Sometimes Christians approach group Bible study the same way they discuss any other subject. They mainly contribute what they already know. In fact one Christian leader observed “some people think they’re thinking when they’re just rearranging their prejudices.” That may seem a bit harsh, but can often be true.
A number of factors influence this situation. One is that many of our experiences have left us accustomed to listening to someone else, forming a point of view and being satisfied with that. So we end up repeating what others have told us rather than stating convictions acquired through a critical analysis of the Bible and people’s opinions. It makes sense. After all, we all had to start our Christian walk by learning from others. But remaining in this habit all too often means that our convictions develop by repeating what others have said until those words become convictions!
Cultural conventions also affect group dynamics: shame associated with giving “wrong” answers, the taboo of questioning leaders, the belief that everyone’s opinion is above criticism, to list just a few.
Whatever the source, many factors often keep us from unleashing the Scripture’s truth in a way that allows God to drive it home and applying it to our lives as He wants to do. The result too often is that people remain Spiritually immature, yet think they are not. However, focusing our method of study on just a few simple concepts, we can go a long way to improving the situation.
Core Concepts of Effective Bible Study – Three Words.
The core concepts of effective Bible study, whether done in private or in a group, are simple to grasp, though require practice to master. They can be summarized in just three words: Observation, Interpretation, Application. That sounds easy enough, however any use we make of them will fail unless we first grasp three things about them: their goal, their sequence, and their definition. I’m going to just introduce each so you get the idea.
The Goal of Effective Bible Study
Why do you study the Bible? This isn’t as trivial as it sounds. It deeply affects the outcome. Whatever your reasons are, God’s purpose in communicating to you is to bring you into an ongoing relationship of trust in Him and to transform your values, character and skill of recognizing and choosing good until they are the same as His. Nothing less. Certainly part of this transformation process involves the examination and acquisition of the factual content of His Word and the principles it contains. But if that is all you are after, you may find one day that, in all other respects, you are resisting what God is working to accomplish in your life.
Putting it simply, the first requirement in effective study of God’s Word is to approach it with a humble willingness to be discipled. Not just taught, discipled. A disciple is one who submits to a master in order to become like the master in thought, word and deed. Our master is Jesus.
This means being open to change. It means being open to being impressed, not by a teacher’s oratory, or the emotion of a moment, but by an inner focus that seems to draw us to certain words in the text, a principle or something someone said as if it were memorably highlighted. When that happens, be open to investigate further, especially in prayer. Does such an insight come at every study session? No. It can sometimes take many sessions to absorb the preparation for the moment when God makes something clear to you about us. But without a true, constant, prayerful openness, we are unlikely to see it even then.
The Sequence is Critical
I find that many people read the Bible as if the objective is to immediately deduce the moral of the story much like they would when reading a child’s book. This usually leads to misunderstanding and misapplying the Bible. The root problem with this approach is that it prematurely jumps to the end of the process without going through the work of the first steps. It’s like building a house by starting with the paint.
The order of Bible study is extremely important. It takes practice and discipline to stick to. Observation comes first, followed by interpretation. Only when we have the correct interpretation are then we ready to apply God’s Word in a way that accomplishes what God wants to do. I cannot over emphasize the importance of following this order.
So Here are the Steps
While observation is the foundation of the process, I want to briefly describe interpretation first so you will see why we must force ourselves to begin with good observations.
Interpretation involves finding what was communicated to the readers or hearers in the day in which it was written with the objective of determining the authoritative, timeless principle(s) that the words on the page of the Bible are clearly trying to communicate. To find them we ask questions like “What did these words clearly communicate about God, man, or nature when they were written?” and “What did God clearly say?” The trick, if it can be said there is one, is to find the principles the Biblical words are plainly and logically trying to present rather than those that represent what the words might say or what others find hidden in them.
I had a teacher who drilled this into me with an exercise. Try it yourself sometime. Take a paragraph from the Bible and write down 25 things it could be teaching. Just brainstorm. Then, since some ideas will overlap, condense these down to about 7 statements of separate ideas. Then choose 3 that are clearly and authoritatively taught by the words on the page. Then look for the one principle that you could say with confidence the text clearly impels us to accept. Imagine God will review the results.
