How I Prepare An Expository Sermon, Part 4

Part 4: Consulting the Commentaries

You may have noticed that a lot of work with the text has already taken place before the commentaries on the text are consulted. This is intentional. Let me share with you a few reasons why I wait before reading commentaries:
  • So I will know what the interpretation problems are and be better equipped to appreciate the proposed solutions by the commentators. If I read the commentaries first, I may not read them the most efficiently. Wrestling with the text (not “wresting”) alerts me to the interpretive problems that need to be solved. Then when I read the commentaries I have a greater capacity to appreciate their proposed solutions to those problems.
  • So I will have already learned on my own most of what the text is about, without having to receive it second-hand from someone else who just did what I should have done anyway. There is benefit to having worked through the basic issues of the text yourself. Sure, it is easier to just read what some trusted commentator has said summarizing the meaning of the text, but when I discover the meaning myself the text percolates through my soul and becomes a part of me.
  • So my interpretation of a text is not primarily shaped by someone else’s interpretation. If I have done my homework properly in studying the background and context of the text in question (as I will have done if I am preaching a series through a book, see here), then I should be in a good position to understand the meaning of the text myself. But if I read a certain commentator first who has a particular axe to grind, I might be swayed to see the text through his eyes rather than my own.
  • So I will not unintentionally preach someone else’s sermon. This applies especially to the use of expositional commentaries like those of John MacArthur, James Boice, Kent Hughes, Warren Wiersbe, John Phillips, and Ray Stedman. These men are so gifted as homileticians that once you read their sermons (which their commentaries are basically a compilation of), you will have a difficult time not seeing the text through the prism of their outline , even if it isn’t the best way for you to communicate the meaning of the text to your congregation.
The question might be asked then, “Why read the commentaries at all?” There are several good reasons to read the commentaries:

  • To check my own interpretation of the passage. Although I don’t want to have my interpretation of a passage shaped by someone else, I also don’t want to assume that I alone have understood the true meaning of the passage. If my interpretation of a text has never been proposed by anyone else, then my interpretation is probably wrong and needs to be revised. I agree with the old adage which says: “If it’s new, it’s probably not true! If it’s true, it’s probably not new!”
  • To be taught by the God-gifted men who themselves are God’s gifts to the church (Eph 4:11-13). I don’t think that what Paul said in Ephesians 4 applies only to those living in our generation with us today. Nor do I believe that it only applies to those in the same location. The church universal is much larger than our local congregation. It extends to all those saints, past and present, from east to west that have placed their hope in Christ and His sacrificial atonement alone! Therefore, the teachers, evangelists, and pastors from whom we have the privilege of learning stretch across the 2,000 years of church history (chronologically) and from pole to pole (geographically)! For more on this subject, see here.
Finally, let me address how I read the commentaries. This is the question which first inspired this series of posts (see here). As I began to write about the order in which I read my commentaries the post got longer and longer. This series is the result. In short, I read my commentaries beginning with the most technical and continuing to the least technical. Another way of stating this is to say that I begin with the more exegetical commentaries and conclude with the more expositional (See above for examples of the authors of expositional commentaries.). The primary reason for this is once again the desire to protect myself from the temptation of plagiarizing someone else’s sermon (this is bad, see here). I also read the exegetical commentaries first in order to become aware of historical, grammatical, exegetical issues of which I may have previously been unaware. This allows me to tweak my interpretation of a text if necessary without the danger of merely adopting wholesale another preacher’s message. At this point I am more interested in content, than style. The very last thing which I read are the expositional commentaries (and I don’t always have time). I read them mainly to find useful illustrations, quotes, etc. By the time I read these commentaries, the main structure of my sermon is complete and I’m merely looking for supplemental material.

In the next post, I will address finding and using illustrative material when I explain how I write my sermon manuscript. A final post will follow that one in which I summarize and give my thoughts on the actual preaching of the sermon.

9 comments

  1. Steve, these posts are excellent. Having been out of seminary for quite a few years now, and having my own ‘system’ for sermon prep, I find that I do many of the things you do as well. I know exactly what you mean, regarding sermons by giants such as MacArthur, that their sermons and outlines are hard not to ‘go on’. I also know S. Lewis Johnson and his helpful preaching (even if the audio quality of his recordings is not the greatest). I have greatly enjoyed your posts.

  2. Great series of sermon prep. post’s Steve. Hope you have a great Christmas with your family. I look forward to getting together again real soon.

  3. Blayne,

    Thanks for your encouragement! I’m glad to hear that you do many things the right way. :) Just kidding!

    Thanks again!

  4. Pastor Bill…(Padre),

    Is the famous Mr. Billy “Mac” who I know and love? Thanks for the encouragement. I look forward to seeing you soon as well (if you are who I think you are). If not, then I’m not so sure.

  5. Quote: “Sure, it is easier to just read what some trusted commentator has said summarizing the meaning of the text, but when I discover the meaning myself the text percolates through my soul and becomes a part of me.”
    The word of God says…It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in man. (commentators)Psalms 118:8
    Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (the Holy Spirits job)2 Timothy 2:15
    God Bless

  6. KJV,

    This is the first time I’ve actually had a translation of the Bible comment on this blog. I’m deeply honored. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Steve, I was just reading this post again before consulting my commentaries this morning. I wanted to simply say what a blessing these posts are. Today they helped me clarify some thoughts on the order of the 8 commentaries (some technical, some more preachy) that I’m about to plough through. The Lord bless you as you continue to encourage other pastor/preachers.

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