When the Apostle Paul wrote to his young friend and pastoral protégé Timothy, he gave him a clear command about how to handle the Scriptures: "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15). We may draw several implications from this brief exhortation. First, handling God's Word takes effort and skill. Timothy is to be a "worker," doing his "best"—that is, striving by the Spirit to deploy careful excellence—as he undertakes this sacred task. Second, though Timothy is to interpret Scripture for himself and to serve others—so that he can know the truth and can teach it faithfully to others—interpretation is ultimately done in the presence of God and for the glory of God. It is before the Sovereign Author that our interpretations stand or fall. Third, there is a right way and a wrong way to handle God's Word. Paul encourages Timothy to interpret "rightly" so as to avoid being "ashamed."
Study Bibles can be a gift from God to help us understand His Word rightly and to plumb its depths. They can give us guidance in understanding history, practicing exegesis, and making theological application. I will explore these one at a time, quoting from the ESV Study Bible to illustrate—not because it's the only good study Bible, but because it's the one I know best.
A good study Bible provides historical information that enhances our reading of Scripture. It can be likened to the difference between watching a black-and-white television versus an HD flat-screen. You see the same picture in both, but one allows you to enjoy more detail.
Consider Jesus' letter to the church of Laodicea in Revelation 3:14–22. The original readers knew about this city—its location, its reputation, and its features. If someone were to tell you that he recently visited New York City, a mental picture of its location and some basic connotations and characteristics would form in your mind. But given our cultural distance, we don't know from experience where Laodicea was located or what it was like. But a study Bible can help. First, it provides a map so that you can quickly see its location in ancient Asia Minor and its proximity to other cities such as Ephesus and Colossae. Second, the notes to the passage provide some background:
Damaged by an earthquake in A.D. 60, self-sufficient Laodicea, a commercial center and site of thriving medical and textile industries, declined imperial disaster relief. The city did not see itself as "poor, blind, and naked" (v. 17), nor did the complacent church within it. In this last church alone Jesus finds nothing to commend. Laodicea was famous for its worship of Zeus, who appears on some of the city's coinage.
Is this essential information to understanding Jesus' letter? No. But it enriches our understanding. Laodicea's self-sufficiency makes more sense when we think about the city's prosperity, pride, and paganism, and we see ways in which the church is being conformed to the city rather than transforming it.
Another way that study Bibles can help is by providing clear models of exegesis. Exegesis is related to a Greek word for leading or drawing out. It is in contrast to eisegesis, which has to do with taking something in. We want to do the former when we read Scripture: to draw out of it the meaning God intended and inspired, not to read into it our own assumptions and ideas. In Revelation 3:15–16, for example, Jesus tells the Laodicean church: "I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth." Many sermons have claimed that hot and cold refer to something respectively good and bad—after all, we can be "on fire" for the Lord (good) or have a "cold heart" (bad). And Jesus says He wishes the church were either hot or cold—anything but lukewarm. So, the preacher says, Jesus would rather have your cold-hearted rejection than your lukewarm reception. But a study Bible note can provide us with background information we might not have otherwise known:
The waters of the nearby Lycus River were muddy and undrinkable, and the waters flowing by aqueduct from hot springs 5 miles (8 km) away were lukewarm when they reached Laodicea. Likewise, Jesus found his church's tepid indifference repugnant. Cold and hot water represent something positive, for cold water refreshes in the heat, and hot water is a tonic when one is chilly.
The idea that Jesus would prefer for us to be cold-hearted rather than lukewarm is read into the text, and knowing some of the background can help us avoid the application error. Jesus is really saying that lukewarmness is repulsive and that we should instead be both white-hot in our affections for Him and satisfied with His refreshing presence.
But our interpretive task is not done if we have merely understood the history behind a passage and if we rightly interpret its meaning. The Bible is not merely a collection of sayings and stories. Rather, it is a grand story that tells us how the world began and how it will end. It tells us about the King who rules over His creation, how His subjects have forfeited the kingdom, and how He sent His Son to redeem His people so that they might rule and reign with Him forever.
What does this have to do with theology? Everything. Louis Berkhof wrote that God "sees the truth as a whole, and it is the duty of the theologian to think the truths of God after Him. There should be a constant endeavor to see the truth as God sees it." R.C. Sproul has reminded us that everyone's a theologian. The question is not whether we are theologians, but what kind of theologians will we be?
A good study Bible can help us become better theologians. First, it can show us how theology is derived from Scripture. For example, a note on John 1:1 will explain that this verse contains "the building blocks that go into the doctrine of the Trinity: the one true God consists of more than one person, they relate to each other, and they have always existed."
Second, a good study Bible can help you avoid theological misinterpretation. When Paul says in Colossians 1:15 that Jesus is the "firstborn of all creation," the ESV Study Bible note helps us understand what this is and is not saying:
It would be wrong to think in physical terms here, as if Paul were asserting that the Son had a physical origin or was somehow created (the classic Arian heresy) rather than existing eternally as the Son, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, in the Godhead. What Paul had in mind was the rights and privileges of a firstborn son, especially the son of a monarch who would inherit ruling sovereignty. This is how the expression is used of David: "I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth" (Ps. 89:27).
Third, many study Bibles contain theological articles that go into greater depth on theological truths of the faith. All of these tools can be a great aid in helping us become better theologians.
How to Use a Study Bible Well
Here are four recommendations on using your study Bible.
First, use your study Bible discerningly. The most important feature in a study Bible is the horizontal line that divides the biblical text from the biblical interpretation. Everything above the line is inerrant and infallible. Everything below the line is filled with good intentions but may not be true. We are to be like the noble Bereans who cross-checked the teaching they received with the authoritative Word of God (Acts 17:11; see 1 Thess. 5:21). To paraphrase Galatians 1:8–9, "Even if we or a bestselling study Bible should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let it be accursed."
Second, use your study Bible for more than just the notes. I am convinced that the most underutilized and yet important parts of a good study Bible are the introductions to each biblical book. A careful reading of the introduction will help you see the big picture. Use study Bible introductions well, and you will be less likely to take a passage out of context.
Third, use more than one study Bible. Not all study Bibles are created equal. There are some I would highly recommend and some I would highly discourage Christians from using. Don't make your decision primarily based on the quality of the Bible or the attractiveness of the design or the promises on the box. Rather, do some research to find out the theological position of the study Bible, who wrote and edited the notes, and whether there is a focus or theme that it is trying to advance.
Fourth, use your study Bible as an opportunity to interpret the Bible with the communion of saints. Some people object to study Bibles. After all, do we need all these notes to tell us what Scripture really says? But "God has appointed in the church ... teachers" (1 Cor. 12:28). As C.H. Spurgeon noted, "It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others."
The best study Bibles don't present startling new interpretations. They put you in dialogue with the best interpreters—teachers who are gifts of God to the church—to help us rightly handle His Word. When they do, we can truly say: all glory to God alone.