Before we discuss the tools are available for studying the bible, it is important to remember that the things of God must be spiritually discerned (1 Cor 2:14).
All scripture is given by inspiration of God (2 Tim 3:16) and we require the help of the Holy Spirit to know the mind of God (1 Cor 2:11). A study of scripture without the Holy Spirit is purely an academic exercise and largely futile. Many people study for decades,gaining substantial amounts of biblical knowledge, but sadly never encountering the regenerative, transformative, power of the Word. The produce of a carnal or natural man’s study of scripture is an earthly knowledge that is unable to effectlasting change in an individual’s life. However, God’s intention for scripture is to point us to Christ and through Himwe receive life – zōē – the absolute fullness of life (John 5:39-40); kainos – a new life (2 Cor 5:17).
My prayer is that the forthcoming suggestions will be nothing more than tools in the classroom of the Great Teacher who has been given onto you to guide you into all truth (John 16:13). My prayer is that no resource will become an idol but rather a gateway to intimate fellowship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. My prayer is that God will give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him and that the eyes of your understanding are enlightened (Eph 1:17-18). As you study the scripture may it be profitable to you fordoctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness. May you be complete and thoroughly equipped for every good work which He prepared beforehand that you should walk in (2 Tim 3:16-17) (Eph 2:10).
The first place we are going to start in our consideration of tools for studying the bible is your bible. However, before we look at the types of bibles available, it may be helpful for us to briefly look at the various translations.
Quick question: what translation of the bible do you read and why?
I am sure some of common answers will be: ‘I read X translation because it is what I have always read…’ ‘It is what we read at my church…’ ‘My bible was given to me…’ ‘I find it easier to read than Y.’
There are three main ways the bible has been translated:
• Word for word – no two languages are an exact 1:1 match but the aim is to translate each word as literally as possible (examples: NKJV, AMP, ESV)
• Thought for thought – the aim is to translate the meaning behind the text (examples: NIV, NLT).
• Paraphrase – the aim is to translate the ideas from the original text whilst making the text easier for the modern day reader to understand (example: MSG).
Understanding the different ways the bible has been translated can be beneficial for your study. My aim is not to convert you to a particular translation but to help you make an informed choice when studying. You may decide one translation is better suited to everyday reading,whilst another difficult passages and topical study. Use an electronic bible resource such as the Bible Gateway website (which allows you to have several translations side by side) to get a feel for the various versions and how they read. Typically, most people have a base translation they prefer to read from, then they supplement their reading with other translations.
Once you have decided on your base translation, it is important to invest in a good bible in your base translation if you have not done so already. Yes, the bible is widely available in free electronic forms but there are many benefits to having a hardcopy bible. One major benefit being you can study away from the distraction of the internet, social media, instant messaging and calls.
Below is a non-exhaustive list of the types of bibles availableand the features they may include:
• Topical bible
• Interlinear bible
• Life application bible
• Leadership bible
• Family life marriage bible
• Men’s bible
• Women’s bible
• Teenage bible
• Children’s bible
• Journaling bible
• Articles – will provide contextual or historical background to aid the understanding of the text.
• Book introductions – provide you with a synopsis of the book, its main themes and where it fits on a historical timeline.
• Concordance – an alphabetical index of words used in the bible and where those words can be found.
• Creative spaces – these are bibles designed for artwork to be produced on its pages. It provides creatives a space to “camp” in particular passages and visually express their meditation of scripture within the pages they are reading.
• Cross referencing – identifies commonalities between different parts of the bible.
• Explanatory notes – these are footnotes that provide greater insight into the text.
• Life application – short explanations of how particular passages are applicable to the modern readers’ life.
• Lines or wider margins – this provides the user with space to make notes directly in the bible.
• Maps – visual aids to show you what the land looked like during that time period.
• Original language – the original language of the text appears in parallel to the English translation.
• Word studies – the meaning of a selection of words arelooked at closely in the original language of the text.
If you are unsure as to what bible to purchase, think about which of the above features you would like it to include. Start by looking on somewhere like Amazon for what is available in your base translation and read the product descriptions and reviews. Also, check to see if there are any Youtube videos. Often people will purchase, for example, a range of study bibles and compare and contrast what is available in each.Some of these videos are very helpful as they open several bibles on camera and talk though the pages which allows you to get a feel for what you will be purchasing. However, the same way one would consult a lecturer before purchasing material for their subject, consult the Holy Spirit on what translation and type of bible to purchase.
