This article was based on a home group leader training session given on 4 February 2009 at All Nations Presbyterian Church.
There is no shortage of help available to Christians when it comes to resources to help you understand the Bible better. A short browse through your local Christian bookshop will leave you with a huge array of options, from detailed commentaries in Greek and Hebrew through to a wide range of Bible study guides for small groups. Some of these resources are really useful, while some of them are not so helpful. This article aims to help you work out which resources are most useful and to help you think through how best to use them in groups and by yourself.
Biblical and theological basis
The Bible places a great emphasis on God’s people thinking through and applying God’s Word. For example, Psalm 1 gives us a picture of what a person whose life is based on God’s Word looks like. The subject of this psalm is the man whose “delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (v3). This meditation on and application of God’s word affects this man’s whole life including who he associates with and whose advice he listens to. He is described as being like a very fruitful and productive tree. God’s word has influenced everything this man does.
We need to note that this man does not simply read the words then close his Bible. He meditates on what he has read day and night. Christian meditation is not about chanting mantras or emptying our minds; this man is filling his mind with the things of God. James strongly encourages this in the New Testament in James 1:22-27. Christians are not to simply hear the Word but they are to do the Word. The active follower of Jesus needs to apply God’s Word to their lives so they grow in their discipleship.
The Bible is intended to be a useful book for us. Paul describes it as being a critical tool for the Christian, meant to equip us for every good work (2 Tim 3:17). This is part of the reason so many of the ministries of our church and denomination revolve around the Bible, for it is only in the Bible that we can see what God wants for us.
All believers can understand the basic message of the Bible. But there are many parts that we need help with; after all, even the apostle Peter found some things in Paul’s letters “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). So we don’t need other resources to understand why we need Jesus but we can benefit from other resources in understanding many of the details in the Bible.
What types of resources are out there?
- Commentaries: these are books written to explain a particular book or books of the Bible. They are written by scholars or pastors and aim to help us understand the text of the Bible better. Commentaries vary from very technical through to very simplistic. Some are on one book of the Bible and some cover the whole Bible in less detail. A useful one that covers the whole Bible for the average Christian is the New Bible Commentary. For a little more detail, the Bible Speaks Today and Tyndalecommentary series are usually reliable and inexpensive.
- Dictionaries: instead of working through the text of part of the Bible, Bible dictionaries are arranged by subject. When you come across something difficult to understand, you can look up the topic in a Bible dictionary to get some more information. A useful one for the average Christian is the New Bible Dictionary.
- Bible study guides: these are intended either for individual use or with a group. They come in various styles, but generally have a series of questions on a particular text or topic. They vary wildly in theological basis and usefulness, so it might be best to ask your pastor or elders for advice when choosing these.
- People: your elders, pastor and home group leaders are good people to ask! Not all resources are in book form. These are people who have some experience in studying God’s word and can give you some guidance. At the very least, they can help you find the answer if they don’t know themselves.
Advantages and Disadvantages of using Bible study resources
There are some real advantages to using these kinds of resources. They can give us more information on a topic or verse, and make us see the Bible in a different perspective. We can learn more in conjunction with these resources than we could by ourselves.
However, there are also some significant disadvantages if these resources are heavily relied upon. We can become dependent on the opinion of the person who wrote the resource, and being a sinful person they could be wrong! Bible study guides in particular might skip over difficult parts of the passage. Most of us have had the experience of using guides like this in a small group and being disappointed that there were no questions on that one verse which no-one in the group understands!
These disadvantages don’t mean all these resources are useless. But it does mean we need to think through how and why we use them.
Important principles to keep in mind
- The Bible is God’s Word, and the Spirit works through the Word of God. So it is critical to study and apply the Bible to our lives, and the Spirit will help us as we do this.
- Anything (or anyone) that helps us to understand the Bible is only a tool; their opinions are secondary to the Bible itself.
- You need to approach the Bible devotionally. This means you need to read it intending to apply it and mediate on it, not just to ‘do your duty’.
- The questions and issues you have with a text might be different from the questions and issues the resource deals with.
- You need to be critical of what you read and hear. This also applies to sermons! This doesn’t mean that you expect the resource to be wrong or misleading, but that you think it through and do not simply accept it.
Let’s get practical – how should you use these resources?
What should we do with these resources then? How should they be used? Let me share some simple practical tips with you.
The most important one is this: always read the passage for yourself first. And come to the Bible expecting it to say something useful for you! Remember the passage in 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable…”. A simple way of helping you to focus and think through the passage is to have a piece of paper and a pen handy when you open the Bible. This is reminding yourself that you are expecting to find useful things to write down and think about. Ask simple questions of the passage you have read:
- What does this passage tell me about God?
- What does this passage tell me about what people are like?
- What should I do in response to this passage?
If you come across things you don’t understand, write them down and either use a resource to help you later or ask someone who might know.
If you are studying the Bible as part of a small group of people, the same principle applies. You will find it a great help if you read the passage before you come and think about it. Only use resources and look at your Bible study guide after you have thought about the passage for yourself. Then when you discuss this passage with the group, you can share what you have discovered and contribute more constructively.
I personally try to avoid bringing a Study Bible to a small group Bible study. I find that if I have the ‘cheat notes’ down the bottom of the page, I stop thinking for myself and just rely on those notes. Meditating on God’s Word means mulling it over and applying it, so we need to use our own brains as well as pick someone else’s brains.
When it comes to listening to sermons, the principle is the same. Make sure you read the passage yourself and critically consider what the preacher is saying. It is often helpful to write notes, either during or after the sermon. That will help to jog your memory when you think about it later on. Make some time either later on the Sunday or in your devotional time on the Monday to think through the sermon and apply it to your own situation. God expects fruit from us, growth in response to His Word, and not just knowing a few extra facts. It is so easy to leave church on Sunday and immediately forget what we have heard and therefore fail to apply it at all.
Many people use daily devotional Bible study guides. Again, the principle is the same. Make sure you read the passage for yourself and don’t simply rely on someone else’s opinion. It is best to find a devotional guide that covers more than one verse a day, so you actually read God’s word and not just someone’s reflections on it.
God’s Word is a wonderful and useful gift for Christians. We are blessed in Australia to have a wide variety of resources to help us understand the Bible, something many around the world do not have. But we need to use them wisely. We need to read and apply God’s Word for ourselves as well as listen to others. We need to be hearers and doers of God’s Word. Next time you open the Bible, expect God to speak, and be ready to listen to what He has to say to you.