Becoming a better reader of the Bible:
An approach to Bible Study preparation
We have about 4 different names for small group Bible studies at my church. I mostly call them
growth groups, and I regard them as the backbone of the congregations. What follows is part of
training I ran focussed on the core of the activity of such groups: helping others engage with what
the Bible says. Ben Underwood is Associate Minister at St Matthew’s Shenton Park.
Pastoring through helping others read the Bible well.
Since pastors teach the Bible as a central act of leadership, the best resource we have to be pastors and teachers, is the word of God written in the Bible. Thus we read in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
16All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
This does not mean that to exercise pastoral oversight begins and ends with being teachers of Scripture. Not at all. Pastors must build others up by their example of life and govern the congregation, amongst other things. But the central, powerful and foundational service ministers perform is to help their people devote themselves to the teaching of the prophets and apostles, set down in the Old and New Testaments. This does mean that better growth group leaders strive to become better readers of the Bible, and more confident that they can prepare to lead other people in their reading of the Bible.
I have three stages I work through as I prepare to teach a passage. These stages are governed by three kinds of questions. First, the question: What is this text saying? Second: How does it connect to the big picture of the Bible? Third: So what? What does that have to do with me? How does this passage serve the big purpose of the Bible? I hope that whether you are writing a sermon or preparing to lead a Bible Study, this process will serve you well.
Stage I – What is this text saying?
Step 1 – Print it out broken up clause by clause in a couple of translations
I use Bible Gateway (www.biblegateway.com) to get the text of the passage I'm looking at. You can get many translations there. We use the New International Version at St Matthew's which aims for rendering the meaning of the original into readable English. I suggest the NASB (New American Standard Bible), which is often less readable, but sticks closer to the grammatical structure of the underlying language. It is the comparison and contrast of the two which is valuable. I get rid of the headings (and footnotes) and paste each translation into a Word doc, where I break up the passage clause by clause (even phrase by phrase) and put the two versions in facing columns on one page. I do this because it makes me look at the text freshly, it gives me opportunity to scrawl on the text, and to break it down to see how it all really hangs together.
Step 2 – Sit with the text, record your initial responses, and then discern its structure
The next task is to slow down with the text and sit with it. Read it over carefully. Write down questions that occur to you. Write down the things that strike, puzzle you, that you think will be controversial or important to people. Your first, fresh responses are important and you won't be able to recapture then once you have spent lots of time in the text, unless you have written them down, so you are drawn back to them again. Apart from noting whatever strikes you or occurs to you, you should begin to look for the structure of the passage. It should have a unity to it (otherwise someone has chosen the wrong boundaries of the passage). But this unity will be made up of sections and subsections which may be usefully divided off from one another, and which have their own unity. Different kinds of writing have different kinds of sub-sections. Narratives have scenes, which involve different characters and settings. Dialogue or speeches may form subsections. Epistles have paragraphs, where topics, images or arguments might set some parts of the passage off from others. Little transitions of address may indicate structure. Look for the places the readers are addressed ('Brothers and sisters…'). Look for changes in the kind of address to the reader (when does exposition give way to exhortation, for instance?) Poetry has stanzas. It is part of becoming a good reader that you can discern the structure of a passage well. I will often try to summarise my view on the structure of a passage by writing out an outline, such as this one for Genesis 4:1-16, a narrative:
1-2 Introduction to the sons of Eve
3-5a The offerings and their acceptance: Abel favoured, but Cain not favoured.
5b-7 Cain's angry response and the Lord's warning to him
8 Cain, mastered by sin, kills Abel his brother.
9-15 The Lord calls Cain to account and judges him
9-12 The Lord exposes Cain's guilt and condemns him to wander
13-15 Cain, despairing, protests that he'll be killed, and the Lord undertakes to protect him
16 Cain goes out to live in Nod
Apart from just mapping the structure, note the way the structure maps the development of thought, feeling, action, argument in the passage by word choice, dialogue, rhetorical device, reasoning, exhortation, evocation of sympathy or distaste, omission, repetition or whatever. Note what you think, and are being taught to think, how you feel, what you are being led to desire and what you are being called to do.
Step 3 – Answer two questions: What is this text about?
And: What is this text saying about what it is about?
