Better Bible Study Tip #60: Don’t Open a Commentary Until After You Have Studied

I love collecting good resources to help me in my Bible study. My collection of commentaries grows every year. It’s not uncommon for me to read something in a commentary that really helps me to gain additional clarity about a particular Scripture.

Commentaries are an important resource for serious Bible students, but they are also one of the most misused Bible study tools. Beware about using commentaries as a crutch for lazy Bible study. If you ever find yourself skipping the hard process of meditating on the text, and skipping straight to consulting your favorite commentary, you are doing it wrong. The Lord gave the church teachers for a reason (Eph. 4:11), but we should also follow the example of the Bereans who “examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).

Maybe you’ve been led to believe that you’re not smart enough to understand Scripture on your own, without significant help from Bible teachers. Although it is true that there can be some things in scripture that are hard to understand (even Peter admitted this much! 2 Peter 3:16), we should also remember that God intended for Scripture to be studied by everyone, young and old. The key to good Bible study is meditating on the text day and night (Psalm 1:1-3).

My point is not that we shouldn’t consult commentaries in our study. But before pulling your favorite commentary off the shelf, force yourself to think hard about the text of Scripture alone. Consider your Bible study methods. Do you spend more time focusing on the text of the Bible, or on the words of uninspired writers? When we are overly dependent on commentaries, a subtle shift takes place from living on “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4) to living by the words of Bible teachers.

Once you have done the hard work of thinking seriously about the text itself, go ahead and open a commentary. You will be in a better position to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the author’s arguments. You may even come across some new observations have haven’t thought of before. There is no doubt that we can learn a lot from commentaries written by good Bible teachers. But remember that there is no substitute for thinking when it comes to Bible study.

Better Bible Study Tip #59: Use the “Y’all Version”

In “proper” English, the word “you” can be used to refer to one person or to many. For example, I could tell my wife “I love you”, or at a concert a performer could yell to the crowd, “I hope you are ready for a great show tonight!”. But those of us who are from the south know better than to leave our “you” ambiguous. Even though it might make our middle school English teacher cringe, we use the word “y’all” whenever we address groups of people.

My Paw Paw used to joke that Paul must have been a southerner, because Paul liked to say “y’all” a lot. He’s right. The Greek language is similar to southern English in that they had a separate word for the plural “you”. The problem is, our English translations always use correct English grammar. That’s why our Bibles always contain the word “you” even when the Greek contains the plural “y’all.”

Y’all need to check out the “y’all version” Bible. Go ahead and google it. The “y’all version” is a free online Bible that converts the word “you” into “y’all” every time the plural word is used in the original Hebrew or Greek. At first it might sound funny when Jesus says to his disciples “Y’all’s Father knows y’all need before y’all ask Him. Y’all should pray, then, in this way.” But sometimes seeing that second person plural actually makes a big difference in how we understand the text.

Consider Paul’s teaching about the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 3:16. The ESV reads, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and God’s Spirit dwells in you.” What does that mean? I’ve heard this text used to defend the sanctity of each individual human life, or to teach that the Holy Spirit dwells in each person individually. But if we consult the “y’all version” we will notice that Paul is actually saying something else. The sentence actually reads “Do y’all no know that y’all are God’s temple and God’s Spirit dwells in y’all?”

Do y’all see the difference in the meaning? In the context, Paul is addressing divisions in the Corinthian church. His point is that divisions in the church oppose the oneness of God’s Spirit. Since “y’all” are collectively God’s temple, “y’all” need to start acting like it.

In our individualistic western culture, reading “you” instead of “y’all” can actually reinforce the “me first” attitude instead of challenging it. Using the “y’all version” can remind us that the Bible was not addressed to us as isolated individuals. It was addressed to “us” as communities of God’s people. For better Bible study, y’all should start using the “Y’all Version.”

Better Bible Study Tip #58: Use the NET Bible

I stumbled upon the NET Bible only two or three years ago, but it has been a game changer for me. It has quickly become one of my most frequently consulted Bible study tools. Not only is it really helpful, but it’s also available online for free. Go ahead and google it.

