good-questions-have-groups-talking“We have to know what the Bible says
before we can understand what it means.” 
-Walter Hunt (my dad)

Too often groups want to skip this step. We want to move on to the good stuff–discussion about the nuances of what the text means and how it relates to this theology and that and how it is supported by this cross reference and that and (occasionally) how it can be applied to our lives this way and that. All that is good and we will get to that. But first, we have to know what the Bible says before we can understand what it means.

I remember my first pass at trying to understand the book of Revelation. (I have had several and still don’t understand it. John Calvin wrote a commentary on every book of the New Testament and many of the books of the Old Testament but did not write one on Revelation. He was asked why he did not write one on Revelation. “I don’t understand it” was his simple reply.) Anyway, my first pass was during college and I began reading commentaries and such on Revelation. My dad offered some advice: just read the book. Read it several times, beginning to end. Get to know the book itself. You have to know what the Bible says before you can understand what it means.


The pace of a question is important to every question. How you ask the question has a lot to do with how the question is answered. If you ask in a crisp, quick tone, people get the idea you want a simple, straightforward answer. You are not looking for a dissertation. You are looking for “yes” or “no” or “he said this” or “she went there.” Short. Simple. To the point.

Imagine you are looking at the resurrection story from John 20. Let’s look at this passage:

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 20:2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” 20:3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 20:4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 20:5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 20:6 Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 20:7 as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. 20:8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. John 20:1-8 (NIV)

Before we get into the subtleties of what it means, we might ask a few, “What does the text say” questions. In my online lessons I often provide footnotes to the teacher. These sometimes answer the questions. More often, they explain why I am asking the question. I have provided a few such comments in the footnotes here. In other words, please read the footnotes!

  • Who ran the footrace between Peter and the other disciple?[1]
  • What did the other disciple do when he won the race?
  • Where was the burial cloth that had been used to cover Jesus’ face?
  • What did he (John) do when he did finally go in.[2]

Now, I probably would not ask all these questions in this order quite this way. I am grouping them together here so you can see them all in one place. An actual lesson would mingle these kinds of questions with other questions that we will look at in subsequent chapters. An actual sequence of question might look like this:

  • Who ran the footrace between Peter and the other disciple?
  • What did the other disciple do when he won the race?
  • What does this tell you about Peter?[3]
  • Where was the burial cloth that had been used to cover Jesus’ face?
  • Is the application here that we should fold our clothes and make our bed before we leave the house?[4]
  • What did he (John) do when he did finally go in?[5]
  • What do you think “believe” means in this context? Surely John believed, in some sense, before this. He had been following Jesus for years. What does “believe” mean for John now?[6]

Don’t miss this crucial point. “What does the text say” questions are first in terms of logic and purpose, but they are not all asked first in terms of sequence. Don’t ask too many in a row. They should be interspersed throughout the lesson, especially as we move through the passage into new material. So the sequence might look like this:

  • What does the text say?
  • What does the text mean?
  • What are we going to do about it?

Next section

  • What does the text say?
  • What does the text mean?
  • What does this tell us about God?
  • What does this tell us about Christian living?
  • What are we going to do about it?

Of course, it is rarely that clean. Group life is messy. What you are creating here is a structured conversation. It is a road through the biblical material. Conversations tend to take on a life of their own. Like a road following the contour of the land, the lesson must follow the contour of the biblical text. That is, there are certain rules for asking questions, but these rules are implemented and affected by the actual text itself. Here is statement of the obvious: the text of the Bible should influence its study more than the rules of study. So the text itself influences what questions we ask in what order. The rule is to ask, “What does it say? What does it mean? What do we do about it?” but it is rarely that simple, or implemented that cleanly. If it were, it would do damage to the study of the text, and make the study a whole lot less interesting. Let the Bible itself influence the sequence of questions.

Using “What does the text say” questions to draw out individuals

A good group discussion is inclusive. It involves everyone. This is nearly always a struggle it is rare that everyone speaks the same amount. Usually, you have some real talkers and some that are a little quieter. To some degree this is normal and you shouldn’t try too hard to even things out. But, we can gently push those who are quiet to speak up. We want to train them that they can contribute. But, we want to do this gently because if you push too hard you can easily push them out the door. If they just don’t want to talk, respect their wishes. If they just need a little push, give them a gentle nudge. “What does the text say” questions can be used to do this.

I will often call on people by name when I ask the question. In fact, I will begin the question with their name. “Bob, take a look at verse 8. . .” This brings them out of the coma that we are sometimes in when our mind wanders. It is funny how calling on one person by name tends to get everyone’s attention. I suppose people have an awareness that since you called on Bob, you might call on me next so I had better pay attention. “Bob, take a look at verse 8 and tell me what this other disciple did when he went inside the tomb.” As easy as this question is, Bob will hesitate for a moment. If he hesitates too long, I might give him some further help, “right there at the end of the verse.” If he still struggles, I will answer it for him (this rarely happens), “He believes, right, Bob?” Bob will nod. “So,” I pretend that this was all part of the original question, “What does this tell you about the meaning of the word believe? Surely this disciple–presumably John–believed before now. How is this belief different from the belief he had before?” Now, we make a turn, “Anyone can answer.” I look around the room to let Bob off the hook.

In this way I can push Bob to join the conversation, but not so hard that I embarrass him. Usually, in contrast to the scenario above, Bob does come up with the answer. I have made it fairly easy for him. When he does, an amazing thing happens. His confidence grows. He is more apt to contribute to the conversation now that he has successfully answered this question.

Calling on an individual for “what does the text say” questions has another benefit. It keeps these questions moving along. You don’t want to get bogged down here and, although these are the easiest questions to answer, people often hesitate. The reason people hesitate has to do with the kind of questions people like to answer. People like to answer questions that are on the edge of their knowledge, not in the center. People like to answer questions that they think no one else know the answer to. These questions will inherently be easier than the other questions we will look at. They don’t require a lot of creativity or thought or background knowledge. They just require that you read the passage in front of you. You might even be tempted to skip these questions.

[1]The answer doesn’t need to be long and complicated. One word will do: Peter. Your pace and tone as you ask these questions will suggest to the group that you want this to move along. Someone says, “Peter” you say, “Good, next question.”


[3]You might go from here to talk about other examples of Peter’s impulsiveness.

[4]All that from the word “fold”? I’d put this in the category of a jump-ball question that we will look at later. I am not sure that you can draw this much out of the word fold or the idea that Jesus folded this cloth before he left. But, I feel certain that those who believe “cleanliness is next to godliness” may not be in the Bible but should have been will have a hard time admitting that it is not the more spiritual thing to fold your clothes and make your bed before you leave. Here is a follow up question; can you be godly and be a slob? This is why the Bible says that God’s mercies are “new every morning? If you squeeze the passage hard enough, you can always see things you have never seen before. Of course, if you squeeze it hard enough, you may find things in the passage that even God didn’t know were there because He didn’t put them there. As we will see later, truth is nearly always a mid-point between two extremes. There may be some virtue in folding your clothes and making your bed, but I am not sure you can get it out of this passage and it can certainly be taken to an extreme.

[5]He believed.

[6]We will explain this later, but these questions will go a little more slowly. Let people think. What is the difference between believe and this “really believe”?

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