Ariel’s Bible Commentary: The Messianic Jewish Epistles – Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, Jude Peter, Jude: Exposition from a Messianic Jewish Perspective by Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Th.M., Ph.D. Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 2005. 477 pp. Hardback. $35.00.
GES readers will generally appreciate this commentary. Arnold is in the free grace camp, although there are a few ideas that some Free Grace people will disagree with.
Overall the quality of the commentary is very good. It is well written, easy to read, and follows the Biblical text verse-by-verse. As in his other writings, Arnold uses the American Standard Version 1901 (ASV) translation, which is included in the text making it easy to follow and reference his comments. While a good literal translation, some readers may find the ASV a bit archaic.
The commentary is written from a Messianic Jewish Perspective. Consequently, Arnold focuses on the Jewishness of the epistles and explains many references to things inherently Jewish. I find these insights particularly refreshing given that the human writers of these epistles were also Jewish and so is Jesus who is the King and Messiah to Israel.
The commentary section on Hebrews is approximately 200 pages (pp. 3-201). His treatment of this epistle is exceptional, even compared to the other four included in the commentary. There are several points from a free grace perspective worth mentioning.
First, Arnold takes the “change of mind” view of repentance (p. 11). This comes out in his introduction to Hebrews where in discussing the background of the epistle he discusses the “unpardonable sin” of Matthew 12 (pp. 12-13). His point is that the Jewish generation alive during the time of our Lord needed to change their minds about Jesus to avoid national judgment, which ultimately came upon them in AD 70 (pp. 12-13).
One significant aspect that GES readers will appreciate is his treatment of the five warning passages (Heb. 2:1-4, 3:7-19, 5:11-6:20, 10:26-31, 12:25-29). His explanation of each is very clear, contextually consistent, and emphasizes rewards, loss of rewards, and temporal judgment. He refutes erroneous views of these passages with sound reasoning, evidence and explanation, while focusing the reader’s attention on how the warnings were intended for the Jews in Israel prior to the destruction of their nation in AD 70 by the Romans (e.g., p. 78). While his interpretation is specific there is ample application made for the believer today. He makes it clear that the epistle was written to Jewish believers who were in danger of falling away from their Christian faith and returning to Judaism. While these believers might fall into apostasy, they nevertheless remain eternally secure (e.g., p. 79). This point is expressed throughout the commentary and is central in the warning passages. The commentary is worth having just for his sections on the five warnings passages.
Another point JOTGES readers will enjoy is his treatment of the words save and salvation. He observes that these terms frequently relate to physical deliverance (not spiritual) which is consistent with the Biblical text (e.g., pp. 13, 29, 43, 47-49, 57, 79, 143-144). Oddly, I thought he might say more about these terms in relation to the nation of Israel as a whole and their deliverance from dominion and domination by Gentile nations, which is a consistent OT theme and is related to their demise in AD 70. Nor did he comment on the phrase “inherent salvation” in Heb 1:14. I wish he would have offered explanation on this phrase, but he did not.
His commentary on James spans approximately 100 pages (pp. 205-313) buy does not flow as well as his work on Hebrews. Also, he tends to overemphasize the significance of Greek verb tenses. For example, when discussing a present tense, he almost always describes it as having continuous action when that is not necessarily the case in every instance (e.g. p. 221). Usually such action depends on the immediate context. This overemphasis on Greek verb tenses is evident in his commentary on the other epistles as well.
His pointing out of the Jewish traits in these epistles was helpful. For example, in Jas 5:17 where the Biblical text says, “Elijah prayed earnestly,” Fruchtenbaum reveals that the Greek wording is “prayed with prayer.” Arnold describes this as a “Hebrewism” meaning that the doubling of the root word (pray/prayer) “intensifies the verb to mean he prayed earnestly” (p. 312). He sprinkles little examples of the Jewishness of the text (like this one) throughout the entire commentary, which I find very helpful to gaining a better understanding of the text.
While the Free Grace camp will have little problem with most of his comments on James, his treatment of Jas 2:14-26 is not only interesting, but may raise some eyebrows. Arnold claims to hold the free grace position (and I believe he does), but his treatment of this section could arguably be taken as backloading the Gospel. He seems to dance back and forth between a full Free Grace position and a backloaded view. On page 252 he plainly states, “Justification in James is not soteriological.” However, within the same discussion he later writes, “
The works (c.f. James 2:14) in question are the works of verses 17-18, which are produced by a true faith…. The question is: Can that faith save him? Again, this is a rhetorical question that demands a negative answer. In other words, is a faith that produces no work whatsoever really a saving faith? The obvious answer is, No. The issue here is saving faith (pp. 252-253).
At this point he footnotes this statement with a reference to the GES commentary, written by Zane Hodges, which points out that what is in view is physical life and death and not a soteriological salvation. He acknowledges that the GES view is a possibility (p. 253).
