Regularly we receive queries about best resources from pastors as they approach a new series on a biblical book. The questions are good: despite so many commentaries being published, the best resources for listening to the Bible and preaching it for all its worth are not always obvious. The best preaching operates at the intersection of the telos of the passage/book being preached and the life of the particular congregation (see Craig Bartholomew, Excellent Preaching). Good preaching must therefore engage in what John Stott called “double listening”: one ear to Scripture, one ear to contemporary life and culture, with the sermon building a bridge between the two. This series, which will eventually cover the whole Bible, aims to provide preachers – and thinking non-preachers – with some of the best resources. We are assuming readers will understand that neither we nor you will or should agree with everything these sources say.
Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address, ed. Craig G. Bartholomew and David Beldman (Eerdmans), is full of excellent material from leading scholars, helping readers and preachers to leverage the best scholarship in the service of hearing what God is saying.
On preaching the Old Testament see Chris Wright, Sweeter Than Honey: Preaching the Old Testament (Langham Preaching Resources), co-published (exactly the same text) by Zondervan, with the title How to Preach and Teach the Old Testament For All Its Worth!
For a sense of the recent history of New Testament interpretation see Stephen Neill and Tom Wright’s excellent, The Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861-1986 (OUP, 1988). Wright’s multivolume Christian Origins and the Question of God series is magisterial.
At its best, the renaissance of so-called theological interpretation of the Bible is a great boon for the preacher, since it aims to read the Bible for the church. Two important sources are Vanhoozer, et al, eds. A Dictionary of Theological Interpretation of the Bible (Baker Academic, 2005) and Bartholomew and Thomas, eds., A Manifesto for Theological Interpretation (Baker Academic, 2016). The latter was an initiative of the Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar.
We are delighted that Baker Academic has given us permission to make the manifesto itself available for download on our website. This is a short document that the student, seminarian, pastor, scholar can carry with them and refer to as they engage with the Bible.
Jonah is a truly remarkable book. However, especially among evangelicals, two obstacles regularly get in the way of our hearing it in its full acoustics. The first is whether or not Jonah is historical. Was Jonah actually swallowed by a large fish? This historical question is not unimportant, but it easily prevents us from listening to Jonah if we make it the main concern. It becomes a serious obstacle if we believe that only if Jonah is history writing can it tell us truth. In its own way fiction can be as truth-telling as history writing, as, for example, Jesus’ parables reveal again and again. The second is whether or not Jonah is about Jesus. It is clear from the Gospels that Jonah is a type of Jesus, but to make Jesus the main focus of our reading of Jonah obscures its powerful message.
In order to really hear Jonah we need to attend to what Brevard Childs called the discrete witness of the OT, before moving on to how it is received in the NT. Jonah meant something to its OT audience/s, and this should be our first focus of attention. Jonah 1:1, for example, alerts us to typical OT prophetic revelation coming to Jonah, and “Nineveh” became the capital of one of Israel’s great enemies, Assyria. We neglect this “historical” dimension to our detriment.
Equally important is the type of literature we find in Jonah. Amidst the twelve minor prophets Jonah, uniquely, is narrative about a prophet. Read Jonah in the Hebrew and you will soon discover that Jonah is exquisitely crafted narrative. Thus, an awareness of OT narrative and how it works is an indispensable tool for accessing the message of Jonah. It is through the poetics of the text that we hear its message. See the section on “Narrative” in David J. H. Beldman’s chapter “Literary Approaches and Old Testament Interpretation,” in Craig G. Bartholomew and David J. H. Beldman, eds., Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), including his references to further literature in the footnotes. Leslie C. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah (NICOT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), and Kenneth M. Craig, A Poetics of Jonah: Art in the Service of Ideology (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1999), are important and useful sources in this respect.
To really hear Jonah we need imagination. We need to imagine ourselves sitting amidst a group of OT Israelites listening to the story, picking up on the references to other parts of the OT. As we do so we will become alert to Jonah’s privilege of being a recipient of God’s words, of the absolutely extraordinary commission that comes through those words, and we will find ourselves conflicted about Jonah’s reaction. In the process it will gradually dawn upon us that Jonah is … us, Israel, who have the comparable privilege of having God’s oracles. We will journey with this most reluctant prophet who eventually performs God’s command but then becomes exceedingly upset when God does not execute judgement on Nineveh. On the role of imagination in biblical interpretation see Trevor Hart, “Imagination and Responsible Reading,” chapter 15 in Craig G. Bartholomew, et al., eds., Renewing Biblical Interpretation (SAHS 1. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), and Nicholas Wolterstorff’s response.
