Sermon on the Mount
In this slim but attractive volume on The Sermon on the Mount, Martyn Atkins unfailingly drives the reader back to the text of Matthew chapters 5-7. Indeed, he rightly warns that the text may judge us. I have certainly felt the challenge as I read both his book and the scripture itself. It is not an exposition (and for that, Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones set the standards over 40 years ago in his Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (IVP), nor is it a technical commentary. It is what the author says it is intended to be: 'a short devotional guide'.
In brief, bite sized sections he simply opens up the core meaning and applies it. Useful questions and reflective points are neatly highlighted and make it a useful guide for individual and group study. Surprisingly, the cover says it is for individual study but the text includes excellent discussion questions for group study. Unlike other study books it is easy to go just as far as desired in any study session without feeling the disappointment of failure to tackle a fixed list of questions! There is a nice balance of coverage of the whole of these three chapters.
Occasionally the 'devotional' aim slips and a comment is made that begs a debate (e.g. on God deciding the covenant with Israel 'wasn’t working' (p.36), and 'Theologically he was skating on thin ice; biblically and pastorally he had it dead right!' p.50), but these are minor points in an otherwise immensely rewarding volume. Illustrations are always pertinent and quotable quotes both from the author and from his wide reading abound. My favourite: 'Jesus is more demanding than Dick Turpin. With him it’s your money and your life' (p.73).
The bibliography offers a wide range of sources (surprisingly omitting D.A Carson’s brilliant and readable exposition of these chapters (published in Paternoster Biblical Classics). For those who would value additional background reading, it would have been helpful to have highlighted perhaps one or two of these for such use.
How does it compare with other group study books? The strength of The Good Living Guide (St Matthias) on the Beatitudes is that it drives the group back deeper into the Old Testament material, but its weakness is that it is only suited to a more 'intellectual' group. In The Scripture Union Lifebuilder series Sermon on the Mount John Stott covers the three chapters in a very accessible way, but only one of the twelve studies covers the Beatitudes, much less than the attention given by Martyn Atkins. Both also lack the readable and pithy quality of Martyn Atkins, which makes it so much more suitable for a very wide range of readers and groups. Where they both score more highly is on price. £8.99 per copy will deter purchases for group study. Whichever you purchase, I would also recommend that alongside the study each group member should read Rob Frost’s beautifully illustrated devotional 'poetic testimony' on the Beatitudes (Here and Now - published by CWR 2002 at £3.99). Atkins and Frost – that’s an excellent combination!