Christians talk a lot about reading the Bible. We routinely lament that we aren’t reading it as much as we’d like; we make New Year’s resolutions to read it more; we pay close attention to studies and surveys about who is and isn’t reading it. We all know that reading the Bible is important.
But it’s also a bit too easy to simply tell somebody (or make a personal decision) to go read the Bible… because understanding the Bible is a different thing than just reading it. You don’t have to have a seminary degree to understand the Bible, of course, but there’s a reason so many would-be Bible readers get tripped up: parts of the Bible are hard to understand. That shouldn’t surprise us, given that the Bible was written thousands of years ago by different authors, in different cultural contexts, for different audiences, in different literary genres (many of which are unfamiliar to modern readers).
So where can you turn when you’re struggling to understand what you’re reading in the Bible?
One time-honored way that Christians (and Jews before them) have made Scripture more easily understood is through Bible commentaries and references. These are exactly what they sound like: published collections of references, notes, and comments that seek to explain and clarify difficult, interesting, or particularly important Bible passages.
The term “commentary” (like its closely related cousins, “study Bible” and “Bible reference”) has a slightly stuffy connotation, calling to mind endless rows of intimidatingly thick, dust-covered volumes on a pastor’s bookshelves. But the truth is, there are a great many commentaries and references available today that are easily readable, highly insightful, and incredibly useful to everyday Bible readers.
And did we mention that many of these commentaries and reference works are freely available on Bible Gateway, right alongside your Bible reading?
Bible commentaries and reference works are among Bible Gateway’s hidden gems; when you start using them, you’ll find that a whole new world of Bible study opens up to you.
This is a comprehensive guide to getting more out of your Bible reading by adding commentaries and other resources to your Bible experience. Without further ado, here’s how to access these Bible study resources while you’re reading the Bible on Bible Gateway!
Step 1: Start reading a Bible passage.
Look up any passage in the Bible on Bible Gateway. For example, you might try John 3. (It’s not terribly important which Bible version you use—sometimes commentaries will discuss the specific wording of a verse using wording that may slightly differ from the translation you’re reading, but it’s usually easy to figure out.)
Also, while it’s not necessary, you’ll find that having verse numbers toggled on will make it a bit easier to use a commentary. If you need help doing that, here’s how to toggle verse numbers on and off.
Step 2: Look at the “Study This” panel.
See the blue Study This panel to the right of the Bible passage? If it isn’t already open, click or tap this button:
Opening the Study This drawer (or bookshelf, if you prefer to think of it that way) shows all of the Bible reference books available to you which have content related to the Bible text you’re reading. The number to the right of each reference book title shows you how many individual relevant entries it contains.
You’ll notice that this big list of reference books is organized into five categories: Study Bibles, Encyclopedias, Commentaries, Dictionaries, and Sermons. Here’s a quick overview of what each type of resource brings to your Bible reading:
- Study Bibles contain short notes, usually keyed to individual Bible verses, that provide background and explanations for what you’re reading. They’re ideal for personal devotions and Bible study groups. They’re highly useful for Bible readers of all knowledge levels, from beginner to advanced.
- Encyclopedias provide in-depth information organized by name or concept.
- Commentaries feature Bible scholarship that goes into significant depth about Bible passages, and are meant for serious and focused Bible study, as well as for sermon preparation and research.
- Dictionaries define unfamiliar or significant names and terms that you’ll encounter as you read Scripture.
- Sermons collect the text of published sermons based on the passage you’re reading.
Resources marked with a icon are—you guessed it—free to use. Anything not marked “free” requires a Bible Gateway Plus membership to access (more about that in a moment). While we think there’s great value in expanding your study library with a Plus membership, we’ve made sure there are sufficient free resources in the Study This panel to carry out a full-fledged Bible study.
3. Select a study resource.
Scroll to the resource type you’d like to read (say, “Study Bibles”). You’ll see this:
Next, select the reference book you want to use. For starters, let’s try the Reformation Study Bible. After you click on the book’s title, you’ll see a list of relevant entries, like this:
That’s a list of all available entries from that work that are related to the Bible passage you’re reading (in our example, John 3). Study Bibles like this typically label each note with the verse(s) or word in the Bible passage they talk about. Click on an individual entry to read it:
You can cycle through relevant entries by clicking on the arrow icon(s) below the text of an entry, in the bottom corner. When you’re done reading the note and ready to go back to a different entry (or a different study resource), use the arrow in the upper left of the entry box to navigate back.
If this is your first time exploring Bible study resources like this, start with the Reformation Study Bible. It’s a free and highly accessible resource that will add greatly to your Bible understanding.
4. Use Bible Gateway’s note-taking and other advanced study features as you study.
Taking personal notes, highlighting noteworthy passages, and recording what you’re learning is a key part of Bible study. Fortunately, that functionality is built into the Bible Gateway experience, so you can read a Bible passage, check a reference work, and take personal notes without leaving Bible Gateway. Follow these links to learn how to use Bible Gateway’s advanced annotation features:
- How to take online notes as you read a Bible passage
- How to highlight a Bible passage
- How to make a Bible verse as a favorite
5. Plan your Bible study approach.
Now that you’ve got a handle on these tools, pause for a moment before you dive in and take some time to think through how you want to approach the section of the Bible you’re studying. Pastor and author Mel Lawrenz has written two series of lessons that will be very helpful to you as you start digging deeper into the Bible: How to Study the Bible and How to Understand the Bible. Both series are worth exploring in full, but you’ll find these lessons most relevant to you at this stage:
6. (Optional) Expand your study library with a Bible Gateway Plus membership.
You have certainly noticed that while many of the resources in the Study This panel are marked “free,” many others are not. Resources that aren’t marked “free” are available only to Bible Gateway Plus members.
Bible Gateway Plus is a subscription service that reduces banner ads on Bible Gateway, greatly expands the number of reference works in the Study This panel, and more. It’s a great way to declutter your online Bible reading and upgrade your Bible study options. You can learn more—or try it out with a free 30-day trial—by visiting the Bible Gateway Plus page and following the appropriate prompts.
Once you’ve become a Bible Gateway Plus member, all you need to do is sign into your Bible Gateway account and you’ll have full access to the complete Bible reference library. You can log in by clicking or tapping this button in the top right of the Bible Gateway website:
That’s it—you now know everything you need to know to enhance your Bible reading with study tools at Bible Gateway. If you’ve never used a commentary before, you’ll be surprised at how much it can help clarify the meaning of what you’re reading. I encourage you to give it a try the next time you’re reading something on Bible Gateway. And if you have further questions, you can find many answers at our support forums.