Studying the Bible is an essential for the Christian. Yet it seems far many of us seem to take it 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. 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 such good news, and we should want to know all we can about it, shouldn’t we?
Absolutely. A few years ago I wrote a series called “get serious about your studies,” offering readers a look at a few different resources intended to help them study the Scriptures. Today, I’m revisiting this series, beginning with the most critical area: you and your Bible. More specifically, your study Bible.
Do I need a study Bible?
Despite what many of us have been taught, the Bible isn’t an impenetrable book with a mysterious message requiring decoder rings and multiple PhDs to understand. The truth is, much of the Bible is fairly easy to understand. God wants His people to know Him, regardless of academic achievement. So whether you’re in grade school or grad school, you can understand the Bible.
Even so, we must also acknowledge there are many things that are confusing or unclear to the twenty-first century reader. Much of this is due to cultural proximity—we’re a long way away from the time Jesus and His apostles walked the earth. We live in a completely different context and speak a completely different language. Certain nuances get lost in translation. And let’s face it, the vast majority of us aren’t going to be learning the biblical languages anytime soon.
This is where study Bibles are a wonderful gift to us. 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 versions available, so to some degree it comes down to preference. Nevertheless, here are a few things to keep in mind when considering which study Bible to invest in:
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.
While they certainly can be used for more in-depth study, generally speaking, dynamic equivalence translations are ideally suited for devotional reading. If you’re looking to do some serious investigation, lean toward a formal equivalence translation.
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. If you have a study Bible featuring notes by the likes of J.I. Packer, John MacArthur and R.C. Sproul, rejoice! But if they’re by Joel Osteen, run for the hills.
4. Font size. I know this sounds silly, but it’s actually pretty important. Reading tiny print takes a toll on the eyes. You want to try to avoid eye strain if at all possible.
What study Bibles do I recommend?
There are tons of great study Bibles out there, and here are a few I strongly recommend:
The ESV Study Bible. This is one of the best translation specific study Bibles available on the market today, with contributions by Dennis Johnson, Andreas Köstenberger, Ray Ortlund, and Tom Schreiner, among many others. (Learn more or buy it at Westminster Books or Amazon.)
The HCSB Study Bible. The Holman Christian Standard Bible is increasingly becoming one of my favorite translations to use, combining the accuracy of the ESV with the readability of the NIV. This study Bible features notes written by Richard Hess, Andreas Köstenberger, Robert Yarbrough, Walt Kaiser and more. (Learn more or buy it at Amazon.)
The Reformation Study Bible. This study Bible is ideal for getting a solid grounding in historic Reformed theology, featuring contributions by R.C. Sproul, Graeme Goldsworthy, Peter Jones, Tremper Longman III, Sinclair Ferguson, Leon Morris and more. (Learn more or buy it at Westminster Books, Ligonier Ministries or Amazon)
The John MacArthur Study Bible. This one is definitely going to have a particular flavor to it, since all the notes are by one author. A word of caution: If you’re a dispensationalist, you’ll be thrilled with the notes on passages related to eschatology. If you’re not, well… This one’s available in multiple translations, including the NKJV, ESV and NASB. (Learn more or buy it at Amazon.)