We all hear that personal bible study is an important aspect of our Christian life and is necessary if we want to develop a greater understanding of God’s ways and his character. Although this assumption seems to be universally agreed, there is often a lack of explanation on how to go about this in the most efficient and accurate way. It is almost as if we are being encouraged to learn a second language but do not have the access to dictionaries and native speakers; it is not easy! Now with unprecedented access to resources through the internet, personal study has never been so easy, instant and cost-effective! So I have listed 5 tools that I have found have helped me understand the bible in its rich linguistic and cultural context, which in turn has enabled me to get the most out of my personal bible study.
- Use Different Translations
This is a very simple, yet often overlooked tool. We all have our favourite translation that we like to read from, but including different interpretations of the text help us to gain a broader understanding of the intent of the author. Even with a 1000 scholars you are never going to get a perfect translation of the Hebrew and Greek text into English. At the end of the day, translators have to express the bible in the way that they believe is most loyal and fair to the original author’s intent. Referencing your bible study with other translations will help you see different emphases depending on the work of the translators. ‘Bible Gateway’ provides access to several translations free of charge via the internet as does the YouVersion ‘Holy Bible’ app via Apple and Android for your respective devices.
- Bible Handbook
A bible handbook is generally a condensed explanation of the bible’s key themes, date of authorship, historically important events and purpose. It serves to give you a general overview which forms the framework for more in-depth personal study. There are several to choose from; ‘Holman Illustrated Bible Handbook’ (which I personally use for its convenient size), ‘Baker Illustrated Handbook’, ‘Zondervan Handbook’, a quick google search will yield volumes of material from which to use.
- Bible Concordance & Dictionary
A concordance simply indexes the list of alphabetical words used within the bible and provides the main references for where the specific word appears within scripture. For example, if you wanted to know how many times and where the word ‘might’ appears in the bible, then a quick look into a bible concordance would show you. This a brilliant help when you may only remember one or two words from a specific verse that you are trying to find as a concordance will help you locate it speedily. However, bear in mind that concordances are specific to individual translations meaning using a NIV concordance to locate words used in the KJV will not be fruitful. The most universally recognized concordance is the ‘Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance’ which can be used for free via the ‘Blue Letter Bible’ website or can be purchased through your local well-supplied Christian bookstore. Bible dictionaries help provide definitions of biblical terms in the English and also provide definitions to Hebrew and Greek words found in ancient biblical manuscripts. This can be incredibly enriching to your personal study as the English word for ‘love’ for example, has 6 different expressions in the Greek and thus you have the potential of gaining 6 meanings from a verse. The ‘Strong’s Concordance’ includes definitions of the Hebrew and Greek but in addition; ‘Vine’s Expository Dictionary’ and ‘Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon’ are fantastic resources. Again, you can find most if not all of these resources for free via sites like; ‘Blue Letter Bible’ and ‘Bible Gateway’.
- Study Bible
A good study bible helps to flesh out meaning, context, literary features and historical factors that the original authors took for granted knowing that their intended audience understood these factors as a result of being the product of the time period. If you are reading the book of Acts in 2016, which was originally written for people living in A.D. 60, then you are going to have to research what life was like for the people of the time period in order to understand the text. You cannot impose your 21st century culture on to a 1st century audience. A study bible helps to bridge this cultural and historical gap by providing relevant historical material and the cultural practices of the time period. Furthermore, you benefit from the decades of research spent by scholars for each individual book of the Bible which you would never have the time to research for yourself. I should mention that study bibles often contain the personal interpretations of the scholar’s work and so you may find yourself disagreeing with their understanding of theology. Yet this should not prevent you from investing into a study bible as the wealth of material exceedingly compensates for your disagreements with the scholars interpretations of scripture. I use the ‘ESV Study Bible’ as a feel it is one of the most-researched and theologically fair works, presenting several views of the atonement and eschatology. In addition, the ‘Life Application Study Bible’ is probably the world’s most popular product on the market today.
I will preface by explaining that I am most weary about using this tool due to the inescapable fact that I am reading other people’s personal interpretations of scripture which no doubt will be riddled with errors and theological inconsistencies. However, all of our opinions are plagued by error so there is no getting around that. A trusted commentary can help you come to a place of understanding around an entire book of the bible. They serve to give you a fresh and different perspective on scripture based on the author’s theology and personal research. My favorite are the New Testament commentaries of N.T.Wright, ‘New Testament for Everyone’ due to it’s readability and focus upon a socio-historical understanding. Other famous entries include; ‘Matthew Henry’, ‘C.I. Scofield’, ‘John Wesley’ and ‘Expositor’s Bible Commentary’.
So there you have it, this one took me a while to write and I know that this article is longer than my usual entries, but I believe that bible study is one of the most enriching disciplines to your life with Christ. I hope that this list will help to inspire and equip you to research the scriptures for yourself.