The Anatomy of a Sermon – Study Bibles & Commentaries

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

The first stop on the road to preparing a sound, expository sermon should definitely be the Bible work. Once that has been given lavish attention, there is most certainly a place for consulting a variety of sources about the text. God has given tremendous insight into His word to various ones throughout the centuries, and we are well served to consult them, especially in areas of difficultly or controversy. Exclusively trusting our own insights is the height of arrogance and folly.

Let’s divide our consideration into two categories: study Bibles and commentaries.

Study Bibles

I prefer to start by reading through the notes of multiple study Bibles, since the content in a study Bible is by nature limited and more high level. A study Bible helps unpack the meaning of a text without going into extreme detail, and when several are consulted, a number of different perspectives emerge.

Here are the four that I consult on a weekly basis, usually in this order:

  • Nelson’s NKJV Study Bible. My Nelson is the most basic of the four, and I don’t mean that in a negative way at all. It consistently provides straightforward, right-down-the-middle explanations, which is a great way to start the extended study of any Scripture text.
  • The ESV Study Bible. This one is probably my favorite, though not making the others dispensable by any stretch. I do love the maps and pictures which are sprinkled throughout.
  • The MacArthur Study Bible. Compiled by arguably the best Bible expositor of our lifetime, I almost always find something extremely valuable in these notes. I wouldn’t think of not consulting Dr. MacArthur’s notes during my preparations.
  • The Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible. Released just last year (2014), this offering by Joel Beeke and crew is a welcome addition. The notes are the most consistently Reformed of the four, and I normally benefit from the “Thoughts for Personal/Family Worship” section which concludes every chapter.

At the time of this post, all four of these study Bibles can be acquired for a total of just in excess of $100, so the costs aren’t prohibitive at all.

The genius of these four study Bibles is found in the distinctions. They are different enough to all be indispensable in the grouping. The last thing a studying pastor should want is to sequester himself in an echo chamber with only sources which never contradict his own inclinations. Having a diversity of sources with at least slightly different perspectives is beyond a good idea. It is safe. And beginning with these more limited, summary level sources actually helps me to be ready for what comes next.


After having gotten my feet wet, so speak, with the study Bibles, more comprehensive commentaries then provide greater depth and breadth. They provide more information and more fully treat the difficulties and controversies in the text.

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. At the time of this post, this hardcover set (12 volumes; 8 Old Testament plus 4 New Testament) costs in excess of $500, so this is a significant investment, but there are two things I love about this set. First, it is reliably reliable. It has a wealth of information, and the viewpoints advanced are consistently sound. Secondly, it is very broad, providing visibility to even unsound viewpoints and scholarship, though only advancing what is sound. As a preacher, I need to be aware of the false interpretations being advanced by professing Christian scholars, so that I can proactively teach against these false doctrines when necessary. This commentary set also makes me aware of modern scholarship, since my preferred commentators are normally brothers from bygone centuries.
  • Matthew Poole. Several years ago I stumbled across a quote from J.C. Ryle, my favorite author, where he commended Matthew Poole as the preeminent English Bible commentator. Since Poole was the favorite of my favorite, I said, “I have to get that!” And I haven’t been disappointed. Matthew Poole is rigidly exegetical, sticking to commenting on the words of the text, and articulately concise, getting to the point and saying it well in an amazingly few words. If you only had 15 minutest to prepare a sermon, you would want to read Poole. At a current cost of $40 for the 3-volume set, buying it makes you the big winner.
  • Matthew Henry. Is anyone more quotable than Matthew Henry? I doubt it… If you are looking for incredible insight, said in a memorable way, look no further. At a current cost of about $55 for the 3-volume set, owning Henry is essential. On the weeks when I wonder if I’ll have the time to read all of my commentaries, I always scratch out the time to consult Matthew Henry.
  • Various and sundry. Some of the most helpful insight on a book of the Bible is not part of a Genesis-to-Revelation set. For instance, when our church was studying 1 Peter, my most beloved commentary for that became this one by Robert Leighton, which is a one-off book on just 1 Peter, not part of any set. Suggestion: Google “the best commentary for the book of _______” (fill in the blank). A number of ranking lists will pop up, and by comparing a few of them from sources you recognize and trust, you will find some great resources. Ligonier (R.C. Sproul and team) and Tim Challies often have helpful rankings. If we only use commentary sets, we will be missing some of the best available content.

As I read the notes in the study Bibles and the content from the more comprehensive commentaries, I highlight what I find to be the most important, relevant, and insightful sentences and then put them in my study file. Here is what my study file looked like after having done that, using a sermon on Nehemiah 13:10-14 as an example:

Final Study Notes

If you want to see the whole file, you can access it here.

On an average week, this represents 3-5 hours of work.

At this point in the process, the reading I intended to do is complete. The topic of the next post will be preparation for writing the sermon.

