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Frederick Dale Bruner: Moving from text to sermon

Good preachers study commentators so they can draw on collective wisdom as they prepare sermons. Frederick Dale Bruner's Matthew commentaries set a high standard. A feature story exploring the commentaries of Dale Bruner and moving from a text to a sermon.

When you hear about scandals and abuses in a church, it’s natural to distance yourself. The “not like us” thought bubbles up as quickly as “that betrayer, not like me” when Judas Iscariot is mentioned.

In his sermon “What About Judas?,” Frederick Dale Bruner tells worshipers that the biblical accounts of Judas give a strong warning. “All of us, particularly those of us in church leadership, can blow it. You can betray Christ.” But Matthew’s gospel also gives us a “little hope about Judas” and divine grace.

Those who hear Bruner teach or preach notice how easily the New Testament scholar moves from the biblical narrative to its meaning for the original audience and for Christians today.

Of course, he’s got an advantage with sermons or lectures based on the gospels of Matthew or John. He wrote a highly acclaimed two-volume commentary on Matthew,Christbook (Matthew 1-12) and Churchbook (Matthew 13-28). And he’s working on a commentary of John.

Bruner’s Matthew set offers a model of what to look for in choosing Bible commentaries that help preachers move from text to sermon. Good commentaries also help worship leaders plan services faithful to the lectionary readings or sermon text.

Vivid translation

His friend Eugene Peterson began translating The Message Bible paraphrase as a way to engage adults in a church school class. Bruner’s quest to interest students at Union Theological Seminary in the Philippines led to writing commentary.

As he explains in a Theology Today article—one Peterson asked him to write—he wanted to help students proclaim the gospel in a way that made sense in their world of spiritual and social poverty.

His wife, Kathy, suggested that instead of reading his lectures, he could memorize the Bible verses for the day. That way he could make eye contact with students who’d been falling asleep. And he could show that God gave the Bible as narrative, meant to be told as stories.

Bruner began translating the Greek text into contemporary English so he could “catch the force of the tenses and the power of key words.” In his commentary and Judas sermon, when narrating Matthew 27:1-10, he translates “high priests” as “senior pastors” and “elders” as “lay leaders.”

Bruner still develops commentary material by testing it in the classroom. While teaching religion and theology for 22 years at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, he taught an adult Sunday school class. After retirement, he began teaching a Sunday class at the church he grew up in, Hollywood Presbyterian Church.

Thorough commentary

As he explains in his Churchbook preface, his goal in writing commentary is “to discover the Word of God, the gospel, in each text.” So he soaks himself in the Greek sentences, then consults 2,000 years worth of exegetes and commentators, because he wants to do what Ignatius of Loyola recommended, “think with the church.”

He researches modern historical-critical commentators and compares his research with creeds and doctrinal giants down through the ages. Bruner says he wants to make sure that Christians today see how earlier Christians understood Matthew’s gospel.

Bruner provides a clear framework for understanding his verse-by-verse commentary. The first half of Matthew is mainly Jesus explaining to his followers who he is. The second half is Jesus teaching what his church is. The Churchbook begins with Matthew 13, the Sermon of Parables, which teaches the doctrine of the Kingdom of God.

Matthew’s Judas account is in a set of stories that illustrate the doctrine of our total undependability. Judas wasn’t the only one who let Jesus down. So did the other disciples, notably Peter, and the Sanhedrin, Pilate, Jewish people, Roman soldiers—everybody…including us.

The way Bruner translates Matthew 27:3-4, Judas “changed his mind and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the senior pastors and lay leaders, saying ‘I sinned in handing over innocent blood.’ But they replied, ‘What has that got to do with us? You handle it!’ ”

This language—and Bruner’s recap of anti-Semitism carried out by Christians—drives home that we are all sinners who need God’s grace.

Surprising insights

Nine of the ten references to Judas imply that Christians should stay on guard against betraying God. Matthew talks about judgment more than any other gospel writer does. Yet he’s the only one who speaks about Judas in a way that opens a door of hope.

In his commentary and Judas sermon, Bruner lists conditions that had to be met for priests in the ancient church to give absolution or remission of sin.

