Archive for the ‘Bible study guide’ Category

The Amazing, Mysterious Psalms

July 23, 2014

I’ve spent a lot of time studying the Psalms in the last few years, and every time I study them I see more. That’s the basis of these seven studies, which have been field-tested in my own small group. They start with thoroughly unmodern topics we usually gloss over, such as the king, or the absolute difference between the righteous and the wicked. They go on to Anne Lamott’s three types of prayer (I love this list): Thanks, Help, and Wow! And they end with two psalms that, though adjacent in the psalmbook, take opposite approaches to the assessment of trouble.

Feel free to spread these…. You should be able to copy them and print at home.

Seven Studies on the Psalms

Study 1: The Righteous and the Wicked

We are accustomed to thinking of people in shades of gray. Nobody is all good, nobody is all bad. For the psalmists, and for the Bible writers in general, however, there is a fundamental division between the righteous and the wicked. The two kinds are at odds with each other, and ultimately God is on the side of the righteous and will destroy the wicked. How do we gray thinkers understand this?

Psalm 1
1. What does the blessed person not do? Why?
2. What does the blessed person do? Why?
3. What is the law (Torah) of the Lord? What does it mean to delight in the law? Why should it be the key mark of the blessed person?
4. The opposite of a well-watered tree would seem to be a drought-stricken tree. How is chaff different?
5. How does v. 5 explain/illustrate that? What can the wicked not do?
6. According to v. 6 what is God’s role?

Psalm 10
7. According to v. 1, what is God’s role? Does this accord with 1:6?
8. The description of the wicked in vv. 2-11 is very strong. What strikes you most?
9. Do you know anybody who meets this description? Where in the world might you expect to find people like this?
10. Does verse 11 accord with v. 1? What is the difference?
11. What, according to the psalmist, does God do? List the activities attributed to him.
12. According to verse 18, what is the aim of what God does? What does this say about God’ interventionist goals? How closely does he want to be involved in everyday affairs?

Psalm 11
13. Assuming the NIV is right, that vv 1b-3 quote a skeptic, what is this skeptic’s view of the righteous and the wicked?
14. What is God actually doing?
15. What will God do?
16. What does it mean that God is righteous? (v. 7)
17. Given what we have discussed, what does it mean that he loves justice?
18. What is the reward for the righteous?

Study 2: Who Are These People?

Even when the psalms focus on an individual’s relationship to God, they do so in the context of the nation of Israel. When the past is described, it is less likely to be about a personal decision to follow God, than about God’s act of claiming his people in the exodus. In the present, not only individuals are called to worship God, the congregation of Israel is urged to worship. The future, as we shall see, belongs to the people of God.

Psalm 47
1. Verses 1-4 call on the nations of the world to joyfully celebrate God’s greatness, which is expressed in his special treatment of Israel, putting the nations under their feet. What kind of people want the rest of the world to celebrate their own subjugation?
2. What else should the nations celebrate? (v.4)
3. Why did God love Jacob (v. 4)? Why does he treat Israel so well?
4. Verses 4-6 accelerate the praise for God as King over all the earth. What circumstances would make people find this a source of such extravagant delight?
5. Verses 8-9 describe the great apocalyptic throne scene, where the king is surrounded by all those who serve him. What is the great surprise? What does this say about Israel’s understanding of the pride expressed in verses 1-4? What are the dangers of this mindset? What are the strengths?
6. Note the final line of the poem. What is the significance of that?
7. If the church is the renewed Israel, how can we apply this poem to ourselves? Can we really take joy in God’s favoring of us? Can we joyfully appreciate the kind of future assembly that is described?

Psalm 50
1. As with psalm 47, this poem begins with a summons of the whole earth. What is the purpose of this assembly?
2. On what basis does God judge his people?
4. Why would God clarify that he has no charges to make against Israel for their sacrifices? What kind of mindset is he correcting?
5. What kind of behavior does he want to see? What kind of relationship? (v. 14,15)
6. The psalm seems to turn to a different category of people–the wicked. Are these Israelites? How do you know? (v. 16, 17)
7. What behavior is condemned?
7. What is the thought behind these actions? (verse 21)
8. What, exactly, do Israelites need to know? What do they need to do? What does this tell us about Israel’s self-understanding?
9. If we are the renewed Israel, how does this scolding apply to us?

Study 3: The King

The psalms that translate easily into our modern life are personal cries: “help,” “thanks,” “praise God.” Others are not so easy to relate to–for example, those that call for judgment on enemies, those that remember the history of Israel, those that revere Jerusalem and the Temple, and those that revere the king.

The king is crucial to Israel’s hopes. The psalms make it obvious that Israelites think not only individually, as we do, but as a nation. The king embodies their national identity. In that simple fact, you have the kernel of the expectation of the messiah. For “messiah” is simply another way to say, “king.”

Psalm 132
1. In 1-9, what is David (the great king) remembered for? Why is this significant?
2. From the prayer of verse 10, what can you speculate about the situation that propels this psalm?
3. What promises of God are remembered in 11-18? Which are for the king? Which are for the nation?
4. How is the king’s welfare related to the nation’s welfare?
5. If Jesus is the promised Messiah, how does this relate to us?

Psalm 2
1. What is the problem presented in vv. 1-2? Does this have any contemporary reality?
2. What are the kings of the earth calling for?
3. What is God’s response?
4. What has God done? What will he do?
5. What is his relationship to the king of Israel?
6. What should the kings of the earth do? (Note that they can maintain a continued existence.)
7. Has anything changed from the time this psalm was written to today?

Psalm 45
1. What is the occasion of this psalm?
2. In the description of the king (vv. 2-9) what strikes you most?
3. Does it seem odd that the king is addressed as God and that his throne is said to last forever? (v. 6a) Is this just highfalutin’ rhetoric?
4. If the description of the king is climbing higher and higher, why does it end with the gold-decked bride? (v. 9)
5. What advice for the bride on her wedding day? (vv. 10-11) Given that the situation for women in those days is very different from today, is this good advice for her situation? Why or why not?
6. What is the bride told her future is like? What has she done to deserve this?
7. What New Testament passages does this illuminate for you? In particular, what does it say about the church as the bride of the messiah?

Study 4: Praising God

The psalms teach us how to pray–both how to lament and how to rejoice, for they speak about the highs and lows of life, always very actively involved with God as a real and personal presence.

Psalm 33
1. The psalm starts with six imperatives. What are they? Do you do this? When and how?
2. What is the place of music in prayer? Do you use music in your prayers? How?
4. In giving reasons for praise, verses 4,5 speak of God’s character: what he is, how he does what he does, what he loves, how he “fills the earth” as someone (we might say) fills a room. Which of these attributes strikes you most, and why?
5. Verses 6-9–on what do they focus? Why should this make us fear God and revere him? (verse 8)
6. Why does God want to thwart the plans of nations? (v. 10)
7. Why are God’s plans superior? What quality of those plans does the psalmist point out, and why is it valuable. (v. 11)
8. Who is blessed, and why?
9. Verses 13-19 portray God as watching or observing everything on earth. How does he differentiate those he loves and protects and blesses? What does he see in them?
10. The psalmist claims that there is no salvation in great armies, personal strength, or horse power. This goes against everything known in the annals of warfare. How would he justify it?
11. What is the psalmist’s closing petition and how does it relate to what he has previously said?
12. How would you sum up the psalmist’s vision of God? Does it seem to be a good reason to praise him exuberantly, as in verses 1-3? Does this accord with your vision of God?
13 Do you learn anything about prayer from this psalm?

Study 5: Prayers from Desperation

Anne Lamott’s book on prayer is Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. Last week we did Thanks, and now we turn to Help!

Psalm 17
1. On what basis does the psalmist appeal for help? (v. 1-5) What is he actually claiming about himself?
2. Do you ever pray this way? Why or why not?
3. What kind of help does the psalmist want for himself? What does he want for his enemies?
4. How does he describe his enemies? Can you relate? Where does one encounter such enmity today?
5. What is the psalmist’s ultimate hope? What does this have to do with his situation?

Psalm 25
1. The fear of shame preoccupies this psalm. (v. 1-3, 20) What is shame and why is it so terrible?
2. On what basis does the psalmist appeal for help? What is he actually claiming about himself?
3. Do you ever pray this way? Why or why not?
4. What kind of help does the psalmist ask for to begin with? (v. 4-5)
5. What are God’s “ways?” What exactly is he asking God to do for him?
6. From a consideration of help in the future, the psalmist turns to the past. (v. 6,7) What does he want God to remember? What does he want him to forget? What does it mean to ask God “not to remember?”
7. The psalmist returns to considering the future (mostly) in verses 8-14. What more do you learn about God’s ways?
8. What are some characteristics of those who benefit from knowing God’s ways?
9. In the final section (v 15-21) the psalmist sticks to the present. What do you learn about his situation? Do you identify?
10. What does he want God to do for him? Do you identify? On what basis does he appeal?
11. Why is v. 22 stuck on there?

Study 6: From “Thanks” and “Help” we turn to “Wow.”

Psalm 29
1. What function do verses 1 and 2 accomplish in the poem? Where is God to receive glory?
2. What qualities are deemed pre-eminent in those verses?
3. In Psalm 19 the heavens declare the glory of God. What speaks in verses 3-9? How does it speak?
4. The identification of God’s voice with the sound of thunder treads on the edge of pantheism. Is the storm God? If not, how can it have God’s voice?
5. Why does verse 9b bring the temple into it? What does the human voice add to the picture?
6. What are the implications of God’s magnificent glory for us, according to vv 10 and 11?

Psalm 46
1. In vv 1-3, the shaking of mountains and the roar of water are not a signal of God’s presence, as in Psalm 29. What do they stand for? What do they mean to you?
2. What is God in relation to them? How does that affect us?
3. What do verses 4-5 refer to?
4. How can God be identified with a city?
5. What are the external threats to a city? Can you name some contemporary examples?
6. Verse 7 is repeated in verse 11, and seems to be a significant statement. What does it mean?
7. How would you describe the picture of vv. 9 and 10? Is this present or future?
8. With this psalm in mind, how would you interpret the phrase, “a personal relationship with God?” What is personal?

Study 7: Dealing with Trouble

You may have heard it said that God is both the master of everything that happens, including bad things, and also the one who intervenes to help us with bad things. Thus some Calvinists will say that when a tree falls down and crushes a little girl, we should praise God for his mysterious goodness. Others, horrified, will ask why God didn’t intervene to stop the tree from falling. They can’t believe God would ever want (or even allow) such a terrible thing to happen.
While not exactly confronting such issues, these two psalms show very different sensibilities about trouble that comes into our lives. Lots to think about!

Psalm 90
1. What attributes of God does the psalmist (Moses?) pay attention to?
2. How does this God interact with our lives? with our sins? with our troubles?
3. What is the quality of our lives, according to this psalm? Do you resonate with this? Why or why not?
4. What does the prayer of verse 12 mean?
5. Apart from teaching us to number our days, what does the psalmist ask God to do?
6. Some of the psalmist’s requests have to do with seeing God’s love and splendor. How does this fit with the earlier, bleaker experiences?
6. What is the end result the psalmist asks for? What is God’s place in this?

