I find it invigorating when I hear a sermon based on a combination of thorough biblical exegesis, theological maturity and perceptive contemporary application. I am sadly reticent, however, to believe that messages of this kind are easily found. One reason for this is a failure among pastors to faithfully do the hard work of studying Scripture.
The large majority of pastors lose their ability to work in original languages by their fourth or fifth year of ministry (if not, earlier). I understand how the demands of ministry can be overwhelming. I also know the pressures faced when trying to fill the training gaps for the unexpected issues in pastoral work. But we must resist the temptation to do ministry at the expense of a disciplined habit of careful biblical exegesis.
Easier said than done?
Yes! That’s why I want to share a helpful solution. But allow me first to share a little of my journey. In 30 years of pastoral work, I’ve been a youth pastor, Church planter, pastor of a Church from 10 people to 600 (with multiple staff). During most of that time, I’ve written monthly columns for several newspapers, produced daily radio programs; invested many hours in pastoral counseling, gave oversight to many building projects and raised four children to adulthood (with the indispensable co-laboring of a faithful wife).
I fully understand the demands of ministry that pull us in many directions and make it hard to maintain focused study time.
How can a pastor maintain a high level of skill in biblical exegesis under such demands? How can a pastor stay up on biblical languages?
The answers for me have been in the tools that I’ve used. I was reminded of this last week when I used a book by a commentator that has been one of the faithful helpers to me for many years. The commentator is Gordon Fee. The book is God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul. Dr. Fee stands in a tradition of teachers and authors who do the hard work behind the scenes that I (as a pastor) do not have time to do. I’ve worn out his commentaries on I Corinthians and Philippians. Currently I am reading his work titled, Pauline Christology. Another helpful factor for me was the books I had to read in training for ministry.
- Exegetical Fallicies by D. A. Carson,
- Biblical Words and their Meanings by Moises Silva,
- New Testament Interpretation: Essays on Principles and Methods, by I. H. Marshal
- Toward an Exegetical Theology, by Walter Kaiser.
Many years ago, I discovered D. A. Carson’s New Testament Commentary Survey. This was extremely valuable for commentary selection. Another author who profoundly shaped my application of Scripture was John R. W. Stott. (See: Here). On an academic and cultural level, the work of Ken Myers in Mars Hill Audio has been a primary resource for my book selections.
My simple recommendation is for pastors to discipline themselves to read good exegetical commentaries. It is the best way I know to stay current in original languages and careful biblical exegesis. Only read devotional works or sermon collections after reading the in-depth exegetical commentaries.
When I do a sermon series through a book of the Bible, I choose about five or six of the best commentaries on the book and patiently read each one (including all footnotes). This has kept me in the biblical languages and has shaped the way I read and study Scripture. As an example, earlier in my ministry, I spent three years teaching the Sermon on the Mount. My resources at the time included that following:
- D. A. Carson Matthew (EBC) and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount
- John R. W. Stott The Message of the Sermon on the Mount
- Robert Guelich The Sermon on the Mount
- D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones Studies in the Sermon on the Mount
- Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley N. Gundry
I realize that (for some pastors) reading thorough exegetical commentaries might prove to be challenging but the rewards are worth the effort. The effort necessary for me was nothing short of hard work and discipline. But I discovered that the more you disciplined yourself to read at this level, the easier it became.
More importantly, this practice will positively affect the way you read and teach the Bible. It will strengthen your theology and give you wisdom for life and ministry. I close with a reminder to all who teach the Scriptures: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15).
Start with Gordon Fee’s commentary on Philippians (read the footnotes!) Or, pick up D. A. Carson’s Showing the Spirit on I Corinthians 12-14 or his commentary on The Gospel According to John or his study of the prayers of the apostle Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation.