How to Use a Study Bible
#1 Settle Your Motivation for Reading the Bible
We read the Bible to be transformed by it, not to understand it. We seek to understand so that we might in turn hear from God clearly and so become more like Christ. We need to have our minds transformed so the we will in turn live as sacrifices (Romans 12:1-2). Is that your motivation? To be transformed in your mind so that you may live for God’s glory? Make that your motivation (maybe study Romans 12:1-2) and you will find the Bible a great delight and help for your soul.
#2 Read the Bible
People are often surprised how readable and understandable the Bible is when we just sit down and read it slowly and thoughtfully. What the Bible is trying to say is understandable. Scripture is intended to equip us to be mature followers of Christ (2 Tim 3:16). So much as the Bible is meant to help us in that way, it is extremely easy to understand. I suggest that just about anyone can pick up any book of the Bible, read it, and then give the main point of that book! Always start by reading the Bible to see what it says for yourself. Consider taking a few moments for reading the same portion of scripture over and over through a week. Consider blocking our long periods of time to read through a book to can an overview perspective. Main point here: read it.
#3 Read the Introduction to a Book
Very often we have no idea what is going on in any given book of the Bible. Who was Zephaniah written to? What year? While many contextual details are contained in the books of the Bible themselves a Study Bible Introduction can significantly help you understand what you are about to read. Introductions will contain some interpretive matters. But mostly, like in the ESV Study Bible, they will essentially help “set up” the book with historical details. If you read the Bible before you read the introduction you will be encouraged that you probably picked up on some of the themes or details in the Study Bible introduction. If not, you can be encouraged that the is more there than you realized and be all the more encouraged to dive back in!
#4 Read the Bible Again
Go back to the Bible. Read the Bible again having read it and put it context of the introduction. What do you notice that you did not notice last time through? Is Scripture becoming clearer? I think you find that it is. Either way, the goal here is to read and understand scripture in order to be transformed by it.
Read the Commentaries See where commentaries come in order here? #5 ( on this list anyway). Don’t start with the commentaries. Where we start is where we give authority. While commentaries are extremely helpful, they are no the authority. God’s word is the authority for “every faith and practice” (BF&M).
Commentaries are helpful when we are stuck, lack understanding, have questions, or seem confused about the meaning of a passage. Commentaries are like calling a friend to ask, “Hey, what do you think about this?” Its like having someone help think with you. Commentaries can’t interpret the Bible for you. But they can help shed light on the meaning and context of a passage.
Good commentaries are honest about Biblical difficulties. They will approach difficult texts by saying something like, “This could mean one of three things”. Then the commentator gives the interpretations, defending his own, and leaving it up to you to decide.
NOTE. Better than commentaries is ACTUALLY HAVING SOMEONE think through a text with you. Reading through Ezekiel with two brothers right now is often more fruitful in my understanding and appreciation of a text than a commentary. And it builds community along the way.
#5 Compare Commentaries
Have a favorite commentary? That could be a sign of tunnel-interpretation. It could be a sign we are not using commentaries well if we are only going to the commentaries that we already know we agree with. Consider various commentaries if you are studying the Bible so that you get various viewpoints which will help challenge and affirm your own interpretation.
That said, use commentaries as a resource when we have questions. Use them as a resource and not as an "answer bank". The answers for the text are in the text, not the commentaries. We must only read, pray, and dig to found them.
One of the particular joys of using commentaries is saving them for last. What a joy to interpret God's word on your own and then be confirmed that someone else saw exactly what you saw. You might no be crazy after all!
#6 Make this a Lifelong Pursuit
Studying the Bible is not something that we accomplish by the time we are 30 or 50. It is a rythm and a habit that helps us grow until we are made into the image of Christ. Don't set out to study the Bible and fully udnerstand it all by next month. Set out to slowly and methodically be transformed by reading and applying God's word. Its ok if you get stuck for a while. Forget a day or two. Its ok if you get confused. So long as you continue to press into Scritpure, it will serve you well. God's word does return void!
For His Glory,