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Preaching the Bible for All its Worth

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.

The Old Testament

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! 

The New Testament

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.

READING THE BIBLE FOR THE CHURCH

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.

Book By Book

Genesis

  • Gordon Wenham’s 2 volume WBC remains a standard, although Claus Westermann’s monumental commentary and other works on Genesis are always worth consulting, as are Sarna and Von Rad. 
  • Henri Blocher’s In the Beginning is a classic. We need far more of his creative work in English! 
  • Paul Borgman, Genesis: The Story We Haven’t Heard (IVP Academic, 2001) is very useful on the patriarchal narratives and spiritual formation. 
  • Bill Dumbrell’s Covenant and Creation is a really important work in biblical theology with a great deal of material on Genesis. See also his The End of the Beginning
  • Leon Kass’s The Beginning of Wisdom is a truly extraordinary work, which is a veritable trove of fresh thinking about how to read Genesis and how it relates to contemporary life and thought. This major work has been somewhat missed by biblical scholars and theologians, greatly to their loss.  
  • Karl Barth is always worth consulting on theological interpretation. Inter alia he has some 130 pages of small print rich theological exposition of Genesis 1. The final volume of his Church Dogmatics is an index which can help you to find these sections fast. 
  • Bruce R. Ashford and Craig G. Bartholomew, The Doctrine of Creation: A Constructive Kuyperian Approach (Downers Grove, ILL: IVP Academic, 2020) is full of exegesis and excavations in the Christian tradition. 

Deuteronomy

  • A.J. Culp, Invited to Know God: The Book of Deuteronomy (Lexham Press, 2019), might be called a mini-commentary (128 pages!), focusing on how the different sections of the text accomplish a singular goal: to help people know God. It develops the idea, as such, that Deuteronomy stands not in opposition to the gospel but as an example of the gospel. Small and readable, this book is the fruit of the author’s broader scholarship on Deuteronomy (e.g., Memoir of Moses [Fortress Academic, 2020]).
  • Daniel Block’s Deuteronomy (Zondervan, 2012) is a good starting point for preachers, providing an excellent balance of ancient background, textual analysis, and contemporary exposition. 
  • Peter Craigie’s The Book of Deuteronomy (Eerdmans, 1976) is a classic and still offers accessible but thoughtful exposition of the text.
  • Christopher Wright’s Deuteronomy (Paternoster, 1996) is another good entry-level resource. It is especially good on Deuteronomy’s law, ethics, and missional intent. 
  • J.G. McConville’s Deuteronomy (InterVarsity Press, 2002) is a deceptively deep resource, offering an excellent second-level commentary (and beyond!) for preachers. Where this commentary especially shines is in its discussions of Deuteronomy’s theology and purposes (i.e., speech-acts).  
  • J. Gary Millar’s Now Choose Life: Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy (Apollos, 1998) grows out of his earlier work with J.G. McConville and is one of the more accessible discussions available on theology and ethics. It is especially helpful in showing how Deuteronomy’s theme of journey brings theology and ethics together. 
  • Daniel Block’s The Gospel According to Moses (Cascade Books, 2012) and The Triumph of Grace (Cascade Books, 2017) are collections of essays from the course of this Deuteronomy scholar’s career. The volumes are both affordable and accessible, and they feature topics eminently helpful to the preacher, such as Deuteronomy’s theology, its perspective on prayer, its view of education and family, and how to preach Old Testament law today.

