Growth groups have commonly been called ‘Bible study groups’ and not without good reason. Studying the Bible together is at the heart of what we do. It’s by no means the only thing we do in our groups, but it is central. Studying the Bible has a purpose. We’re not seeking to fill our heads with facts about God, but to fill our hearts and minds with the knowledge and love of God. Studying the Bible is about relationship, about getting to know God, and living in relationship with him. It’s not a bunch of people sharing our best ideas about God. Rather, it’s about listening to God speak in his word, the Bible, and responding to his revelation by trusting him and changing the way we live.
It’s important to recognise how the Bible views itself. We should come to terms with the Bible on it’s own terms, not what we might like it to be. Rather than being the best inspirational thoughts of human beings about God, the Bible claims to be unique expirational thoughts from God himself. This is seen most clearly in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, when he writes:
15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:15-17, my emphasis)
The word translated as God-breathed is theopneustos, literally ‘God-spirited’. While the Bible is made up of 66 different books, with a variety of human authors, there is one ultimate author behind it all. God has spoken. The Bible is his breathed-out word.
We find the same perspective in other parts of the Bible. The Apostle Peter wrote:
20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:20-21)
Two authors at work: the human writer and God. The ultimate author is God himself, and the writer is God’s prophet, or mouthpiece. The Holy Spirit has a message for us, and the Bible authors have passed this on.
The Bible therefore is a prophetic book. Not in the commonly understood sense of predicting the future, though some parts of the Bible clearly do this, but God speaking a message through human beings. This has always been God’s purpose, ultimately preparing us to receive the complete and final revelation of God in his Son, Jesus Christ. The writer to the Hebrews begins his letter with these words:
1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.
God has much to say to us. The Bible is his message, handed down through various people in various ways at various times. But God’s ultimate message to us is found in his Son. Jesus Christ shows us God in all his glory and he reveals what the purpose of life is all about.
The implications of understanding the nature of the Bible are very important. We need to sit under the authority of Scripture. Rather than judging God’s words by our standards, we should allow God’s word to critique our minds and hearts. As we study the Bible in our groups we should anticipate having our ideas challenged and changed. We should be willing to give up our preconceived ideas about God and have them replaced with God’s revelation of himself. It’s a word of love, grace and hope, for it leads us to Jesus, and through him into relationship with God. It’s a word that, when embraced, will bring satisfaction for our souls.
A transformational word
The Scriptures quoted above also give us insight into the purpose and power of God’s word. If we begin reading the Bible at the start, then the power of God’s word shouldn’t surprise us. God speaks and life comes into existence. This was true for the creation and it is equally true for new life in relationship with God through Jesus. 2 Timothy 3:15 reveals that Scripture is able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. The Bible shines a light upon Jesus Christ. He is the main topic and focal point of the Bible. Jesus is the fulfilment of all God’s promises and everyone who turns to him and trusts in him will be saved from God’s judgment and brought into relationship with God.
Expect people to be changed as they study the Bible. For some the change will be revolutionary. People will discover how God loves them, and has acted to save them. They will view the events of Jesus death and resurrection with wonder and amazement, They will humble themselves before God to accept his gift of forgiveness and life. What a wonderful reason to study the Bible in our growth groups! People entering into the joy of eternal life. And people being reminded of what they have believed and encouraged to continue their trust in Jesus.
We also see that all Scripture, not just our favourite passages, are useful for making us thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). As we study any part of the Bible there are two types of questions to be asking: i) Wise for salvation type questions; and ii) thoroughly equipped for good works type questions. To put it in other terms: How does this part of the Bible help me to understand what God has done to bring me into a relationship with himself and what should this relationship look like? This has to do with understanding and responding to the gospel of Jesus.
Our salvation has a purpose for life now. We’ve been created in Christ Jesus to do good works that God has prepared for us to do. Paul makes this clear in his letter to the Ephesians:
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8-10, my emphasis)
We are emphatically not saved by doing good works, as if we could ever do enough. But we are saved, through Christ Jesus, in order to do good works. God has a plan and purpose for our lives, here and now. He calls us to live as his people, to make a difference, to impact others for good, to bring blessing to those around us, to build up his people, to seek the welfare of others, to honour God. This is what the saved life is about. And notice again what Scripture does: it makes us thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17).
