PHIL: John, it seems like you’ve reached a number of milestones lately, and the one we want to talk about today, I’m really excited about because your life and mine are sort of tied together with the Moody Press, “John MacArthur New Testament Commentary Series.” I first met you at the very first meeting Moody Press hosted to introduce you to potential editors to work on that series. That was in the summer of 1981, and you just recently finished the last volume – 34 years later.
JOHN: Yeah. It went by really fast; and yet, at the same time, it seemed like an interminable thing to produce 33 volumes. I think the average volume is somewhere between 350 and 450 pages. Yeah. That was the first time I met you.
PHIL: The irony is: I’ve worked with you ever since. And yet, the one major publishing project of yours that I’ve never really edited anything on is the Commentary Series. I ended up editing other books for you, but never the commentaries.
JOHN: Yeah, and originally, you made reference to the fact that Moody had the idea to have me do a commentary series. They thought it might take ten years to do it.
PHIL: Right. Yeah, I got a phone call that summer from Jerry Jenkins, and he said, “We’re starting this project.” He said, “Get this. It’s going to take ten years.” That was the biggest project he could envision.
JOHN: He didn’t realize it would take me 35 years to preach it before I could, you know, in the process, get it written. But yeah, and the idea was that I was going to preach through the New Testament, and then there would be a group of editors who would take my sermon transcript – after it was preached, they would be recorded and then turned to transcript. And they would kind of clean it up, and paragraph it, and edit it, and kick it back to me to work on. And it, you know, we kind of tried that a very brief time, and I realized this was never going to work because you – too many chefs spoil the broth, you know?
PHIL: Yeah, plus 12 editors feeding you stuff.
JOHN: From all kinds of angles.
PHIL: You couldn’t keep up with it.
JOHN: All with a kind of a different treatment of things, and maybe different processes. So, it quickly became obvious that I was going to have to narrow this thing down to one person who would just be true to me. So, for the last – well, as you say it, 35 years, there has rarely ever been a week that I wasn’t editing those manuscripts. So I would preach sermons; they would be taped, or recorded, then somebody would type them up – the same lady, Arlene Hampton, typed those manuscripts for almost that whole time. She’s now with the Lord. She knew what I taught maybe better than anybody on the planet, because she personally listened in her ears, and typed. Then I would get a manuscript from her, and then it would go to an editor – because, in preaching, there’s repeats, and redundancies, and there’s no punctuation; there’s no paragraphs.
So, I started out with a guy named Dave Douglass, and for years, he would clean it up, paragraph it, quadruple-space it, and then send it back to me, and I would then use that to write the commentary. I’d have to add a lot because preaching doesn’t cover everything. But what was really helpful with the editing was cleaning it up and then doing one other thing: fact-checking - that if I quoted a verse, I got the reference right, it was quoted correctly. If I quoted some other source, that that quote was right, it was from the right book or the right source.
So, for 35 years, I’ve had manuscripts in my hands up until just a few months ago doing that process. Then I would kick it back to that same editor, who would input pages, and pages, and pages of my corrections. And once that was all inputted, I would see maybe a final galley proof on it, and we’d be – just to be sure there wasn’t anything missed.
PHIL: Yeah, for all the years I’ve known you, you have been working on commentary chapters every week of that time. What are you going to do now with all of that spare time?
JOHN: I’m not going to do the Old Testament.
PHIL: Everybody asks.
JOHN: Everybody says, “Are you going to do the Old Testament?” Some lady said that to me, and I said, “Are you looking at me, ma’am? Are you looking at me? Just look at my face and ask yourself whether – if it took me 35 years to do the New Testament, and there are more books in the Old Testament, and they’re a whole lot longer.”
PHIL: There are many of us praying that the Lord will give you that many years.
JOHN: Well, I’m taking a stab at one chapter in the Old Testament, and I’m not sure when it’ll be available. But maybe within the next year, there will be a commentary on Isaiah 53. I preached through Isaiah 52:13 to 53:12, and I think I took ten sermons, and those were turned into manuscripts. Dave Enos, who did the latter of the commentaries – Dave Douglass did the first batch, and then Dave Enos was my editor on the final. He’s editing those sermons and kicking them back to me on Isaiah 53. So, the process is still going on.
