Participatory Bible Study: Map to the Method
|[Introduction]||1st||[Overview]||[Preparation]||[Context] [Reading] [Study Tools]
[Hanging Biblical Interpretation]
|[Allegory] [Epistles] [History]
[Parables] [Poetry] [Prophecy]
[Stories] [Visions] [Learning and Living Scripture]
|Study Guides||[Hebrews] [Revelation] [Learning and Living Scripture] [Ephesians]|
This outline is based on the tract I Want to Study the Bible!. While it expands on many aspects of that tract, because it is not intended to stand alone, in some areas it simply provides links to more detailed information, especially in the area of Bible study tools.
The Spirit will teach you everything. – John 14:26
This was the text that a Bible student quoted to me when she was about to quit my class in basic Bible study. “I don’t have any problem with what you are teaching,”, she said, “but I think the Holy Spirit can teach me all that.”
Now while I believe that the Holy Spirit is the best teacher, I still believe that this girl needed some of the material in my class. The Holy Spirit tends to teach us through many means–teachers, preachers, prophets, speaking to us directly, taking us through some difficult times of study, and the use of our God-given minds.
The participatory method of Bible study is designed to bring all these different factors together. It asks you to get yourself involved in the experience that the Bible represents, to look for the ways in which the material can apply to you. You don’t have to accept everything to use this method, but you do have to be willing to be as sympathetic as possible with the characters of the Bible story, and the writers of the Bible books. You have to be willing to try to understand things from their perspective.
If you believe further, as I do, that God is speaking through these experiences and writings, then you will want to go further. After you have understood the principles on which they were basing their lives, you will want to find out what principles God was trying to teach, and then how you can apply those principles directly in your own life, and in the life of your community. If you do that, you can be involved in building the body of Christ in a new and ever growing way.
The Bible presents these principles in ways that may seem strange to you. Sometimes they are contained in rituals. Sometimes they are contained in stories. At other times they may be hidden in allegories or in symbolic visions. Each of these methods communicated some part of God’s message to someone. The hidden pearls of God’s truths are within a matrix of someone else’s times, problems, and assumptions-you could say in their entire culture. What we try to do is get at the principles and find a way to apply them in our time and culture.
In order to do this, there are some key questions. These questions will be repeated in my articles on interpreting particular types of literature, because while the interpretive method changes, the final result will often remain the same.
- What is the experience behind this passage?
- How might the experience reflected in this passage relate to my own experience?
- What principle(s) lie behind the specific statements?
- How might the principles relate to my life?
In order to answer these questions, we have to come to understand the Bible writers, their time and culture as much as possible. Fortunately, we have a great deal of material available right in the Bible to help us do that. We can then find out why they did particular things, and learn how to use those principles constructively. It is quite possible for a Bible student to make decisions based on the mistakes of some Bible characters or writers. The Bible records their mistakes, often in some detail. But when you understand the passage, why it is there, and what principles it conveys, then you can make use of it in a practical and helpful way.
There is no shortcut in Bible study. If you want to find what God has for you in scripture you will have to dig. There are some things you can do to make your study time more profitable. The participatory method is not going to be easier than other methods of inductive Bible study. It is my aim, however, that it be more practical, with the focus always on learning how we can become better disciples of Jesus.
Gather Materials – have pen, paper, highlighters or other markers and all materials you will need for study available.
There are three major elements here:
If you like to take notes, you may want some extra note paper. Look for a size of paper that is easy to use, and also easy to preserve and organize. Pens or pencils for notes can be of any color you choose. Many Bible students use different colored pens in underlining, and occasionally in note taking, with the various colors indicating particular subjects. I personally don’t find that color coding helps me a great deal, but don’t hesitate to invest in some pens if it does.I tend to keep my notes in the margins of my Bible. As one of my wedding presents I received a New Revised Standard Version, printed by Cambridge University Press in their wide margin Minster text. (Mine was leather, and is out of print, but it’s still available in hard cover.) I can take notes in the margins and add cross-references. I even keep complete sermon notes in the margins simply by giving my next scriptural reference along with each key point.
