Though quiet, I consider myself a thoughtful person. Yet I too often allow my “introversion” to excuse my failure to love my neighbor through active listening and engaging conversation. My strength becomes a weakness when I over-rely on it or pay little attention to the need of the moment.
Similarly, a study Bible comes with both blessings and curses, depending on how you use it. Here are some suggestions for leveraging the remarkable strengths and sidestepping the destructive weaknesses.
1. Treat it as a reference work, not as your main Bible
Chefs buy knives in sets because they need different tools for different jobs. They don’t use paring knives to slice bread, or chef’s knives to quarter a chicken. It’s faster and safer to use the right tool for the right job.
And while folks in some parts of the world have trouble gaining access to any Bible, most readers of this blog can have as many as they want. With all the editions available to us, there’s no reason not to collect a well-rounded set. I have a Bible for reading, another for marking up, and a third to preach from. On my reference shelf, I have two more English translations, a Hebrew Old Testament, a Greek New Testament, and three study Bibles that serve different purposes (one is good at historical background, the second at main points, and the third at trains of thought). I also have a pew Bible from my church, but just so I can put page numbers into my sermon notes for announcing to the congregation.
You may not need this many Bibles. Most people will do fine with a simple one for study/markup and a fancy one for reference. Though, if you enjoy reading, I highly recommend also having a reader’s version.
But a bulky “study Bible” doesn’t serve well as your main Bible. Not only are you unlikely to carry a heavy tome on a regular basis, but also it will train you in ways you don’t want to go (see the curses again). Better to have an edition that keeps your attention where it should be: on the God-breathed words of Scripture.
2. Go heavy on overviews and historical background
Because the Bible was written to communities far removed from our time and place, we won’t assume the same things the original audience assumed. We won’t have the same shared experiences or cultural artifacts. So we need help. Study Bibles excel at exposing this distance and closing the gap with helpful information.
When you begin to study a book of the Bible, read that book’s introduction from your study Bible. It will explain the circumstances of writing and any necessary context. It will set you up to read that book as it was meant to be read, and it will help you to avoid gross misunderstanding. In addition, as you study through the book, you may hit names of unfamiliar places or people. These also present a good time to refer to your study Bible. Perhaps there is a map or chart that will make strong visual connections or explain allusions you never would have seen otherwise.
Of course, it’s even better for you to simply read the Bible—a lot. You’ll become more familiar with these things over time. But study Bibles also do well to help you on your way.
3. Wrestle with the biblical text without your study Bible
If you trust in Christ, you have the Spirit of Christ within you. If you have the Spirit of Christ, you have access to the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16), to the very author of Scripture (2 Peter 1:20-21). Do you trust that he can help you understand the things he has written (1 John 2:20-21)?
I’m not saying you can have perfect knowledge all by yourself, isolated from Christian community and history. I am, however, daring you to wrestle with the text—and with the Lord who inspired it—as an intelligent creature fashioned in his image. As a precious son or daughter who doesn’t need permission from the local police force to spend time with a doting parent. Just give it a try.
4. Refer to the study notes when you have a specific, impenetrable question—then set them aside again
See tip #3. If you hit a verse or passage that is difficult to understand (and there are plenty of them in the Bible), don’t run to your study notes like a shopaholic to a buy-one-get-one-free sale. Take a deep breath and count to 10. Put your nose back into the text. Discipline yourself to observe more closely and investigate more curiously. Read the paragraph in question at least 5 more times. Think and pray about your questions for at least 24 hours.
If after all that, you still have no answer—go ahead and check out what someone else has to say about it.
5. Read the articles and genre introductions
You’ve got this amazing reference library in a single volume. Take advantage of it! Most study Bibles have many articles on important topics, and they have introductions to the Bible’s major divisions (pentateuch, historical books, wisdom books, prophets, gospels/Acts, and epistles). Take your Bible education into your own hands and work these resources into your reading routine. You’ll be glad you did.
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