What Kind of Bible Study Should You Lead?

Not all Bible studies are created equal. Some are more effective than others with particular groups of people. So how do you decide what sort of study to lead?

Georgia National Guard (Creative Commons), 2013

Georgia National Guard (2013), Creative Commons

One common approach is to define your Bible study group based on what sort of people you expect to attend. The strength of this approach lies in the process of putting yourself in other people’s shoes and designing your Bible study in a way that best serves the group. Expert marksmen will choose the best model to fit the people God has given them.

So you might think in categories like this:

  1. Investigative (or Evangelistic) Bible Studies introduce unbelievers to the claims of Jesus in the Gospels. We might even call these groups “Bible discussions” to make them sound more approachable to unchurched people.
  2. Growth Bible Studies help professing believers to deepen their walks with Christ.
  3. Training Bible Studies teach people how to study the Bible for themselves and thus equip mature believers to use careful OIA skills in their personal Bible study.
  4. Leadership Bible Studies encourage church or small group leaders with biblical principles for shepherding others with the word.
  5. Devotional Bible Studies help committee members or retreat participants to ground their meetings in truth from God’s word.

Thinking in such categories help us to lay down our lives for others and tailor our approach to their needs. We think proactively about who will attend, and we work to create a positive user experience for group members.

However, there are also a few dangers to this approach.

  • We might tend to think of some Bible studies as “OIA studies” and other studies as “not OIA studies.” But no matter who attends our studies—believer or unbeliever, mature or immature—we should always do thoughtful OIA study. OIA is the best method we can use whenever we approach the Scriptures.
  • We might be led to believe that some Bible study groups need to focus on the gospel, while others need to focus on the Christian life or discipline or growth. But we should see the gospel of Jesus Christ in every passage of Scripture, regardless of who attends the study.
  • We might expect some Bible studies to focus on application and other studies to focus on education. But God wrote the Scripture to produce change in all who read it. No Bible studies should be mere intellectual exercises.

As you figure out what sort of Bible study to lead, another set of categories may help you avoid these dangers. Next week I’ll offer another proposal.

Question: What other kinds of Bible studies could we add to our list?

Three Kinds of Shame

Sin is muddy. When it splashes, we rightly want to clean it up. But sometimes our zeal to clean causes us to oversimplify sin’s muddiness by seeking trite answers for complex situations. Wise counselors and teachers recognize shame’s complexity, and they seek to understand the mud before laboring to clean it.

A few days ago, The Gospel Coalition posted an article I wrote about Three Kinds of Shame. I examine Jesus’ healing of the man born blind in John 9 to show the process of dealing with great shame. These three categories help us to sort through such shame:

  1. My sin against God
  2. Others’ sin against me
  3. The work of God in me

These reflections came out of a talk I gave in October at the DiscipleMakers Fall Conference.

At the end of the clip is a link to the complete talk recording.

Or, if you prefer the bite-sized article version, check it out here!

Prepare Yourself to Resist Sexual Immorality

According to Proverbs 7:1-5, your battle with sexual immorality begins by writing God’s words of wisdom on your heart. You can’t wait until your hormones kick in before deciding how to honor God with your body.

This week I’d like to take that main point and run it through the Application Matrix to generate a variety of potential applications.

Inward Application

The battle approaches. Time to lock and load.

Head

Do you believe this battle is worth fighting? Do you believe it’s possible to fight and win, or have you given up, thinking that immorality will simply characterize the rest of your days? What passages of Scripture most motivate you in this realm? Do you believe God’s Spirit working through the word is powerful enough to defeat the sin in your heart? Or do you expect to keep doing the same thing and get a different result?

Heart

Generation Bass, Creative Commons

Generation Bass, Creative Commons

What rules your heart? What have you written there? Can you quote the Hunger Games movies more readily than Scripture? Do you want things to be any different? I don’t just mean the guilt. I mean the holiness of life and denial of self that will produce true and lasting joy in knowing God.

