Lesson 3: How can I come to know Scripture better as a volunteer?
Knowing Scripture Better
By Dr. Amy L. Peeler
The lament of declining Biblical knowledge has become a repeated refrain. Whether or not the members of your youth group provide evidence of this decline or not, it is one of the most important tasks of youth leaders to equip their young people with a knowledge of and passion for the Bible; for everyone—no matter how much they know about Scripture—could always learn more.
If, then, it is your job to teach God’s Word, that implies the sometimes scary corollary that you need to know it yourself. Lack of Biblical knowledge keeps many people from volunteering for ministry with young people. So let me begin with this comfort: you do not need to know everything about the Bible to teach. In fact, no one knows everything about the Bible (I say this as someone whose full-time job is to teach the Bible!). The most important qualification for ministry is a commitment to learn more about the Bible. As you learn—and struggle in your learning—your youth will be inspired to do the same; more inspired, I think, than if you acted like you had all the answers.
That being said, it is still a legitimate fear to be in front of the youth group or Sunday school class and be asked (what seems like) a simple Bible question and have to respond with a halting, “I have no idea.” To prevent that awkward moment, some resources follow that seek to provide ways in which you can come to know Scripture better.
In the heart-wrenching moment of his conversion, Augustine, great theologian of the church, hears these words: “Take up and read.” When he does so and turns to a passage from Romans 13, “a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all darkness of doubt vanished away.” Every act of Bible reading might not be so dramatic, but this famous story is a good reminder of two things: the power of the Biblical text and the simple point of departure for experiencing that power. If you want to know Scripture better, you must read it.
I will offer some recommended texts to help with your reading, but no resource should take the place of the source. Study Bibles, devotional guides, and commentaries are wonderful, but at times the temptation is to read the contemporary explanation—the flashy sidebar—rather than the text itself. I am firmly convinced that God meets us in the words of Scripture; nothing compares to listening to the Word that is, as it ever has been, living and active and able to penetrate our hearts and souls (Heb 4:12). Other texts may be inspirational; only the Scriptures are inspired.
The way to know Scripture is to read it, but where should you begin to read? Letting the pages fall open where they will could provide a flash of inspiration—and you certainly can’t go wrong, for it is all God’s Word—but this method doesn’t allow you to get a sense of the larger story, or how the parts fit together. Therefore, some people like to read from cover to cover. Usually a “Read-through-the-Bible” in a year or three year plan provides structure and pacing. Others follow a lectionary, a set of readings approved by a denomination or several denominations, to read the Bible over a set period of time. A lectionary will provide readings from all different parts of the Bible for each day: a Psalm, an Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel, which provides the reader with variety (and often connections between sections) that doesn’t keep you slogging through the lists in Chronicles—and only Chronicles— for days on end. An important benefit of lectionary reading is that you know that many other Christians are joining with you in the same readings on that day, which provides a sense of the unity of the Church and an opportunity for connection and discussion with others who are reading along.
The most important benefit of any kind of structured reading plan is that it assists you in the habit of daily reading. While God could encounter you in a powerful way through his Word every day, the vast majority of believers have not had that kind of experience. Instead, there are times when the reading seems inapplicable or dry. These times are not a sign that you should give up and read something else, but could very well be a test of your endurance, to press through to a time when God’s revelation will be all the sweeter having come through a time of dryness. One final word on the simple recommendation to read the Bible daily. God will not strike you down if you miss a day, or a week, but if you want to teach about God, if you want to know God, you must listen to what God has to say.
No sooner have you begun to read the Bible then the questions begin, from the sublime (“What does this indicate for the relationship between the persons of the Trinity?”) to the inane (“What?!”). In order to begin to answer those questions, you add other habits onto the simple act of reading. (The following steps are certainly not daily habits, but tools to be utilized when needed).
One good first step is to progress from simple reading to active reading, or reading with a particular question in mind. This active reading can either be broad or deep. Broad reading is looking for the big story or the connections between small units and therefore involves a great amount of reading in one sitting. In my New Testament class, I have my students read all four gospels over the course of a week or two. They sometimes grumble a bit, but inevitably share some insights they had never had before reading such large sections of text. If you are going to begin a study of a particular book of the Bible in your youth group, I highly recommend reading it (by yourself, and depending on how long it is, maybe even as a group) in one sitting at least at the beginning of your study, and ideally, several times as the study continues.