As we have discussed a concordance is an alphabetical index of words used in the bible and where those words can be found.
Many bibles contain concordances of varying lengths, however it is also possible to buy standalone concordances which are more substantial in their coverage of words and biblical themes.
Some concordances will help with the study of the original language of the text. A popular and very expansive concordance is that written by James Strong. In the Strong’s concordance, each English word is assigned a number that corresponds with the original Hebrew or Greek word.
Why use a concordance?
The Hebrew and Greek languages often have multiple words for what would be expressed in English by one word. What do I mean? Let’s use the word love for example. In Greek “Eros”refers to romantic, passionate love, “Philla” refers to deep friendship and “Agape” refers to unconditional love. All however would be translated into English as love. Why does this matter? When we read the word love in a particular passage of scripture and understand that in this context it isreferring to Agape, it improves our understanding of the text.
Bible dictionaries provide definitions of people, places, objects events and themes within the bible. Their purpose is to provide definitions and explanations of words used in the bible to aid the reader’s understanding of the meaning and message of the text. Bible dictionaries may also include some features found in a study bible such as summaries of books of the bible and maps.
Why use a bible dictionary instead of a normal dictionary?
Bible dictionaries are specifically tailored to provide the meaning of words in the context of scripture rather than in context of their natural every day use.
For example, if I do a Google search for the definition of love I get general definitions such as intense feeling, deep affectionand a great interest. This is not particularly helpful for my study of scripture.
If however I search the word love in a bible dictionary, I get definitions which attempt to reflect the meaning of the text; often accompanied with scriptural references, for example thenature of God (1 John 4:8) and the greatest of the Christian virtues (1 Cor 13:13).
Reading plans are a great way to have a structured, systematic approach to scripture. To name a few, there are plans that will help you to read the entire bible in a year, the New Testament in 90 days or a particular book of the bible across the upcoming month or week. This is a valuable resource as it breaks the scripture into bite size chunks (for example 2 chapters a day) and allows you to track your progress.
There can be a tendency for reading plans (particularly longer plans) to become a tick box exercise if an individual is not vigilant. It is important to remind yourself that the quality of your study matters. It is also important to be aware that the Holy Spirit may require you to spend much longer on a particular verse, chapter or book of the bible than your plan stipulates. Be open, be discerning and be flexible.
Commentaries can be split into three main categories:
• Devotional commentaries – focus on applying the bible to the reader’s everyday life.
• Homiletical commentaries – are typically written for sermon preparation. They are written by preachers for other preachers and focus on interpreting the bible and applying it.
• Exegetical commentaries – focus on an academic process of understanding the original meaning of a text. Authors will typically explore the text in its original language alongside the historical, social and cultural context. They may alsoaddress scholarly debates and the differing stances on a point.
Commentaries should be a supplement to your bible reading. Think food; you would, hopefully, not substitute your breakfast, lunch and dinner with a multivitamin tablet as this would be detrimental to your health. If, however, taken alongside a balanced diet it will probably do you some good.
Let commentaries deepen your study, not dominate it. It can often be tempting to automatically turn to them rather than meditating on scripture and waiting to hear from the Holy Spirit for yourself. It is easier right? All the hard work has been done for you. Commentaries are profitable but my advice is that you limit their use. Seek to hear what God will say to you about a passage first. It is also important to note that many commentaries are based on extracts of scripture. I would advise that you delve deeper and read the scriptures provided in context of the chapters and books they were taken from.
When reading commentaries, always apply the principle of sifting the wheat from the chaff (Mat 3:12). This is a farming technique where wheat (what is edible and kept) is separated from its outer shell, the chaff (what is inedible and burnt). Do not assume that everything you read is correct. The Bereans were deemed to be more noble because they searched the scriptures daily to see whether what they were told was so (Acts 17:11).
•Amazon – useful for purchasing hardcopy resources.
• Bible Gateway (particularly the website) – useful for study as it allows multiple translations to sit side by side on the same screen.
• Bible Study Tools – useful for commentaries and dictionaries.
• Blue Letter Bible – useful for commentaries and word studies in the original language of the text (Strong’s concordance available).
• YouVersion – useful for devotional commentaries and reading plans. Also has a wide selection of bible translations.
My prayer is that this has been a helpful resource in aiding your understanding of some of the various tools available to enhance your study of scripture. Above all, my prayer is that you will remember the Holy Spirit is your teacher and that spiritual things must be spiritually discerned.
May your study of scripture be transformative!