Recently, I have begun to keep many of my notes in my Logos Bible software, which keeps them organized, and prevents me from discarding scraps of paper that have crucial notes.
The bottom line here is to do what works, both in terms of colors and where you keep your notes.
Again, there are different approaches. I tend simply to underline what I think are key points in the author’s development of his idea. Many people use highlighters and/or colored pens to indicate subject so they can easily track down materials on a particular subject. Again, there are no rules here, but get the materials you need to mark texts and keep the notes you want for your study.
- Purpose of your Study
In all of this consider the purpose of your study. There are several places in my description of this method that I suggest reading large portions of scripture quickly in order to get an overview. If you are going to sit down to read quickly, you may need nothing other than your Bible and a place to sit. If you are reading for an overview, resist the temptation to underline or take notes. That is for later study. As you read quickly, try to take in the whole picture.
Conditions – Find a place where you can study. If you study well with music playing, put some on. If you prefer quiet, arrange for a quiet place.
Many people have strong opinions about the best atmosphere for study. I do too! I believe the best atmosphere for study is the one you find conducive to study. That might involve dogs barking and the TV blaring for some people. For others, a sound-proofed room would be ideal. If you don’t know where you study best, try studying under different conditions.
Many Christians like to study with some kind of praise music playing. If you have never tried that, do so, and see what it does for you. You may find it helps. For many, music is soothing and can cover unexpected noises like doors closing or telephones ringing. Using instrumental music, without voices or words, is usually less distracting.
For a group, a compromise is needed. I’ve found that most groups prefer total quiet, allowing their voices in discussion to be enough “noise.”
Resources – Get a small, well-selected set of study materials. Critical resources for study include:
It is usually valuable to have two or three translations available, one for fast reading, one for more serious study, and one for comparison. For more information on selecting Bible translations, see What’s in a Version? (Pamphlet) or my book What’s in a Version? (Book).Some suggestions for a list of three translations are:
Reading Study Comparison Contemporary English Version New Revised Standard Version New Living Translation New Century Version English Standard Version Revised English Bible New Living Translation New American Standard Bible The Message
The idea on this list is to find one Bible that is very easy for you to read, and use that when you want to read multiple chapters or whole books. This will usually be a translation using functional equivalence, or a more idiomatic translation to produce smoother English, a more formal translation to allow you to work with concordances better, and one that comes from a different tradition (protestants using a Catholic Bible such as the New American Bible or New Jerusalem Bible, or Catholics choosing an evangelical Bible such as the New Living Translation).
Note: All abbreviations and technical terms used in this section are defined in the pamphlet What’s in a Version?. In addition, you can get some ideas for choosing Bible versions from my Bible Version Selection Tool.
You will want a good concordance to at least one of your versions. In early study, a concordance in the back of your Bible may be adequate, but later you will want a larger concordance, or some good Bible study software to allow you to do topical and word searches.
- Bible Dictionaries and Encyclopedias
If you have some good Bible software you will probably get a selection of these resources, but otherwise, you may want to have one or two on hand. A Bible dictionary will help you get past words that you don’t understand. You can find additional information about Bible dictionaries and how to use them at Bible Dictionaries.
- Study Bibles and Commentaries
I recommend that you use these sparingly in your early study, and let yourself hear what the scriptures say to you. There is one exception–the introductory material to books. Having one of your Bibles in a study edition will allow you to get historical and background information that won’t be available otherwise. You can find some suggestions for choosing and using study Bibles at Choosing a Bible with Study Notes.
For more information on Bible study tools in general, see Bible Study Tools.
For those Christians, or any believer who prays, I suggest that prayer always go with Bible study, or the study of any literature, for that matter. We want the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, to enlighten our minds and help us find what truly applies to us, and to apply it in the right way. One key element is to put aside thoughts and attitudes that prevent you from hearing. These thoughts include pride and self-righteousness. You need to be able to listen to and empathize with those who experienced the stories and those who wrote them. You need to get as much into their way of thinking as possible. This doesn’t mean that you approve of them or of what they do or say, but it does mean you will hear it, and get as good an understanding as possible of how they saw and experienced things.