Now comes the hard work of trying to express the unity at the heart of the whole passage. You must try to say what one thing this text is about, what is the single subject which it speaks about. Then you must say what this text says about its subject. There may be more than one thing that is said, but try to boil it down to as few things as possible. There should be no more things said of the subject than there are major divisions of the text. So our example text today should have one or at most two things said about its subject. What is said about the subject we call the predicate. You can join the subject and the predicate into a sentence which is called the Big Idea of the passage. Here's my attempt for Thess 4:13-5:11:
Subject: The hope of Christ's return
Predicate: encourages believers because that return will unite them with Christ and with believers now dead and because they will then receive salvation through Christ
and here's my attempt for Gen 4:1-16:
Subject: When Cain is mastered by sin
Predicate: the Lord judges and punishes him, but does not abandon him to despair.
Now this second Big Idea is not technically in the form of a subject and a predicate, but I think this sentence does attempt to capture what the story is materially about (i.e. what situation it discusses) and what it says about what it is about (i.e. what happens in that situation).
During stage I, it may be very helpful to consult some books. Not before you have done all you can to get to the end of at least step 2, but after you have done some hard thinking, it might help you to read what others have found. You might like to have some help in understanding the literary, historical or theological aspects of what features in the passage you are studying. Happily there are tons of books at all levels available to the reader who'd like to know more. If you are going to lead a growth group, I would encourage you to build up your library with reference books and commentaries.
Stage II - How does this text connect to the big picture and the big purpose of the Bible?
In the Bible we encounter hundreds of stories, characters, commands, prophecies, images, themes, promises, visions etc. How am I meant to read these things? Are they connected? Coherent? If so, how? And what are they supposed to do for me? When we read a passage of the Bible, we will make sense of it by understanding it as part of some bigger picture, and as useful for some purpose. The question is, what bigger picture, and for what bigger purpose? Here is a summary of the big picture of the Bible, as formulated by me:
The Bible reveals God's long and gracious faithfulness in redeeming his fallen creation through Jesus Christ.
And here is a summary of the big purpose of the Bible, as formulated by me:
The Bible is given to us that we might be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, and live by faith in him.
This summary of what the Bible is about is one gained by the careful reading and reflection of many people. It is the work of a lifetime to grasp for yourself, ever more thoroughly, directly and subtly, through reading and study, the big picture and the big purpose of the Bible. We can advance this understanding through getting to grips with Biblical Theology. Biblical Theology paints the big picture of the Bible through its unfolding story of promise and fulfillment. If you have not read a book like Alan Chapple's GPS: God's Plan for Salvation, or Vaughan Roberts' God's Big Picture or Graeme Goldsworthy's According to Plan or Gospel and Kingdom or Reading the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture then you should pick one of these and invest in what they teach you. They all introduce you to the idea that the Bible is a book relating how God's kingdom is promised to us and fulfilled among us at various times and in various ways.
The treasure is in the text
What I mean is that we should work from the particularity and detail of the passage to make connections, not from broad concepts. Every text will have its individual, characteristic contribution to understanding God's Kingdom and our salvation, and every text will say it in its own particular way, through the links between words, phrases, characters, images, details of passages throughout the Bible. Commentaries and concordances, chain references in Bible margins, or computer searches can help with discovering these links.
In doing this you discover that Abel has an interesting afterlife in the New Testament. In Luke 11:51, Jesus classes Abel among the prophets. This suggests Abel has something to say (despite having no recorded words in Scripture). Hebrews 11:4 underlines this idea that Abel speaks, locating what he has to say in the message that his actions encapsulate—that his offering and its favourable acceptance testify that the righteous are in the world, despite its fallenness. Hebrews understands Abel's faith as the hidden factor that made Abel's offering acceptable, but not Cain's, and that made his life a continuing word speaking to others. Finally, in Hebrews 11:24, it is the blood of Abel that speaks, and this accords with Gen 4:10, where Abel's blood calls to God (presumably for justice, but perhaps also a sheer lament for life lost). In Hebrews, Jesus' blood speaks a better word than Abel's blood. We should reflect on why that might be. Abel's blood cries for justice, for sinners to be called to account and punished. It is the occasion for exile, wandering and loss, as well as grief and fierce indignation. Jesus' blood cried for mercy, for sinners to be pardoned and washed clean. It is the occasion for reconciliation, homecoming and gain, accompanied by joy and great satisfaction.
In Gen 4 as it stands alone, Cain is the more richly considered character. But in the sweep of the Bible, Abel has just as much to say. When we add in the observation that his name probably means 'breath' in the sense of a passing puff of air, we can see him as the type of the righteous in the world – those who live by faith and yet are cut down by the wicked in their envy and anger at their own failure to receive God's approval. Such a righteous life speaks of the need for judgement, of the perversity of sin, of the hidden, inner reason for God's favour, of God's ear sharply attuned to the fate of the righteous. Jesus then provides God's answer to the call of Abel's blood, an answer that establishes justice and hope for both Abel, and even for Cain, the sinner, who may repent and trust in Christ.
