A Fresh Way to Study Scripture

Two weeks ago, our church small group was meeting and we were trying to decide what we wanted to study during the next five weeks.  After that, it would be Spring (hopefully) and people would be starting to travel more and enjoy the good weather.  At least that is the plan…good weather…travel…enjoy.  But in Canada, and especially Calgary, being next to the Rocky Mountains, you never know what to expect.

But back to our Bible study group.  Most of us wanted to take a look at a book of Scripture, but how much can you do in just 5 weeks.  So the suggestion was to look at a small book like Paul’s letter to the Colossians or to the Philippians.  We went with the second suggestion.  And I mentioned to the group that I had just done a consultant checking session on Philippians for a PNG language group in February.

As we talked about it, I made the offer to help provide some guidance into looking deeper into the book.  I wanted them to know that I do not consider myself in any way an expert in the Greek language, but I do know how to use these wonderful computer tools which can help explain the meaning of the original Greek text.  And so I was nominated to help lead a five-week study on Philippians.

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And that was fine.  But then I started thinking, how exactly should we start into our study of Philippians.  It’s been a long time since I have actually been the leader of a Bible study group.  I was comfortable with the idea of helping out, but I needed to come up with an approach that would be helpful and meaningful to everyone.

And then a thought came to me.  Why not try to approach the book in a way that is similar to the way I approach getting prepared for doing my consultant checking, and also how we actually conduct our checking sessions.  Now of course, we are not attempting to translate the book of Philippians, but we can still ask some of the same questions that we do in translation sessions.

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So let me now explain how we got started on Philippians this past Thursday and how I think it might go over the next month.  We had a good turnout on Thursday with almost everyone able to come.  Just one couple was sick with a cold.  We all enjoyed the usual chitchat of friends catching up on the latest happening, and getting our cup of tea and a snack.  And then we settled down for the evening study.

After introducing myself again and what we were going to do in general for the next month, I asked everyone to tell me what English version/translation of the Bible they had brought.  And it was interesting to see the variety of versions that were represented among the eight of us.  We had the following:  4 New International Versions, 1 New Living Translation, 1 Jerusalem Bible, 1 Message Bible, and 1 New King James Version.

And that immediately brought up the discussion about the reason and the benefit of having so many English translations of the Bible.  I shared with the group my perspective, that as a Bible translator, I consider it to be a great blessing that we have so many translations.  Consider how many language groups around the world that do not even have one verse of Scripture translated into their mother-tongue language.  (Just over 2,200 language groups still waiting as of today.)

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And it was at this point that I brought out an interesting principle of doing good Bible study (or doing good Bible translation).  If we will take the time to read a passage of Scripture from 2 or more translations at the same time, it isn’t long before we see some differences in how parts of verses are translated.  Does that mean that one or both of them are wrong?  Not at all.

There are two important factors in play going on at the same time.  First of all, every human language is so rich, that when you try to express something in that language, there are almost always two or more ways to express the same truth.  So having different English translations at hand can give us a fuller and richer understanding of the original Greek, simply because there is more than one way to express it.

But more importantly, when it comes to doing translation from one language to another language, there is never a complete one-to-one correspondence between the words in one language and the words in another language.  And so we do not do a word-by-word translation, but rather a concept-by concept translation, trying to capture the essence of the meaning of the original text into equivalent terms in the target language.

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So how did this help our Bible study group.  What I finally decided might be a good idea, was to do what I call a “slow-reading” of Scripture.  We read the entire book of Philippians (in about 25 minutes), at a nice moderate pace.  And as it was read, we were to write down words, or phrases, that stuck out to us as important or repeated key themes and ideas in the book.

And it was wonderful.  We had words like: courage, servant, unity, humility, sacrifice, prayer, partnership, joy, grace, wisdom, and many more.  And even just by doing this one exercise we were able to see that the book of Philippians is going to be a rich study.  Especially as we recall that Paul wrote this book while he was a prisoner in chains.  That makes some of these key words stand out even more.

So I think we have started out pretty well.  We will now slow down to look more intently at one chapter per week.  And as we surface the key words and phrases of each chapter, we should find we will have lots to discuss, and lots of ways that we will be able to apply the truths of Scripture to our lives.  I’m excited.  And I think the group is too.