In 1856 J. C. Ryle published the first volume of his Expository Thoughts on the Gospels. When he finally finished the series in 1873, he had produced one of the finest devotional studies of the four gospels ever written. Baker Book House recently reprinted the entire series in four volumes. I mention it here because, as a great admirer of J. C. Ryle, I am glad when anything of his comes back into print. It would not be overstating the case to say that Bishop Ryle was the leader of Anglican evangelicals in the last half of the 19th century. He stood against liberalism on one hand and against ritualism on the other. In the current debates convulsing the worldwide Anglican communion, his sympathies would be much more with the leaders in Africa than the leaders in Canterbury.
In the preface to the first volume, Ryle says that he wrote his “expository thoughts” with three groups in mind. First, he wrote it for use in “family prayers” when father, mother and children would worship together. Second, he wrote it “to aid those who visit the sick and the poor.” Then as now, there are many who suffer and many who minister to them. Ryle wrote in order to give those visitors something useful to read that might help the hurting. Third, he wrote for those who did not have the advantage of reading long commentaries but still wanted to know the message of Christ as revealed in the gospels. In later volumes he mentions that he wrote while serving as a busy parish pastor with all the attendant duties. And he mentions severe personal trials that kept him from finishing the work sooner.
Although Ryle did not write his “expository notes” for pastors, I think every pastor and Bible teacher could benefit from his work. He did not intend to write a commentary on each passage, choosing instead to summarize the key teaching of each passage (usually 10-12 verses) and then highlighting three or four key points for the reader’s consideration. These points are then vigorously applied to the heart. Because Ryle possessed an orderly mind, his thought flows easily and logically.
When I read Ryle, I think to myself, “This is what Bible teaching is supposed to be.” He finds the main point, offers several important principles, and then drives the truth home with astonishing clarity and power. In later volumes he added notes on key words and phrases that make the volumes on Luke and John mini-commentaries.
You can order the set from Amazon for $29.70, a considerable savings from Baker’s already-low price of $45.
If you would like to read more about J. C. Ryle, I recommend J. I. Packer’s Faithfulness and Holiness. If you would like to read Ryle online, check out The Evangelical Bishop or the Church Society J. C. Ryle page.