There are several things that I find troubling in Arnold’s comments. What does he mean by “true faith?” In a clear contradiction, he says justification in James is not soteriological, but then claims James is talking about saving faith in a soteriological sense. Another question is what about his notion of “that” faith? Is that a reference to some kind of special faith as Lordship types would argue? He did not comment on the use of the Greek definite article in the context of Jas 2:14. Unfortunately, these questions and issues are not adequately addressed or answered.
As he works through this entire section in James, his basic premise seems to be that the faith that saves (eternally) will show itself in good works. Oddly, at the end of the section he enters into a refutation of Lordship Salvation, even quoting John MacArthur (p. 260). As part of this refutation, he states his view as being Free Grace, and cites Charles Ryrie (So Great Salvation) extensively (pp. 263-274). In his conclusion he writes, “to teach that it is possible to be truly saved and yet be totally fruitless goes against the very point that James was making. The balance is that a truly saved believer will produce some measure of fruit” (p. 274). I wonder how he reconciles this view this reconciles with the parable of the sower (Luke 8:4-15), especially considering the rocky and thorny soils. Arguably each one had life and growth, but not necessarily fruit, mature fruit or visible fruit.
The commentary on 1 Peter consumes only 70 pages (pp. 317-385). Here Arnold takes aim at those who advocate Replacement Theology. He refutes those who claim that the church has replaced Israel (e.g., pp. 319-320). This is evident in his discussion of the human author (Peter) as well as the recipients of the epistle (Jewish believers scattered throughout Asia Minor, i.e., Turkey, pp. 317-321). The basis for his conclusion is 1 Pet 1:1-2 as well as subsequent references contained throughout the epistle. Clearly the terms sojourner (alien) and dispersion (diaspora) refer to Jewish people living outside the land of Israel. Arnold does a good job of developing this thought. He correctly concludes that Peter is “writing specifically to the Remnant of Israel; the Jewish believers of that day” (p. 319). He insightfully observes that the word church does not appear even once in the entire epistle (p. 319).
He only briefly mentions the term “the elect” contained in v 1 (Though the actual Greek word occurs in v 1, most English translations place the word in v 2.) writing, “they were chosen by God” (p. 318). However, he does refer the reader to his comments on 1 Pet 2:6-9 for further explanation. My disappointment is that he did not comment more on this term as it is used by Peter, because I think it is further evidence that Peter wrote to Jewish believers. After all, the Jews are the chosen (choice or select) nation/race (cf. Deut 7:6, 14:2, Psa 33:12, 105:6, 135:4, Isa 44:1, 45:4, 65:9). In fairness to Arnold, he does develop this motif in his discussion of 1 Pet 2:6-9 and throughout the commentary he expounds on this theme where appropriate (e.g., pp. 341-344).
Arnold’s treatment and discussion of 1 Pet 2:1-12 is probably unique among evangelical commentators. It is in this section of the text where I think Arnold’s Messianic Jewishness is most reflected. His main point in this passage is that Peter is distinguishing between the Remnant and Non-Remnant of Israel (i.e., Jewish believers and unbelievers of that day). He is also careful to distinguish between Israel and the church because many have erroneously applied the context of 1 Pet 2:1-12 to the church (pp. 338-346).
The commands that Peter issues in 1 Pet 2:11 and following make sense in context when Peter’s initial instruction to these Jewish believers (to maintain good behavior among the Gentiles) is considered. Peter’s subsequent commands specify what constitutes this good behavior.
There are many unusual and notable views that Arnold presents. Regardless of whether you agree with the interpretation he offers, one cannot accuse him of faulty hermeneutics. His interpretations are consistently derived from the Biblical text in a literal manner, giving priority to the context. An example of this is his view of 1 Pet 5:13, which indicates the human author wrote from “Babylon.” Many consider Babylon as code, referring to Rome. However, Arnold argues convincingly that Babylon means Babylon, the city that was located in present day Iraq; not Rome (p. 384).
The commentary on 2 Peter fills only 35 pages (pp. 389-423). As a layman, I wished he would have written more. His comments seem too brief.
While I agree with Arnold’s views in many instances, there are a few spots in this epistle that may give Free Gracers readers some heartburn.
Under the section entitled “The Necessity of Growth – 1:8-11” Arnold observes Peter giving six reasons for spiritual growth. Concerning 1:10 he writes,
The fourth reason for the necessity of growth is to give more diligence in order to make their election sure (v. 10a), which in turn provides the assurance of salvation. Election is done by God, but a man’s action proves his election. As James teaches, a man shows his faith by his works. If a man has saving faith, it is a product of his election. The way to make this election sure for himself is by producing works that are the result of his faith. These works provide valid evidence that his election is sure – that he has been called, chosen, and assured of salvation. This should be done with more diligence since this is an even greater incentive than those of verses 8-9. (p. 395, emphasis his).