Psalm 91
1. The psalmist begins with qualifications. What kind of life will experience the benefits that the psalm names?
2. Verses 3-7 use metaphor to convey threats and also protection. Which of these metaphors do you relate to best? What do they specifically convey about danger?
3. Are verses 9-10 truth or hyperbole? Why do you think so?
4. Satan quoted verse 11-12 to Jesus. (Luke 4:10-11) How did he distort its meaning? (Or did he?)
5. How does this God interact with our lives? with our sins? with our troubles?
5. What kind of experience can we expect if we are faithful, according to this psalm? Do you resonate with this? Why or why not?
6. What is the end result the psalmist says is promised? What is God’s place in this?
General questions: 1. We all pray to God in time of trouble. Which of these psalms do you relate to best? Which is truer to your experience?
2. Why do you think these two psalms are in the Bible together?

Preparing for Palm Sunday

April 3, 2014

To prepare you for Palm Sunday, I offer this study of three psalms about The King. Take your time, these are not easy psalms to understand. I predict that your understanding of Psalm 45 will change forever.

The King
The psalms that translate easily into our modern life are personal cries: “help,” “thanks,” “praise God.” Others are not so easy to relate to–for example, those that call for judgment on enemies, those that remember the history of Israel, those that revere Jerusalem and the Temple, and those that revere the king.
The king is crucial to Israel’s hopes. The psalms make it obvious that Israelites think not only individually, as we do, but as a nation. The king embodies their national identity. In that simple fact, you have the kernel of the expectation of the messiah. For “messiah” is simply another way to say, “king.”

Psalm 132
1. In 1-9, what is David (the great king) remembered for? Why is this significant?
2. From the prayer of verse 10, what can you speculate about the situation that propels this psalm?
3. What promises of God are remembered in 11-18? Which are for the king? Which are for the nation?
4. How is the king’s welfare related to the nation’s welfare?
5. If Jesus is the promised Messiah, how does this relate to us?

Psalm 2
1. What is the problem presented in vv. 1-2? Does this have any contemporary reality?
2. What are the kings of the earth calling for?
3. What is God’s response?
4. What has God done? What will he do?
5. What is his relationship to the king of Israel?
6. What should the kings of the earth do? (Note that they can maintain a continued existence.)
7. Has anything changed from the time this psalm was written to today?

Psalm 45
1. What is the occasion of this psalm?
2. In the description of the king (vv. 2-9) what strikes you most?
3. Does it seem odd that the king is addressed as God and that his throne is said to last forever? (v. 6a) Is this just highfalutin’ rhetoric?
4. If the description of the king is climbing higher and higher, why does it end with the gold-decked bride? (v. 9)
5. What advice for the bride on her wedding day? (vv. 10-11) Is that good advice? Why or why not?
6. What is the bride told her future is like? What has she done to deserve this?
7. What New Testament passages does this illuminate for you?
8. In particular, what does it say about the church as the bride of the messiah?

Two Kinds of People

March 25, 2014

As somebody once said, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.

When you read the psalms, you encounter the first kind of people. It’s a mindset quite at odds with the modern assumption that everybody is a mixture of good and bad, all behavior is on a spectrum, and you should never judge anybody.

I’ve been reading the psalms trying to understand the architecture of their thoughts, which is a way to unmask the architecture of my thoughts. The psalms were written within a very ancient culture very remote from us. Yes, some of it has flowed down through the transmission of Bible-based religion, but a lot has not. There’s some truly alien material, and perhaps nothing more alien to our times than the treatment of the righteous and the wicked.

Really, people don’t use words like that any more, or words like them. If we refer to “bad guys” we do it elliptically, or maybe ironically. We take pleasure in the “bad guys” on our TV shows and movies. We don’t think they are real.

Possibly if we lived in Syria today, we would think differently. Perhaps even if we lived in a really rough neighborhood, we would know that there are good people and bad people. However, we generally don’t see them at all. As several people in my Bible study group pointed out, we are likely to see the “wicked” as portrayed in the psalms–heartless, cruel–closely aligned with the behavior of some corporation executives. But we don’t talk about them as wicked leaders, or others as righteous. The terminology is repellant to us.

“The righteous and the wicked.” Is there any place in our modern vocabulary for words like these? Should there be?

As I’ve studied the psalms, I’ve had several surprises. One is, everybody is a mixture of good and bad. At least, nobody stands up to close scrutiny as perfectly good.

Yet the alignment of righteous and wicked stands, and it is an important frame for looking at the world. The psalmists often claim–while asking God to help–that they are the good people who have not betrayed God or their neighbors. And they also claim that they know who the bad people are.

Another surprise is that, though God is often called on to punish the wicked and vindicate the righteous, there are few signs that he does so in the present. What seems to stand in the present is God’s presence. He knows his people. He watches closely what goes on. He is a presence in the life of the righteous, and they are attentive to him. (In Psalm 1, they delight in the Torah.) Whereas the wicked think God is nothing to worry about. Their destiny will, at some point, catch up with them. Either they will be caught in their own traps, or (what may amount to the same thing) God will judge them.

Therein lies the chief distinction: how the righteous and wicked attend to God, and where their pathway leads. This may be a subtle difference. Perhaps looking from the outside, one could not even be sure of it. But it is a crucial difference, and in the long run it will show itself so.

In case you are interested in this subject, here is a Bible study that my group used last Sunday. You are welcome to copy it and pass it along.


The Righteous and the Wicked

We are accustomed to thinking of people in shades of gray. Nobody is all good, nobody is all bad. For the psalmists, and for the Bible writers in general, however, there is a fundamental division between the righteous and the wicked. The two kinds are at odds with each other, and ultimately God is on the side of the righteous and will destroy the wicked. How do we gray thinkers understand this?

Psalm 1

  1. What does the blessed person not do? Why?
  2. What does the blessed person do? Why?
  3. What is the law (Torah) of the Lord? What does it mean to delight in the law? Why should it be the key mark of the blessed person?
  4. The opposite of a well-watered tree would seem to be a drought-stricken tree. How is chaff different?
  5. How does v. 5 explain/illustrate that? What can the wicked not do?
  6. According to v. 6 what is God’s role?

Psalm 10

  1. According to v. 1, what is God’s role? Does this accord with 1:6?
  2. The description of the wicked in vv. 2-11 is very strong. What strikes you most?
  3. Do you know anybody who meets this description? Where in the world might you expect to find people like this?
  4. Does verse 11 accord with v. 1? What is the difference?
  5. What, according to the psalmist, does God do? List the activities attributed to him.
  6. According to verse 18, what is the aim of what God does? What does this say about God’ interventionist goals? How closely does he want to be involved in everyday affairs?

Psalm 11

  1. Assuming the NIV is right, that vv 1b-3 quote a skeptic, what is this skeptic’s view of the righteous and the wicked?
  2. What is God actually doing?
  3. What will God do?
  4. What does it mean that God is righteous? (v. 7)
  5. Given what we have discussed, what does it mean that he loves justice?
  6. What is the reward for the righteous?



Philemon Bible study

March 19, 2014

In case you are interested, here is a one-shot Bible study on Philemon. It can inspire some serious discussion about how to bring social change.

Questions on Philemon

Philemon is a remarkable little letter, providing the best window we have into the mind of Paul as he confronts the institution of slavery. The unavoidable question with Paul, regarding slavery or male-female oppression, or indeed regarding Roman imperialism over Israel (and every other nation), is why he seems to support these systems by encouraging slaves to be obedient, wives to be submissive, and citizens to respect the government. And yet, this same man wrote, more than once, that in Christ there is no slave and free, male and female, Jew or gentile, Greek or barbarian. How does he put that together?

1. As usual Paul begins with prayerful thanks. (4-7) Is there a theme?

2. What is Paul’s relationship with Philemon? What can you piece together of their history?

3. What is Paul’s relationship with Onesimus? How did they meet? What is his present role in Paul’s life? What are some of the key words Paul uses to describe his feelings for Onesimus?

4. What has been Onesimus’ relationship with Philemon? What has happened between them? What might Onesimus expect from Philemon as he goes back to him at Paul’s behest?

5. What does Paul say he wants to see happen between the two men? What exactly is he asking Philemon to do? (see v. 15-17)

6. Paul says he could order Philemon to obey him, and given what we know about the sense of obligation people felt in Roman society, that seems likely to be true. But he chooses not to give orders. Why not? A man’s life is at stake.

7. Is Paul for or against slavery? Is there any indication that he wants to destroy slavery? Any indication that he could tolerate slavery? What does Paul want regarding Onesimus’ status as a slave?

8. What end result does Paul seek in this 3-cornered relationship of Onesimus, Philemon and Paul? Practically, what social positions will they hold? And, more deeply, what kind of feeling relationships will they have?

9. If you asked Paul how to change Roman or Jewish society, what would be his answer?

10. What would Paul think of democracy?


13 Studies in the Book of Hebrews

October 31, 2012

Here are 13 studies in the biblical book of Hebrews. I wrote these for my own small group Bible study. You’re welcome to copy them and use them however you like. I had troubles converting the numbered lists into WordPress. Please free free to fix them!  If you can keep my name attached to the studies I’d appreciate that.

Introduction to Hebrews by Tim Stafford

Hebrews offers several unique difficulties.

First, it takes up issues felt by first-century Jews—and not by modern people—such as the importance of Temple rituals and the relations between the Messiah and angels.

Second, it refers a lot to the Old Testament, sometimes to passages that are (to us at least) fairly obscure.

Third, it jumps through a series of quite different issues, and it’s not always obvious where the argument is going or how it holds together.

Nevetheless, Hebrews is a carefully argued book, which we can make sense of. In doing so, we are not trying to become merely skilled and sophisticated Bible readers. Hebrews’ aim is not so much theological as pastoral. The author’s concern is less about how we understand the relationship of the Old and New Covenants (though he is certainly interested in that) than in how weary we feel. He is concerned that the initial thrill of faith has faded, that it’s tempting to lapse back into the familiar and the comfortable, that Christians might just fade away.

Are you tired? Do you know people who are tired? Is the thrill gone? Hebrews is meant for you.

Study #1: A Hymn to the Messiah

Read Hebrews 1:1-2:4

  1. Hebrews launches with a brief summary statement about the Son of God. What does it assert is his nature? (verse 3)
  2. Looking at verses 1-4, list what the Son has done, is doing, or will do.   How would you explain each of these brief statements?
  3. Look up the source of both quotations in verse 5, Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:4. Both have to do with the reign of Israel’s King, that is, the Messiah, or Anointed One. What is Hebrews’ point contrasting angels and the Messiah?
  4. After two references in verses 6,7 contrasting the angels’ role with the Messiah’s, Hebrews cites (verse 8,9) another Messianic psalm, 45. Read that. In a poem to the king, the psalmist refers to him as God, and describes his eternal reign. What qualities is that reign to be known for? Since Israel’s kings never lived up to this exalted image, what is Hebrews’ point?
  5. Verses 10-12 introduce verses from yet another psalm, 102:25-27. What does this passage compare and contrast? What does this say about the Messiah’s reign? Where do our lives fit in?
  6. Verse 13 concludes this list of citations with another famous messianic psalm, 110, which Hebrews will refer to several more times. Read it. What picture do you get of the Messiah here?
  7. 2:1-4 sums up the point of the preceding. What are we to do? What are we to avoid?
  8. What does paying attention look like? What does drifting away look like?
  9. The message “spoken by angels” (2:1) refers to the covenant of the Law, delivered at Mt. Sinai.  This reminds any Jew of a spellbinding, awesome and unforgettable event through which everlasting blessing was offered to Israel. What has topped it?