What makes the NET Bible so special is not the translation itself (which is fine, but not my favorite either). What makes the NET Bible so useful are the incredibly helpful footnotes. Most study Bibles will have little letters or numbers scattered throughout the text that will direct you to a small note at the bottom of the page. Most footnotes will offer something useful, such as an alternative translation, or a note about the manuscripts or something along those lines. Now imagine those study Bible footnotes on steroids, and you’ve got the NET Bible.

The NET Bible contains over 60,000 translation footnotes, on everything from alternative translation possibilities, manuscript differences, as well as commentary on the strengths and weaknesses of different translation possibilities. These aren’t short footnotes either, as some are offer multiple paragraphs of explanation. if you’ve ever wondered why two different translations translate a verse differently, look it up in the NET. If you’ve ever wondered why some translations omit phrases or even entire verses, look it up in the NET. The NET will explain which manuscripts have the phrase, and which ones don’t. It will explain the difficulties involved in figuring out which variant is original. It will explain all the different ways the verse could be translated, as well as which translations are more likely than others, and why.

Imagine having a translation committee next door, where you could just pop your head in and ask about any verse at any time. That’s pretty much what you get with the NET Bible. If you are a regular person, who doesn’t know much about Hebrew or Greek, the NET Bible can be a great way to wrap your mind around most all of the major translation issues. If you haven’t used it before, I highly recommend checking it out.

Better Bible Study Tip #57: Compare Different Translations

The other day in Bible class I read aloud from Joshua 1:8:

This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous and have good success.

Joshua 1:8, ESV

A young lady in the class spoke up, “My Bible doesn’t say be careful. It says observe.” She then read the same verse from the New King James Version.

This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.

Joshua 1:8, NKJV

Whenever we compare multiple translations, we will notice little differences like this all over the place. Translation isn’t an precise science. One group of translators think the Hebrew word is most similar to the English word “observe”, while other translators feel that “be careful” a better representation. This is a very small difference, but it is helpful to notice. It suggest that neither “observe” nor “be careful” are perfect representation of the original Hebrew word. Most likely the Hebrew word shares meaning with both English words, as in “careful observation.”

This is just one small example of how comparing multiple translations can give us a better feel for the original text. Sometimes the differences between translations are small, such as in Joshua 1:8. Other times the differences are more significant. Notice how the ESV and the NKJV translate Romans 8:1.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Romans 8:1, ESV

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.

Romans 8:1, NKJV

That’s a big difference! The NKJV is twice as long, and seems to suggest that the reason there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus is because they are not walking according to the Spirit the way they should. Why does the ESV leave this part of the verse out? (Or could it be that the NKJV added this part of the verse for some reason?) We need to do a little bit of digging to find out.

If you had only read Romans 8:1 in one translation, you might not even notice the need for extra research here. But since you compared translations, now you know. That’s why it is important to compare different translations.

Better Bible Study Tip #56: Avoid Conclusions that Overstate the Evidence

Several of these Bible study tips have focused on the need for clear thinking and good logic when it comes to our Bible study. This is critically important, and unfortunately, it is often overlooked.

If we are in a regular routine of studying our Bible, we will occasionally make some interesting observations that maybe we haven’t noticed before. But before drawing a conclusion from our observations, we need to make sure we’re not using poor logic to overstate the evidence.

Here’s some examples:

  • In the Old Testament, God’s people used instrumental music in his worship to God, therefore God is pleased when Christians use instruments in their worship.
  • Phillip had four daughters who prophesied, therefore the Bible endorses women teaching men in a the public assembly.
  • Jesus praised a centurion for his faith, therefore Christians can join the military and kill their enemies during time of war.

Each of these statements begin with an accurate biblical observation, and then suggest a conclusion that extends beyond what the text actually states. Yes, we see numerous examples of God’s people worshiping with instrumental music in the Old Testament, but we also have to remember that they didn’t choose to worship with instruments out of personal preference. Instrumental music was specifically prescribed by God (for example, 2 Chron. 29:25). They were concerned with worshipping God according to how they had been commanded to worship him, and we should worship with that same concern. The question is, how are God’s people under the new covenant expected to worship?

