What is a Bible study?
The term ‘Bible study’ could refer to lots of different activities. But it’s commonly used to describe a fairly small group of people (a dozen or fewer) getting together to study a particular passage of the Bible, under the oversight of a study leader using a question-and-answer method. That’s what ‘Bible study’ means throughout this post.
Why do a Bible study instead of listening to someone give a talk?
It’s easy to defend preaching as a method of Bible instruction, because it’s so often exemplified in the Bible itself. It’s harder, however, to find biblical examples of Bible studies. But some of Jesus’ question-and-answer sessions in the temple precincts look rather like Bible studies. And of course we don’t need to see something being modeled in the Bible for it to be a legitimate thing for believers to do (think of all the perfectly acceptable jobs that aren’t actually exemplified in the Scriptures). While Sunday sermons should be a church’s primary means of delivering Bible teaching, a Bible study is a good additional method. Its special value is that it gives people the experience of discovering truths from the Bible themselves, rather than being told those truths by someone else. You could say that a sermon gives everyone a pot of honey to eat from, while a Bible study encourages people to go to the beehive and gather honey for themselves. Or to use another picture, a sermon shines a flashlight into people’s minds, while in a Bible study the aim is for lightbulbs to turn on in those minds by themselves.
I’ve been invited to lead a Bible study. How should I prepare?
As said above, Bible study leaders use a question-and-answer method. For this to be done well, the study leader needs first, a deep understanding of the passage (see steps 1 – 4 below); and second, carefully-composed questions that are “simple and yet succulent”: simple enough to be understood right away but succulent enough to attract an answer, because no one enjoys answering overly-basic questions (see step 5).
[Step 1: Pray] The first thing to do is to pray for God’s help, because without it people’s minds will remain closed to the Bible’s meaning: “Then he opened their minds so that they could understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45).
[Step 2: Look Closely] Next we’ll need to spend a significant amount of time looking closely at the passage, thinking it over and consulting resources such as the ESV Study Bible and a commentary (try this site for recommended commentaries on Bible books). Paul says to Timothy: “Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this” (2 Timothy 2:7). We can’t expect the latter unless we do the former. Begin by seeking the original meaning, i.e. the intended meaning for the original readers/hearers. Later we’ll get on to applying the passage to our own time and place, but to do that faithfully we first need a clear understanding of the originally intended meaning – we need to “go back to Corinth.” Five key words to aid this process are Context, Repetition, Aim, Mood, and Structure (the first letters of each word form the memory-aid CRAMS, which is fitting because God crams Bible passages full of meaning). Ask yourself: what is the context, the surrounding material for this passage? For example, Isaiah 53:3 refers back to 49:6-7 and those two verses refer back to 9:1-2. Those connections are meaningful because they establish that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 is the same person as the world-ruling Messiah of Isaiah 9. Ultimately the context of any one passage is the whole of the rest of the Bible. For example Hebrews 11:17-19 helps us understand Genesis 22:10. So Bible study leaders should be striving to grow in their understanding of all the Scriptures. The better we understand the Bible as a whole, the better we’ll understand individual passages within it. Ask yourself: is there any repetition in the passage? People generally repeat themselves when they’re trying to communicate something important (“Just don’t forget to feed the cat”; “You must have told me that seven times by now”). For example, there are some significant repetitions in Ephesians 2:1-10. Ask yourself: does the author of the passage say anywhere what the aim is: the purpose of the book in which the passage is found? If so, that will need to be kept in mind. John 20:30-31 is a famous example, which helps us understand the whole of John’s gospel. Another example is Jude 3. Ask yourself: what is the mood of this passage? If a passage has a cheerful mood then you should expect a joyful, encouraging meaning. A passage with a sad, melancholy mood will probably have a meaning that challenges our sinfulness or tells us something about the fallenness of our world. An example of the latter is Luke 17:11-19, which describes a miraculous healing and yet closes on a melancholy note – which would need to be acknowledged in the study. In contrast Matthew 13:44-45 is a joyful passage, and so it clearly wouldn’t be right to focus on the negative side of “selling all you have.” Ask yourself: does the structure of the passage help to reveal its meaning? Just as we separate knives, forks and spoons in a kitchen drawer to avoid confusion, so authors separate the different points they’re trying to make. In Psalm 19, for example, the author makes one point in the first six verses, another point in verses 7-11, and a third point in verses 12-14. Noticing the structure helps us to follow the author’s logic.
[Step 3: Bridge the Gap] Once we have understood – with God’s help – the original meaning, we’re in a position to work out the meaning for today – but watch out! There’s a gap between the first readers and ourselves today, which needs to be bridged with great care. To bridge the gap properly involves a good grasp of the successive periods of salvation history, and the differences between them. God’s requirements for his people change from one period to the next: under the new covenant, for example, we’re permitted to eat bacon, whereas doing so in earlier periods of salvation history would have disqualified someone from membership of God’s people. Even when reading the New Testament we need to be sensitive to some cultural differences that might alter the implications for our own day. For instance, should Paul’s command to “greet one another with a holy kiss” be taken literally in a hand-shaking or head-bowing culture?
[Step 4: Apply in a Gospel-Friendly Way] If a Bible study doesn’t consider the potential impact of the passage on our lives, it’s just a purposeless exercise in intellectual stimulation. God wants our lives to be transformed (Romans 12:2). But there is a danger we need to watch out for when it comes to application. People can often fall into a “works righteousness” approach to their relationship with God, i.e. we get it into our heads that doing good works is the way to gain acceptance with God. We must never forget that we’re saved by grace, through the righteousness God gives us when we trust in the atoning blood shed by Jesus on the cross. So we must apply the Bible to our lives in a gospel-friendly way that doesn’t undermine the good news of God’s free gift of righteousness. As we learn to obey everything Jesus has commanded (Matthew 28:20), we do so to bring him glory, not to earn enough merit to be saved. A final point to keep in mind is that sometimes a passage will transform us not by giving us a command to obey but by revealing a truth about God that fills us with fresh praise and adoration.