10. This salvation, announced by Jesus and confirmed by the apostles (2:3)—what other reasons do we have for believing it? (2:4)


Study #2: The Messiah Suffering with Us

Read Hebrews 2:5-18

Superficially, our first study was dedicated to establishing Jesus’ superiority to angels. Well, who really cares? The greater context was our salvation, however—a message that we are warned to pay close attention to. (2:1-3) Angels serve this salvation, but God’s Son, the Messiah, is its glorious King.

This next section puts us—human beings, not angels—into play. It develops our salvation from the King in a surprising way.

  1. Psalm 8, quoted in Hebrews 2:6-8, considers the place of humanity in the creation. What is it?
  2. What conundrum does verse 8 raise?
  3. “But we see Jesus….” (verse 9) What do we see, and how does it affect our view of humanity’s place?
  4. What experiences, according to verse 9, enabled Jesus to attain his glory and honor?
  5. What, according to verse 10, is God’s intention for us in this process?
  6. What does it mean to say that the “author of salvation” was made perfect (or complete)? What was previously lacking?
  7. How did suffering complete Jesus?
  8. The verse quoted in 2:12 comes from Psalm 22:22. Please read that psalm from the beginning. What is the context for “I will declare your name to my brothers?”
  9. Hebrews next quotes from Isaiah 8:17,18. What is the context for trusting God, along with “the children God has given me?”

10. What does it mean that God has hidden his face from Israel? How can the Isaiah text be seen as applying to Jesus?

11. What do we get out of this, according to 2:14-18?

12.  Verse 2:17 introduces the idea of the Messiah as a merciful and faithful high priest. What qualifications would suggest the idea of priesthood?

13. What would this idea of priesthood offer to us?

14. Given this section, how would you describe “the great salvation” that we are supposed to pay close attention to?


Study # 3: Looking Forward, Not Back

The Israelites had their heroes. They revered Moses as the Lawgiver, who (in company with God) set all the foundations of their nation. And the first generation, who came from Egypt, were like the Pilgrims. You wanted to trace your ancestry to them, to show you were a True Jew.

Such attitudes, this chapter suggests, aren’t all bad, but since they look back, not forward, they don’t make a firm base for living as Christians. We are meant to press forward, not back! It’s the future we’re proud of, more than our heritage.

Read Hebrews 3:1-6

  1. Verse one addresses us as “holy people, who share in the heavenly calling.” What kind of people are those?
  2. In the same verse, we are called to “fix our thoughts on Jesus….whom we confess.” How do you fix your thoughts on him? What does it mean to confess him?
  3. The word “house” has a triple meaning. It is a dwelling place, a Temple (a god’s dwelling place), and a family line. All three senses appear in this section. What is the fundamental difference between Moses and Jesus in their “faithfulness” to God’s house?
  4. If “we are God’s house” (verse 6) what is our relationship to Moses and to Jesus?


Read Hebrews 3:7-19

  1. What would you say is the overall point of this section?
  2. Verses 7-11 quote from Psalm 95, which is itself a commentary on the history told in Exodus 17:1-7. What happened there, what was its significance for that generation of Israelites, and why is it an important lesson for the readers of Hebrews?
  3. “Rest” is a tricky word that can be translated as “rule.” Kings and gods, after they have defeated their enemies, sit down on their thrones, at rest, to rule their realm. Thus the first generation of Israel could not enter the Promised Land, where God intended to enact his loving rule. Why?
  4. How are we not to imitate them, according to verse 12?
  5. Why is belief so important? What does Hebrews mean by belief and unbelief?
  6. What are we meant to do for each other? How does this keep us from being hardened?
  7. What is sin’s deceitfulness? How does it harden?
  8. Verse 14 says we have come to “share in Christ” if we carry on in faith all through our lives. How is this different from “sharing in the heavenly calling?” (verse 1) Why does it require carrying on?
  9. Verses 16-17 remind readers that the wonderful first generation actually failed miserably. Why is it important to be reminded of this?
  10. Who do you know who has failed miserably? How does their performance affect you?
  11. How should we practice looking forward, not back?


Study #4: The Place of Rest

So far, Hebrews has been adding elements, one on top of another, about the greatness of Jesus the Messiah and his gospel. First we learned that he is far above the angels, then that he shared our human suffering as he led the way to glory, and again that he is worthy of more honor than Moses because he is a son, not a servant.

At the same time, certain other elements keep resurfacing. The chief concern is: don’t drift, focus! Hebrews keeps coming back to that. I’d add four other elements that fit into the larger scheme and keep getting repeated:

A)   God’s Word. Read 1:2; 2:3-4; 3:5; 4:12. What is the basic thought?

B)   God’s Rule. Read 1:13; 2:5-9; 4:3b. What is our place in this rule?

C)   Our Obedience. Read 2:1; 3:19; 4:2. What does obedience look like?

D)   Our Atonement. Read 1:3b; 2:9; 2:17. Why is atonement necessary?

Read Hebrews 4:1-16

  1. “Rest” is cited from three different contexts: the creation of the heavens and the earth, the Exodus, and a warning (attributed to David) from Psalm 95. What do you learn about it from the Genesis context? (4:3-5)
  2. From the Exodus, it might seem that “rest” equals the Promised Land. How does Psalm 95 show that this is incorrect? (See Hebrews 4:8, particularly.)
  3. What, then, is “rest?” Is it a psychological state, a place, or a condition?
  4. How does one enter this rest? Is it a destination you can arrive at in this life?
  5. How would you compare the idea of “rest” with Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom of God?
  6. Why does the author immediately go on to describe the power of the word of God? (4:12-13) What does this have to do with entering the rest?
  7. What does “a great high priest” (4:14-16) add to this picture?
  8. Overall, what kind of portrait of the Christian life is Hebrews giving us so far? Do you find it inspiring, or depressing? Why?


Study #5: Why We Need a High Priest

Once before Hebrews mentioned Jesus as our great High Priest (2:17). Now we turn to his priesthood for most of the next five chapters. Obviously, the author of Hebrews thinks Jesus’ priesthood is important for us to understand, but it’s not familiar territory, especially for those of us raised Protestant.

This first section seems to come in response to a section on the biting, probing nature of the Word of God. For going through such an examination, we need priestly help!

Read Hebrews 4:14-5:10

  1. According to 5:1-2, what does a high priest do? What problems in human life does he address?
  2. 4:14 says that our great high priest has “gone through the heavens.” What does this mean? (Read 2 Cor 12:2 and 1 Kings 8:27 to gain some idea how ancient Israelites thought about the structure of the heavens.)
  3. What does the image of the “throne of grace” (4:16) suggest to you? How does this fit with Jesus’ having “gone through the heavens?”
  4. In summary, where is Jesus now? What is he doing?
  5. What life experiences does Jesus have to make him a super-effective High Priest? (See 4:15, 5:2, 5:7-8.)
  6. What does it mean that he “learned obedience” and was “made perfect?” If he was the Son of God, why did he need to learn and grow?
  7. N.T. Wright compares this to a friend of his who took over the family business but who learned it from the bottom up. Why is that kind of learning important for a boss? Why was it necessary for Jesus?
  8. Hebrews makes the point that Jesus did not appoint himself, but was named Messiah and priest by God himself. (5:5-6) What would be the implications of this for Jewish Christians working out their new relation to the Temple?
  9. In summary, what kind of high priest is Jesus? Why do we need him?


Study #6: What It Takes to Persist

Having introduced the name of Melchizedek in 5:6 and 5:10, Hebrews takes a sudden off-road excursion. We’ll get back to Melky in 7:1, but this section gets us ready. It’s also a return to a familiar theme in Hebrews.

Read Hebrews 5:11 to 6:12.

  1. What would you say is the main point of this section?
  2. See how many metaphors you can find for our process of growing. (I count five, but I might have missed some.)
  3. The author is obviously concerned with something. What do you think it is?
  4. What does he want the Hebrews to do and not to do?
  5. Thinking of your own experiences, what causes people to get stuck in their faith journey? Why do they drift away?
  6. Christians differ as to whether 6:4-6 is talking about transformed believers who lose their faith, or people who have been in and around the church but never really committed themselves. The author says in 6:9 he doesn’t believe his description applies to his readers. What then is the point in saying it? Do we need this kind of warning to be verbalized today?
  7. Verse 6:12 peeks ahead to the famous chapter 11. What raw material do we need in order to follow this prescription?

Read Hebrews 6:13-20.

8. What was Abraham’s promise, and how does it apply to us?

9. What is the big deal about God taking an oath?

10. What was God’s intention in doing so?

11. Verses 19-20 may set the biblical record for mixed metaphors. Can you make sense of it?

12. What is the role of hope in our lives, according to this metaphor?

13. What is the basis of our hope?

14. How does hope link us to Jesus?

15. And how does hope help us to persist in growing?


Study #7: The Permanent Priesthood of Jesus (from Lesley Van Dordrecht)

For a man who has only a small reference in Genesis, Melchizedek has a prominent place in Hebrews, shedding light on the priesthood of Jesus.

Read Hebrews 7:1-10

  1. What do we learn about Melchizedek in this passage? ( See also Genesis 14)
  2. Levi, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, was the beginning of the priestly tribe of Israel. How does 7:4-10 make the case that Melchizedek’s priesthood is superior to Levi’s?
  3. How are Melchizedek and Jesus similar in these verses?
  4. Being both priest and king, Melchizedek presages the view of the Messiah from Psalm 110. In what different ways or areas of your life do you gain assurance knowing that Jesus is king, but is also our high priest?


Read Hebrews 7:11-19

5. What further contrasts are outlined in 7:11-19 between Jesus’ priesthood and the priesthood of Levi and his descendent Aaron?

6. The word “perfection” in 11 & 19 can also be translated as  “completeness.” It is when everything has been put into place for the final great purpose to be achieved. What is this great purpose in verses11-19?

7. What was the purpose of the “old” religious system, and what makes the new system in Jesus better?

8. What examples have you seen of God, through the new system in Jesus, which bring this world to completion?

Read Hebrews 7:20-28

9. What does Jesus’ superiority to other priests mean for our salvation?

10. Some Christians face the danger of forgetting just how central and vital Jesus himself was and is to every aspect of Christian faith. How do we tend to forget the centrality of Jesus?


This chapter of Hebrews should bring us to a place of gratitude and hope after we truly grasp the work of Jesus in His death and resurrection. In what ways can we express our gratitude this week?


Study #8: Good, Better and Best

We’re nearing the home stretch of Hebrews. So far we have followed a carefully chosen twisting path. We began with Jesus the Messiah–higher and more honorable than servant angels, worthy of worship. He is the first true human being, nominated to lead the way in ruling over all creation. We are on a journey, like Israel was, toward God’s rest, where his kingdom reigns, and we must press on in faith toward that goal. Jesus is our true High Priest, a new kind of high priest hinted at in the OT references to Melchizedek.

We’re beginning to put these pieces together in one coherent picture.

