Understanding the Bible

Back to the Resources for All Page



'Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does  not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.'      2 Tim.2:15



1. How to Prepare a Bible passage (follows immediately)

2. Lead a Home Group                   


1. How to prepare a passage for  leading a study OR speaking

Obviously the final stages of preparation will be very different if you are going to lead a study group or to speak/preach on the passage. But, whatever the intended outcome, all the earlier stages of preparation must be concerned with understanding the text, in its context, and identifying both a structure and a thematic approach to the passage. 

One thing is for certain, however, the quality of the study or talk/sermon, will depend on the preparation. Have you ever had a professional painter and decorator to work in your home or office? Did you notice how keen he was on thoroughly sanding-down and preparing every surface before he applied the new decoration? Such people will tell you that the secret of a good finish is in the preparation. 

They are right, and it applies just as much to the presentation of God’s Word - and is far more important. Do not skimp your preparation - it will show. If you spend less that 6 to 8 eight hours, for instance, preparing a sermon, you’d better ask yourself why it was so short? Have you missed something? The only justifiable reason can be that you know the passage well and have already prepared it for some other use. Even so, many of us look back at old sermons and are driven to ask ourselves ‘Did I really preach this (rubbish)?’. 

A new passage cannot be properly prepared in less than 8 -12 hours. Some would say much longer. It can obviously depend on experience. If you are preparing to lead a Bible study and you have notes prepared by someone else, then clearly you have been given a head start and the time you need will be much shorter. But often such notes still need you to get to grips with the meaning of the passage for yourself. By the time you have done your research and reading-around, and derived a structure, and identified the controlling thought, and decided how to express it and illustrate it - well, the time just passes by!

A famous Bible teacher recently specified the following four characteristics of a good sermon:

1. It will bring us into the presence of God

2. It will have authority - derived from the authority of the author of the text. 

3. It will be realistic and not idealistic

4. It will be marked by apologetic as well as exposition

So the parts of this guide consist of 

1. Getting to grips with the original meaning of the text. 

Why do we do this at all? 
                                    Because God has provided us with a book in which He speaks to us*.

2. Understanding the context. 

Why is this important? 
                                    Because God has provided a progressive book in which He speaks to us*.

3. Applying the meaning of the text.
Why is it vital to do this?
                                    Because God has provided a contemporary, progressive book in which He speaks to us*.

4. Presenting the message of the passage.
Why is it so important to do this well?
                                    Because God has provided a contemporary, progressive, but complex book in which he speaks to us*.

These four titles and comments make absolutely vital points which will be expanded upon as we go along.

* Perhaps we ought to clarify this statement before we go any further. We do not mean that the Bible contains God’s word. We must never say that because it implies that some of the Bible isn't God's word. That is exactly what some people intend to mean when they say ‘the Bible contains God’s word’. We contend that the whole of the Bible is God’s word.

1. Getting to grips with the original meaning of the text

The imperative of prayer.

We cannot hope to be able to do this without prayer - and it is so easy to skimp this because we feel we must get on with the preparation! (We’ve all done it!). 
                    See I Cor.2:4,10,13 - in fact the whole chapter speaks to this issue of discerning spiritual things. 
It is hard work - see 2 Tim.2:6 - the hard working farmer - then the promise in v.7. We do the thinking, God gives the understanding. The final result depends on perspiration as well as inspiration.

Now to the business of sorting out the original meaning (Exegesis). Do not be put-off by the number of things you need to think about. They often merge into one another.

1.1 The text only has one original meaning - what God intended it to mean. 

You sometimes hear people say that a text means one thing to one person and something else to others. That cannot be right, or we would have been left in total confusion. What the person really meant to say was that the ‘application’ of the text was different for different people. For example, a call to holiness will make one person realise they have to clean up their thoughts, while another thinks of his poor financial giving. That’s different! It isn’t that the text has several meanings.

1.2. Get to know the passage really well. 

What is going on? Who are the main characters, when is it happening, where, why and how? What event is taking place? For a more poetic passage, such as in the Psalms, it will be a question of following the flow of what the writer is getting at. What illustrations are being used, and what particular point are they emphasising?

