But who do you say that I am? (Luke 9:20, ESV)
This piercing question follows a simple observation question (“Who do the crowds say that I am?”). Jesus requires his disciples to consider the popular answers (John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets of old) along with the witness of his teaching and life. Jesus presses them to make sense of their observations.
Interpretation questions provide an indispensable turning point for small group discussions. Though we must observe well, we must not stop there. Wise leaders challenge people to make sense of observation through vibrant interpretation. Thus, having seen how to ask good observation questions in a small group setting, we are ready to take the next step.
One key idea will help you learn to ask good interpretation questions: Work backwards. Plant your flag on the main point of the passage, review the trail you hiked to get there, and develop questions that will guide your group back to the summit.
Since the chief goal of interpretation is to identify the author’s main point in the passage, we want to lead our groups to that end. Ideally, we want to be able to state the central theme in a single sentence.
Then it is time to work backwards. Which observations were most significant? Which questions directed me to the main point? Which questions were good but tangential? How does the argument of the passage flow from beginning to end? Which highlights will best serve the group?
My small group recently studied Isaiah 25:1-12. I stated the main point of the passage this way:
Praise God, for he will swallow up death, and he gives glimpses of that future reality now.
How did I structure my questions to guide the group toward this idea?
Beginning with the first stanza, Isaiah 25:1–5, I asked observation questions that pointed the group to previous themes in the book—such as the destruction of strong cities—and to repeated words or ideas, like strength (Isaiah 25:2, 3, 4) and the “ruthless” (Isaiah 25:3, 4, 5). I also asked what this stanza teaches about God.
These conversations set us up for the following interpretive questions that led the group to the main point:
- Why will the strong and ruthless people glorify God? How would such people glorify God? This question prods the group to see God’s victory being so complete that his enemies can do nothing but honor him for his strength. God is such a stronghold for his people that his enemies are in awe.
- Why does Isaiah 25:5 refer to “the song of the ruthless”? Probably, the ruthless would sing when victorious; if God silences this song, it means he is weakening their military power.
- Why do the verb tenses keep changing (past, present, future)? This question explores the relationship between what God has done and what he will yet do. Thus, arriving at the chapter’s second stanza (Isaiah 25:6–12), we’ll see the connection between God’s having defeated human enemies and God’s coming defeat of the greatest enemy, death. The “forever” tone of Isaiah 25:2 foreshadows the eradication of death prophesied in Isaiah 25:7-8.
Here are some final tips for asking good interpretive questions.
- Prepare, but be flexible. By all means, prepare well. Study, pray, and trust God as you prepare notes to guide your leadership of the discussion. But be flexible as well. Multiple paths of observation can lead to the same main point. Remember that you are fallible and others may correct or adjust your interpretations if they can prove it from the text. You may have even missed the passage’s main point and landed on a sub-point! Don’t dismiss unexpected responses. Push your group’s collective noses back into the text, and if they see something you didn’t, be ready to learn and rejoice. This is part of the beauty of studying the Bible in a group.
- Ask honest questions. This point is related to the previous one. Make sure that your questions are offered in a spirit of honest inquiry. Do you want to know how your group interprets the passage, or are you just waiting for them to catch up and agree with you? Be curious. Seek the truth. Remember that the Holy Spirit gives understanding in different measures and at different times. When you ask a “What did he mean?” question, be ready to listen for sensible interpretations, not just for confirmation of your own conclusions.
- Take one step at a time. Figure out the meaning of one stanza or paragraph and then move on. You don’t have to survey the entire passage before discussing the component pieces. The themes from each paragraph usually swirl together in the same current to bring the main point to shore.
- Avoid asking, “What does this mean to you?” Since God’s truth lies in the text and not (naturally) in our hearts, we can extinguish this tricky little flame for good.
What about you? What have you learned about asking good interpretive questions in a small group?