A New York Times advertisement of Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book had a picture of a puzzled adolescent reading a letter. The ad copy read as follows:
This young man has just received his first love letter. He may have read it three or four times, but he is just beginning. To read it as accurately as he would like would require several dictionaries and a good deal of close work with a few experts of etymology and philology. However, he will do all right without them.
He will ponder over the exact shade of meaning of every word, every comma. She has headed the letter, “Dear John.” What, he asks himself, is the exact significance of those words? Did she refrain from saying “Dearest” because she was bashful? Would “My Dear” have sounded too formal?
Jeepers, maybe she would have said “Dear So-and-So” to anybody! A worried frown will now appear on his face. But it disappears as soon as he really gets to thinking about the first sentence. She certainly wouldn’t have written that to anybody!
And so he works his way through the letter, one moment perched blissfully on a cloud, the next moment huddled miserably behind an eight ball. It has started a hundred questions in his mind. He could quote it by heart. In fact, he will—to himself—for weeks to come.
The advertisement concludes: “If people read books with anything like the same concentration, we’d be a race of mental giants.”
Your task is to foster in your group the kind of passion for Scripture that reading a love letter instills in the beloved. You will take the need that the introduction opened up and dive into Scripture to find comfort, hope and answers.
In our sample study the group is being stimulated by a reminder of the life and power that we find in God’s Word. We receive a promise that we will meet Jesus there. Usually it’s just a sentence that makes the transition from the topic to the text.
TRANSITION TO TEXT John 1 describes how the Word (God’s message to the people of planet earth) was revealed to us in Christ. Read John 1:1–5, 14–18.
The authors of LifeBuilder Bible Studies use the New International Version of the Bible. This means that when they quote from Scripture they quote from the NIV. So the simplest thing will be to use the NIV. To get away from confusion and tangents caused by differing versions and study Bible notes as well as to make seekers and young Christians more comfortable, I often print out copies of the section to be studied for my group. The complete NIV text is available at www.biblegateway.com. LifeBuilders are also easily compatible with the NRSW and TNIV. Other versions of Scripture will work fine with these studies as well. For many Christians the KJV or NASB remains the version they most trust, so feel free to use these guides with the text that is appropriate to your context.
If there is someone in the group who you think would be comfortable reading this text as a unit, ask him or her to do that. Some groups go around a circle with everyone reading a verse. This can be good for longer sections—where you are covering a chapter or two. But there are inevitable bumps as versions vary and people lose their places. Further, some people are more comfortable reading aloud than others are, especially when biblical language may be unfamiliar. For shorter readings it will be smoothest to simply ask one person to read through the text.
When you study a historical narrative, such as those found in the Gospels and Acts, it is sometimes fun to read it dramatically. Assign parts for the various characters in the story. This can bring a passage to life and give you a sense of being there.
In some studies where the text is long or complicated, the reading may be broken into sections. In such a case you will be instructed to read at a couple points. In most cases it’s best to read it all through as a unit to get the whole teaching or story as a complete thought.
In case you haven’t opened your Bible yet, here is the text so that you can follow the logic of the rest of the sample study from God’s Word.
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning. 3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. 14The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ ” 16From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. 17For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. (Jn 1:1–5, 14–18)
The first question after the text is read is designed to give an overview of what is happening in the passage. It is a fact-based question that should direct people to give answers directly from the Scripture. Here’s what the leader’s note for question 1 of this study says.
This overview question is designed to give a brief overview of the themes of the passage. We’ll go into more detail on each verse later, so don’t dwell on this too long.
THE OVERVIEW QUESTION What do we learn about the Word in these verses?
The question will generally draw on all of the passage to help people get clear about what’s going on. Stay on the surface with this observation question. This is not the time for in-depth interpretation. More on observation and interpretation in the next chapter!
The next two questions are designed to help the group connect to what is going on in the verses. In this case question 2 is an observation question that points to how we see God. Question 3 asks for a personal response to what is happening in the text.
In a narrative study there will often be a question about what it would be like to be present as one of the characters. In such cases the overview question may also be a question that gets the reader inside the text so that both purposes are served by one question.
Getting inside the passage, perhaps the most critical step for contemporary readers, is what helps us relate to what is going on. Many will not engage until they feel connected. When we get inside the passage, we have an opportunity to become God’s beloved children reading a love letter from our Father. Excitement builds and we are motivated to discover what is in that letter and what it really means.
GETTING INSIDE THE PASSAGE What do God’s actions in these verses reveal about his character? How do you respond to this picture of Christ as the Word?