Read thus, all sorts of important themes will be pushed to the surface. Themes like: as recipients of God’s words what sort of responsibility do we have to the nations? Are God’s words just for his people (Israel) or are they also for the other nations? On this missional note see Stephen B. Chapman and Laceye C. Warner, “Jonah and the Imitation of God: Rethinking Evangelism in the Old Testament,” JTI 2.I (2008), 43–69. Are we really to care for our great enemies, for those who have caused us so much pain? It is hard here not to recall Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s profound point in relation to 1 Peter 3:9:
“The world lives by the blessing of God and of the righteous and thus has a future. Blessing means laying one’s hand on something and saying, Despite everything, you belong to God. This is what we do with the world that inflicts such suffering on us. We do not abandon it, we do not repudiate, despise or condemn it. Instead we call it back to God, we give it hope, we lay our hands on it and say, may God’s blessing come upon you, may God renew you, be blessed, world created by God, you who belong to your Creator and Redeemer.”(1)
And what are we to make of unbelievers who behave far better than believers, as do the sailors compared with Jonah. See Frank A. Spina, The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), chapter 5.
YHWH is clearly the main character in Jonah and what an extraordinary depiction we receive of him. Jonah foregrounds characteristics of YHWH that are rarely found in lists of his attributes, namely his holiness, compassion and patience. Karl Barth is attentive to
God’s patience, and he is well worth reading on this. See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1, 406–39. In relation to God’s compassion Jonah concludes on an extraordinary note. God is concerned about the many cattle in Nineveh! His compassion extends to his entire creation.
We know from Genesis 1:26–28 that we are made in the image of God. But are we up to the journey of becoming like God? This question is posed in acute fashion in Jonah. Jonah is invited to become like God. His response is to flee but God pursues him. As he descends in the waters he finds his way back to God again but then becomes very angry with God when God relents from judging the Ninevites. In a Roald Dahl-like twist, we never learn whether Jonah finally came round to God’s way of thinking and acting. Jonah is invited, again and again, to transformation, but did he accept the invitation? Ultimately this does not matter because the book is about us! We have the privilege of being recipients of God’s words, and are we willing to carry God’s image by becoming holy, compassionate and patient? Two excellent readings of Jonah in this respect are André Lacocque and Pierre-Emmanuel Lacocque, The Jonah Complex (Atlanta, GA: John Knox, 1981); Jonah: A Psycho-Religious Approach to the Prophet (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1990).
Read in this way we are in a good position to attend to Jesus’ invocation of Jonah as the only sign to be given to “this generation” in Matthew 12:38–42. See Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook, Matthew 1–12 (2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 572–585.
Jonah is part of the “Book of the Twelve” (minor prophets) and discussion continues about the extent to which it should be read as part of this “Book.” See in this and other respects Craig G. Bartholomew and Heath A. Thomas, The Minor Prophets: A Theological Introduction (Downers Grove, ILL: IVP Academic, 2023).
As the early form critics rediscovered, the Gospels themselves are the fruit of preaching. According to a justifiable translation of Eusebius’s quotation of Papias (c. 60–130), bishop of Hierapolis, Mark composed his Gospel from Peter’s “anecdotes” or little stories about Jesus for the church’s spiritual formation (Hist. eccl. 3.39.15). All four Gospels present Jesus as repeating and completing the biblical story of Israel’s redemption from Egypt and return from exile. Although his journey is finished, sitting resurrected at the right hand of God the Father (see Psalm 110:1, the most cited Old Testament verse in the New), the bride, his church, is being led by the Spirit through a long, trying wilderness. As travel guides, the Gospels are immediately and essentially applicable for Christians. (For this reason, the majority of those who attend church hear the Gospels read every Sunday.) Preaching Jesus in little stories inside the big story invites participation from readers (hearers). Anecdotes typically remember something of the past – there are good reasons to accept the Gospels as source material for historians – but they are sufficiently sparse, the barest of settings and words, to make room for the Spirit’s creative work on our imagination.
