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it’s not how—it’s who

There are strong opinions about preaching. I know guys who insist on a particular method of preaching—this usually means preaching extemporaneously, off the cuff and without a manuscript. I recently saw a post on social media insisting that one who is preaching must not use a manuscript, for if he uses a manuscript he might as well just email a PDF of the sermon for people to read later. I find this a very stunted view of what is happening during preaching, and what is happening has little to do with the delivery of the sermon.

The thinking for some seems to be the Holy Spirit should guide the preacher as he preaches. If he’s merely reading a manuscript, he’s just reading. This completely ignores the Spirit’s work throughout the week as he was studying and praying and writing the manuscript. If the Spirit can speak on a Sunday morning, surely he can speak on Tuesday afternoon when the man is alone in his study. This also completely ignores how the Spirit works in the heart of his people in the gathered assembly.

In this particular post, the emphasis was entirely on the delivery. This is why the claim was made that such a boring delivery would be better emailed than proclaimed on a Sunday morning in Christ’s gathered assembly when the Lord Jesus is present in his fullness. The power of preaching is not in the delivery of the preaching! Think of Paul’s words to the Corinthians:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

1 Corinthians 2:1-5 ESV

In short, Paul’s claim is he did not preach with eloquence! He was not a fiery preacher who had crowds hanging on his every word. It is significant that he writes this to the Corinthians, for they loved powerful rhetoric. They loved clever public speaking. Paul says he didn’t come with any of that. One might even dare to say Paul read a manuscript to them, at least metaphorically. When Paul preached he says he preached in weakness. Instead of in eloquence, he preached in demonstration of the Spirit’s power so that the faith of the Corinthians lay not in the fiery message that gives them goosebumps but in the power of God.

This is what is happening in preaching. A preacher proclaims God’s truth to a particular people. The Holy Spirit drives this message into their hearts and he does the work of transformation. The power of preaching is in the gospel that is proclaimed, not in the method of proclamation. The power of preaching comes from the Holy Spirit, not from the one standing in the pulpit.

While Paul did not preach with great eloquence or powerful rhetoric, he certainly preached bespoke sermons. They were custom-made sermons to fit a particular church. His letters are bespoke; they each speak directly to a specific church or individual. Because Paul assumed men like Timothy were called to a particular congregation, in Timothy’s case he was “to remain at Ephesus” (1 Timothy 1:3), he was to be devoted to the church there, to care for them and lead them and serve them.

Timothy’s preaching must, therefore, address the needs and concerns of the church in Ephesus. Surely there would be overlap with other churches, but as Paul instructed him to deal with certain issues affecting that particular church, he must serve that church. His concern must not be his podcast and reaching a broader audience. His concern must not be getting on the conference speaking circuit. His concern must not be pursuing book deals. His concern must not be getting clicks and followers on social media. Serve the church in Ephesus, Timothy!

All of this leads into a question I was asked by a couple people last Sunday, and it has to do with sources I cite in my preaching. Specifically, I sometimes cite authors in both the “Africa Bible Commentary” and the “South Asia Bible Commentary”. These are whole-Bible commentaries, meaning each is a single-volume. Being a single commentary on the entire Bible means they do not—they cannot—go very deep in exegesis.

Exegesis is the critical examination of a text, It is digging into a text’s original language and historical and cultural context to discern what a given text means. The question I was asked is why I reference these particular commentaries and more broadly how I determine which commentaries to use.

Because of how God has wired me and gifted me to teach, I am generally unsatisfied with application or homiletical commentaries. These are commentaries geared toward helping a person figure out a way to preach a particular text, but without much work in exegesis. There is generally very little discussion of the underlying text or historical context. Rather, they focus on what a person is to do with the text.

There are technical commentaries that focus almost entirely on the underlying Greek or Hebrew manuscripts of a text. There tends to be very little by way of explaining how the original audiences may have received the text and almost nothing of application. I do not, generally speaking, find these commentaries particularly helpful.

There are also devotional commentaries, which lack any real depth for study. There are theological commentaries that try to synthesize a particular text with a particular theology, whether Baptist theology or Arminian theology, etc. I don’t touch these. They may serve a purpose, but not for me.

I tend to rely on exegetical commentaries. When I study a text to preach I want to understand how the language works, what the grammar is doing, and how the original recipients would have understood it. This includes historical context and the flow of the book as a whole. Then I take all this information and I try to direct it toward the people of New City and how God might be speaking to us through that very message.

