J. Vernon McGee’s bible commentaries are among the most widely-read study aids that Christians use today. McGee’s commentaries are companion resources to his popular Thru the Bible radio ministry, which, even though he died in 1988, continues to be broadcast in hundreds of countries around the world. So what makes McGee’s teachings, including his commentaries, a go-to resource for Christians?
McGee’s commentaries are popular for many reasons. His preaching was known, in part, for the clever and creative explanations and descriptions he used, which made his teaching easy to listen to and hard to forget. He spoke, not like a scholar (though he was one), but as an “every man.” McGee was folksy, not monotone; simple, but not shallow. Many of these teaching characteristics are reflected in his commentaries. Here are three examples (more well-known McGee quotes are below):
- “What is in the well of the heart will come up through the bucket of the mouth.”
- “The Bible. Know it in your head. Stow it in your heart. Show it in your life. Sow it in the world.”
- “Men call their sons Paul and their dogs Nero today.”
Thru the Bible commentaries are easy to read, and can be utilized by all people, no matter their formal education or overall knowledge of the bible. Readers will not find in-depth discussions on the original languages of Scripture, the cultural or social background of biblical books, or the history of interpretation on bible passages. Nevertheless, many Christians enjoy these books and use them to supplement their bible reading, because of their accessibility and applicability.
McGee’s bible training and ministry career
McGee graduated from Columbia Theological Seminary and Dallas Theological Seminary. He was ordained in the Presbyterian church in 1933 when he was 29-years-old. Over the next decade, he pastored Presbyterian churches in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, before moving west to California where his ministry career grew to new heights. In 1949, he participated in Billy Graham’s historical Greater Los Angeles Crusade, which was wildly successful and impacted the region for years after it concluded.
McGee broke fellowship with the Presbyterian church in 1955, after discussion over theological differences. He was committed to conservative biblical theology and was uncomfortable with the direction his denomination was taking. However, McGee continued pastoring until his retirement in 1970. But his ministry was not finished.
Three years earlier, in 1967, McGee began teaching Thru the Bible on the radio. Listeners loved the way he spoke and told stories. Most importantly, McGee explained the bible in a way that people could understand. When he left the pastorate, McGee devoted himself to his radio-based bible teaching ministry. In many ways, Thru the Bible would be his legacy. His teaching can still be heard on radio stations and they can be accessed on the internet. McGee’s commentaries also help preserve his teachings.
An Example Passage: From J. Vernon McGee’s Exodus Commentary
Exodus continues the account which was begun in Genesis, although there was a lapse of at least 3½ centuries. Genesis 15:13 says that the seed of Abraham would spend 400 years in Egypt. Exodus 12:40 says that it was 430 years, and Galatians 3:16–17 confirms it. It was 430 years from the call of Abraham, and 400 years from the time that God told Abraham.
Exodus means “the way out” and tells the story of redemption by blood and by power. The message of Exodus is stated in Hebrews 11:23–29, which says:
By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid three months of his parents, because they saw he was a proper child; and they were not afraid of the king’s commandment. By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward.
By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible. Through faith he kept the passover, and the sprinkling of blood, lest he that destroyed the firstborn should touch them. By faith they passed through the Red sea as by dry land: which the Egyptians assaying to do were drowned.
The word which opens Exodus is a conjunction that is better translated and rather than now. Exodus has been called the sequel to Genesis. Dr. G. Campbell Morgan wrote, “In the Book of Exodus nothing is commenced, nothing is finished.”
Genesis 46:27 tells us that seventy souls of Jacob entered Egypt. It is conservatively estimated that 2,100,000 left Egypt at the time of the Exodus. Although it is impossible to be certain about dates in this early period, it would seem that Joseph entered Egypt under the Hyksos or shepherd kings who were Semitic conquerors, and were related to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Actually, the Israelites may have been their only friends, as they were hated by Egyptians. Finally they were driven out by a native Egyptian dynasty which was understandably hostile to foreigners. In this line was the Pharaoh of the oppression and the one “who knew not Joseph.
Moses figures prominently in the Book of Exodus. He is the author of the Pentateuch which includes the first five books of the Old Testament—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In the Book of Exodus, Moses’ life is divided into three forty–year periods:
1. Forty years in Pharaoh’s palace in Egypt
2. Forty years in the desert in Midian
3. Forty years in the wilderness as leader of Israel
Moses’ training in Egypt, evidently in the Temple of the Sun, did not prepare him to follow God in leading Israel out of Egypt. God trained him in the desert for forty years to reveal to him that he could not deliver Israel alone. God gave Moses a B.D. (Backside of the Desert) degree.