1.3. Try to work out what the ‘controlling thought’ is. 

You will often find that there is a particular verse or statement that really sums up the whole passage, so which is it?

1.4. Having identified the controlling thought, sort out how the teaching works outwards from it. 

Let’s take the example of Exodus 2. The majority of the chapter, vs.11-22, is taken up with God convincing Moses that he will be able to go to Pharaoh on behalf of God’s People. One might conclude that the controlling thought is that God will deal with our doubt and equip us to serve Him. But that is to miss the point of the whole chapter - which is that God reveals Himself, His name and what His purposes are. Everything flows for that.

1.5. At this point you should be beginning to see a ‘structure’ appearing in the meaning of the passage. If you can discern this, it will provide the structure for your presentation. But there is more to do.

1.6. Try to sort the passage out before you go to your commentaries. Be sure to use them eventually, because they are written (hopefully) by people with exegetical skills. But do not take everything they say: check which ‘stable’ they come from. Weigh them up. Does anything they say conflict with the Gospel? That is an acid test because nothing we conclude from anywhere in Scripture must conflict with the Gospel.

1.7 Try to understand any significant history or geography. In the OT, for example, do the events take place at a significant point in the history of God’s dealing with Israel? What is the biblical importance of that?

1.8 Where in the theme or argument of a book does the passage occur? Some people call this theme ’the melodic line’. Combined with the discerned purpose of the passage this will reveal the message. You will usually find that the book has a structure and finding that will illuminate your passage.

1.9 So what is the big point of the passage? What is the one thing you want your
group or your hearers to take away with them?

Some warnings:

Don’t emphasise parts or ideas that are only secondary to the main point.

Don’t try to identify doctrine from what is only a narrative description.

Don’t try to apply the main point to things that the author does not use it for.

Avoid over-subjectivism - don’t focus on your impressions rather than what the author intended. We want to know God’s agenda not impose ours.

2. Understanding the context. 

This involves us in biblical theology. (For more about this see Article 9 on the Doctrine for Everyone page) Scripture is progressive (Heb.8, Gal.3) and united (2 Tim.3:16). It all testifies to Jesus Christ so it must be interpreted in relation to him (John 5:39,40 and Luke 24:27,45).

Use the Bible Overviews on the web page of that name on this site to acquaint yourself with the place the passage has in the progressive revelation of the Bible. So ..

2.1 Locate the events in progressive salvation history and how they relate to the fulfilment in the NT.

2.2 Investigate for any implicit or explicit links between
        - the OT and the NT 
        - the things said about the future and their immediate or distant fulfilment.
        - what God says he will do and the person and work of Christ.
        - what happens under the Old Covenant and the superiority of the New Covenant

2.3 Work out how the meaning of the passage contributes to our understanding of systematic doctrine - that is the revealed character of God and those principles through which God relates and will relate to mankind and how mankind may relate to God. 

3. Applying the meaning of the text.

The conviction that we are applying here is that although the Bible was written long ago it has contemporary importance. Its principles and teaching can be applied to our beliefs and the way we live our lives now (in every age and in every place).

Rom.15:4a ‘For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us..’

Application is about finding out what our response the text should be

The Bible, as God’s word, always demands repentance (change) and faith (encouragement).

We do not need application to make the Bible relevant; it already is; but we need to understand its implications for us.

The passage may not have been written to us, but it is intended to teach us.

Application is what the Bible is for - 2 Tim.3:17.

Application is hard work.

Application in a sermon or in a Bible study is a model for private Bible reading.

3.1 As the passage was written to someone else go to them first and work out what it meant in their circumstances. Then work out the equivalent application now in our circumstances. The passage could have been meant to challenge, warn, encourage, frighten, condemn, or command. So you application should follow this purpose.

3.2 Try to identify the timeless principles, distinguishing them from their applications then. 

3.3 Consider your audience: obviously the combination of people and their needs in any audience will be different. They will be concerned with issues and problems at different levels eg. personal (eg family bereavement), national (a scandal or calamity), international (going to war), social (gambling or the value of life issues), public (crises), church issues (disenchantment), spiritual strengths and weaknesses (keen to evangelise or lack of prayer, personality (activist or thinker) and so on. 