Here’s how this all comes together. I am called to this particular church. When this church ordained me, it claimed me. That is, New City has a claim on my life. I do not have the freedom to go serve another church. I know I’m a lone voice in this, but this is how I see both Scripture’s depiction of vocational ministry and how church history has played out, at least outside of most of Protestantism. This means my sermons are written entirely for the benefit of New City Church. We post them online, but not so that J-T can expand his influence. It is a convenience for this church to be able to reference a sermon one may have missed or even entire series that were prior to a person joining the church.

When I search for a commentary, I search first for scholarship, then for diversity in voices. If an author is not competent in writing an exegetical commentary, why should I bother? I find fewer than ten percent of commentaries are worthwhile. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes 12:12, of the writing of commentaries there is no end. I spend almost no time looking at application or homiletical commentaries and very little at technical commentaries. I go straight for exegetical commentaries, and a similar ratio remains. Fewer than ten percent are useful to me.

Because God’s church is so much bigger than modern, Western American culture, I seek diverse voices to speak into the Scriptures. I often cite church fathers in my sermons, for example. We have an embarrassment of riches today, for these works are readily available to us, and these men were highly gifted by God to his church. You will often hear me introduce such an author, “As the African theologian Augustine wrote…” The reason for this is simple: we need to be regularly reminded the church of Jesus Christ is not a modern American institution. The church crosses millennia and countless cultures, and will one day encompass people from every tribe and language and people and nation. We would be so much poorer if the only people whose voices we hear were from this tribe and this language and this people and this nation.

Because of our cultural context and because I am limited in the languages I know (I’m really only fluent in English and I’m somewhat compet—well, I have a Masters degree in New Testament Greek), I’m limited to commentaries written in English. Because fewer than ten percent of commentaries are worthwhile (at least to me), and because of simple math, most of the commentaries I reference are written by white American men.

Most biblical scholars are men. There are women, of course, but overwhelmingly it is men who tend to specialize in the way those who are competent to write an exegetical commentary specialize. This has nothing to do with ability, but with interest. Women tend to be less interested in these areas.

On a practical level this means there may be 50 exegetical commentaries written by white men to choose from, and there may be five written by women. The truth is the gap is probably far bigger than this. If less than ten percent are worthwhile I have a few to choose from that are written by white men. What is ten percent of five? The odds of finding a quality exegetical commentary written by a woman is immensely smaller than finding one written by a man, simply due to quantity to choose from—of the dearth of it. There are even fewer commentaries written by non-white folk.

Countries around the world face a similar problem. Most commentaries are written by white Western Christians, whether American or European. The great Nigerian scholar Dr. Tokunboh Adeyemo realized the need for a native modern African commentary to serve the needs of African churches. The result was over 70 African scholars contributing to a whole-Bible commentary—the Africa Bible Commentary. It was released in 2006 in several African languages and in English, and we all benefit.

Similarly, in South Asia where Christians are a small minority living among Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Sikhs, the need for a similar work was realized. A project led by Indian scholar Dr. Brian Wintle was launched with over 90 South Asian scholars contributing. This was published in English, and is currently being translated into various South Asian languages.

I choose to consult these works, not for their exegetical insight; again, in a single-volume commentary the word count is too limited. Rather, I find myself challenged to think beyond my own cultural expression and see how the words of Scripture speak to men and women in any tribe or language or people or nation. When I cite one of these commentaries in a sermon, I do so in part to remind us all that the church of Jesus Christ is bigger than New City. It is bigger than Grand Rapids—bigger, even , than the United States. We need to hear the voices of our brothers and sisters from across the world, and from across time. God has gifted us greatly with a diversity of gifts in folk from a diversity of cultures and experiences. We are going to spend eternity with them and will learn from them. Let’s start that learning now!

The truth is whether one preaches from the gift of teaching or from the gift of exhortation, from the gift of wisdom or from the gift of shepherding, whether one preaches from a manuscript or from an outline, whether that outline is written down or memorized, whether one preaches extemporaneously or a carefully planned sermon, one should preach Christ and him crucified. One must preach the gospel of the Lord Jesus, the one who began the good work in us and the one who will bring that work to completion on the day he returns.

By citing non-American authors, we are reminded that our voices are but a part of the vast chorus that echoes across the millennia proclaiming, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”