As a young boy, I received a Christmas gift I’ll never forget. I was given an electronic keyboard. I am sure my parents were hopeful that this gift would turn into a love of music, but that isn’t how it turned out. I remember this gift not because it was the beginning of a fantastic music career, but because of what I did with the keyboard over the next week.
I’m a curious person. I don’t like just knowing that something works, I want to know why something works and how it all fits together. I remember getting some tools from my dad’s toolbox and going to my room. Over the next week, I took the keyboard completely apart. I saw the inside: the electronic panels, and the speakers and springs that held things together (until I took them apart). Much to my parents’ chagrin, I was never able to put the keyboard back together. But it was still a fantastic gift.
I share this story because it has a lot to do with what it means to study the Bible. Digging deeper into the Bible is just like digging deeper into anything else. It takes tools. Take, for example, the keyboard that I was so curious about. I wouldn’t have been able to take it apart and explore the inner workings without the right tools. The Bible is the same. Without the proper tools, it can be difficult for us to understand its meaning and references. We can easily overlook things that bring connection and clarity to passages. With this in mind, I want to share a few tools that have helped me and others to bring understanding and depth to the Scriptures.
Eugene Peterson said, “Prayers are not tools for doing and getting, but being and becoming.” In our effort to be a student of the Bible and become more knowledgeable about its meaning, we cannot forget the most important tool we have: prayer. Since God is the author of scripture, what could possibly be a better way of understanding and learning more about the scriptures than communing with the author Himself? Prayer is a way we can do that. Before reading, opening commentaries, or language software, we must first invite the author to be present with us and to teach us the meaning and importance of what we’re reading.
2. The Bible is not written to us, but it is written for us
One of the most difficult elements about studying scripture is that we’re reading texts that were not written to us. Pastor Chris likes to say, “We’re reading someone else’s mail.” Moses was not writing the historical account of creation in Genesis to a 21st-century audience. Paul wasn’t writing his letter to the church of Rome that exists today. They were writing at specific times with specific audiences in mind. That is why many things that are said seem foreign to us.
Knowing the context and audience of these literary works are important tools that help us understand the author’s intent and purpose. Most study Bibles will have some of this information at the beginning of each book or in the notes at the bottom of the page. These notes are a critical insight into the author’s intentions and audience. When reading a passage, we can gain insights by asking a few questions:
- Who was the author and who was his audience?
- What was the author’s intent in this passage? Or what was he saying to the people of his day? How would they have understood it?
With the author’s intent and audience in mind, we can more accurately and appropriately understand the text.
These texts, historical accounts and letters, were not written to us, but they are certainly for our benefit. Considering their time period, they are the most historically accurate texts in existence, and they contain inspired truths about who God is and his message for the world.
3. Little things make a big difference
Words like “and,” “but,” “therefore,” and “yet” are little words that can make a big difference. Take, for example, Romans 6:23 “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Without the word “but” the message would be completely different. (Nerd alert) These transitional words connect clauses, sentences, and ideas. It’s critical to look for and understand the roles these words play in connecting sentences.
The repetition of words is another literary device that’s often used in scripture to add meaning or emphasis. In Ephesians 3, Paul gives the people of Ephesus a vision of God’s desire for a new humanity where racial and cultural differences do not divide people. Embedded in the chapter is a prayer for the Church of Ephesus where the words “power” and “love” are repeated three times in six verses. If we’re paying attention to the little things, this should stand out to us. The emphasis of these words in this passage bring meaning to what Paul is trying to communicate. In his prayer, “love” clearly is the primary virtue of this new humanity, and it’s through God’s “power” that we’re able to cross the racial and cultural divides that typically separate us. The repetition of these two words indicates that they play a significant role in what the author is trying to communicate. The next time you’re studying a passage, write down the words you see repeated and see if it helps.
Paying attention to these little things can make a big difference in how we understand a passage and apply its ideas.
4. Commentaries and Websites
Biblical commentaries are scholastic works of authors and/or groups of authors that have spent a lifetime studying the history of the scriptures, the authors, and the text. These works provide amazing insights from people who have dedicated their lives to researching the Bible, and we should use their works to further our understanding of scripture.
With that said, Biblical commentaries are still commentaries. They are works where authors share their opinions and biases about what they’ve studied. Long ago in my seminary days, I looked at commentaries as almost scripture-esque. Then I read five commentaries about a single text, and they were all a little different. There is no doubt that commentaries help us understand the scriptures with great depth and insight, but it’s also important for us to look at authors with different perspectives to make sure we have a well-rounded view.
Some commentaries/websites for further insight:
- Bible Study Tools – a website that gives good language tools and other study tools for deeper study.
- Bible Gateway – a website that has good resources for deeper study and different translations for comparison.
Digging deeper into anything requires more than curiosity, it requires tools. I never could have seen the inner workings of my keyboard if I didn’t have tools. This list of tools is not exhaustive, but they are a few small steps that anyone can take to further their understanding of the scriptures and their faith.