The Gospels express a pneumatic, participatory hermeneutic that we also find in the Dead Sea Scrolls, specifically the Pesharim; this way of reading Scripture can be simply expressed: “This is that.” This scene, this moment, this encounter is that biblical story. The presupposition is that God, the ultimate author of the Bible, continues to lead a people by the light of the Word through type scenes, allusions and echoes. The wilderness may look differently for every person and each community in our cultural dress and distracting idols, but it is the same journey between Paradise lost and regained. Jesus came from God, and we return to God in Christ.
And yet stories are driven by conflict and temptation. Indwelt by the Spirit, Jesus discerns that the Pharisees of his day inadvertently filled the role of Isaiah’s enemies, as the Spirit may reveal to us the Pharisees of today: “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy concerning you” (Mark 7:6). This ideology is not the gospel, not the way, but that same old idol with a new face.
To repeat and summarize: the same Spirit who led Jesus through a wilderness of temptation leads us (Luke 4:1; Gal 5:18). We all have been given a God awareness and the grace to respond (Jer 31:31). We all have been given the “anointing” and are therefore Christians or “little Christs” (1 John 2:20). There is the way of the flesh and the way of the Spirit, and these very different paths may be discerned by their fruit. The Spirit takes what Jesus said and reveals our distraction from and resistance to the narrow path that leads to life. The community that produced the Pesharim, the Yahad (“union”), most likely a branch of the Essenes, believed they had received the new covenant, also calling themselves “the Way,” although the Jerusalem church, our ancestors, counterclaimed the same epithet (Acts 9:2).
As Thomas Aquinas maintained, this way of reading (or entering) Scripture does not bypass the literal sense (sensus literalis), attuning signifiers (words) to their signifieds – what Confucius called “Rectification of Names” – it comes from a deeper signified, our union with Christ.
As preachers, we are most qualified to speak after sitting humbly in the role of the Pharisee, allowing God to convict our hearts and open our eyes: “Woe is me” (Isa 6:5). But then we need the courage of Jesus to confess what is not yet entirely clear to others in the community.
Preaching through the letter of Ephesians is both a joy and a daunting task! There is very little that is NOT covered in the letter and there is a consequent danger of getting lost in the detail and missing the big picture. A few of the commentaries mentioned below fall into that trap, but remain useful repositories of information. Paul’s overall concern in Ephesians is the building and filling of the new temple founded on Christ and constituted by God’s people. The filling of this “dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph 2:22) to manifest the presence and character of the Triune God to the nations depends on individual and corporate “learning Christ” (Eph 4:20). The multiple themes of Ephesians (for example, unity, love, grace, witness, wisdom, etc.) integrate in this larger purpose and the various commentaries below can help the preacher to better understand the details. The challenge remains – as ever – to preach in such a way as our hearers are brought into the presence of the Triune God and are captivated by his perfections and works.
The first group of commentaries help primarily with the exegetical task and require some familiarity with Greek. Clinton Arnold’s volume for the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary series is an excellent guide to the letter, diving deep into the numerous exegetical challenges of Ephesians, but keeping an eye always towards contemporary application of theological insights. If a preacher had time for only one commentary, I’d recommend this. In a similar register would be Thielman’s Baker Exegetical Commentary or S. M. Baugh’s more recent Evangelical Exegetical Commentary. All these three are written within the last 15 years, come from a broadly evangelical perspective and engage deeply with the Greek. They are helpful for the deep dive into particulars. (More technical, but nevertheless useful, is Merkle’s Ephesians volume from the Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament series. For those who like structural analysis of a passage with phrasing, Merkle will be especially helpful in unpacking and making sense of Paul’s longer sentences.)
On a more popular level, it’s hard to surpass Stott’s BST volume for packing a huge amount of insight and scholarship into concise and accessible prose. For those who want to see how Ephesians has been preached exhaustively verse by verse over the years, Lloyd-Jones’s six-volume series on Ephesians (published by Banner of Truth) will inspire, though it needs cultural translation now.