Not all texts will yield up their principles easily. Some need to be seen in a much larger context. However, it is only after we have confidently determined what the text before us does and does not say, can we look at larger themes and connections that span many parts of the Bible. Don’t be in a rush.
James said “Let not many of you become teachers, my brothers, knowing as such we shall incur a stricter judgment.”1 When I tell someone this is what a passage teaches, I’m in effect saying “thus saith the Lord”. When any of us do that, but certainly people who impact groups, God will hold us accountable for what we said and our motive in saying it. For this and other reasons, it is crucial that we all learn to determine what God has taught, not just what we’ve heard or what sounds good to say.
I’ve just given you the idea of what interpretation is. To do it accurately, we must incorporate a number of critical principles that I will leave for another time to explore.
Correct interpretation can only be built upon a solid foundation of facts. Collecting those facts is what we call observation.
Quite often, especially when we are young Christians, we don’t understand the words on the page before us and we interpret them through the lens of our church tradition and the opinions of others. That’s ok for a start, but eventually we need to be able to learn the skill, to the best of our ability, of grasping the truth from the words on the page for ourselves. Thorough observation is a key factor in releasing us from, or confirming what others have taught.
First, carefully observe what the actual words on the page are. Often we don’t see those words as plainly as we should.
Consider James 1:2: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter all kinds of trials/temptations…” Read that again. “Consider it what?” Is that what your life is like? Why not? It’s plain enough. Did you really see that command? Do you really understand it? It’s so easy to skim over things that just don’t seem to be common to our experience isn’t it?
Next, play detective. My simple rule is this. Place yourself in the scene and look around as you were just dropped in a foreign country. Use your imagination to ask questions about geography, weather, politics, culture, language, customs, clothes, plants, religious beliefs. Use all the resources at your disposal. Then look for the patterns in the words; repeated words and phrases, play on words, especially logical structure. Learn to use as many resources as you have available.
A primary task is to find and follow the logical flow of thought of the original author. I find outlines in commentaries are usually a catalog, or index, of contents possibly run through the filter of someone’s interpretation of the Biblical text and seldom reveal or track the Biblical author’s logical flow of thought and literary organization. Do not rely on them heavily in this area of investigation.
Certainly thorough observation requires building on the work of many others who have accomplished an amazing amount of investigation into history, archeology, linguistics and literary analysis. Build a library of their works to refer to. Much of their work is now available in electronic form and is far less expensive than 20 years ago.
The Bible reveals an infinite being called God, infinite in time, knowledge, wisdom and creativity among other things. He is flawlessly pure in heart, love, and justice. Just how well can he be known by any man? Much more to the point, are you sure you are learning all He is trying to get through to you? Maybe some of life’s circumstances are actually arranged by God to cause you to grow beyond your own expectations but you’re not getting the lesson because you don’t see His Word as a lens through which to look at your actions and thoughts.
Once we have done the work of observation, and interpretation we are ready to discuss an appropriate response. What should we think and do in our culture and our life-time? The answer may require serious value changes. Those will certainly lead to changes in our actions. I find that this takes a lot of discussion and accountability with people I trust. Serious change is never easy.
It is difficult for one person to excel at this process. So group studies should be like a joint task force where everyone is contributes and critiques others so that the group accomplish more than an individual. Frankly this is hard to do in Western culture because we are so individually independent. But Christians are part of a family that is eventually going to be drawn closer than any family or group in this present world. Get used to it.
An effective “Bible Study” should never be thought of as a time of Bible analysis aimed at just finding “truth”. Nor should it be a time to simply discuss our lives and opinions. An effective Bible Study requires that The Truth meet life. It must affect our values and thinking, that is, transform our lives. Usually that process will create conflict in a group. No one measures up. And we all have different ways we incorporate God’s truth into our lives. So every group must embrace healthy conflict. That requires a safe, caring environment. A safe environment is one where people trust others not to condemn, but to accept and love them, even if that involves saying uncomfortable things. This is the only way we can grow to full maturity. There is only a limited amount of growth that can take place in our private study. Eventually we must interact with others and learn to work in an environment where we are contributing to each other.
The bottom line is a question I’d like to ask you. What is your commitment to God and to God’s people in God’s goal of bringing all to maturity?
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”2