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?
Although preaching should be the church’s primary means of delivering Bible teaching (see 2 Tim. 4:1–2), 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 a lightbulb to turn on in those minds by itself.
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 both a deep understanding of the passage (steps 1–4 below) and carefully-composed questions that are “simple yet succulent”—simple enough to be understood right away, and yet succulent enough to attract an answer, because no one enjoys answering dry, overly-basic questions (see step 5).
Step 1: Pray
The first thing to do is to pray for God’s help, because without it we cannot expect to understand 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 carefully about it, 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, which is the author’s intended meaning at the time of writing. In order to apply the passage correctly to our own time and place, we must first gain 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 form the memory-aid CRAMS, which is fitting because God crams Bible passages full of meaning).
Ask yourself: what is the Context, i.e. the background meaning supplied by the text surrounding the passage? For example, Isaiah 53:3 refers back to 49:6-7, which refers back to 9:1-2. Those background connections are highly significant. Ultimately, the context of any single passage is the whole of the rest of the Bible. Hebrews 11:17-19, for example, helps us understand Genesis 22:10. Isaiah 8:14, Psalm 118:21-26, and Daniel 2:34-35 help us understand Matthew 21:44. So Bible study leaders should strive 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 emphasize something important (“Just don’t forget what I said earlier about feeding the cat”). Ephesians 2:1-10 and Matthew 5:17-18 are examples of passages with significant repetition.
Ask yourself: does the author of the passage state what the Aim is, either the purpose of the passage itself or the purpose of the book in which the passage is found? If so, that will be very relevant! John 20:30-31 is a famous example, which helps us understand the whole of John’s gospel. Psalm 73:1 sets out the teaching point that the rest of the psalm explores. In 1 Peter 5:12, Peter explains why he’s written the letter; Jude does the same in Jude 3; John does the same in 1 John 5:13. Exodus 9:15-16 reveals God’s purpose in the chapters dealing with Pharaoh and the plagues. Genesis 50:20 gives us the right perspective on all the Joseph narratives. We won’t always be able to find a verse that reveals the aim of a passage, but when a purpose statement is present, it’s important to give it due weight.
Ask yourself: what is the Mood of this passage? If a passage has a cheerful mood you should expect a joyful, encouraging meaning. A passage with a sad, melancholy mood will probably have a meaning that draws attention to our sinfulness or reveals something of the world’s fallenness. 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 wouldn’t be right to highlight the negative side of “selling all you have.”
Ask yourself: does the Structure of the passage help to reveal its meaning? Just as we split up knives, forks and spoons in a kitchen drawer to avoid confusion, so authors often split up the different points they’re trying to make. Noticing the structure helps us understand these different points. 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. Another structure that’s used by Bible writers is “sandwiching” or “bookending.” This is when the same point is stated at the beginning and end of a passage, thereby indicating that all the material within the bookends should be considered in light of those bookends (see, for instance, Matthew 5:3-10, where the same phrase, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” is found at the beginning and end of the passage).
Step 3: Bridge the Gap
Once we’ve 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, which must be bridged with great care. To bridge the gap properly we need to have 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. When we’re studying an Old Testament passage, our objective will be to find truths and principles that are still meaningful and valid in our own new covenant period of salvation history (see diagram).
Step 4: Apply in a Gospel-Friendly Way
A Bible study must consider the potential impact of the passage on our lives. God wants our lives to be transformed (Romans 12:2). But there’s a danger here. People can often slide into a “works righteousness” approach to their relationship with God. We easily find ourselves thinking that doing good works is the way to gain God’s favor. While it is true that our good works please God, and our sins grieve him, these victories and defeats do not alter the fact that we’re saved by grace, through the righteousness God gives us when we trust in the atoning blood shed by Jesus (Romans 3:21-4:8). 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. We seek to obey everything Jesus has commanded (Matthew 28:20) because we love him and want to bring him glory, not to store up salvation merit points. A final thing to keep in mind is that the Bible transforms us not only when it specifically addresses our human situation (through commands to obey, promises to claim, etc.), but also when it reveals truths about God and his character. These truths will fill us with fresh praise and adoration, and they will shape our relationship with God.
Step 5: Compose “Simple Yet Succulent” Questions
There are two types of Bible study 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?” That kind of question forces people’s eyes down towards the page. Significance questions, on the other hand, deal with issues raised by the text, and could be termed “eyes up” questions. One useful exercise when preparing Bible study questions is to put (O) for observation or (S) for significance 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, 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 people to 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 themselves to do the work of getting into the pen. In a similar way, our questions should guide people towards the main points of the text, and yet the questions shouldn’t give away the answers, because that would stop people thinking for themselves about what God is saying in his word.
When 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. Put yourself in the shoes of the people in your study. Imagine what it feels like to be asked the questions you’ve prepared—maybe even say those questions out loud to yourself in a kind of role play exercise. A long and complicated question will leave people bamboozled and unable to answer, e.g.: “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?” And yet a too-easy question such as “What does Jesus say in verse 3?” will also lead to nothing but crickets in the background. No one has an appetite for answering a question like that.
One way to ask an observation question which has some succulence is to say, “How would you put what Jesus says in verse 3 into your own words?” or, “How would you summarize Paul’s request in verses 3 and 4?” That kind of question 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 Instagram pictures would you take to capture what happens?” Or, “If you had to come up with an eye-catching headline for this passage, what would it be?” Or, “If this passage were a movie, what would its title be?” 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 combining observation with significance can make a question more succulent: “What’s the most important thing that happens in this passage?” The Bible contains many surprises, and a question such as, “What’s the surprise in verses 13-14?” 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 answers 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, 7 Mistakes We Make in Women’s Bible Study
If everything that everyone says in your Bible study group is greeted with a thoughtful nod and implied approval, your study times are dangerous. In that kind of group, false teachers such as those described in 2 Peter 3:16 would have an open door for introducing their errors. 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 necessary.
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 applying the Bible passage to 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 road of the study. A Bible study is badly inadequate if it doesn’t include an application question such as, “What difference should this make to our lives in New York this week?”
I’m a study leader who’s always busy. I don’t have time for much preparation. Can’t I just show up on the day and trust God to make good things happen?
It’s fair to say that small group Bible studies are often poorly led, even when the leader is thoroughly sound theologically and gifted as a Bible teacher. This is probably because it’s easy to avoid a shockingly bad experience, since everyone usually comes to a Bible study with a positive attitude, and they’ll 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. But 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). 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. Spend one hour reflecting on the passage, consulting a commentary and scribbling down some rough questions. Come back later (maybe on a different day) and spend a second hour polishing those questions. Time spent prayerfully studying God’s word and preparing questions is time very well spent.