What is disturbing is that Arnold contends that a believer’s assurance of salvation (i.e., eternal life) is by works, and not belief in the promise of God. This stems from his “proof of salvation by works” view of James 2:14-26 (pp. 252-253). Further troubling is that “election” is emphasized in a way that would make a five-point Calvinist proud. Where in the text does it say that electing and calling are unto eternal life or salvation? It is not there! Rather, as Zane Hodges points out, vv 3-4 indicate that the recipients were believers. Arnold points this out too, but misses the point of v 10 as it is tied to the discussion of rewards that follows in v 11.
To his credit, Arnold picks up that the kingdom mentioned in v 11 is yet future and correctly identifies it with the Millennium and the doctrine of rewards. However, the point Arnold misses is that a believer’s works are a powerful testimony to others and are of great use to the church body, but they do not necessarily “prove” that someone is a believer in Christ. What about the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Catholics? Do their works prove saving faith?
In his discussion of 2 Pet 3:9, which states that the Lord is “not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance,” Arnold merely writes, “he wishes to give opportunity to all to be saved” (p. 416). This is one instance where I wished Arnold had developed his comments more. He does not really deal with the terms “perish” or “repentance.” Both words are crucial to understanding the meaning of the text. Unfortunately, he simply takes a salvation view of the passage without much comment or analysis. There may be Free Grace readers who hold this view, but on the other hand, some would argue that the text is not dealing with salvation/eternal life per se, but relief from temporal judgment. One can only speculate if Arnold considered whether repentance means simply a change of mind or a decision to turn from sinful conduct to avoid or bring to an end God’s temporal judgment. Likewise, is the term “perish,” eternal punishment in hell or physical death?
Last, but not least, is his commentary on Jude, which takes up only 21 pages (pp. 427-448). Once again his comments are quite brief. His references to the Greek text are to the Critical text (CT) not the Majority text (MT). This creates a few interpretive differences due to minor variations between the CT and MT. For example in Jude’s salutation, the CT states the recipients are “called, beloved in God the father, and kept for Jesus Christ.” The difference between Greek texts lies in the words “beloved” (CT) as opposed to “sanctified” (MT). Hence, Arnold sees election (God choosing those he will save in eternity past) by the words “called” and “beloved” as he writes,
The believers were called by the Holy Spirit. Theologically, this ‘effectual calling’ is a work of the Holy Spirit; it is the calling that brings one to salvation. They are beloved in God the Father, which is a result of their being elected by God the Father (p. 429).
It is that last sentence that gives us pause. As John 3:16 points out, God loves the world, not just the elect. In this context, the idea of being “sanctified” or “set apart” fits better in the context because that is what God does for those who have been called to believe the Gospel.
Regarding vv 14-16 in which the 2nd Advent of Christ is prophesied, Arnold takes the position that in this prophecy, which is attributed to Enoch, church-age believers will accompany Jesus when he returns (pp. 438-439). In other words, church-age believers are the myriads of holy ones or saints that return with the Lord. While I do not exactly disagree, I find it difficult to think that Enoch was referring to church-age saints because the church was a mystery and undisclosed in the OT. Rather, this prophecy may be better understood as referring to angels that accompany Jesus at His 2nd Advent (cf. Mark 13:14; Rev 19:11-19).
His treatment of v 24 is interesting and brief. He writes,
In verse 24, Jude states two actions that God can perform. First, God is able to guard you from stumbling. The Greek word used here for guard means “to be kept under a military guard for safe conduct;” for safe custody. God is able to keep the believers in safe custody. While believers may indeed stumble in their spiritual lives, they will never stumble to the point of loosing their salvation, not because the keeping of salvation depends on them but because it is dependent upon God’s power to keep them. Second, God is able to set you in the presence of his glory without blemish. The Greek word for without blemish is a sacrificial term; as the Passover lamb was to be without blemish. God is able to set believers in the presence of His glory, which will be true at the Rapture when they are taken up into heaven. Therefore, when the believer is in the presence of His glory, it will be in exceeding joy. In noting what God is able to do, Jude makes two statements; one statement pertains to the present and the other statement pertains to the future. At the present time, God is able to keep believers from stumbling. God is able to do this at the present time; however, in the future he will be able to set believers in the presence of his glory (p. 447).
What Arnold says is fine as far as it goes. However, stumbling does not seem to have the soteriological connection that he gives it. Certainly as Wilkin has pointed out, “ability is no guarantee.”
Arnold’s contribution to understanding these Jewish epistles is extraordinary, regardless of whether you agree with all of his views. I find his Jewish perspective refreshing and enlightening. His comments on Hebrews and 1 Peter alone make purchasing the book worthwhile.
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