#14 How to Study the Bible (Part 2 of 2)

Good morning, brothers and sisters, may the grace and peace of our Lord be with you!

Those who Study the Bible are in Spiritual Agreement

Those who study the Bible are in spiritual agreement (a koinonia of beliefs).  They believe that “all Scripture is inspired by God”, and the approach we take must be to “clearly read God’s word, explaining its meaning, so that the people understand what is being read” (see Neh 8:8), for the purpose of making “the man of God adequate, equipped for every good work”.  Those who are in Christ share (koinoneo) this agreement of “belief, approach, and purpose”:

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:16-17)

Bible study is for believers.  Non-believers who seek to know God (hereafter “seekers”) are welcome to participate, but the study of God’s word should not be compromised by the presence of seekers.  Worship is also for believers.  Seekers are welcome to participate, but the worship of God must not be compromised by the presence of seekers.  Some people try too hard to placate the non-believers, saying things like “Yes indeed, what you are saying makes a lot of sense.  The Bible can be interpreted in many ways, your point is also very plausible…”  Not only is such compromise unlikely to result in the seekers believing in Christ, it may even cause them to look down on God and His word, and a valuable opportunity to bear witness for God has been lost.  On the other hand, many seekers are drawn to Bible studies where the believers humbly and earnestly study God’s word.  They are moved by the sincere manner in which God’s people approach His word, and some come to Christ as a result.

The First Step in Bible Study:  Read and Study the Text

There are three steps in Bible study:  first, read and study the Scripture passage; second, design discussion questions; third, conduct the Bible study.  The first two steps are the preparations, and the third step is the implementation.  The quality of a Bible study depends on a thorough preparation.

A Bible study leader must first read the Scriptures himself.  This means to read the Bible, not reference books or information found online.  This is not to say that you cannot refer to other helpful sources, but that you should not only read reference books and neglect the proper reading of God’s word.  You must read directly from God’s word to get a good grasp on its meaning.  The initial step should be to have a good overall comprehension of the entire book of the Bible you are studying.  The key to good understanding is diligent reading.  For a book with less than 10 chapters, my suggestion is to read the entire book three times.  A book with 11-20 chapters should be read through twice, and a book with more than 20 chapters should be read once.  Only after you have read through the entire book should you read the passage to be studied.  For instance, if I were leading a Bible study on a passage in Colossians, which has 4 chapters, I would read the entire book of Colossians at least five times, comparing readings from different translations.  After that, I would read the desired Bible passage several more times.

The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew (with a very small part in Aramaic), and the New Testament was written in Koine Greek.  All Chinese and English Bibles are translations of the original languages.  Many of these translations are wonderful, and reading a few of them will help you to grasp the meaning of the original texts.  I read the Chinese Union Version, published in 1919 and popular among Chinese speaking believers.  For English Bibles, I mainly use two translations—one is the NIV which has the approach of a dynamic translation (there are two editions, one published in 1984 and the other in 2011, the newer edition being even more dynamic), and the other is the NASB which uses a literal translation.  Sometimes, to deepen comprehension, I will also refer to the oldest English translation, the KJV (published in 1611), as well as contemporary Chinese translations.  There may be times when it is necessary to research the original languages when investigating the meaning of a particular word or phrase.  In that case, there are many free software that can be downloaded online, such as e-sword.  These are outfitted with the Bible in the original languages as well as many different translations of the Bible.  There are also many resourceful apps that can be downloaded for Bible study purposes.

If within the church, there is a group of Bible-reading believers, then the Bible study culture will flourish, and it would not be difficult to find Bible study leaders.  The study of the Bible must be built upon the foundation of Bible reading.  Reading the Bible requires effort.  You must draw near to God with a heart willing to receive God’s word.  There are no shortcuts.  If you look for shortcuts and search online for answers without reading God’s word, then you would not have digested God’s word for yourself, and such shallow knowledge will not last long.  Many Bible study leaders do not read the entire book.  When they are tasked to lead Romans chapter 9, they simply read Romans chapter 9.  They have no idea what chapter 8 or chapter 10 says, and little clue about what the book of Romans is about.  Bible passages must be read in context.  If you read a Bible passage out of context and are unaware of its connection to the passages before and after, then you will likely have a distorted understanding of the passage.

