Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Pastor and His Commentaries

Since part of the work of the pastor is to preach the biblical text, commentaries can make up a large part of a pastor’s library. There are pertinent questions to ask relative to commentaries: Which commentaries? And When? The second question is easier to answer.

When to Buy

My recommendation is that you hold off on buying commentaries on a particular book until you are ready to begin preparing to preach that book. My reasoning is as follows: first, new commentaries are always coming out. That means that what is a really good commentary now may be superseded five years down the road. For example, the two top-rated commentaries on Genesis on are those by Gordon Wenham and Victor Hamilton. Both are a generation old. Hamilton was published in 1990 and Wenham in 1987. There are seventeen commentaries on Genesis listed as forthcoming, with several of them being candidates to replace Wenham and Hamilton. If you are not planning on preaching on Genesis any time soon, you are better off waiting to buy.

Second, for most pastors, commentaries can be a significant part of the budget. You need to ask yourself if you can afford to have several thousand dollars’ worth of unused books sitting on your shelves.

To sum up: my recommendation on when to buy commentaries is shortly before you are ready to begin preparing a series on a specific book of the Bible.

Which to Buy?

You’ll get different advice from different people on this. My approach is minimalistic. I recommend that you buy no more than five commentaries on any particular book. You should have one technical commentary based on the Hebrew or Greek text of the book. You should have one somewhat less technical commentary that deals with selected matters related to the original languages and that goes through the book passage by passage. A third commentary should be expositional, not necessarily dealing with the original languages, but explaining the movement of the book. A fourth commentary should be a pre-critical commentary, which would generally be any pre-1850 commentary. My rationale for this is that those commentaries are coming to the biblical material from a different cultural setting, and therefore with a different set of questions to ask of the text. This can make the pastor aware of some of the breadth of issues that the biblical text addresses. A good source for identifying these commentaries is Spurgeon’s Commenting and Commentaries ( Reading Spurgeon’s comments on the various commentaries is an education in itself. Many of these older commentaries are now available online at A fifth commentary can be something of a duplicate of one of the other four.

My own sense is that when you move beyond this minimum, you find yourself reading material that has already been covered in another commentary.

What Not To Buy

Don’t buy sets. The quality and usefulness of the commentaries in a set vary from one author to another. Commentary sets look nice on the shelf, but you end up with books you never use.

Don’t buy older commentaries that are available online. Yes, I know, that set of Keil & Delitzsch, or of Calvin, can look nice on the shelf. But they are available free online. Commentaries are for consultation and you will not be reading much at a time, so reading them online should not be too difficult.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Some Thoughts on Preaching

Three disclaimers: First, I don’t consider myself to be any better than average as a preacher. Second, aside from the preaching I hear at the church I attend, and the occasional conference, I don’t listen to much preaching. Third, no one has ever hired me to teach homiletics. Nonetheless, I’ve heard a lot of preaching over the last forty-some years, and I try, in my exegesis classes, to give the students some instruction in how to preach the passages we deal with.

Some preachers seem to be confused about some basics. A sermon is not the same thing as a theological lecture. Some preachers don’t seem to understand that, because their sermons focus exclusively on pouring out information about the text, more like a commentary than a sermon. A sermon is the explanation and application of a particular passage/topic/doctrine of Scripture. As such, the two key elements are the clear explanation of the text and the direct application of its message. It is not an exclusively intellectual exercise, but is intended to get to the heart through the head.

On the other hand, a sermon is not merely a means of moving the emotions of the congregation. Some preachers don’t understand that, as their sermons seem to focus on moving the emotions almost in a way that seems manipulative. Instead, both the head and the heart of the hearer must be involved.

Sermons are less about rhetoric than they are about connecting the text to the listener. I know that sounds vague, so an illustration might help. A number of years ago, I heard a sermon at a conference. It was clear that the preacher understood his text. He didn’t miss the main point. It was well-organized and clear. The preacher had obviously worked hard on the sermon. It was a rhetorical tour de force. But it was emotionally cold. It had not connected with the audience, and I heard very few commendations of the sermon afterwards. Another year, another conference, a different preacher. This time, the preacher had been assigned a topic common in Reformed theology. If you were to go to, and search for this topic, you would find many sermons on it. Most of them would use the same primary texts, and the outlines would be interchangeable. This man took a different approach. He didn’t take one text, he took many (sort of like the Book of Hebrews) and he came at the topic from an entirely unexpected angle. He, too, had clearly worked hard on the sermon. As with the other, it was well-organized and clear. The difference was that it was emotionally warm. By taking a different approach, coming at the topic from an unusual direction, he had made the topic clear, fresh, and applicable. He also, I think, had a clearer sense of his audience than the first speaker. I heard some complaints (from professors) about the approach he had taken. But I heard many more commendations of the message.