3.4 We often don’t know what people’s problems are so we must in any case make the obvious application that passage demands.

3.5 Make the purpose of application to encourage change.

3.6 Make the applications address our hearts and minds: avoid self-obsession, encourage on outward-looking attitude. Address real issues of life and death, not imagined ones. Build a Christian view of the world.

3.7 Use contemporary language, style, illustrations from modern life.

3.8 Finally check that your illustration really comes from the text.

4. Presenting the message of the passage.

The Bible is not always easy to understand. We must nonetheless be able to communicate it. We must make its message as easy and clear and logical as possible so that it may be understood. 

If you are preparing the passage for talking or preaching, then after you have completed your study as outlined above, 

4.1 Clarify what you think the central message is. Try to write down a one-sentence summary of this. 

4.2 Clarify the purpose of this central message. Keep this in mind throughout the construction of your presentation so that it remains properly directed. 

4.3 Construct an outline - or build a structure. Devise three sub-headings through which you can apply the text. Make your subtitles the applications. For one thing this will make you think about application, often the weak point in most sermons. This also gives shape to the presentation, helping people to follow and to remember and to relate parts to the main theme. Let's say it again: the sub-headings should be about the applications. 

4.4 A good outline 
        - relates naturally to the order of the text
        - works towards a climax
        - is simple
        - draws attention to the text not the outline
        - has the same balance as the text

4.5 Fill-in what you want to say:
        - appeal to the hearer’s hearts and minds and wills.
        - show passion for your subject, but appropriate to the subject
        - make personal testimony but don’t show off
        - us the same words to mean the same things
        - explain narrative with vividness and contemporary examples
        - argue logically but be gentle when answering know objections
        - avoid jargon
        - quote others critically but acknowledge generously
        - don’t use many cross-references, they can be confusing
        - keep your audience looking at their Bibles.

4.6 Illustrations should be 
        - simple and not introduce more points
        - not just entertaining
        - good, not many
        - only be funny if you and your hearers can handle it 
        - believable
        - provide relief in heavy sections
        - short
        - surprising. 

4.7 Write your introduction when you have prepared your message: 
        - you could ask a question related to what the message is going to say (‘Do you find it difficult to know what you should say when given a chance to witness? This passage will help you to know what is most important.’)
        - use a current story to provide a basis for your subject
        - try to set the mood, establish rapport with your hearers
        - try to capture attention
        - say something totally unexpected (surprise is a useful tool to attract attention)
        - explain the background
        - connect with the last sermon in the series.

4.8 Write you conclusion:
        - summarise the main message, the big point
        - clarify how the text wants everyone to respond
        - make you final prayer serve this point.

4.9  Write yourself a helpful script:
        - ensure that you can clearly see your outline when you glance at the page
        - use underlines, capitals, colours to guide your eyes
        - full notes or short notes will depend on your experience
        - cut out everything not essential to your message

TIMING is a vital matter. Do not cut-off your hearers’ ears by going on longer than they can bear. Try it out in private, remembering that it always takes several minutes longer than at you desk. If it is too long take out complete points. Its hard but it has to be done! There is always more than there is time for. 
        - expunge secondary material. 
        - determine NOT TO AD LIB - it steals time by the bucket!
        - vary your pace
        - speak up
        - be clear; if you’re not how can they be?
        - face your audience; look them in the eye; range across you audience
        - smile
        - love them!

4.10 Apply the message to yourself. 
        Genuineness can be detected - so can pretence. 

4.11 Commitment:  don’t be surprised if you are absolutely exhausted by preaching. 

4.12  PRAY

                                                                                                With grateful thanks to Richard Coekin.

A very famous and accomplished preacher was once asked how he felt when he came down from the pulpit. He replied “Very ashamed.”

BOOK NOTE: Do you know of the writings of John Chapman of Sydney, Australia? He was a very effective communicator of the Gospel and wrote a book called 'Setting Hearts on Fire' - a guide to giving evangelistic talks. He also wrote a pithy but helpful article 'Applying the text to the listeners' in the monthly ministry magazine 'The Briefing'. If you would like to get a copy of the book or The Briefing, contact The Good Book Company in the UK (Tel. 0845 225 0880: their website is at www.thegoodbook.co.uk ) ..... or The St. Matthias Press Ltd. PO Box 225, Kingsford NSW 2032, Australia. (Their website is at www.matthiasmedia.com.au)

Back to the top

2. HOW TO Lead a Home Group

[With thanks to Richard Coekin - adapted and reproduced with permission. Copyright Richard Coekin/The Good book Co.]

