Kyle Beshears is a teaching pastor in Mobile, Alabama, and the author of the recent book Apatheism: How We Share When They Don’t Care, which will help you understand how to approach your apathetic neighbors with the gospel. He’s also one of the best researchers we know, which is why Josh invited him to talk about today’s topic- best practices when preaching using commentaries!
Sometimes people wonder why or if a pastor should be using commentaries. You’ll hear questions like, “Isn’t the Bible and the guidance of the Holy Spirit enough to preach the gospel?”
The answer is a resounding “Yes!” You don’t need a commentary to preach the gospel. But when you use a commentary, you enter into a fellowship of pastors across space and time. It’s one thing to ask yourself, “What does this text mean?” It’s another to ask Augustine, Wesley, Calvin, Spurgeon, and Shriner, “What do you guys think?” To quote Spurgeon, “Are you so arrogant as to believe that what the Holy Spirit has said to you is different than what the Holy Spirit has said to men and women before you?”
Commentaries don’t squelch the Spirit- instead, they’re a tool that can help you understand the Scriptures better. We’re very much removed from the ancient culture of the Bible, so there are things that we need to rely heavily on commentaries for, in order to understand the original languages and context.
If you come from the tradition of the Protestant Reformation, one of our cries is “Sola Scriptura.” The inspired, inerrant Word of God is the earthly highest authority that we have. So, commentaries do not have the last word on the passage you’re preaching- and neither do you. Scripture has the last word on that passage of Scripture.
We need to be reminded here that “Sola Scriptura” doesn’t mean “Bible only,” it means, “Bible higher.” Therefore, when we’re reading commentaries, we have to examine all those commentaries through the authority of Scripture. Otherwise, we’re giving ourselves over to the wisdom of men.
So how do you let Scripture have the final say? Sometimes a good commentary writer will tell you when something is their opinion or an issue is up for debate. When that happens (or even if it doesn’t), go back to the core principles of the faith, to first-tier issues. If the commentator is taking you off the rails on first-tier issues, then that’s a red flag. At that point, it’s time to back away or look at other commentaries to see if there’s a way to course correct before you deliver a sermon using a commentary to your people.
There are four kinds of commentaries that have served Kyle best. He classifies them as technical, ancient, practical, and elsewhere.
Technical commentaries will get into the nitty-gritty of language. They’ll be concerned with exegesis, and will provide minimal interpretation. Examples include the New American Commentary (NAC), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (EBC), Kregel Bible Commentaries, and the Word Biblical Commentary. The Word Biblical Commentary starts with more technical aspects and works its way to more practical applications.
Ancient commentaries are often the most overlooked. There’s a great series called the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, which includes all sorts of clips and commentaries from the Early Church Fathers about what they thought about specific texts. Another great idea is to look at the Reformers and your favorite pastors and preachers, to see what they thought about the passage or topic you’re preaching over.
Practical commentaries interpret and apply the text- they’ll help you craft a call to action based on the passage that you just preached. Kyle’s favorites are the Preaching the Word series and the Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary. Josh also loves the The NIV Application Bible Commentary, and you shouldn’t turn your nose up at free online commentaries like Matthew Henry’s Commentary– He has some gems in there!
Elsewhere commentaries are commentaries that come from a different tradition than your own. For example, right now Kyle is preaching from Exodus and he’s using two commentaries- Brazos theological commentary, which is a Roman Catholic commentary, and Understanding Exodus by the Jewish scholar Moshe Greenburg. He’s not using them heavily, but they help inform him of blind spots and give him a greater understanding of how other people view these passages. For example, many people in his church have a Roman Catholic background, so it’s helpful for him to understand how they might think of this passage.
There’s some wisdom in reading these commentaries in the following order: technical, ancient, practical, and elsewhere. If the last commentary you read while you’re preparing your sermon is technical, then a lot of the last finishing touches on your sermon will be technical. However, what you REALLY want the end of your sermon to lead to is the call to action, or the practical side of the passage.
When Kyle’s writing a sermon, he likes to ask, “What? So what? Now what?” in that order. Basically, he’s moving from exegesis, to interpretation, to application, and he reads his commentaries in that order.
Before he reads the commentaries, he reads the text by itself, and prays that God would show him what he and the church need to learn from it, and writes down his own conclusions and applications. Then, he gets technical, asking the following questions:
Once he’s gotten technical, he asks the ancients and reformers:
Then he gets practical: what ought he proclaim over the people now that he has all this background knowledge?
Finally, he looks elsewhere, checking to see if there are any blind spots or criticisms of this text that his people might’ve heard of in culture.
This order builds upon itself, not in order of importance, but in the order of setting the foundation, then building the structure of the sermon as he works his way through the text.
Ask questions of the commentary that are specific to your sermon and specific to your people. This is especially true of the practical commentaries, because they’re often based off of sermon series that the author has preached. That pastor had a congregation with a specific need at a specific time that this message moved, but that’s not your congregation. So you need to ask specific questions about what you need to hear pertaining to your topic, and you also need to ask really broad questions, in keeping with orthodoxy. Here are some examples:
If you don’t ask these two categories of questions, you end up following the commentaries where they go, which may not necessarily be the place that the Holy Spirit wants you to go.
In addition to commentaries, Kyle recommends making a regular practice of studying the following
How you’ll want to buy commentaries will depend on your preaching style. If you’re an expository preacher, you’ll likely want to buy as many different commentaries as you can on that one passage, for variety. If you preach more topically, bundle the commentaries that you buy, because they’re a significant investment.
If you’re ready to buy a commentary but don’t know where to start, Sermonary’s commentaries are bundled for the next month!
If you’d like to connect with Kyle, you can find him at kylebeshears.com.