  • Contritio cordes—being truly contrite or sorry for your sin. “He changed his mind and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the senior pastors and lay leaders.”
  • Confessio orales—Judas confessed, “I sinned in handing over innocent blood.” He didn’t blame it on anyone else.
  • Satisfactio operus—making restitution and accepting punishment. Bruner writes, “Jerusalem’s pastorate refused to make atonement for Judas’s guilt, and so Judas passed a death sentence on himself (Schlatter, Der Evangelist, 769). Both sinned.”

So, was Judas forgiven? This question has flummoxed commentators for centuries. Bruner seems to agree with modern commentator Hans-Josef Klauck, who writes that all we can say is that “Judas is a human being and a disciple of the Lord who was stuck in a deep personal contradiction, which, at any time, could be our own.”

In his sermon, Bruner says Matthew offers the hope that Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world and “Judas is Exhibit A of the sinner.” He recites a closing poem, “The Ballad of the Judas Tree,” to help “anybody here who is in deep despair and wonders if you have committed the unforgivable sin.”

The poem, by Ruth Etchells, says that Jesus descended into hell, found and forgave Judas. It ends, “So when we all condemn him as of every traitor worst, remember that of all his men, our Lord forgave him first.”

How Preachers Use Commentaries

“You will need to be familiar with commentators,” Charles H. Spurgeon advised preaching students in an 1890 lecture. The British Baptist preacher, whose books still sell briskly, knew that some preachers regard commentary use as an insult to their own infallibility.

“Of course, you are not such wiseacres as to think or say that you can expound Scripture without assistance from the works of divines and learned men who have laboured before you in the field of exposition,” Spurgeon told the students.

“It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others,” he added.

Several contemporary preachers explain how commentaries—in particular, Bruner’s Matthew volumes—help them understand and explain God’s Word.

Finding the gospel

Each week Scott Hoezee posts sermon helps on the website of the Center for Excellence in Preaching, based at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. When the lectionary gospel text is from Matthew, Hoezee says he goes to Bruner’s commentaries “for excellent textual insight and very practical applications.

Hoezee likes how Bruner finds meaning in every word of Matthew.

“Bruner noted poignantly that in Matthew 27, Jesus dies with a question on his lips. He did not die with some triumphant exclamation (like Mel Gibson's portrayal of Henry Wallace in the movie ‘Braveheart’), nor did he die stoically and with an eager, expectant air as we are told Socrates died.

“Instead Jesus died in the interrogative. He died the way we all die, with the question ‘Why?’ As Bruner noted, this is the gospel at its deepest. He says that in Jesus' dying words, every word, even the punctuation of the sentence itself, contains something of the gospel and so is worthy of reverent meditation. For here we see Jesus truly sharing our human condition.

“Reading Bruner's keen observations quickens the pulse of every preacher who hungers each week to find the gospel lurking somewhere in the text where it had not been spied before,” he says.

Moved to tears

Gordon Atkinson, pastor of Covenant Baptist Church, in San Antonio, Texas, credits Bruner with showing the way through “thorny intellectual or theological issues that plagued me for years.”

He’d always wondered about the story of the rich woman who anointed Jesus with expensive perfume. Jesus told many parables about good stewardship…yet disagreed when the disciples berated the rich woman for wasting money that could have been given to the poor.

Matthew puts the story (26:6-13) just before the report of Judas deciding to betray Jesus (26:14-16). Bruner notes that the first word of verse 14, then, connects the stories. As treasurer, Judas especially may have felt that Jesus wasn’t living up to his command to care for the poor.

Atkinson says he started crying while reading Bruner’s explanation of how Jesus found a way to charitably interpret the woman’s aim. “He said that the disciples were technically correct but morally wrong. Jesus would never sacrifice even one small person on the high altar of principle.”

The insight gave him the perfect take on a sermon. When he dramatized the interpretation for a story on his website, many readers told him that Bruner’s insight “broke open the passage for them to understand.”

Atkinson found himself in tears again while reading Bruner’s analysis of the Beatitudes. “At times I’d despaired making sense of Paul’s message of grace and Jesus’ absolute call for obedience and action,” the pastor says. But Bruner helped him see the first Beatitudes as “the arms of Christ around us in our weakness, blessing us for our desire in the midst of our sin, showing us the grace that Paul will articulate.”

