Bible Study Basics: Tools
If you have followed the entire Bible Study Basics series so far, you have:
- Committed to a regular Bible study time
- Started following a reading plan
- Gotten familiar with a study method
- Endeavored to understand the Scriptures in their context
- Begun to identify and study each particular genre
- Looked for Christ as the fulfillment of the text.
In the final installment of the series, we will take a brief look at some supplemental tools you can use to check your exegesis work.
Should We Use Study Tools?
One troubling point of view that I’ve often heard from well-meaning church members is that a serious student of God’s Word does not need interpretive help. “I don’t read anything except for the Bible” and “I have the Holy Spirit, so I don’t need to read anyone else’s thoughts on Scripture” are two sentiments I have heard in recent weeks. This view is risky. While it presumes to place a high view on the Spirit’s ability to illuminate the meaning of the text, I would argue it does the opposite. It places a supreme value on your own subjective ability to perceive the Spirit’s illumination and rightly interpret the text.
Allow me to explain.
The Holy Spirit is committed to illuminating the truth of God’s Word to God’s people (John 14:25–26). He will always fulfill His role as the Spirit of truth. The Spirit will never mislead, but that is not to say the human will never misunderstand or misinterpret. I’ve lost count of how many times I have heard a person erroneously claim to have “heard from God.” I’ve done it myself. The Spirit is infallible, but people are not. Sometimes we get it wrong.
Here’s a particularly unsettling example: the book of Galatians.
In Galatians 2:11–14, we witness a heavyweight bout between two titans of the faith. The apostle Paul v. the apostle Peter. Peter had missed the point of the gospel and had begun forcing obsolete Jewish restrictions on Hebrew believers, to the point of excluding and ostracizing Gentile converts. Paul steps in and publicly confronts Peter, saying his “conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel.” To the praise of God’s glorious grace, Peter repented and corrected his application of the gospel as well as his behavior (see Acts 15).
If an apostle and one of the closest personal friends of Jesus Christ Himself can get it wrong, can’t we? If Peter needed correction on his understanding of Scripture, should we consider our ability to “hear” from the Holy Spirit infallible?
That is why I consider the Holy Spirit’s illumination of Scripture to be not only an individual gift, but a corporate gift from the Lord. God, in His common grace, has offered wisdom and insight to countless members of the body of Christ over thousands of years. Praise God for the collective wisdom of two separate Councils in the fourth century A.D. that ratified the canon of Scripture. Praise God for faithful preachers, teachers, theologians, and authors over the centuries who have contributed to the corporate understanding of orthodoxy among the universal church.
God has given Councils, theologians, and preachers to the church for her good and to maintain sound doctrine. To say we have no need for or derive no benefit from their faithful work is to discount a significant gift of grace.
Over my thirteen years of preaching, I have often completed my exegesis and gone to check my work with qualified experts only to find I’ve missed the point or the meaning of the text. While that feeling is embarrassing and humbling, I’d much rather be corrected prior to ascending the pulpit than after.
Here’s what I’m trying to say: we should not rely solely on our own intellect or insight to guarantee we’ve gotten the correct meaning of the text. The Holy Spirit has been illuminating the meaning of the Scriptures to believers for countless years. To come up with a novel understanding of a text is a sure sign of error (in the best case) or heresy (in the worst case). We should take advantage of the unprecedented access that we currently have to high quality biblical scholarship.
After I finish my personal study of a text, which includes prayer, note-taking, context, cross-referencing, and block diagramming, I always conclude by checking my work. I do this by consulting several types of tools.
Most of us are not experts in biblical languages. There is tremendous value in learning the languages. However, biblical understanding is not reserved only for linguists. Lexicons and concordances are helpful tools you can use to check your work.
Confirmation bias is a common danger in language study. To ensure proper language study, learning the languages is the worth the effort. However, we can all glean insight from good and accessible tools.
Bible lexicons provide definitions and meaning of Biblical words found in the original Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). A concordance is an alphabetical listings of words and phrases found in the Bible and shows where the terms occur. Concordances include cross-references also, which helps the reader understand the different uses of words as they appear in the Bible.