My own sense is that pastors, on the whole, spend less time in prayer and meditation over their sermons than they should. The sermon only begins with the exegesis of the passage or topic. It is brought to flower by being the subject of much reflection, much prayer, and an intimate knowledge of the congregation.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

On Pastoral Praying

Hundreds, if not thousands of books have been written on prayer. Countless sermons have been preached on prayer. But the reading of books on prayer makes no one a praying man. The essence of prayer is in the praying. As Nike says, “Just do it!” It doesn’t matter how articulate the prayer is. What does matter is the praying itself.

All Christians must be pray-ers, but the pastor especially must be a man of prayer, and this in two aspects: in private and in public. The private prayer of a pastor also has two aspects. There is first his praying for himself and his family. This prayer is the essential foundation to any other prayer. The man who prays for himself prays out of a sense of need, out a knowledge of his inability and his unworthiness. The man who does not pray for himself, whatever his claims to the contrary, thinks he does not need prayer. But a man must also pray for his family. To do this adequately, he must know his family—their needs, their cares, their concerns, their fears, and their frustrations. Many pastors have sacrificed their families to their ministry, thinking the latter to be more important, but the family must come before the church or the ministry. It is one of the essential qualifications for the office.

The second aspect of a pastor’s private prayer is prayer for his church. These prayers must not be vague and general. There are of course, general concerns and cares that are reflected, for example, in Paul’s prayers for the churches. But it does little good to pray for the growth in grace of John Doe if the pastor is not aware that John Doe’s wife is threatening divorce, or that John Doe fears that he will lose his job. This sort of information the pastor only knows if he is indeed pastoring the flock. In addition to the prayers for the individual congregants, there is prayer for the congregation as a whole, for its growth, for its strength, for its unity.

The pastor’s private prayer is fundamentally a matter of discipline. He must set apart time for the exercise of prayer, and that time should be regular. I make no prescriptions as to when, or where, or how long; only that it must be done, and done regularly.

The pastor’s public prayer is a matter of preparation. In the Puritan period in England, there was a great deal of debate between those who preferred the set prayers of the Book of Common Prayer, and those who argued for extemporaneous prayer. Both sides had a point, but the points got lost in the heat of the debate. Public prayer, the pastoral prayer that forms a part of public worship, should be planned. It need not be written out ahead of time, but the pastor should have carefully thought through the themes and points of the prayer before he prays. Many pastors are particularly weak on this. There are three books, then, that I recommend for pastors as they consider the public prayers of the church. The first is Samuel Miller, Thoughts on Public Prayer. The second is Matthew Henry’s A Method for Prayer. This is available as A Way to Pray, edited by O. Palmer Robertson, and as A Method for Prayer, edited by Ligon Duncan. The third is Hughes Oliphant Old’s Leading in Prayer. All three of these are excellent resources for the pastor who desires to improve in his public praying.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

On Pastoral Reading

I know many pastors. Some of you don’t read much. Perhaps you don’t read well. Perhaps the busyness of ministry and family inhibits your reading. Perhaps you have little interest in reading beyond what is necessary for sermon preparation and the occasional counseling issue. Others of you read a fair amount. I’ve seen your plans on Facebook. You’re going to read Bavinck this year. You’re going to read Calvin’s Institutes again. Perhaps you’re going to dive into the two-volume Banner of Truth reprint of the works of Jonathan Edwards. Or you’re going to read the collected works of John Piper in sixteen volumes that Crossway recently published. At any rate, you have plans for reading this year.

I would encourage those of you who read little to read more. Spend less time on social media. Maybe listen to fewer podcasts, and replace them with reading time. Spend some time thinking about how you spend your time. Surely time to read can be carved out for even the busiest pastor. Even ten pages of reading a day can get you through Calvin’s Institutes in five months. You can get through Bavinck in less than a year.

Whether you realized it or not, pastoral work is, among other things, reading work. You don’t know everything you need to know to be an effective pastor. You barely begin to lay a foundation for that in seminary. You consult the wisdom of the ages by reading. Take C. S. Lewis’s advice and read old books ( Maybe replace the latest Paul Tripp book with some dipping into Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor. (This is not a hit at Paul Tripp. It’s just an example.) At any rate, read. Improve yourself as a pastor by reading.

Especially, however, read the Bible. It’s relatively easy to read theology and church history and not be particularly rebuked about your sins, or, for that matter, even particularly encouraged about your successes. If you read the Bible, you will regularly be rebuked for your sins. You will wade through Jeremiah and be reminded of your sins and the sins of your church (both local and denominational). But you will also be encouraged; you will be reproved; you will be corrected; you will be trained in righteousness. The more you read the Bible, the better you will know it. The better you know it, the more well-trained you will be in righteousness.

I hear men examined for licensure by presbyteries. It is disappointing to me how poorly most men do on the English Bible exam. That poor performance reflects poor preparation—not so much a lack of cramming before the final, but a lack of regular faithful reading of the Scriptures.

With all your reading this year, discipline yourself to read the Bible—prayerfully, attentively, meditatively. You’ll be pleasantly pleased at the end of the year not only with your own progress in righteousness, but with that of your church as well.