Illustrations have been described as windows that add light into the sermon in order to illuminate abstract truths. If that is true, and I believe it is, then quotes are a good tool to have in your sermon arsenal. Except when they aren’t. Quotes can be used effectively, and they can be abused in the worst way. I want to point out the proper and improper uses of quotes in a sermon.
Good Uses of Quotes
Here are 6 reasons to use a good quote would be appropriate:
Artistry: The writer says something more beautifully than you can say it yourself.
Clarity: The writer makes the point clearer than you can.
Impact: The writer says something in a powerful way to make your point.
Pithiness: The writer says something in a memorable and “catchy” way.
Depth: The writer says something with a profundity that you can’t seem to say yourself.
Interesting: The writer says something that draws interest or excites the imagination.
Poor Uses of Quotes
Here are 8 reason you ought to think twice before using that quote in your next sermon:
Quotes that are too good not to share, even though they have nothing to do with the main idea of your sermon. Just because you like it, don’t squeeze it in.
Quotes that are not short and to the point. Two page quotes from a Puritan in old English aren’t helpful unless you are trying to help someone fall asleep.
Quotes that are only an interest to a very specific audience. Just because you love reading Wallace’s Greek Grammar doesn’t mean you should quote from it.
Quotes that you have to explain after you read it. It’s like a joke–if you have to explain it, it’s not funny.
Quotes that can be stated in your own words easily.
Quotes that are meant to carry a sense of authority, i.e., “The great theologian so-and-so says…” The Scripture should be our authority. Quotes of men may bring clarity, but they should not bear the weight of authority to prove our point.
Quotes that you cannot verify or find the source. If we proclaim the truth, we shouldn’t be using quotes that may be false.
Quotes that are shocking and controversial. This isn’t because they don’t work, but because they do. This type of quote might just derail your sermon if your audience does not recover from the shocking quote bomb you let loose.
Commentaries are a huge blessing to those who study the Bible. From them we can glean from the years of hard study of thousands of Christians who have come before us. Their knowledge of culture, language, grammar, background information, and theology can fill out our understanding of the biblical writers. For pastors, Bible students, and scholars, Bible commentaries act as a check on their own study, allowing them to see if they are coming to similar conclusions as those who have studied the same passage. This helps to make sure that our own conclusions aren’t going off in a direction that might lead to error, or even worse. But there are a wide variety of commentaries out there, and it is often difficult even for those trained in seminary to know which to use and when to use it. I thought it would be helpful to describe each type of commentary commonly available, how it is helpful, and then what order I use commentaries to best help me develop my sermons and Bible studies.
Like a lot of Christians, my first experiences with Bible commentaries were mixed. Some seemed to be written in a foreign language, even when they were written in English. They were so complicated and hard to understand that they were frustrating and useless to me. Others were understandable, but they often read like sermons. This made them enjoyable to read, but they often skipped over large portions or failed to explain the one verse I was needing help with!
Later, after attending seminary, I learned that there are different categories of commentaries for different purposes. And I learned an incredibly important lesson: commentaries should be used after I have done my own study. The temptation can be to take a great teacher’s study and sermon outline from their commentary and teach or preach it as if it was my own. Not only is that unethical, it robs you of the blessing of encountering the Word for yourself when you do the hard work of studying.
To help myself, I came up with a simple system of when to read the types of commentaries I use in a specific order. I’ll give you that system a little later, but first I think it would be helpful for me to lay out some of the different types of commentaries out there. This will help you know what you already own, their strengths and weaknesses, and hopefully it will give you a better idea of what you should buy the next time you purchase a new commentary.
Types of Commentaries
Devotional-These commentaries are written for the average Christian and are heavy with application. They are broad in scope, meaning they cover a lot of Bible in a little space. Often, they are a short book written to cover a whole Bible book. Warren Wiersbe’s “Be” series and J. Vernon McGee’s Thru the Bible Commentaries are of this kind.
Expositional-These commentaries are based upon the preaching of a particular pastor’s sermons. They may or may not be heavily edited, but they often include coverage of a preaching portion: illustrations, application, and explanation of the text. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary series and James Montgomery Boice’s commentaries are good examples of this type.
Exegetical– These commentaries rely upon the original languages of the biblical text, and aid the Bible student in understanding the significance of the language, grammar, and syntax. Additionally, the exegetical commentary will give large sections of study to introductory matters, translational issues, contextual matters, and interpretive challenges. Although useful without the knowledge of biblical languages, they are most helpful to those who have a working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. The Hendriksen New Testament Commentary set and Word Biblical Commentaries are representative of this type of commentary.
Critical/Technical– As far as traditional commentaries go, these are the most specialized. These commentaries deal with original languages, biblical manuscripts, and many other issues that are important to biblical scholars. Many (although not all) of the contributors to these commentaries are theologically liberal, and they are usually very expensive, although they often contain gold when the student knows how to use them profitably. Some examples of these commentaries would include the International Critical Commentary (ICC) series and Hermeneia Commentaries.