Hands

Take time this week to memorize Proverbs 7:1-5. Write these words on the tablet of your heart. Cut a bit of time on social media to work on the memorization. Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,” and call understanding your intimate friend. Jesus is your best friend and counselor; get to know him better this week.

Outward Application

One of the best ways to get your focus off yourself is to consider others. As you build your influence for Christ and help others to write the word on their hearts, you can’t help but draw closer to the Lord yourself.

Head

Whom has God put in your life, whom you can serve and lead in godly wisdom? What Scripture passages would be good to help them write on their hearts?

Heart

How can you help others to value what the Lord values? How can you avoid merely giving people a list of rules and behaviors, and instead help them identify the desires of their hearts that lead them to commit immorality (pleasure, escape, control)?

Hands

Perhaps you can spend time this week practicing memory verses with those you lead. You can ask what they’re learning from the word. You can ask what will be their plan when they face temptation (how they can choose intimacy with Christ their wisdom over the false intimacy of pornography or immoral relationships).

Conclusion

God wants to change specific people in specific ways and so conform them to the image of Christ. Reading, writing, and speaking about immorality won’t guarantee change. Only repentance and obedience show our faith to be true. Will you work out your salvation this week, even as God works his perfect will in you?

The Best and Worst Part of T4G

T4GI’m on my way home from Together for the Gospel (T4G), a biennial conference for pastors and church leaders. This was my first time attending, and I find myself refreshed and re-energized for the next season of ministry.

T4G is big. It’s held in a big arena (KFC Yum! Center, home of the University of Louisville basketball team). It draws a big crowd (over 7,000 this year). It sends every attendee home with a big stack of books (I have 44). There’s a big screen, big singing, and big lines for the restrooms.

The biggest thing about it, however, is the lineup of speakers. Perhaps you’ve heard of some of these men:

  • Mark Dever
  • Thabiti Anyabwile
  • Al Mohler
  • Kevin DeYoung
  • David Platt
  • Matt Chandler
  • Ligon Duncan
  • John MacArthur
  • John Piper

These men have big ministries and big personalities. I imagine most attendees are drawn to T4G for the opportunity to sit under such colossal preachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Therein lies what I found to be both the best and worst thing about T4G: our time in the word of God.

Some of the speakers delivered the word with such clarity and power that I’ll feel the effects for years to come.

  • David Platt spoke of Moses’ intercession for the people of God in Exodus 32 and 33.  Moses knows the perfections, purposes, and promises of God are unchanging, but the plans of God are unfolding. Therefore, he pleads for God’s mercy on sinners. He pleads for God’s presence and power among his people. He pleads for God’s glory in the earth. Now, every time I read Exodus 32-33, these points will stick with me.
  • Ligon Duncan spoke of Numbers 5:1-4 and God’s purpose for expelling from the camp people with skin diseases, discharges, and contact with dead bodies. But Luke shows Jesus touching lepers, bleeders, and the dead. He does what the Old Testament code could not do: He makes them clean. How does he make the unclean clean? By going outside the camp himself to suffer their reproach (Heb 13:10-13). Thanks to Dr. Duncan, I’ll never read Leviticus and Numbers the same way again.
  • John MacArthur spoke of the mass defection of Jesus’ disciples in John 6, and he drew out piercing implications for our ministries in our churches. He showed me how to read and understand this long and difficult chapter.
  • John Piper explained why Romans 9 comes after Romans 8, and how the incredible promises of Romans 8 would mean nothing without the truths of Romans 9. So many Jews in Paul’s day didn’t believe Christ. Did this mean God was being unfaithful to his promises to them? And if so, how could we ever be certain of his promises to us (no condemnation, no separation from his love)? Piper gave me a broad context in which to read Romans 8-11, and that context will help me to study these chapters in greater detail on my own.

These were the highlights for me.