PHIL: Yeah, those two editors did most of the commentaries. There were a couple of other editors who we really ought to credit: Nate Busenitz and Gary Knussman. Was anybody else involved?
JOHN: Not really. Nathan, who teaches at the Master’s Seminary and is part of our pastoral team at Grace Church; and Gary Nussman, who was an editor here at Grace to You, gave some additional help as we needed it. You know, being an extra reader and clarifying. And when we started getting toward the finish, and they started piling up, Nathan was really helpful, because Nathan did some of the work taking it from the rough manuscript and cleaning it up so I could edit it.
PHIL: Now, you gave a sort of brief overview of the process to get the material from the editor and get it back to them and all of that. But actually, your work on these starts with your sermon preparation.
JOHN: Yeah, exactly right. Everything that’s in those commentaries, essentially, was preached. Everything. It starts out with me – usually by Monday afternoon, thinking about what I have to preach on, because I’ve preached through all of these many, many years – Sunday morning, one message; Sunday night, another message. Grace Church has two Sunday morning services, sometimes three, and then one on Sunday night. So I’m doing two different books. That’s how I was able to finish the New Testament by kind of doubling up. So, for me, Monday night, I start thinking about what the next Sunday’s duties are going to be, and the rest of the week, I have to study. I have to prepare. Basically, the intensity of every week – the focal point of every week for me was the time isolated in my study to do all the preparation. Nobody helps me; I don’t have any research assistant. Never had. Nobody ever reads, or edits, or adds to, or makes suggestions, or provides anything for me in that sermon preparation. That’s all my own work. That’s just always the way I’ve loved it and the way I’ve done it.
PHIL: In fact, the process you go through is fascinating. I think you should describe that, because most people probably don’t envision – what are you doing in your study? Just reading? Do you memorize what you want to use? Tell us the process you go through?
JOHN: Well, it sort of ends up being memorized not by a conscious effort to memorize it, but by spending so many hours in a week, in a short, abbreviated passage of Scripture, I pretty much get it in my mind. But the idea for me is to know the text, to go back to the original text in the New Testament, the Greek. And I had a minor in Greek in college. I had 24 units of Greek in college, and then I took more Greek in seminary, ‘cause I knew I wanted to work in the New Testament. Not that I’m a Greek expert, but I had enough that I could work with it. And so I have an 8.5” by 11” sort of a legal pad of paper, and I write down every verse on one sheet, and I just start putting down what I’m drawing out of the original text. And then, I go through reading commentaries. I would read anywhere from a dozen to 20 commentaries. Anybody who might say anything helpful. And what I’m looking for is interpretations, theological insights, historical backgrounds, cross-references, and I just take copious notes of all of those things – that I’m in that discovery process.
PHIL: And for people who don’t know this, we should mention: you don’t use a computer at all, right? This is all written –
PHIL: – in scratch notes on yellow pads.
JOHN: Because, you know, I was sliding down that hill so fast when computers came that I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t shift myself over because I had to be ready by Sunday, again, and there was no opportunity to learn. When computers first came, they were way too complicated. And this – Phil, partly for me, and I tell young seminary guys this: you can prepare way too fast. It’s unlikely that you could prepare way too slowly. Slow is good. People say, “Where do you come up with this stuff?” I say, “I think about it.” I was reading a little book that I wrote a foreword to on how the Puritans meditated. That’s essentially what I do. I tell seminary students: my chair goes forward when I want to write, and it goes backwards when I want to think. Meditation is a critical part, just thinking. I always think with a pen in my hand, and I just write. I write my thoughts, because I may not recall them. So I’ve got papers with sort of Greek notes on it, then I’ve got papers with commentary, and then I’ve just got writing that I just write what comes to mind, and I get in a flow. I’m kind of linear in the way I think, so all of that – and I mean, you’ve seen those notes. You’ve seen them a lot.
PHIL: Yeah, you were throwing away those notes for years. And when I found out you were throwing them away, I said, no, no, give them to me. So I have a cabinet full of them, and they’re fascinating because they’re in random order. I can see the thought process, but there’s a lot more that goes into it before that comes out as a sermon, even after you’ve put all those thoughts down.