[Step 5: Compose "Simple yet Succulent" Questions] There are two types of question: observation questions and significance questions. Observation questions have answers that are gettable from the text. They could be described as “eyes down” questions. For example, an observation question in a study on Mark 9:1-14 (the transfiguration) would be: “What three extraordinary things happen in this passage?” A question like that forces the eyes downwards. Significance questions deal with issues raised by the text, and could be termed “eyes up” questions. One useful exercise, when writing study questions, is to put (O) or (S) after each question. A good rule of thumb is that there should be more (O) questions than (S) questions overall, because there’s always a lot of information to take in from the passage. Remember that the objective is for people to gather honey from the hive themselves, rather than receiving a pot of honey from the study leader. That process depends on (O) questions. We want to give people enough work to do themselves that they experience the joy of gaining understanding through their own God-facilitated reflection on the text. So, to use a different image, our questions should be like sheepdogs herding sheep into a pen. Sheepdogs prevent sheep from wandering off-track. Yet they don’t pick the sheep up and throw them into the pen, they try to get the sheep to do the work of getting into the pen themselves. In a similar way our questions should be clear and precise so that people don’t wander away from the main points of the text, and yet the questions shouldn’t make it so obvious what the desired answer is that people don’t need to think for themselves. For further advice on composing succulent questions, i.e. questions that are juicy enough to make everyone want to answer them, see the next section.
Whenever I ask a question, tumbleweed drifts across the room. What’s gone wrong?
This may be because your questions aren’t simple enough, or they’re simple but not succulent. Think yourself into the shoes of the people in your study. Imagine what it feels like to be asked the questions you’re asking. A long and complicated question such as, “In verse 3 how does Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees contrast with what we saw earlier when Jesus was on the other side of the Sea of Galilee after he healed the man with leprosy?” will leave people bamboozled and unable to answer. And yet an overly-basic question such as, “What does Jesus say in verse 3?” will also lead to nothing but crickets in the background. People will be thinking, “Please. The last time I was asked a question like that was in third grade.” So they won’t want to answer. One way to ask an observation question which has some succulence is to say, “How would you put what Jesus says in verse 3 in your own words?” That will bring about the desired observation while making the question more attractive to answer. People often respond well to an invitation to be creative, such as, “If you were present at this scene with a smartphone, what three Instagram pictures would you take to capture what happens?” Or (to aid observation of the mood of a passage), “What kind of background music would you choose for the events in verses 1-5?” Sometimes attaching a significance question to an observation question can make it more succulent: “What’s the most important word in verse 8, and why?” The Bible contains many surprises, and a question such as, “What’s the surprise in verses 3-6?” will often work well. It’s also worth keeping in mind that sometimes things will move along better if you give information to the group yourself. We shouldn’t feel that everything needs to be communicated via questions and answers. One final way to get rid of tumbleweed moments is to prepare “supplementaries” in advance, that is, an alternative question in case the initial question doesn’t get a response. If you have supplementary questions up your sleeve the awkward silences won’t last for long.
Is it OK to tell someone they’re mistaken?
A post on the Gospel Coalition website answered that question wisely:
I remember sitting in one Bible study where the leader compassionately announced, “Not only are there no stupid questions here, there are no wrong answers.” Her goal, of course, was to put women at ease and promote uninhibited discussion. She rightly wanted the women who didn’t know much about the Scriptures to feel comfortable expressing their opinions. However, in the process she jettisoned the objective truth of the Bible. In fact, there are right and wrong interpretations. Group Bible study is a place where we search together for the right interpretations—the truth of the passage. (Keri Folmar)
If everything that everyone says in your Bible study group is greeted with a thoughtful nod and polite approval, your study times are dangerous. Because in that kind of group false teachers such as those described in 2 Peter 3:16 could introduce their errors and lead people astray. All Bible interpretations are not equally valid and acceptable, and it’s the task of the study leader to make that clear to the group. Sometimes a friendly yet firm correction – together with a clear explanation – is in order.
We get sidetracked a lot, and we rarely have time for application. Any suggestions?
The Bible is meant to be transformative. In our studies we must reach the point of discussing what impact a Bible passage should have on our lives, while keeping everything to a reasonable time. We simply don’t have the luxury of going off down every intriguing byway and so we’ll need to steer people politely back to the main pathway of the study.
I’m a study leader who’s super busy and I just don’t have time for all of this preparation. Can’t I roll up on the day and trust God to make good things happen?
It’s fair to say that small group Bible studies are often badly led, even when the leader is thoroughly sound theologically and gifted as a Bible teacher. This is probably because it’s fairly easy to avoid a shockingly bad experience, since everyone usually comes to a Bible study with a positive attitude and they will chip in with helpful contributions. We feel confident that we won’t have an embarrassing failure, and so we don’t safeguard the time necessary for proper preparation. Yet with Bible studies as with so much else in life, if we fail to prepare we prepare to fail. A study might not feel like a disaster and yet nonetheless fall far short of the burning-heart producing, eye-opening, joy-kindling experience that it could otherwise have been. Bible studies like that will generally only happen when the leader is “prayed up and prepped up.” Jesus says, “On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word” (Matthew 12:36), and so how much more will we give account for those potentially life-changing times when we led a group of his beloved people in a Bible study? A good target to aim for is at least two clear hours of prayerful preparation for each study.