What was the common thread? These best parts of T4G all came when speakers gave me confidence that I could do what they were doing. They showed me how to see what they were seeing in the Scripture. I learned how to read and study and apply and teach these texts. I won’t need to listen to the recordings of these talks over and over to be filled with the truth. These men launched me into deeper study of God’s word, increased hope in Christ, and more fervent desire for the salvation of unbelievers.

What was the worst part of T4G?

It came at those times when I found myself sitting there thinking:

  • “I could never do what this guy is doing.”
  • “This speaker is way smarter than anyone else in the room, especially me.”
  • “Wow, praise God for raising him up to have such influence for Christ, but no-one else listening to him will ever be able to replicate his teaching when they leave this conference.”

Now there is much sin in my heart, and sometimes my inability to get moving simply results from my own dullness.

But I wonder, too, if there’s a downside to the “bigness” of such a lineup. While some teachers are more skilled at “showing their work”—thus inspiring their hearers to continue what they have begun—others do a better job of wowing and impressing. And what can I say? I usually love to be wowed and impressed.

T4G had its fair share of wowing and impressing. But the wowing and impressing will be forgotten as soon as I get home and have to help with the backlog of dishes and yard work and play time with my kids. I’ll also have to get right to work on a pile of projects at work.

The moments of real training, however, will bear fruit long into the future.

Announcing My First Book!

How’s your time in the Word?

Pre-order now from Cruciform Press. Coming soon to Amazon.

I’ve blogged long enough that most of my ideas now lie buried deep within this site’s bowels. I’ve done my best to make the most important posts accessible in the main menu, but there’s only so much I can do without exhausting new visitors. And some of those ideas deserve to stay buried. After all, didn’t the Sage of Israel once say something about the making of many blogs (Eccl 12:12)? It’s in the Hebrew, I assure you.

Well, I’ve done my best to assemble all the really important stuff in one place for you. And the nice people at Cruciform Press offered to blow off the dust, spiff it up, and publish this baby. I must say it’s made my life much more interesting of late.

Be honored, dear reader, for you are privy to this special, humorous announcement—bowels and all [1]—with Scripture liberally removed from its context. I need to keep you on your toes (which look great in sandals this time of year, by the way—Song 7:1), and my About page practically promises I’ll do it from time to time. Those whom I love, I discipline (Heb 12:7-8). The rest of the world must hold themselves content with the respectable—not to be confused with boring—Public Service Announcement.

You may like to know that my friend and former pastor Tedd Tripp wrote the book’s Foreword. And Wheaton College English Professor Leland Ryken has praised the book for “the accuracy of the proposed methodology for interacting with the Bible, and the practical approach to the subject.” Jerry Bridges, author of The Pursuit of Holiness [2], wrote, “I look forward to using it to improve my own Bible study.”

If you’ve benefitted from this wonderful OIA approach to the Bible (observe, interpret, apply), this book could be your opportunity to help train others. And if you get to read the book, I’d be tickled to hear what you think; so please feel free to drop me a line.

Pre-order now from Cruciform Press. Coming soon to Amazon.
——————–
[1] Though for the record, my wife and exactly 50% of my children simply do not appreciate my sense of humor. I wonder what is the proportion among the blog’s readership…?

[2] This is one of those affiliate links that help you to support this site at no extra cost to yourself.

You Can’t Resist Immorality with an Empty Weapon

Ken (2008), Creative Commons

Ken (2008), Creative Commons

In Proverbs 7, Solomon unmasks immorality’s deception to help us stand against it. But we won’t be ready to skirmish unless we first lock and load. You can’t win a battle with an empty weapon.

1 My son, keep my words
and treasure up my commandments with you;
2 keep my commandments and live;
keep my teaching as the apple of your eye;
3 bind them on your fingers;
write them on the tablet of your heart.
4 Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,”
and call insight your intimate friend,
5 to keep you from the forbidden woman,
from the adulteress with her smooth words. (Prov 7:1-5, ESV)

Observe Key Words

First observe three key words: “keep,” “my,” and “words.”

