Anyone who knows me or has seen my office or home library, knows that I’m a connoisseur of commentaries. I “fell in love” with them in seminary (another story for another time) and have been collecting them ever since. Why do I think they are so valuable and helpful for preachers and students of God’s Word? First, by using great commentaries, you’re interacting with the best scholarship in the world and in most cases, with Christians who have been gifted to teach the Scriptures (Eph. 4:11).
Second, I find that reading through commentaries helps me to meditate on God’s Word (Ps. 1). They cause me to chew on each verse and even each word more slowly and to reflect on the flow of thought in the passage each time I read another commentary. This continual intake prepares my heart to preach and usually ensures that the point of the passage becomes the point of the message. Third, by interacting with commentaries, it helps me say things in new ways. It’s easy for me to use the same vocabulary or style week after week, or to repeat the same truths in the same way, which can be tedious for the listener. But reading the “personality” and style of each author expands my thinking and vocabulary and helps me to say things more creatively for the benefit of the listener (and of course, if I use a quote I always give credit). Fourth, by using a commentary, you’re often benefiting from the fruit of decades of labor. Since you have limited time to prepare a message each week, you can’t take 5-10 years to study a book of the Bible as scholars and commentators often do. But by reading 10 commentaries, you may be tapping into about 100 years worth of research and study. What we could never do in a lifetime for just one book of the Bible, we can glean from experts on any book of the Bible, which helps us overcome the time-crunch each week. Fifth, even after years of classes on Greek and Hebrew I know that I do not have a mastery of the biblical languages like D. A. Carson, Douglas Moo, Peter O’Brien, or Allen Ross. Without commentaries as a guide, pastors can know just enough of the languages to be dangerous. And while I’ve been accused of using too many commentaries, I hope to discuss in a different article why I believe many pastors use too few. So, with all that being said, for the last two years I’ve been preaching through the gospel according to Mark. I’ve taken some breaks here or there to do expository-topical series on prophecy, financial stewardship, mercy ministries, and some stand-alone sermons interspersed. But after about fifty-five messages in Mark, we’re currently working our way through chapter fourteen. It has been a rich time in the Word for the church and has deepened our appreciation for Christ in dramatic ways, specifically what it really means to know Him and follow Him (image created by Joyce Kerns, staff member of our church). During the many blessed hours of study, I’ve come to discover and appreciate numerous resources and commentaries (some not so well-known) for preaching the gospels and in particular, the gospel of Mark. If you’re thinking about starting a series on the gospels, the following commentaries and resources will help you put together the most exegetically accurate, theologically rigorous, and homiletically helpful Christ-centered expository sermons. I’ve broken them down into five categories: 1. Introductions and Overviews 2. Don’t Miss 3. Worth Your Time 4. If You Have Extra Time 5. Don’t Waste Your Time
1. INTRODUCTIONS AND OVERVIEWS
Mark as Story (2nd edition) by Rhoads, Dewey, and Michie For the discerning reader (which you obviously are if you’re reading The Cripplegate), Mark as Story is a great resource. I read it about 15 years ago in seminary and it caused me to deeply appreciate Mark’s gospel, which up until then I never liked as much as Matthew, Luke, or John. While the authors are not as conservative or objective as I’d wish (e.g. one author’s feminist theology creeps in), their insights into characters, settings, plot, structure, and themes are crucial for digging into Mark. They’ll assist you in understanding how powerful and compelling the narrative is and with keeping the big picture in mind which will help you as you preach through each paragraph.
The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary edited by Burge and Hill If you can take some time to read James Edwards’ abbreviated commentary in this excellent resource before you begin, it will serve you well (the same could be said about Alan Cole’s section on Mark in the New Bible Commentary. Cole’s overview is about 30 pages long and Edwards’ is less than 50 pages). The Baker commentary will give you a bird’s eye view and prevent you from missing the forest for the trees. If nothing else, it’s a great book to own and probably the best one-volume commentary on the market (the 2-volume Bible Knowledge Commentary is also a great resource to have and Grassmick’s work on Mark in the BKC is superb).