For years, (various editions of) the Strong’s Concordance has been the most accessible and helpful popular concordance available. I have often found these in thrift stores and you can access them for free on several websites.
I also recommend the Vines Greek Grammar and Dictionary for two reasons: 1) there is a complete grammar in the beginning to help you learn the Greek language; 2) the dictionary is easy to use, even for novices.
I have personally benefitted from the NASB Key Word Study Bible. I received this Bible as my ordination gift. Important words are underlined in the biblical text and the reader can look up the definitions and uses of the words in the concordance included in the back.
The last tool I will mention is sort of a hybrid between a language tool and a commentary (see below). A. T. Robertson’s series called Word Pictures of the New Testament has been a tremendous asset in my preaching for over a decade.
Commentaries are many preachers’ best friend. They are often written by scholars who have spent countless hours studying one book of the Bible. These scholars offer their “commentary” on the text, helping the reader understand the meaning and application of the biblical text, one section at a time.
Commentaries fall under two primary classifications: devotional (or homiletical) and technical.
Devotional or Homiletical Commentaries
Devotional (or homiletical) commentaries are the most accessible to the layperson. They are often written in sermonic form, highlighting the main idea of the passage and primary applications. They tend to focus less on the technicalities of grammar and more on the broad meaning of the text. However, the best versions include both technical insight and pastoral application.
The pastors at Indian Creek recommend the following devotional/homiletical commentaries:
Technical commentaries focus more on grammar, language, and interpretive issues. They are helpful especially when the meaning of a passage is disputed among scholars. These commentaries can be a bit harder to read, but are worth the effort. Digging through the mines of serious biblical scholarship will very often produce gems.
The pastors at Indian Creek recommend the following technical commentaries:
New American Commentary (NAC)
New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT)
New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT)
NIV Application Commentary (NIVAC)
The Pillar New Testament Commentary (PNTC)
Word Biblical Commentary (WBC)
A word about volumes
In general, we hesitate to recommend one-volume commentaries that cover several books of the Bible. (Notable exceptions are the Matthew Henry and EBC series). We highly regard the series mentioned above, as they usually include one volume written by one or two authors per biblical book.
There are some excellent commentaries that are not included within a popular commentary series. Some pastors and scholars have poured thousands of hours into the study of one book of the Bible and have offered the fruit of their work to the church.
Three good examples of independent, one-volume commentaries include:
There are many more examples of accurate and helpful commentaries. Access to biblical scholarship is at an all-time high. We are wise to avail ourselves of valuable and accessible resources.
If you have a question about a particular Bible study tool or commentary, please don’t hesitate to ask one of the pastors at Indian Creek for advice.
Bible Study Hacks for Cheapskates (Like Me)
Commentaries and other Bible study tools can be expensive. There are some great options for digital programs that can offer everything you need, but they can be pricey. Logos is one of the most popular programs. However, having spent my entire adult life as a youth pastor, church planter, and associate pastor, I have found (by necessity) many helpful tools that cost nothing or next to nothing.
My favorite free online tool is biblehub.com. There you can find lexicons to help with language understanding as well as a few free commentaries.
Biblestudytools.com is perhaps the most robust free online platform for study. The site offers 18 commentaries, four concordances, two lexicons, several dictionaries, and more.
Commentaries, in particular, can be pricey. So, I have discovered a true "life hack" that has saved me a ton of money over the years. Head over to books.google.com and find whatever commentary you’re looking for. There is a good chance there will be a free “preview” of the book, which will allow you to read almost the entire book at no cost!
I pay for one subscription service that you may want to consider. ESV.org offers several study Bibles as well as the entire Preaching the Word Commentary series for $39.99/year. You can use this resource online or via an app on your smartphone or tablet.
Committing to serious Bible study requires investment. You will likely want to invest some money on good materials. You will definitely spend many hours working to mine gold from the pages of Scripture. But the time, the effort, and the investment is worthwhile. Indeed, no other discipline will bring dividends that compare with the study of God’s Word.
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever;
the rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
(Psalm 19:7–11 ESV)
Other posts in the Bible Study Basics series: