Studying the Bible is an essential for the Christian, yet it’s something that, far too often, too many of us take for granted (myself included). If we study the Bible at all, it’s as a chore—”I have to do this”— instead of a privilege—”I get to do this!”
Through the Scriptures, we learn not how life works best, but how life really is. That there is a God who created all things and is in authority over all things. That mankind, made in His image and likeness, rebelled against Him and plunged all of creation into its current state of futility and sin. And that God made a way for mankind’s sins to be forgiven through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
This is very exciting stuff, isn’t it?
If it’s so exciting—if this is really good news—shouldn’t we want to know more about it?
Absolutely. We need to get serious about our studies. And the place to start is with your Bible; specifically choosing a good study Bible.
Why do I need a study Bible?
While much of the Bible is fairly easy to understand, there are many things that are confusing or unclear to the twenty-first century reader. Some of this is due simply to the fact that we live in a completely different context and speak a completely different language. Certain nuances get lost in translation.
A study Bible is a valuable resource to assist the reader in understanding Scripture by providing insight into words and phrases used that we might not understand, as well as historical interpretations of texts. Essentially it provides a running commentary that you can turn to should you get stuck.
What’s the right study Bible for me?
Choosing a study Bible, like choosing any Bible, can be difficult. There are a number of terrific types available today (another thing we should give thanks for), so to some degree it comes down to preference. Having said that, here are a few general criteria that I would recommend considering:
1. Translation style. This is probably the most important criterion. The methodology in how the text was translated from the original language can drastically affect your understanding of the words the original authors used and why. The two most common translation methods are “dynamic equivalence” and “formal equivalence.”
- Dynamic equivalence is essentially thought-for-thought—seeking to capture the ideas the authors were conveying, sometimes at the expense of the original language. The NIV and the NLT are good examples of this method.
- Formal equivalence tends to be a bit more word-for-word in its translation style; the upside is that you’re going to get a better idea of the actual words used in Greek and Hebrew, however the sentence structure can be clunky. The ESV, NKJV, NASB and the HCSB are probably the best formal equivalence translations on the market today.
Which should you use? At the end of the day, this is a matter of preference. The NIV and the NLT are great translations, especially for daily devotional reading. And from what I’ve seen, the NIV and the NLT study Bibles are quite good. But for the most bang for your buck, I’d highly encourage using the ESV or the HCSB study Bibles. Rock-solid translations and great notes (more on that in a minute).
2. Notes and supplemental articles. The notes in your study Bible need to actually be helpful in clearing up confusion where possible, and great ones will provide insight into the original language used. Avoid wishy-washy write-ups whenever possible. Supplemental articles on translations, Church history, ethics, the canon of Scripture, reading plans, as well as ones that help you understand the context of each book of the Bible, general themes, etc. are essential. Your notes and articles are the things you’re paying for, so be sure to take some time to read carefully.
3. The contributors. Do your best to know who is contributing notes to your study Bible. While no pastor or theologian is infallible, there are some who you should pay closer attention to. For example, if J.I. Packer, John MacArthur or R.C. Sproul contributes, you’re in for some gospel gold; if the notes are by guys with questionable theology, then you should probably pass.
4. Font size. This is more important than you might think. As much as I love my print edition of the ESV Study Bible, the notes can be a bit hard on the eyes. You want to try to avoid eye strain if at all possible.
5. The weight. This might seem like a silly consideration, but bear with me. The biggest complaint I have about the ESV Study Bible is it weighs somewhere around 5 pounds—it’s massive! And it’s too difficult to travel with. Try to be careful about buying something that might put your back out.
What’s my next step?
If you want to get started with a study Bible, get thee to a bookstore (or Amazon) and purchase one today. Here are four I’d recommend: