Why is Jesus talking about a millstone? How much is a denarius worth? And what in the world is an alabaster bottle of nard?
Reading through the Bible means running into terms like these, unfamiliar to most 21st-century Westerners. We may love the story of the woman washing Jesus’s feet with her tears and hair in Luke 7. We may also know that Jesus forgave her, though her sins were many. Does it matter that we don’t understand much about the ointment she used on his feet?
For most readers of Scripture, the only way to understand the significance of such terms is to use an extrabiblical reference book, such as a Bible dictionary or commentary. Though we might at first be skeptical about the value of commentaries in Bible study, these books can be divine gifts—resources that help us better grasp God’s Word and better know God himself.
Why Some Avoid Them
Some Christians might be reluctant to use reference materials, particularly if they’ve been taught that true spirituality is separate from the academic world. Commentaries focus on the mind, whereas Bible reading ought to nourish the soul, the thinking goes. Commentaries are stale—irrelevant to my daily life. Some may associate commentaries with seminaries or academic institutions, or consider them only appropriate for educational settings, papers, and PhDs.
Others have been warned that commentaries present a direct danger to their personal Bible study. Naysayers caution Christians that reading the words of others may prevent them from thinking their own thoughts and coming to their own conclusions about Scripture. The vital steps of observing the text and interpreting it for ourselves, they worry, may be missed if we allow others to do it for us.
Why Christians Should Use Them
Because of the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture, the central message of the Bible can indeed be understood through simply reading the text, with no outside helps. But that doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from assistance. In fact, instead of preventing beneficial study, good commentaries can protect us from heretical interpretations, correct our personal biases, and help us come to the conclusions God intended when he wrote his Word. When used judiciously, these resources give rich, deep material for the Bible student, leading to informed observation, accurate interpretation, and appropriate personal application.
Good commentaries can protect us from heretical interpretations, correct our personal biases, and help us come to the conclusions God intended when he wrote his Word.
Commentaries also give us windows into the historical context of the people to whom the books were written. Imagine walking outside one night and looking at the moon with your naked eye. You could appreciate its beauty and be amazed by its ability to reflect the light of the sun. But its intricacies—mountains, valleys, incredible impact craters—would be inaccessible to your vision without a telescope. Commentaries act like that telescope, helping you to see more clearly the beautiful features of the text. They explain nuances of language and culture you wouldn’t otherwise know. They help break down barriers between the biblical world and ours.
Yes, we must still do the work of observing and interpreting the text. But with commentaries we can do so in an informed way, with a clearer understanding of the way the first hearers would’ve understood the passage. The Holy Spirit has gifted the church with professors and writers who have spent the better part of their lives studying certain biblical books, poring over the original languages and noticing word play, euphemisms, cultural references, and a host of other textual features. Such writers interact also with the church’s teaching throughout history, bringing the richness of centuries of Bible study to even the newest believer.
The Woman’s Nard: A Case for Commentaries
This brings us back to Luke 7 and the sinful woman’s bottle of nard. Commentaries tell us that this type of bottle was often worn around prostitutes’ necks in Palestine at the time of Jesus. It held expensive perfume, possibly this woman’s entire life savings. By breaking her bottle, the woman may have been indicating a break with her profession as she poured out her affection for Jesus.
Commentaries then explain that the Greek word used to describe the woman’s weeping also describes rain showers in the books of Matthew and James. This woman was not quietly dabbing her eyes. She was sobbing over the Savior’s feet.
A commentary also helps us to see a pattern in the Gospels: Jesus highlights the faith of the forgiven as the means of receiving God’s salvation gift. And this story illustrates one of Luke’s themes: the great reversal. As Christ welcomes the prostitute, he puts his upside-down kingdom on display. In him, the first are last, and the last are first. Without a commentary, we might miss this point.
Finally, commentaries can help us apply such a story to our own lives, reminding our shame-drenched hearts that Jesus is not ashamed of us (Heb. 2:11). Just as he did for the sinful woman, Jesus dignifies us with both words and forgiveness when we come before him, willing to give him all we have and are.
Two Places to Start
Just as you would carefully select a Bible teacher or pastor for orthodoxy and trustworthiness, so you must be deliberate in your use of commentaries.
First, ask your pastor what commentaries he trusts and uses. Ask if you could borrow one of his or buy it yourself to correspond with whatever you happen to be reading and studying in the Bible.
Second, read the Bible passage multiple times. Linger there before you open the commentary. Get a good idea of the story, teaching, or principles. Try to form a few questions—things you don’t understand or ideas you’d like to investigate. Then bring these questions to your commentary. Commentary writers—your brothers and sisters who have labored to understand the Word in a detailed and careful way—will help to clarify the text and encourage you as you read.
Commentaries are a gift to the Bible student—whether you’re a Sunday-school teacher, attorney, janitor, or stay-at-home parent who loves the living Word of God. Don’t be afraid of these resources. Rather, let them be a part of bringing the beauty and majesty of the Lord Jesus into focus as you seek him in his Word.