by Mark Minnick
This article first appeared in FrontLine • January/February 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
This is the second of three parts. We repeat the introduction for continuity. [Part One] [Part Three]
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
The first choice for helpfulness has to be J. Dwight Pentecost’s The Words and Works of Jesus Christ. Issued in 1981, after Pentecost had taught this subject for some 30 years on both the college and seminary levels, the work has three features that I especially like. First, it is written by a dispensational premillennialist. Second, it has 65 pages of appendices on subjects such as the geography, historical background, and religious background to our Lord’s ministry that are alone almost worth the price of the book. Third, and most helpful of all, are the extensive contributions from scores of other, primarily older, writers. Nearly every page includes a full paragraph or two of choice quoted material. Most reflect warm attachment to the person of the Savior. One caution is that Pentecost holds to a postponed view of the Kingdom, but since many pastors do so as well Pentecost’s position on this will be for them merely a fourth good reason for owning this work of unparalleled usefulness.
If I might have just one other volume on Christ’s life in addition to Pentecost’s, it would be Samuel J. Andrews’ The Life of Our Lord Upon the Earth. James Family Christian Publishing reissued this classic some 20 years ago, but unfortunately, it is now once again out of print. Devout and meticulously researched, Andrews’ work explores subjects overlooked by most writers. Here are more than 50 interesting pages on the dates of our Lord’s birth, baptism, and death. Here are five possible reconstructions of the order of events leading up to the marriage at Cana. Ever thought about the positioning of the apostles around the table at the last supper? Andrews sorts through it. Need a chart comparing the Gospel accounts of Peter’s denials? There’s one on page 518 of my reprint. No wonder that Andrews’ volume has been called “indispensable to any one who intends a thorough study of the subject.”
No collection of books on the life of Christ is complete without Alfred Edersheim’s monumental The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Wilbur Smith called it “the most important general work on the life of Christ in our language.” Edersheim, a Jew by birth, was converted under the ministry of the Scottish Presbyterian, John Duncan (otherwise known affectionately as Rabbi Duncan) while he was studying at the University of Pesth in Hungary. Dr. Duncan’s Hebrew and classical learning combined with the deepest piety and most intense love for Jews brought the young scholar under his influence until at last the contact ripened into an open confession of Christ in public baptism.
Edersheim subsequently studied theology at New College, Edinburgh, and was ordained a minister of the Presbyterian church. Out of seven years of the most prodigious study he wrote a life of Christ that is deeply reverent, finely worded, and above all, unique in its exploration of the Jewish culture and religious thought within which our Lord lived. The work abounds in illuminating quotations from rabbinical literature that would be otherwise inaccessible to the average pastor. Here are the 456 Old Testament passages applied by the Rabbis to the Messiah. Here is a detailed discussion of the rabbinic traditions concerning Messiah’s forerunner. Here is a wonderfully researched presentation of the ordinances for sabbath observance practiced by the Jews. All of this is fine grist for the preacher’s mill. Do not, however, settle for the abridged one volume edition in order to pinch pennies. The abridgment is money wasted, not saved.
The largest life of Christ of which I am aware is John Peter Lange’s The Life of the Lord Jesus Christ in four volumes (each of which runs to over 500 well-packed pages). Smith described it as “profound, theological, reverent, tremendously suggestive, occasionally perhaps a little tedious, but never failing to move and inspire the careful reader.” Cyril Barber (in The Minister’s Library) said it abounds “with information that will delight the heart of the pastor.” One thing for sure that I’ve found in using my set—if every other author is sketchy in his treatment of a passage, Lange unfailingly produces some well-expressed help.
A work that really ought to be much better known is Cunningham Geikie’s The Life and Words of Christ. The content is considerably enriched by descriptions of Holy Land sites from Geikie’s own travels there, but my heart is particularly warmed by his richly devotional handling of our Lord’s sayings. For instance, consider the profound insight of his comments on the words, “The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23):
Words like these marked an epoch in the spiritual history of the world; a revolution in all previous ideas of the relation of man to his Maker. . . . The worth of man’s homage to God does not depend on the place where it is paid. The true worship has its temple in the inmost soul; in the spirit and heart. It is the life of the soul; it is communion with God; the reverent espousal of our nature to truth. It is spiritual and moral, not outward and ritual; springing from the great truth, rightly apprehended, which Jesus had first uttered, that God is Spirit. . . . The universal presence of a spiritual God made the whole world alike His shrine. The veil of the Temple was first rent at Jacob’s Well, and He Who, till then, had, as men thought, dwelt only in the narrow limits of the chamber it shrouded, went forth thence, from that hour, to consecrate all the earth as one great Holy of Holies.
I’ve recommended the lengthiest life of Christ and should, perhaps, at least mention one of the briefest. The Life of Jesus Christ, by James Stalker, is perhaps the shortest work you’ll see (142 pages of text in the Zondervan reprint). But exhibiting as it does Stalker’s gift for condensation combined with genuine love for the subject, it richly repays an evening’s reading. As a sample, have you ever seen a pithier introduction to the infancy narratives than this?
Augustus was sitting on the throne of the Roman empire, and the touch of his finger could set the machinery of government in motion over almost all the civilized world. He was proud of his power and wealth, and it was one of his favorite occupations to compile a register of the populations and revenues of his vast dominions. So he issued an edict, as the Evangelist Luke says, “that all the world should be taxed. . . .
The factual accuracy and delicate artistry of those first two sentences meld seamlessly in a narration that we preachers would do well to add to our portfolios of preaching styles.
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.