Why wouldn’t we study the Bible in our growth groups, when it can do this? It can lead us to Christ and equip us for life with Christ. The Bible not only has authority from God, it is sufficient to equip us for living in relationship with God. We don’t need to be seeking new and special revelations from God. He’s given us everything we need. We aren’t left to the whims of the gurus and priests. We don’t need to try and find our own way in the dark. The Bible can make us thoroughly equipped. If we believe this, then we will keep calling one another back to the Scriptures. God’s word will be a lamp for our feet and a light on our path.
How to study the Bible
The key to knowing how to study the Bible is knowing what the Bible is and what it can do. It’s the same with anything. Take dynamite: we should understand what it is, the impact it can have, handle it with care, and keep it away from unstable people with matches! Likewise, we should recognise the power of God’s word. The Bible can lead people to a saving relationship with God as they come to trust in Jesus. Scripture can fully equip people to live lives that are pleasing to God. So let’s handle it with care, with humility, with expectation.
It starts with the leader
As leaders, let’s prayerfully come before God, asking him to enable us to understand the message of the Bible, grasp it’s implications, and put it into practice in our lives. It must start with us. We lead with example and with words. If we haven’t taken the Bible seriously and applied it to our own lives, this will come across in our studies. They will be half-baked, superficial, and academic. Application will be forgotten or tacked on at the end. We should be impacted by the Bible ourselves first and foremost.
Many of us will be leading studies that have been prepared by someone else. This doesn’t excuse us from preparation and personal application in advance. Ideally, we should come to the growth group having already been profoundly impacted by the passage we will be studying. It’s not a bad idea to keep a notebook where you can write down what you have learned from the Bible, and how you plan to respond.
Engaging the group
Your job isn’t to give a sermon in your lounge room. Someone else can do that at church. We are seeking leaders who will help the members of their groups on a journey of discovery from the passage of Scripture. It’s important for people to learn how to understand and apply the Bible for themselves. We don’t want them dependent on preachers and commentaries. Growth groups provide interactive opportunities for people to get into the Bible in creative ways together.
Four elements to Bible study
- Bible study begins with observing what the passage of Scripture is saying. For this we need Bibles open and we will keep encouraging people back into the text to see what it says. There are so many creative ways to do this. Don’t be limited to question and answer strategies. Take a look at the resources listed below for some excellent suggestions.
- Secondly, we need to understand the message of the passage. What is it actually saying? What’s the big idea? How do the various parts support this understanding? Are there words, phrases, ideas that people don’t understand? Get the group working together to grasp the message clearly.
- Thirdly, we need to grasp the implications of this part of God’s word. How does it change my understanding of God? Of Jesus? Of what it means to be a Christian? Of how I trust God in the difficult times? Of joy in the face of suffering? Of things that I can be tempted to replace God with? And so on. This is about bridging from the message of the passage to it’s implications for how I understand God, his word, and my response? Some of this work will help build our theology (our understanding of God), some with challenge our wrong ideas, some will strengthen our right understanding, some will lead to significant changes in our thinking and practice.
- Lastly, and this is the goal and purpose of the Bible study, we should consider how to apply our understanding of this passage. This is what should happen in relationships. As I discover my friend loves drinking coffee, then I can offer to make him one or take him to a great coffee shop. Understanding leads to action. The beauty of studying the Bible together in groups is that we can support each other to take action. We can gently encourage each other to take the Scriptures seriously. We can pray for the changes Tom is seeking to make. We can ask God to help Jenny as she struggles to trust God in an area of her life. We can spur each other on to love and good works, because this is what the Bible study is all about. As it says in Hebrews 10:23-25:
23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Throughout the week
Most groups only meet once a week. Some meet less frequently than this. We encourage the leaders of growth groups, together with all the members of these groups, not to see things stopping and starting on a weekly basis. The Bible calls for real change, not just answering questions correctly in a study once a week. It’s about ongoing transformation. So when we see one another at church, let’s continue to encourage each other. You might ask a friend how that change they were planning to make with how they relate to their boss is going. You could send an email saying that you’re praying for them. You could offer to catch up over a cuppa and talk more about what you were learning in the group and the difference it’s making to each of your lives. Make it real!
Colin Marshall, Growth Groups
Michael Hanlon and James Leitch, Spice it up
Rod and Karen Morris, Leading Better Bible Studies