Using Commentaries in Preaching
Here's one preacher's wisdom about the way he uses commentaries in his preaching preparation, using a series in Romans as an example.
Back in June I heard Alistair Payne preach at the Evangelical Ministry Assembly from Romans 1v1-17 on the need to preach the gospel to the church. It was a very helpful reminder that Christians need to hear, and keep hearing, the gospel.
We have certainly experienced the benefits of this at my home church, where we have been preaching through Romans chapters 1-4 since September.
It has been good for us to come back to gospel basics and we have called our series Know and Tell the Gospel. It has caused us to rejoice afresh in what God has done to save us from the wrath and judgement we justly deserve, and refocused us on the task of proclaiming the gospel to the 80,000 lost people in the Harborough District.
So how have I been preparing in this series? I will begin by giving some preparation principles I follow in using commentaries, before offering a worked example in Romans.
A solid foundation
When I am working through a book and preparing to preach I tend to choose one major conservative evangelical commentary as my main resource.
I will always start with this because I know that if I have no time to read anything else I will still be able to preach a solid sermon that is exegetically faithful.
Once I have this first commentary I will try to add others, though how many will depend on the time available. I find that once I have worked with one major commentary it is easier to scan read the others, as there is generally much repetition.
A wider perspective
I then try to read commentaries that add something extra to what I have gleaned from my major resources. I don’t just read those who I agree with, but can read these other sources selectively because I have already formed a solid exegetical foundation.
For example, on anything New Testament I try to read Ben Witherington, as he is sensitive to the rhetorical shape and purpose of the text. This helps with my preaching.
If time allows I will try to read something older.
Applying the text
Finally I like to read something that will help to stimulate my preaching and application.
I always read this at the end, otherwise it will shortcut the process of understanding the passage on its own terms. However, having worked on the passage, and come to some preliminary ideas as to structure and application, I find it helpful to both check that I am heading in the right direction and plunder the good ideas of others.
Of course, there are many other commentaries and resources I could read, and if time allowed I would do so, but there is a law of diminishing returns and I can’t spend all week preparing a sermon.
However, I always make notes as I prepare, and when I come back to preach on a passage again in the future, I make a point of trying to read one of the commentaries I have not used previously, and add this into the mix.
A worked example – Romans
I have enjoyed preparing to preach Romans, and grappling with the strong salvation-historical emphasis of the book. I have found a number of resources especially helpful. I thought it might be useful to share the resources I have been using for our series on Romans by way of a worked example of the principles above.
A Solid Foundation – Moo & Longenecker
My starting point in Romans has been Douglas Moo’s commentary in the NICNT series. It is readable, accessible and engages with contemporary debate and the new perspective.
I share Moo’s new covenant approach to Biblical Theology and think it is the most convincing and satisfying way to understand what Paul is saying in the letter about the relationship between the law and salvation in Christ.
This has been the major conservative evangelical commentary that I have used as my main resource during this series.
I have enjoyed using Richard Longenecker’s new commentary on Romans in the NIGTC series, which was recently published. It is far more use-friendly than Thiselton’s commentary on 1 Corinthians in the same series.
I was already convinced that Romans is written to a predominantly Jewish-Christian audience, or at least to those strongly influenced by Jewish Christianity, and Longenecker provides strong evidence for this and shows how it affects the interpretation of key passages.
He allows the text to speak for itself rather than forcing it to serve primarily as a weapon in contemporary debates.
A wider perspective – Wright, Hendrickson and Murray
On Romans I always read N T Wright in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary.
For all his idiosyncrasies he usually has very helpful exegetical insights and is generally thoroughly orthodox, though not always in the way we might expect. He tends to affirm traditional evangelical convictions, but not to find them in the passages where we expect them to be found, but in verses where we have not noticed them before.
The older commentaries I will go to on Romans are William Hendrickson’s NTC (which was one of the first Christian books I bought) or John Murray.
Applying the text – Ash, Hughes and Moore
On Romans I have found Christopher Ash’s Teaching Romans exceptionally helpful. He has distilled the best of the commentators and gives clear, excellent help on the structure and implications of the passage.
I have also enjoyed reading R Kent Hughes in the Preaching the Word series of commentaries, and Phil Moore’s Straight to the Heart of Romans, which combines clear explanation, engaging illustration and pointed application.
God has spoken to us through Romans, and it has been fresh and relevant to a congregation of diverse ages, with different levels of Christian maturity, and also to those who are coming along week by week who have not yet come to faith in Christ.
It is the glory of gospel ministry to be able to proclaim the wrath of God against our sin, the wonder of the atoning death of Christ for our sin, and the amazing truth of our justification in Christ and forgiveness of our sin.
After Christmas we are looking forward to working slowly thorough Romans 5-8 and hearing what Paul has to teach about the new life in Christ that is possible for those who have trusted him.