I’ve been regularly preaching now for about 12.5 years. Lord willing, I will continue to grow in both my preparation and delivery of sermons. One of the things I get asked about from time to time is on commentaries. While I hope to always be growing in this area, here are a few convictions I’ve arrived at over the years and I hope you find them helpful in your own journey on preparing to teach and preach God’s Word.
The first thought I have on commentaries is that they should be treasured. Not all of them mind you. But what a world we live in where we can glean the thoughts of holy men, past and present, literally at our fingertips. What’s more, with the ebook revolution, commentaries are more accessible and more affordable than at any point in human history. I will never be able to dialogue with some of the great men of the faith of today and long ago in this life, but because of their commentaries, I can sit with them (so to speak) and glean their wisdom. In a small way, this is part of fulfilling Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 3:17.
Perhaps it seems a little counter intuitive that I would say we need to both treasure and limit commentaries. But the reality is, there is such a thing as too many commentaries. In any particular sermon series, I typically stay between consulting 3-5 commentaries regularly and usually lean closer to 3. I don’t mean for this to be a hard and fast rule, but I do mean to caution you about a few things.
First of all, your time as a communicator of God’s word probably doesn’t allow you to really consult multitudinous commentaries and spend the time personally meditating over the text of Scripture as you should, though I understand certain books of the Bible and certain situations may warrant deeper study of many good commentaries. Furthermore, I know every circumstance is different and every person is gifted differently so that’s why I don’t make this an ironclad rule.
However, when I hear you teach or preach I don’t need a sermon over commentaries. I need a message from the text. This means you need to sink the text deeply into your own heart and mind. If you spend 80% of your times reading about the text instead of reading, rereading, memorizing, meditating on, and rereading again the passage of Scripture, you will shortchange yourself and your hearers.
Spend an ample amount of time reading and rereading your text and its surrounding context. Do your work in the original languages as you have the ability. Then spend time listening to what others have to say (by reading commentaries). Listen humbly and adjust interpretation as necessary. But also remember that the same Holy Spirit in great men like Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones dwells in you, too! I don’t mean to suggest you should come up with new interpretations. If it’s new, it’s not true (I think that’s a Steve Lawson quote)! What I do mean to say is wrestleand wrestle some more with the text instead of immediately running to commentaries looking for answers. Check yourself with faithful men, but don’t let them shortchange the time you should wrestle with God’s Word personally.
Prize Old Ones
Since you only have time to consult a handful of good commentaries, make sure that you select one or more from a time outside the 21st Century. Consult commentaries that have stood the test of time and aren’t susceptible to the blind spots of today. Contemporary commentaries are great too and helpful. But keep yourself in check by consulting those of old. I find myself reading Calvin’s commentaries quite frequently. Not because he gets everything right, but because it offers a perspective outside my own time period that can bring helpful understanding to a passage.
Don’t Buy a Set
One Christmas my wife bought me Calvin’s Commentaries. And one time I was able to bless another brother with a set of MacArthur’s New Testament Commentaries. So, I’m not going to split hairs over this. But let me just say that I think your money will be better invested in buying commentaries over the particular books you are studying rather than buying a set outright.
Challies has a helpful list for you to consult. I would also encourage you to ask faithful men their suggestions. I’ve even borrowed commentaries from local pastors when going through a series. This has saved me a few bucks and helped me build relationships with gospel preachers around me.
Spend More Time in the Text
My final exhortation to you is to spend more time in the Scriptures. Commentaries should be consulted, valued, and treasured. But please don’t think that the way to prepare a sermon is to read your text, and then read 15 commentaries and pull out what’s good from them and then construct the sermon. Spend more time in the Bible. Read the text. Read it again. Meditate on it. Take notes. Outline the text. Mark in your Bible (or print out the text and mark on a piece of paper). Read the surrounding context. Pray over the text. Keep digging. Wrestle some more. Keep praying. The treasures you will discover in God’s Word by continuing to wrestle in it yourself are both innumerable and invaluable.
Then, keep consulting your friends: the commentaries. Particularly this will be true over especially difficult passages (or complex translation issues) or historical and cultural matters that are unfamiliar to you. And in all of this:
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” 2 Timothy 2:15
I hope you’ve found these brief thoughts helpful. I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on this matter in the comments below!