JOHN: Well yeah. What I’ve got is a sort of random bunch of stuff, and then I have to get that into a cohesive first draft. And I write it, because if you’re preaching to the same people for 45 years, you’ve got to write things out. You can’t just fall back on the way you’ve always said things. So, you need to be fresh. You need to say familiar things in unfamiliar ways to capture their interests and attention. So I write it out, and then I write it another time on my little half-sheet sermon notes, and I write probably ten pages, both sides, in a bold, black pen. No one ever sees this. It’s just me. Then that, I take into the pulpit. But that’s a guide.
PHIL: But before you take it into the pulpit even then, you go over it with a red pen.
JOHN: Yeah. After I’ve written it in black – I don’t know. People say, “Why do you – what does a circle mean? What does an underline mean? What does a little arrow mean?” I don’t know. I can’t necessarily quantify that, but it’s like path.
PHIL: It’s an anchor for your eyes.
JOHN: It’s an anchor for my eyes, and it’s a path. I know where there’s a kind of a break or a pause. Anyway, so I get that, I take it into the pulpit. Then I preach it. That, I could read that ten pages in probably 10 or 15 minutes, but it lasts an hour when I fill in everything that’s in my mind from all of the study. That becomes the audio file, which is then typed up in rough form with no punctuation. And then it goes to Dave Douglass or Dave Enos – or, in the latter stages, even Nathan Busenitz – and they would paragraph it, clean it up, and fact check, and kick it back to me, because the process is not nearly done then. I’ve got to go over all of – that’s why it’s quadruple-spaced, then write in the margins, and down the side, and on the back.
PHIL: Yeah, it’s like you’d take this passage up again – sometimes years later. Sometimes you’re dealing with material you preached two decades ago. And you go back through an equally rigorous process to make it finished text for a commentary, right?
JOHN: Yeah, and it is true, also, that the older the original material is – like, if you go all the way back to John, which I preached the first year I came to Grace – that’s 45 years ago. Taking those manuscripts and trying to write a commentary, which I did on John just a few years ago, it took a ton of work to update that, to fill it in, ‘cause I didn’t know when I was 30 years old what I have learned since then.
PHIL: Well, in fact, I was going to ask you – because a lot of us who listened to you before you started the Commentary Series, and through the process – a lot of us think that once you started on the Commentary Series, your preaching changed. You became more meticulous, more thorough. The progress was a little slower. When you signed up to do this with Moody Press, and they said ten years, did you ever really think you could do it in ten years?
JOHN: No. No, because I knew the pace. I’d been preaching here since 1969, so I had already been preaching for 12 years. I knew the speed I was going at.
PHIL: So Moody’s idea was: if you speed up, you can do this in ten years. And your idea was: if I slow down a little bit, I can do a better job.
JOHN: Yeah, absolutely. I never even thought about it. I don’t even think about the commentaries when I’m studying. I never think about that. Meticulous, yeah. And I’ve been criticized – and maybe it’s just – through the years for preaching like a commentary. You know, preaching like a commentary reads. I think – I’ve been criticized. People have said, well, you know, MacArthur’s commentaries are for untrained laymen because he doesn’t interact with the critical commentaries, he doesn’t interact with dead Germans, you know, who have this view and that view.
PHIL: That’s deliberate, right?
JOHN: Oh, it’s absolutely deliberate. Absolutely deliberate. I picked up a commentary the other day on the Gospel of John that was given to me. I think I read about 15 pages, and it took me maybe 45 minutes to find two ideas, because this guy, in a scholastic effort, had deemed it necessary to offer every possible suggestion that could be offered about what was said. I’m preaching through the Gospel of John now at our church – for the second time. Did it once at the beginning, now kind of at the end. And I’d just looked up “My Father’s house.” Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you in My Father’s house.” And, I had to wade through all kinds of ridiculous, bizarre stuff about “My Father’s house.” I don’t need to pay homage to people who get it wrong; I don’t think that’s necessarily helpful. I know that’s scholastic. I know that’s academic. But when somebody says, “MacArthur’s commentaries are good for the untrained layman,” my response is, “Thank you.” That’s a compliment, because I wrote them for the same people I preach to. I’m not trying to get into some – I don’t do dialogue really well. I’m not sort of interested in just creating dialogue and saying, well, here are the six options, and I prefer this one. I think there’s an obvious interpretation of most things, and people who care about Scripture just want to know what the Bible means. They don’t care about the people that got it wrong, or the people that have variations of that. I think you have to do that humbly.