The Chronological Life of Christ by Mark Moore This is a gem. Moore weaves together all of the gospels chronologically into one seamless story (following Thomas’ and Gundry’s NIV Harmony of the Gospels), but does so while also being sensitive to the unique character of each gospel. He shares excellent insights on the Scriptures, helps you have a broader view of the life of Christ than Mark’s abbreviated account, explains important cultural backgrounds, and he interacts extensively with relevant journal articles. This book will definitely help you preach through Mark or any gospel and I’m surprised it’s not a more mainstream resource.
A Theology of Mark: The Dynamic between Christology and Authentic Discipleship by Hans Bayer This book had some strong parts and some weak parts, but Bayer does bring out some important insights on Christ and discipleship and presents some useful introductory material. You don’t have to read the whole thing before preaching on Mark. It’s organized topically and you can use the Scripture index for help. The fact that Packer, Chapell, and Grudem recommended it may pique your interest. If you want more introductory resources, check out Four Portraits, One Jesus: A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels by Mark Strauss and Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, (2nd edition) by Craig Blomberg. The most helpful introduction to the book that I read was the section on Mark in The Cradle, and the Cross, and the Crown by Köstenberger, Kellum, and Quarles.
The Gospel according to Mark, Pillar New Testament Commentary Series, by James Edwards Hands down, this is the best commentary on Mark. You will run to this book each week – it’s that enjoyable. Edwards is a first-class scholar with captivating insights on the biblical text – from word studies, cultural backgrounds, and history, to themes and chiastic structures. He is thorough, lucid, warm, conservative, and Christ-centered. If you can only read one commentary on Mark while preparing to preach, this is the one!
Mark, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, by Robert H. Stein While Stein is not the most engaging author to interact with, and at times he’s too hung up on redaction criticism, he’s also a first-rate scholar who leaves no exegetical stone unturned in this 800-page technical commentary. What I like best about his offering is that he carefully explains various interpretations and argues for what he believes is the best one. Most of the time, you’ll probably agree with him. Beyond that, it’s just a solid, thorough commentary that explains the text, and one that I found myself liking more and more as I used it. If some parts are dry, or one chapter is not as strong – don’t give up. It gets better. I also noticed that at times Stein brought in some important word studies and Jewish or Greco-Roman background information that was beneficial, while other writers did not include them.
Mark, Believer’s Church Bible Commentary, by Timothy J. Geddert This was the find of the decade for me. After reading some commentary surveys, I was surprised that hardly any included Geddert’s work. Geddert is an expert on Mark – he knows the book backwards and forwards and this helps you put certain pieces together while working through each paragraph. His insights on the text and structure of the narrative are invaluable. Along with his explanation section, he has sections on “the text in biblical context” (on theology/canonical connections) and “the text in the life of the church” (on application), as well as helpful introductory comments and essays at the end. This is a gem, a diamond that most don’t unearth.
Luke, Reformed Expository Commentary, by Philip Ryken (2 Volumes) The Gospel of Matthew, by James Montgomery Boice (2 Volumes) Why use a commentary on Luke when preaching through Mark? Two reasons. Any commentary by Ryken is top-notch and a must-read. And, this series (REC) is one of the best blends of scholarship and pastoral sensitivity. The book is essentially Ryken’s manuscripts of his messages, but it’s obvious that a ton of study and homiletical work went into each sermon. The commentary not only helps you put together some missing pieces of the puzzle from another gospel (in light of Mark’s concise, action-packed style), but helps you move from explanation to application. All of the above could be said about James Montgomery Boice’s two-volume work on Matthew. He helped me immensely and is such a gifted teacher and writer that you can’t help but improve your preaching skills by reading Boice.
Matthew, NIV Application Commentary, by Michael Wilkins Matthew, Preaching the Word, by Douglas O’Donnell While we’re talking about interacting with other gospel commentaries – to not only learn about the parallel accounts, but as time allows, to fill in some blanks – I highly recommend Wilkin’s 1000-page commentary. He shares some insights that I found in no other commentaries and does a masterful job explaining the text. For instance, while preparing a recent message on the Passover and the Lord’s Supper, Wilkins included some very important insights on genuine 1st century Passover feasts which other writers left out. He also explained the Old Testament background of “birth pains” in the Olivet Discourse which few others did. You’ll want Wilkins by your side while preaching through any of the synoptics. Most of what I said about Wilkins could be said about O’Donnell. His commentary sings and will make you want to preach. Get it and use it. Trust me! It’s one of the best commentaries in the Preaching the Word series. I also found Doriani’s commentaries on Matthew in the REC series (2 volumes) insightful and inspiring.
Exalting Jesus in Mark, Christ-Centered Exposition, by Daniel Akin Akin’s work is actually not as Christ-centered as David Platt’s work on Matthew in the same series, but it’s a well-rounded expositional commentary with a devotional appeal. It’s an excellent tool for sermon preparation. While I won’t go into details for the rest, the other “Don’t Miss” commentaries are Mark (2 volumes) in the Preaching the Word series by R. Kent Hughes, Let’s Study Mark by Sinclair Ferguson, Mark in the NIVAC series by David Garland (up there with Edwards’ work), “Mark” in Warren Wiersbe’s Bible Exposition Commentary (vol. 1), and Mark by Sproul in the St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary series. Sproul’s commentary reveals that he’s just as gifted a preacher as he is a theologian. However, his preterist view of Mark 13 is not only weak, but in some cases, strange (e.g. pp. 351-2 about Josephus’ report of visions being proof of Christ’s coming in the clouds in 70 A.D. is weird and unlike the typical careful methodology Sproul employs). The average reader could read the handful of pages for the passage that week in each of the commentaries in the “Don’t Miss” category, along with taking notes, in less than 3-5 hours. 3. WORTH YOUR TIME
If you have time to do more study beyond the “Don’t Miss” commentaries, I recommend the following: The Servant Who Rules and The Ruler Who Serves by Ray Stedman King’s Cross / (renamed) Jesus the King by Timothy Keller It’s always helpful to interact with preachers from a different generation and Stedman is a great expositor. These are not technical commentaries like some of the above, but summaries of his sermons. Stedman will provoke your thinking as a pastor/preacher. The same could be said about King’s Cross by Timothy Keller, though he skips a number of sections in Mark.
A Ransom for Many by Steve Wilmshurst Just as it’s important to interact with teachers from other generations, whether it’s Stedman or Luther or Calvin’s commentary on the gospels, or others throughout church history, it’s also profitable to interact with teachers from other countries. Wilmshurst is British and I found that reading his work helped me to think “outside of America” and to appreciate another perspective. He also provides some rich food for thought and has a delightful way with words which will stimulate your thinking/preaching.
The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary by Ben Withingerton III While I’m cautious with Witherington because of his Arminian leanings and I’m still not quite sure what to make of his theories about Greco-Roman rhetoric in the gospels, his commentary is good and he shares some great cultural background material.
Mark, The Life Application Bible Commentary This is written by five scholars, with Grant Osborne as the general editor and Philip Comfort as the series editor. I was pleasantly surprised by this commentary. It’s much deeper than the notes in the Life Application Study Bible and is, in fact, helpfully semi-technical at times. It also covers all the important bases, has useful charts and lists, and steers you in the right direction for application. This was my first time using a commentary from this series but I’m definitely interested in using others in the future.
Matthew, MacArthur New Testament Commentary Series (4 volumes), by John MacArthur After preaching through the gospels for 40 years, we obviously have some things to learn from Dr. MacArthur. While the chapters read like sermon manuscripts (because they basically are), it is a very useful commentary series. MacArthur is not only the master of cross-references and doctrinal insights, he also helps you put all the gospels together so that you don’t miss important facets of the life of Christ which Mark omits. You might not include this information in your sermons on Mark, but it will prevent you from mistakenly saying things about chronology, etc. that might contradict the other gospels. MacArthur’s two-volume commentary on Mark is forthcoming.
4. IF YOU HAVE EXTRA TIME
If you have extra time, Brook’s book in the NAC series is good, but most of the same ideas are repeated in the other commentaries (the same could be said about Hurtado’s commentary in the Understanding the Bible series). Exploring Mark by George Knight is very good, and surprisingly his Seventh-Day Adventist theology rarely impacts his writings, but I wouldn’t call the book essential. Michael Card’s Mark: The Gospel of Passion is useful if you have extra time. As a protégé of William Lane and as a musician, Card evokes the imagination in his creative commentary. J.C. Ryle’s commentary is great but most of the nuggets are in Ryken’s work. Mark: A Theological Commentary for Preachers by Abraham Kuruvilla sometimes takes a unique approach and combines sections in an unnatural way to me (longer chunks that are harder for me to preach in one message), but he has some great theological and homiletical insights. Hiebert’s work is also good, but I felt that the “Don’t Miss” commentaries covered most of what he shared.
Most people will be surprised to hear that I did not find Lane’s work (NICNT) or France’s commentary (NIGTC) that helpful. Lane’s is a bit dated (written in 1974, it’s based on the KJV), and the other commentaries that I mentioned earlier all take Lane’s work into account while also having more strengths (although I felt that Lane’s commentary improved from Mark 14-16). France often overly-dissects words and phrases without explaining the flow of the sentence or paragraph. It’s quite technical for preparing a message, and while I like technical commentaries (and many other volumes in the NIGTC series) and love preaching deep messages that are also gospel-centered, I personally felt it had little pastoral value and would be best suited for translators (It reminded me of the Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament series. Your time would be better served reading Strauss’s work in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series).
Some people are offended or shocked by my pass on Lane and France (I’ve had previous experience with this), but it’s just my personal opinion. You might find them beneficial. I also do not recommend the two volumes in the Word Biblical Commentary series as well as the volume by William Hendriksen. When time is limited, a pastor needs something that will help him exegetically, theologically, and homiletically, although it’s rare to find a commentary that can balance all three. The WBC missed the mark for me in these last two areas (a constraint of the series) and was overly critical. Hendriksen doesn’t contain anything that you won’t find in the “Don’t Miss” ones. The Victory according to Mark by Mark Horne was disappointing – too brief and too biased by the author’s tradition. I also gave N.T. Wright’s Mark for Everyone a chance but did not find it helpful. It’s very short, superficially handling the Scriptures (a constraint of the series) and Wright’s theology is imposed on the text. The Message of Mark by Donald English in The Bible Speaks Today series just doesn’t measure up to Stott’s work in that series. English has flashes of greatness but not enough. Gundry’s work on Mark seemed forced. He makes some exegetical leaps that I couldn’t buy into (which isn’t surprising in light of recent events). The same could be said of Bruner’s Churchbook (2 volumes on Matthew): strained exegesis. Cole’s work in the Tyndale series is very brief as it’s intended to be for that series, but it also didn’t offer anything unique.
For some honorable mentions, I strongly recommend you listen to Sam Storms’ series on Mark (barring his partial-preterist view of Mark 13). The messages are available through Bridgeway Church’s podcast and Storms’ detailed notes are on the website (and you won’t hear anything about his views on prophecy except maybe during a closing prayer). Akin’s commentary quotes Storms quite frequently, and after listening, you’ll see why. I also recommend you listen to MacArthur’s series on Mark during your preparations (or read his manuscripts online). They combine all his years of preaching through the gospels in a “fast-paced” series for MacArthur.
Darrell Bock’s Jesus according to Scripture is considered to be an updated version of Pentecost’s The Words and Works of Jesus Christ and is a great “overview” resource combining the synoptics chronologically with a separate section on John. And for when you wrestle with how to end the gospel of Mark, I recommend Perspectives on the Ending of Mark by Daniel Wallace, Darrell Bock, Maurice Robinson, and Keith Elliott, edited by David Alan Black. John MacArthur’s sermon on this was great (“The Fitting End to Mark’s Gospel”). He used the textual problem to speak about inerrancy, textual criticism, and the trustworthiness of the Bible. At the end of the day, if you can use the dozen or so “Don’t Miss” commentaries, you’ll be well-equipped as you prayerfully study God’s Word and will be well-prepared to preach it for the good of the flock and the glory of God. p.s. While commentary surveys are very useful (like D.A. Carson’s or Rosscup’s or Glynn’s), www.bestcommentaries.com has ratings and reviews of commentaries for free.