Study Bibles and the Great Commission

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A stranger noticed I was carrying a study Bible and remarked, “That’s an odd title.”

He was pointing at the spine of my Bible. I stood speechless for a brief moment, trying to figure out what he meant.

It’s not the word Bible,” he continued. “I get that. But all the Bibles I have ever seen say, ‘Holy Bible.’ I understand what that means. The word study in the title of a Bible doesn’t make sense to me.”

I explained that it is a Bible with explanatory notes to help readers understand the words, ideas, context, and overall meaning of the text. It’s loaded with footnotes, maps, definitions, background data, and other study helps. He still looked mystified, so I offered to send him a copy as a gift, and he gratefully accepted. He seemed genuinely astonished and intrigued by the idea of carefully and systematically investigating the meaning of Scripture. The Bible, to him, had always been little more than a sacred relic to be displayed as a symbol of piety.

The idea that anyone other than academicians would want to study the Scriptures with great care is a novel thought to many people. They think of the Bible as a mystical book, a source of thoughts for the day, a handbook for clergy, an accessory for brides to carry. If they read it at all, it is to admire the poetic phraseology or learn the stories as if they were mythology. Or, they might randomly select a verse for the day as if they were reading a horoscope.

Even a lot of people who consider themselves solid evangelicals never truly apply themselves to the thoughtful study of Scripture. Twenty-five years ago, after conducting a survey to determine how well people know their Bibles, pollsters George Gallup and Jim Castelli concluded, “Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it. And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.”

If anything, the situation is worse today. Despite (or perhaps because of ) the glut of information available to us through broadcast media and the Internet, our generation barely knows what it means to study. We can Google any subject or quickly read the Wikipedia entry, so people think they are better informed than any previous generation. But the average person’s knowledge of any given subject is more superficial and attention spans are shorter than in any era since the Enlightenment.

Nowhere is this trend more evident than in the matter of Bible knowledge. Laypeople who are true, sober-minded students of Scripture are extremely rare nowadays. Even among those who selfidentify as Bible-believing evangelicals, few genuinely take seriously the duty Paul describes in 2 Timothy 2:15: “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (emphasis added). That’s how the King James Version puts it. The imperative in that sentence is actually from a Greek word meaning “be diligent,” and it is translated with that sense in most modern versions. So what this text calls for is not casual curiosity but careful, painstaking, conscientious study.

When we shirk that duty, we are being unfaithful to the Great Commission, the last and most important directive Jesus ever gave His disciples. Pay careful attention to what this commandment entails:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matt. 28:19–20)

Christians typically think of the Great Commission as a mandate for evangelism. It is that, of course, but as Jesus describes the task, it has nothing to do with the kind of quick-and-dirty soul-winning schemes Christians today tend to associate with evangelism. Jesus’ stress was on teaching. In the Greek text, “go” is not even the main verb. A literal translation would be, “Having gone, then, disciple all nations.” The charge is then immediately restated in a way that makes the didactic aspect of our Lord’s instructions unmistakable: “Teaching them to observe all things, whatever I commanded you.”

It’s quite an expansive task, extending to “all nations,” requiring mastery of all Christ’s teaching and commandments, and enduring “to the end of the age.” Given the mission’s immense scope, Jesus’ marching orders must apply to every believer in every era. The duty presented in this text could not have been fulfilled only by the eleven disciples mentioned in Matthew 28:16. Nor is the mandate exclusively for them. Scripture gives us several indications that the audience on that occasion was a massive group of believers.

On the morning of the resurrection, for example, Jesus told the disciples, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me” (v. 10). He was not talking solely (or even primarily) about His literal siblings (who weren’t even believers yet; see John 7:5). The “brothers” He spoke of were all His disciples from Galilee, Judah, and the surrounding regions. “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”—He famously asked in Matthew 12:48. Then He immediately gave the answer: “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (v. 50; see Matt. 25:40, 45). In other words, all believers from everywhere were the “brothers” whom He wanted to come to Galilee for this meeting with their risen Lord.

There was no other reason for Jesus to go there. If His intention was to meet only with the eleven disciples, He could have met with them in Jerusalem. That’s where they were when Jesus rose from the dead. And just forty days later, 120 believers would be gathered there in the Upper Room at Pentecost.

The greater part of Jesus’ public ministry had been centered in Galilee. Most of His followers lived in that region. That seems to be the main reason Jesus chose Galilee as the venue for this appearance. Every indication is that a vast number of these disciples were assembled on that mountain when Jesus gave the Great Commission. This, presumably, was the gathering Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 15:6: “He appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time.” No other point in the post-resurrection chronology could easily explain an appearance of Christ to five hundred people at once.

So the Great Commission extends beyond the eleven disciples—far beyond even that large throng of believers on a mountainside in Galilee. It calls every believer in every age to intense, long-term, in-depth study of everything Christ commanded. And the only infallible record of Christ’s own teaching is Scripture. Moreover, the doctrine of Christ is woven into “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). Christ is the central theme of “all the Scriptures” (v. 27).

It is every Christian’s duty to study and teach the Scriptures. That is the clear implication of the Great Commission. In order to be obedient to Christ’s command to make disciples, all believers—not just pastors and church leaders—“ought to be teachers” (Heb. 5:12). It is a mark of spiritual immaturity to be “unskilled in the word of righteousness” (v. 13).

No matter who you are, you can find someone who knows less about Christ than you do and teach them. If you are not actively discipling others insofar as you have the opportunity, you are not being obedient to Christ’s parting instructions.

What can we do to get back on track? Believers in the early years of the Protestant Reformation faced a similar dilemma. Due to the stranglehold medieval Roman Catholicism placed on people’s access to Scripture, biblical illiteracy was widespread and Bibles were both rare and prohibitively expensive. The first affordable English Bible was the Geneva Bible. It was a study Bible, replete with marginal notes, cross-references, and other helps designed for lay readers rather than the academic elite.

The Geneva Bible turned the world upside down. It fanned the flames of reformation in the English-speaking world, unleashed the gospel message, and gave rise to the Puritan movement, perhaps the greatest explosion of biblical literacy, expository preaching, and authentic Christian piety the world has seen since the Apostolic era.

A good study Bible is the single most potent and convenient tool I know of for the average layperson who wants to gain a sound grasp of Scripture and be equipped to disciple others. Some of the most fruitful years of my ministry were spent writing notes for a study Bible that has been used in the training of countless disciples. We have been blessed in recent years with a wealth of excellent and very useful study Bibles. My hope and prayer is that Christians will devote themselves to the diligent use of these tools. May we see a revival of earnest, intelligent discipleship as we labor together to fulfill our Lord’s commission.

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