Pray specifically for an open mind to understand, an open heart to receive, enabling grace for the actions you will need to take.
Claim these promises:
But if we confess our sins to God, he can always be trusted to forgive us and take our sins away. (1 John 1:9)
I will sprinkle you with clean water, and you will be clean and acceptable to me. I will wash away everything that makes you unclean, and I will remove your disgusting idols. I will take away your stubborn heart and give you a new heart and a desire to be faithful. You will have only pure thoughts, because I will put my Spirit in you and make you eager to obey my laws and teachings.
Since I often recommend study methods to those who are not believers, I recommend at this point that you think for a few moments about your aim in study, and lay aside any attitudes that would prevent you from understanding. You are looking for the same attitude of mind; you don’t have to approve of what you read, but you will be better off hearing it as much as possible in the way it was intended. Later, when you compare it to your own life, is the time to accept and/or reject elements based on whether they are valuable or not.
Get an Overview of the Passage
Read the passage multiple times. Twelve or more can be a real blessing, but any number from 3 times up will help. Memorizing is useful, at least of key texts. (This will also require you to select key texts.) Read from different Bible versions, to help you with your concentration and to open up different ways of understanding the passage.
At this point don’t use commentaries, study notes, your concordance, anything which takes your concentration off of the passage you are studying.
This is the stage that most people tend to ignore or to spend very limited time on. If you do spend time on it, you will reap a reward. The ideal situation is to read the passage enough times so that you have a clear picture in your mind of the key points or key events covered by the passage. Reading one thing should suggest other portions of the book or passage and their relationship. This can be a daunting task when you are dealing with whole books of the Bible, especially longer ones, so start with shorter passages.
This reading will form a foundation for a number of exercises that I suggest in the sections on studying particular types of literature in the Bible. Often you will be asked to form a complete picture of the material, tell a version from a different viewpoint, or describe the background.
Study the Background
Find out who wrote the passage, to whom it was written, what is the situation being addressed, and what type of literature it is.
When you first start studying the Bible, this is the one place to use a study Bible or a Bible commentary. Read the introduction to the book and try to get some of the historical background. As you study more, you will probably begin to develop your own ideas about the background of some Bible passages or whole books. A number of the exercises I suggest in discussing how to study specific types of literature involve picturing the background. For example, one can read epistles such as 1 Corinthians or Hebrews, and try to picture the situation of the people to whom the letter was written. Writing a specific description can help you understand the reasons for some of the statements in the book.
Once you have read the background material, you may want to compare and contrast the background of this book with your own situation. Most introductions to 1 Corinthians, for example, will say certain things about the church in Corinth. Ask yourself how your church is similar or different, and record your answers. Using notepaper you can make a chart like this:
|Corinthian Church||Your Church|
|Divided into factions|
|Problem with spiritual pride|
|Disorderly worship services|
You will probably find a different list. This is just an example. Make your own, and consider expanding it as you continue to study. In the case of 1 Corinthians, you might add a column for the solution proposed in Corinth, and then a fourth column to note whether you think that is the solution needed in your church. (See Interpreting Letters (Coming soon . . .)
(See the chart below for some types of literature in the Bible, and links to specific articles on how to interpret them as these articles are prepared for publishing on the web.)
Meditate, Question, Research, Compare (Repeat as needed)
Some suggestions for more precise reading can be found in my essay Reading Precisely.
Meditate on the passage. If you are having difficulty meditating, think about telling someone else about the passage, such as a friend in need of encouragement, someone who is unsaved, or a child. Think: What questions might they ask about this passage? You can formulate thought questions or fact questions. Fact questions are about what the author is actually saying. Thought questions may lead you to other revelations well beyond the intended statement of the passage.
Your fact questions generally deal with what the passage says, and what it meant to the people who first heard it. What elements does it include specifically? Are there things that it does not make any comment on?
Example: How many prophets of Baal were there? How long was it between when Elijah called fire from heaven and when the rain came? Asking and answering this kind of question lets you clarify your understanding of what the facts are.
Thought questions start where fact questions finish, and they lead you all the way to application. Is it a good idea to stand up to large numbers of armed opponents the way that Elijah did? Why or why not? What similar situations might I face today?