But no, from the very beginning, I determined several things: one, I wouldn’t pay any attention to what people who denied the Bible or doubled the Bible had to say; two, I wouldn’t load my preaching with contemporary illustrations that dated everything – that were taken out of the headlines. And if it was 1982, it wouldn’t mean anything in 1984, let alone in 2010. So, I stayed away from all the sort of cultural things that were going on around me and stuck with the text of Scripture. And I always illustrated the Bible with the Bible so that it became kind of timeless.
PHIL: Yeah, in my judgment, you’ve sort of found that sweet spot where very few commentaries like yours, if you talk to the typical publisher and say, “I’d like a commentary aimed at laymen,” what you’re going to get is something really superficial. Your commentaries are not superficial, but they’re not of that sort of academic level that can’t minister to the average person.
JOHN: Yeah, and just – it puts up hurdles for people who can’t run hurdles. It’s just something to be in your way. And you know, and I guess through the years, pastors have found them helpful, because they want to get the text for their people. They want to understand it for their people. They’re not in academia. And by the way, who made the rule that we always have to answers the guys who get it wrong? I’m not sure who made that rule.
PHIL: Great question. Yeah, they’re a good model, too, I think, for the pastor who wants to be a Biblical expositor. You really deal with every verse in the New Testament across this series, right? Did you miss any?
JOHN: No. In the New Testament, we covered every verse. But, look, these are not scattered, isolated, random ideas. These are books within a book. These are book that – they have a beginning, and a middle, and an end. They have an introduction, they have a conclusion, and they are clear-minded, brilliant, divinely authored arguments. They are systematic. They are clear. They are focused. They are intentional. They are progressive. They are linear. The mind of God is behind every one of these books in the New Testament, and there’s flow. You can’t just jump in at a verse. You’ve got to go bury yourself in the beginning and come up at the end. That’s what I’ve tried to do with these commentaries. This verse can only mean this because of what the previous five verses meant. In other words, there’s logical, progressive flow.
I said to some pastors the other day. I said, “Many preachers just skip along the top of the Bible and suck up whatever supports their point.” That’s not expository preaching; that’s not unpacking Scripture. You go down. You don’t ride across the top of Scripture with your idea and suck up verses, pull them up, and attach them to your ideas. You bury yourself in the flow of a text. You know the background, the argument, the writer, the readers, the occasion, what is going on. You follow the flow of His thought, His argument. Then, you know, every verse is not a challenge. Every verse opens up because there’s a progression in the thought pattern. It makes it easy if you do it that way – easier.
PHIL: Now, the very first of the commentaries was Hebrews. How did you choose that as the one to start with? I mean, I think I would’ve saved that one till the end ‘cause it’s not the easiest book to do a commentary on it.
JOHN: I tend to do the hardest thing first. When I wrote the notes for the MacArthur Study Bible, I asked myself: what is the hardest book in the Old Testament for me to do? And I said, probably Ezekiel, so I did it first. Wrote the notes on Ezekiel first. Yeah, I’m not a procrastinator as such; I get things done, and I don’t know – somewhere along the line, I’ve found that it’s helpful to do the hard things first when you have maximum energy. If I have two sermons – which I do every week to preach, I will do whatever the hardest one is first so that I can spend the most time on that.
I also loved the Book of Hebrews. When I went away to seminary, it was the first book in seminary. We had a lot of books and Bible exposition that we were taught. That was the first book I took. I took it from a guy who I considered my mentor, Dr. Charles Feinberg. Took the Book of Hebrews from him. He studied 14 years to be a rabbi; he was a Hebrew scholar. He knew the Old Testament backwards and forwards, so he understood the Book of Hebrews. And because I had such an education from him in Hebrews, I felt like I was ready to do that. I was so grateful that I took that course when I went to seminary. So, I felt ready to do it, and I wanted to tackle what I thought would be – even though it’s not the longest, it is a complicated book.
PHIL: Yeah. You’ve got at least two of the gospels take four volumes.