Yes, Philip had four daughters who prophesied. But the text never specified how they went about doing this, or in what setting they shared their prophesies. Simply observing that women prophesied doesn’t automatically lead to the conclusion that there are no guidelines to the roles filled by men and women in worship (see 1 Tim. 2:12). If we are going to draw that conclusion, we must develop a much stronger argument than simply pointing to Phillips daughters.

Yes, Jesus praised a centurion for his faith without adding one word of disapproval about his role in the military. But he also didn’t voice any words of approval of the wicked and idolatrous actions that a Roman military leader would be expected to fill. Jesus frequently interacted with sinners without commending on whether or not he approved of their sin. In John 4:16-18 Jesus spoke with a Samaritan woman who had been divorced five times and was living with a man she wasn’t married to. Jesus never rebuked her or told her to leave the man she was living with. Does this mean that Jesus approved of her marriages, divorces, and remarriages? Certainly not!

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t good questions that can be raised about these issues and others. I’m suggesting that when studying various issues, we need to be careful not to make a quick observation from the text, and then draw conclusions that overstate the evidence. When we study scripture, we will see things in the text. Every conclusion we draw should have a direct line back to the text. If it doesn’t, there is a very real possibility that our thinking could extend beyond the text.

Better Bible Study Tip #55: Try Expressing Your Beliefs in Writing

Have you ever had difficulty expressing what you mean with clarity? Try writing. Bible study tip #19 was to always study with a pen in hand. Try grabbing that pen and putting your conclusions into words. The process of choosing the right words forces you think.

For example, in Matthew 5:31-32, Jesus says,

It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

With your pen you could write that you believe that a man should not divorce his wife except on the ground of sexual immorality. But what exactly does that mean?

Do you mean to say that you believe that there are no other times when divorce is permitted? Or do you mean that there are no other times when remarriage is permitted? If divorce could be permitted on other grounds, how could it be justified in light of Jesus’s words? If divorce could not be permitted on other grounds, what should a Christian do in situations that involve abuse or other extreme situations? What exactly do you think Jesus means by sexual immorality? Is he only referring to sexual intercourse? Or, based on what he says in the previous verses, can it also include lust? Maybe Jesus isn’t trying to lay down a hard and fast rule, but just teaching a general principle, or perhaps an ideal we should strive for? What if a person is previously divorced and remarried before they become a Christian? Is the new “spouse” even a spouse at all? If so, in what sense could remarriage be adultery? If not, is a Christian required to divorce their new “spouse” in order to be faithful to Jesus’s teaching? Is that how Jesus would have intended for his teaching to be applied, or was he making another point entirely? How certain are you about your conclusions? What if another Christians draws slightly different conclusions? Is that permissible? Why or why not?

Write out your questions. Write out your answers. Write out what you are certain about. Write out what you are uncertain about. Write out what you believe the text teaches. Write out what you do not believe the text teaches. Practice nuancing your beliefs appropriately. Try writing. It sharpens your thinking.

Better Bible Study Tip #54: Let the New Testament Teach You How To Read the Old Testament

The New Testament quotes or alludes to the Old Testament hundreds of times. If we pay attention to how New Testament authors used the Old Testament we can learn quite a bit. There’s a lot we can learn from the historical books beyond simply doing character studies. There’s a lot we can learn from the book of Psalms beyond simply using them for devotional material. There’s a lot we can learn from the prophets beyond simply mining the books for random prophetic statements about Christ.

Here’s three examples of how the New Testament can teach us about how to read the Old Testament. For one, notice what Jesus does with the Old Testament laws during the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5). Not only does he uphold the laws, but he fulfills them (Mt. 5:17). He does this by pointing his disciples to follow the true principles underlying each of the laws.

