You want to take your Bible reading to the next level, and you want as many tools at your fingertips as possible. You don’t want apps, you want pages to turn and write on, and so you begin your search for a study Bible. What makes a study Bible different from any other Bible?
In the olden days, when you bought a car it came stock. That meant it had a steering wheel, crank windows, and you stuck your arm out of that cranked down window to adjust your mirrors. Those were the standard features. Or, if you were a big spender, you could get optional features like power windows but you didn’t care because you were a big spender and had air conditioning. Every feature had a price, and you could add as few or as many as your wallet allowed.
Study Bibles are the optional features version of the Bible world. Some have a few options, some have many, and you get to choose which one has the features you want the most. Live in SoCal and don’t need a rear window de-icer? Don’t choose that option. You have fourteen books on biblical archeology and don’t need the expanded map section? Choose another Bible. Easy peasy, right?
It is if you know what features are available and what they do for you. Let’s look at what you might find when you hit the car lot, I mean Bible aisle.
I have found the most requested feature is notes. Who doesn’t have a question when they read the Bible? Annotations or notes provide commentary on selected verses on the page. The focus of that commentary falls into three categories:
- Objective or Interpretation-this type of note will give background information, biographical or cultural information to help give context and understanding to passages. They often expand on a particular doctrine. To put it another way, they lean toward biblical facts. The NKJV Study Bible, the ESV Study Bible are good examples.
- Application-this type of note will focus more on how the text relates to living out our faith. Using the facts of a passage as a foundation, these notes tell us what to do with what we’ve learned. The Life Application Bible is the king of this category, and is available in the NKJV, NLT, HCSB, NASB, NIV and KJV. Whew, alphabet soup!
- Subjective-notes of this type have a particular subject in mind; think women or teen or apologetics. Notes of the previous types will be included but there will also be a special emphasis on the topic, either in the notes or in special feature articles. This also includes Bibles whose notes are exclusively by one author. The Transformation Bible with notes by Warren Wiersbe or the David Jeremiah Study Bible would be examples.
If notes are the number one tool you want your study Bible to have, here are two things you need to know.
- They will fail you.
Even the most comprehensive notes will only cover a fraction of biblical text, so you may want to consider a whole Bible commentary like the Believer’s Bible Commentary or a single volume commentaries like Warren Wiersbe’s Be series, which cover a single book of the Bible.
- Notes are by men, the text is by God.
Commentary isn’t infallible, only the scriptures are. Some study Bibles lean heavily toward various doctrinal positions, though most seek to approach positional doctrines in a balance way. Know that the most important thing you read in your Bible is the Bible itself.
Let’s Get Acquainted-Book Introductions
Many Bibles have some information at the beginning of each book that tells you something about the author, or time period in which it was written. Book introductions and outlines are expanded in study Bibles, and a great source of information that gives context, timeline, key doctrine and themes in the book. Many times the question your notes don’t answer can be resolved in your book intro.
Where’s That Verse-Concordance
Just like the book intro’s, you’ll find a concordance in many Bibles, and this too will be more comprehensive in a study Bible. Located at the back of the Bible, words are listed in alphabetical order with corresponding text “addresses” listed where the word is used, with a very brief excerpt of the verse. Like notes, these are expanded, but not exhaustive. A great tool to supplement your Bible’s concordance is the Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance which is, well, exhaustive. And large. You won’t carry that to church with you.
In many study Bibles you will also find a subject index. Like a concordance, it will be an alphabetical listing of topics and people and places in scripture with the corresponding verse reference.
Connecting the Dots-Cross References
Cross references are a great resource in connecting scripture to scripture. Indicated by a small letter in a verse, the corresponding reference will lead you to other verses that are relevant to what you are reading. Sometimes it can be a passage that has a similar event, or doctrine, or topic. This is a great study tool, making links and giving understanding to the text you’re reading. R. A. Torrey said the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible itself. He created the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, a book of exhaustive cross references. Poor cross references can be a deal breaker for me when I’m selecting a study Bible.
Can I have a Word? Word Studies and Dictionary
While all of the tools we’ve looked at so far are standard, if expanded options in study Bibles, one feature you will find in some is word studies. When we looked at translation types we noted that having an accurate word for word translation helps us to know the literal meaning of the message. Since most of us don’t read Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic, word studies are a great tool to help us dig deeper into the intent of a passage. When you look up a word in a word study, it will give a definition of the word and show how it’s used in a particular verse. In a study Bible, this will be limited, a Vines Complete Dictionary is an accessible, more comprehensive tool. The Open Bible has helpful word studies, and an exceptional cyclopedic index.
More Bells and Whistles-Maps and Charts
Expanded versions of these are often in close page proximity to the text they relate to in a study Bible, making them easier to use than flipping around in the back of your Bible. These are very valuable for helping gain context and understanding to the ancient world. How much is a ephah? Don't know? Find the chart. Also handy-Harmony of the Gospels, which charts timelines, events and locations in the gospels.
Wrap it up, I’ll Take It
Hopefully you have some information to help you decide which features are most important to you in a study Bible. There are study Bibles in many different translations, both Essentially Equivalent and Dynamic, and in a number of different bindings, which can dramatically affect the price. Many are available in large print, but as you see in the above photo, they aren’t compact to start with, so a large print is like a phone book. Of a major city. Really. With tiny print.
There is no perfect study Bible. I know this because all those in the photo are mine and there’s more where they came from. As good as they are, they will not answer every question, reveal every definition, or give every application. That’s why I referred to a few more exhaustive resources that are worth your investment. That said, a good study Bible is a good thing, and remember-
The best Bible is the one you’ll read regularly and do what it says!
Read well, friends.