Here are links to the four articles in this series:
In this post, I will share with you several ideas on where to obtain Bible commentaries. Perhaps some of you will find a volume you have been searching for using a method detailed below.
WorldCat – this online search tool will help you locate virtually any book in virtually any library linked to its database (and there are many). There may be a college or public library nearby with the commentary you are seeking. (Tip: some colleges have “community memberships” so that you can check out books even if you are not a student.)
Local libraries – make a trip to your local college or public library and see what they have (for example, my local private college, which has Bible classes, has far more commentaries than my public library).
Personal libraries – Pastors or other friends may have a commentary you can use in their library. If you go this route, be courteous and return the book in a timely manner and in good condition, so you will be a welcome patron in the future. (Perhaps you can even return the favor!)
Local Bookstores – check out local retailers, independent and chains, to see their selection and pricing. They also may be able to order what you’re looking for. (And if it’s fair, consider supporting your local business! Sometimes the person in the store can help you with finding future resources as well.)
Online Retailers – Scripturetruth.com, cvbbs.com, Christianbook.com, monergism.com, wtsbooks.com; also Amazon.com, abebooks.com, alibris.com, textbooks.com, half.com, www.addall.com (metasearches multiple sites!)
Paid and Free options
Kindle books (Amazon’s e-reader – requires Amazon.com account, but you don’t need a Kindle to read Kindle books; you can read your books for free in the web browser or free pc, android, or iOS app) – I also highly recommend subscribing to the email or social media feed of Gospel eBooks (they post deals and free books each day; some of the discounts are quite substantial and for a limited time)
Google Books – read on web or mobile devices (requires Google account; syncs across devices)
Logos – read on web, PC, mobile devices (requires Logos account; syncs across devices)
Monergism.com – (ebooks for sale and free books on web)
e-Sword.net – full-fledged free Bible study software with some good commentaries available for free
Free on the web (some as webpages, some as PDF or other formats for download)
CCEL (Christian Classics Ethereal Library)
Precept Austin (links to many commentaries)
John Calvin’s commentaries on the Bible (readable, clear, helpful)
John Gill’s commentary (18th century Baptist scholar/pastor)
Grace Gems (a couple of highlights here: J. C. Ryle on the Gospels & Spurgeon on the Psalms, The Treasury of David)
I hope this series on commentaries has been useful. May we wisely use these gifts as helps in our preparation, but never as a substitute for directly engaging with God through the text of His Word and prayer as we seek to know Him better and preach Christ to others.
The answer to this question will depend on your background and on your intended use of commentaries. As you consider the commentaries you may choose, pay attention to these factors.
Know What Type of Commentary You Are Looking at
As a general rule, one could view commentaries as a genre on a spectrum from “devotional” to “technical.” The more “devotional,” the more application in the commentary and the less it may explain the text. The more “technical” works may eschew personal application of the text in favor of intense examinations of word endings in the original language and other minute details (sometimes these make it hard to see the forest for the trees). Somewhere in the middle, we might find “expository” commentaries which try to strike a balance between explaining the text and giving some application (sometimes “expository commentaries” are edited manuscripts of sermons from that book of the Bible).
Generally speaking, works that focus more on the technical or expository approach may provide more help on the front end (understanding the text), while expository and devotional commentaries major more on the application (which you may be working on more toward the end of your sermon or lesson preparation, since it should be based on your understanding of the text).
Know What Commentaries Others Recommend
Ask a trusted pastor, or consult a list. Whole books have been written for the purpose of cataloging commentaries. I recommend Master’s Seminary professor James Rosscup’s Commentaries for Biblical Expositors (for more recent works, and careful to tell you their theological perspective) and Charles Spurgeon’s Commenting and Commentaries (a dated but delightful book to peruse for his comments about the commentaries; some of the works mentioned are still available while some are rare).
Know the Perspective and Quality of the Commentary You Are Looking at
Commentary authors are on a spectrum of their own. The range includes those who love the Bible but misunderstand and misapply it frequently, to those who are serious students who give helpful explanations, to unbelievers who may have helpful insights into the technical or background parts of the text, to unbelievers who seek to deconstruct the text.
