Fun with Bible Commentaries
Have you ever had three good, wise friends disagree on something, and you had to decide who was right? Well, that is a shadowy metaphor of what I had the pleasure of doing this evening. In the midst of preparing for my sermon on Philippians 2:12-18, the three commentaries I was using could not agree on the meaning of one particular phrase from v. 16, “holding fast to the word of life” (ESV). One commentator believed that this phrase was more accurately translated by the KJV, “holding forth the word of life.” (The other two agreed with the “holding fast to” translations.) The ESV’s rendition puts the emphasis on our perseverance and actions as Christians; the KJV’s translation has a more missiological/evangelical spin on it. Granted, when we Christians do hold fast to the word of life as we “shine as lights” “in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” (v. 15, ESV). And when we “shine as lights,” opportunities to evangelize occur because God uses our revealed transformation to prompt nonbelievers to ask questions or make comments whereby we “open the door,” so to speak, and share the gospel with them.
Admittedly, my extremely fallible mind was first enthralled by the KJV interpretation of Philippians 2:16. (That was also the first commentary on this passage I read.) From what I knew about shining as lights, that evangelical interpretation fit. But even though it fits connotatively, Paul’s original intent in writing this passage was NOT evangelism. His intent was to exhort the Philippians to behave like Christians. (And of course in preaching, it is my job to present the passage’s original intent; I—and all preachers—must never read into a passage [eisegesis]; everything we preach about a passage should come from the passage itself [exegesis].)
The lesson from all this? How does this apply to you (assuming that my little anecdote is not reason enough for you to have read this)? Very simple: Only the Bible is the infallible word of God. Preachers are fallible, even the best of them. Commentaries are fallible … because they disagree with one another. Only the Bible is infallible. Do commentaries help? Yes. But sometimes, you have to discern the true commentary by the Bible on which it commentates. Isn’t that fun? Yes. And the further lesson is: know your Bible well enough so that you can discern between a right and wrong commentary.
Note: Every footnote in your Bible counts as commentary. Only the verses are infallible. The footnotes were added later (and thus you must know the Bible to know if they are right).
I will cover this issue of the proper interpretation of v. 16a as I preach on Philippians 2:12-18 this Sunday at Union Grove. I will post the blog post for this sermon on Sunday, and it will also include a link to where you can listen to the sermon. God bless!