Judges

  • David Beldman’s Deserting the King: The Book of Judges (Lexham, 2017) is a short, accessible, theological introduction to the book. It is not a commentary but would be a good place for the preacher to start to get up to speed quickly on the overall design, themes and theological message of Judges. 
  • For another accessible little exposition of Judges, Dale Ralph Davis’ Judges: Such a Great Salvation (Christian Focus, 2000) is a nice, concise and entertaining commentary with personal anecdotes and homiletical insights. 
  • Daniel Block’s commentary on Judges (and Ruth) in the New American Commentary series (B&H, 1999) is one of the best commentaries on the book — clear and insightful. Block helpfully identified the “canaanization” of Israel as the theme of the book. A valuable resource for preachers doing a series through the book.
  • Lawson Younger’s commentary on Judges/Ruth (NIVAC; Zondervan, 2002) is also worth purchasing. The nature of this series is that it is oriented to contemporary application and Younger has some good insights in this regard, as well as sound and helpful exegetical work.
  • David Beldman’s 2 Horizon commentary on Judges (Eerdmans) is his third significant book on Judges. It should be in the library of every preacher and student of the Bible. Beldman leverages a literary reading and the rich sociological resources of Philip Rieff’s trilogy Sacred Order/Social Order to open up Judges in fresh and important ways. Here is first-rate scholarship that will help you hear and preach Judges. 
  • Barry Webb’s commentary (NICOT; Eerdmans, 2012) is also worth consulting and comparing with the works of Block and Younger. Webb tends to interpret events in the book more positively than sometimes seems warranted, but he is a creative and thoughtful commentator, and his commentary is certainly worthwhile for his literary/theological interpretation as well as many examples of contemporary application.
  • Trent Butler’s commentary in the Word Biblical Commentary series (Thomas Nelson, 2009), weighing in at over 600 pages, is not for the faint of heart. However, as an advanced and more technical commentary which deals with a vast amount of secondary literature on Judges, it is an incredibly valuable resource. If there is a controversial issue in Judges, he will have discussed it (and probably read everything on it). Furthermore, Butler does careful work, has good sensibilities, and is a trustworthy interpreter of the book. 
  • For something completely different, Lion’s Honey: The Myth (Canongate Books, 2005), written by an Israeli novelist called David Grossman, is an absolutely fascinating reading of the Samson narratives (Judges 13-16). It is a sort of literary-psychological reading of the Samson narratives that creatively opens up aspects of these narratives that those familiar with Samson can easily overlook. Psychological readings have the danger of reading too much into narratives and their characters, but Grossman is acutely in tune with the minute details of the texts and has profound insights to offer. The book is easy to read and it is not long. It would be a helpful supplement for sermons on the Samson narratives.

Philippians

  • Dean Flemming’s Self-Giving Love: The Book of Philippians (Lexham, 2021), offers a concise, theological travel guide to Philippians and a helpful entry point to the letter. It shows how the story of Jesus and his self-emptying love is central to the entire letter. This book gives preachers a practically oriented overview of the key themes, literary design and missional implications of Philippians. Packed with memorable illustrations and chapter-ending discussion questions, it is also ideal for personal and small group Bible study.
  • Gordon Fee’s Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (NICNT, Eerdmans, 1995) remains the gold standard for serious exegetical commentaries on the letter. Fee interprets Philippians as a first-century letter of “friendship,” which continues to speak to God’s people in every generation. His in-depth approach to the text is consistently balanced, insightful, and theologically and spiritually sensitive. Don’t let the commentary’s length put you off. Fee is an engaging writer and this book deserves a place in any preacher’s library.
  • For a solid mid-size commentary, Markus Bockmuehl’s The Epistle to the Philippians (BNTC, Continuum, 2006) is a strong choice. Bockmuehl’s approach is scholarly but highly readable. This verse-by-verse commentary strikes a great balance between reading Philippians in its ancient literary and historical context on the one hand and exploring its theological message for the church on the other. Unfortunately, the commentary isn’t as easy to purchase as it used to be. But preachers who make the effort will be well rewarded.
  • Dean Flemming’s Philippians: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (NBBC, Beacon Hill, 2009) is accessible and well written. Flemming addresses all the major issues even-handedly without getting bogged down in the exegetical details. The commentary looks at each section of Philippians in light of its background (behind the text), message (in the text), and application (in front of the text), a format well suited to preaching a sermon series. What distinguishes Flemming’s commentary from many others is its persistent concern to address the relevance of the ancient text for Christians today, making it a rich resource for preaching and teaching.
  • Also strong on application is Lynn Cohick’s Philippians volume in “The Story of God Bible Commentary” series (Zondervan, 2013). As the series title suggests, the commentary seeks to interpret individual passages in light of the Bible’s grand story. It features concise, balanced explanations of the text, but its real strength lies in applying Paul’s message to contemporary concerns. The book teems with stories, illustrations and personal reflections, giving concrete examples of how Christians can live the story today. What’s more, unlike many commentaries, this one is a delight to read.
  • For a theological reading of Philippians, Daniel Migliore’s Philippians and Philemon (Belief, Baker, 2014) is hard to beat. Written by a respected systematic theologian, this commentary puts more weight on theological reflection than exegetical detail. In most cases, it deals with Philippians paragraph by paragraph rather than verse by verse. Along the way, Migliore repeatedly spotlights the communal thrust of the letter, a needed reminder for Western readers. The book’s rich pastoral orientation makes it a valuable resource for preachers.

Hebrews

  • 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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