I can get a bit obsessed with gear. Whether it’s art supplies, audio equipment, or Bible study tools, I sometimes find myself believing that if I just get pro gear, I’ll become a pro myself.
But the reality is, you only get good at something with lots of practice, and even if you have the right tools, they won’t do you any good if you don’t know how to use them. With that in mind, here are five essential Bible study tools—and a basic explanation of how they work.
A Bible you can actually mark up (and things to mark it with)
There are times for sitting back and reading large sections of Scripture, soaking in the broad sweep of a narrative or marinating in delicious couplets from the Psalms. But when it’s time to closely examine Scripture—especially when you’re in the observation phase of inductive Bible study—one of the most important Bible study tools at your disposal is the Bible itself; and one of the best Bible study techniques is marking it up.
You could take your regular, everyday Bible and go to town with highlights and notes. But it makes sense to keep a clean, unmarked version of Scripture for longer reading sessions or following along during worship. Plus, bleed-through is real, folks. Most Bibles have whatever-is-thinner-than-paper-thin pages. Jotting notes in your everyday Bible is not a long-term solution.
Thankfully, you have options.
Good: Journaling or wide-margin Bible
A step up from your everyday Bible, journaling Bibles give you a bit more flexibility for highlighting and note-taking. (I scribbled my ESV journaling Bible to death over the course of many years.) These Bibles have extra-wide margins, and some of them are even lined for note-taking. Others are “interleaved,” which means blank pages for note taking are bound along with Scripture. But bleed-through is still a problem, and there is typically no space between individual lines of Scripture. Worse, the margins are rarely wide enough to accommodate the amount of notes I typically take on a passage.
Better: Loose-leaf Bible
Loose-leaf Bibles are large, three-ring binders containing every page of Scripture laid out with roomy margins and, typically, slightly wider line spacing (typography nerds call this “leading.”). But the biggest advantage isn’t just all this space, it’s the fact that you can remove and photocopy pages without destroying your Bible.
When I was preaching regularly, I would photocopy the passage from my NIV Loose Leaf Bible and scratch away without worrying about ruining the original page. I often went through multiple copies of the same passage. Even the simple fact that I could wad up a page and throw it away with a clean conscience was freeing. I was able to let go of inhibitions and truly dig into the text without feeling like my thoughts on a passage would be permanently fixed on my copy of holy writ!
Although these Bibles don’t offer nearly the flexibility of digital Bible study tools, it’s worth considering. And if you don’t want to spring for one from the big publishers, you can, ahem, take a page out of Jonathan Edwards book and make one yourself. (Just don’t take a page out of Thomas Jefferson’s book.)
Best: Bible software
If you’re looking for a Bible you can fearlessly mark up, this is by far the most versatile option. Think of it like a journaling Bible with infinite margins combined with a loose-leaf Bible of limitless flexibility.
With Logos you can take digital notes and highlights that sync across all your devices. You can adjust the layout of the text—putting a passage in outline form, for instance. Or toggle verse and chapter numbers on and off. You can hide all your notes, or call up everything you’ve ever written on a verse in a single click. And the amount of notes you can take is not limited by page count, margin size, or leading.
There are web-only Bible study tools you can use, but most of these offer very limited—if any—note-taking abilities. Your best bet is to download Bible software. Of course, if you’re not a pastor, scholar, or ministry, leader, it may feel hard to justify the expense of buying a full Bible software package, which typically includes a library of hundreds of resources. Plus, if you’ve never used Bible software before, you may want to try it out for a while before going whole hog.
Logos Basic is a free version of Logos Bible Software that provides lots of Bible study tools, including a collection of Bible study resources, some translations, and most relevant for our purposes here, all the note-taking abilities mentioned above. Plus, Logos makes a free mobile app, too, so you can study Scripture—and keep taking notes—wherever you go.
And if you’re still not convinced making the leap to digital Bible study tools is the right move, Dr. Mark Ward has written a free guide that can give you the rundown on how to incorporate them into your study. Get it here.
A parallel Bible
If the first Bible study tool you need is the Bible itself, the second one is . . . more Bibles.
Using multiple Bible translations in your study is one of the most overlooked but beneficial practices you can implement. Why is it so powerful? Here’s how I explained it in a recent post on five essential bible study techniques:
Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic aren’t secret codes, they’re languages. (The ESV translation committee do not have Greek and Hebrew decoder rings.) Even if you don’t know Greek or Hebrew, by comparing multiple translations you can begin to uncover a sense of the original languages—nuances you’d otherwise miss.
