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Friday, February 7, 2014

Bible Study: My Method (Currently)

Bible Study: My Method (Currently)

How do you teach others about the Bible? What study method seems to help you most in understanding and communicating the truth contained in God's Word?

For about a year now I've been thinking about how I best learn and teach. Gradually I've established a habit of study that seems to fit my mind and personality, and I'd like to share it with others. Perhaps it, or some form of what I describe, will help others develop their own style of study and communication.

My method of studying and preparing to teach from the Bible involves four distinct steps:

Brief Overview

Main Ideas and Key Verses

Trust and Obey

Digging Deeper

I tend to follow these four steps in order, but often I've jumbled the order and skipped back and forth between them, as the passage requires, or as my mood changes. This order seems to work well in presenting the material to a group in a teaching situation, but the actual act of study and preparation often requires a mixed blend of all four steps, sometimes simultaneously. It's important to remain flexible, using the four steps as a framework or suggested starting place.

I'll describe in greater detail each of the steps, and then I'll conclude with an example of how it works with a passage that I've recently studied.

Step 1: Brief Overview

How would you summarize this passage in one or two sentences?

Imagine studying a specific passage, spending much time reading and meditating on the words, perhaps even memorizing all or part of the passage. If someone asked you what you've learned, but they only had a few minutes in which to visit with you, how would you briefly but adequately summarize the passage? What single truth or ideas stands out from all of the details and facts contained in the passage? How could you compress a passage of a dozen or more verses into one or two meaningful sentences?

Although I've listed this as the first step, very often I've attempted it only after completing the other three steps. Summarizing a passage is a complex task, usually requiring much time and thought. It's perfectly fine to reserve this step for the end of your study, immediately prior to actually presenting the lesson or lecture.

Another important consideration regarding this step of summarizing: Although you'll usually need to complete this step only after completing the other three steps, you may wish to present the Brief Overview at the very beginning of your lesson. Studying a passage often requires a different approach than presenting or teaching that passage to others.

I often will begin a lesson or lecture with a brief overview of the passage, even though the step of summarizing was actually the very last thing I did while studying and preparing for the presentation.

Step 2: Main Ideas and Key Verses

What main ideas are presented in this passage? What key verses best support each main idea?

This step can be the the easiest and most productive step in the entire process of studying a passage. Most passages, in any book of the Bible, are written in a way that makes it easy to identify paragraphs and main ideas. Most versions of Bible have already divided the passage into paragraphs, often with a heading that serves as an adequate main idea.

The English language, and our modern style of writing, often places main ideas at the beginning of each paragraph. Often the main idea will be the first sentence of the paragraph. If it's not the first sentence, it will often be the last sentence. So, the rule of thumb is to consider the first sentence to contain the main idea of the entire paragraph. As you continue reading through the paragraph you should be able to find details that support that first sentence.

However, be alert to the exceptions. Skilled writers will vary their presentation, placing the main idea at the end of the paragraph, or somewhere in the middle of the paragraph.

An idea may be considered to be the Main Idea if it's adequately supported by the details described in the paragraph. If the support for a given idea is weak or non-existent, the idea should not be considered as a Main Idea.

The exercise of selecting one key verse for each main idea is a way of "proving" that the idea is indeed the Main Idea. If there is a single verse that clearly communicates the Main Idea, it lends strength to the assumption that you've understood that paragraph.

Step 3: Trust and Obey

What eternal, unchanging truth is revealed in this passage? What will you do (or continue to do) to obey this truth?

The Main Ideas and Key Verses will often point directly to specific, eternal and unchanging statements of truth concerning God or ourselves. The goal in this step is one of application: What is true, and how should it affect your life? If the passage describes an eternal, unchanging truth, yet it makes little impact upon our lives, something is wrong! Perhaps we're mistaken in our understanding of the passage, or we need more time, wisdom or experience, or we're disobedient and rebellious toward God's truth.

Eternal, unchanging Truth will ALWAYS require a response on our part. Ignoring or perverting or disobeying eternal, unchanging truth is ALWAYS a deadly sin that will result in pain and loss, if not now, then certainly when we face God after our passing from this life on earth.

Step 4: Digging Deeper

What questions or concerns about this passage require further study? What cross-references or commentaries shed light on those questions? What original word definitions impact the application of the truth revealed in this passage?

I often will compare the English translation of a key word with the original language. I especially appreciate learning how a word developed, from a simple concrete object or action to a more abstract concept.

For example, look at the word "joy" in this verse:

Psalm 43:4 (ESV) "I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God."

The Hebrew word "gil", pronounced "gheel", came from a word which meant to spin round. It developed into a word that described the concept of time, as well as any strong emotion, as joy or fear, depending upon the context.

Knowing the development of the original word allows me to form a vivid picture in my mind of David, spinning in delight, rejoicing in song as he considers God as his Protector and Refuge.

Other matters worthy of "digging deeper" may be the historical or cultural background of the passage, or cross-references to related passages, or different translations.

What do you think?

There is one other component that I try to add to the final draft of my lesson or lecture. I will design one or two questions for each of the main ideas, with the goal being to invite the listener to consider how the passage might affect them personally.

I view the "What do you think?" questions as opportunities for each listener to consider their own weaknesses, preferences, desires and fears. I hope that the questions will spur them toward study and meditation of the passage on their own.

I hope the questions lead to encouragement and joyful faith in Christ.

An Example: Psalm 43

Here's one way in which my method of Bible Study might be applied to Psalm 43, including some What do you think? questions:

Psalm 43

Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people, from the deceitful and unjust man deliver me! For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you rejected me? Why do I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.

Psalm 43:1-5 (ESV)

Brief Overview

How would you summarize this passage in one or two sentences?

David prays for deliverance, expecting God to justify him and pronounce him not guilty in the face of oppressive accusations of his enemies.

Main Ideas and Key Verses

What main ideas are presented in this passage? What key verses best support each main idea?

God allows David to suffer oppression. (Verses 1-2)

Psalm 43:2 (ESV) You are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you rejected me? Why do I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?

David prays for protection, yet says plainly that God has pushed him aside, forsaking him in his time of need.

David hopes for God's rescue. (Verses 3-5)

Psalm 43:5 (ESV) Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.

Trust and Obey

What eternal, unchanging truth is revealed in this passage? What will you do (or continue to do) to obey this truth?

Typical response:

God allows suffering. Faith allows joyful perseverance.

In the midst of suffering I will remember God's goodness and power, and wait for his deliverance.

Digging Deeper

What questions or concerns about this passage require further study? What cross-references or commentaries shed light on those questions? What original word definitions impact the application of the truth revealed in this passage?

What is "vindicate"?

Psalm 43:1 (ESV) Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people, from the deceitful and unjust man deliver me!

David boldly asks God to make a decision, to pronounce guilt or innocence. It's clear that David expects a favorable verdict. He speaks confidently of his vindication, God's pronouncement of innocence and righteousness. At the same time he's expecting God's judgement against his enemies.

In addition to gaining a favorable verdict from God, David expects God to be his attorney, a strong man who is able to defend him legally, one who will argue and debate with those who accuse him.

What is "rejected"?

Psalm 43:2 (ESV) For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you rejected me? Why do I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?

What did David experience as "joy"?

Psalm 43:4 (ESV) "I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God."

The Hebrew word "gil", pronounced "gheel", came from a word which meant to spin round. It developed into a word that described the concept of time, as well as any strong emotion, as joy or fear, depending upon the context.