Any project is easier when you have the right tools, and studying the Bible is no exception. As Christians, we know we need to understand what Scripture says since it’s the basis of all of our beliefs about God, Jesus, salvation, and for living the Christian life.
At the same time, Bible study is also challenging. We’re separated from the authors and original audience of the Bible by time, language, culture, and (for most of us) geography. Thus, understanding the Bible involves a different approach than reading the latest nonfiction book or novel. The following five tools will help you dig deeper into Scripture and understand passages or verses that would be mysterious or confusing without them. These tools will help you mine the riches of God’s Word that are often below the surface.
Tool #1—A Searchable Bible
Before the rise of online Bible websites, in order to search the Bible you needed a book known as a concordance. These volumes are still available, and list the occurrence of every word in the Bible so that you can search for specific terms. For example, if you wanted to find every occurrence in the Bible of “Holy Spirit,” you could open the concordance and locate every verse where this term appears. This is helpful because it’s important to know what the entire Bible says about a given topic, rather than looking at just a few verses.
Now, however, there are several Bible websites that make searching easy, such as Bible Gateway and YouVersion (both are also available as mobile apps). These sites allow you to choose your favorite Bible version, and search within that version. With Bible Gateway, you can also create notes with your personal reflections 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 on people, places, and things in the Bible. These are wonderful tools for shedding light on terms you may not be familiar with, getting a concise overview, or for learning important background information.
Let’s say, for example, that you’re studying one of the Gospels, and you 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 Galilee, about halfway between Mount Carmel and the [south] end of the Sea of Galilee. It was the home of Mary and Joseph, and here Jesus spent most of his life (Matt. 2:23; Lk. 1:26; 2:4; Jn. 1:46). After Jesus began his ministry, he visited the synagogue in Nazareth and the people there rejected his message (Lk. 4:16–30; cf. Mk. 6:1–6a).
Bible dictionaries are available as print books, and can also be found online (e.g., at Bible Gateway or biblestudytools.com), as well as in Bible software programs (e.g., Logos or Olive Tree). One significant advantage of Bible software for many of the tools described in this article is that you can search entire books for keywords, making it easy to locate information, as well as purchase modern, up-to-date resources (most free resources at online 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 mostly written in Hebrew, with a few parts in Aramaic, and the New Testament was written in Greek. Sometimes deeper insight can be gained into a passage by looking at the underlying Hebrew or Greek words using a Bible word-study resource.
Say, for example, that you’re reading Psalm 29, and you come to the last verse: “The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord blesses his people with peace” (vs. 11). You’d like to know more about what “peace” means in this verse, so you consult your word-study resource, which says the following.
The Hebrew word for “peace” is šālôm. It . . . conveys the image of wholeness, unity, and harmony—something that is complete and sound. Although “peace” is essentially a relational concept in the OT [Old Testament], it also conveys the idea of prosperity, health, and fulfillment. . . . Through the OT, some two-thirds of the uses of this word express the fulfillment that comes to human beings when they experience God’s presence.
While in English, we typically use the word “peace” to mean an absence of conflict, our resource tells us that in Hebrew the word often has a more expansive meaning of well-being and fulfillment, especially in relation to God’s presence. In many cases, a word-study resource can help you uncover these deeper, richer meanings.
While 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 typically found in books devoted to word studies (many of which are also available electronically in Bible software programs). Two that are especially user-friendly are the New International Encyclopedia of Bible Words by Lawrence O. Richards and Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words by William D. Mounce.
Tool #4—Bible Commentaries
Commentaries are books typically 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, the original languages, and theology in order to explain the meaning of biblical passages. Commentaries are thus one of the most helpful tools available for studying and understanding Scripture.
Some commentaries are written at a high academic level, while others are aimed at a general audience. You can usually tell how basic or advanced a commentary is by reading its product description and a few sample pages at online bookstores. Commentaries aimed at everyday Christians tend to have a greater focus on applying the Bible to one’s life.
Like most of the tools we’ve already discussed, commentaries come in print as well as electronic versions. Some are also freely available online at sites like Bible Gateway and biblestudytools.com, though the majority of these are older works. Both sites, however, offer access to modern commentaries for a monthly subscription fee. This can be an attractive option, since purchasing full commentary sets can run hundreds or thousands of dollars. Commentaries can also be purchased in Bible software platforms.
To see how helpful a commentary can be, imagine you’ve 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 John’s Gospel, and read the following.
Much as our words reveal to others our hearts and minds, so Jesus Christ is God’s “Word” to reveal His heart and mind to us. “He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9). . . . According to Hebrews 1:1–3, Jesus Christ is God’s last Word to mankind, for He is the climax 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.
The commentator here helpfully observes that Jesus is God’s full and final Word, or revelation, to human beings, and that Jesus is God and not one of God’s creations. Such insights can be indispensable for understanding Scripture.
Tool #5—Study Bibles
If I were going to a desert island and could only take one Bible study tool, it would be a study Bible. This is because a study Bible not only contains the full text of the Bible itself, but also commentary notes (and sometimes diagrams, charts, or other features) that explain the Bible’s meaning. Naturally, the commentary is much briefer than you’ll find in a full Bible commentary volume (like the one on John we just talked about), but there is typically enough to explain the meaning of a passage or verse.
There are a multitude of study Bibles aimed at different audiences (e.g., women, teens, children, athletes) and that focus on specific topics (e.g., theology, applying Scripture to life, commentary by well-known pastors). They also come in all kinds of formats—leather, hardcover, paperback, e-versions. A recent trend is to include blank pages for readers to add their own notes and observations. If you’re shopping for a study Bible, you may want to visit your local bookstore to see examples and to flip through them to determine which has the best feel and features.
One example of a specialty study Bible is the ESV Prayer Bible, which intersperses prayers by notable past and present Christians throughout the biblical text. The prayer below, from the medieval theologian Anselm, is found near Galatians 5 (which discusses the fruit of the Holy Spirit).
O merciful God, fill our hearts, we pray you, with the graces of your Holy Spirit, with love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. Teach us to love those who hate us; to pray for those who despitefully use us; that we may be the children of you, our Father, who makes your sun to shine on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
A study Bible is one of the most versatile and useful tools for Bible study, and one that I highly recommend for going deeper in your regular reading of Scripture.