The Anatomy of a Sermon – Bible Work

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

Does it even need to be said that sermon preparation should start with the Bible work? By “Bible work” I mean the direct study of the sermon text itself, and the related cross-references, as opposed to what others say about the sermon text.

It is a great temptation to just skip to what Matthew Henry says (for instance), but a temptation which must be resisted. What quicker way can we imagine to quench the Spirit than an unhealthy – borderline idolatrous – reliance on men? Sermon preparation should begin with a quiet room and a Bible. The most important work in preparing a sound, expository sermon happens then.

Week in and week out, this describes my Bible work:

Men’s Bible study. At Sovereign Redeemer, the men and boys who are willing and able meet for an hour on Monday morning to discuss the text that will be preached on the upcoming Sunday. Leading that discussion gets me into the text at the start of the week, and gives me exposure to the thoughts of a variety of men regarding the text. If there are particular interpretive challenges, I become aware of them right away.

Searching out the best cross-references. The most important principle of Bible interpretation (or hermeneutic) is that Scripture interprets Scripture. Other related texts of Scripture are always the best commentary on the sermon text, and always the best source of explanation for difficulties in the sermon text. Always. So, after reading the sermon text slowly several times, and earnestly seeking the Lord for help, this is where I start. I look up every cross-reference from four sources (three study Bibles and Matthew Poole) one by one, looking at each in context and considering the bearing of each on the sermon text. My guess is that 75% of the finished sermon comes from this exercise. I cannot stress enough how invaluable this step is.

Comparing translations. Years ago, at an expository preaching conference, Dr. Andy Davis gave a message in which he said that if a preacher hasn’t studied the original languages (Hebrew in the Old Testament, Greek in the New), the next best thing is a comparison of reliable English translations. At points of translational agreement, the English word uniformly selected by the translators is a close equivalent to the word in the original language. At points of translational variation, the underlying Hebrew or Greek word is worth researching. Having never studied Hebrew or Greek, this has been very valuable advice for me. I use Bible Gateway, an online tool which allows for side-by-side comparison of selected translations. Here is the link that I use, which compares NKJV, KJV, NASB, ESV, and NIV.

Looking at the original language. For very prominent, important words in the text, and for places where significant translational variation exists, I look at the Hebrew or Greek. I use the online tool Blue Letter Bible. By entering the text, then selecting the verse, then selecting the Strong’s number for the word in question, a multitude of information is made available. Not only is information from the Lexicon very valuable, but the other places where the same word is used is displayed. Looking at the other usages of the same word is often pure gold.

Creating a basic outline. At this point I make a first attempt at creating a high level structure for the sermon. Having done the Bible work, I should have begun forming a view of how the text could or should be preached, and this forces me to begin articulating that. This first outline usually represents no more than fifteen minutes of scribbling on a legal pad, but it moves my thinking from what I am learning to how I might communicate what I am learning, which are vastly different things.

When all of this is complete, I have the beginnings of my study file, which I continue to populate throughout the week. For this series of posts, I am going to use a recent sermon that I preached on Nehemiah 13:10-14 titled “Forsaking the House of God” as an example. Here is what my study file looked like after having completed the Bible work I have been describing:

Study File

If you want to see the whole file, you can access it here.

A few things to point out:

  • I start by separating the verses of the sermon text, so that each verse of the sermon text begins a section of the material related to that verse.
  • Within the verse of the sermon text, I note any translational variations and/or facts about the original language in brackets and red text.
  • The cross-references are below each verse of the sermon text.
  • On an average week, the Bible work requires 3-4 hours.
  • As the week progresses and I continue to study, new material goes below the cross-references.

In my next post, I will discuss the outside helps – the study Bibles and commentaries – that I utilize to help me better understand the sermon text.

* As a side note, fantastic Bible study tools exist that are not even referenced in this post. I have not invested in these yet, but I have no doubt of their tremendous value. If you are interested, here is a detailed review of two of them.

The Anatomy of a Sermon – Introduction

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

In my last post, titled “A Preacher’s Building Blocks,” I argued that every time a preacher undertakes the painstaking task of preparing a sound, expository sermon, that preacher gains a rich deposit for his use in the future, a “building block” so to speak. I closed that post by threatening to write about the methods I use to prepare and then deliver what I hope are sound, expository sermons. I now attempt to make good on that threat.

Two preliminary comments:

1. I know that I have many, many superiors in this category.

2. None of this is “secret sauce” which should be employed by everyone or which guarantees success.

Still, these are methods employed by one man (me) who has been doing this week in and week out for several years now, and I hope that many will find that this stimulates thought, whether or not the methods themselves are emulated.

These are the posts that will follow:

Stay tuned.