Background-Normally biblical background information is included in most commentaries, but there are some commentaries that focus on this aspect in a commentary format (using book, chapters, and verses divisions). An example would be the IVP Bible Background Commentary.
So, how do I choose which commentary to use first, and does it really matter?
My System for Choosing Which Commentary To Use First
After I have studied the passage for myself, I usually will have several questions and observations about the text. But because of my study, I will have a good general understanding of the main idea. If this is the case, I will choose commentaries from the above categories and read them in this order:
I may not read any commentaries in categories 4 and 5 (Expositional and Devotional) every time. I’ll explain in a moment why.
The reason I begin with the harder and more technical commentaries and move toward the easier and more popular ones is because when I turn to my commentaries I am still wrestling with the text and any unanswered questions. I want to find the answers for myself from my work with the language, grammar, and syntax. If I move too fast to the expositional commentaries, I will be tempted to adopt the interpretation of the writer. And since they are human, they might be wrong. Until I have answered these questions for myself and my interaction with the biblical text, I need help with exegesis before moving on to interpretation.
After I have successfully understood the hardest ideas in the text, I move to the next level of commentaries. The expositional commentaries will help me understand how another pastor has preached and outlined the text I am studying, and a devotional commentary will show me how it has been illustrated and applied. If I understand the text well enough, application and illustration may begin to form easily for me and I won’t need to look at the devotional or expositional commentaries I have.
So, why not flip the order? Because I consider it “cheating” for me, since I will be given an explanation, outline, illustrations, and applications of a passage that I did not myself discover for myself. Additionally and most importantly, I am not trusting the Bible and the Spirit to inform my study, but instead am giving another human author a great amount of influence in my understanding of the Bible. When I teach the Bible, I want to have the confidence to say, “Thus says the Lord” because I have done the hard labor of study. If I cheat and simply read the fruit of someone else’s study, then I am not truly being a biblical expositor; I am simply a parrot.
But there is one exception to my rule when I will actually begin with either an expositional commentary or a devotional commentary. That is when I have studied the text in-depth for myself and I am left completely without a clue as to how I would preach or teach this particular text. I may understand the words, sentences, and paragraphs, but how I can teach this particular passage has stumped me. At this point, I will choose a faithful devotional or expositional commentary and read the section I am studying. This will usually help me see how the author taught it and clarifies for me the main idea to teach. At this point, I stop reading and begin going through the list as I gave it above, beginning with the more technical commentaries and moving down the list.
I don’t necessarily think that this method is the only way of using commentaries, but it works for me and helps guard my heart against taking the route which might cause me to shortcut my study. What about you? How have you used commentaries that have helped your study? What are your favorites and why? If you have any followup questions about how I use commentaries, let me know. I’d love to help.
 I’ve added the Amazon.com links to each of these commentary series’ to help you identify them. I have done this for reference only and don’t necessarily endorse everything in them. Also, I don’t gain anything from you purchasing a book through the link. Shop around, you might find great deals elsewhere. More money saved means more money for books!
The debate between premillenarians and other millenarians hangs to a large extent upon the principles of interpretation of Scripture which each group employs. This is commonly recognized by all parties. The amillenarian Albertus Pieters states, “The question whether the Old Testament prophecies concerning the people of God must be interpreted in their ordinary sense, as other Scriptures are interpreted, or can properly be applied to the Christian Church, is called the question of spiritualization of prophecy. This is one of the major problems in biblical interpretation, and confronts everyone who makes a serious study of the Word of God. It is one of the chief keys to the difference of opinion between Premillenarians and the mass of Christian scholars. The former reject such spiritualization, the latter employ it; and as long as there is no agreement on this point the debate is interminable and fruitless.”3 In principles of interpretation the crux of the controversy is revealed.
The premillennial position is that the Bible should be interpreted in its ordinary grammatical and historical meaning in all areas of theology unless contextual or theological reasons make it clear that this was not intended by the writer. Amillenarians use the literal method in theology as a whole but spiritualize Scripture whenever its literal meaning would lead to the premillennial viewpoint. This is obviously a rather subjective principle and open to manipulation by the interpreter to sustain almost any system of theology. The conservative amillenarian claims to confine spiritualization to the field of prophecy and interpret other Scriptural revelation literally. Thus a conservative amillenarian would accept literally passages teaching the deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, the resurrection of Christ, and similar doctrines. They would denounce as heretics anyone who would tamper with these fundamental doctrines—as Origen, the father of amillenarianism, most certainly did. Conservative amillenarians would, however, feel perfectly justified in proceeding to spiritualize passages speaking of a future righteous government on earth, of Israel’s regathering to Palestine, and of Christ reigning literally upon the earth for a thousand years. Their justification is that these doctrines are absurd and impossible and that therefore they must be spiritualized. The wish is father of the interpretation, therefore, and amillennial interpretation of Scripture abundantly illustrates this.