Another example is how Matthew uses Hosea 11:1. Matthew saw Jesus’s emergency trip to Egypt as the fulfillment of the words “Out of Egypt I called my son” (see Mt. 2:15). The thing is, Hosea 11:1 isn’t even a prophesy of a future event. It looks backwards into Israel’s history to how God called Israel (his Son) out of Egypt. Matthew wasn’t mistaken about the context Hosea 11:1. He was intentionally making an analogy between Israel and Israel’s representative Messiah, Jesus. This analogy is an abstract one, but it’s a powerful theological observation drawn by Matthew.

Finally, notice how the New Testament authors frequently quote Old Testament verses about God, and yet they apply them to Jesus. For example, when Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), he alludes to Jeremiah 17:13, where God is identified as the source of living water. Yet Jesus does so to identify himself as the source of living water!

When New Testament writers use the Old Testament, they make important theological points. Pay attention, and you will become a better reader of the Old Testament.

Better Bible Study Tip #53: The Bible is Always True, but the Bible is Not Always Literal

In Amos 9:11-12, Amos prophesies of a day in the future.

In that day I will raise up
the booth of David that is fallen
and repair its breaches,
and rebuild it as in the days of old,
that they may possess the remnant of Edom
and all the nations who are called by my name.

If we take Amos’s words literally, we might expect that one day some sort of physical structure that once belonged to David will literally be rebuilt. The rebuilding of this physical structure will be connected to Israel possessing the remnant of the Edomites, as well as all other nations called by God’s name.

But the apostle James didn’t read it that way. In Acts 15, when the apostles and the elders met in Jerusalem to hear how Peter had taken the gospel to the Gentiles, James responded by opening to the book of Amos.

After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
“After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name.”

Acts 15:13-17

James didn’t hesitate to read Amos non-literally. He understood that Amos’s “booth of David” was a poetic and metaphorical way of referring to David’s dynasty (compare this with 2 Samuel 8, where God promised David that he would build him a “house”). James recognized that “Edom” could be understood as a poetic and metaphorical way of referring to all of mankind (the Hebrew word “Edom” is very close to the Hebrew word “Adam” or “mankind”. The book of Obadiah uses “Edom” in this same way).

This doesn’t imply that Amos’s prophecy was untrue simply because it wasn’t literal. “Not literal” doesn’t mean “not true”. It just means that biblical authors were open to using poetic, symbolic, or metaphorical forms of language to communicate truth. If we want to truthfully understand what Amos wrote, we have to recognize that the text was never intended to be taken literally.

This doesn’t mean that we can come up with any sort of weird interpretations of scripture we want. James didn’t just reinterpret Amos to say whatever he wanted it to say. He was reading the text responsibly, by paying attention to how the Old Testament develops certain images. By so doing, he was able to follow how the prophesy was intended to be understood.

For better Bible study, remember that scripture is always true, but scripture does not always have to be read literally.

Better Bible Study Tip #52: Sometimes The Bible Means Exactly What It Says

Sometimes the Bible says hard things that can make us uncomfortable. For example, many modern Bible readers find it troubling when they read that God would command Joshua to completely annihilate entire populations in Canaanite cites (Josh. 6:15-21). There is often a tendency among Bible students to look for interpretations that make what the Bible says more acceptable and more reasonable in our minds.

One one hand, it is true that sometimes we really do misunderstand the intent of certain passages. For example, if I wasn’t aware that God shown the Canaanites patience for over 400 years (Gen 15.16), that passage in Joshua would probably trouble me more more than it does. And if I read the annihilation command in Joshua 6, without considering the context where God had just spared a Canaanite family for their faith (Josh. 2), the annihilation command would probably sound more like genocide than an act of judgment on wicked people who refused to repent.

When we encounter difficult passages, it’s one thing to closely examine those passages to make sure we are correctly understanding the true intent of the author. But it’s another thing entirely to try to reinterpret a passage to say something it doesn’t intend to say. That’s dishonest.

When we read that God created the earth in six days (Gen 1), we might find that hard to believe. But we need to wrestle with it. We need to ask if that’s actually what the author was trying to say. And if it is, that’s what we need to believe.

When we read about a world wide flood that covered the whole earth (Gen 6-8), we shouldn’t be embarrassed by a story that many would find unbelievable. We need to try to understand the true intent of the author.