Knowing the perspective and quality of a commentary can help you discern whether it would be a good use of your time and money, and, if so, can help you know how to approach it. I do not generally recommend the use of commentaries of a theologically liberal or unbelieving persuasion (except for research to know what others believe/how they have explained a text incorrectly). This, however, does not mean that conservatives are always right and liberals are always wrong; sometimes a liberal commentator may explain the text more accurately than a conservative who has misread it. Better yet, it’s great to find someone who believes the Bible AND has a clear understanding of the passage at hand, to avoid influence from false teachers (but sometimes you do need to know what false teachers are teaching so you can avoid it).
While we should be Bereans regardless of the author (Acts 17:11 – the Bereans were called noble for doublechecking the apostle Paul!), knowing that you may be using a work written by someone with doubts about the text of the Bible should especially lead you to “chew carefully” as you ingest the book. You can spit out the bones and chew the meat in some circumstances, but it helps to know there are bones before you dig in! (If not, hopefully you are discerning enough to know when you have found one. Ouch – my tooth!)
Researching and knowing the reputation of the publisher can be helpful in this regard, but it is not a foolproof way of knowing the theological perspective. Once-stalwart publishers have taken to publishing a wider ranger of perspectives than they once did, to such a degree that you cannot implicitly trust many historically conservative publishers to publish only conservative commentaries. (Some still exist that have not bowed the knee to Baal.)
Even beyond the liberal/conservative distinction, one may want to know if a commentary is dispensational or covenantal (prophetic books), authored by Presbyterian or Baptist, cessationist or continuist (book of Acts), etc. One should also research enough to know whether the author had sufficient background and skill to write a work on a Bible book. Some commentaries may be composed of rants or assertions of the author’s viewpoint without clear reasoning to support his or her viewpoint.
One more distinction you may notice when looking at commentaries: men are not the only authors. There are commentators such as Nancy Guthrie (whose work has been recommended by Bible-believing pastors). There is a spectrum of conservative to liberal with women authors just as there is with men.
Cost and Availability of Commentary
Suppose you have found a great commentary… only to find it it’s $59.95 and you’re only preaching one sermon from that book. Or you have found the perfect one… and it’s out of stock online and the bookstore can’t get it in before your deadline. It doesn’t make sense pay to an exorbitant cost (unless it is the best deal going for that book or it is rare, and you will use the book again in the future, and you can afford it, etc.) and sometimes you really cannot find the one you’re looking for.
In our next installment, we’ll talk about WHERE to find commentaries (and you may end up finding that elusive volume!), but until then, my best advice is to find 1-2 good, solid, commentaries on your book written by conservative Bible scholars. You only have so much time, and most of it needs to be with the text of the Bible, so limit yourself to a couple of commentaries if you can. Research some recommendations, and make sure you can afford, find, and are comfortable (or challenged within reason, not by something too high over your head) with your choices. Then borrow first if you can, and buy (if you need/want to).
Next: Tips for Finding Commentaries (access to the specific ones you are seeking)
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
Reading this recent interview with D. A. Carson reminded me about the importance of thinking carefully about commentaries. Bible commentaries can be useful tools. So can screwdrivers. But like screwdrivers, Bible commentaries are most useful when you use them well. And to use them well, we need to what they should not be used for, just as we (hopefully) know that screwdrivers shouldn’t be used to hammer nails into the wall.
Please don’t use a Bible commentary (or study Bible notes) . . .
1. As a substitute for reading the text. Read the text before you read the commentary. Read early, read often. Don’t let someone else tell you what you need to read for yourself.
2. As a substitute for reading the text carefully. Read the text carefully before you read the commentary. Don’t let someone else tell you what a careful reading of the text reveals before you have discovered it yourself. You really don’t want to just take their word for it (or, if you do, shame, shame).
3. As a substitute for thinking about the text carefully. Ponder the text before you read the commentary. What is it saying? Not saying? Implying? Not implying? How does it relate to its context? What are its implications? You can likely find out for yourself from the source!
4. As a substitute for wrestling with the text fervently. As you ponder, wrestle. Pray. Wonder. Are there difficulties in understanding and applying the text? Have you thought through a biblical solution to such difficulties? Tried to progress in your own understanding? If so, you may finally be ready to go consult a commentary.
5. In other words, please don’t use commentaries as a quick and easy alternative to really studying the passage for yourself. Don’t let your mental and spiritual muscles atrophy by becoming too reliant on commentaries. They do have a useful place, but it should not be first place. That should go to your own direct and prayerful study of the Bible.
