Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Some Thoughts on Using John Owen’s Hebrews “Commentary”

By Ryan M. McGraw
I have come to suspect that there are many pastors who have purchased John Owen’s seven-volume “commentary” on the book of Hebrews who had high hopes of using these volumes while preaching through Hebrews, only to be daunted at the size of the work, the weight of the material, and the breadth of the subject matter. The temptation is then to let these volumes collect dust on the shelves or to sell them second-hand in order to buy something else. However, Charles H. Spurgeon wrote concerning this set, “Out of scores of commendations of this colossal work we select but one. Dr. Chalmers pronounced it ‘a work of gigantic strength as well as gigantic size; and he who hath mastered it is very little short, both in respect to the doctrinal and practical of Christianity, of being an erudite and accomplished theologian.”[i]  Here are some thoughts on why you should invest time and labor into this work, as well as how to use it profitably with limited time to devote to it.

Why Study Owen on Hebrews?

  1. These volumes represent some of the most mature thinking of one of the greatest theologians the Church has ever produced. They were published in parts between 1668 and 1684. Owen died in 1683, and all of Owen’s major well-known works were published prior to or during this time. The Hebrews set is permeated with the mature thought and piety of a lifetime of labor in the Lord’s vineyard and represents the best material that Owen had to offer.[ii]
  2. This work is marked by profound exegesis of Scripture. As an exegete of Scripture among the English Puritans, Owen practically stands in a category of his own. This is not limited to his profound exposition of the Greek text of Hebrews. Owen provides detailed expositions of many other passages of Scripture, particularly from the Old Testament, that are extremely valuable in their own right. Owen possessed a rare mastery of both the Old and the New Testament in the original languages. More will be said about this below.
  3. This treatise is filled with profound and practical theology. By drawing “good and necessary consequences” (see Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6) from the text at hand, Owen explores nearly the entire realm of Christian theology in the context of sound exegesis and exposition. This is evident on every page of the work, but the preliminary “exercitations” are of particular value. His theological introduction to the epistle to the Hebrews (Concerning the Epistle to the Hebrews) will be of great help to those who desire to understand the profound significance of the book in the canon of Scripture. His treatments of the Messiah, the Jewish Church, and the Priestly office of Christ are valuable in their own right. Lastly, his Day of Sacred Rest is more than a profound analysis of the Sabbath, since it unfolds Owen’s covenant theology and the relation between the Mosaic covenant and the Covenant of Works more clearly than most other places in his writings.
  4. As a whole, Owen’s treatment of Hebrews serves as a comparison and contrast between Old Testament and New Testament worship. This is a recurring theme throughout the work, but is particularly evident in his exposition of chapter twelve, in which Owen sets forth the glory and simplicity of New Testament worship in unparalleled terms. In his comments on Hebrews 7:1 and 7:7, Owen includes a significant treatment of the role of ordained ministers in corporate worship and the history and significance of benedictions.[iii]
How to Use Owen on Hebrews
  1. Use the careful expositions presented at the introduction of each particular text. Owen’s theological and practical analyses are often so lengthy that, though always profitable, they are unmanageable for the rigors of a weekly preaching schedule. For example, he wrote 84 pages of closely printed text on Hebrews 1:1-2.[iv] However, at the beginning of his treatment of each verse, Owen provided an analysis of all Greek terms and phrases in the passage. His analyses rival most other commentaries in skill and precision. In addition to this feature, Owen began each new chapter of Hebrews with an insightful survey of the scope of the chapter.
  2. Skim through lengthy sections, giving careful attention to discussions that seem most likely to expound important doctrines and applications that you intend to include in preaching. The Summary of Doctrinal and Practical Observations, Drawn from the Exposition of the Epistle at the end of volume two was designed to assist you in doing this.[v] This last “exercitation” is Owen’s analysis of his own work. Verse by verse and section by section, it provides an overview of what you will find under the exposition of any given text in the epistle. This shall enable you to have the whole work before you at a glance, and to plan ahead for subjects that might be of particular value.
  3. Read and digest a little at a time. In spite of what the size of the work may suggest, Owen is dense and often brief. I have often found more profit in five pages of Owen than in five volumes by other writers on the same subjects. Many people have noted that Owen is difficult to read, but I have never met anyone who has taken the time read Owen that felt as though they had lost their labor.
  4. Plan ahead in your reading. Preaching requires more than the fruits of weekly preparation. Every sermon reflects who the preacher is as a man, and betrays the extent to which he is growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour in his life as a whole. The preacher’s prayerful reading beyond the confines of his weekly sermon preparation shall, in large measure, determine how profitable he will be in his weekly preparation. Look at your text well in advance, determine what portions of Owen are most likely to bring the greatest profit to your own soul, and devour them early.
  5. Use the Scripture index in volume seven. The value of the Hebrews set for preaching is not limited to preaching through the epistle to the Hebrews. For example, when preparing a sermon on Haggai 2:6-7 (on the “shaking” of heaven and earth) I gained more profit from Owen’s exposition of this passage in his work on Hebrews than from most of my commentaries on Haggai.[vi] Owen’s expository skills are evident throughout his works, yet his expositions of various texts in his work on Hebrews stand out for their depth and precision. While I was in seminary, Owen’s exposition of Isaiah 7:10-16 (the “virgin birth” prophesy) was required reading for a Hebrew exegesis paper![vii] Index I at the end of volume seven is true to its title: “Passages of Scripture Explained.”[viii]
Those who are industrious and disciplined enough to work through all seven volumes of John Owen’s work on Hebrews shall bring forth fruit from it even to old age. However, even if you cannot read these volumes from cover to cover, do not allow them to collect dust on the shelves, and by no means sell them! If you do not own this set, save your pennies until you can afford it, or sell something else in order to obtain it! However, there is no virtue in owning Owen unless you begin to labor to benefit from him. “In all labor there is profit, but idle chatter leads only to poverty” (Prov. 14:23).


[i] C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to my Students: Four Volumes in One (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1990), vol. IV, 188. This book has recently been republished by the Banner of Truth Trust.
[ii] For a chronological list of Owen’s publications, see Peter Toon, God’s Statesman: The Life and Work of John Owen (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971), 179-181. This list has been reprinted in Jon Payne, John Owen on the Lord’s Supper (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2004), 77-80, and may also be found on johnowen.org.
[iii] John Owen, Hebrews, ed. William H. Goold (orig. pub, Edinburgh: Johnstone & Hunter, 1855, reprint, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), V, 316-320, 368-375.
[iv] Hebrews, III, 1-84.
[v] Hebrews, II, 461-546.
[vi] Hebrews, I, 283-305 and VII, 353-366.
[vii] Hebrews, I, 384-395.
[viii] Hebrews, VII, 487. Emphasis added.