Many of you know about the digital version of the Faithlife Study Bible. I contributed a good bit of content to it. A trimmed (for space, naturally) version of that study Bible is now available from Zondervan, editorially tailored to the NIV, the translation used in that publication.

I’m thrilled to have played a part in the creation of the NIV Faithlife Study Bible. I’m happy to help Zondervan alert this audience to its existence. My reasons are, to be honest, personal. A study Bible was one of the two items I bought early in my own journey as a new Christian (the other was a Strong’s Concordance). Both were crucial in helping me understand God’s Word as I grew as a believer.

Nearly forty years have passed since I came to the Lord. Providence led me to become a biblical scholar and gave me the blessing of being a biblical studies professor in the classroom and online. I’ve learned that there’s a lot about the Bible that people should know. My own journey in Bible knowledge has convinced me there’s one fundamental insight that, if faithfully observed, will help tremendously. It’s the best piece of advice I can give you—and an orienting point for many of the notes in the NIV Faithlife Study Bible:

Let the Bible be what it is.

That bit of advice may sound odd. But let’s unpack it a bit.

When I recommend letting the Bible be what it is, I’m suggesting that the path to real biblical understanding requires that we don’t make the Bible conform to denominational preferences. Our task as Bible students is not to filter the Bible through our traditions. That’s doing Bible study in an echo chamber and engaging Scripture from a deeply flawed assumption about its context. None of the biblical writers were members of our denominations!

Our task as Bible students is not to turn the Bible into something it isn’t. Just let it be what it is. Let me illustrate with an example (one familiar to many readers here).

Genesis 10 is known to Bible scholars as the “Table of Nations.” The chapter is a biblical explanation of what happened in the centuries after Noah and his family disembarked the ark, having survived the flood. The Table of Nations describes how the descendants of Noah’s three sons—Shem, Ham, and Japheth—repopulated the earth, forming the nations known in the rest of the Old Testament story. In terms of the unfolding narrative of Genesis, the chapter is a precursor to the Tower of Babel story (Gen. 11:1-9), where the nations were divided and dispersed by God.

There’s an obvious problem with the Table of Nations—or, for those who simply let the Bible be what it is, an obvious disconnect between the world of the biblical writers and the world we know in modern times. The Table of Nations shows no knowledge whatsoever of the geography belonging to North America, South American, Australia, China, India, and Scandinavia. The same is true of the knowledge of earth’s geography in the New Testament (cp. Acts 2). The known world in biblical times was a fraction of what it actually is.

This is no surprise if we let the Bible be what it is, and let the biblical writers be who they were. The biblical “world” is composed of seventy nations that are situated in what we now call the ancient Near East (or modern Middle East) and which are found on the land masses that surround the Mediterranean Sea. There is no hint in the Scriptures of any land mass beyond this region.

Attempts to make the Bible be something that it isn’t with respect to the true size of the world produced very unfortunate results that ought to be a lesson to us. Once Europeans achieved the ability to cross the Atlantic and circumnavigate the world, people immediately questioned where these other countries and the people who populated them came from. Most Europeans, well familiar with the Bible, presumed these peoples must have come from Adam—but how did the descendants of Noah produce these peoples?

All sorts of strange proposals were offered in answer to these questions from the 16th century onward. Those efforts in turn produced theories of race, including that non-European (non-White) races came from sub-humans or humans separate from, and inferior to, Adam. The rest is, sadly, history. Europeans believed that embracing these explanations, which are inherently flawed and racist, was necessary to preserving biblical authority. Despite their absence in the Table of Nations, the Bible had to speak to the discovery of these new lands and peoples. Such interpretive gymnastics institutionalized racial ideas that the Bible never actually endorses.

The lesson here is that it really does matter whether we are serious about interpreting the Bible in context or not. We can get into serious interpretive trouble if we don’t. If we want to pay more than lip service to the idea of interpretation in context, we must let the Bible be what it is. As one of the academic editors of the NIV Faithlife Study Bible, I can say that our editorial team kept this fundamental principle of context in mind throughout our work. My hope is that Lord will use this tool—and this orienting point of interpretation—to make your Bible study all it can be.

Have a look at the NIV Faithlife Study Bible for yourself!