Read Hebrews 8

  1. What, according to 8:1, is the main point of what the author is saying?
  2. What would this “main point” mean to 1st century Jews? What does it mean to us?
  3. Verse 5 says the Temple is a “copy and shadow” of the “sanctuary in heaven.” (Unlike Plato’s ideal world, heaven is a real place where people can live–Jesus already does.) What is the point of this contrast?
  4. Tom Wright says there are three great contrasts in this passage: between the OT priests and Jesus our great high priest, between the Temple and the sanctuary in heaven, and between the old covenant and the new. Each one is a contrast between the good and the best. Which one means the most to you?
  5. How does Hebrews describe the difference between the old covenant and the new? (verses 10-12)
  6. The images of “high priest” and “sanctuary” fit together rather easily. How do they fit with the new covenant–with the Law etched on the heart, and a personal relationship with God?
  7. Can you combine these three “bests” with the meaning of entering God’s rest?
  8. Verse 13 says that the old covenant has become obsolete. What are the implications for 1st-century Jews? How would they feel about it? What kind of encouragement would they need?
  9. Do we have anything comparable to the old covenant to hold us back from embracing the new? How does this 1st century message apply to us?


Study #9:  The Temple Parable

In commenting on this passage, Tom Wright compares the Temple to the temporary road system Boston endured for years while preparing for the Big Dig. It was an important and carefully built-out system, but it wasn’t meant to go on forever. It prepared for something better. Once the tunnels under Boston Harbor opened, there was no need for it any more.

Read Hebrews 9:1-10

  1. This passage gives considerable detail about the tabernacle, claiming the tabernacle as a visual parable of intimacy with God. Who could go into the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place?
  2. To understand what was so important about the Most Holy Place, read Exodus 25:17-22; Leviticus 16:2; and Numbers 7:89. Regarding the atonement cover read Leviticus 17:14. What does the Most Holy Place represent?
  3. If only the High Priest could enter the Most Holy Place, what does this say about the inadequacies of the Old System?

Read Hebrews 9:11-15

4. Where does Christ the new High Priest go with his sacrificial offering? What is the sacrificial offering? What is its effect?

5. It’s possible that we are so familiar with the message that we overlook the shocker: human sacrifice is necessary.  And the High Priest is the sacrifice. What does this say to you?

6. What is “the promised eternal inheritance?” (9:15)

Read Hebrews 9:16-28

7. Verse 16 plays on the commonality of “covenant” and “will,” which are the same word in Greek.  Who are the beneficiaries of the will/covenant in the Old System, and how do they benefit? Who benefits in the New System, and how?

8. We’ve seen that the New Covenant means that God’s law is written on our hearts. How does that follow from Jesus’ going into the real Most Holy Place with a sacrifice for sins?

9. How does Jesus appear “for us?” (9:24) See 7:25; 1 John 2:1.

10. What is the impact of the fact that Jesus does his sacrifice just once? How does this impact the life of the Jewish Christians who first read this letter?

11. What does Hebrews mean by “the end of the ages?” (verse 26)

12. If Jesus has forgiven sins once and for all, what are we waiting for? (verse 28)


Study #10: Come to the Party

In chapter 10 the long crescendo of Hebrews begins to gather together, picking us up and carrying us forward into … life in God.

Read Hebrews 10:1-18

  1. “The law is a shadow,” goes with “the tabernacle is a copy”… both having to do with what is less than full reality. The difference isn’t between physical and spiritual, or real and ideal, it’s between the present system and the coming-into-being system. (Both the temple sacrifice and Jesus’ sacrifice are bloody and fully physical). What picture do you get of the psycho-spiritual state of worshipers in the old system, versus that of the new system? (vv. 1-4)
  2. Do people experience those old and new states today? How?
  3. Verses 5-10 say that the law (which was never God’s desire) is supplanted by “doing your will.” Isn’t the law God’s will? What point is intended here?
  4. “Sit down” (verse 12) is what you do when you are done working and at rest. (Remember “enter God’s rest?”) What does this say about Jesus, and why does it matter?
  5. What is the fate of the Temple? (verse 18)

Read Hebrews 10:19-25

6. Finally! We are invited in. What qualifications do we need as we “draw near” and enter the Most Holy Place?

7. How does the author go from the individual “drawing near to God” and the emphasis on church? (verse 25) What does church have to do with it?

8. For people being persecuted, attending church is making yourself a visible target. Is there anything comparable in our environment that might deter people from attending church?

Read Hebrews 10:26-31

 9. Tom Wright notes that the Old Testament sacrifices were explicitly meant to cleanse from accidental or unavoidable sin. Intentional sin was always subject to stern punishment. This section also seems to warn against blatant, deliberate sinful rejection of the gospel. Since we hardly ever talk about God’s judgment, it’s uncomfortable. What do you think of God’s judgment? How does it shape your understanding of what’s being offered here in Hebrews 10?

Read Hebrews 10:32-39

10. How would you describe the Hebrews’ experience of faith in Christ? Why should they remember it?

11. Do you have any experiences comparable to these that you need to remember?

12. In urging the Hebrews to persevere, what does the author offer in the way of encouragement and motivation?


Study # 11: The Punch Line           

Read Hebrews 11

  1. Hebrews begins with a definition of faith and goes on to give practical examples. By the formal definition, faith involves certainty about things yet to come, things now invisible.  Given the ten chapters leading up to this, what things do you think the author has in mind?
  2. How can you be sure of such things? How do you acquire faith? How do you maintain it?
  3. What, if anything, does verse 3 say about Christian debates regarding creation and evolution?
  4. Hebrews emphasizes that a lifetime of faith often fails to see its goal completed. (11:13, 39) Knowing this, what does a lifetime of faith really look like? Why is this important to understand?
  5. Verse 6 makes another general statement about faith. How is faith necessary to a relationship with God? How do you acquire it? How do you maintain it?
  6. What is the nature of people of faith, according to verse 13?
  7. Surveying the many people mentioned in verses 4-31, with whom do you most identify?
  8. Are there any examples of faith that leave you puzzled? If so, explain why and let’s discuss.
  9. . Given verses 32-38, would you say that faith conquers all? Why or why not?

10. In most ways, we are just like these people of faith. How are we special? (verse 40).

11. In what way is this chapter the climax of Hebrews? Do you see it relating closely to the long argument that went before? How?

12. What response are we meant to give to this climactic speech?


Study # 12: Invisible Realities

Read Hebrews 12:1-13

In Hebrews 11, we summoned up Israelite history in the stories of men and women of faith. Suddenly, here, they are not examples from the past. They are living witnesses, all around us. We perform in their presence.

  1. This passage begins with the metaphor of a long-distance race. What are the lessons you take from this image?
  2. When we focus on Jesus, the first runner of this race, what kind of difficulties do we see that he endured?
  3. Comparatively, what have the Hebrews gone through?
  4. Beginning at verse 5, the author interprets those difficulties as parental discipline, with God as the parent. Does that mean God is behind everything that is hard on us? Why or why not?
  5. Practically speaking, what do verses 12 and 13 mean we should do in the face of adversity?

Read Hebrews 12:14 17

6. Why do you think he singles out Esau as an example to be specially avoided? What makes hapless Esau’s mistake so especially dreadful?

7. It’s easy to apply Esau’s undisciplined, appetite-driven approach to our sensual culture. Do you think it also applies to the ethos of the contemporary church? If so, how?

Read Hebrews 12:18-29

  1. Regarding the destination described in verses 18-21, have you experienced religion like this? What made it so dark and fearsome?
  2. What about the destination described in verses 22-24? Which of the descriptive terms speaks to you?
  3. What does the blood of Abel say? (verse 24) What does Jesus’ sprinkled blood say?
  4. Who speaks that word, that we are not to refuse? (verse 25) What would refusal look like? What would acceptance look like?
  5. Much of Hebrews is dedicated to explaining a great transition that has taken place with the coming of Jesus. What great transition is still to take place? (verses 26-29) What will happen? How will it affect us?
  6.  What are we supposed to do in response?



Study #13: The New Church

This final, concluding chapter begins by touching on some basics of the new Christian life. Then it turns to a sketch of the new church, suggesting what the result of Hebrews’ grand theological thesis will look like worked out on the ground.

Read Hebrews 13:1-6

  1. Verses 1-3 begin with a general statement about love, then mention specific types of people to love. Why do strangers, prisoners, and those mistreated need special mention?
  2. What does verse 3 suggest about the kind of persecution the Hebrews experienced?
  3. Verses 4-6 go on to warn against two specific temptations: adultery and greed. Why these?
  4. How do the Old Testament verses quoted work against these temptations?

Read Hebrews 13:7-17

5. This passage begins and ends with support for the church’s leaders, and verse 7 particularly urges the Hebrews to ponder and to imitate their faith. Compared to the great heroes of chapter 11, what do these leaders have to offer?

6. Do you feel you live up to these admonitions with your own church leaders? Why or why not?

7. Verse 9 suggests what foundation a church should build on, and what foundations not to build on. What are they, and what do they look like in action?

8. Verses 10-14 propose Christianity as an outsider religion. What makes it so?

9. What is our status in this world? Do we belong? Does Jesus?

10. How does this outsider status affect our interactions in the here and now?

11. In this new religion of Christianity, what sacrifices should be made?

Read Hebrews 13:18-25

12. Only in these final verses do we see the author as a real person who knows the Hebrews personally. What do you learn about their relationship?

13. Verses 20-21 are famous as a benediction. What does it say about God? What does it say about us?

Jesus Driven Ministry: Ten Studies

February 24, 2012

For anyone involved in a small group study, here’s a series based on a book that I highly recommend: Ajith Fernando’s Jesus Driven Ministry.  If you want to go deeper, this can help you do so. You’re welcome to copy these studies and use them. They were prepared for my small group, and other groups are also using them. I know the numbering is a little weird, due to incompatible programs, but they should be easy to fix (if you feel a need).

Jesus Driven Ministry, by Ajith Fernando

10 Studies by Tim Stafford


Jesus Driven Ministry is loosely based on the first chapter of Mark. Ajith Fernando uses that fast-paced narrative as an outline of the concerns marking Jesus’s ministry.

It’s an intensely serious and pious book, initially prepared to help Sri Lanka Youth for Christ workers. Ajith’s Methodist background shows through in the consistent, scrupulous attention to personal holiness. At some points the book seems like a throwback to something written a century ago. Its piety might seem heavy handed, except that it comes from someone who freely confesses his own weakness and vulnerability, and from someone who has done almost all his ministry in an extremely poor, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, war-torn context. Ajith has earned the right to be heard.

For western readers, it takes some work to apply Sri Lankan lessons to our own context. Ajith, who has lived in the west, offers some suggestions. And the strangeness of Ajith’s context is also an advantage: it makes familiar Christian practices and concerns come alive with new meaning.

This is manifestly not a book aimed at readers who want their problems solved or their emotions lifted. It is a book that calls as soberly and deeply as Jesus himself. Most of what it says is simple and familiar. To live up to what it says, however, is anything but simple and familiar.

Questions for Chapter 1, Jesus Driven Ministry

“Identifying with People”

Read Mark 1:1-13

1. Ajith notes that even though Jesus was sinless, he chose to be baptized for “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” What does Ajith say is the reason for Jesus’ baptism?

2. In what other ways did Jesus choose to identify with those he ministered to? What strikes you as the hardest identification for him?

3. Whom has God called you to minister to?

4. What are ways you can identify with them?

5. What are the frustrations?

6. Do you see yourself as a servant/slave to them? Where does that pinch?

7. Ajith talks about people ready to quit a church, small group, or marriage when it gets difficult. What are the pros and cons of sticking it out?

8. Do you agree that we in a postmodern age are prone to follow our personal preferences more than gospel principles? Why or why not?

9. Ajith identifies two temptations when we mInister to wounded, angry people. One is to ignore them in order to save time. What do you think of this?

