A Review of “1-3 John” by Douglas Sean O’Donnell

1 3 JohnThe best devotional literature combines solid exegesis of the text with insightful application. Both are necessary for a quality work; which explains why there is so little quality devotional literature. Perhaps that also explains why Douglas Sean O’Donnell has written such a great piece of devotional literature: it wasn’t his intent. His commentary on 1-3 John is intended to be a resource for preachers and teachers as they look for help in understanding and expositing the epistles of the apostle. In the process, however, O’Donnell has written a beautiful work that will be accessible to many and a rich blessing to all who read it. 1-3 John is both a quality commentary and devotional study.

Each volume in the Reformed Expositors Commentary series is comprised of sermons which the individual authors preached at their churches. So, O’Donnell’s work is based on the sermons he preached at New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. Often such commentaries can be frustrating for me. I find myself having to weed through an entire sermon just to get the notes on a particular textual issue that I am seeking to understand. I am not a huge fan, then, of the sermon-based commentary. I prefer the more scholarly works. I did not have this trouble with O’Donnell.

1-3 John is rich with solid exegesis. The author spends a great deal of time focused on the actual words of Scripture and the structure of arguments. As an example, his sermon on the first four verses focuses completely on the words “which” and “we” and their relationship to one another. He shows a tremendous grasp of the original languages, of the importance of grammar and sentence structure, and of the flow of John’s arguments through each individual letter. O’Donnell, despite giving us sermons, is evidencing his scholarly acumen in each chapter.

The book is highly accessible. He is well aware of the major opinions on the text, he is able to interact with the theological and scholarly debates, but he can do so without losing his readers. The average reader will have confidence in O’Donnell’s awareness but not feel overwhelmed by the internecine debates on textual criticism and theology. The resource also uses a number of charts and diagrams to help compare and contrast the verses. He outlines the flow of John’s various arguments and exposes the readers to the details through these helpful illustrations (see page 34, and 123-124 for good examples).

In addition to good exegesis he has an impeccable skill in application. Like a good preacher he knows the questions to ask of us as we think about the passage. He knows how to help us to probe our own hearts, to think through our own relation to the text of Scripture. He often uses references from church history to illustrate a point, again showing his erudition. One can read through this book and develop not just in knowledge of the text, but in understanding of how it relates to life.

Each volume in the Reformed Expository Commentary series  is unique. I loved Iain Duguid on Esther and Ruth. 1-3 John by Douglas Sean O’Donnell is, however, my favorite so far. Without intending to write a devotional work O’Donnell has done just that. He has given us a beautiful work that highlights the text of Scripture in a very thorough fashion – not like the pattern of one verse simply explained, that so many other devotional books contain. He has also given us a commentary that seeks to make direct application to the life of the reader. He combines the best of two worlds to create a tremendous book. It surely evidences what a phenomenal preacher he must have been. I highly recommend 1-3 John to all, pastors and laypersons equally.

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