What-does-the-text-mean questions are the heart of what is usually thought of as Bible study. What-does-the-text-mean questions are the most commonly used kind of questions in Bible study groups, and are the ones you are most familiar with.
Let’s look at a few examples. Imagine you are exploring Ephesians 2:10: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
What does the word workmanship mean in verse 10?
One key issue with all these question is this. These words actually mean something. We can’t just make up things we think they mean, or wish they mean. Bible study is not about pooled ignorance. Have you been to those classes? “Well, I think it means this.” “No. I think it means that.” “Well, I like to believe in a God who is nicer than that.” “Yeah, I like to believe in God that doesn’t get angry.”
God is who He is and us believing or not certain things about Him doesn’t change who He is. These words mean what they mean. We can’t just declare that we see it another way and suddenly make it so.
So, you might be thinking, “Why don’t I just tell them, since I know what the words mean?” Sometimes, you might want to do that. But, it is inherently more interesting to let the group share. And, if you are teaching adults who have been studying the Bible for a time, they will often have good answers. It is more interesting to ask them than to share all the answers yourself. A rule of thumb is, the teacher in a small group should not talk more than half the time.
How does your translation deal with the word workmanship?
Of course, I would have some examples of translations ready that tease out the various meanings of the word. In this case, I might have some of the following translations: [emphasis added]
- For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so that we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. Ephes. 2:10 [NLT]
- For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them. Ephes. 2:10 [NAB]
- We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus for the good works which God has already designated to make up our way of life. Ephesians 2:10 (NJB)
English language users are blessed with such a depth of translations. One of the best sources of information as to what a word means is simply to look it up in several translations.
Bible software makes this easy. If you can afford it, you would do well to spring for some Bible software at some point. There are two big benefits: it makes finding verses quicker, and it allows for searches that would be almost impossible without Bible software. For example, you can look for every time the words faith and love appear in the same verse. Then, when you find the verses you can put fifteen translations on the screen at once.
That would take so long as to be impractical without Bible software, but with it, it is quick and easy.
I took every Greek class available to me in seminary—some twenty eight hours of Greek. One of the things I learned in all that was to have a great appreciation for the work done by translators. We really do have some fine translations. And, having so many available to us helps us to really understand the full circle of meaning that a word contains.
Our translations are so good, in fact that I am very leery when I hear someone say this, “What this word really means is_______. Now, you won’t find this in any of the translations, but the real meaning is thus and so.” If I have fifteen English translations of the Bible and not one of them draws out the meaning this teacher is describing, I am very leery as to whether that is the real meaning.
Study Bible questions:
Does anyone have a Study Bible that has note on verse 10?
Here is the note from the Life Application Bible:
We are God’s workmanship (work of art, masterpiece). Our salvation is something only God can do. It is his powerful, creative work in us. If God considers us his works of art, we dare not treat ourselves or others with disrespect or as inferior work.—Life Application Bible Notes
One of the benefits of this kind of question is that it shows people that good Bible tools are accessible. It shows them that they can get answers for themselves. It encourages them to get and use a Study Bible.
Remember the old adage: give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime. You want to teach people to fish. You want to teach them to study and learn the Bible for themselves. Model for them that good Bible study tools make the meaning of the Bible accessible and one of those tools is a good study Bible.
How does a dictionary define workmanship, masterpiece and handiwork? Workmanship: the art or skill of a workman; also the quality imparted to a thing in the process of making a vase of exquisite workmanship.
- Masterpiece: a work done with extraordinary skill; especially a supreme intellectual or artistic achievement.
- Handiwork: work done by the hands. Work done personally.
There is, of course, one danger in looking at dictionary definitions—these are definitions of translated words. That is every word has a circle of meaning. It is not just one point, but a pool of meanings. The Greek word behind workmanship means a certain things approximated by any of the words above. The words above have their own circle of meaning which is going to be approximately right, but might go outside of the circle of meaning of the original word. This is why we send our preachers to seminary to study Greek and Hebrew. The good news is, there are great tools available for people who have not studied Greek and Hebrew that make the original language accessible. Bible software makes it easy.
Here is the point. Looking at English dictionary definitions can be informative and illustrative, but not authoritative. Because an English language dictionary says a certain word means a certain thing, that meaning may not be contained in the original Greek or Hebrew word.
Greek and Hebrew definitions
Unless you are teaching a group of seminary students, they likely will not have brought “Little Kittel” under their arm, but it is still possible to look at Greek and Hebrew definitions. You can look these up through Bible software or online and bring the notes to class. In most cases, this will get into more detail than is necessary or useful for your group. Little Kittel for this word, for example, contains 3500 words and would fill fifteen pages of this book at this size of type. That is probably more information than you need. And, that is Little Kittel—the abridged version. The full version is ten times that!