The choices translators make are not arbitrary. When two translations “disagree” on the translation of a particular verse or phrase, it’s not necessarily that one is right and the other is wrong (although that is possible.) Here’s how Dr. Ward describes it:
Having 10 translations is like having 10 teachers who are focused, laser-like, on the Bible text, doing barely anything more than reading it with expression and feeling. . . . Their expressions and their feelings will differ for various reasons, and it is in those contrasts that the value of reading multiple translations lies.
Because juggling paper versions of all those translations is cumbersome, you can get a parallel Bible that includes multiple translations laid out in columns alongside one another. For decades, this was the best method for comparing Bible translations, but with the advent of digital Bible study tools, that changed.
For instance, Logos Basic includes the Text Comparison tool. Unlike a paper parallel Bible, which includes a fixed number of translations, the Text Comparison tool lets you choose as many translations as you want from those in your digital library. Plus, Logos automatically shows you the differences between the passages in an intuitive layout:
And best of all, if you add a note or highlight to a verse in any of the translations, it will be tied to that verse in every translation.
A Bible dictionary
As you’re progressing through your study, you’ll inevitably encounter questions that simply can’t be answered by comparing multiple translations or making observations of the text without additional aids. Eventually, you’ll want to tap into some of the insights other Christians have discovered.
That’s why a Bible dictionary is an essential Bible study tool. A Bible dictionary (like the Lexham Bible Dictionary or Easton’s Bible Dictionary, which are included with Logos Basic) collects important information from the Bible about people, places, concepts, doctrines, and more, all in one place. Often, an entry will reference other relevant biblical passages that can help shed light on the one you’re studying—essential for understanding Scripture in context.
Of course, with a digital Bible study tool like Logos Basic, you can quickly discover insights on a passage from every resource in your library, not just from dictionaries. It’s like having a friend who’s memorized every line of every book you own, and can point you to relevant passages in dictionaries and also commentaries, lead you to cross-references, and reveal insights from ancient culture.
A Bible-searching tool
In a contemporary classic on Bible interpretation, New Testament scholar Grant Osborne says you must transition from text to context in a continuous movement that slowly spirals inward toward the center, to the meaning of a passage—and how it applies to your life.
Put simply, studying a passage in isolation puts you at risk of misinterpretation.
To avoid this, you’ll need some way to search the Bible. One way is with a paper concordance. A concordance, like Strong’s, lists every word in the Bible, based on the original languages, and every passage where that word appears.
This is helpful, for instance, if you’re studying 1 Thessalonians 4:3 and come across the word “sanctification.” By looking up that word in a concordance, you can find everywhere it appears in Scripture. From there, you can isolate everywhere Paul used that word and study the context of each passage. This can inform how you understand the significance of that concept in 1 Thessalonians.
But a concordance is seriously limiting. There’s no way to look up everywhere Peter spoke to Jesus, or where an entire phrase like “love one another” appears, or where the word “holiness” appears near the word “immorality.”
Even Google can’t do that kind of searching for you. It’s something you can only do with a digital Bible study tool. (For more on how this works, pick up our free ebook on using digital Bible study tools.)
A good commentary (or six)
So you’ve gone through the observation phase of your Bible study, marking up your Bible with notes and highlights and comparing different translations. You’ve examined cross-references, studied the surrounding context, and are entering into interpretation mode. And you’ve looked up biblical people, places, and events in your Bible dictionaries or used Bible software to discover other relevant passages.
If you haven’t already, now’s the time to consult a good commentary.
This is one of my favorite parts of Bible study. After I’ve done the work of gleaning insights on my own, it’s deeply rewarding to have my thinking refined by other students of God’s Word. And often, commentaries include long, practical discussions on application, which make them a wonderful tool for personal devotion.
At the very least, you should get a reliable, one-volume commentary on the entire Bible. (There’s one included for free in Logos Basic.) Some popular one-volume commentaries are the New Bible Commentary edited by D.A. Carson and the Believer’s Bible Commentary.
But because of space limitations, one-volume commentaries can’t give extensive insights. That’s why if you’re going to spend a long while in a single biblical book, I recommend picking up one (or six!) good commentaries on that book. (I highly recommend volumes from the Bible Speaks Today series or N.T. Wright’s New Testament for Everyone.)
When you’re picking out a commentary, consider getting one specifically designed for preachers—whether you’re a preacher or not! These volumes are often intensely practical and are sometimes drawn from a preacher’s actual sermons. Good series include Boice’s Expositional Commentaries and the NIV Application Commentary.