Balance your Commentators

If you watch sports, what you receive goes far beyond the specific game itself, and to some degree, even beyond the sport itself. Part of how this occurs is through the professionals who are sharing comments and conducting interviews with relevant persons throughout the game.

In preparing to speak, it is likely–and certainly highly expected–that you will interact with books and articles by people with sufficient expertise to help you provide a better message than if you relied only on your own knowledge and experiences.

The challenge: You won’t have time to read all the information available on your selected passage.

Biblical Studies is one of the oldest disciplines in the world, and there are a mountain of resources on every phrase in every sentence of the Bible, not to mention books on what people believe it all means and how it weaves together. You’re going to have to select a limited number of resources from which to draw.

Especially if you are doing a series of sermons or classes, it is likely that you will be able to rely on the same resources for multiple lessons. So how should you select the resources you’ll use?

Types of Commentators

There are at least three kinds of commentators that people use in professional sports:

  • Play-by-Play Commentators. These are the people who talk about specifically what is happening in the game, on the field or court. What is actually happening? Who scored? On whom was the penalty called? How many minutes are left?
  • Color Commentators. These are often people with significant personal expertise, such as a retired professional of the sport. They will share stories, give statistics, and provide research into the bigger picture of what is going on in the game and with the team.
  • Sports Reporters / Journalists. These are the people with a handheld microphone who get close to the players and coaches to ask them their perspectives and reflections on what is happening.

Imagine watching a game where only one type of commentator was available. Play-by-Play is helpful, but if that were all you were getting, you might wish for someone to tell you a little more about the background with the players, or help you make sense of what is happening in the bigger picture. If all you had is color commentary, you might wish sometimes someone would tell you who it was who just scored that point. Balance is helpful.

Selecting Commentaries

If I am doing a deep dive into a topic before formally beggining a series or study, my research can involve a lot more angles and opinions. But for me, from week to week, I find it difficult to engage meaningfully with more than about 3-4 resources in preparation for Sunday. Some of what makes for good sports coverage also makes for good lesson preparation.

There are untold thousands of Bible books and commentaries available from every slant you could imagine. If I can only select 3-4 to work with extensively, I try to think of these angles:

  • An in-depth verse-by-verse resource. What is going on in the linguistic structure of these verses? Some resources excel at a microscopic view of all that is being said and what it might mean.
  • A wide-view resource. How do I understand this passage in light of the larger biblical picture? How do I zoom out and make sense of it all? Recently, there are theological commentaries and historical commentaries (What did ancient writers say about this passage?) that I’ve found helpful.
  • A personal application resource. Sermons shouldn’t just be abstract theological ideas, though they should grapple with them. What is the personal side of this text? If a person were to take it seriously, how might it transform his or her life? What does it mean for us in our context?
  • A trusted guide. Like a good Color Commentator, I often select a commentary based on an author or editor I’ve come to trust. If you don’t know what names are good names, ask a friend with some theological training.
  • A fresh angle. Sometimes my best resources for sermons will be resources not created with preaching in mind. As you prepare, if you can see a clear theme emerging in your study that you’d like to lean into, what is a resource that can give you a unique angle into the topic? If preparing to preach on the parables, so many of them are rooted in rural farming, what if you picked up either a “Farming for Dummies” type book, or an acclaimed novel based in agrarian life? If I’m going to study Philippians, which deals with joy in the face of hardship, I might grab a supplemental resource on overcoming negative thinking. If studying Philemon and the harsh dynamics expected of a master with a runaway slave, I might grab a biography of a freed slave, or research on the psychology of forgiveness.

In piecing all of this together, the good news is that you can often find a single resource that fills more than one of these roles. For example, I have been preaching a series on Abraham. Some of my primary resources are:

  • Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, from the Interpretation Commentary Series. Brueggemann’s book checks multiple boxes. He’s a leading Old Testament exegetical scholar and the book aims at providing help in interpretation due to the slant of the commentary series.
  • John Goldingay, Genesis, from the Baker Commentary Series. I know of Goldingay as a superb theologian and Bible translator. I know the Baker series as being an exhaustive verse-by-verse and passage by passage sort of resource.
  • Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis. A Jewish scholar, he writes well on extended cultural backgrounds of the stories and provides a framework for modern interpretation. He’s useful in that as a Jew he isn’t trying to read Scripture through Christian eyes. The stories have to stand on their own. It’s helpful to think from another angle without jumping ahead too quickly to where it is all leading in Christ.
  • Honestly, the Abraham series is intensely personal to me. When I prepared to move over 800 miles away from my family, the passage I read and prayed about most was Abraham accepting God’s call to go to an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people. I feel its joys and hardships. I’ve lived it and am living it. I relate well to extended years without children, and at this point, I have an only son. There is almost no part of Abraham’s story that doesn’t feel personal to me. (Granted, I’ve never tried to pass off my wife as my sister to hand over to a foreign dictator, but we’ll leave that and a few other episodes aside.) Because of how well I relate emotionally to these stories, I haven’t felt as much of a need for a random angle in my research. I don’t talk about myself often, but my content in this series is undoubtedly shaped by my experiences.

My point is that several of these hit on more than one useful angle. As a whole, if all you do is in-depth verse studies you may fail to make useful application or to understand the passage in the larger context of the Biblical story. If all you do is theology or application you could fail to take into account significant details about the text that might undermine the direction you wish to go. (Happens to all of us occasionally!)

Select a reasonable number of quality resources to help you prepare that represent different important angles.

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  1. Thank you for sharing this, Mark! Not sure when you find time for all this. Appreciate all you do!

    1. As always, thanks for reading. The key to getting extra things done is working on them just a few minutes at a time in between bigger things! 🙂

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