by Mark Minnick
This article first appeared in FrontLine • January/February 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way?
Over a quarter of a century ago, Wilbur Smith, one of the world’s foremost authorities on religious books, told of speaking in a large evangelical church whose gifted pastor had been preaching for 25 years. Having had the opportunity of looking over the man’s library, Smith remarked with some surprise that he didn’t see any volumes on the life and work of Jesus Christ.
Smith’s observation seemed to take the pastor off guard, but after checking for himself the man acknowledged that he did not own a book on the subject. Smith related this incident not because it was rare, but because he had observed a strange phenomenon among ministers—what he called “the mysterious neglect of studying the life of Jesus Christ.”
If such a neglect exists, it isn’t for lack of choice material. A quick check of the top shelf behind me finds nearly 100 volumes on various aspects of the life and ministry of Christ, and that’s in addition to the 125 or so commentaries on the Gospels on the shelf below it and the more than 50 volumes of Christology in the bookcase of doctrinal works across the room. But what I’ve collected through the years is only a small sample of what’s available. Before me even as I write is a volume entitled Jesus Christ Our Lord, done by Samuel Gardiner Ayres (librarian of Drew Theological Seminary) in 1906, which annotates and classifies over 5,000 English titles on Christ. And Smith estimated Ayres’ work contained just about half of the works authored on this subject in English during the last two hundred years, not to mention those published in German, French, Italian, and other European languages!
Let’s suppose that a pastor was willing to put himself to some trouble to develop a really first class section in his library on the life and ministry of our Lord. I’d like to devote this and next issue’s column to some personal recommendations, categorized according to the particular aspect of our Lord’s life and ministry upon which the works focus. Thankfully, most are currently in print. Some will have to be searched out through used book dealers. A select few are the rare treasures a really book-loving man would part with a whole case of shotgun shells to get his hands on.
(Discussed in Part 1)
Full-Length Lives of Christ
(Discussed in Part 2)
Surveys of Events in the Life of Christ
There are a few handlings of the life of Christ that concentrate on its primary events or mainly focus upon certain subjects that crop up repeatedly throughout its history. The classic in this regard is G. Campbell Morgan’s The Crises of the Christ. Following a preliminary analysis of man’s present condition (distanced from God by sin, ignorant of God through sin, and unlike God in sin), Morgan develops in his inimitable way what he calls the seven crisis events in our Lord’s earthly life (birth, baptism, temptation, transfiguration, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension). After reading Morgan’s works for more than 25 years now, I would call this his greatest work. On some pages one is tempted to underline every statement. It is the kind of work I would like to be able to reread every couple of years. When it comes to preaching these seven events with the depth of spiritual insight of which they are worthy, Morgan’s work is nearly indispensable. Before you suspect that I’m exaggerating, read Morgan for yourself. You just might commend it more highly than I have!
Another matchless work along this same line was done by Alexander Whyte, the venerable old Scottish Presbyterian. The Walk, Conversation and Character of Jesus Christ Our Lord consists of 35 messages spun with the fine wool of Whyte’s perceptive insight and painstaking attention to style. Just a short sample cannot do justice to Whyte’s style, but it will at least illustrate his insights. For instance, note a portion of his handling of the name “Jesus,” given, as the angel revealed to Joseph, because He would save His people from their sins.
Our names are debts that we owe to those who know our name. Every man owes to himself and to others the signification of his name, and of all his names. . . . Every new addition of name, or of office, or of honour, lays a new debt and a new obligation on a man. . . . This new name that the angel gave to Joseph and Mary to give to their Child on the day of His circumcision lays Him under this debt to me to save me from my sins. . . . He must deny both His circumcision and His circumcision name, and all His errand here, if He does not save you from all your sins. But He is not ashamed to bear that name, both on earth and in heaven, because He has never turned His back on any seeking sinner, and never will.
How about a selection of lessons out of the life of Christ that are pointed particularly at preachers? I like anything that William Blaikie (professor in New College, Edinburgh, from 1868–1897) wrote, especially his superb work on the life of David and his outstanding biography of David Livingstone. But there’s a special place in my heart for his book on The Public Ministry of Christ. Much of it consists of lectures he delivered to ministerial students in, of all things, a homiletics course! It was designed, as Blaikie writes in his introduction, “not so much to impart knowledge, as to communicate to the students a tone and practical impulse” for the ministry. Chapter titles include “Preparation for the Ministry,” “His Work as a Teacher,” “Elements of Impression in His Teaching,” “The College of the Twelve,” “Dealings with Different Classes,” etc. Unfortunately, I believe most, if not all, of Blaikie’s works are out of print. So when you find one in a used book store, it’s worth paying extra to obtain.
One more title that I ought to mention is A Short Life of Christ by Everett F. Harrison. More academic than the other three books I’ve recommended in this section, it provides historical, theological, and especially apologetic material for the head that nicely complements what the others offer to the heart.
We preachers sometimes think that our people are less interested when we preach on the life of Christ than when we deal with some practical subject of Christian living. But we ought to ask ourselves whether our preaching Christ’s birth, or his miracles, or His resurrection had anything fresh in it. Was there any new insight? Any carefully studied exposition? Any strikingly original thought? Was there any attention to overlooked details? Was there any worship? And was anything said beautifully?
Mercifully, there’s help for the stymied preacher. Every title I’ve mentioned is a winner. Some of them are world class. For the amount of money we’d spend on a pizza, a round of golf, or a ticket to a ball game, one or more of them can be ours. Our people will profit from the purchase, but the great benefit will be what happens in our own souls when we let a master in Israel introduce us to the Savior we’ve never known like this before.
Dr. Mark Minnick pastors Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.