In many ways, the quality of our Bible study will be determined by the quality of the questions we ask while we study. The better the questions, the more we will likely learn and grow. This is true in group Bible studies, like Bible classes, as well as personal Bible studies. So if we want to be better Bible students, we need to hone our question asking skills. With that in mind, here is one question I think we need to stop asking in Bible studies, why it’s a bad question, and some questions we can ask in its place.
The Question We Need to STOP Asking
There are many questions I think we should eliminate from our Bible studies, but at the top of my list is the question: “What does this verse mean to you?” Many times, a verse will be read in a Bible study and the teacher will ask the class, “What does this verse mean to you?” It could be that some teachers are simply asking, “What do you think this verse means?” In that case, it should probably be phrased like that.
And sometimes a participant in the study will volunteer the information without being asked, “To me this verse means…” proving this person had asked themselves the notorious question in their mind.
Why It’s a Bad Question
The reason it’s a bad question is that it implies the verse could legitimately mean different things to different people. The fact that many people believe biblical texts have different meanings to different people is reflected in the fact that so many people say things like, “Well, that’s your interpretation.” But the truth is, a biblical text – like any communicated message – cannot mean different things to different people.
A stop sign, for instance, cannot mean different things to different people. It must mean one thing to everyone. People are not free to determine for themselves what a stop sign means to them. Yet that’s exactly how we treat the Bible.
Determining the meaning of a text is not subjective. It’s not a matter of opinion or personal feelings. You can’t look inside your heart to find the meaning of a biblical text. The meaning of the text must be determined through proper biblical interpretation, a study called “hermeneutics.”
Read the Book
If we want to become better at biblical interpretation, the first thing we need to do is become better Bible readers. Often the meaning of a verse would be obvious if we would simply take the time to read the entire book in which that verse is found. But when a verse is read in isolation, the meaning is often obscure and seems subjective.
For instance, a Bible class teacher may read to his class Philippians 4:13 and ask, “What does that verse mean to you?” Someone in the class will speak up and say, “Well, to me, that verse means Christians will always be successful in life if we just have faith, because Christ gives us strength to accomplish all of our goals.” Wrong. That is not what that verse means.
If the class had simply read the entire book of Philippians, it would be obvious that Paul was writing from prison and he was saying he could endure his painful situation and get by with much or with little because Jesus was his strength. It has no application to winning football games or scoring well on college placement tests.
Ask Better Questions
Getting better at biblical interpretation means replacing the, “What does this verse mean to you?” question with, “What does this verse mean?” In order to find the right answers, we have to ask better questions. First we have to determine the answers to basic questions like:
- Who wrote this book and to whom did he write it?
- What kind of literary style is it (ex. historical narrative, law, poetry, didactic letter)?
- When was it written?
- Where was it written?
- Why was it written?
After we answer these fundamental questions about the book, then we can start asking some more probing questions about particular verses. Try asking questions like:
- How does this verse play into the point the author is making?
- Is the author alluding to something he said earlier, something he would explain later, or something that is explained by another passage of Scripture?
- What might be the opposite of what the author is saying? He saying, “Do this” as opposed to what?
- What do some of the more obscure words mean?
These are just a few examples of questions we can ask in order to help us determine what a passage means.
Ask How it Applies to Us
There is a personal step to Bible study, in which we ask, “How does this verse apply to us?” In other words, “Now that we know what this verse means, how should we change our thinking and our lives?” This is a good and healthy question. This is a question Bible class teachers ought to be asking. The answers to this question may be countless and provide hours of great discussion.
But remember, you can’t really know how a verse applies until you know what it means.
I love you and God loves you,