It should be noted that after God prepared Moses to deliver his people, He sent him back to Egypt after forty years. Moses is to assemble elders of Israel and go to Pharaoh. Pharaoh will refuse to let Israel go. His refusal will open the contest between God and the gods of Egypt. Egypt was dominated by idolatry—“gods many and lords many.” There were thousands of temples and millions of idols. Behind idolatry was Satan.
There was power in the religion of Egypt—“Now as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith” (2 Tim. 3:8). Pharaoh asked, “… Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, neither will I let Israel go” (Exod. 5:2). God introduced Himself. Pharaoh got acquainted with God and acknowledged Him as God. “And Pharaoh sent, and called for Moses and Aaron, and said unto them, I have sinned this time: the Lord is righteous, and I and my people are wicked” (Exod. 9:27). “Then Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron in haste; and he said, I have sinned against the Lord your God, and against you” (Exod. 10:16).
A question arises from this episode: Why the plagues? They were God’s battle with the gods of Egypt. Each plague was directed against a particular god in Egypt. “For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord” (Exod. 12:12). God wanted to reveal to His own people that He, the Lord, was far greater than any god of Egypt and that He had power to deliver them.
(McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 4: Exodus 1-18. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.)
Editions of Thru the Bible Commentaries
The 60-volume paperback set, consisting of over 11,000 pages, is the edition that is still in print today. Individual volumes usually retail for between $6.99 and $8.99 new. The entire set can retail for between $300-$400 new. Many volumes are between 100 and 200 pages (e.g. Mark is 203 pages, James is 116 pages). Some biblical books have more than one volume: Acts and Hebrews both have to volumes. Revelation has three.
McGee’s commentaries were previously published as a hardback set and used volumes can still be found where used books are sold. There were five volumes in the set, covering all 66 books of the bible. A used hardback set, as of this writing, can be found for between $100-$200. There was also a leather-bound set published in the 1990’s, which can be found used today for around $150 as of this writing.
Features of Thru the Bible Commentaries
Each volume contains the following parts:
- book introductions, including information about the author, the setting, the genre of literature it is (e.g. poetry, law, prophecy)
- section introductions, which includes a general overview of a passage or section of Scripture (e.g. The 10 Commandments, The Sermon on the Mount)
- text outlines, which help readers follow the arguments and thoughts of the biblical authors
- discussion of the text, which is the largest section as McGee explains the verses and makes application to today
10 more J. Vernon McGee’s Quotes
“If you learn to trust God when the sun is shining, it is easier to trust Him on the day when there are dark and lowering clouds in the sky and you are in one of life’s storms.”
“The great sin of the average Christian is ignorance of the word of God.”
“If a sinner comes into your assembly or you otherwise come into contact with him, remember that he is a human being for whom Christ died. He stands at the foot of the cross, just as you stand at the foot of the cross.”
“Today, when people say they cannot believe, it is not a mental problem; it is a matter of the will of the heart- they do not want to believe. Some say they have certain ‘mental reservations,’ mental hurdles which they cannot get over. My friend, your mind is not big enough to take even one little hurdle. The problem is never in the mind but in the will. There is sin in the life, and a man does not want to turn to God; he does not want to believe Him.”
“Someday, when in the presence of our Savior, we will thank Him for every burden, every trial, and every heartache.”
“As someone has said, we either crucify or crown the Lord Jesus by our lives.”
“Don’t say that a loving God is going to send you to hell- He’s not. The thing that’s going to send you to hell is that you’re a sinner and you don’t want to admit it.”
“If we don’t want a baby, we must take responsibility for our actions before a baby becomes a reality. God has made us capable of having babies, and when one has been conceived, it is His intention for that child to come into the world. The moment the child is conceived, he is a person, and to abort a pregnancy is murder of a human being.”
“The world cannot satisfy the heart, because the heart is too large for the object.”
“Law demands—grace gives. Law says “do”—grace says “believe.” Law exacts—grace bestows. Law says “work”—grace says “rest.” Law threatens, pronouncing a curse—grace entreats, pronouncing a blessing. Law says “Do, and thou shalt live”—grace says, “Live, and thou shalt do.” Law condemns the best man—grace saves the worst man.”
More publications by J. Vernon McGee
Other than commentaries, J. Vernon McGee wrote these books:
- David: A Man after God’s Own Heart
- J. Vernon McGee on Prayer
- Jesus: Centerpiece of Scripture
- Living by Faith
- Who is God?
- Marriage and Divorce
- Doctrine for Difficult Days
He also wrote well-known booklets about the Christian faith:
- The Cross Divides Men
- The Cross is God’s Christmas Tree
- The Gospel in the Gates of Jerusalem
- Grace in Three Time Zones
- Is it Possible for a Saved Person Ever to be Lost?
- Some Seed.?!
- Why Four Gospels?