning Paul's instructions to walk in the Spirit (5:16-18).
Looking to Israel's desert wanderings is key to understanding Paul's instructions to walk by the Spirit ... Paul has employed language and images from Israel's past to characterize life under the Mosaic covenant. Before Christ came and inaugurated the new creation, Israel was "held captive" and "imprisoned" under the law (3:23). Paul told the Galatians that, under the Mosaic covenant, they were "enslaved" by "weak and worthless elementary principles of the world" (4:8-9). For a first-century Jew steeped in the knowledge of the Old Testament, these words and images would undoubtedly invoke Israel's slavery under Pharaoh in Egypt. By this language, Paul argues that the law was akin to Pharaoh; Christ, one greater than Moses, delivered God's people from the bondage of the law. But Israel's Exodus narrative did not end with their miraculous deliverance at the Red Sea ... [God] led them [through the wilderness] by the cloud-presence of the Spirit--when the Spirit moved, Israel was supposed to follow (Exod. 13:21; Num. 9:17; Neh. 9:12). Israel did not need a map--they simply had to walk by the Spirit ... Now, Jesus Christ our Great Shepherd leads us through the wilderness on the last and final Exodus. Christ leads us by the presence of the Holy Spirit, like Israel of old being led by the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. In our pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem, we must be led by the Holy Spirit (138, 140, 142).
In my opinion, the best sermons in the book are the three sermons on Galatians 5:16-25. Here, Fesko brilliantly uses Paul's eschatology, his Exodus typology and the book of Isaiah to illuminate this well-known but often misinterpreted passage in Galatians.

As far as weaknesses, I would point out two--both of which arise from the nature of preaching versus the nature of writing, which are two very different genres. First, the book tends to be repetitive. When preaching through a book, it is often necessary to remind the congregation of what they heard last week, but it is usually unnecessary to remind the reader of what he read in the previous chapter.

Second, as is commonly recognized, sermons are often better heard than read. What may be considered a "living and powerful" sermon when preached may simply not have the same sort of energy in print. As I read through the book, once or twice, I suspected that to be the case with this series of sermons on Galatians. That, however, is no fault of the author; it is merely the result of exchanging media: the living voice for the printed word. Nevertheless, there is certainly great value in publishing sermons and in reading the sermons of others. Therefore, I highly commend this expository commentary on Galatians as a fine example of lectio continua preaching that serves the glory of God.

Rev. Glen J. Clary is pastor of Immanuel Orthodox Presbyterian Church in West Collingswood, NJ and a D. Min. candidate at Erskine Theological Seminary.

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