JOHN: Yeah. It took four volumes to do Matthew. I don’t apologize for that. Probably should’ve taken five. The material is so wonderful. Who’s in a hurry? If you’re going to study the Bible the rest of your life, if you’re looking for a short, 20 page devotional and that’s as far as you want to go, there’s plenty of that out there. But people who want to think deeply about Scripture and know God, and see the full richness of His revelation, and sort of experience the wonder and the awe of it all, don’t need to be in a hurry.
I mean, if you got the four volumes on Matthew, you say, well, “That would take me a long time. If I read one section,” you could read one section a day. It might take you a year to read one volume. But if you understand that first section of Matthew, you have just acquired divine knowledge. And if it took you four years to go through four volumes, that’s only four years. How long are you going to live? You’re going to live another 30?
So, I just think getting it right and understanding the richness of it is what I’m after, without regard for how long it is. I’ve learned through the years – at least this is what I hear from people – that once you get drawn into one of these commentaries, the Word of God comes alive to you, and it’s hard to put it down, ‘cause you’re in the story. You’re really in the story. You’re in the flow of thought of the author.
PHIL: Yeah. That’s absolutely true. It’s true when you hear the sermons as well. I can’t wait for next week. I want to hear the rest of this anecdote or whatever. There are 33 volumes. Is there one that is your favorite?
JOHN: That’s like asking me which of my children I love most. I think I would say this: the greatest impact on my theology happened in Matthew. I didn’t preach it first. But when I did preach it, it took me eight years to go through it, and it took me many years to write the four volumes. But it was absolutely shaping in my theology, because I had been taught in seminary some wrong things – particularly about the Sermon on the Mount, which is upfront in Matthew. There were lots of people confused about the Sermon on the Mount – as if it was some ethical standard, rather than – or if it were some future manifesto for the millennial kingdom and had nothing to do with us. And I just couldn’t buy that, but I needed a clearer understanding of it. And I was greatly helped by reading Lloyd Jones’ volumes on the Sermon on the Mount and thinking it through the way he thought it through. That was the way I had seen it.
So I think Matthew was shaping, because there was a mega-shift in what I had been taught and what I came to believe. I think it anchored me much more firmly in Reformed theology.
The second book that struck me with great impact was Romans – two volumes on Romans, for all the reasons that anybody is amazed by the Book of Romans. The next book that had a really unique impact on me was 2 Corinthians.
PHIL: Yeah. That’s my favorite.
PHIL: I think that commentary is absolutely superb.
JOHN: I think it’s some of the best thinking that I’ve been able to do, and I’ve always said – and you’ve heard me say this: I’m so thankful I didn’t try to do that young in the ministry, because I wouldn’t have understood it, because there’s an ethos there. There’s an agony there in a pastor whose heart is broken – the apostle Paul – that young guys wouldn’t get. I think I’d been through enough stuff, and enough disappointment, and enough mutinies, and enough traitors, and enough of all of the stuff, and people tearing up your church, and all those things. Because I was in the same church for all those years. But I got it. It gripped my soul, and it was liberating for me to feel Paul suffering through those kind of same things.
Then I would think – two other books I would mention. The two volumes on Revelation are definitive. There’s a lot of confusion about Revelation. There’s a lot of viewpoints of Revelation. I don’t change the rules of interpretation; don’t change the hermeneutics. Take Revelation, with the same interpretative principles you would anything else, and it yields a clear-minded, supportable eschatology. That, I think, is critical, and it’s two full volumes on Revelation. And I love the fact that Revelation begins not with a warning, but with a promise of blessing. It doesn’t say, “I warned you. This is going to get confusing.” It says, “Blessed is the one who hears this book and understands.” The words of this book.
And then, one other is the two volumes on the Gospel of John, since they exalt Christ in a way that no other book does.
PHIL: I know you probably put in more hours on the Gospel of John than any other because that was older material – you mentioned that.
JOHN: Right. It had to be updated. I preached it originally – I didn’t change how I interpreted it, but it was just thin. It was what you’d expect from a young guy just starting out. I had grown so much in my understanding; I needed to significantly enrich it. For one, I preached through the Gospel of John in a year, I think, or maybe it was two years. Now, I’m preaching through the Gospel of John again at the end of this ministry, and I’m on chapter 14, and I’m at least three years in. So, the depth of it, and for the first time in my entire ministry, I can actually read my own commentary.