Home groups can have several purposes. They can be the main channel for pastoral care as well as the focus for more intimate Bible study and prayer than Sunday meetings can achieve. Vital person-to-person relationships can be developed through such groups. However, this article is mainly concerned with the conduct of the Bible study component  - practical measures to help to truly listen to God through his word and to apply it to our lives.

'Potted Proverbs' for Home Group Leaders

1. Awake and contributing: environment and group dynamics are important. Make sure the room is adequately ventilated and lit. If it is too warm and stuffy some people may fall asleep after a day’s work, or cannot relax if it is too cool. They also need easily to see the page of their Bibles without straining. You should be seated so everyone can see you. Anyone hidden will not feel included and will find it harder to contribute.

2. Aversions to versions: although having different versions of the Bible can be helpful in elucidating the meaning of a text, it’s better to have all the same version. Otherwise you can get bogged down in arguments. Any questions about precise meaning should be settled by you in your preparation.

3. Plan the  time: you will want to give time to pray about important issues in the lives of the people at the study. But make sure there is adequate time to complete the study first. In the study you will be listening to God (which is of prime importance) and it should affect the way you pray. Be disciplined about time.

4. Cross the ball, don’t score the goals: the study should not be a monologue from you. Your aim is to lead people to discover the meaning of God’s word and apply it for themselves. Set them up with good questions and lead them to understanding.

5. Don’t always have the last word: it is an annoying and unhelpful habit of some leaders to always add a final observation on every point. This will discourage other's contributions.

6. Walk straight through the passage: try to get people to understand the sweep of the whole passage before picking-off the great verses. Leave that to the end.

7. Be cross with cross-references: by and large avoid all cross-references - they only make the study unfocussed. Get people to understand the passage in its own context. However, when another verse or passage is quoted, you should look it up.

8. Confess your sins: be willing to apply points to yourself and admit to the difficulties you have. ‘I find this command very difficult to follow …’ or ‘I used to think that this meant … but now after further thought I can see I was wrong ..’ People like to know that you are human and haven’t got everything wrapped up.

9. Entice the mice: There will always be quieter ones in the group. It may be right to leave them to their own thoughts. But it might be right to encourage them with simpler questions of comprehension - without, of course, being condescending. Growth in this ability is something for you to gain!

10. Bully the bulls: the talkers need to be contained. You can appeal to them privately to hold back or, depending on their personality (another area for your development), you can light-heartedly chide them in the group ‘This next question is for everyone except John’.

11. Trample on trivia: only rarely should you let the group get into free-flow on a subject. It could lead anywhere! Gently squash red herrings - ‘that’s interesting but not really relevant to what we are studying here.’ or ‘can we save that to another time because I want us to get to the end of the passage’.

12. Rub noses in the text: keep forcing people back to the text. It is amazing how when asked a question people will answer it from their general knowledge of the Bible rather than from the text in front of them. So ask ‘where does that come from in our passage’. In any case, even if they are answering from the text it helps the others to see where it comes from. But you may also need to be more prescriptive in the questions you ask .. ‘What four reasons for …. are given in v.5?’

13. Make time to apply: people much prefer to talk about things theoretically but must be persuaded to apply the Bible to their lives. Don’t make application a 60-second after-thought.

14. Get real, soft and serious: don’t accept generalities and vague application. Do allow for and sympathise with people’s weaknesses and struggles. But do make sure that people know that obedience to the Word of God is not an option - it’s what we’re called to as disciples.

15. Watch the watch: set your time limits and don’t exceed them. People are tired during the week and in the evenings. This will mean carefully monitoring the time all the way through the study, not just hurrying through the last few points. 

16. Pray with both Bible and diary: it’s best to have a dedicated prayer time to pray responsively to the Bible passage and for the things uppermost in everyone’s minds, personal and corporate.

Back to the top         BaBack to the Resources for All Page