Again, your English translations have done a good job and will generally provide all the information you need.
What other verses talk about this? Do you have cross references in your Bible? What verses do they point us to?
One of the best ways to discover what a word means is to see how it is used in other contexts. A great example is Ephesians 4:12 [NASB], “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;” The word translated “equipping” is also found in Matthew 4:21, translated here, “mending.” “And going on from there He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and He called them.” Matthew 4:21 [NASB] Whatever the disciples were doing to the nets is what pastors are to do for their people—prepare them for works of service. (Again, let me make a plug for getting some Bible software. I was able to find this reference in about two minutes using tools that are accessible to people without knowledge of Greek or Hebrew.)
Again, a real key is to show how the Bible can be accessible. We need to be careful as we do Bible study that we do it in such a way that demonstrates that people can find this information themselves. Have them look in their Bibles. Probably some in your group have Bibles with cross references and don’t know how they are used. The teaching is doing double duty at this point—teaching the lesson and also teaching how to learn.
What are some synonyms for workmanship?
The word here is the word we get our word poem from. What are some other examples of creative expression? We could say, “We are God’s poem” or “We are God’s _________.”
Often, we can shed great light on a word by talking about what it is not. “What is the opposite of the idea of workmanship?” might be an example here.
Here are some other examples:
- We are told not to grumble. What is the opposite of grumbling?
- What is the opposite of love? (Point: it may not be hatred, but apathy.)
- What is the opposite of poor in spirit?
- What is the opposite of being filled with the Spirit?
I used this kind of question recently in a lesson that included Philippians 4:8 “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (NIV) You can predict the question: what is the opposite of thinking about these things?
Curriculum / Commentary
Did anyone read anything from the curriculum this week? What did it say about this verse?
Obviously, you will want to know that the curriculm did say something interesting about this verse. This kind of question encourages people to read outside of class—a great practice for people to get into. If they did not read, you might ask them to open up the book and find it for themselves.
We will explore this in some detail later, but truth is often a magical mid-point between two extremes. I had one pastor, Dr. Frank Zamora, that used to say it this way, “It is not thesis, or antithesis, but syntheses.” In this case we might ask a question that goes like this:
Is it healthy and good that I would get up every morning and look myself in the eye and say, “I am God’s masterpiece. I am God’s workmanship. I am the expressive work of God’s creative hand. I am really special. I am really something.” Can I take this too far?
In my opinion, you can, and that is the balancing truth. We are to be confident, but not confident in a way that makes us think too highly of ourselves. Rather we want a confidence that gives us the freedom to forget out about ourselves.
If I am wearing some high-water pants, I may lose confidence and be self-absorbed as a result. The goal is not for me to get clothing that makes me think, “Look at me!” but to get clothing that makes me comfortable enough so that I can forget about it. So it is with confidence. We want enough to give us the freedom to think of God and others, but not so much that we focus on what an incredible masterpiece of God we are.
Have you heard any sermons on this passage? Have you read any books that talked about this? Have you done any Bible Studies in the past on this?
What did you learn? The older and more mature the group, the more they will be able to help you with this.
Have you heard any illustrations that explain this passage?
A picture is worth a thousand words and a great metaphor, illustration of story can make the text come alive.
I have used one story about the sanctity of life that, for me, puts to rest the argument. It goes like this: Imagine you are hunting and you see something moving behind the trees. You are pretty sure it is a deer–99% sure. But, if there is a 1% chance that it is a person. Would you pull the trigger? Even if we could be 99% that human life did not start before birth, that is not good enough. If there is only a chance—a small chance—that it is a human life, then everyone agrees that human life must be protected.
How would you say this in your own words?
One of the great things about teaching from the King James is that you get to do a lot of this. If you teach from a newer translation, of course, the text does not need as much explaining.
How would you explain this to an eight year old?
There is a great misunderstanding that deep Bible study is confusing. We sometimes think that the more complicated it is, the more spiritual it is. We speak of esoteric when the word deep would do. We confuse deep with muddy.
I have never been accused of being deep in any teaching I have ever done anywhere. People often say my teaching is practical, but never deep. I count that as a compliment. I have often heard teaching by others that some described as deep, but I thought was just confusing. I don’t know that the communicator intended that, but whether or not he did, the result is the same. Strive to be clear. Be satisfied with being simple.
What is the context?
What light do the verses before and after shed on this verse? Many difficult passages of the Bible can be understood much more clearly if we just read them in their context. “Go and do likewise” doesn’t mean much without a context.
How does 2 Timothy 2:12 relate to the doctrine of the eternal security of the saints—the doctrine that teaches once saved, always saved? Here is the verse:
If we endure,
we will also reign with him.
