Last week, I read some amazing things in the New York Times:
The president’s announcement was the first official confirmation of his death.
“They were disappointed, frankly, that I didn’t have some breakthrough.”
Minutes earlier, she had fled there for safety as she called 911, telling the operator that her fiancé had thrown her on the bed and hit her in the face and head. She was two months pregnant.
Thousands of people attended hundreds of enrollment events around the country at public libraries, churches, shopping malls, community colleges, clinics, hospitals and other sites.
Are you amazed?
Though all these quotes came from a single publication with a single editorial board, they also came from a variety of articles, written by different journalists, and spread out over a few days. Each article had a different topic, designed for a different column, reporting on a different sector of the news. But my selection of quotations doesn’t really mean anything to you without more information. You need the context for each one to make sense.
Do you read the Bible like this? Do you find a remarkable sentence or two here and there, memorize them, and base your hope on them? You don’t read anything else in this way. Not newspapers, novels, letters, emails, blogs or textbooks. Sure, sometimes you’ll scan. Other times you’ll highlight key statements that you want to remember. But you won’t limit your reading to isolated sentences.
Do you teach the Bible like this? Do you string together verse after verse to make a point? It’s fine to do so, as long as you’re not doing violence to what those verses meant in context (Paul does it in Romans 3:10-18, David does it in 1 Chronicles 16:7-36, and Jonah does it in Jonah 2:1-9). But Satan can quote isolated statements from the Bible in support of evil intentions (Matt 4:6). Plenty of folks today likewise excel at sampling Bible verses to mix some truth with catastrophic error.
The Challenge of Bible Studies
In a Bible study meeting, you may have 30-90 minutes to dive into a particular text. You’ll look at the details, ask many specific questions, and try to make particular applications. As you work on a small portion of text, how do you keep the big picture (the context) front and center? How do you prevent the group from moving through one isolated text to another, week after week, without ever fitting them together?
A Proposed Solution
These suggestions are not the only ones you could follow, but they summarize what I’ve found most helpful.
1. Do a good book overview
When leading a study through a book of the Bible, I always dedicate the first meeting to a book overview. This overview gives us clarity on the historical context: author, audience, occasion, and structure. But more importantly, it enables us to discuss the entire book’s main point. For example, in my church small group, we’re studying Romans. Our book overview led us to a pretty clear main point: Paul wants to preach the gospel to those who are in Rome (see Rom 1:15-17).
2. Remind the group of where you’ve been
Each week, I make sure to summarize the text’s argument over the last few chapters. This enables us to situate the present text within the book’s flow of thought. For example, our last study in Romans 3:9-20 came as the climax to Paul’s argument that began in Romans 1:18. Before tackling Rom 3:9-20, we briefly reviewed the section up to this point: God’s wrath is revealed against the immoral (Rom 1:18-32), God’s wrath is against the moral (Rom 2:1-16), God’s wrath is against the outwardly religious (Rom 2:17-3:8).
3. Make sure to grasp the passage’s main point
It’s worth it to fight for the main point. By definition, doing so enables you to focus on what God considers most important. Incidentally, it also helps you not to get lost in the sea of sub-points and minutiae that so easily commandeer your attention. As you keep main points front and center, you’ll decrease the likelihood of missing the context.
4. Connect each passage to the book’s main point
Every week, as we study a new section of Romans, we ask, “How does Paul preach the gospel (good news) in this passage?” The key here is to take the passage’s main point and show how it advances the book’s main point. Of course, in Romans 1:18-3:20, there is not much “good” news yet. We’ve had profitable discussions about why it’s so important to understand the extent of the bad news before the good news will seem truly good.
5. End with a book review
A book review is just like a book overview, except that it takes place at the end instead of the beginning. When you’ve completed examining all the book’s pieces, take time to put them back together. You may even need to revise your overview in light of what you saw as you dug deeper through the details. So I find it helpful to dedicate an entire meeting to reviewing what we learned from the book, both themes and applications. This review may solidify the lessons and help people to remember them when they return to this book in their personal study.
When you lead people in careful, contextual Bible study, you’ll be amazed to see that some of your favorite memory verses don’t actually mean what you once thought.
For example, in context, Romans 8:28 doesn’t mean that “all things” you could ever experience work together for the “good” you might hope for. No, Paul is saying specifically that all of “our present sufferings” (Rom 8:18-27) work together for that single good purpose which God predestined from the beginning: that we might be conformed to the image of his Son (Rom 8:29). Romans 8:28 offers not so much an alleviating comfort as a promise of crushing, suffocating pain — albeit a pain that will make you more beautiful for having gone through it.