On Reading and Studying as a Pastor


Protestant pastors don’t read or study very much these days, and most churches don’t encourage them to do so. There are fewer pastor-readers than ever before (and surfing the web, dabbling in this oddity and that, doesn’t count!). Church members and even officers sometimes have a hard time appreciating how much time a good message from God’s word takes to develop, and furthermore don’t see the importance of the pastor studying for anything other than preaching and devotions. There is a strong dose of anti-intellectualism in our circles and it doesn’t encourage a man to do the hard work of developing the mind and expanding his knowledge.

But precisely because our people are bathed in trivial information in this day and age, they need a shepherd with real knowledge, much discernment, and a nose for truth. This knowledge must be acquired and those qualities cultivated, and both require that you become a permanent student. This call to study is, of course, entirely biblical.

The Bible emphasizes the importance of the pursuit of sound learning for the wise in general, and for pastors in particular. Proverbs 15:14 says that “The mind of the intelligent seeks knowledge, But the mouth of fools feeds on folly.” Proverbs 18:15 reiterates the principle when it says, “The mind of the prudent acquires knowledge, And the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.” Proverbs 24:5, “A wise man is strong, And a man of knowledge increases power,” reminds us of the old dictum “knowledge is power.” I don’t need to tell you that the wisdom literature of the Bible is replete with calls to the believer to pursue knowledge. But the Bible says more than this. It emphasizes that ministers need to pursue study of the truth.

Ezra 7:10 describes this great Old Testament leader in this way: “Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.” Hosea laments the want of spiritual leaders like Ezra when it says “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest. Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children” (4:6). The same aspiration and complaint can be found in the last book of the Old Testament: “For the lips of a priest should preserve knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts” (Malachi 2:7).

But it is in the pastoral epistles that we find some of the most direct words of instruction and exhortation regarding ministerial study. Paul can say to Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Here we have an apostolic directive for a young minister to study with the equivalent exertion and effort of a tireless day-laborer. The true minister is a workman (Paul really likes this metaphor!). He works hard at his task. The true minister is to work hard at study so as to know and preach the Truth rightly.

Furthermore, Paul gives Timothy a sterling example of studiousness from his own practice and priorities. Think of his astonishing request in 2 Timothy 4:13 where he asks, “When you come bring the cloak which I left at Troas with Carpus, and the books, especially the parchments.” Now think of it. Paul is only months away from death. He has written the bulk of the letters of the New Testament. He has a lifetime of ministry behind him. And what does he want to do? Study! Winter is approaching and so Paul asks for his cloak, but more importantly he asks for books and parchments. Though almost at the end of his course, Paul aims to keep learning and growing by spiritual reading.

Nobody has ever uttered a more poignant pastoral meditation on this little verse than C.H. Spurgeon. Here is what he says:

How rebuked are they by the apostle! He is inspired, and yet he wants books! He has been preaching at least for thirty years, and yet he wants books! He had seen the Lord, and yet he wants books! He had had a wider experience than most men, and yet he wants books! He had been caught up into the third heaven, and had heard things which it was unlawful for a man to utter, yet he wants books! He had written the major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books! The apostle says to Timothy and so he says to every preacher, “GIVE THYSELF UNTO READING.”

The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. Brethren, what is true of ministers is true of all our people. YOU need to read. Renounce as much as you will all light literature, but study as much as possible sound theological works, especially the Puritanic writers, and expositions of the Bible. We are quite persuaded that the best way for you to be spending your leisure, is to be either reading or praying. You may get much instruction from books which afterwards you may use as a true weapon in your Lord and Master’s service. Paul cries, “Bring the books” — join in the cry.

Paul herein is a picture of industry. He is in prison; he cannot preach: WHAT will he do? As he cannot preach, he will read. As we read of the fishermen of old and their boats. The fishermen were gone out of them. What were they doing? Mending their nets. So if providence has laid you upon a sick bed, and you cannot teach your class — if you cannot be working for God in public, mend your nets by reading. If one occupation is taken from you, take another, and let the books of the apostle read you a lesson of industry” (from Spurgeon’s sermon #542 “PAUL – His Cloak And His Books” in the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit 9 (1863): 668-669).

Paul was a life learner, and you should be too.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published as a post at the Together for the Gospel (T4G) blog. 

Ligon Duncan

Ligon Duncan is the chancellor and CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary. You can find him on Twitter at @LigonDuncan.

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