Amongst many others, Hoehner’s Exegetical Commentary is a treasure trove of word studies and detail, though it often misses the bigger picture of the literary features of the letter and their theological significance. Though by no means agreeing with all of Markus Barth’s or Ernest Best’s interpretations (they are both good examples of commentary shaped by their own contemporary cultural assumptions and concerns – easy to see with decades of hindsight, but perhaps more difficult to spot in ourselves?), they were both deeply engaged in the text of Ephesians and are provocative and stimulating company. Barth is especially helpful in considering wider background and literary relationships of the letter. Lincoln’s Word Biblical Commentary remains a standard technical commentary, though, like Barth and Best, not all readers will agree with his interpretations. He is most provocative in suggesting the author’s rhetorical strategy (he doesn’t believe it was Paul). Delving further back in time, John Eadie’s 19th-century commentary is wonderfully rich and deep and doxological and will repay a visit. Further yet, Chrysostom’s homilies are fascinating.
Lastly, and most recently, Michael Allen’s Theological Commentary on Ephesians seeks to reflect many of the theological concerns of the late John Webster, who was working on this commentary before his untimely death. Allen’s theological astuteness and rich reflections on Ephesians will benefit any preacher and will be a necessary complement to the more detailed exegetical works (though Allen is clearly deeply engaged with the text).
There are three more resources that will help a preacher, though they are not commentaries. The temple theme in Ephesians is important and relatively neglected. Anyone seeking an introduction (though a many hundreds of pages introduction!) to the theme, should get hold of Greg Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God. For those who want to mine the treasures of John Owen and do the hard work of translating into our vernacular, his Communion with the Triune God takes as its starting point Ephesians 2:18 and will hugely enrich any preaching of this theme of Ephesians. Lastly, though not concerned directly with Ephesians, because the concept of union with Christ is so important to preaching the practical implications of the theology of Ephesians, Grant Macaskill’s Living in Union with Christ does a great job of contemporary prophetic critique and theological reflection that would provide a solid framework for any preacher’s attempts to bring the message of Ephesians to their flock today.
Gareth Lee Cockerill’s Hebrews (New International Commentary on the New Testament, Eerdmans, 2012) is both scholarly and pastoral. Grant Osborne called this commentary “a first-rate work that is both readable and very deep” and claimed that those who read it would “gain a fine understanding of this incredibly important epistle and its place in the life of the church.” Cockerill’s commentary makes a special contribution to our understanding of the shape and pastoral purpose of Hebrews and to the relevance of the author’s Old Testament interpretation for the contemporary people of God. “Anyone planning to study, teach, or preach through Hebrews should have this commentary at their side” (Denver Journal).
Jon C. Laansma’s The Letter to the Hebrews: A Commentary for Preaching, Teaching, and Bible Study (Cascade Books, 2017) is characterized by the balanced judgment that we have come to expect from its author. Laansma’s interpretation of Hebrews is thorough, fresh, and pastoral without being idiosyncratic or superficial. This book may not address all the technical issues of the Greek text or interact with every competing interpretation, but it fulfils its title as A Commentary for Preaching, Teaching, and Bible Study. “Dr. Laansma has an intuitive grasp of the epistle’s missional context and homiletical structure” (Philip Ryken).
Thomas R. Schreiner’s Commentary on Hebrews (Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation, Holman, 2015) is an accessible interpretation of Hebrews by a well-known evangelical biblical scholar. Its unique contribution is the way in which Schreiner begins by showing how Hebrews fits into the larger biblical story. His development of various theological themes at the end is also helpful. This commentary “manages to bridge the gap between the academy and the church in such a way that it is at home in both” (from a review by Alan S. Bandy, Shawnee).
David G. Peterson’s Hebrews (IVP, 2020) is a worthy addition to the Tyndale New Testament Commentary series. This volume provides us with a reliable interpretation of the text of Hebrews by a mature scholar known, among many other things, for his work on “perfection” in Hebrews. Each passage begins with a discussion of context and concludes with theological reflection. This is a solid meat, bread and potatoes commentary.