PHIL: Is it helpful?
JOHN: It is. It is, because I don’t remember everything.
PHIL: Is there anything you encounter that you think, ah, I wish I had put that in the commentary?
JOHN: Yeah. Yeah. You would know that I’m preaching on passages in the Gospel of John now, and I’m saying lots of things that aren’t in the commentary. That’s the credible reality of Scripture.
PHIL: Right. And in fact, a few people have asked me if you – and I’ve said no to this, by the way, but people have asked: do you intend to re-do the Gospel of John commentary when you’re done with this? Or bring out another multi-volume set on John?
JOHN: No, because I’m satisfied that it’s a true interpretation. But even my wife – she says to me after church, she says, “You know, what you said this morning was so interesting, but it’s not in your Study Bible.” I said, “Well, good, because otherwise you’d be reading the notes in the Study Bible while you’re sitting there, and not listening.”
PHIL: Yeah. Tell her to write some of those down and give them to us. We’ll put them in the next edition of the Study Bible.
JOHN: I don’t know if there’ll be a next edition.
PHIL: You’ve been asked before, you know: what is your favorite text of Scripture, your favorite book in the New Testament? Do you have a favorite?
JOHN: Favorite book.
PHIL: Not your favorite commentary, but your –
JOHN: Yeah, favorite book.
PHIL: Which was your favorite book to preach through?
JOHN: I have to say it’s the gospels. You could almost pick any of them, because you just never get very far away from the person of Christ. The most compelling, the most amazing, the most glorious. This is God in flesh. There’s a reason that I keep going back. Even our church – I finished Matthew, Mark, Luke, and even though I did John years ago and they had it on digital file, they said, “Do John. Do John.” People said, “Do John. Do John.” Because, Christ is so compelling, and from an evangelistic standpoint, you know, we’ve got a church with thousands of people and a lot of unbelievers come all the time. You can’t do better than to be proclaiming John, or to be proclaiming Matthew, because Christ is the theme every single week. Every single Sunday, you’re exalting Christ.
For Christians, as Paul says, the key to spiritual development, the key to the work of the Holy Spirit, just to gaze at the glory of the Lord and be changed in His image from one glory to the next. Second Corinthians 3:18. So, I just think when you lift up Christ, you don’t have to preach these how-to messages. You don’t have to preach how to have a happy marriage, how to fix your kids, you know, how to get this accomplished in your life, how to get over fear.
There’s just something that happens when Christ is exalted. Everybody gets pulled up. Everybody just gets pulled up.
PHIL: When you finish this edition of the Gospel of John, do you have plans to preach something else? Is there one book in the New Testament that you’d like to repreach?
JOHN: I haven’t had that thought. As you know, I have been preaching through the Book of Acts for the simple reason that people asked me to do that, to help them better understand the church and its foundations. We’ve gone through the Book of Acts, and it doesn’t resemble the earliest series in the Book of Acts. And again, I wrote the commentary on Acts a long time ago, but I haven’t really necessarily leaned on it. I read it just to make sure I’m consistent, but I haven’t – I thought maybe because of all of the years in the gospels that it might be good to go to an epistle that is more exhortative in the life of the church.
But in all honesty, Phil, you know me well enough to know that when I’m buried in a book and I’m only 14 chapters into John and I’ve got to get through to 21, I’m not even thinking about what’s beyond that. But, I will begin to think about that. I’ve even thought: maybe I ought to start to make a list of critical passages in the epistles of Paul, and teach those passages in the context without going through the whole book. I thought maybe that would – I can’t go – if I go through one book, I’ve got to take it all. There are highlights in books, and I understand how they fit into the flow of those books that may be – I was thinking: what if I did a series on 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter? Or, did a series on Philippians 2? Humility, and work out your salvation with fear.
There are just some critical passages, and you and I have had that conversation.
PHIL: Yeah, that’s a great idea, too. Do you ever read the reviews on these commentaries?
JOHN: No. I don’t even know where they’re reviewed.
PHIL: There’s some great ones on Amazon. Because you have users who review them.
