Assuming that in your sermon preparation you are taking the time to carefully read, study, and wrestle with the text yourself, commentaries do not have to short circuit the study process or give you an easy alternative to your own personal knowledge of the text (as we saw last week). So if a commentary should not be used as a replacement for studying, how can it be used as a supplement?
Using a commentary…
1. Can help you deal with any unanswered questions raised by your study. These are questions that, given more knowledge and experience, you might have been able to answer (or tentatively answer), but you’re limited in knowledge and time and speaking time is closing in.
2. Can help you learn beyond your expertise. This is where a commentary of the more technical kind can come in helpful. Accessing a resource that grapples with the original language and/or historical-cultural background of the text might be the only way to find your answer and may shed real light on the text. You may not need to quote everything about your findings when you teach or preach, but this use of a commentary can definitely bolster the strength of your preparation.
3. Can help you evaluate, confirm, or correct your interpretation. These benefits can best be obtained in a multitude of commentaries representing a variety of time periods and genres. If it’s hard to find anyone in almost 2000 years of church history who has the same understanding of the text you came to, you may have an incorrect understanding of the text. Certainly, you will often have contrary viewpoints on particular texts, but if your viewpoint isn’t somewhere in the midst, you need to look at the text again to be safe. (And you might need to interact with the other viewpoints, since some may be popularly held yet incorrect interpretations and some may give a straightforward challenge or corrective to your view.)
4. Can help you see new avenues of explaining and applying the text. Expository and devotional commentaries may furnish some precious nuggets of explanation, illustration, and application. Reading or listening to sermons on your text is a way of “using a commentary” and can help for these same purposes as well.
5. Can help you enjoy and profit from some of God’s good gifts to the church. Regarding those who refused the help of commentaries, Charles Spurgeon once observed, “It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.” Ephesians 4:11-12 teaches us that God “gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” Using the commentaries and published messages of these (past and present) that God has gifted to the church can give us a fullness of insight that we might otherwise not enjoy.
Having said all this, I’m not convinced it is always necessary to use a commentary. The less Bible knowledge you have, the more you should have them nearby while seeking to grow; the more Bible knowledge you have, the less reliant you should be on them. Nonetheless, there is a place for commentaries and they can be useful. But priority number one should always be to approach God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit in your own direct engagement of the text BEFORE looking to the teaching of (even godly) men. And if you are running short on time, this step may safely be skipped IF you can honestly say you have personally grappled with the text, can identify the main point and purpose of the passage, and clearly explain and apply the text to your audience.
(For more pointers on using commentaries, see Dr. David Murray’s list of 20 tips here)
Next week: Tips for Choosing Commentaries