Bible Study Tools: Part 2
Study Bibles provide a wealth of essential information in a portable package and are often a new Christian’s first investment. There are numerous options and picking the “best” study Bible can be challenging. Many are addressed to specific audiences (women, men, teens, recovery, charismatic, etc.), so what is best for you at one stage of your journey may not be a good fit in another season of life.
Some study Bibles are attached to only one version. Some are theologically narrow (e.g., Reformation Study Bible), while others are more comprehensive and offer various positions on controversial passages (e.g., ESV Study Bible). The way to find the right one is to compare them and ask yourself what you are looking for in a study Bible.
Two of the best study Bibles for new believers are the Life Application Bible (available with KJV, NKJV, NIV, NLT, NASB, NRSV) and the Gospel Transformation Bible (ESV only). Neither spends a lot of time on history, culture, or etymology. The emphasis is on living out the Christian faith in our day-to-day lives. Both answer the question, “How does this passage apply to me?” Readers who are familiar with the fundamentals of Christianity may find some of the entries too basic, but they are good reminders of our identity in Christ. I recommend application-oriented study Bibles to both new and seasoned believers.
Here’s a snippet from the Life Application Bible entry on Romans 12:2 (“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect”).
12:2 Paul warned Christians: “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world” that are usually selfish and often corrupting. Wise Christians decide that much worldly behavior is off-limits for them. Our refusal to conform to this world’s values, however, must go even deeper than just behavior and customs; it must be firmly planted in our mind: “Let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.” It is possible to avoid most worldly customs and still be proud, covetous, selfish, stubborn, and arrogant. Only when the Holy Spirit renews, reeducates, and redirects our mind are we truly transformed.
Two of the best study Bibles for intermediate/advanced students are the ESV Study Bible and the NIV Zondervan Study Bible. These are my favorite study Bibles for general reference, but they are limited to one particular translation. If you have a different translation, you may want to explore these other excellent study bibles: the NKJV Study Bible (Nelson), KJV Study Bible (Nelson), and the HCSB Study Bible (Holman). Each has strengths and weaknesses–look at as many as possible and make an informed decision.
Specialty Study Bibles are narrowly focused and can be especially helpful when pursuing a particular interest. Three of my favorites:
The Thompson Chain Reference Bible allows the student to track a particular theme (e.g., grace) from Genesis to Revelation. Rather than providing commentary or explanatory notes, the Thompson Chain Reference Bible allows Scripture to interpret Scripture. This tool has blessed believers for more than 100 years and is as fresh today as the day it was written. If you are serious about learning what the Bible teaches, you owe it to yourself to explore this powerful tool. Unsurpassed for topical studies.
The NASB New Inductive Study Bible (Harvest House) is another Bible that uses Scripture to interpret Scripture. Students are taught the principles of inductive study and guided through the text with helpful questions. This effective study method has helped thousands of Christians become mature in Christ. Highly recommended, especially for NASB users.
The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Zondervan), published in 2016, is a phenomenal resource for exploring the historical/cultural background of the stories we read in Scripture. The book’s subtitle describes it well: “Bringing to Life the Ancient World of Scripture.” Below is a portion of the comments for Genesis 41:8 (Pharaoh has a disturbing dream and sends for his “magicians and wise men”).
41:8 “Magicians” (hartummim) is a technical term that refers to the specialists centered in the “House of Life,” where the dream interpretation manuals were stored and studied… Egyptians, like the Mesopotamians and Hittites, had guilds of magicians whose tasks included both medicinal procedures and oneiromancy (divination based upon dreams). They used exorcism to frighten away gods and demons, and used incantations and curses to transfer evil to or from someone or somewhere. Thousands of texts have been discovered containing protection spells, as well as objects such as amulets, dolls, incantation bowls and figurines (and the recipes to create them), which were used in magical rituals. Mesopotamians distinguished between “black” (harmful) and “white” (helpful) magic, and thus practitioners were divided into “sorcerers” and “magicians”/”wise men,” respectively, but Egyptians did not draw this distinction. Although their primary task was medical, Egyptian magicians sometimes employed a less respectful manner toward the gods, including spells to help a soul escape the underworld as seen in the “Book of the Dead.”
These are but a few of the many study Bibles available. One way to narrow your search is to consider what kinds of questions you tend to ask as you read. Below are some frequently asked questions and the study Bibles that best answer them.
What does the verse/passage say? (biblical languages, word studies):
Good: HCSB Study Bible (Holman)–290 word studies.
Better: NKJV Study Bible (Nelson)–350 word studies, links to Strong’s Concordance.
Best: Hebrew-Greek Key Word Bible (AMG)–thousands of word studies, links to Strong’s Concordance.
What does the verse/passage teach? (doctrine, theology):
ESV Study Bible (Crossway)–offers a broad evangelical perspective, takes a strong stand on foundational doctrines and often provides the various positions on controversial issues. Reflects the theology of Grudem, et al.
NIV Zondervan Study Bible–another study Bible with a solid evangelical perspective, edited by Don Carson. This and the ESV are my favorites.
Reformation Study Bible (Reformation Trust)–provides a Calvinist perspective, primarily the work of RC Sproul with additional material from noted reformed theologians. Ideal for those in the Reformed tradition.
NKJV Study Bible (Nelson)–mildly Calvinist/mildly Arminian, a middle of the road perspective that will please some and frustrate others.
What is the context of the verse/passage? (History, culture, timelines):
Good: NKJV Study Bible (Nelson).
Better: HCSB Study Bible (Holman), ESV Study Bible, NIV Zondervan Study Bible. Lots of helpful charts, maps, timelines, etc.
Best: NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Zondervan). An amazing treasury of information in one volume.
Hopefully this overview of study Bibles will help you sort through some of the options. If you have questions about any of the Bibles mentioned, or you are curious about one not discussed, just ask!
Next: Bible commentaries