JOHN: Yeah. You know, generally speaking, when I’ve seen those, they tend to be favorable. I don’t know if they filter out the people who didn’t like them or not.
PHIL: No, they don’t. In fact, if somebody really hated them, you’ll find those negative reviews as well. But they are overwhelmingly – testimonies from people who say how well this ministered to them, or how it opened up some difficult passage of Scripture. Myself, too, the very first commentary you did was Hebrews. And when I first came to work here, I had a different understanding of Hebrews 6 than what you teach. I remember you handed me the Hebrews 6 – not even knowing that I didn’t really fully agree with your position on that. You handed me the chapter of Hebrews 6 to proofread. And just reading that chapter suddenly opened my understanding of that passage, which I’d always struggled with. I had read Arthur Pink’s treatment of it. He takes basically the same view you did, but you explained it so clearly and so compellingly that it’s as if –
JOHN: You needed a job.
PHIL: No, I already had the job, and I didn’t have to tell you what my thoughts were. But it was as if it took the blinders off.
JOHN: Well, again, I think the context of a passage yields everything.
PHIL: You also, though, have just an uncanny gift for explaining the difficult passages. Take Hebrews 6, for example. A lot of people are confused by that passage. Your approach, it seems to me, is to just line up the arguments and fire them one after the other. You, I think, start with the weakest argument and finish with the strongest. And by the time you’re done, if I started out disagreeing with you, I have nothing left.
JOHN: You know, I tell guys at the Master’s Seminary that are training to preach: every, every sermon is an argument. Every sermon is an argument. You’re not working on emotions, or you’ve prostituted your position. We’re not trying to get people to do things because we play with their emotions. You’re not appealing to their sense of well-being. You know, do this if you want to be important. Do this if you want to serve in the church. Do this if you want God to be happy with you. Every passage of Scripture is a divine revelation that contains truth, that can be systematically argued.
Look, we all understand human logic, but the gift of the Bible is its divine logic. It’s just overwhelmingly reasonable stuff. So, I again, we’re not mystical. We’re not trying to find secret meanings or come up with allegories, or mystical impulses, or esoteric feelings, or experience. You know, we’re not like the Neo-orthodox existentialists who think the Bible is inspired when somehow it touches me. You can’t just say things because they feel good or because they’re contemporarily acceptable. That’s insipid. That has no power, no cloud, nothing. There’s no authority in that at all. But when you go through the explanation of a text of Scripture, the argument – like you were saying – the argument just pins you to the wall. It’s there. That’s divine authority.
PHIL: And that’s true – I’ve noticed in your preaching – even when you’re dealing with narrative passages. A lot of people think narrative preaching or preaching on narrative texts has to be different. But you take that same approach whether you’re in the gospels – like right now, you’re in the Book of Acts. I just edited your book on the parables where you make this very point, that even in the narrative parts of Scripture, we’re being taught objective truth, and the teaching process for the pastor is pretty much the same, right?
JOHN: Absolutely. The parables are profound truth and reasonably presented. In the book, the point that I think shocks people is that the parables were never designed to make things clear to unbelievers. Never. You hear all that, and you read all about that. This, you know, Jesus – I’ve read things like this: Jesus went two years into His ministry, realized nobody was getting it, so He shifted to stories because everybody gets stories. That is absolutely opposite the truth.
He knows how to communicate. He’s God. He shifted to stories not to make anything clear, but to make it completely obscure. He’s shifted into stories as a judgment. The disciples said to Jesus, “Why do You speak in parables?” And He said, “To hide things.” This was a judgment. But, to those who know the truth, those parables are explained, and they become enlightening.
So, I mean, there are those kinds of misconceptions that show up in preaching. We do the best we can to try to debunk some of those things.
PHIL: Okay. Now, to more formally announce the completion of the Commentary Series, our staff is going to be putting together some special programs for radio, including a series featuring a hallmark lesson from every book of the New Testament.
PHIL: Yeah. And so, this will be your first ever 27 CD album. It’ll be a big one. We’re also working on a series of short programs, probably two minute programs each, a series called, “A Jet Tour through the New Testament.” And with that in mind, John, to whet our listeners’ appetites for those programs, I want to give you a quick exercise. I hadn’t planned to do this, but I think it’ll be interesting. And in a short few minutes, this will illustrate the impact, the commentaries you’ve had on your own thinking about Scripture. What I want to do is run through the books of the New Testament in order, and you give me one sentence on each book – a one sentence summary. I know I’m putting you on the spot, and this is completely unrehearsed, but I know you can do this, and I’m interested to hear what comes out. Matthew.
