Have you been teaching a Bible study for years? Are you ready for a break, but no one is willing to replace you? I know many people feel like they’re stuck leading the same group they have been leading for years, even though they really need a year or two off, because no one will agree to teach the class/group. However, if you haven’t trained other members so that they feel comfortable leading a Bible study, the answer is probably going to continue to be no.
Instead, you need to try a different approach. Offer a Bible study leadership group, or simply use this and the following few studies in your regular Bible study group like Danville First Presbyterian Church. Invite everyone to come, without any obligation to teach a group. Once you’ve trained people on the basics of how to lead a Bible study group, they’ll realize it’s not so scary…and hopefully say yes. Here’s the first study in the series—how to read the Bible.
Intro, what we’re trying to accomplish, what our goal is.
- Learning to read the Bible as well as possible and to be prepared for a Bible Study
- The ultimate goal of this course is for you to be able to do a Bible Study on any topic and do it well. This includes taking care of the people you’re teaching and learning to lead, pray for those you’re teaching, and handle problem people.
- It would be awesome if at the end of this series any of you wanted to start a bible study. (I should also let you know that I’m going to be recording it for those who couldn’t make it and for future leaders).
- Where do you guys think you are? What would you like to get out of it?
How to read the Bible better:
1, Best strategies:
Context: A text without a context is a pretext. In other words, if you don’t have at least some idea of what’s going on, you’re almost certain to misinterpret; like overhearing part of a conversation, you just don’t know what’s going on without the context, and any conclusions you draw from it are suspect.
Reading for genre: Another important thing to note about reading the Bible is that it’s not just one book, but 66 of them. This means that some of them are written with vastly different purposes in mind, and to some extent this needs to be taken into account when we read the Bible. After all, you don’t read history the same way you do fiction, right? In the same way, the historical Gospel accounts should be read differently than the poetry of the Psalms, or the (frequently conditional) prophecies of the OT.
Using the Bible to interpret the Bible: A final strategy that is very important is using the Scripture to interpret the Scripture. Basically what this implies is that any particular verse you’re studying doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and even though it may seem to say getting vengeance on your enemies is AOK, we know from the rest of the Bible that, well, you’re wrong about that.
Shellfish example: Paul where he talks about the law no longer applying to us as Christians (Gal 5:18)… thus exposing the fairly annoying arguments about how hypocritical Christians are to apply the Bible in sexual ethics but not in the eating of shellfish.
Mistakes to avoid:
Reading present culture into past circumstances: example, in Gal 4, “son” isn’t a sexist term, but quite the opposite, a sign that “in Christ there is no male or female”. Only sons got an inheritance, you see.
Misunderstanding idioms (gaze on their nakedness, uncover the feet – Ham, Ruth)
How to prepare for a Bible Study:
We’ll talk about how to select a text later, and for now just focus on how to prepare once already know what you’re studying. Obviously, pray for the Holy Spirit’s help in understanding the text before you get started. He’s the author (by inspiration) of the Bible, so presumably he’s in a good position to help you understand it.
Get the Context Locked Down
First, be sure to read up on the context of the text. Most good study Bibles will have an intro to a book that will give you a good idea of the particular author’s intentions or what was going on in the community at the time of the writing. It’s important to have some familiarity with this to guide you in writing your questions and allow you to help yourself and your folks from making mistakes about the meaning of the text. Knowing the context is going to help inform every angle of your understanding of the text.
Second, if you’re studying a single chapter, read the chapter before and the chapter after your text. What I mean is read through 3 chapters at once to get a good feel for the whole picture of what is going on. Even if you’re studying a particular Gospel parable for instance, this is still useful, as these things often go in groups (3 parables in a row about heaven, one random one about something else, then another parable about heaven? Maybe you should rethink the supposedly “random” one, for example.).
What we’re trying to do here is answer questions like, “Who is the audience?” and “What is the major goal of the speaker/writer here? What do they want?” Once we have a handle on the big picture, we can go small.
Now that we’re ready to start digging deeper, the first thing to do is to read the text in multiple translations. However, it’s really not enough to read the text in just any 2 or 3 translations. It’s important to pick translations that are different enough to really get a sense of what’s going on with the different possible interpretations.