Reflecting on the way Gen 4 sits in the whole story of the Bible we could even shift our take on the Big Idea of the story to read it in the wider context of the New Testament:
Subject: The blood of Abel
Predicate: was spilt when Cain could not master sin, reveals that the righteous will suffer at the hands of the wicked, and is answered by the shed blood of Jesus which speaks a better word for both the righteous and the sinner.
Connect to the Creed
Another way to connect a passage to the big picture and purpose of the Bible is to find a point of connection to a gospel summary like the Apostle's Creed. Creedal statements begin to give weight and proportion and 'system' to the whole teaching of the New Testament: they will help you see which dimensions of the gospel your passage articulates and enriches.
In the case of Genesis 4, we have several options. We might connect to the creed via the death of Christ as compared to the death of Abel. We might also connect via the communion of saints—our sharing the faith and the pattern of life of Abel (that of the righteous sufferer, the martyr, perhaps). We might also connect via the forgiveness of sins—that Cain was not abandoned but protected and preserved in hope of the coming of Jesus, whose blood speaks a word of hope and grace to sinners. Finally, we might connect via the resurrection of the dead, that Abel will have life restored to him, as will all God's holy church. Once we see how the passage we are looking at serves the preaching of the gospel, we are well placed to move to the final stage of preparation.
Stage III – So what? What does that have to do with me?
It is worth focussing now on how the passage and its message may be received by those you will be leading, and how it might be seen to be a word that addresses the problems and challenges of their lives as they experience them. Here are two:
Try to discern a real, owned and live Big Question
One way to help people engage with a passage is to create some tension and a target to hit by framing some Big Question which the passage is centrally concerned to answer. The Big Question has to be real, owned and live to do its best work. If the question is'What was the evil Cain did?', then while the text does answer that question, it is not a question, and not an answer, that the average person might feel is of any consequence to them. A real question is a question someone in your group might actually ask of their own initiative, out of their own experience. An owned question is a question that people in your group might care about the answer to, it is a question they genuinely own themselves, not one the leader lends them for the purposes of the study. A live question is a question that people do actually face, and an answer to a live question would help me today, if I could get it. One of the virtues of the Bible Study format is that the group members can ask questions and therefore influence the discussion towards the questions that are real, owned and live for them. We should embrace this quality that small groups have and prepare to take advantage of it as much as possible.
What must I think? Feel? Want? Do?
This set of questions is one kind of 'application grid'. It gets you to consider the ways that this passage should shape, first, my thinking. What truths must I take on board and integrate into my understanding of God, myself, other people or the world? But don't stop with thinking: second, what must I feel? That is, how does this passage work emotionally? What does it evoke and towards what or whom, and how does it model an emotional response to God? To the world? To sin? To others? Any narrative will have an emotional life and structure. A narrative like Cain and Abel is brief, but we should not fail to enter imaginatively into the drama, and feel its emotional dynamics. How does the Lord's acceptance of Abel but rejection of Cain play in our hearts, given that they both brought sacrifices? How do we react to Cain's anger, and then to the fact that God comes to speak to Cain and to what God says to him? What do we feel at Abel's murder? What do we feel about the way God handles his meeting with Cain? How does all this encourage us to shape our own emotional responses to disappointment, envy, anger, temptation and fall, judgement of the sinner and the tempering of that judgement? Who are we to identify with and what does the story say to us in that identification? Hopefully you have paid attention to this in stage I above, but it can also really help forge points of compelling connection and application at this end stage. This leads in to the third question: what must I want? How does this passage model right desire to me? What does it teach me to love? To hate? To aspire to? To oppose? And lastly, what must I do, or cease doing? What action might this lead to in my life? In this way we make the journey from mind and heart to will and deed.
I hope this three stage method of preparing helps! The best foundation you can lay for leadership is becoming a better reader of the Bible. Still there is more to teaching in the small group context than getting all this under your belt. Actually running the discussion is also an important set of skills. Do you use a written study? How much do you talk and how much is it about others talking? Do you need to cover everything you prepared and wrap up neatly with personal application each time? What do you do about people who talk too much? Or who don't talk at all? Maybe there's more we could do in this leadership training area…..