I’m a big fan of study Bibles. Not only do they include the biblical text, but they also include all kinds of other helpful tools, such as maps, charts, introductions and outlines for each book, cross references, footnotes, as well as essays and articles that help explain difficult passages or concepts. However, even good resources can be misused, and of all the good resources out there, the study Bible is one of the most frequently misused.
The study notes and resources provided in study Bibles should be approached the same way we approach commentaries (see Bible Study Tip #60). Although teachers play an important role in the church (Eph. 4:11), we should always strive to follow the example of the Bereans who “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). There is a difference between the inspired word of God and the non-inspired words of teachers who write about the word of God. It is important that we spend more time focusing on the text of the Bible more than on the words of teachers who are seeking to explain the Bible.
For better Bible study, don’t use a study Bible as your primary Bible. Using a regular Bible without study notes will eliminate the temptation to look away from what God has said. I’m not suggesting you should throw out your study Bible. But before you pull your study Bible off the shelf, force yourself to do the hard work of thinking about the text itself. When you struggle to figure out what a text means, meditate on it a little while first. Only by chewing on the text for awhile will you be in a good position to think through the strengths and weaknesses of the essays and explanations provided in your study Bible.
Who is a more reliable teacher? A biblical scholar, or God? When we are overly dependent on study notes, a subtle shift takes place from living by “every word that comes from the mouth of God” to living by “every word that comes from the mouth of our favorite Bible teachers.”
There is no doubt that there are some excellent study Bibles out there produced by wonderful Christian scholars. There is no doubt that a good study Bible can bless your study tremendously. But we must also be aware: if we use them in the wrong way, they may actually distract us from the text they seek to illuminate.