The study of Scripture did not gain importance with the New Testament era, but had always been set forth as of key importance. Our standard for study is not set forth in the New Testament, but instead finds its basis in the Old Testament. In Ezra 7:10 we find the words, “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” This passage is incredibly important for us because it defines study. Often quoted as a motivation for individual study, three aspects of Bible study are drawn from this verse:
1) Study the Word
2) Apply the Word
3) Teach the Word
However, these points avoid the first part of the verse, which is a paramount aspect to study that is meant to accentuate the study process. It says that Ezra set his heart to study. More than an intellectual gathering of information, his study was meant to transform Him from the inside out, and so it should be with our study.
There was a point previously in which I decried the overuse of study Bibles in our personal study (you can read that article here). I still firmly believe that we overuse our study Bibles, so much so that it can take away from the value of simply reading Scripture. Yet study Bibles can play an important part of our study when used rightly. The role of a study Bible should be to supplement not supplant our Bible study. So it becomes important then to understand what role they should play in our study.
Three Benefits of Using a Study Bible
Using a study Bible should enhance your personal study, aiding you to draw from the text into your life, meaning and application of the truth of God. As it intensifies and strengthens your personal study time in the Word, the study Bible should accomplish three primary goals.
The Bible is not meant to be a confusing and obscure document that discourages you from studying it. In fact, it is truth that sanctifies (John 17:17) and it does so in its perspicuity (by being clear). However, sometimes there are word meanings, Old Testament quotations, or other details that we may lack simply because we have not previously studied them. This is where the study Bible provides great aid by opening up some of those details for us.
As one example, when John writes “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” we have often been taught that the Word is Jesus Christ, and rightly so. However, the power of such a statement is magnified when we understand that the beginning refers to the time prior to creation and that the word reflects two things. First, the Old Testament in which God’s spoken word was a self-expression of creation, revelation, and salvation, while the New Testament takes it further to show Jesus Christ as the Word (Revelation 19:13) and the ultimate disclosure of God (see the NIV Zondervan Study Bible). The study Bible brings forth the aspect of how God has revealed Himself to man and thus the importance of God’s Word in our lives.
It stands to reason that a better understanding should lead to a better application of God’s Word. The Bible should never be a mere collection of quotes, anecdotes, or moral suggestions. Instead it should sustain you, shape you, and sanctify you, thus it is meant to be lived out. As the study Bible helps in our understanding, it also guides us in application in order to promote godly growth in our lives.
James writes that believers should be doers of the Word (James 1:22). Because Scripture is clear we all have a general understanding of the meaning of his words and recognize that we are supposed to do the Word. However, one study Bible draws our attention to the fact that James does not merely say ‘do the Word’ but ‘be doers of the Word’ indicating James’ emphasis is not on the fact that we simply do the word, but that a person’s entire being should be characterized as a doer of it (see the MacArthur Study Bible). Not only is there greater detail here on the meaning of the text, but now we understand the implications of it. The Word does not provide mere direction in our lives, but it becomes a part of who we are so that every aspect of our being is regulated by it.
Point to God:
Finally, as the study Bible opens up the Word for us and motivates us to further growth, it also points us to God in order that we may develop a deeper relationship with Him. As the revelation of who God is, the Word itself draws us to God and causes us to praise and worship Him. Rightly used, a study Bible helps us in our worship of Him.
At the conclusion of the Passover Meal the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, we are told that Jesus and the disciples headed towards the Mount of Olives, but before doing so they sung a hymn (Matthew 26:30). One verse with a few simplistic words is a spectacular passage that is often overlooked. A study Bible reveals for us that they most likely sung the Hallel (Psalm 113-118) and probably Psalm 116-118, to be specific, since it was after the Passover meal (see the MacArthur Study Bible and the Holman Christian Study Bible under Matthew 26:30 and the ESV Study Bible under Psalm 118 as examples). Learning this point we turn to those Psalms to learn the words that Christ sang at that moment. An examination of study notes tells us that Psalm 118 praises the Lord with a desire to be rescued, which was fulfilled in Christ’s death on the cross, a tie-in that can be made because Psalm 118 was already applied to Christ at the triumphal entry in Matthew 21 (see the Holman Christian Study Bible). These words become a powerful expression because we recognize that Jesus Christ knew what He was about to endure. Suffering, separation, and suffocation were imminent. Jesus was about to endure (and eventually conquer) that which no man could ever rise from and He sings words like: “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:23-24). Our Lord and Savior proclaimed the glory of God’s work, the same work that would result in His death. We have then, a picture of a savior who not only was placed on the cross . . . but we can see how He did so willingly.
Thus, we have used the Study Bible to give deeper meaning to some seemingly insignificant words in Matthew 26:30, and it has done so in a way that causes our knees to buckle at the sheer weight of who God is, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Six Ways to Use the Study Bible for your Study
As the study Bible is meant to impact our relationship with God by providing details, promoting growth, and pointing to God, we must be certain to use the study Bible as it is intended. Again, being sure that it supplements not supplants our study, it should become a secondary source for us rather than a primary source.
Thus, to rightly use a study Bible one must begin by not using it at all. Read the Bible for all you can making notes, observations, and interactions with the text with a complete reliance upon the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:10; 1 John 2:27). Using principles of hermeneutics (specifically a literal, grammatical, and historical hermeneutic) allow the text to speak for itself (for a good book on hermeneutics and how to study the Bible, Duvall & Hayes Grasping God’s Word is an easy textbook to use for self-study; it not only teaches how to study and interpret Scripture, but also shows how and when to use appropriate tools in your study).
Upon exhausting all of your own observations and study, then open your study Bible. Between the notes for each verse and the introductory material to each book, a study Bible provides valuable information that can be summarized in the following six aspects:
1) Context: Often study Bibles will provide an overview of the book that gives insight into its historical context, its cultural context, and its literary context so that you can better understand the meaning behind the writings.
2) Construction: Each book of the Bible has been written with a specific purpose, and thus looking to the introductory material, many study Bibles will help you in identifying the structure of the writing and the themes that are addressed.
3) Content: Understanding the deeper meanings and issues can often guide in a greater understanding of the Word. Thus the Study Bible can give you understanding into significant meanings and interpretive challenges in order to better understand the content being presented.
4) Characterization (definition): The language of the Biblical authors was very precise and understanding of word meanings and definitions reveals much more than our English translations often convey. Some study Bibles will provide details to some of these words either by commenting on them or providing specific pull-outs about significant words.
5) Cross-References: Steve Lawson once said that the Bible is so interconnected that “when you pull a thread in Genesis it crinkles the page in Revelation.” The biblical authors relied on each other’s writings drawing forth information and quotes from each. Seeing these cross-references provides a framework for our understanding and thus becomes crucial in our study of the Bible.
6) Commentary: Finally, study Bibles provide commentary about specific verses and passages in order to understand better the meaning of the text.
Confirm, Contradict, and Continue
Ultimately a study Bible should do several things for us. First as we have reached an understanding of the text, a study Bible should either confirm or contradict our interpretation. While we want to think we are always right, tainted by sin, our interpretations are subject to fallibility. It becomes necessary then to learn from others. If you are getting something out of the text that nobody else is getting, or if everybody else is getting something out of the text that you aren’t, that should cause you to pause and reconsider the meaning.
Second though, is that as a study Bible provides detail, promotes growth, and points to God, it compels us to continue in our study. Desiring more of God’s truth, we should never become complacent in our study, but eager to continue.
What it comes down to when using a study Bible is, we should never rely on it, but neither should we deny it. Our first object is to study the Word by reading the Word and then when necessary allow the study Bible to enhance our study of the Bible.