Different translations have different philosophies of how to translate. They fall basically into 3 groups: 1st, the inflexible translation, that is pretty darn close to the Greek, but sometimes so much so that you get lost or misunderstand because they use artificial language for English. The NASB and KJV are examples of this type. 2nd, the Functional Translations are Bibles like the TNIV and NRSV that try their best to replace Greek and Hebrew idioms with English ones, and are more focused on transmitting meaning than just the words. 3rd are the Paraphrases which are almost entirely focused on getting the meaning across in understandable ways, and isn’t very concerned about adding extra words that aren’t in the text or flat rewriting stuff. These can be a good way to help you interpret what the text is saying and include translations like the TLB and the Message.
The translations I recommend are … TNIV, NRSV, NASB, TLB or Message.
Read the Footnotes:
This is sort of a footnote to reading other translations, but you definitely want to not skip the footnotes. It’s important to know a couple of terms for this and what they mean (in other words, there are different kinds of footnotes). Sometimes a footnote is just because the way it’s stated in Greek could be taken more than one way, for instance, Jesus’ reply to Pilot could either mean, “You said so” or “Yes, I am” (approx.). That was probably deliberate wordplay, and either is acceptable.
The second type of footnote is when the original text is actually in question. The way this works is that the Bible we have today isn’t just one book that’s been passed down exactly as it currently is for 2000 years, but a combination of all of the knowledge we have, including 1000s of complete and partial ancient manuscripts. The OT is mainly based on something called the Masoretic Text, which dates from around the 11th century. It’s a Jewish text copied and handed down for generations. The older books were seen as less valuable, because the scribes were that confident in their ability to perfectly copy the text. So when you see that term in a foot note, that’s what it’s referring to. Two other major translations we have of the OT are the Syriac and the Septuagint. The Septuagint was the daily Bible of the people in the NT (those living outside of Palistine). We have copies of it many hundreds of years older than that of the Masoretic, but its translation was somewhat spotty, done by 70 scholars, some of whom were more NLT, and some more NASB. In cases where the Septuagint makes more sense or the Masoretic is missing information you’ll usually have a footnote saying that.
The third type of footnote is when something changed in the text over time. Ex of Jesus saying, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” In these cases, the translators are simply making their best call as to what’s going on from the available evidence, but really, there’s a question about which way it might go.
The final type of footnote is quiet easy; usually referencing a related passage or quoted passage in the Bible. In the NT, you’ll note that frequently the quoted passage and the original passage don’t line up. That’s because these passages are usually quoted from the common language OT of the day, the Sept.
In preparing for a Bible study, I would only use commentaries in some cases, not all. Most of the time a good study Bible and your common sense will help considerably. Sometimes a commentary can really illuminate what is going on, however, or shed light on some cultural idioms that are just difficult to grasp. My general rule is that after 15 minutes of struggling with it, I still have no clue as to what’s going on, it’s to the commentaries I go. Good free online commentaries: Calvin’s and IVP on Bible Gateway.
The questions you ask, if they’re not provided for you, most easily follow these 3 steps.
First, what is going on in the story? What does Jesus say to the lepers? Who is Paul talking about when he says, “I wish they would emasculate themselves?” These questions serve 2 purposes; they should be relatively easy to answer so you can “warm up” people and get them used to answering questions, but at the same time they should also set up your upcoming questions or make sure that everyone understands what’s going on if there’s something easy to miss you want them to see. Closed ended questions are ok here.
Second, what is the meaning of the text in its context? Why does Paul want someone to, um, harm themselves? What’s the big deal? What significance is there that the lepers who turned around to thank Jesus were Samaritans? These questions are intended to get people to engage with the text on a more complex level, and should be open ended. You’re of course setting up the final set of questions, the application questions.
Lastly, what do these texts, now that we understand them, mean for us today? How should we treat outsiders? How do we as church people treat God for all of his blessings? Do we turn away and forget to thank him? (for Paul) What are some ways that we rely on works over grace in modern days? If trying to save yourself by works is worse than being maimed where it counts, what steps can we take to make sure that we’re relying solely on grace and not works for salvation? These questions are where the real “meaty” discussions can take place, and it’s good to ask opinion questions, set up hypothetical scenarios, or just ask simple, open ended questions like, “What are the implications of that for our lives today?”
How to make it interesting:
As you develop questions, you’ll also want to consider keeping people awake ;). Controversial or counterintuitive questions can result in lively discussions!
- Look for things that are “common understandings” (eg, heaven is whatever you want it to be) that you can bust. There are usually no shortage of these.
- Look for apparent or true conflicts within the text. Conflicts are inherently interesting. (eg, Matt 7:1-6)
Look for places where you can teach something interesting learned in your research that helps to explain what’s going on from a cultural, historical, or contextual basis