In the book of 1 Kings Jehoshaphat and Ahab sat together and inquired from the council of court prophets whether or not they should go to battle. The council of prophets told the kings that victory was assured, but Jehoshaphat wasn’t convinced, and turning to Ahab he said, “Is there not yet a prophet of the Lord here that we may inquire of him?” (1 Kings 22:7). In every age, and at every time, there is a hunger among God’s people to hear from God Himself. We are eager for His guiding voice and assuring presence, and perhaps our greatest, if unspoken, fear, is the one pronounced by the prophet Amos, “Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord God, “When I will send a famine on the land, Not a famine for bread or a thirst for water, But rather for hearing the words of the Lord.” (Amos 8:11).
This is possibly the most important thing to keep in mind when considering the matter of preparing a Bible study lesson—what the human heart is most eager for is a word from the Lord, illumination that comes from God. We don’t crave human wisdom, or human cleverness, or even human explanations, we are hungry for the word from beyond the world. We want someone to open the Bible for us and illuminate it.
The job, then, of a Bible study leader is to facilitate this communication between God’s word and the individual hearer through listening personally to God’s voice, studying faithfully God’s word, and then seeking effective means of teaching those matters to others. In the simplest terms, then, faithful Bible study can be reduced to three simple questions:
- 1) What is God saying? What does the text actually say? What does God want us to understand? What’s going on in this particular passage or set of passages?
- 2) What is God saying to me? How do these words affect me and my faith? What does this passage impact me in my walk with God?
- 3) What is God saying to my audience? What do I think they need to hear? What are the words of comfort or challenge that God is delivering to these people whom He is leading me to teach at this time?
All the techniques for planning a Bible study lesson work to answer, in some form, these three questions. Now, as far as what the text says to you personally, that is between you and God. What is required there is your own faithful and submissive reading of the text. Without a devotional life in the Bible, you will have little to nothing to say in this category. As far as what the text says to your audience, you must know them as well. My mentor in the faith likes to say that there is no use being able to exegete the text if I cannot exegete the hearts of my hearers as well. So reading your audience is as important, for an effective teacher, as the reading of the text. Not more important, but equally important.
As far as reading the text for what God is saying, the lessons from this book ought to go a long way toward reading effectively, but a few further tips can help any reader achieve a greater understanding of the text. Here, then, are my tips for studying the word:
1) Take notes. Get some scratch paper and keep it handy. Write down key words and themes. Take note of things that strike you as you read through the text in question. Try to draw the connections between passages.
2) Read the passage all at once, then try to break it into pieces. What are the divisions? Are there key ideas that govern individual sections?
3) Read the passage in multiple translations. What do you notice is different in the different translations? Are there different ideas that come through in your different readings?
4) Write up a preliminary summary. What do I think this passage is about? If I had to summarize it for a friend right now, what would I say? Imagine you are explaining it to someone who is a new believer and has no concept of Christian theology.
5) Consult a reference book. Find a commentary or other book that can help you to explore the ideas of the passage. Are there terms from Greek or Hebrew that illuminate this passage more clearly? Are there cultural elements which shape the interpretation of the passage? Consider whether or not your initial thoughts fall in line with the commentator—if they do, great. If they don’t, take stock of the commentator’s argument and evaluate it in light of Scripture. Remember, just because the person wrote a commentary doesn’t mean he’s necessarily right!
6) Consider the main takeaway for the passage. Write it on your notes.
7) Set up an outline for teaching and eliminate unnecessary data. It is very important that you decide what is most important to share in a lesson, and what ought to be left out. Here, you are streamlining your lesson for the sake of your hearers. At this point also you should consider especially what you think God might be saying to you and to them. (Alternatively, you can plan an inductive lesson where the students ask the questions, guiding the direction of the lesson, and your preparation serves as a baseline for student discussion.)
8) If you’re in need of advice, run the lesson past a friend before you share it with your group. Sharing a Bible Study lesson isn’t an examination, and you shouldn’t feel any fear about consulting a friend for input.
9) Remember to pray through the process!
10) When you get to share your lesson, speak with humility, remembering that you sit under the authority of the Scriptures. Make sure you invite questions as well, sharing the authority and process of reading the Scriptures in community.
In the end, if you commit to reading the Scriptures faithfully and humbly, not much can go wrong when you read them in community with other people. God is faithful—more faithful that your best thoughts, more faithful that all our knowledge, and His word is more powerful than all our best efforts. Simply the fact that you are reading the word, and reading it with and for others, will itself bear fruit.
Questions for Reflection
Think of a Bible study that you enjoyed. What was it you enjoyed about the experience?
Think of a Bible study you didn’t enjoy. What was it you didn’t enjoy about the experience?
Consider the steps listed above. Do these seem attainable to you? Which steps seem to you most difficult and why?
The Scriptures say that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1)—how do you think love should govern our reading and teaching of the Scriptures?