Bible study aids abound from concordances to Bible dictionaries, all of which are wonderful tools to deepen your understanding of Scripture. Instead of suggesting a new book to buy, I want to offer some questions that can help readers unlock the message of the text.
- What question is this passage answering?
Christians come to the Bible with lots of questions—some of them the text answers, and some it doesn’t. The trick is discerning what question the author wants to answer; strive to state or write down the author’s question. My students sometimes write papers that I describe as “true but wrong.” For instance, they may write beautifully about grace, but the assigned passage isn’t about grace—a case of “true but wrong.” Begin your study here with this most basic of questions.
- If this passage were lost, what would we lose?
The authors did not have to include any particular passage, but they did. So, imagine that we lost this passage for some reason. What message would we miss? This question is like asking, “What does the text mean?” except we get to the same place by asking essentially the same question in sort of a backwards way. For some reason, this question works so much better for me as I try to figure out the author’s message.
- What bothers me in the passage?
If Scripture is not merely an object we examine, but also a subject that examines and confronts us, then it can shape us. Formation is not always comfortable, but then again growth rarely is. So, explore the details of the text that confuse, surprise, and trouble you, and you’ll be pleased at the growth you experience. For instance, as we reflect on God’s grace in the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matt 20), we realize that grace can be seen as both unfair and lavish.
- What is God doing?
Studying Scripture, I grew up asking “what” questions about content and “how” questions about process, like “What do I need to do to be saved?” and “How should I be baptized?” Although “what” and “how” questions are valuable, more often the theological point of the Bible is about who God is. To find out who God is, notice what God says and does in the text. You’ll grow closer to God, as you make God the focus of your study. As an example, notice Gabriel’s announcement to Mary of Jesus’ birth (Luke 1); we see a God who takes initiative, who acts in surprising ways, who uses the poor and lowly, and for whom nothing is impossible.
- What do I learn about God’s people?
In a similar vein, it’s natural to wonder about the motivations of the characters in the Bible. Interestingly enough, these motivations are often not the focus of the text. Instead, the authors are interested in the formation of character and the shaping of communities. So, ask yourself what the text says about being God’s people. This “who” question about identity helps us see how God’s people think, speak, and act. Consider again Gabriel’s announcement to Mary (Luke 1); Mary ponders what she doesn’t understand, asks open and honest questions, and models the heart of a servant.