Next week: Tips on How to Use a Bible Commentary
Click here to read part 1 (“Paul and Timothy”)
Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: (Philippians 1:1, KJV)
“The servants of Jesus Christ”
In Philippians 1:1, Paul identifies himself and Timothy not only with the names they were called by, but with the position of servant, or slave. Paul also identifies himself as a slave in his epistle to the Romans and to Titus. In both these instances, he also identifies himself as an apostle. In several of his epistles, he only identifies himself as an apostle (1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy). He simply refers to himself as a prisoner of Jesus Christ in the epistle to Philemon, and uses no titles or designations in the letters to the church at Thessalonica. Only in the epistle to the Philippians does he identify himself as a slave with no other designation. As a reading of the text will show, one’s devotion, obedience, and service to Christ are major themes in this epistle. And Paul sets that tone from the beginning by defining himself as a slave.
The word translated “servant” in the KJV originally conveyed the idea of a slave who belonged to a master. A slave had no rights of his own and was completely subject to his master’s authority and will, and responsible to obey whatever was asked of him. It is interesting to note Paul’s first encounter with the Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus. The first two responses he made to Christ acknowledged Him as “Lord,” asking “what wilt thou have me to do?” with the second response (Acts 9:5, 6). From the very beginning of his Christian life, Paul knew that he was a slave and that Jesus was Master. And he went on to serve just as Christ fortold in Acts 9:15-16, bearing His name before the Gentiles and suffering for His sake, just as the Philippians witnessed in Acts 16.
Notice too, that Paul and Timothy are not merely servants but “servants of Jesus Christ.” First and foremost, they answer to Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, God’s chosen Savior and King. While they certainly served others, they were doing so as an extension of their service to the king. They were not out to win popularity contests, but to please their Master as they obeyed him and cared for the souls of others.
How would our lives change if we defined ourselves as slaves of Christ, truly viewing ourselves as such? Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2:10-11), and if He is Lord (Master), we must be subject to His authority and will.
The next post in this series will focus on the recipients of this epistle, the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi.
“Paul and Timothy”
Thus begins this ancient letter, the New Testament epistle to the Philippian saints. Its author, the apostle Paul, wrote at least twelve other New Testament epistles. Although the salutation is from Paul and Timothy (Timotheus is the Greek form of the name, transliterated accordingly in the KJV), the pronouns and subject matter throughout the epistle show that the thoughts being communicated, humanly speaking, are Paul’s.
Paul and Timothy first visited Philippi about ten years prior to this epistle if Paul wrote to them from a Roman imprisonment around AD 62, the same time period as the composition of Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon (the other “prison epistles”). The view that Paul wrote from Rome is the traditional one, and the only view that is older than competing theories that have surfaced in the last few hundred years.
After a life-changing encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 9), Saul of Tarsus (later called Paul) was changed from a chief enemy of the church into a follower and apostle (officially commissioned and sent messenger) of Jesus. He went on to spread the good news of Christ to many others, planting numerous churches, including the church at Philippi.
Acts 16 records the first meeting of Paul with the Philippians. He arrived at Philippi on his second missionary journey. This encounter brought the gospel to European soil for the first time. Silas, Luke, and Timothy accompanied Paul during this part of his journey. Acts 16 contains the Bible’s first mention of Philippi (16:12), and it also contains the first mention of Timothy (16:1), the son of a believing Jewish mother and a Greek father.
The Philippians would have remembered Timothy, and Paul communicates not only his intention go to the Philippians in person, but also his desire to send Timothy to them as soon as possible (Philippans 2:19-24). Timothy, who was highly regarded by those who knew him in Lystra and Iconium (Acts 16:2) and by Paul himself (Philippians 2:20-22), was evidently present at the writing of this epistle (Philippians 2:19, 23).
The majority of Paul’s thirteen epistles designate others as sending the letter along with him. Only five epistles designate Paul as the sole sender, and three of those are addressed to individual recipients (Romans, Ephesians, 1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus). Including the epistle to the Philippians, Timothy is listed as a co-sender of five of Paul’s letters (the others are 2 Corinthians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon). Paul demonstrated his approval of and partnership with Timothy by designating him in the salutation.
In the next article of this series, we will consider the significance of the identification of Paul and Timothy as servants, or slaves, of Jesus Christ.
Here is a free download (4+ MB, .pdf format) of a commentary on Philippians by Dr. A. T. Robertson (premier New Testament and Greek scholar of 20th century). It is entitled, Paul’s Joy in Christ: Studies in Philippians.