A Preacher’s Building Blocks

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

Every sound, expository sermon becomes a building block for the man who preached it. What I mean is that the preparation required to preach a sound, expository sermon becomes a rich deposit which is then at the disposal of the one who did that work.

Having preached most Sundays for the last four years, I know this is true. You can listen to my early sermons and my later sermons and tell that I have more building blocks at my disposal now than I did then. Every week that a text of Scripture is studied to the depth required to give a faithful exposition, so much is learned, so many connections in Scripture are uncovered, so many applications are considered. And this accumulates week by week, and all things being equal, causes sermons to have more depth and breadth over time.

Here are a couple of implications:

Preaching rotations have their “cons”.  There are some “pros” to ongoing preaching rotations, but a definite disadvantage is that each preacher has less building blocks. Any preacher will tell you that only a fraction of what is learned in preparing to preach a sermon can possibly be learned in the hearing of it. The preparation for a sermon might easily consume ten to fifteen intensely focused hours, while the hearing of it rarely exceeds a partially focused one. When one man has the primary responsibility to preach sequentially through a book of the Bible, he has the definite advantage of acquiring building blocks all along the way, and building blocks that are closely related to upcoming sermons at that. For each new sermon, he is reaching back and pulling forward things learned in the preceding weeks and months.

Setting aside a man reaps a harvest. Consider again my opening premise: “Every sound, expository sermon becomes a building block for the man who preached it.” A lot goes into that premise. A sound (careful, faithful, precise), expository (true explanation of the Scripture text) sermon doesn’t drop out of the sky. It comes from diligence, prayer, study, thought. It comes from time. When a church buys a man’s time and sends him off to go deep into the text, in order for him to bring them into the depth of it on Sunday, week after week, month after month, and year after year, that church is looking to reap the benefits of that, and they generally do. The ministry of the word is one of the core needs of a local church, and it is hard to imagine that it could be too lavishly provided for.

Church planting multiplies this effect. When Hope Baptist planted Sovereign Redeemer over four years ago, the number of men who were acquiring a new building block each week doubled from one to two. What is the value of that over time and many church plants? Priceless. That is the tragedy of short-circuiting that effect through satellite campuses which pipe in preaching over the jumbotron. Depth that could have been added to the Lord’s people is lost, and we become more dependent on personality and the most gifted communicators. Don’t get me wrong. There is no virtue in bad preaching, and we should praise God for gifted communicators if they are also leading godly lives, but the sound preaching of a truly local shepherd is to be preferred to John Piper on the jumbotron every time.

I hope these thoughts are useful, and I plan for them to be the introduction of a short series of posts titled “The Anatomy of a Sermon,” where I will outline the methods I use to prepare and then deliver what I hope are sound, expository sermons.

Getting Started with Family Worship

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

I recently fielded an inquiry from a father with young children about getting started with family worship. He was looking for recommended Bible study materials, and here are some thoughts that I passed along to him.

– Starting now is a great idea. Young ones pick up more than we think. Just be careful to start with a reasonable schedule (not too long, grow into longer times), so that it isn’t needlessly exasperating for Mom and child. These should be tender, wonderful times that shape your children’s memories of family life, not a chore that they come to dread.

– Nothing is better than the Bible itself, and nothing communicates your trust in the Bible more than just sequentially working through different books of the Bible, slowly and patiently. It makes sense to have a study Bible or commentary (or both) close by for when you hit difficulties or hard questions, but just refer to these when necessary, don’t rely on them.

– Sing a song together that is theologically rich, you open in prayer, take turns reading the Scripture text, talk about what you read, then all pray together. In the early years, this might be 10 or 15 minutes. Much later it might be 30 to 45. At first, just read a few verses, maybe 6-10. I have older children (20-9), so we try to tackle something like half a chapter per day. My children all learned to read early because they wanted to be able to take their turn at reading aloud. That made them eager to learn.

– Make it worship of the living God! I have seen the same basic format done by some passionately and with a real heart of worship, and by others mechanically and lifelessly. Same routine, radically different results. This requires, of course, that you actually have a vigorous spiritual life yourself, and that you are continually repenting and dealing with your own areas of hypocrisy. This will prove to be one great blessings of your life. Don’t cheat it by settling for less than real worship.

There is more that could be said, of course, but I hope this is helpful to fathers who are just getting started.

If this is an area of interest, here is a post about my own journey to establishing family worship.

“The Playbook” by Carlton McCleod

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

I have been reading and enjoying Carlton McCleod’s new book, “The Playbook”. The premise of the book is that the Church has lost and must recapture its prophetic voice in the world. In our search for relevance, we have actually become irrelevant because we have both abandoned a bold declaration of the truth of God’s word and invalidated our words by our compromises with the world.

Pastor McCleod’s book is an unapologetic call for Christ’s Church to reclaim her rightful place as the pillar and ground of the truth.

