The Bibles that many serious Bible students use have cross references. What do we do with them? Do they help or hinder Bible study? I think they can do both.
When we approach a Biblical text, we do so with the belief that that the whole Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit. But this view of inspiration is very different, for example, to that in Islam, which believes that Muhammad was so totally controlled by God that his personality did not significantly influence to the formation of the Qur’an. We believe that God inspired the biblical writers to give us infallible writings but that he did so through their unique personalities. This makes for one of the most exciting aspects of Bible study—to discover features of the personality of a biblical writer and how that influenced what he wrote. In other words, the Bible is 100% divine and 100% human.
The language of each biblical author has unique characteristics. So one author may generally use a word in a certain way and another author may use the same word in a very different way. Sometimes the same author uses the same word differently in different places. Many years ago, I was having a discussion with some Christadelphians, who deny the deity of Christ. They did a word study of the Greek word logos using Strong’s Concordance. They came up with the conclusion that logos in John 1 does not mean what we mean. Logos is the common word meaning, “word,” that occurs over 300 times in the New Testament. The particular meaning it takes depends on the context in which it appears. So logos takes different meanings in different places in John. This is an illustration of why the context is so important. In John 1 it is clear from the context that the Word spoken of in verses 1-18 is God himself.
The above example points to the danger of word studies. That is, studying the way a word is used in different places and coming to conclusions about what is taught in the Bible by the use of that word. Word study, however, can be very helpful if it is done with reference to the context in which the word appears, each time it is used in the Bible. This is the way the good Bible dictionaries and lexicons study words. Word studies can tell us about different ways a word is used in the Bible. When studying a text they can give us some direction on how to look for the meaning that a word takes in the passage that we are studying.
Early in my pilgrimage as a Bible student, I remember doing a word study on the Greek word prōtotokos, which is usually translated “firstborn.” Some who deny the deity of Christ use texts in which this word is used for Jesus as evidence that Jesus also had a beginning just like us (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:6). But when you see the way this word is used in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) and the NT you realise that sometimes the word has the idea of pre-eminence. For example, Colossians 1:18 refers to Jesus as the firstborn (prōtotokos) from the dead, but we know that he was not the first person to rise from the dead. Lazarus and the widows son at Nain rose before he did. There the word is used with the idea of pre-eminence. This is the meaning it takes in Colossians 1:15 and Hebrews 1:6 also.
These same principles apply to the use of cross references. By using cross references—that is, using one text to interpret another—we could end up with a very different interpretation to what the author originally intended. Actually, this could be an instance of laziness and disrespect for a text. Without grappling with the text to find its meaning we are going elsewhere to a text of which we know the meaning and we are imposing that meaning on the text we are studying. When God wants to teach us something new, we are going to something old. If we keep doing this, we can miss out on some of the teachings in the Bible. We don’t hear what the passage we are studying says because we hear so loudly what another passage is saying. We must, then, not let other passages direct our interpretation of a given text.
However, there are times when cross references enrich Bible study. Cross references may point us to a truth in the Bible, which makes us ask, “Is this similar to what the author is saying in the text we are studying?” This does not direct our interpretation. It only gives us an idea that may be worth pursuing.
The nouns, paraklētos and paraklēsis and the verb parakaleō sometimes refer to helping (John 16:7), sometimes to encouraging or comforting (Phil. 2:1), sometimes to interceding (1 John 2:1) and sometimes to exhorting (Acts 2:40). Sometimes it is difficult to choose what is meant. So when the ministry of Barnabas in Antioch is described in Acts (Acts 11:23) which some translations interpret his work as encouraging while others interpret it as exhorting. All this shows how important it is for us to look at the context.
I think the greatest value of cross references is that it adds to our understanding of a theme that is found in the text we are studying. Once we have carefully studied a text and come to a conclusion regarding its meaning, we can look at cross references to see what more we can learn about this topic, not about this text. This is the main purpose for which I use cross references. I usually go to cross references after I have completed my basic study of a text. In addition to the cross references we get in our reference Bibles, I recommend an excellent resource The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge by R. A. Torrey (Hendrickson). This resource is also found in several of the popular Bible software programmes.