10. The second temptation is to signal to them they are not welcome, so they go away. Have you seen this done? What was the result?

11. What concrete acts of identification is God calling on you to do for those you are called to minister to?

Questions for Chapter 2, Jesus-Driven Ministry

“Empowered by the Spirit”

The chapter’s basic premise is that Jesus needed to be filled with the Holy Spirit in order to do ministry; therefore so do we. Ajith considers many different New Testament scriptures that speak of the Holy Spirit. It’s a long chapter; give yourself time so you can read it reflectively with time to look up Scriptures.

Read Mark 1:9-13

  1. In reflecting on chapter one, did you have any further thoughts on identification? Regarding whom you identify with? How?
  2. Ajith says that “baptism… implies fullness,” (page 31) whether at the beginning of our life in Christ or in subsequent times. For you, what does it mean to be full of God?
  3. How does fullness (or the lack of it) affect your ministry?
  4. “Paul lays great stress on the Spirit’s work in the formation of Christian character.” (page 32)  Do you think this is neglected today? Or overemphasized?
  5. Ajith sets a premium on examining yourself before ministry. (pp. 34-35). What does this involve? What is the best way to do it?
  6. “Burnout takes place when the wick and not the oil is burning.” (p.36) What helps you experience the immediacy of God through the Holy Spirit?
  7. “The early Methodist homes could be recognized by the sound of singing.” (p. 38) Are there ways to identify Spirit-filled homes today?
  8. Under anointing for service, Ajith notes:

i.     –anointing to be faithful amidst opposition (p. 38)

ii.     –anointing to face death, emotionally or physically (p. 40)

iii.     –anointing for rebuking (P. 41)

iv.     –anointing for “everything we do for him.” (p. 41)

For what do you need anointing today?

9. “There is a close link between prayer and experiencing the Spirit.” (p.42) Has this been true for you?

10. When you are preparing for ministry, have you asked others to pray for you? What has been the result?

Chapter 3, Jesus Driven Ministry

“Affirmed by God”

  1. Last chapter we discussed the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Now we turn to God’s affirmation. Is there a difference? What? Can you illustrate?
  2. Ajith says that God’s affirmation of Jesus fulfills three basis needs: for identity, for security and for significance. (48) What does he mean by these terms?
  3. In which of these three areas do you most need affirmation? Why?
  4. God’s affirmation, Ajith says, prepares us for ministry. Do you see affirmation in terms of your own preparation for challenging ministry? Where?
  5. Ajith refers to Luke 9 as one of the loneliest chapters in the Bible. (49-50) Of the challenges Jesus faced in that chapter, which do you think would be the hardest? Why?
  6. In writing of Jesus and of Paul, as well as Moses and Elijah, Ajith reminds us that not only is ministry lonely and difficult, it can involve suffering and sacrifice. In your mind, is there a link between ministry and suffering? Why or why not?
  7. One kind of affirmation is “the Spirit testifying with our spirit that we are children of God.” Ajith lists several ways that this can happen. (54) What is your experience?
  8. Ajith notes that when he turned fifty, he decided to list the really big battles in his life. What were they? (56) What would be on your top 3?
  9. Ajith believes in grappling with the Lord on long solitary walks. (56) He takes his emotions seriously and feels that they require direct spiritual action. What do you think of this approach?

10. When people minister without a sense of such God-given affirmation, Ajith sees the possibilities of serious mistakes. He lists several possibilities. (58) Do you identify with any of these? In what way?

11. Ajith ends the chapter by discussing the linkage between affirmation and servanthood. Have you observed this? Where?

12. Some think our generation does too much affirming, e.g. participation trophies. Do you think we have too much, too little, or the wrong kind?

Questions for Chapter 4, Jesus Driven Ministry

“Retreating from Activity”

You could look at this chapter as a continuation of our last study, “Affirmed by God.” That emphasized our need for the experience of God’s affirmation. Now we go on to the question of what activities enable that kind of affirmation to occur.

  1. A retreat is an activity. It involves withdrawing from normal routine in order to do something else that draws us closer to God. If you planned a personal retreat, what elements would make it most helpful to you?
  2. When you consider the multiple examples of Jesus (page 62) withdrawing in order to pray, what do you learn about Jesus? About life?
  3. Ajith makes the point (page 63) that God ordains certain set-aside days in order to emphasize spiritual priorities, e.g. festivals, sabbaths. Do you practice anything like this—a set-aside of time that underline priorities?
  4. Ajith mentions that it takes him about 15 minutes to get into “the mood of prayer.” Do you identify praying with a mood? What is Ajith getting at?
  5. Ajith suggests that retreats slow us down…. that our busyness and our use of TV and other media keep us from facing reality. (page 64) What reality is he talking about?
  6. “A person of prayer helps breed people of prayer.” (page 65) Ajith notes that church ministry and youth ministry are often more about activities than about meeting God. Have there been people of prayer who influenced you? If so, how would you describe the influence?
  7. Ajith suggests that retreats are especially useful in times of crisis. He also says that they can help when you are starting something new–a new job, new year, new project. Do you see these as practical suggestions for you? What would it take to make retreats happen?
  8. Is there a specific retreat–mini or otherwise–that you think God is calling you on?

Questions for Chapter 5, Jesus Driven Ministry

“Affirming the Will of God”

This is a deep chapter, but more than any other to date it is obviously written to help pastors and evangelists in a Sri Lanka context. We’ll have to do a little transposition to make it work for us.

Because it’s long, you probably want to take two weeks for this.

  1. Before beginning his consideration of Jesus’ temptations, Ajith offers several examples of ways in which an important chapter in life is preceded by a “test” that, if avoided, will create problems for us downstream. One example is in early marriage. What is the test? How do you reflect on this in your own experience?
  2. Another test has to do with persevering with difficult people. Ajith has a very strong conviction that we shouldn’t flee problematic people if we want to do ministry, and that we must burn into our minds early on the priority of sticking with and loving them. What do you think of this?
  3. How would you summarize the lesson of the first temptation, about turning stones into bread?
  4. Can you think of ways in which Satan might “remind you of your privileges” in order to take you off course of God’s will?
  5. “Our passion should not be focused on how to provide for our needs. It should be to know and do God’s will.” (p. 77) What are your reflections on this statement? How it might apply to you?
  6. What do you think of his applications to church ministers? (pp. 77-78)
  7. The second temptation of leaping from the Temple has to do with putting demands on God to meet our demands, Ajith says. This may pose as faith, Ajith says, but it isn’t, even when it may be that God gives us what we demand. Have you ever faced such a temptation?
  8. How does Ajith define genuine faith? (p. 79)
  9. Have you ever felt God asking you to surrender something that was very important to you? If so, how did it work out?
  10. 10.  Ajith says that surrendering their desires to God has enabled him and his wife Nelun to have a happy marriage. How does that work? (p.81) Does it apply to your marriage?

11. What do you think of Ajith’s description of pastors who are pursuing conquest rather than God’s will? Does this apply to non-pastors as well? If so, how?

12.  Ajith says that it’s not just crucifying desire, but also pursuing passion to please God. What are his illustrations of that? Which if any do you relate to?

13. The third temptation has to do with making compromises in order to succeed. One example is telling little lies to our children. Do you think this sort of thing is really serious? Why or why not?

14. Consider Ajith’s list (p. 85) of ways in which ministry leaders can compromise. Do you think any of these apply in our church? What can you/we do about it?

15.  “A passion for Christ and the lost… seems to have been replaced by a passion for growth.” What do you think of this critique of evangelicalism? What can we do about it?

16.  What does Ajith offer as the antidote to this temptation to cut corners in pursuit of success?

17.  Ajith thinks that belief in judgment and hell preserve fear of the Lord that is a great deterrent to sin. What do you think?

18. How is success to be measured? (p. 87)

Questions for Chapter 6, Jesus Driven Ministry

“Saturated in the Word”

  1. How do you think Jesus got to know the Bible so well?
  2. Practically speaking, how do you think it made a difference in his life?
  3. Practically speaking, does it make a big difference in your life? In what way?
  4. Ajith writes of the “authority” of the Word and the “security” of the Word. How would you define these?
  5. Which do you finds matters most to you? In what way?
  6. Ajith describes a crisis time [96] when he desperately needed to gather strength from scripture. Have you had a time like that? If so, please describe.
  7. Ajith describes the particular problems new Christians commonly face in Sri Lanka (98). Then he describes similar issues that may arise in the West. Is Bible teaching really an antidote for these problems?
  8. Why does Ajith say that small group Bible studies are so important? Would you agree? Why or why not?
  9. Do you find pleasure in the Bible? Why or why not?

10. What approach do you find helpful to keeping regular times of Bible study? What kinds of study do you find helpful?

11. What do you think of Ajith’s plea to study the Bible first without using other books?

12. What would help you to study more diligently?

Questions for Chapter 7, Jesus Driven Ministry

“Facing Wild Animals”

In this short chapter Ajith elaborates on a brief line in Mark’s gospel: “He was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.” (1:13) This completes Mark’s description of Jesus’ time in the wilderness.

Ajith takes the reference to “wild animals” to reflect destructive external forces. He notes many occasions when difficult circumstances are linked to angelic ministers in the Bible. Though the reference is gnomic, Ajith uses it to reflect on difficult experiences in our lives as ministers, and the ways in which God sends help for us.

  1. Have you ever seen an angel? If not, do you believe in them? What does “belief in angels” do for you?
  2. Ajith says that ministry inevitably involves “conflicts and fears, heartaches and tears.” What has been your experience with this?
  3. Do you think we adequately prepare young people for the adversity they will face when they try to live good lives on behalf of others? Why or why not? How could we do better?
  4. Aith refers to Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, which begins by blessing God for comforting us in our afflictions. (2 Cor 1:3-4) Ajith says that God’s comfort “takes away the bitterness.” (p.111) How have you experienced this, if you have?
  5. Ajith speculates that for some, bitterness in ministry builds upon pain and disappointment they carried from childhood. What kinds of childhood experiences do you think could cause a lasting sensitivity to affronts and difficulties—an inability to forgive and forget?
  6. “We sometimes think we can punish the people who hurt us by remaining hurt and angry.” (p.112) Cite an example.
  7. How does God comfort?
  8. How does God turn evil into good?
  9. How does our struggle with evil make us better able to minister to others?

10. What is our responsibility for tapping into God’s comfort?

Questions for Chapter 8, Jesus Driven Ministry

“Bearing Good News”

This is a weighty and theological chapter, having to do with the nature of Jesus’ message and the mindset with which we communicate it. It’s not a feel-good or therapeutic subject, but it should make us think about what we have to offer in this world as Christians.

  1. “Despite the many problems, we can feel good about [bearing Good News] because, whether people accept it or not, we are proclaiming the most important message that people can hear.” (p. 116) Does the gospel bring you joy? Why or why not?
  2. Ajith gives four reasons why the gospel is compelling and compels us to share it. What are they? Which ones motivate you the most?
  3. Do you believe that “those without Christ are lost and without hope?” (p. 118) Ajith points out that such an objective statement counters our times’ subjective mood, especially as it is not a feel-good approach. (pp. 120-1) Do you think it is possible to convey this message today? How would you do it without turning people off?
  4. “Our challenge is to present the gospel in such a way that our hearers understand that it is based on objective truths and also that it gives rise to deeply satisfying subjective experiences.” (pp. 121-2) Who do you know who models this, and how do they do it?
  5. “What is intended by the king and the kingdom in the Gospels is communicated with the use of the word Lord in the epistles.” (p. 123) What language would you use to communicate the idea of the Kingdom of God, which is so central to Jesus’ gospel?
  6. Ajith says that we may name one category of sins and neglect another. (p. 124-5) Where do you see this? How do we overcome this tendency?
  7. How do we communicate the gospel with confidence and authority, yet with the attitude of servants?
  8. Ajith recommends grappling with your doubts about the authority of the Bible and struggling to a finish. (p. 127) How should one go about this?
  9. Overall, what do you learn from this chapter about “bearing good news?”