After reading through the entire book, read the desired passage several times.  Reading produces understanding.  As you read, you understand.  This understanding is not from listening to others, but it is your own understanding.  Having put in the effort in preparation, you are now ready to lead the Bible study.  You must also be prepared in your heart, to be humble and to be persevering.  First is to be humble:  even though I spent a lot of time preparing, but God’s word is rich and filled with treasures, so there will be times when others will observe something that I failed to pick up on.   Second is to persevere:  if God leads you to serve Him in His word, whether it is to lead a Bible study, to teach a Sunday school class, or to preach a sermon, then you must persist tirelessly.  God will bless you with His word and guide you your whole life.

The Second Step in Bible Study:  Designing Discussion Questions

In a Bible study, there must be discussion questions so that everyone can be encouraged to participate.  These questions arise from reading the text.  When you understand the meaning of a passage, you will know what questions to ask.  If the questions are well-designed, the Bible study will have a clear direction.  After discussing the questions, the meaning and applications of the Bible text should become apparent.

The first category of questions should be observation questions, questions that simply ask what the text says.  Many Bible studies do not even start with observing what the Bible text says and everyone fights to chime in about what the text means to them.  How is this even a Bible study?  A good Bible study must rely on a good observation of the text.  Observational questions could be both easy and difficult to compose.  Such questions should serve as a guide for more discussion questions down the road.  Some observational questions simply ask a round of “who, what, when, where, why” type questions, but turn out to be quite pointless when they are unrelated to the subsequent discussion questions.

The second category of questions are questions that lead to interpretation, asking the participants to draw out the meaning of the text.  The questions should be restricted to the discussion of the Biblical text, in order to seek out the original meaning and intent of the Bible passage.  These questions should not become a platform for discussing current events, theological knowledge, or personal opinions.  A genuine discussion is the best way to absorb God’s word.  When such discussions serve the end goal of learning God’s word, everyone will eventually reach a common understanding.  Brothers and sisters, please remember that the entire Bible study should be a process of “hearing”.  The purpose is to “hear and understand God’s word”.  The Bible study leader is a humble servant of God, guiding the people to hear God’s word, and not to show off his own knowledge.

The third category of questions are application questions, asking the participants to share about how they would apply the truth they have learned.  These types of questions are usually placed at the end, and the purpose is to guide the participants from “hearing the word” to “doing the word”.  The desired result is that believers will keep and obey God’s word.  A Bible study must be applicable.  It cannot simply be all theoretical, because most people will lose interest after a while.  It is even better if brothers and sisters are willing to share a personal testimony testifying to how they have experienced God’s word in their lives.

The Third Step in Bible Study:  Bible Study

The time for the Bible study has arrived, and everyone is gathered together.  All the preparation leads up to this moment.  Those attending the Bible study should have previewed the Bible passage so that they know what the study is about.  The Bible study should start with a reading of the Bible passage.  The normal way of doing this is for each person to take turns reading a verse.  This is actually not the best way, because it’s easy for someone to only focus on their own verse and not pay attention to what others are reading.  A better method is to ask one person (who reads clearly and loudly) to read the whole passage while everyone listens.  This is also the most frequent method of reading Scripture found in the Bible.  After the reading, it is time to study the Bible.  With the discussion questions already written, the Bible study should follow the path of the questions.  These questions follow a certain course and will ensure that the Bible study will not be chaotic and disorganized.  The worst are those Bible studies with no preparation, and the leader simply asking the question “Does anyone want to share?” after every few verses.  This is irresponsible behavior!  As a Bible study participant, we must have an awareness that we are there to study God’s word.  If anyone strays too far from the topic at hand, someone must gently stop him from talking, and guide the discussion back to the Bible passage.

The atmosphere during a Bible study should be welcoming, friendly, sincere, and joyous.  Everyone is filled with joy at meeting each other.  Seekers are welcomed with open arms.  The people are earnest in studying God’s word.  There is fellowship (koinonia) around God’s word, resulting in deeper friendships and increased love for God.  Seekers may not fully understand or agree with the truths in the Bible study, but they surely feel everyone’s friendship and sincerity and observe the diligent attitude with which believers study God’s word.  Even though it was hard work for the Bible study leaders, but their hearts are filled with praise and thanksgiving when they see the fruit of their efforts!