JOHN: The King has come.
JOHN: The servant of the Lord is here – the Son of man.
JOHN: It’s a little harder for me to have one. What I love about Luke – my favorite part of Luke is the ending. What strikes me about Luke is: Luke records the moment when the disciples, for the first time, understood the connection between the Old Testament and the Messiah.
JOHN: Unquestionably the deity of Jesus Christ and that believing in Him, you have eternal life.
JOHN: The history of the apostolic preaching of the cross and the birth of the church.
JOHN: The doctrine of salvation, presented and explicated in great detail in all of its practical implications.
PHIL: First Corinthians.
JOHN: Trouble in the church.
PHIL: Second Corinthians.
JOHN: A defense of the most faithful gospel apostle.
JOHN: Grace triumphs over law.
JOHN: The middle wall of partition comes down and Jew and Gentile are one in Christ.
JOHN: Joy and more joy in Christ.
PHIL: The fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily in Jesus Christ and He is sufficient.
PHIL: First Thessalonians.
JOHN: The ideal church. A letter without a reprimand.
PHIL: Second Thessalonians.
JOHN: The coming day of the lord and judgment.
PHIL: First Timothy.
JOHN: Pastoral instruction including the qualifications for an elder.
PHIL: Second Timothy.
JOHN: Paul’s swan song. Paul’s valedictorian letter – the last letter he wrote passing the mantle of ministry to Timothy.
JOHN: Instructions for a young minister in a pagan environment.
JOHN: The great message of Philemon is forgiveness. Forgiveness in an extreme situation.
JOHN: Hebrews is the superiority of Christ over all elements of the Old Covenant.
JOHN: Comfort, instruction, and hope for Christians troubled and persecuted.
PHIL: First Peter.
JOHN: First Peter. Triumph and suffering.
PHIL: Second Peter.
JOHN: Recognizing and condemning false teachers.
PHIL: First John.
JOHN: Tests for true salvation.
PHIL: Second John.
JOHN: Commitment to the truth. Second John and Third John are, again, commitment to the truth. Commitment to the truth and warning about those who deviate.
PHIL: Okay. So, 3 John would be the warning of those who deviate? Jude.
JOHN: Well, Jude is – the whole book is basically a judgment pronounced on false teachers. Peter warned they were coming; Jude says they’re here.
JOHN: The final unveiling of Christ, starting with His work in the church and culminating in the new heaven and the new earth.
PHIL: That’s great, John. Thanks for your diligent labor over all of these years. I expect these books are going to be in print for generations to come, and that people – maybe my great, great grandchildren will benefit from some of the work you’ve done.
JOHN: Well, I didn’t start out this way. I think back to my life, and I saw a picture of me in a football uniform when I was in college. Standing there with football in my arm, and thinking, “Boy, there was a time in my life when that was really important to me.” Big game, big opportunity to be something that was fleeting and inconsequential. Somehow, the Lord did something in my heart, somewhere along the line, exposing me to the right people, the right influences. I think, you know, it’s one of those sort of things that Malcolm Gladwell writes about in his book on outliers, that persons are the product of all of their influences. You think of the fact that we talk about so many sermons being downloaded today. I wouldn’t have wanted that to happen when I was 30, or maybe even 40; it really didn’t happen until I had preached the whole New Testament? What kind of timing is that and how does God ordain that? I just – I think there’s all the right influences from my parents and friends like you, and lots of mentors, and books that I read, and people directing me in the right direction.
So, you become the product. And at the end, you look back and say, “Wow, how did this all happen?” I’m thankful I have good health and strength, and for as many years as the Lord gives me, to enjoy continuing to preach like this. I’m very grateful.
PHIL: And now we have these 33 volumes, and it’s a great set. They look great. They’ve kept the same binding and design, so line these up on your shelf. They’d look great, and I just want to let our listeners know that if you want to complete your set, or if you’d like to get a complete set of these commentaries, you can get them from Grace to You.
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