Today’s question is fairly common, and this time it comes to us from one anonymous listener who simply asks, “Pastor John, have you ever thought about releasing a commentary on the whole Bible? I know a few pastors have done it and I’m not saying that every pastor should, but since you release a good amount of content like books, articles, sermons, and podcasts, I’ve wondered if you plan on releasing a commentary on the Bible, or on certain books? You seem capable. And what would make a great Bible commentary in your opinion?”
The closest thing I have done to a commentary is to preach through books of the Bible and then post those manuscripts along with the audio or the video online at desiringGod.org. For example, there are 250 sermons on Romans and a few other books that I did over the years. That’s the closest thing. If you read every one of those sermons, that would be my commentary on Romans.
“Strong Christians are created not by sermons and books alone, but by a personal encounter with the Bible itself.”
Recently, I finished about one hundred Look at the Book videos on 1 Peter, taking it a verse or two at a time and talking my way through the meaning of the text, mainly with a visual teaching aid called Look at the Book online to try to help people see how I get meaning out of texts. This may sound strange coming from a preacher who spent over three decades of his life heralding the meaning of the text, but there is a strong bent in me that wants to help people be able to find the meaning of the text for themselves rather than me just telling them what it is. I know preachers do tell meanings, but I’ve got this bent that I want people to see how to get it for themselves.
Even in the way I preached . . . I was trying to do that. I was trying to show meaning in a way that people would see, How did he get that? Where did that come from? Show me the very words and the logic. If I didn’t help them see that, I felt the sermon was weak — that they were going to then take my word for it instead of seeing it in the very words of Scripture. Even in the way I preached, I had this bent that I wanted mainly — I don’t know if the word “mainly” is right here, but strongly — to see how to get meaning for themselves.
That bent of mind has led me to do Look at the Book Podcast, which strives to help people see how to get meaning from the text rather than just spoon-feed the meaning of text. I suppose there is a kind of commentary that would put the emphasis on helping people find the meaning themselves. That’s the kind I would want to write if I wrote a commentary, because there’s a deep conviction behind this; namely, that over the long haul, strong Christians are created not by sermons and by books alone, but by a personal encounter with the word of God, the Bible itself.
I want to encourage people to linger long enough over the Scriptures themselves and ask enough questions and look at things from other angles and spend enough brainpower and pour out enough prayers that they make amazing and true discoveries for themselves from the text. This is what makes spindly cattail Christians into oaks of righteousness. It sends our roots down into the granite foundations of biblical truths so that we stop being flip-floppy, blown-around-in-the-wind kind of Christians, who are always learning and never coming to knowledge of the truth (see 2 Timothy 3:7). It turns them into oaks of righteousness, because they can see, they can see for themselves what’s really there in the precious, inspired word of God.
“Ask reality questions. Take a pen in hand and start mulling and thinking to get down into the Bible’s reality.”
I don’t know whether I will write a commentary, but if I wrote the commentary, I would like to write one that forces questions of reality. This is kind of a second point besides helping people see for themselves, but a way of understanding, forces questions of reality. Sometimes these questions are called application, like, “Oh, we need some application in the commentary.” I think that’s misleading, given what I’m after, because it assumes that we’ve got the meaning down and we understand the reality spoken of. What we need is to just connect it with something in our lives.
I think very often we are using, even commentators are using biblical words and phrases as if we know what we’re talking about when we haven’t really paused to ponder very deeply, What’s the reality, the reality, the reality of the words and phrases? What are we referring to? I’ll give you an example.
First Peter 2:1 goes like this: “Put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” Now, the average commentary moves fairly quickly over these five realities: malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander. In my way of looking at the Scriptures, each one of those requires hours, hours, h-o-u-r-s of reflection about the very nature of the experience in the human heart. What is malice? Why is it something that’s malicious? That is, why is something malice? How is it different from the others in the list? How does it relate to God? How does it relate to the devil? How does it relate to my personality? Is it present in people who are genetically nice? Is it a serious problem if people never act on it? How does it fit in the list? Why is it listed first? And on and on and on. This takes 10–15 pages. No commentary does that. I don’t think I’m going to write it.
I’m just pleading with people to ask reality questions and to take a pen in hand or get on the computer and start mulling and pondering and asking and thinking to go down into reality. Most commentaries simply don’t have the time or perhaps the inclination to ask these kinds of reality questions. Yet, in my experience, this is the kind of rumination, like a cow chewing the cud for hours, swallowing it, spitting it back up from another stomach and chewing it again, swallowing, spitting it up, chewing it again — however that works with cows, it’s a good analogy.
“I want to help people find the meaning of the text for themselves, not just tell them what it is.”
Rumination is life-changing for us and for preachers. O preachers, this is what your people need you to do. Not just fly over that list. Take a week on malice. Take a week on deceit. Take a week on hypocrisy and think your way into the depths of evil that are named there.
I suppose there would be two things that would characterize the commentary I would write in summary. One, it would try to inculcate a pattern of asking and answering questions that enable people to see things for themselves. Two, it would try to inculcate the habit of probing for reality, not just verbal relations.