The Bible study

A second weekly meeting takes place in Church 14-26 and is dedicated to Bible study. Thus Church 14-26 involves two meetings per week, the same number as in the conventional “church service plus homegroup” model.

Scripture is food for the believer, providing deeper nourishment than words can describe. New believers cannot just be handed a Bible and told to get on with studying it. 3000 years ago the scriptures meant the history of the people and the law of their land, things that everybody knew as part of their lives. 2000 years ago the first Christians were Jews, brought up to know the Hebrew scriptures. Jesus had clearly learnt them by heart. The apostle Paul taught the gospel interactively every day for two years in an assembly room in Ephesus which he hired or borrowed (the hall of Tyrannus, in Acts 19). This is likely to have been a school to select further apostles (some are named in Acts 20:4), since it went on longer than Paul remained in most places. Those present would have received an intensive course in the scriptures of the day and explanations of how Jesus fulfilled them, plus the teachings of Jesus that became the gospels and many of the themes in Paul’s letters. Gentile Christians are grafted spiritually into Israel’s sacred tradition (Romans 11:13-18), so a crash course in the Old Testament is necessary to explain this tradition to gentile converts. Paul is deeply concerned that converts should have knowledge (Colossians 1&2) in order to keep clear of error, and he wrote that all scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16); at the time Paul wrote, ‘scripture’ meant the Old Testament. Believers should be no less interested in the history of Israel and its kings than in the history of their own country. Jesus was not born before the Hebrew scriptures had been put into Greek (the Septuagint translation), available for study outside Israel. The New Testament was written in a simple form of Greek spoken throughout the ancient Near East, to maximise its reach.

The ‘Apocrypha’, some Jewish writings in Greek dating from the centuries leading up to the birth of Jesus, are sometimes bound with the Old Testament, but they are not scripture. The early church did not view them as such (see The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church by Roger Beckwith); the Jews do not regard them as scripture today; no Apocryphal book asserts divine authority (as do the law and prophets); the tale of burning a fish’s heart and liver to ward off evil spirits in Tobit 6 is clearly pagan; Sirach states that a man’s wickedness is better than a woman’s goodness (42:14) and, on bringing up children, says: “He who loves his son will whip him often… If you play with your child, he will grieve you; do not laugh with him, or you will have sorrow with him… make his yoke heavy” (ch. 30). This is not the voice of the Lord.

Gutenberg’s invention of printing using moveable metal type in the mid-15th century promoted literacy and eventually made it possible to put the Bible into the hands of Europe’s peoples in their own languages, not just Latin. They could now compare church practice and doctrine against scripture for themselves. In the 18th century, John Wesley travelled the roads of England, preaching and organising discipleship groups for those who heeded his call. He understood that the Bible, as the holy word of God, was for every believer, and he ensured that these discipleship groups held regular in-depth Bible study. The resulting movement triggered a revival that furthered the abolition of slavery and poor relief during industrialisation. Until a generation ago, Sunday schools taught the Bible in English-speaking lands. Not many church leaders today realise how little their congregations know the Bible compared to former generations, and how disempowered they are as a result.

Bible study must not dumb down or become intellectual for its own sake. Study proceeds a book at a time. The historical context for any book of the Bible should be clarified at the start of the study. The motivation of its earthly author for writing it should be teased out, as should God’s reason for having the book in His scriptures. The words of a Bible passage mean at minimum what faithful believers hearing those words would take them to mean as they were delivered. A passage may mean more than that, for the prophets often did not know in full of what they were speaking (1 Peter 1:11), but it cannot mean less, for God does not make mistakes.

Use a reasonably popular translation that you prefer. You may, for instance, prefer the King James Bible for the Psalms, because they are poetry and that is the language of Shakespeare. For expository passages, such as Paul’s letters, you want a translation in modern English that is as simple to understand as possible but does not dumb down. Multiple English translations of any verse are given at biblehub.com , where the original Hebrew or Greek is also stated with word-for-word translations. A Bible with cross-references is important, and maps and lists of the kings of Israel with dates are helpful. Bibles containing interpretative commentaries are best avoided.

A short prayer of dedication of the session at the start and perhaps an appropriate song or hymn afterwards is enough. The Bible study should not gradually turn into a service with increasing numbers of songs and extended shared prayer.

People should read in advance the passage being studied each week, and at the start of a group study it should be read out in full. Learning the Bible is done in the same way as learning anything else. In school, pupils are expected to make notes. Note-taking brings about an engagement with the material that aids learning, and your notes become a permanent record that is tailored to your own way of thinking. Many people in the past learnt to read specifically to study the Bible. Group discussions are a vital part of Bible study. Getting to know scripture is not effortless, but it is infinitely rewarding. You cannot know the Bible too well, although it is not an end in itself; Judgement is not a Bible quiz or theology exam.

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