If we disown him,
he will also disown us; 2 Tim. 2:12 [NIV]
I tend to let the Bible speak for itself on these kinds of passages. I might ask the question, “According to 2 Timothy 2:12, what happens if we disown Christ?” If the answer disagrees with our theology, so be it.
I might also teach the opposite side of the Calvinistic equation. If we are looking at John 15, I might ask, “Did the disciples make a choice to follow Christ, or were they chosen?” or, “What about us, did we chose to follow Christ or were we chosen?” Here is the verse:
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.” John 15:16 (NIV)
This may seem contradictory, but my theory is, study the Bible, let the Bible say what the Bible says and let the chips fall where they may.
Locations on a map
Do you have a map in the back of your Bible? Locate Ephesus on a map.
I love maps. I love looking at maps and studying maps. I find it interesting to think about where Paul was and where Ephesus was and what the geography was and how long it took to get there. You might want to match up a map of Israel with a map of your area to compare distances. I wouldn’t spend too much time on this, but it is useful to explore locations on a map.
Benefits of What-does-the-text-mean? Questions
The Bible is, at times, difficult to understand. But, not so difficult that we cannot come to an understanding of it, often with just the use of a few well-worded questions. Sometimes, we just read the Bible too fast, or are too familiar with a passage to really see its meaning.
The Bible is limitless in its depth. It is easy enough for a child to understand, but we can spend the rest of our lives plunging its depths.
Calvin Miller has a great story about this in the book Depths of God:
Like all visitors to the Reef, I was a first overwhelmed by the odd sensation of standing up—only ankle deep—seventy or ninety miles out in the middle of the ocean. It was for me the odd sensation that Peter must have felt when he walked on the Sea of Galilee.
But once my “ankle-deep-wonder” had passed, I remembered why I had made the trip. I was with my wife and son. My son had come to scuba dive while my wife and I snorkeled. Snorkeling is a pastime more than a sport. For while my son plunged deeply beneath clear waters to bury himself in the wonder of the mysterious ocean depths, my wife and I, wearing masks, only floated on the surface facedown.
In some ways what we were all seeing looked the same. But my wife and I literally sunburned our backs in our surface study of the reef, while our son plumbed its wonders.
Miller goes on to explain that both he and his son can tell you about that day and both can say they have been to the Great Barrier Reef. But his knowledge is only surface while his son’s understanding has great depth.
What-does-the-text-mean questions help us to plumb the wonder of God’s word.
Limitations of What-does-the-text-mean? Questions
What-does-the-text-mean question have an important part in Bible study. Without meaning, there is no application and no life change. The Bible is, at times, difficult to understand and its depths are unlimited. Still, it is possible that we spend too much time here.
The point of Bible study is not to make smarter sinners. It is to make saints. The Bible warns that knowledge puffs up. If we are not careful, the very thing that is supposed to make us more mature can harm us. We need to study the Bible. We need to understand its meaning, but we need to move on to application.
In my opinion, most groups spend too much time in What-does-the-text-mean questions. We squeeze its meaning to death without ever asking, “What are we going to do about it”?
Sometimes, in fact, What-does-the-text-mean questions are altogether unnecessary and just get in the way. I was just working on a lesson on Philippians 2:4 “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (NIV) We might spend a question or two drawing out the fact that the text says, “not only to your own interest”—implying that we are to take responsibility for our own lives and, in that sense, looking after our own interest. But, we need to move on pretty quickly from this to applying this passage. This passage is not hard to understand the meaning. We will spend the rest of our lives learning to apply the meaning.
If I didn’t know my Sunday School teacher as well as I do, I couldn’t get away with this, but I tried to drive this point home to him recently. We were having a lively discussion of the text, and it was all very interesting, but time was getting away from us. We had about five minutes left. I raised my hand and posed this question: “In about five minutes we are all going to be walking out that door. What are you wanting us to do about what we learned today?”
My teacher has often reminded me of this comment. As the lesson is winding down he will say, “This is all very interesting, but I know what Josh is thinking. What are we going to do about what we talked about today? What is going to change because of what we talked about today?”
Whether they verbalize it or not, your people are asking the same thing: “Teacher, what do you want us to do about what we talked about today?”
What-does-the-text-mean is an important question. Important, because it lays the foundation to what we will talk about next. Talk about what the text means. But, don’t stop there. What everyone wants to know and needs to know is, what do you want me to do about what I heard today?
Josh Hunt, How to Use Questions to Stimulate Life-Changing Discussions, Good Questions Have Small Groups Talking (Las Cruces, NM: Josh Hunt, 2010), 37–49.