Any project is easier when you have the right tools, and Bible study is no exception. As Christians, we know we need to understand what the scriptures say because it is the basis of all our beliefs about God, Jesus, salvation, and living the Christian life.
At the same time, Bible study is also a challenge. We are separated from the original authors and audience of the Bible by time, language, culture and (for most of us) geography. So understanding the Bible involves a different approach than reading the latest non-fiction book or novel. The following five tools will help you dig deeper into the scriptures and understand passages or verses that would be mysterious or confusing without them. These tools will help you tap into the riches of God’s Word that often lie beneath the surface.
Tool #1—A Searchable Bible
Before the rise of online Bible websites, to research the Bible you needed a book called Concordance. These volumes are still available and list the occurrence of each word in the Bible so you can search for specific terms. For example, if you wanted to find every occurrence in the Bible of the “Holy Spirit,” you could open the concordance and locate every verse where that term appears. This is useful because it’s important to know what the entire Bible says on a given topic, rather than looking at just a few verses.
Now, however, there are several Bible websites that make research easier, such as Bible Gateway and YouVersion (both are also available as mobile apps). These sites allow you to choose your preferred version of the Bible and search within that version. With Bible Gateway, you can also create notes with your personal thoughts and highlight passages. The ability to search the entire Bible for any term is a wonderful tool that will enrich your personal or small group Bible study.
Tool #2—Bible Dictionary
Bible dictionaries contain entries about people, places, and things in the Bible. They are wonderful tools for shedding light on terms you may not be familiar with, getting a concise overview, or learning important background information.
Say, for example, you are studying one of the gospels and want to know more about the town where Jesus grew up, Nazareth. You could open your Bible dictionary to “Nazareth” and read the following:
A small town in the Galilee, about halfway between Mount Carmel and the [south] end of the Sea of Galilee. It was the home of Mary and Joseph, and is where Jesus spent most of his life (Matthew 2:23; Luke 1:26; 2:4; John 1:46). After Jesus began his ministry, he visited the synagogue in Nazareth and the people there rejected his message (Luke 4:16-30; cf. Mk 6:1-6a).
Bible dictionaries are available as printed books and can also be found online (for example, at Bible Gateway or biblestudytools.com), as well as in Bible software (for example, Logos or Olive Tree). A significant advantage of Bible software to many of the tools discussed in this article is that you can search entire books for keywords, making it easier to locate information, as well as purchase modern, up-to-date resources (most free resources at Bible Sites are older works that are in the public domain).
Tool #3—Bible Word Studies
The Bible was originally written in three languages. The Old Testament was primarily written in Hebrew, with some portions in Aramaic, and the New Testament was written in Greek. Sometimes deeper insight can be gained into a passage by examining the underlying Hebrew or Greek words using a Bible word study resource.
Say, for example, that you are reading Psalm 29 and come to the last verse: “The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord grant peace to his people” (v. 11). If you would like to know more about what “peace” means in this verse, then you consult your word study resource, which says the following.
The Hebrew word for “peace” is šālôm. This . . . conveys the image of plenitude, unity and harmony, something complete and wholesome. Although “peace” is essentially a relational concept in OT [Old Testament], it also conveys the idea of prosperity, health and fulfillment. . . . Throughout the Old Testament, about two-thirds of the uses of this word express the fulfillment that comes to human beings when they experience the presence of God.
While in English we generally use the word “peace” to mean an absence of conflict, our resource tells us that in Hebrew the word often has a broader meaning of well-being and fulfillment, especially in about the presence of God. In many cases, a word study resource can help you uncover those deeper, richer meanings.
Although you can find basic definitions of Hebrew and Greek words on some Bible websites (such as STEPBible), more in-depth explanations like the one above are usually found in books devoted to the study of the words (many of which are also available electronically in Bible software). programs). Two that are particularly easy to use are the New International Encyclopedia of Bible Words by Lawrence O. Richards and Mounce’s Comprehensive Explanatory Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words by William D. Mounce.
Tool #4—Scriptural Commentaries
Commentaries are books usually written by scholars to explain the meaning of biblical texts. Some commentaries cover the entire Bible in one large volume, but most devote a single volume to a single book of the Bible. Commentaries bring together insights from biblical history, cultures, native languages, and theology to explain the meaning of biblical passages. Commentaries are therefore one of the most useful tools available for studying and understanding the scriptures.
Some commentaries are written at a high academic level, while others are intended for a general audience. You can usually tell how basic or advanced a review is by reading its product description and some sample pages in online bookstores. Commentaries aimed at everyday Christians tend to focus more on applying the Bible to one’s life.
Like most of the tools we have already discussed, comments are available in print and electronic versions. Some are also available for free online at sites like Bible Gateway and biblestudytools.com, although the majority are older works. Both sites, however, offer access to modern commentary for a monthly fee. This can be an attractive option, as purchasing complete commentary sets can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Commentaries can also be purchased on Bible software platforms.
To see how helpful a commentary can be, imagine that you have just started reading the Gospel of John. The very first verse says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). A question that naturally comes to mind is: why does John refer to Jesus as “the Word”? To find out, you can open your commentary on the Gospel of John and read the following.
Just as our words reveal our heart and mind to others, Jesus Christ is the “Word” of God to reveal His heart and mind to us. “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). . . . According to Hebrews 1:1-3, Jesus Christ is the last Word of God to mankind, for he is the culmination of divine revelation. He existed in the beginning, not because he had a beginning as a creature, but because he is eternal. He is God and He was with God.
Here the commentator helpfully observes that Jesus is God’s complete and final Word, or revelation, to human beings, and that Jesus is God and not one of God’s creations. Such ideas can be essential to understanding the Scriptures.
Tool 5 — Study Bibles
If I went to a desert island and could only take one Bible study tool, it would be a study Bible. Indeed, a study Bible contains not only the full text of the Bible itself, but also commentary notes (and sometimes diagrams, tables, or other features) that explain the meaning of the Bible. Naturally, the commentary is much shorter than what you’ll find in a full volume of Bible commentary (like the one on John just discussed), but there’s usually enough to explain the meaning of a passage or phrase. a verse.
There are a multitude of study Bibles aimed at different audiences (e.g., women, teens, children, athletes) that focus on specific topics (e.g., theology, application of Scripture to life, comments from well-known pastors). They also come in all sorts of formats – leather, hardcover, pocket, electronic versions. A recent trend is to include blank pages for readers to add their own notes and observations. If you’re buying a study Bible, you might want to visit your local bookstore to see examples and browse through them to determine which one has the best feel and functionality.
An example of a specialized study Bible is the ESV Prayer Bible, which intersperses the prayers of past and present Christian notables throughout the Bible text. The prayer below, by the medieval theologian Anselm, is near Galatians 5 (which deals with the fruit of the Holy Spirit).
O merciful God, fill our hearts, we pray, with the graces of your Holy Spirit, with love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. Teach us to love those who hate us; pray for those who use us wickedly; so that we may be your children, our Father, who causes your sun to shine on the wicked and on the good, and who sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
A study Bible is one of the most versatile and helpful tools for Bible study, and one I highly recommend for deepening your regular scripture reading.