Keep

The word “keep” is repeated 4 times.

The first 3 repetitions are all parallel. Keep my words. Keep my commandments. Keep my teaching. “Treasure up my commandments” is sandwiched in the middle and fits the idea well. We should get the idea that keeping the commandments is not the same thing as obeying the commandments (what we usually mean by “keeping a command”). It has more to do with treasuring, storing, valuing, or guarding.

The one who keeps the commandments is the one who hungrily savours every word and fends off any threat of dilution, forgetfulness, or spin.

Notice now the twist in verse 5. This compulsive hoarding of wisdom (and keeping it close) will keep you from the forbidden woman (that is, from immorality). When you keep (protect) wisdom, wisdom keeps (protects) you. Thus the opposite should come as no surprise: The one caught by immorality is the one who has failed to guard wisdom (the one who lack sense – Prov 7:7).

My

Observe next how Solomon likewise plays with the word “my,” a pronoun of possession. There’s a reason possession is nine-tenths of the law.

My son” – you, the audience, are a possession of the one speaking to you.

My words,” “my commandments,” “my commandments,” “my teaching” – the words of wisdom are a precious possession, but freely available to you.

“Say to wisdom, ‘You are my sister’” – keeping the words of wisdom will teach you a thing or two about possession. You’ll learn intimacy from the one who was intimate with you.

Words

“Words” bracket this stanza. The one who keeps Solomon’s words (Prov 7:1) is kept from immorality’s smooth words (Prov 7:5).

For this reason, I write. For this reason, we speak truth to one another. This battle will always be one of words. Which words will rule your heart? Whose promises will you treasure deep within?

Observe Structure

Now that we’ve noticed how the key words are used, we can fit the pieces together. This stanza is structured as a chiasm, a pretty common literary device in ancient literature where the second half is a mirror image of the first half. The point is often to draw attention to the center.

A Keep my words – Prov 7:1

B Life-giving commandments become the apple of your eye - Prov 7:2

C Make sure these words fill your heart and are bound on your fingers - Prov 7:3

B’ Intimate insight/wisdom becomes your sister – Prov 7:4

A’ Be kept from immorality’s smooth words – Prov 7:5

The Main Idea

Like an arrow, the passage’s structure points right to verse 3. Something must be written on the tablet of your heart. The words found there will seep out of your fingers into your everyday choices. Solomon already covered this ground in his formula for change in Prov 4:20-27: Wisdom must come in the ears, through the heart, and out the fingertips.

Now he gets specific and applies his formula to the realm of sexual temptation.

If you’re tired of capitulating and want to get in the ring with your sexual sin, your training begins now. You must hear the words of wisdom. You need to get them inside, and you need to keep them there. Guard the commands, memorize the Word, serve the Lord. Your fight doesn’t begin when you’re looking at seedy websites. Your resistance begins long before.

The battle is coming, and your cartridge is empty. You need to fill it with rounds of ammo. Check the safety. Clean the barrel. Let’s lock and load.

But know this, soldier. You’ll still lose this battle if your hope lies in your ability to pack your own ammo. If that’s all you get from this post, you’re doomed.

What you need is a companion. An intimate friend. A sibling (Prov 7:4).

Your hope is in that wisdom which came down from heaven to be your friend. That man of wisdom who called you “Mine” long before you considered him yours. The Word (John 1:1) whose Father can keep you from stumbling and present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy (Jude 1:24-25).

When he unzips you and steps inside, immorality won’t ever stand a chance. It’s no longer a fair fight.

Is Your Bible Study Group-Centered or Christ-Centered?

The main goal of group Bible studies is to help people know God through his Son Jesus Christ. And the chief advantage of the group format is interaction.

Sometimes that chief advantage can steal the limelight, and the main goal unintentionally becomes the understudy. Or for the non-theatrical types: that chief advantage can steal the ball, and the main goal gets benched.

