Chapter 3: Some Simple Pragmatics
Our Central Focus
One of the key secrets to a successful Home Bible Study, in my experience, has been to focus on an expositional study, expounding upon the text. There is a simplicity — and a fruitfulness — to focusing on what God has said in His Word.
One of the alternatives is to take a particular topic, or some popular author's book, as the focus of a special study. This can be effective to address a specific need, or a crisis of some kind — in the marriage, in personal relationships, or raising children, etc. However, without careful and experienced guidance, topical studies can frequently lead to doctrinal divisiveness and can also impose extreme burdens on the leader if they are to be really fruitful. Furthermore, the appeal will be more narrow and exclusive of many who simply want to "feed on His Word."
(Many have undertaken group study of my wife's books, The Way of Agape and Be Ye Transformed, and they have proven to significantly change lives and heal relationships. There are individual workbooks, audio tapes, videos, and a Leader's Guide available to facilitate such group studies.)
For the general interest, an expositional Bible Study, addressing a specific book of the Bible at a time, has proven to be one of the most effective means to lay an in-depth foundation that will last a lifetime, and that will ultimately cover "the whole counsel of God." (Acts 20:27)
My personal method is simplicity itself. After serious prayer, and having selected a target book for study, I then collect a few selected commentaries on that particular book. I prefer to own my own so that I can mark them up and annotate the margins. Commentaries are not expensive, and they will quickly take their place among your most treasured investments.
A Word About Resources
Do you have a hobby? I suspect that you spend more time and money on your hobby than you are really willing to admit to yourself — or to your wife! You probably know more about that particular subject than you do your profession! It is a labor of love.
Why not make the Bible your principle hobby? Why not invest in it? It does not take much capital to accumulate a basic study library for your own home: a good concordance, a set of Bible encyclopedias (or dictionaries), a Bible atlas, and a growing collection of commentaries.
(I also own most of the better known "sets" and yet, while they can be useful, I find the most penetrating insights come from those who have specialized in a particular area or style. Some of my personal favorites have been included at the end of this brief.)
Another issue is the tempo, or pace, of the study. I have found that for most books of the Bible, a chapter each week is usually about the right pace. This allows some real in-depth exploration without getting too bogged down in too many details or tangents. There are, of course, portions of scripture — especially in the epistles — that merit a more measured and penetrating pace, but you can lose your group's attention if you don't keep it moving.
After careful, and repeated, re-reading of the chapter for the coming week, I simply glean the insights from each of several commentaries, underlining and annotating as I go. It is not difficult to stay a chapter or so ahead of your group. As the day of the study approaches, I prayerfully collect my notes from the annotations in each of my sources. It is not difficult or burdensome to gather enough to contribute a valid understanding of the chapter to be discussed.
Along the way, some specific topics or issues will emerge which will lend themselves to more specific investigation. This is where some easily available supplemental resources — such as a Bible encyclopedia or dictionary — can be handy.
(As you accumulate extensive notes and clips, etc., some careful forethought in how to file them can prove essential. Some suggestions have been included later in this brief.)
Handling Controversial Passages
There will, of course, be passages encountered that are "problems." These are generally well-known and well-documented. The easiest way to deal with them is "head on." Your commentaries will usually outline the alternative views and their implications. You don't have to take sides on controversial material. Simply present the alternatives to your group and discuss them.
Start with a careful exegesis of the passage — determine what the original text really says. You don't need to be skilled in Hebrew or Greek; Most good commentaries will provide the critical insights necessary.
Second, put the passage into perspective with the rest of Scripture as a whole. Be suspicious about any view that isn't confirmed "by two or three witnesses" — other passages which amplify or confirm the view. Always, seek "the whole counsel of God."
(I always listen to Chuck Smith's treatment of key areas — it's pretty hard to do better than this!)
Do some serious background study of basic doctrines, "rightly dividing the Word of Truth." (2 Tim 2:15) In addition to the basic plan of salvation, the issue of Law and Grace, etc., you should also have a clear understanding of the distinctiveness of Israel and the Church, the basic eschatalogical scenario, and the Spiritual gifts as foundational background.
We also have a "starter set" available which includes a briefing package, How to Study the Bible, in which I detail my own personal preferences and the pitfalls I have experienced. We also offer a Walk Thru the Bible briefing which attempts to provide a strategic overview of the entire Bible which may prove helpful.
As for teaching style, I think there always is a danger of following any rigid "formula." Many would say that the pattern for a Bible Study should be:
1) Exegesis — determining what the original language really said;
2) Exposition — explaining what the text means in context;
3) Application — applying the insights or principles to our lives.
This is straightforward enough, but be cautious about being shackled too tightly to any particular pattern. Exegesis can be important but can prove tedious unless there is a significant subtlety that needs to be brought out from the Hebrew or Greek, in contrast to the conventional rendering in the available translation.
Immediate Application, while very important, is not the only "end result" of the study. By gaining a strategic grasp of the entire Bible, one gains a context for one's own personal study that will yield a lifetime of insights and applications. Perhaps the most significant long term benefit from these studies is to instill a comprehensive awe and respect for the integrity of the whole, evidences of design of the entire package, and the discovery that Jesus Christ is on (and behind) every detail on every page.
Where to Start?
One of the most frequent questions I get asked is, "Which book should I start with?" There are many sound answers. Which book interests you the most?
I startle many with the suggestion of starting with the Book of Revelation! It is the only book in the Bible that declares a special blessing on the reader and hearer! No other book singles itself out in that respect. One of the reasons it is always such a special blessing is that a proper review will include supporting passages from virtually every other book of the Bible. (The 404 verses of Revelation include over 800 allusions from the Old Testament!) It puts God's entire plan of redemption into focus — from Genesis to Revelation.
Another sound suggestion is the Gospel of John. It has been said that it is shallow enough for a child to wade in, and deep enough for an elephant to immerse in! No matter how diverse your group — from the novice to the sophisticate — all will benefit from going through this book again. It deals with all of the basics. I have taught it many times — and each time results in new discoveries!
Another sound suggestion is the book of beginnings: the Book of Genesis. This is always a fabulous study. One can deal — or not deal — with the mysteries of creation, etc., but there is also much more. It will lend itself to your own interest profile. The really exciting discoveries aren't the scientific aspects — interesting as they may be — but the discovery that Jesus Christ is on every page! And every doctrine is based there; and every heresy is anticipated there. Great stuff.
Another favorite is the little book of Ruth. A small book, elegant literature, and yet one of the most important books of prophecy in the Old Testament!
Many like to jump into the Book of Acts. Others, one of the epistles. You can really start anywhere. Let the Holy Spirit lead you. He always knows best, if you're listening.
But here's another incentive: there is no way to better learn a specific book than to teach it. It will also be like the ship captain who left his little harbor to sail around the world. When he returned, he knew that harbor like he never knew before.
There will, of course, be rough spots in the road ahead. Heresies can emerge if your homework isn't complete. Your group can suffer from a lack of balance if you're not diligent. You will need to manage disruptive discussion cliques, and the like. But prayerful diligence will see you through.
The Role of Prayer
Prayer is, of course, your most formidable weapon. You need to be in prayer continually in preparing for the study; you must always open in prayer; and you need to have a prayer team committed to continuing to hold up the study in prayer. It is a warfare, after all.
 Our briefing pack, The Prodigal Heirs, may be helpful.
 From Here to Eternity includes a basic review.
 See our briefing pack, The Spiritual Gifts, for a primer.