Insight #320 – Bible Study Aids

When a stranger entered the city preaching new ideas, many of the people were not fully convinced. But rather than reject him, they were “examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:10-12). Like the Bereans, we need to examine, to investigate, to see what the Bible really says.

How do we do that? It begins with reading – in context – and meditating on what we read. But we need to dig deeper. Do we understand all the words? What do other verses say on the same subject?

Free Aids at our Fingertips

The Internet is an amazing blessing. Let’s not take it for granted. Yes, it has a lot that is evil, but it also has a wealth of good. And that’s “wealth,” not only in a spiritual sense, but in the material sense. When I was young, a person could easily pay hundreds of dollars to purchase only a small portion of what is freely available on the Internet today.

Word searching is one of the biggest aids to Bible study. You might remember some words in a verse but forgot where the verse is found. Or you want to do an in-depth study of forgiveness – not what some preacher says, but what the Bible says. You want to consider every verse in the Bible that talks about it.

Today’s word-search capabilities far outperform printed concordances. Not only can you search for single words online, you can search for phrases, for any words that begin with certain letters, for any one of several words, for case-sensitive words, and even for translations of the original Greek and Hebrew words.  

Comparing versions can sometimes be enlightening. Today you don’t have to buy and open several Bibles on your wooden desktop. Rather, you can open them on your PC desktop. (And be aware that some websites have more capabilities and are easier to navigate on a computer than on a smart phone.)

Dictionaries are often an important part of study. Sometimes we simply need an English dictionary (also online). However, we must remember that the Bible was not written in English, and sometimes an English dictionary will mislead us. Without any knowledge of Hebrew or Greek, there are online aids to lead you to the original words and help you with their meanings in English.

For all the above and more, there are three free online websites that I continually use, each with differing characteristics and possibilities: Blue Letter Bible, Bible Gateway, and BibleHub. You may prefer others. Whichever ones you choose, examine all their possibilities.

What About Commentaries?

Before going to any commentary, we should do a lot of our own study as already described. In my view, commentaries are the last place to go for Bible study. They are tools that must be used wisely and in a limited fashion. If you go there first, you are not studying the Bible – you are simply reading someone else’s study.

In general, when you come across an especially difficult verse, commentaries can offer some ideas on how to interpret it. The important word here is “ideas.” Never take any commentary as authority. Rather, use them for things you have missed: a helpful cross-reference, something in the original language, some historical data, or whatever. And check several commentaries with differing ideas: never accept any one as authority.

The story is told of a visitor who was impressed by the many commentaries in a preacher’s office. The preacher replied, “The Bible throws a lot of light on those books!” Whether actual or just an illustration, there is plenty of truth in that. Use commentaries the same as sermons, articles, books, etc.: some offer good teaching, some contain false doctrine, and none are authorities.

Please don’t misunderstand me. We can all benefit from the study of others – but not to the exclusion of our own study. Let’s be like the Bereans, doing our own study to see if what we hear and read is so. The Bible often warns us to beware of false teachers.

Reference Bibles vs. Study Bibles

Since you want to be a student of God’s Word, you want to get a “study Bible,” right? Wrong. Although publishers are not consistent in their use of the terms “reference” and “study,” a “study Bible” most likely includes various types of comments on the verses. That is a problem. With man’s word bound together with God’s word, it is nearly inevitable you will break all the commentary guidelines just discussed. You will be tempted to give human remarks more authority than they warrant. Regarding a particular remark, you are tempted to think and even to say, “My Bible says…” Whoa!

A good “reference” Bible should not have comments but should have the following five helpful aids:

Footnotes – These notes offer alternate ways to translate a word as well as variations in different manuscripts.  

Cross References – These list other verses that are in some way related to the words in the verse.

Concordance – Small but helpful to locate popular verses.

Italics – In Bibles, italics are used to indicate words not in the original but considered helpful for good English.

Maps – A few maps of “Bible lands.”

Like the Bereans… … we should be “examining the Scriptures daily.” Also, the book of Proverbs urges us to seek wisdom, understanding, and knowledge of God “as silver, and… hidden treasures” (2:2-5). In other words, dig into the riches of God’s Word with as much dedication as seeking money. Dig. Study. Examine. Get beyond superficial reading. Do more than listen to preaching and reading devotional books. Do your own digging. There is spiritual wealth to be found. God bless your study.