This lesson is part of Mel Lawrenz’ “How to Study the Bible” series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
One day God prompted the apostle Philip to approach a man riding in a chariot along a desert road that went from Jerusalem to Gaza. In the chariot was a dignitary from faraway Ethiopia who was reading aloud from the prophet Isaiah. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. The response: “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?”
The man happened to have been reading one of the great prophecies about the coming of Christ and his suffering, and Philip had the privilege of telling the Ethiopian finance minister the good news about Jesus. In that moment, Philip was a kind of commentary for a man who simply needed help with the historical and linguistic meanings of the text of Isaiah.
Serious Bible study will always involve reading the insights we gain from commentaries on the Bible. There are different kinds of commentaries for different purposes, and we ought to use them at select times in the process of study, but the use of commentaries is essential. This takes nothing away from the principle that the individual believer should be able to read the biblical text in a natural and sensible way, and derive direct understanding of the text. This is essential so that we have a direct relationship with God’s word and so that we are directly influenced by its truth and power.
But the reading, understanding, and application of biblical truth have always been functions of the Christian community. The words of the prophets and apostles were directed at God’s people (plural) at the start, and must be a community endeavor now. That is why we do personal Bible study, but we engage with others in Bible studies in homes and office buildings and schools and churches.
A Bible commentary is an explanation of the biblical text by someone (usually a scholar) who has immersed himself or herself in the language, context, and form of biblical texts. The Bible commentator delivers to us details that we simply don’t have by the simple reading of Scripture, like archaeological discoveries, historical details, linguistic particularities, and details about geography and culture.
1. What kinds of commentaries are there? That depends on your purpose. Here are some different types of commentaries:
Critical, technical, and exegetical commentaries are the most detailed. They exhaustively go through all the details, including comments on the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words of the text. They are best used by people who know the biblical languages.
Expository commentaries are written to help people who regularly teach or preach from Scripture, though they are very helpful for any serious student of the Bible. They go passage by passage, sentence by sentence, explaining the background and meaning, but expository commentaries go one step further in describing how the meaning of the text may be applied in real life.
Devotional commentaries spend little time on the details of biblical passages and instead go straight to spiritual meaning and life application.
Note also that there is a big difference between one-volume commentaries on the whole Bible, which naturally are limited, and commentaries devoted to single books of the Bible.
2. How should you choose what commentaries to use? When we’re doing in-depth study of biblical passages, we should read two or three or more commentaries, making notes as we read. We will quickly see where the commentators agree on the meaning and the emphases of texts, and we will gather numerous details not obvious with the simple reading of the text. When it comes to choosing which specific commentaries to use, we note the type of commentary suited to our purpose (above). Then, we should note the theological assumptions of the commentators. Some scholars look at the Bible simply as one more human text, and they analyze it on purely linguistic and historical bases. On the other hand, scholars who believe in the divine inspiration and unique character of Scripture will take things like miracles and the resurrection of Christ as historical realities, and will look for the cohesive themes of the revelation of God in Holy Scripture. Commentaries in the evangelical tradition, for instance, can be located by looking at the offerings of the mainstream evangelical publishers: Baker, Zondervan, InterVarsity Press, and many others.
When the Ethiopian in the chariot said, “How can I [understand Isaiah], unless someone explains it to me?” he displayed the curiosity and teachability that is essential for all followers of Jesus. We are blessed today with many experts who have done diligent study to help us out as we search the meaning of the Scriptures.
Some recommended commentaries:
- Online commentaries at BibleGateway
- The New Bible Commentary, Gordon Wenham, editor
- The Bible Speaks Today series, John Stott, editor. For instance: The Message of Revelation: I Saw Heaven Opened, by Michael Wilcock
- Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Tremper Longman, editor
- The NIV Application Commentary
Mel Lawrenz trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook’s minister at large. He has a Ph.D. in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel is the author of 18 books, the latest, How to Understand the Bible—A Simple Guide and Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership (Zondervan, 2012). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.