Questions for Chapter 12, Jesus Driven Ministry

“Ministering to the Sick and Demon-Possessed”

We are skipping over several chapters to get to this one, but I’d like to encourage you to read the skipped chapters if you can– “Launching Disciples into Ministry” in particular. That chapter is focused on a more institutional ministry than any of us is involved in, but it has some very deep reflections on the nature of life in Christ.

Chapter 12 is more practically oriented, and (at least for me) somewhat outside my comfort zone.

  1. Have you encountered personal problems that you think were demonic in nature, either possession or “demonization,” as Ajith uses the word? If so, how were they handled?
  2. What are the dangers in being quick to blame demons for problems that come up?
  3. What dangers might arise from ignoring the possibility of demons?
  4. “Power and truth are the two great attractions of Christianity to outsiders.” (p. 196) Comment.
  5. Why do churches rarely combine emphases on power and truth together?
  6. “Most people initially come to Christ because they have found that he can meet a need of theirs. But for them to stick with Christ long term, they must come to the conviction that he is the truth.” (p. 198) What about you? What needs brought you to Christ? What truth made you stick?
  7. Ajith emphasizes that Jesus’ healing ministry involved close personal contact—sometimes in private. What is Ajith warning against?
  8. Compassion may get us very emotionally involved. What does Ajith say is necessary to embrace others’ pain without breaking down?
  9. Why does Ajith say that Jesus discouraged publicity for his healing miracles? How can an emphasis on healing obscure the gospel message?

10. “Christian workers from the once-powerful group will need to… identify with the weakness of the group they are ministering to.” (p. 205) Can you apply this to your personal situation? How do we apply it to international concerns?

11. Do you think we do enough praying for sick people? Why or why not?

Questions for Chapter 14, Jesus Driven Ministry


  1. What helps you keep prayer as “a basic feature of lifestyle?”
  2. What typically gets in the way of prayer as a feature of lifestyle?
  3. Referring to Jesus, what does Ajith mean by a “secret place of prayer?”
  4. Do you have a “secret place of prayer?” Please share the secret.
  5. What are some strategic situations in your life that call for prayer?
  6. What kind of moments in your life call for “prayer on the run?”
  7. Ajith notes that Jesus prayed thankfully even in the context of condemning villages that refused to listen to him. (p. 234) Do you think this kind of thankfulness in negative circumstances is important? Why or why not?
  8. How can we best pray for our own vulnerabilities?
  9. “Jesus was a contemplative activist.” (p. 239) What does Ajith mean by this? How does it work out in lifestyle?
  10. “There are few things that help heal our restlessness as much as time spent in the presence of God.”  (p. 240) If this is true, what makes it so hard to live by?
  11. Do you agree with Ajith that older people more often struggle with depression? (p. 241) If so, why do they, and what is the antidote?

The Life of Joseph–5 studies

September 20, 2011

Here are my Bible study notes from the life of Joseph, intended for small groups. This completes the study of the Patriarchs in Genesis. Feel free to use and duplicate as you like.

Study 1: Genesis 37

Human Quarrels, God’s Plans

Read Genesis 15:13-16; 37:1-36

Many years before, God had told Abraham that his offspring would become exiles and slaves for 400 years before returning to capture the land of Canaan. In the remainder of Genesis we read a fascinating story showing how human follies work under the sovereignty of God for his purposes. This chapter in particular shows what Derek Kidner calls “a human pattern that runs through the Old Testament to culminate at Calvary: the rejection of God’s chosen deliverers, through the envy and unbelief of their kith and kin—yet a rejection which is finally made to play its own part in bringing about the deliverance.”

  1. Do you think that Joseph’s strikingly symbolical dreams came from God or from his own delusions of grandeur?  Why do you think so?
  2. Jacob frankly and obviously favors Joseph over his other sons. Have you seen such family favoritism? From your experience, what family dynamics does such favoritism produce?
  3. What was Jacob’s own experience with parental favoritism?
  4. What is your impression of Joseph, given the way he handles his growing isolation from his family? (Note that all the other brothers had a different mother from him. He alone came from Rachel, who was dead.)
  5. Verse 11 suggests that Jacob had a different view of Joseph’s dreams from the rest of the family. What do you think Jacob is thinking? Why?
  6. Do you think the story is credible in relating how Joseph was kidnapped and sold by his brothers? What could make them do such a thing?
  7. Both Reuben and Judah clearly had doubts about where this mob action was taking them. (Judah explicitly mentions the fact that they are flesh and blood with Joseph.) What kept them from stopping it?
  8. What is the moral and spiritual level of God’s chosen people in this chapter?
  9. Do you think you are capable of doing something like Joseph’s brothers? What would stop you?
  10. 10. Where is God in this story? What do you learn about his hiddenness?
  11. 11. How do you understand God’s hiddenness in your own life?

Study 2: Genesis 39-41

Joseph’s Fortunes

Read Chapter 39

  1. Verse 2 says, “The Lord was with Joseph and he prospered.” See how many ways you can name that God blessed Joseph.
  2. What positive qualities does Joseph display in responding to these opportunities?
  3. Does Joseph seem like a different person than the boy who got himself hated by his own family? How so? How do you explain the change (or lack of it)?
  4. In verse 9, Joseph mentions God. Where do you think that idea came from?

Read Chapter 40


  1. For the second time in his life, Joseph has been discarded, and for the second time God’s favor has put him in charge. What does Joseph think of his position?
  2. For the second time in his life, Joseph gets to interpret dreams—somebody else’s this time. Where does his confidence in interpreting them come from?
  3. When it turned out just as Joseph said, what do you think would have been his emotions?
  4. What were his emotions when he was forgotten?

Read Chapter 41

  1. In verse 16 Joseph tells Pharoah that only God can interpret dreams, just as he told the baker and the cupbearer in 40:8 Why do you think he says this?
  2. 10. Joseph not only interprets the dream, he goes on to suggest an administrative response. (vv. 33ff) Where did he get such chutzpah?
  3.  Why do you think Pharoah believed him and set him in charge?
  4. Both Pharoah and Joseph refer to God quite a bit in their dialogue. Do you think they are really talking the same language? What is the basis for discussing God with somebody of a different religion?
  5.  In 13 years—from age 17 to 30—Joseph went from the very bottom to the very top of the known world. Is this a text for the Prosperity Gospel? Why or why not? If not, what message do you think the story of Joseph preaches?
  6. Why did God do all this for Joseph?


Study 3: Genesis 42-45


Read chapter 42

  1. Why didn’t Jacob let Benjamin go with his brothers to Egypt? (verse 4) Was it purely because he would miss him, or do you think he suspected something about Joseph’s demise?
  2. When Joseph recognized his brothers, why did he accuse them of being spies? (Verses 8-9) Wouldn’t it have been simpler to introduce himself and have it out?
  3. From verses 22-23, what do you make of the brothers’ psychology?
  4. Why did the discovery of their silver frighten and dismay them?
  5. What kind of personality is Jacob at this point? (Verse 36) Is this a change?

Read chapter 43

  1. When the brothers are well treated on their second visit to Egypt, it provokes irrational fears. (Verse 28) What is going on in them?
  2. For the second time (42:24; 43:30) Joseph weeps. What is going on in him?
  3. What is Joseph’s plan? Why does he alternate between hidden gifts, accusations, and imprisonments?

Read chapter 44

  1. Joseph sets up his little brother Benjamin, and then doubles the fun by offering to let them all go except Benjamin. (verse 17) Why don’t the brothers take the offer and go?
  2. From Reuben’s speech to Joseph (verses 18-34) what would you say has changed in the brothers’ attitudes from the time when they sold Joseph?

Read chapter 45

  1. How did the brothers react when they realized it was Joseph they dealt with? What was in their minds?
  2. How does Joseph interpret their evil deeds of 23 years before? Where do you think he got these ideas?
  3. Does recognizing God’s presence in evil deeds make reconciliation any easier? Why or why not?
  4. Why do you think Joseph urged his brothers not to quarrel on the way? (verse 24) What do they have to quarrel about?
  5. From this passage, what do you learn about reconciliation?
  6. What do you learn about God’s work?

Study 4: Genesis 46-48

Leaving the Promised Land

Read 46:1-26

  1. What anxieties and uncertainties afflict Jacob at this point in his life?
  2. Beersheba was Isaac’s favorite place, and also the jumping off point for a trip to Egypt. What is the significance for Jacob of sacrificing to God here?
  3. What does God’s message to Jacob (verses 3,4) offer in the way of help? Why do you think God wants to communicate these messages?
  4. Verses 5-27 almost reads like a census report. What important information is conveyed?
  5. How does this sojourn in Egypt differ from Abraham’s? (12:10ff)

Read 46:27-47:12

  1. The ancient prejudice of farmers toward (nomadic) pastoralists shows up in Egypt. What’s the conflict based on? How does Joseph manage it?
  2. How would you describe Jacob in his interview with Pharoah?

Read 47:13-31

  1. What do you think of Joseph’s management of the famine? What is the concept of government? Does a tax rate of 20% seem fair or unfair?
  2. What is the significance of Jacob’s last request to Joseph? (vv 29-31)

Read chapter 48

  1. In naming Ephraim and Manasseh as his heirs, Jacob gave Joseph a double inheritance. Why do you think he “crossed hands” and blessed the younger as the firstborn?
  2. Contrast this blessing ceremony with the first one that Jacob experienced. (chapter 27)
  3. In Jacob’s blessing (vv 15-16) he gives a threefold reference to God. Name them. How does each one relate to his life and his experience of God?
  4. Jacob refers to God’s care over his ancestors Abraham and Isaac. How many “ancestors” in faith can you refer to? What significance do they have for you?
  5. Jacob asks that Ephraim and Manesseh be “called by my name and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac.” (verse 16) What ancestor do you want to be called after?
  6. This blessing gets singled out in Hebrews 11:21 as Jacob’s act of faith. (You should read Hebrews 11:8-22 for its summary of Genesis.) What is this faith about, and why is it worth noting?

Study 5: Genesis 49-50

Jacob’s and Joseph’s End

Read 49:1-28

  1. How would you describe these “blessings,” and what do you think is their function?
  2. Some of these pronouncements sting, Reuben’s (3,4) in particular, bringing up Reuben’s immoral behavior from 35:22. Why does Jacob want to make this public pronouncement?
  3. Which of the twelve sons get the longest and most positive blessings? What is most striking in these?

Read 49: 29-50:26

  1. Why does Jacob want to be buried in Palestine? (49:29-30)
  2. What do the details in Jacob’s burial suggest about the influence of Egyptian culture on Joseph? What do they reveal about Joseph’s position?
  3. What fears are raised by Jacob’s death? (50:15ff) Why now, after 17 years in Egypt?
  4. What do these fears suggest about the role of guilt and retribution in family life? Have you experienced anything like this?
  5. What made Joseph weep? (50:17)
  6. Joseph responds to his brothers’ anxiety with a series of deep statements. (50:19-21) What are they, and how do they speak to the situation?
  7. What impresses you most about Joseph’s character in relating to his brothers?
  8. When Hebrews 11:22 speaks of Joseph’s faith it singles out his last words before death. (50:24-25) Why are they so significant?
  9. Is there any future orientation for our lives that parallels this fascination with Palestine?

The Lives of Isaac and Jacob: Nine Studies

April 11, 2011

I write study questions for my small group. We just finished our second series in Genesis, which I’m posting here in case you can make use of it. The first series, on the life of Abraham, has also been posted.

The Lives of Isaac and Jacob: Nine Studies

By Tim Stafford

Study 1

Genesis 24


Finding a Wife for Isaac


  1. In his instructions to his servant, what comes through as Abraham’s priorities for his son Isaac?
  2. What do you think about the servant’s approach to finding a wife? (vv 12-14) What other approaches might he have taken? What does this approach say about him?
  3. The servant prays to “Abraham’s God.” (verses 12, 26) What does this imply about his own relationship to God?
  4. Is there somebody whose God you worship? If so, who, and why is that significant?
  5. What do we learn about Rebekah from her response to the servant’s request for a drink? What kind of girl is she?
  6. In your mind, does this story emphasize the miraculous guidance of God? How so?
  7. In your mind, does this story emphasize the importance of the good, godly character of the servant in finding the right match? If so, how so?
  8. What admirable qualities does the servant show?
  9. What role do the gold bracelets and nose ring play? (verses 22, 30)
  10. There is some question about how soon Rebekah will be released, and she is consulted. (verse 58) What do you think her response says about her?
  11. Notice the way in which the blessing with which her relatives see off Rebekah (verse 60) echoes God’s promises to Abraham. What does this tell you about God’s plan?
  12. Do you find Isaac’s and Rebekah’s first meeting romantic? Why or why not?


Study 2

Genesis 25:19-34

Jacob and Esau, Act I

  1. We’ve barely got Isaac married at the age of 40 (v. 20) and immediately Genesis starts in on his two sons, born twenty years later (v. 26). Why the rush?
  2. Apparently the pregnancy was difficult and Rebekah prayed for understanding. What kind of answer does she get? (v. 23) In what way is this an answer to her question, “What is happening to me?”
  3. The boys are temperamentally opposites. What would you say is the most likely outcome for that in twin brothers?
  4. The fact that Jacob liked to stay near the tents—what does that tell you about him? What is it about the tents that he would like? What does he learn around the tents that Esau doesn’t while he’s out hunting?
  5. The boys are loved by different parents. (v. 28) What is the most likely outcome for that in twin brothers?
  6. As you read the story of the stew (29-34), what does it show about Esau’s character and personality?
  7. What does it show about Jacob’s character and personality?
  8. Do you think Jacob had been planning to offer this bargain, or was it spontaneous? What makes you think so?
  9. Why does Jacob make his brother swear? (v. 33)

10. Who do you like best, Jacob or Esau? Why?

11. The story is summed up that “Esau despised his birthright,” not “Jacob cheated his brother out of his family position.” Why do you think? Was Esau a greater sinner than Jacob? Why or why not?

12. In our context, what does it mean to “despise your birthright?” Have you ever been tempted to do it? How?

BONUS QUESTION: What is the “red stew” of our times?

Study 3

Genesis 26

Between a Hostile City and a Waterless Wilderness

This chapter doesn’t get preached a lot. It’s very interesting, however, for what it says about the context Isaac lived in. His pilgrimage was insecure and yet he was blessed by God in it.

Biblical criticism notes the parallels in Abraham’s life (12:10-20 when he pretended to the Egyptians that Sarai was his sister; 20:1-18 when he did the same with Abimelech; 21:22-34 when he made a treaty with Abimelech) and suggests that these are 3 variants on one story. That’s plausible, but it’s worth noting that the similarities are there for anybody to see. Whoever put this together was no fool, and didn’t put in three variations without noticing. There are very significant differences in the stories, too, and it’s plausible that this is actually a case of the sins of the father repeating themselves—and then being repeated by the son. That plausibility depends, however, on the possibility that Abimelech and Phicol are family names or court titles that got repeated in different generations. There’s no evidence of that, but there’s no evidence against it either.

Whatever you make of this issue, we are presented with a story that has its own meaning in its own time. Let’s enter into Isaac’s life!

  1. Famine occurred in Abraham’s, Isaac’s and Jacob’s day, and each time the possibility of going to Egypt came up. What was Egypt’s attraction? Why doesn’t God want Isaac to go there?
  2. What does God ask of Isaac?
  3. God plans to bless Isaac on the basis of his relationship with Abraham. (vv 3,5) We usually think of having a personal relationship with God on a one-to-one basis. Should we alter that way of thinking based on this passage? Why should Abraham’s blessing pass to Isaac?
  4. Have you been blessed because of God’s blessing on someone else? Who, and how?
  5. Abimelech’s alarm (v. 10) suggests that perhaps he knew of God’s warning in 20:7.  Contrast his mindset with Isaac’s. What is Isaac’s main focus?
  6. Genesis credits God for Isaac’s success in Gerar (v. 12-14) What is the result of this blessing in terms of his relationships? What does this suggest about material blessings?
  7. Isaac seems to be caught between a hostile city and a waterless wilderness that can’t support his flocks. What does he most need?
  8. When God appears to him a second time (v. 24) what is God’s message? Why is this important?
  9. What is Isaac’s response to God’s appearance?

10. When Abimelech and his men rode out from Gerar, what do you think Isaac expected? What do you make of Abimelech’s explanation of his visit? (v. 28)

11. Do non-believers often notice the blessing of the Lord as Abimelech did? Or do you think he was a highly unusual person?

12. List the things that happened to Isaac in Beersheba. What significance does this place have in his life?

13. Looking over this chapter we can see that Isaac has been on a difficult pilgrimage. What has he accomplished with God’s help? How much of it was his doing? What did God provide?

Study 4

Genesis 27-28:9

Jacob Gets the Blessing

  1. It’s important to reflect on the background of these sordid events. Re-read 25:21-34. What had God revealed about the relationship of these twin brothers? (v. 23) What had Esau sworn? (v. 33) How did these facts fit in with Isaac and Rebecca’s desires? (v. 28)
  2. When Isaac indicated that he would bless Esau (27:4) was he thinking that these previous events didn’t count? What motivates him?
  3. What motivates Rebekah in her instructions to Jacob? What makes a wife and a mother conceive such a thing?
  4. Jacob at first objects to Rebekah’s scheme. What is the basis of his objection? (vv 11-12)
  5. Overall, how would you describe Rebekah’s personality?
  6. Overall, how does Isaac come off in this exchange with his two sons? Is it really credible that he could be snookered this way? Why or why not?
  7. Isaac’s blessing of Jacob (28, 29) seems to mix both God’s blessing of Abraham and God’s prediction about Jacob ruling over Esau. Do you think Isaac is trying to undo that prediction? What is his motive?
  8. What do you think of Isaac’s conviction that he can’t undo his blessing, even if he made it under deception? Is this the power of a spoken word, or does he also have the conviction he has been trying to undo God’s work?
  9. How would you sum up Esau’s character? What actions or words tell you about him?

10. What do you think of Esau’s third marriage? (28:6-9)

11. Rebekah comes off as the great manipulator, by far the most insightful member of the family. How does she get Jacob to do what she wants? (42-5)) How does she get Isaac to do what she wants? (v. 46)

12. Overall, what is the result of Isaac’s scheme to bless Esau? What is the result of Rebekah’s scheme to gain blessing for Jacob? What does this suggest about human planning? What about God’s planning?

Study 5

Genesis 28: 10-22

Pure Grace

  1. What do you think was Jacob’s state of mind when he stopped for the night? How many factors can you name that might have weighed on him?
  2. Considering Jacob’s recent ugly behavior toward his brother and his father, why do you think God appeared to him without even being asked?  Why were his words so unstintingly positive, rather than reproachful?
  3. Is there anything new in God’s promise to Jacob?
  4. Considering how much of what God says to Jacob is a repeat of what he has undoubtedly heard from his father, what is the value in God reiterating these promises?
  5. What is the meaning of the “stairway to heaven?”
  6. Why would this vision seem significant to Jacob?
  7. What about you? What does the “stairway to heaven” say to you?
  8. Why and how did Jesus appropriate this imagery in John 1:51?
  9. Jacob responds with excitement not to God’s promises but to the presence of God and the “gate of heaven.” Does this reaction surprise you? Why or why not?

10. In Jacob’s vow, he emphasizes the promises that have a near-term impact, not those that affect future generations or long-term career. What does this say about Jacob’s mindset at the time?

11. What do you think of Jacob’s vow? Is it appropriate? Can you think of anything he might have said instead?

12. After this passage, it is a long, long time before God seems to be involved in Jacob’s life again. What do you think it means when a person like Jacob has a dramatic encounter with God? What difference do you think it makes?

13. What about you? Are your encounters with God more episodic, or steady? How do they affect you?

14. What do you learn about God from this passage?

Study 6

Genesis 29-30

Twenty Years Away from Home

  1. What do you learn about Jacob’s character from his first day in Paddan Aram? (29: 1-14)
  2. Why does Jacob weep? (verse 11)
  3. What do you learn about Jacob’s character from his courtship and marriage? (29:14b-30)
  4. What about Laban? Does he remind you of his sister Rebekah? Why or why not?
  5. In the competition between Leah and Rachel (29:31-30:24), what do children represent?
  6. Notice how Leah sees her children as a way to make up for Jacob’s lack of love. (29: 32-35; 30:20). What advice would you give her if she came to you for marriage counseling?
  7. What role does Jacob play in this competition? What does that tell you about his character?
  8. What do you think about the role that the servant women played in this competition?
  9. Do you feel sorry for Dinah? (30:21) Why or why not?

10. The discussion between Laban and Jacob over wages (30:25-43) is “a classic encounter between two schemers, each trying to take advantage of the other.” How does Laban try to get the better of Jacob?

11. How does Jacob try to get the better of Laban?

12. Jacob seems to think that he out-clevers Laban, but with a knowledge of modern genetics we can be pretty sure that Jacob’s theories were wrong. Why do you think Jacob’s flocks grew while Laban’s did not?

13.  Jacob finishes his twenty years in Paddan Aram a wealthy man (30:43) with two wives and twelve children (11 sons).  Is this a good thing? Why or why not?

14. Where does God appear in all this? What do we learn about him?

15. With which character in this story do you identify?

Study 7

Genesis 31

Good and Bad Partings

The number one question when Jacob left home was whether he would survive. Chapters 29 and 30 answered that question: he has become patriarch of a substantial family, with considerable wealth. Now comes the number two question: will he ever get home again?

  1. Verses 1-3 summarize how Jacob got the idea of going home. How would you describe the human factors?
  2. How would you describe the God factors? Were human or God factors more important?
  3. Jacob had proposed leaving six years before (30:25-28). What is different this time?
  4. How do you decide to leave? Human factors? God factors?
  5. Whereas Jacob had previously proposed leaving to Laban, this time he decides to leave secretly. Why? Do you think this was wise?
  6. Jacob consults Leah and Rachel, making a rather lengthy explanation of why they should leave. (31:4-13) Why does he feel it necessary to defend himself to them?
  7. From Jacob’s words, and from Laban’s words (31: 28, 43) you sense that these women were more than slaves. What was their social status?
  8. In Jacob’s explanation to his wives, and in their response, there are human factors and God factors. What are they? Which do you think mattered most?
  9. Are the God factors sincerely offered by Jacob? By Rachel and Leah?