Deep reading, on the other hand, focuses intensely on a small section of text, usually a thought unit, ranging anywhere from one verse to one chapter. For deep reading, I employ three sets of questions that I imagine in the shape of a bullseye. The first set of questions (the largest circle) concerns the context of the passage: What type of book is this passage in (Songs, History, Letter)? What are the themes of that book (which you can either get by reading the whole book yourself or consulting the introduction to a commentary)? What comes right before and right after my passage?
The second set of questions narrows in on the passage itself. I usually do an outline of the passage so that I can see visually the main points of the texts. If it is a narrative, I ask about setting, plot, and the perspectives of the different characters. If it is instructions, I ask what different types of arguments the author uses.
The final set of questions has to do with the words themselves. Which seem most important? Which are confusing? I note those, and then I see how the author uses those same words in other places (here I consult a lexicon, either in print or online). Because this text was written thousands of years ago in a completely different culture, I can’t always assume I know what the author means by the word he is using, but if I can see how he and other authors around the same time use the word, I might save myself from misunderstanding.
Once I’ve walked the circles around, through, and inside the text, then I step back, and ask how different audiences might hear the passage. How would the people around Jesus have heard this story? What about Matthew’s community who is hearing this story retold decades later? What might my junior high girls want to know? Or the senior young man who has been struggling with doubting God?
The questions involved in deep reading are designed to bring you back to the text over and over and over again. As I have used this process for teaching and preaching, it has never failed to reveal previously unnoticed aspects of the text.
Once you have worked with the text on your own for awhile, it is time to consult the wisdom of others. The guild of Biblical Studies is quite a prolific one, and it has had thousands of years to produce its material! My suggestion is to locate examples of three types of books: historical studies, commentaries, and monographs. Since the Bible is written in such different times and places, many of the questions you have (and even some you don’t know you should have!) cannot be answered without the help of historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and archeologists. Bible dictionaries or encyclopedias are a great place to begin. If you want to know about what families were really like in first-century Rome, begin with an encyclopedia article and it will lead you both to ancient sources written around the time of the Bible and to more recent works that discuss your topic. Commentaries walk through a Biblical book section by section. It is a good idea to have several different commentaries available as each series and each author will cover different aspects of the text. Finally, “monograph” is simply a fancy term for books that focus on one specific text or one specific subject. These will go much more in depth than the other resources.
When you are consulting these works, I always recommend that you consult authors different than yourself. Don’t shy away from the wisdom of the past or the wisdom of the global church. The body of Christ throughout time and throughout the whole earth might provide just the insight that your youth need to hear. The wisdom of others includes people you can talk to as well. Consult the pastors in your church, your fellow youth workers, and other lay people. A wide variety of ages and backgrounds will expose blind spots in the lenses you wear when reading the Bible.
To know Scripture better demands commitment and hard work on our part. Our love for God should include our minds (Luke 10:27). In fact, that the Bible has to be studied to be understood reminds us that God respects our intellectual curiosity. He could have given us all the answers straight from heaven. Instead, God gave us a lovely, complex, rich, and often confusing book that we must study. As God frequently does, he has chosen to partner with us, to invite us to reason together (Isa 1:18). When we do, we will never—this side of eternity—plumb the depths of the mysteries of this text, but we can certainly delight in the journey.
 “Why Johnny Can’t Read the Bible.” ChristianityToday.com. Accessed June 17, 2014. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/may/25.38.html.
 Augustine. The Confessions of St. Augustine (The Harvard Classics 7; Trans. by Edward B. Pusey; New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909), 141.
 Confessions, 142.
Dr. Amy L. Peeler is an Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. She is presently pursuing ordination to the Priesthood with the Episcopal Church, USA.
Gathering and Opening Prayer (5 minutes)
Logistics and Organizational Topics (5-10 minutes)
Training Time (20 minutes)
- What are your Scripture reading practices or habits?
- Watch Video together
- What barriers do you encounter for your own practice of reading Scripture?
- Have you encountered specific problems when reading a text? If so, are you willing to share?
- Where do you turn when you have questions about your reading?
- What have been the best resources you’ve found for answering questions, either yours or young people’s?
Take aways (10 minutes)
- How will this impact our church, our youth, or our team?
- Hand out essay for further reading
Close in Prayer (5 minutes)