Do Pastors Today Actually Preach from the Bible?

Matt Waymeyer

As a political science minor in college, one of my favorite classes was an upper-level course on Constitutional Law. Throughout the semester we read and interacted with dozens of judicial opinions in which Supreme Court justices explained their interpretation of the Constitution and their application of its principles to the various cases brought before them. But amazingly, there’s one thing we never read throughout the entire semester—the U.S. Constitution!

Sadly, some preachers take a similar approach to preparing their sermons.

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Not Enough Time in the Biblical Text

They devote hours and hours to reading commentaries on the passage they’re preparing to preach, but they spend very little time in the biblical text itself. For too many preachers, reading and regurgitating commentaries has become a substitute for exegesis and expository preaching. In contrast, the ideal approach is for the preacher to thoroughly engage with the biblical text firsthand and consult the commentaries only after he has studied the passage for himself.

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The Opposite Error

The opposite error, of course, is to ignore the commentaries altogether. 

Many commentators are faithful teachers of the Word, given to the church to lead God’s people into a clearer understanding of the Bible. Consequently, to ignore their insights is to reject the blessing of divinely gifted teachers in the Body of Christ. As D.A. Carson writes, if you don’t use biblical commentaries, “you are failing to tap into generations of stimulating thought undertaken by Christians and others who have come before you, so you may overlook important things that you should not miss.”

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Avoiding Both Extremes

To avoid both extremes the expository preacher must learn to use commentaries in a way that supplements and enhances his own exegesis of the biblical text without allowing them to replace his own personal study. The following guidelines may help the preacher maximize his use of commentaries in the process of clarifying the divinely intended meaning of the biblical text.

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1. Choose with Care

Because it is neither practical nor necessary to read every commentary on a given biblical passage, the expository preacher must be very selective about which ones to use. In constructing his list of commentaries for a given biblical book, he should keep in mind that different commentaries have different strengths and weaknesses, as well as different points of emphasis. Some highlight the big-picture flow of thought in the biblical book, while others focus on the details, but both approaches can be helpful to understand the meaning of Scripture. For this reason, the exegete may want to consult several commentaries with different strengths and points of emphasis. The best recommendations usually come from like-minded friends who have faithfully studied and preached through the entire biblical book, having used several different commentaries in the process.

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2. Come with Questions

To prepare himself to use commentaries most effectively, the expository preacher should compile a list of unanswered questions about the meaning of the text and bring those questions to the commentators in search of answers. These questions will often seek additional insight or clarity regarding (a) the meaning of a given word or phrase; (b) the flow of thought from one verse to another; (c) the exegetical significance of a certain grammatical construction; or (d) the relevance of the cultural/historical background to the meaning of the passage. Coming to the commentaries with specific questions allows the exegete to focus on what he is looking for, but he must also remain open to receiving additional clarity or correction regarding an interpretive issue that was already settled in his own mind.

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3. Read with Efficiency

One way that some preachers waste time is through the inefficient use of commentaries. By coming with specific questions in mind—and by learning to skim quickly through irrelevant material and/or content already covered by other commentaries—the exegete is able to eliminate wasted time which may otherwise consume his schedule. Some preachers find it beneficial to highlight the most helpful parts in their initial reading, which enables them to read through each commentary quickly and then revisit later those portions that are most relevant to the questions they are still considering. The preacher should not feel compelled to read every comment on every verse from every commentary on his shelf. Over time he will learn to use these tools in the most efficient manner possible.

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4. Read with Humility

If the preacher finds himself interpreting a biblical text differently than all of the commentators, humility should compel him to abandon his novel view of the passage. Put simply, new interpretations are most certainly misinterpretations. For this reason, one of the most important functions of commentaries is to steer the exegete away from a novel interpretation that would have surprised even the biblical author himself! If you are the first person to interpret a biblical passage in a certain way, you are most certainly mistaken, and humility will help you recognize this error.

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5. Read with Discernment

Too many preachers treat their favorite commentary like the answer key with the correct interpretation of every passage. But even the best commentaries are just as fallible as the imperfect men who wrote them. For this reason, the exegete must read commentaries with discernment, refusing to ascribe undue authority to a given commentator and always looking for clear reasons from the biblical text for his interpretation. In the process, the preacher must beware of unsupported speculation about the background or meaning of the passage. Even if certain commentators have proven helpful, the exegete must ultimately be convinced of the intended meaning of the biblical author by the text itself.

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6. Read with Purpose

6. Read with Purpose

To use biblical commentaries most effectively, the preacher must turn to these resources with specific objectives in mind. More specifically, he should use the commentaries to confirm, correct, clarify, or supplement his interpretation of the passage. He should also use them to wrestle with exegetical questions that are still unanswered and interpretive problems that are still unresolved. In addressing such problems, he may find it helpful to list out and evaluate the arguments for and against different views of the passage, as articulated by the commentators.

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Let Commentaries Serve Your Study of God's Word (Not Supplant It)

Throughout the process, the commentaries should continually compel the exegete back to the passage so that his effort to understand its meaning is driven by an interaction with the biblical text itself. In this way, the commentaries will serve his study of God’s Word rather than supplant it.

Originally published on The Cripplegate. Used with permission. See the original article, "Expository Preaching and the Use of Commentaries" here.

Matt Waymeyer serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Immanuel Bible Church and the faculty of The Expositors Seminary in Jupiter, Florida.

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