Next week we begin marching through the parts of the Old Testament. But first, this week, the issue of Bible helps. This new series by Bible Gateway and Mel Lawrenz is called “How to Understand the Bible.” If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along, encourage them to learn more and sign up to receive the series via email. (And for a more meaningful Christmas, check out Christmas Joy by Mel Lawrenz.)
“Do you understand what you are reading?” That was the question Philip the apostle asked a man from Ethiopia who was riding in a chariot on a desert road leading from Jerusalem toward the Mediterranean Sea (Acts 8). The man was the finance minister of Ethiopia, but he had been in Jerusalem for Pentecost and somehow obtained a copy of Isaiah the prophet. The man’s answer? “How can I [understand it] unless someone explains it to me?”
Every person who has ever read the Bible has wondered: Who can I find who will help me understand what I am reading? Some will go looking for a book or commentary that explains this or that portion of Scripture; far more people simply let their pastors or other teachers do the heavy lifting of Bible interpretation, and they go along with what they hear as long as they trust the person they listen to.
But most believers come to a point of realizing that they need to let the words of Scripture speak to them, without influence from a human interpreter. This is a healthy instinct because God’s word really is a gift from God directly to the believer. Great spiritual movements have happened when ordinary believers rediscover the Bible for themselves. On the other hand, we are meant to live in fellowship with other believers, and to learn the meaning of God’s word—together.
There must be a balance here: a work of the Spirit of God in the minds and hearts of the believers as they are illumined by the biblical text for themselves, but with appropriate assistance from more mature people, and from experts on the Bible who are archeologists, historians, linguistic experts, etc.
So, assuming that we know we need to read the Bible for ourselves, and enjoy a lifelong process of discovery and enrichment, what outside resources are available to us to help us along the way?
1. Study Bibles. One of the most common ways we can find reliable guidance and information is in the pages of a good study Bible. Most of the common Bible translations have a “study Bible” version, which is the biblical text with further explanation via charts, maps, illustrations, and notes. The notes are brief explanations of words, phrases, people, and events. A study Bible may have tens of thousands of notes in total, usually prepared by a variety of Bible experts. There are dozens of different study Bibles in English. Two that are distinguished by broad-based scholarship are The NIV Study Bible (Zondervan) and The ESV Study Bible (Crossway).
2. Bible Dictionaries or Encyclopedias. For much more information than is contained in the notes of a study Bible, use a Bible dictionary (one or two volumes) or a Bible encyclopedia (multiple volumes, with much more detail). Any serious Scripture reader should acquire at least a one-volume Bible dictionary. A good dictionary contains thousands of brief articles, usually updated every few years, on people, places, doctrines, history, geography, archaeology, and more. In a Bible dictionary, you can look up the book of Acts, or John the apostle, or Jericho, or sanctification, or Messiah, or mustard seed, or Jordan River, or Pontius Pilate, etc. Bible dictionaries include maps, drawings, charts, and illustrations. They are amazing tools. They don’t tell you what specific passages mean, but they give you information that you wouldn’t be able to get on your own, to help you understand the Bible better. Some excellent choices are The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary, the New Bible Dictionary, and the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary.
3. Bible Commentaries. On the desert road, Philip knew the man from Ethiopia was reading a very important Messianic prophecy from the book of Isaiah. When asked about the passage, Philip offered an explanation which led, ultimately, to the Ethiopian becoming a believer and asking to be baptized! Bible commentaries are explanations of the biblical text book by book, passage by passage, verse by verse. The experts who write commentaries help us understand where and when biblical books were written, the historical context from which they have come, the possible meanings of the biblical authors, and ways to work out difficult passages. Commentaries are not sermons. They offer exegesis—which means “working out” the meaning of the original authors.
There are some one-volume commentaries on the Bible like The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary or the New Bible Commentary, but a commentary devoted to just one book of the Bible is much more helpful. But be aware of this: some commentaries are highly technical, getting into great detail about the Hebrew and Greek text, and they are difficult to use unless you know those languages. Other commentaries are much more usable to the average Bible student, getting right to the meaning of the text without losing the forest for the trees. A commentary series I am particularly fond of is The Bible Speaks Today (IVP, Series Editors J. A. Motyer and John Stott). For serious study my favorite set is The Expositor’s Bible Commentary.
There are other tools to help us understand the Bible: Bible handbooks; online Bibles like Bible Gateway, which help us quickly find passages; atlases; etc. But the three main tools listed above will generally give us all the help we need when we, like the Ethiopian, say, “How can I understand it unless someone explains?”
Next time: “How Should We Understand the Stories of the Old Testament?”
Care to offer feedback this week?
Not yet signed up to receive “How to Understand the Bible” via email? You can follow along here at the blog, but we recommend signing up for email updates here. “How to Understand the Bible” is available as a print book at WordWay.org.
Mel Lawrenz is Director of The Brook Network and creator of The Influence Project. He’s the author of thirteen books, most recently Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership.