The end goal of good Bible study: To know and enjoy God. Do commentaries help?
PART 1: GAME ON.
On the last day of my junior year in high school, David, a fellow student, approached me. I was wholly unprepared for the bone he had to pick with me:
“Carmen, Chris is in first place, you are in second, and I’m in third. I am coming after you. I will graduate salutatorian next year.”
I stared at him blankly. I was utterly clueless. What in the world was he talking about? And what does “salutatorian” mean? I quickly found out. I had no idea that academically I held a second place position in my graduating class. David’s news was new news to me. I only focused on my job as a student: studying hard. Once I found out about this ranking system and that someone else wanted my position, I thought, “Oh yeah, David? We’ll just see about that.”
School taught me to work hard. Why did I study hard? In order to have the right answers. Having the right answers provided a competitive edge. Students are graded and ranked depending on whether or not they have the right answers on tests, quizzes, papers and more. And although a sheer love of learning and close-knit relationships with teachers and fellow students can be developed from our education, that is not necessarily the goal or the outcome for school. More often than not, an educational goal relates to knowledge outcomes and test results.
For example, a love for learning did not define my senior year in high school. Rather, I was on a mission to have all the right answers on all my tests and all my quizzes and all my papers. Why? To maintain “my rank” and to stay in front of David.
If we’re honest, most of us sought to get right answers on our tests, quizzes and homework not for the joy of learning, but rather because of the reward. We are rewarded for right answers and demoted for wrong answers. We learn fairly quickly that right answers feel better than wrong answers. Good marks on a report card feel a whole lot better than bad ones.
We bring this educational experience with us into Bible study. We like having all the right answers. Being right feels good.
Many traditional Bible studies are set up to give us “right answers.” Simple questions that can easily be answered by reading a particular Bible verse. And if the answer is not so simple, the author will provide an explanation in the next paragraph. After all, it feels good to be right. Feeling good can keep us engaged with our Bibles, which is a good thing.
However, at Simply Bible, we believe that Bible study is not about knowing all the right answers. Rather, Bible study is about knowing God Himself. He gave us minds in order to read and understand Scripture so that we might better know Him. Knowing is about relationship.
The Old Testament Hebrew word, “to know,” points to an intimate knowing, an experiential knowing. Though used in multiple contexts, this Hebrew word to know often denotes a husband and wife enjoying sexual relations:
Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived… Genesis 4:1
We can all agree that sexual intercourse is a pretty intimate and experiential knowing!
Friends, that’s how God wants us to know Him. When He says,
“Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10
He’s not asking us to know His bio or facts and statistics about Him. No! We’re called to experience Him, to know and understand His heart, His mind and His ways. When God says, “Know me,” He’s saying: “Experience me! Enjoy me! Love me!”
Knowing is about relationship.
If you have done a Simply Bible study, you know the format is very different from traditional Bible studies. Rather than answering leading questions about a Bible passage, the Simply Bible format guides us to slow down so that we carefully observe God’s Word and ask Him our own questions. Then the study guides us to understand and answer those questions. As much as possible, the format of the study is intended to remove my voice so that readers can listen to God’s voice and grow in relationship with Him.
For most of us, to know and enjoy God through His Word offers a new way of learning: an educational or discipleship process that focuses on relationship rather than right answers. Ultimately, Bible study leads us to experience, taste, savor, cherish and love God versus passing a test or a quiz about Him.
I want my husband to know more than just my bio, dress size and other pertinent details. I want him to be my friend and companion and lover. I long to be cherished, not studied. The same is true for God. He longs for our hearts, to be cherished. Loved. Worshiped.
So what does all this have to do with commentaries?
Commentaries are explanatory notes - opinions and explanations - on a particular text of Scripture. The best commentaries are written by scholars, men and women who have devoted years of study to one particular book or section of the Bible. These scholars read the Bible text in its original language (Hebrew for the Old Testament and Greek for the New Testament). They also know and understand the original Biblical and historical context. Blessed with tremendous knowledge and insight due to the years of study and research on a particular subject, they write with expertise. I admire these scholars. I appreciate and value the fruits of their labor.
And yet, I use caution. Because commentaries seemingly provide “right answers,” these books have the propensity to lead us back to our educational experience and feed our desire to have all the right answers. Remember, it feels good to be right.
I use commentaries. I value the input into historical and cultural context that helps me see the world through the eyes of the original hearers of the Word. Commentaries add greatly to my understanding of the Word. However, I typically wait until the end of the week in order to access them. I will do my entire week’s study soaking in God’s Word alone. I seek to listen to Him and enjoy Him. I’m curious. I ask Him questions. I ponder things that I don’t understand. I look up cross references and key words. I make lists. I compare and contrast. I highlight and underline words or phrases or statements that prick my heart. And I pray. I talk to God about His Word and what I am learning. In the process, He uses His Word to reveal more of Himself to me. He also reveals things that I need to understand about myself as His child. In this way, our hearts grow together.
Do you see the difference between studying the Bible in order to gain more knowledge and right answers versus gaining an understanding in order to know and enjoy God Himself?
Run to God! Run to His Word! But slow down before running to commentaries. Use these works only after time spent soaking with God in His Word, as a tool to affirm your understanding.
Not that it much matters today, but I know some of you are curious. Yes, I greatly disappointed David and maintained my ranking to officially graduate salutatorian. At age seventeen, I thought I knew a lot. Oh my! How foolish! The more we study and learn, the more we realize how little we know.
Friends, when I graduate from this world, there will be no ranking. There will be no test to find out how much Bible knowledge I have. Before entering heaven and eternal life with Jesus, I will not need to memorize the books of the Bible nor the names of the Old Testament kings.
That graduation will be about an intimate knowing. Enjoying. Experiencing. Savoring, cherishing, glorifying and loving Jesus, my Savior and King. That’s our end goal, and the end goal of good Bible study.
Lord God, teach us to know and enjoy You through Your Word. May our Bible study lead us into deeper love and appreciation of You. May we live and think differently because of who You are and how You love us.
STUDY TIP: MAKE YOUR OWN MAP
Wondering where to start? A great place to begin your study of Mark is by making your own map of Israel. Doing so will help you to follow Jesus along his Great Adventure.
This might sounds complicated - but it's not! In fact, Carmen has already prepared a step-by-step tutorial of how to make your own map of Israel.
One of our leaders, Denise, made her own map to study Mark. Great job, Denise! Try making your own and show us at the Simply Bible Facebook Group or our Instagram.
Want to get deeper with Simply Bible? The best way to connect with us is to join the Simply Bible Study Group on Facebook. Come join the conversation as we all learn to know and enjoy God through His Word.
Want more Bible study tips? Check out Carmen's other tutorials on the Simply Bible YouTube page.
Look for more of Carmen's thoughts on best practices for using commentaries later in the month!
Have questions? Contact us via the Simply Bible website.