Grant R. Osborne with George H. Guthrie, Hebrews Verse by Verse (Osborne New Testament Commentaries, Lexham, 2021). This clearly written commentary is vintage Osborne. The theological significance and contemporary relevance of the text arise directly out of the author’s adequately thorough, though not overly technical, exposition. We are indebted to George Guthrie, Osborne’s former student, for completing this commentary after the author’s death.
George Guthrie’s Hebrews (NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan, 1998), though a bit older than most of the books mentioned in this article, is a valuable addition to the libraries of both pastors and scholars. The NIV Application Commentary has the stated purpose of explaining both the original meaning and contemporary significance of the biblical text. Guthrie’s explanations of the original meaning are adequately thorough, and his discussions of contemporary application are relevant without being faddish. Keep an eye out for his forthcoming Theology of Hebrews (Zondervan).
William L. Lane’s Hebrews 1–8 and Hebrews 9–13 (Word Biblical Commentary, Word, 1991) is another older work that deserves mention. Those with command of the original language will want to take advantage of Lane’s rich exposition of the Greek text. Everyone, however, can read his “Explanation” section at the end of each passage or consult his shorter work, Hebrews: A Call to Commitment (Hendrickson, 1985). This shorter volume is a concise but accurate and readable exposition of Hebrews directed to serious lay people and thus useful for pastors as well.
Some may like Herbert W. Bateman IV and Steven W. Smith’s Hebrews: A Commentary for Biblical Preaching and Teaching (Kregel, 2021). The Kerux Commentary series, of which this volume is a part, boasts the advantages of combining the skills of an exegete and a homiletician. This volume makes a point of explaining Hebrews within the context of Second Temple Judaism. However, the abundant reference to background material tends, at times, to overwhelm rather than elucidate the passage in question, and some of the suggestions for preaching are only superficially related to the text.
Dana M. Harris’ Hebrews (B&H Academic, 2019) in the Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament is worth mentioning, although its focused dedication on a close reading of the Greek text distinguishes it from the other commentaries mentioned in this article. Harris, however, is not insensitive to theological issues and she provides an extensive bibliography on each passage. Nevertheless, this commentary is for those who want a close structural, syntactical, grammatical, linguistic (did I use enough adjectives?) reading of the Greek text.
Gareth Lee Cockerill’s Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Listening to Hebrews in the 21st Century (Cascade Books, forthcoming 2022). This seven-week (forty-nine-day) reading guide is an excellent foundation for preaching or teaching Hebrews because it immerses its reader in this profound biblical book. Each passage is clearly explained in light of the pastoral purpose and rhetorical structure of Hebrews as outlined in Cockerill’s NICNT commentary discussed above. This book helps us to see Hebrews as a living, breathing organism, rather than as an ancient artefact.
Herbert W. Bateman IV, editor, Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews (Kregel, 2007). The way one understands the warning passages of Hebrews is closely tied to the way in which one understands the purpose and scope of the book as a whole. Thus, it is appropriate, in conclusion, to mention this volume that provides a clear presentation of the various options. Several of the contributors to this project (Bateman, Osborne, Guthrie, and Cockerill) have written books mentioned above. Buist Fanning is another contributor, whose position is fairly represented by both Schreiner and Peterson’s commentaries.
Three things that we often forget when reading Hebrews:
1. Salvation and revelation are intimately related in Hebrews. It is by becoming the “Source of eternal salvation” (Heb 5:9) that the Son, seated at God’s right hand, fulfils his role as the ultimate revelation of God.
2. Jesus’ humanity is never discussed abstractly in separation from his deity. When the author addresses Jesus’ humanity he is always talking about the eternal Son who has become human – about the incarnation. Thus, it is less than accurate to say that Hebrews 1:1-14 is about the Son’s deity and Hebrews 2:5-18 is about his humanity. Hebrews 1:1-14 is about the Son’s eternal deity and exaltation, while Hebrews 2:5–18 is about the incarnation of the eternal Son through which he has been exalted.
3. In Hebrews the earthly obedience of the Son of God has atoned for sin (5:7-9, 9:14, 10:5-10) and established a covenant that empowers the children of God for obedience. Consciences are “cleansed” (9:14) and God’s law is written on the heart (10:14-18) enabling God’s people to live faithful lives. Forgiveness is the door to obedient living.
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