In other words, we can get so excited by the positive interaction between group members that we subtly slide our focus from knowing God to knowing each other. And since knowing each other is a great thing, we might not notice the shift.

Marco Belluci (2005), Creative Commons

Marco Belluci (2005), Creative Commons

Here are some questions to help you evaluate where your group’s gaze lies.

  1. Do group members spend more time sharing about their problems or testifying to God’s grace in their lives?
  2. Does your Bible study always land on the same applications, or is there a sense of forward movement and change?
  3. Do people depend on the leader to do all the thinking, or do they actively engage in the study?
  4. Is there general agreement and affirmation on most things, or do people feel free to challenge and disagree with one another?
  5. If the leader had to stop leading the group, would the group have another leader trained and ready to take over?
  6. How long has it been since new people joined the group?
  7. Would someone new have a hard time fitting in?
  8. If any unbelievers unexpectedly showed up, is there a chance they might meet God among you (1 Cor 14:24-25)?
  9. Does your group see Jesus in every passage?
  10. If your group discussed a book other than the Bible, would the discussion be any different?

What other diagnostic questions might help you to evaluate your group’s focus?

Memorize Chapters or Books Instead of Verses

There’s no magic to memorizing long passages of Scripture. It takes hard work, but anyone can do it.

So writes Jemar Tisby in his excellent post entitled “How to Memorize Entire Books of the Bible.” Tisby believes God’s Word is powerful. Tisby claims God’s Word evokes a response. Tisby claims that God spoke his Word in books and not just in verses.

I’m inclined to agree with him on all points. Memory verses, without a clear accounting for context, are just as likely to lead us away from the truth as toward it.

And there’s no magic to memorizing long portions of Scripture. But I can attest to its value.

In the summer of 1997, on break from college, I gave myself to the task of memorizing Proverbs 1-9. A teacher at a Bible camp had inspired me with the incredible value of these chapters, so I determined to commit them to memory. Ever since, I’ve recited them about once per week.

Over these 17 years, my love for wisdom has grown more than I expected. Passages like Prov 5:7-23 and Prov 7:1-5 pop out when I face temptation. Prov 1:22 comes to mind when I’m making a dumb choice. Prov 3:1-12 always reminds me that honoring the Lord is worth it. Prov 2:6-11 comes to mind when I’m discouraged and feel like reminding the Lord (well, myself, really) of how he’s promised to work.

I’m not more noble or more committed or more righteous for having accomplished this feat of memory. Actually, I think the frequent repetition of these ideas makes me feel more dependent on the Lord than I would otherwise be.

And I’d have it no other way.

Check it out!

Unmasking Immorality’s Deception

In just a few weeks, the largest amphibious invasion in the history of the world will have its 70th anniversary. Operation Overlord turned the tide of World War II when more than 160,000 American, British, and Canadian troops landed on Normandy beaches (supported by more than 195,000 naval personnel in 5,000 ships) and began pushing into the European continent.

While you’ve probably heard of the D-Day Normandy invasion, you may not have heard of its partner invasion, Operation QuicksilverThat’s because the Quicksilver invasion didn’t actually occur; it was a spectacular deception.

In Operation Quicksilver, the Allied command took their most famous general, George S. Patton—the general whom the Nazis respected and feared the most—and put him in command of the 1st U.S. Army Group (FUSAG) stationed in Dover, England, just 21 miles across the English Channel from Pas-de-Calais, France.

Inflatable Sherman Tank

Inflatable Sherman Tank

FUSAG had no troops, except on paper. Its artillery units consisted of rubber inflatable tanks. Its transport trucks were likewise inflatable and useless for any real combat purpose. The group’s mission was to convince the Nazis that the Allied invasion would land at Pas-de-Calais, and not at Normandy, hundreds of kilometers to the southwest.

