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preaching article 3 Mistakes Pastors Make with Commentaries

3 Mistakes Pastors Make with Commentaries

based on 23 ratings
Jan 7, 2013

Commentaries are resources for preachers, not sources for sermons. They are tools that help us in the passage study phase of our preparation. They are not a sermon bank of material waiting to be pilfered and preached.

If you read the introductory preface to a commentary (which would be unusual behaviour, I suspect!), you will see that the commentary or series is targeted toward a specific audience. Perhaps it is aimed at non-Greek trained lay people, or at seminarians, pastors, and Bible teachers with some Greek, or whatever. In reality, these categories are so broad that I would prefer to view them not as targeted communication, but as descriptions of a range within which the writer offers his or her explanation.

Preaching is different. When you preach your goal is not just explanation to a broad audience, but targeted transformation in a specific audience. You can be much more specific in knowing whom your listeners are and what they need to hear — not only by way of explanation, but also with an emphasis on application.

Here are three more related comments on preaching and commentaries:

1. Watch out for atomization. 

The vast majority of commentaries are highly atomistic. While a good commentator will be aware of the discourse level unity of the passage, it is hard to find commentaries that are overtly aware of the macro level flow within a book. It seems to me that often the commentator is so engrossed in the phrase-by-phrase explanation, that a stretch and coffee break before proceeding with the writing can lead to a sense of atomization in the end product.  The preacher is not offering a book in which the listener can go back and review the section introduction or re-read complex sentences. The preacher is offering an aural exposure to both explanation and application of a text. Different.

2. Only quote a commentary if the quote is exceptionally valuable.  

You don’t need to prove that you read commentaries (or checked in with Calvin, or whomever). You don’t need to feel inadequate to be the preacher (though we all are) — they invited you to preach, not Doug Moo or Tom Schreiner. Study and prepare to the point that you can effectively explain and apply the text. Only quote a sentence or two from a commentary if it really is uniquely pithy, arresting, compelling and gripping, not to mention helpful!

3. Don’t feel obligated to cite your sources.  

If you do quote, no need to cite sources every time. Preaching is not an academic essay. Sometimes the reference to an unknown name can be unhelpful, sometimes (depending on the name), downright distracting or humourous! If the author makes a difference, cite them (i.e., Churchill), but if not, just say “one writer put it like this …” (anyone who cares can always ask you afterward).



Peter Mead is involved in the leadership team of a church plant in the UK. He serves as director of Cor Deo—an innovative mentored ministry training program—and has a wider ministry preaching and training preachers. He also blogs often at BiblicalPreaching.net and recently authored Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation (Christian Focus, 2014). Follow him on Twitter

Talk about it...

Robert Sickler avatar
Robert Sickler
0 days ago
Very good advice. It would behoove many a preacher to heed this advice.
Chet Gladkowski avatar
Chet Gladkowski
0 days ago
I am thankful to the godly men that invested so much time and effort into commentaries, and I use them a lot, but cannot think of a single reason ever to quote a commentary. I use them for my own historical and cultural background, word etymologies and other information. From that I "digest" the scripture in light of the additional info foe explanation and application. Personal opinion - quoting a commentary is a short cut to personal understanding and application. Only after I "get it" am I in a position to "share it".
Jeff Eppinette avatar
Jeff Eppinette
0 days ago
Thank you for a thought provoking article! At the risk of sounding ignorant, could you please explain atomization in the context of your first point?
Anthony R. Watson avatar
Anthony R. Watson
0 days ago
Outstanding article. I read commentaries during the preparation phase of the sermon, but not during the delivery of the sermon phase.
Trevor Payton avatar
Trevor Payton
0 days ago
"Only after I get it am I in a position to share it." Well said, Chet!
David Buffaloe avatar
David Buffaloe
0 days ago
1. Watch Out For Atomization? No idea what you're trying to say here. Atomization is to take liquid and spray it into fine mists. "a stretch and coffee break before proceeding with the writing can lead to a sense of atomization in the end product"? What does that mean? One of the mistakes preachers make is to use technical (or in this sense made up) terminology rather than clearly state the truths of the Scripture. Clarity is important, no, it is the main thing. 1 Corinthians 14:8 For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? Be clear, preachers, for God wrote His Word so that we might KNOW we have eternal life - not so that we might stumble around in the dark guessing (1 John 5:13).
Gary Greene avatar
Gary Greene
0 days ago
ATOMISTIC: "characterized by division into unconnected fragments; first known use of atomistic was in 1809" (Merriam-Webster.com). As Mead described, the commentator does not pay enough attention to the flow of the argument/discussion being presented by the original writer and discusses isolated phrases instead.
Zachary Bartels avatar
Zachary Bartels
0 days ago
I'm fairly sure I've read this same article on this same site before, but it's worth the re-read. I miss seeing more from Rev. Mead, whose contributions are among the best we get from sermoncentral...
Dean Johnson avatar
Dean Johnson
0 days ago
Thanks for the article, Pete. Brother John Willis, please be careful with your posts.
Tim Bono avatar
Tim Bono
0 days ago
Love this guy! And grateful for the articles and other resources of biblicalpreaching.net.
Alysious Kamara avatar
Alysious Kamara
0 days ago
Thanks, it is very helpful for all preacher
Alysious Kamara avatar
Alysious Kamara
0 days ago
Thanks, it is very helpful for all preacher
Bryan Thompson avatar
Bryan Thompson
0 days ago
Actually I think the first point is very good, in spite of what another commenter said. Thanks for the article.
Michael Podeszwa avatar
Michael Podeszwa
0 days ago
3. Don?t Feel Obligated To Cite Your Sources. While I don't cite my source beyond the "one writer says," I do find it helpful to include the sources in my manuscript. This way if I'm preaching on the same subject or passage, I can quickly look up where I was the last time.

So, what did you think?


Thank you.