Here is one of the nuggets of gold regarding family reformation:

“When an old rugged cross is planted in the middle of the family, it changes and conforms to God’s vision!”

There are many more. You can acquire the book at the link above. I heartily commend it to you.

Spurgeon on God Whispering in Your Ear

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

The modern church is overrun with people who are certain that God whispers in their ear practically every day. Never mind that so much of the “God told me” talk is proven to be objectively false after the fact or contradicts God’s specific revelation, the Bible.

It turns out, and not surprisingly, that this is not a new phenomenon. Here is a humorous portion of Charles Spurgeon’s “Lectures to My Students” (the chapter “On Commenting”, p586), which in spite of the humor makes an incredibly important point:

“A batch of poems was sent me some time ago for The Sword and the Trowel, which were written by a person claiming to be under the immediate influence of the Holy Spirit. He informed me that he was passive, and that what was enclosed was written under the direct physical and mental influence of the Spirit upon his mind and hand. My bookshelves can show many poems as much superior to these pretended inspirations as angels are to bluebottles; the miserable doggerel bore on its face the evidence of imposture. So when I listen to the senseless twaddle of certain wise gentlemen who are always boasting that they alone are ministers of the Spirit, I am ashamed of their pretensions and of them.”

Can anyone just say it like Spurgeon? Methinks he would have a thing or two to say to many of the authors represented in our local Christian bookstores, offering their shaky doctrine and the fruit of their own inclinations as the voice of God.

If you need the voice of God, Genesis through Revelation will more than suffice.

A Wonderful Launch

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

Psalm 127:3-4 says this: “Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb is a reward. 4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth.”

This past Saturday, June 13, 2015, the first Dohm arrow was launched into the world for King Jesus. Here is a pic, taken just a few minutes before we entered the sanctuary.

Dad and Anna 06-13-15

Scott Brown, who officiated Janet and my wedding almost twenty-four years ago, did the same for Anna and Tyler on Saturday. Here are the four points from the wedding sermon, which Scott addressed to the couple:

  1. You are walking through a door. Marriage is God’s holy institution which He loves (Malachi 2:11), so people who marry should understand that they are entering into something that God created for His own purposes.
  2. You are making a home. God wants marriages that bring heaven to earth, creating wonderful little worlds – homes – where God is loved and obeyed, and where the sweetness of His kingdom is known every day.
  3. You are declaring a gospel. As Paul makes so clear in Ephesians 5, marriage is intended to depict Jesus Christ’s life-sacrificing love for His bride, the church, and the bride’s honor for and obedience to Christ.
  4. You are preparing for heaven. Marriage is wonderful because it is a foretaste of the great celebration at the culmination of history, spoken of in Revelation 19:7-9:

“Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and
His wife has made herself ready.” 8 And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints. 9 Then he said to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!'” And he said to me, “These are the true sayings of God.”

What a delight to have launched Tyler and Anna out into the world to serve their King more fruitfully together than they even did apart.

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

Some friends of mine have recently activated, and I think it will prove very helpful to the Lord’s people. The purpose of the site to inform and equip the church, giving Christians who would like to track the debate the latest news, what the Bible has to say, and how persecution of those who are taking a stand for the words of Scripture is taking place.

I hope you find it helpful.

Reprise: “Give Us Youngsville, or We Die!”

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

This was originally posted on April 28, 2011, one month into Sovereign Redeemer’s existence. It is truer now than then. Read on!

The great Scottish reformer, John Knox, was overheard by friends laboring in prayer for his country, repeatedly calling out to God, “Give me Scotland, or I die!”

Sovereign Redeemer Community Church is a month old now, and I am praying that God will give us the spirit of this man, the earnestness and urgency of his prayers for the people around him, and his boldness in proclaiming the gospel. Maybe Youngsville is no Scotland, and maybe none of us are a John Knox, but the heart of our King is the same. We may not be “God’s gift to Youngsville,” but Jesus Christ is, and we are some of His happy subjects. Our being here is no accident, and we are under orders.

Ephesians 2:8-10 says this: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”

Here we are, the workmanship of God, having nothing to boast in except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, with good works to do which have been prepared for us by God Himself. As we walk in them, our neighbors will see and hear, and they “may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

So whether we feel ready for this calling or not, it is upon us. And maybe the questioning of our readiness can work in our favor by making us hungrier and more fervent in our prayers, so that we find ourselves relying more fully on God who is able.

Church planting is about God taking ground. There is nothing remotely sinister about this, since wherever and whenever the government of God spreads, happiness and every good thing abounds. Jesus is the best King there is, and to be His subject is to know a peace that passes understanding. Youngsville needs this just as much as a thousand other towns.

May it be that God Himself has assembled us for this purpose, and that He will teach us – drive us – to labor in prayer, “Give us Youngsville, or we die!”