As an example of fact questions leading to the thought questions, consider the story of Elijah. Fact questions include: Who was Baal? What were the characteristics of the worship of Baal? How did Baal worship compare to the Israelite worship of Yahweh? Some of these questions will require you to go back to the background material and do further research. When you have answered them, consider this thought question: How does my worship compare or contrast with the worship of Baal and the worship of Yahweh? You might narrow this down by asking specically how your prayers (in this case petitions) to God compare to those of the prophet’s of Baal, and how they compare to the prayer of Elijah. Are there some changes this might suggest for your own prayer life?
You can use outlining at this stage, comparison to other scriptures, to writers in church history, or to current experience. Ask: What similar experience are we having today? Can this help me understand the passage? For example, if you have had a vision will that help you understand Ezekiel’s vision in Ezekiel 1? Ask your friends about experiences they have had. See the forthcoming essay, Interpreting Visions.
Some historical writers you might consult include Jerome, Aquinas, Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley, John Calvin, Charles Spurgeon and many, many others.
Don’t be afraid to repeat this process a number of times. Sometimes after I have meditated on the details for awhile, I will read the passage through quickly again, or even read it two or three times more. Once I have looked at more details, different things start to stand out.
Share your Thoughts
Ask yourself how this has applied in your experience. Get to know the person you are sharing with. Share your experience and then the text. Always work from your own personal experience with God.
Store up the experiences your friends share with you to use in studying further scripture.
I include the following guidelines for sharing in all my study guides:
GUIDELINES FOR SHARING
- Sharing does not mean that you find something you can tell someone else. You may find something to tell someone, but you may find something you would like to learn from someone else.
- Think about what you can learn. What is it that you could gain by listening to what someone else says?
- Think about what the other person needs and wants to hear, not about what you need to say. You may have a very helpful thought, but you may share it with someone who is dealing with completely different problems and cannot relate to what you share.
- Even when you share something by speaking to someone, be prepared to listen to their response. The time for listening is always now.
- Don’t be discouraged when people don’t get as excited as you are about your discovery. They may not be at a place in their lives where they can use it, or they may have discovered it years ago just when they needed it, and it’s old now.
- Listen more than you talk.
This is an extremely brief example. More details are provided in the individual essays on interpreting particular types of literature. See the links on the literature type list below.
1 Kings 19:11-18
|Poem||Song of Songs, Psalm 78, 104, 119||Interpreting Poetry|
|Song/Hymn||Song of Miriam (Exodus 15:1-18), Song of Deborah (Judges 5), Psalm 19, 27||Interpreting Poetry (Includes Hymn)|
|Story||Ruth, Esther, many shorter passages||Interpreting Stories|
|History||1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Nehemiah, Ezra||Interpreting History|
|Parable||Luke 16||Interpreting Parables|
|Allegory||Ezekiel 16||Interpreting Allegory|
|Doctrinal teaching||Matthew 5-7|
|Wisdom Literature||Proverbs, (this may overlap with Poems)|
|Prophetic Oracle||Isaiah 14:1-23||Interpreting Prophecy|
|Vision report||Ezekiel 1,Daniel 7, 8||Interpreting Visions|
|Prayer||Psalm 12, Daniel 9|
|Letter||Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians||Interpreting Letters|
Example Prayer for Bible Study
Lord, take from me any thought habits which will keep me from hearing. Make me open to your voice and your voice alone.
Lord, help me to accept your people as my brothers and sisters in your kingdom let me learn and grow from both their weaknesses and their strengths.
Lord, I trust you to reveal yourself to your people the way you know is best. Let your will be done.
Lord, let me not only recognize but obey your voice. Let my actions be conformed to your will. Help me to love my neighbor as myself.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
This essay was developed from my tract, I Want to Study the Bible in the Participatory Study Series. It included a brief listing of resources, but in this expanded web version, I have included links to my discussions of particular types of resources as each one was needed.
For further information see the Energion Publications brochures What’s in a Version? and Bible Study Tools. Also available on this site are slightly longer versions in HTML, Bible Study Tools (HTML) and Bible Translations FAQs.