Nazi agents undercover in England bought into the deception and fed wrong information back to Berlin. The Nazi high command was so bamboozled that they continued reinforcing their defenses at Pas-de-Calais for days after the landings at Normandy. They were convinced that the Normandy nuisance was merely a diversionary force, and that the real threat lay with General Patton’s imminent attack at Calais.

Proverbs 7 and the Forbidden Woman

But you were expecting a post about Bible study and not military history, right? What does Operation Quicksilver and the fictitious FUSAG have to do with Proverbs 7?

We, like the Nazi forces occupying France, are under threat of imminent assault. “The forbidden woman” is not our friend, as wisdom ought to be (Prov 7:4). The forbidden woman seeks to slay a mighty throng (Prov 7:26), and her headquarters leads nowhere but the grave (Prov 7:27). Her mightiest invasions are assisted by the spectacular deceptions of smooth words (Prov 7:5). Be on your guard.

Remember that “the forbidden woman” in Proverbs is not any particular person, but she represents every enticement to sexual immorality that you and I, whether male or female, experience. If we don’t understand her true tactics, we’ll fall for her misdirection and continue reinforcing the wrong defenses.

Thus, in Proverbs 7, Solomon unmasks her deception. He exposes her true battle plan. He details her aggressive and seductive tactics so we might be ready to fend them off. Will you listen? Are you ready to engage?

The logic of the passage flows as follows: To prepare for battle, you must lock and load with Scripture (Prov 7:1-5). Know that those who look for trouble will always find it (Prov 7:6-9). The enemy’s tactics involve all five senses and few extra tricks, but they’re not hard to recognize if you have the sense to do so (Prov 7:10-20). Make no mistake, this battle is for death or life. Which of the two do you want (Prov 7:21-27)?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll unpack each section in more detail.

10 Good (but not Great) Reasons to Join a Bible Study

Though the chief advantage of Bible studies (in contrast to sermons, classes, and personal study) is interaction, this advantage does not necessarily give us a strong purpose. We rightly ask, “Why should we interact together about the Bible?” What is our goal? What are we after? We could do many activities in groups; why might we choose to study the Bible instead of doing something else?

And while some people might join a Bible study for evil or foolish reasons—such as “to learn how to tear down the Bible and everything it stands for” or “to find someone to hook up with”—I think such motives are pretty rare. What’s far more common is for people to join Bible studies for pretty good reasons.

Good reasons are good reasons and not bad reasons (duh); that’s why they motivate reasonable people. They become problematic, however, when they supplant the best reasons. Thus, missing the bullseye, we give our time and attention (that is, we give glory) to things other than the Lord, and we become guilty of idolatry.

Brian Barnett (2007), Creative Commons

Brian Barnett (2007), Creative Commons

Beware these good reasons for holding or attending Bible studies:

1. To get to know people

2. To learn about the Bible

3. To support my church or the people in the study

4. To sit under a gifted leader

5. To be a part of something great

6. To make new friends, or to deepen existing friendships

7. To be in a supportive environment

8. To build a tightly knit community

9. To develop more theological insight or biblical understanding

10. To grow as a Christian

Let me repeat: these reasons are all good. We should have Bible studies for reasons like these.

But let’s keep the best reason front and center. The good reasons are good only when they serve the best reason. What is the best reason?

To know God through his Son Jesus Christ

God spoke his Word to show himself to us. And God’s Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). Though God spoke in many ways to the prophets, he has now spoken his Word in these last days by his Son, the glory of God, the imprint of God’s nature, the only purification for sin, and the supreme power in all the universe (Heb 1:1-4).

We lead Bible studies to introduce people to Jesus (Acts 17:2-3). And we attend Bible studies to find eternal life by knowing God and his Son Jesus Christ (John 17:3). God has made himself knowable, and we study his knowable word so we might know Jesus, the living Word.

Winsome community and cogent education are beautiful recruiters. But let’s make sure we give people something that will last forever and address their deepest needs.