When we read about giants in the Old Testament (Num. 13:32-33; Deut. 2-3), we need to avoid the temptation to try to explain it away. If we believe that the Bible contains God-breathed scriptures, that means that God produced scripture how he wanted it, not how we wish it was. That means God really did intend for there to be giants described in the Old Testament. We need to wrestle with that.

When Jesus says “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Mt. 5:39), we shouldn’t try to water down his command so that we can respond to evil in a way that seems better to us. Rather, we need to be asking “Did Jesus actually mean what it looks like he meant?” And if that’s actually what Jesus meant, we need to follow it, even if it seems foolish or nonsensical to us.

There are few teachings in scripture as challenging as Jesus’s teachings about marriage, divorce, and remarriage. It’s one thing to read “Whoever divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marriages a divorced woman commits adultery” (Mt. 5.32), and to ask “Am I understanding Jesus correctly here? Did he really intend for us to apply this scripture in the way I think it needs to be applied?” But it’s another thing entirely to simply ignore or disagree with this scripture simply because we don’t like what it says.

There are few verses in the Bible that shock modern values like 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quite.” Sure, we need to closely examine the context. Sure, we need to make sure we are reading the scripture in a way that harmonizes with the rest of the New Testament. But what if Paul actually meant what he said?

When the content of the Bible seems embarrassing, troublesome, or offensive, we need to ask why. It might be that we are misunderstanding the true intent of the text. But it might be that the Bible troubles us is because we are the ones who have the incorrect worldview. After all, every culture has it’s own unique values, including our own. If the Creator has the authority to critique all cultures, including our own, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that the Bible shocks us every now and then. Sometimes the Bible means exactly what it says. Sometimes the Bible shocks us because that’s what it is designed to do.

For better Bible study, let the Bible be what it is. Don’t try to change or ignore it. Rather, try to understand it on it’s own terms.

Better Bible Study Tip #51: Sometimes the Clear Meaning of Scripture Isn’t Immediately Clear

It’s not uncommon to hear people say “The Bible clearly teaches…”, followed by a particular point of doctrine. Although we should always try to follow the “clear” teaching of the Bible, we have to be careful. Sometimes the clear meaning of Scripture isn’t as clear as we might initially think.

Consider the phrase “It’s raining cats and dogs.” What is the “clear” meaning of that phrase? Unless you are from a completely foreign corner of the globe, you know that the phrase “clearly” means that it’s raining really hard. It is a phrase that is well known in our culture. But imagine how ridiculous such a phrase might sound to someone who isn’t familiar with our culture. If a foreigner insisted that the phrase must mean that cats and dogs are literally falling from the sky, they would be wrong. By insisting on what initially pops into their head, in their cultural context, they would completely miss the “clear” meaning of the phrase in our culture.

Hopefully I’ve made my point “clear.” Since the Bible was written in a foreign cultural context, the “clear” meaning of scripture depends on what the original author of scripture was intending to communicate in their cultural context, not ours. When we insist that the Bible must mean what initially pops into our heads in our culture, we might be completely missing the “clear” meaning of Scripture.

For example, consider what we find in Galatians 4:22-31. Here Paul cites the story of Hagar, Sarai, and their children in order to explain why Christians are not defined by the law that was given to Moses and Israel on Mount Sinai. In verses 25-26, Paul writes:

Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.

For most of us, when we read the story of Hagar and Sarai, it isn’t immediately “clear” that the text is communicating anything about the relationship between Gentiles and the Sinai covenant. But Paul, having a better understanding of how Genesis would have been read in it’s own cultural context, understood that he text contained a lesson that “clearly” applied to the Jew/Gentile relations in the churches of Galatia. How can we insist on the “clear” meaning of the book of Genesis, when the apostle Paul himself insists on a meaning that might not initially seem “clear” to us?

What we should be doing is seeking to understand what the original authors and the original readers were thinking and communicating, not what we’re thinking. The “clear” meaning of scripture to us might not have been “clear” to them.