Getting past familiarity

David P. Dwight, senior pastor of Hope Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, recalls that seminary trained him in technical ways for preaching. Yet, according to the gospels, Jesus taught in non-technical ways, using simple analogies and examples from the life around him.

Bruner’s Matthew commentaries, Dwight says, “draw me to consider the earthiness of what Jesus was saying—but also open the door to spiritual insights germane to the church today.”

Dwight says that many Christians are so familiar with the Lord’s Prayer and Sermon on the Mount that the oft-used words of faith act as a veneer that keeps them from going deeper. “Bruner’s writing takes the Beatitudes and Lord’s Prayer from superficial and monochrome to deep and in full color,” he says.

“Bruner says to take note that I, me, and mine are never in the Lord’s Prayer. It’s all us, thy, thine (or youand yours). This is simple but incendiary because it challenges the consumerism in the American church today.

“You might pray thinking ‘give me this day my daily bread,’ but Bruner explains the Lord’s Prayer as a prayer of community. As Christians, we can’t be content to have our daily bread if our sisters and brothers go hungry.”

You don’t have to write sermons to appreciate Bruner. Michael Dubruiel, an acquisitions editor for the Catholic publisher Our Sunday Visitor, draws on him when writing books on practical Catholic living and speaking to Catholic groups on how to live out their faith.

“Bruner gives such a complete overview of what others have said about a passage—as well as commenting on it himself—that you hardly need another reference book on Matthew,” Dubruiel says. He adds that Bruner leaves readers with “a renewed appreciation for Scripture…and what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.”  

How to Choose a Bible Commentary

There are so many Bible commentaries available in English that it can be hard to know how to choose. A single commentary may cover the whole Bible, one of the testaments, a section of the Bible, a book of the Bible, or just part of a book of the Bible.

Commentators write for different reasons and varied audiences.

You might start with an overview that teaches you how to tell one commentary from another. Good choices are:

Check the website of your seminary or denomination for suggestions of commentaries favored by like-minded preachers.

“I wish there was one full commentary set with excellent commentaries throughout, sort of a one-stop preacher’s commentary kit. Usually I find sets vary in quality and insight,” says David P. Dwight, senior pastor of Hope Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia. He reads widely among commentaries and authors instead of depending on a particular publisher.

While his top choices vary by author and topic, Scott Hoezee, director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching, says, “The Interpretation series is, in almost every instance, gold for preaching.”

Gordon Atkinson, who pastors Covenant Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas, often turns to Interpretation commentaries. He notes that many, such as Terence Fretheim on Exodus or Thomas G. Long on Hebrews, “are written for preachers by people who have done a lot of preaching themselves.”

Other Atkinson picks include:

When Presbyterian pastors Chris O’Reilly and Peter Bush were teaching laity to preach in rural Canadian churches, they gave everyone a single volume commentary, New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition(IVP, 1994).

Before buying a new commentary, you might check online reviews, read an excerpt through Google Books or Amazon’s “search inside this book” feature, or try to borrow a copy on interlibrary loan.

At The Text This Week, you can search for a particular Scripture passage. Click on your passage to find relevant historic and contemporary commentary.

You can explore commentaries now in the public domain at BibleGateway and Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Learn More

Buy Bruner’s Matthew commentaries from Eerdmans, the publisher, or choose the Amazon upgrade, which gives you complete online access to your physical book copy.

Start a Discussion

Talk about sermon preparation:

  • Good sermons require deep textual insight and practical application. Which sermons have been especially meaningful to you lately…and why?
  • Ask your preachers about their favorite commentaries. What else could your congregation provide—book or seminar funds, schedule changes, feedback—to help your preachers go deeper into God’s Word?
  • How might your worship leaders, church school teachers, or small group members benefit from using commentaries?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to address and talk through principles of using commentaries to understand the Bible and Christian living?

  • Did you find a resource—visual, online, printed, multimedia, or seminar—that resulted in more worship leaders and congregation members using commentaries?
  • Have you surveyed different age groups in your church about their knowledge of the Bible and knowledge of your congregation’s doctrinal heritage? If so, how did you publicize findings and address the gaps?