At this point in time, I have facilitated eleven Bible studies in the span of three years––ten for women and one that was co-ed and co-led with my husband and another couple. I don’t know if that sounds impressive to you or not. But, just in case it does, let me add a little bit of color for you on what these Bible studies actually look like in real life so you don’t make the mistake of thinking too highly of me.
Typically, I am washing the dishes or changing a diaper and the idea pops into my head that I would like to read some random book in the Bible (likely one I have not read before, because reading the Bible consistently is still pretty fresh to me). I quickly deploy a text out to some intelligent and passionate women in a few of my circles and ask if they might be interested in reading this book of the Bible as well. I generally toss the idea out to about fifteen people and maybe seven of them say they are in.
So, then—during nap time or perhaps during one of those moments when I am holed up in my closet seeking some much needed space (introvert here)—I work out some sort of reading schedule, which generally means I scribble random chunks of verses into the tiny boxes in a calendar of some sort.
In the weeks to come, I build up the hype and confirm that these women are indeed going to show up to my house if I pour the coffee. Then I plan for my kids to have early bedtime. I light candles. I make decaf. I set out all the mugs and arrange all the chairs. I might apply some makeup. And then I sit.
I sit in a circle of empty chairs and watch the minutes tick by and––like a middle school girl at her first big birthday bash––I chew my fingernails and hum until someone finally shows up.
Once they do and everyone gets settled (sometimes awkwardly––me, awkwardly excited), we pray and then we dive in. And, mostly, it’s me getting my mind blown by things I’ve never read in scripture… and sometimes someone else also gets their mind blown… but, mostly, it’s me learning a million things I never knew and asking a million questions and puzzling over interpretation and reveling in the poetry of it all, until finally ending in some sort of mouth-open, starry-eyed dopy gaze––stunned that I am living wide awake in love with a God that loves me too. Eventually, the weeks go by and the study comes to a close and I end up more convinced than I was at the beginning that the Bible is the most miraculous work of literature ever created.
I am currently wrapping up a Bible study in the book of Psalms. The other day I asked the women in my study if they felt like scripture has authority in their lives. They kind of looked at each other and said, “Yeah… I mean, we’re Baptists.” And, there, I recognized the great terrain between how I was raised and how they were raised and why it is so incredibly mind-blowing for us to simply read the Bible in context.
I grew up in a whirlpool of innuendos that suggested that I had authority over scripture. I was taught to use scripture to mystically force my teenage desires upon the world… demanding healing and prosperity and secret spiritual knowledge some called prophecy.
The Baptists I know grew up (some of them) under the weight of the law without grace. They grew up hoisting the Bible on their shoulders and trying to carry it from one wasteland of works-based salvation to another. They walked around knowing scripture, but not really knowing God.
Until one day they did.
And now their mind is blown by the fact that the God of the Bible is real and my mind is blown by the fact that the Bible is a real book about my real God, and all of us are waking up to the freedom available in a Bible that both leads us to conviction and repentance and dowses us in reminders of a loving, merciful, and near-to-us Savior prophesied since the beginning of time.
Much of what we get out of the scriptures has to do with how we start out. Most of us in the south have thick, leather-bound study Bibles with tiny little reference notes and scholarly introductions we never read or—if we do—it’s because we are distracted during a sermon that lost us at “hello.”
Being an avid reader and a literary scholar, there is one thing I have learned about myself that is true for not all—but most. We don’t really retain what we read until we have to regurgitate it, and because most of us are not Bible teachers or scholars, this rarely applies to the content in those tiny print introductions inserted into our study Bibles (I feel like I just heard a hundred Bible scholars gasp… sorry guys).
I live in a seminary town. Like, there is literally a seminary in walking distance from my house where young Baptist scholars go to learn how to be older Baptist scholars, and so when I confess to the average Joe on the street that I do not know who wrote the book of Phillipians, for example, I am often headed with a quizzical look followed by a quick answer and a smirk of satisfaction… one Bible illiterate taught.
But despite the fact that the most famous disciple of all time—Paul—wrote Phillipians while he was in prison for sharing the gospel of Christ, I will likely not bring this to recollection if I am randomly directed to Phillipians 3:14 in a cheeky Hallmark card that tells me to keep at it and finish the race for [insert whatever activity I am being encouraged to complete here].
The Bible is an incredible, often intimidating literary work displaying the historical memoir of the greatest character of all time—our God. It is worth taking a few minutes to ensure that we are reading the passages in the Bible in the intended context of the work.
Although those few minutes of gathering context can feel like a timewarp to your fifth grade English class, it is worth it and it doesn’t take too much time to complete. Luckily for us, there are in fact many Bible scholars who have done the work for us… we just have to engage with it and I would argue that we must do so before we attempt to extract the applicable meaning of the scriptures to our lives (and, especially, to the lives of others).
Now, you might be thinking that the Bible is the living Word of God and there are times when we can open it to a passage and it speaks directly into our circumstances. So, you ask, are you saying that’s not true? No. I am not—I’ve experienced it. The Bible is the living Word of God and God can use it however He deems best, but here in America where we have access to multiple translations of scripture with built in scholarly context and Google resources galore, why would we choose to be lazy about the most impactful work to ever stand on our bookshelves?
So, yes, I sometimes flip open my Bible and read without looking up context. But I have reaped the deep-rooted benefits of examining the books of the Bible before I dig in, and the benefits are countless for my ability to extract deep truths regarding the character of God and His desires for my life—and it will be for you as well.
Here’s what I’m proposing:
I’ve created this simple little worksheet to help you establish a new type of behavior as you approach your Bible to feast on the Bread of Life. This worksheet is not revolutionary. There are many, many Bible study approaches that guide readers through the contextual questions I have provided. However, I never experienced one of those Bible studies before I was thirty years old and I grew up down the street from a seminary… so, I’m guessing there is a high probability that this might be new to you as well.
Give this a try. Pick a book of the Bible that’s not too intimidating or one you don’t really know much about (say, the book of Job or the letter of Jude) and using the Bible Reading Guide to Establish a Contextual Framework (provided below), take 15 minutes to learn the basic context of that book… and then read the first chapter. What about the context changes or informs your perspective?
Next week I will dive a little bit more into building basic Bible comprehension when reading the scriptures. If you get into the scriptures and you need a little guidance, give me a ping or reach out to your church leaders for assistance. Apart from prayer, I’m not sure there is a better use of our time… so, let’s get started.
Side-note: A lovely person (not from the bible belt) who read the first draft of this article asked how I reconcile the fact that I can meet an average Joe on the street who is a Bible scholar with my claim that the average person (and my reader) is more like me, a little more Bible illiterate. I think that it is one of the many oddities of living right next to a seminary campus. It seems that many people within a certain radius of the campus know a lot about the Bible, but most people a few blocks out know very little… and I will just leave that observation here for you to ponder.