10. The dramatic story of how Rachel got away with her father’s gods (19, 30-37)—what do you think is the point?

11. What impression do you get of Rachel?

12. After pursuing for seven days, why doesn’t Laban follow through and use superior force to take Jacob back?

13. What is the gist of Jacob’s defense to Laban? (vv 36-42) What are the human factors? What are the God factors?

14. Laban, totally flummoxed by God and man, proposes a covenant. (31:43-44) What are the elements of the covenant? What do they accomplish?

15. In the end Jacob and family are able to part peacefully, rather than leaving behind the ragged edges of getting out of town without notice. What had to happen to create that peace? What aspects of this story apply to your own transitions? (Leaving a job, leaving home, dropping out of a family tradition, changing churches, moving, etc.)

16. Who comes out of this story looking good?

Study 8

Genesis 32-33

Jacob Meets God and Brother

Read Genesis 32:1-21

  1. What did it mean to Jacob to see angels as he was on his way?
  2. Why do you think he named the place “two camps?”
  3. Jacob’s message to his brother (4-5) used very servile language, “your servant,” and “my lord.” What do you think is going on in Jacob’s mind?
  4. What made Jacob panic? (verse 7).
  5. What is the substance of his prayer? (9-12) Is he bargaining? If not, what is his approach?
  6. What is the substance of his plans as he approaches his brother? How will these protect him?
  7. Why doesn’t Jacob run? Why does he keep heading toward his brother?

Read Genesis 32:22-32

  1. Why did Jacob stay behind?
  2. In this strange encounter, God gave Jacob three new “gifts.” What were they? How was each one to Jacob’s benefit?

10. God names Jacob “struggler with God.” Is there a message for Jacob and for his sons? What do you think it is?

11. Why doesn’t God want Jacob to see him?

12. What was the significance of the limp, that it should be remembered by a tribal ritual? (verse 32)

13. Read Hosea 12:2-4, which summarizes the life of Jacob. What do we gain from this description of strength and weakness? Is this a good model?

Read Genesis 33

14. Esau is a portrait of grace, parallel to the Prodigal Son’s father. (verse 4) How can this be? What is behind it? What lesson can we learn?

15. Jacob not only declines to accompany his brother home, but as soon as he disappears going south, Jacob turns north toward Succoth. How much has Jacob learned about grace?

16. Thinking about difficult relationships, what parts of this story do you identify with? The scary approach? The wrestling with God? The unexpected grace? The drifting back into fear?

Study 9

Genesis 34-35

Homecoming for Jacob

As we noted in the last study, Jacob’s old deceptiveness sprang up immediately after his brother received him so graciously. (33:4) After promising his brother to follow him on his journey south, Jacob turned northwest to Succoth, where he took time to build a house and some shelters for his livestock. (33:17) Later he went on to Shechem, bought land and established an altar.

Since Dinah was probably about seven years old when Jacob left Laban (see 30:21-24; 31:41) it appears that some years passed before the trouble of chapter 34.

Read Genesis 34

  1. How would you describe the social relations between Jacob’s family and the people of Shechem?
  2. Hamor’s son Shechem forced sex on Dinah, but afterwards declared that he loved her and wanted to marry her. What is the best case for accepting Hamor’s offer in verses 9-10?
  3. What is the case for rejecting it?
  4. Was there any alternative to the brutal revenge carried out by Jacob’s sons? What else could they have done?
  5. What was the substance of Jacob’s complaint to his sons? (verse 30) If you were castigating them, what would you add to this?
  6. If you were in Jacob’s place, how would you answer the sons’ rebuttal? (verse 31)
  7. Did Jacob bear any responsibility for this awful incident? What, if anything, had he done wrong? (Consider Jacob’s settling down in Shechem, his passive response in verse 5, his non-involvement in the negotiations, and the lack of principle in his response to his sons (verse 30).)
  8. Why do you think this story is placed in the holy book of Israel? What can we gain from it?


Read Genesis 35


  1. When God stepped in (35:1) what did he command Jacob to do? Why were these beneficial actions to take? What would they accomplish?

10. Jacob’s instructions to his family (verse 2-4) differ somewhat from what God had asked of him. Why? What do we learn about the religious state of Jacob’s family?

11.  Note that despite Israel’s fear of violent reprisals, no defensive actions are mentioned. What kept them safe?

12. Jacob’s return to Bethel rounds out his long, complicated journey to Paddan Aram. He virtually repeats (35: 14-15) the actions he took when he passed through there alone (28:18-19). What has been gained on this round trip?

13. In what ways do you think Jacob has changed on the journey? In what ways has he stayed the same?

14. Has God changed toward Jacob? If not, what are his consistent actions?

15. Have you been on a round trip like Jacob’s? (For example, in leaving a place, a relationship, a job, a school, a church, and later returning.) What did you gain on the journey?

16.  Note also that Jacob and Esau were reunited when their father died. (35:29) That, too, ended a round trip. What can we learn about sibling rivalries from their experience?

17. As young men Jacob and Esau vied for primacy in the family and for “the blessing” of the firstborn. These seem to be truly important matters in the thought-world of Genesis, but by the time of Isaac’s funeral, it’s not so clear what difference they made for Jacob and Esau. What do you think was at stake, if anything?

18. What kind of man was Jacob? What in his life do you want to emulate? What avoid?

Life of Abraham Bible Study Guide

September 20, 2010

I write questions for my home Bible study group, and I post these just in case someone else can make use of them. Feel free to copy and use as you’d like. This 8-week series is on the life of Abraham.

Life of Abraham

Study Questions by Tim Stafford

Study 1

Read  chapters 12 to 14.

Chapter 12 of Genesis represents an abrupt break. Up until this point, Genesis has been preoccupied with global issues, most of them heartbreaking. God made the world very good, but in no time violence and evil take over. God’s responses are mainly punitive—a massive flood, a breakdown in language. There seems to be no hope of redeeming his beautiful creation. But here,  God narrows his focus to one solitary individual. The world is forgotten. Abraham and God occupy the stage.

1. 12:1-3 What does God ask of Abram?

2. What does God promise to Abram?

3. 12:10-20 Is this a story about what a coward Abram is, or what a lucky duck he is?

4. Chapter 13 Why did Abram and Lot separate? What motivated Abram, and what motivated Lot?

5. How did God respond?

6. 13:18 Living out in the desert, Abram’s only “buildings” were tents and altars. Reflect on the different purpose and permanence of the two.

7. How often did Abram encounter God, and in what ways? (12:1, 7, 8, 17; 13:4, 14, 18; 14:19, 22) What did he know about God?

8. Chapter 14 What do you learn about Abram’s situation from the details of this chapter? Why does he fight?

9. 14:17-24 Why does Abraham honor Melchizedek, who offers bread and wine and a blessing, while refusing to take anything from the king of Sodom?

10. Note the contrast between Abram’s getting rich from the Egyptians (12:16, 20; 13:2) and his refusal to get rich courtesy of Sodom. What is the difference?

11. What would you say is the main drive of Abram’s life in these chapters? How does it relate to God’s promise in 12:1-3? Do you see any signs of growth?

Study 2

Read Genesis 15

1.     What is the content of Abraham’s vision in 15:1? What is he to do? What does God promise to do?

2.     Suppose you had such a vision. How do you think you would respond? (Or, if you have had such a vision, how did you respond?)

3.     How does Abraham respond? Is his response admirable? Why or why not?

4.     How does God answer his complaint?

5.     What does verse 6 mean in context? Why is it quoted in the New Testament?

6.     How does verse 7 follow? Why doesn’t Abraham believe?

7.     How does God respond to Abraham’s doubts?

8.     How do you read verse 16?

9.     What do you learn from this chapter about Abraham’s social location?

10. To what degree and in what way did God answer Abraham’s doubts?

11. What about us? What promises do we find hard to believe?

12. How does God answer our doubts?

Study 3

Read Genesis 16

1.     What are Sarai’s goals and priorities? What kind of outcome do you think she is looking for when she proposes that Abram sleep with Hagar?

2.     What kind of person do you think Sarai is?

3.     What are Abraham’s goals and priorities?

4.     Would you say Abraham is weak? Why or why not?

5.     What is Hagar’s social situation?

6.     Why did she despise Sarai after getting pregnant?

7.     Why does Sarai hold Abraham responsible?

8.     Does Abraham take responsibility? If not, why not?

9.     What is the underlying purpose in the question the angel poses to Hagar? (v. 8)

10. How would you describe Hagar’s answer?

11. How does the angel respond to her? Do you think this is helpful to her, or punitive?

12. What is the significance of Hagar giving God a name? What has happened to her?

13. What do you think of this name? What did it mean to Hagar? How does it speak to you?

14. If an angel asked you the question he asked Hagar, how would you answer?

Study 4

Read Genesis 17

This chapter carries on from chapter 15. There God made specific promises in terms of land and offspring, and these promises were ratified in a strange religious ceremony/experience. Chapter 16 reads like an interlude, in which we see the characters of Abram, Sarai, and Hagar as they attempt to work out their own salvation and (more or less without looking for him) discover God’s character. In chapter 17 we return to God’s promises and God appears to Abram again—at least 14 years after the last time.

1.     How do you imagine God’s appearance to Abram? Why did Abram fall on his face?

2.     Verses 1-8 include many promises to Abram. Which ones repeat something

3.     God has said before? Which ones offer something new?

4.     What is the overall significance of listing these “benefits?”

5.     Verses 9-14 turn to Abraham’s response. In Chapter 15 he was only to believe and to participate in the ceremony. Now we see that more is required. Of all the things that God could demand of Abraham, why circumcision?

6.     Why do you think God chose a sign that applied to men only?

7.     Why were slaves included?

8.     Why circumcise at eight days, when the more common practice is to circumcise at puberty as part of a coming of age ritual?

9.     Why no moral demands? What is circumcision that the Ten Commandments is not?

10. Regarding verses 15-16, why does God want to bless Sarah? What has she done to deserve this?

11. Verse 18 records Abraham’s only words in this chapter. What do they say about him?

12. How does God respond to Abraham’s laughter and his question? What do you learn about God and his plans?

13. Why do you think Isaac got his name? Who is laughing?

14. How do you imagine the scene in verses 23-27? What do you learn about Abraham?

15. If you were one of the slaves who got circumcised that day, what would you think?

16. When you think of your own life plans and the way God treats you, what does this chapter say to you?

Study 5

Read Genesis 18-19

Until now we have seen very little deep evil in Abraham’s world. We saw Abraham’s cowardly behavior in Egypt, the violent raid against Lot (and the rescue operation), and Sarai and Hagar’s battle for privilege. These show plenty of evidence of human weakness, but the evils seem petty (though they can do great harm). In fact, there seems to be a paired weakness in the story. Abraham, the man chosen for the world’s redemption, seems too puny for the task; but the world also doesn’t seem to be dying for redemption.  Its sins hardly seem worth God’s worrying about.

In these chapters, we begin to get a larger portrait of good and evil.

Regarding Abraham:

1.     Why do you think so much is made of his hospitality to the three strangers? (18:1-8)

2.     In explaining his relationship to Abraham (18:16-19), what does God emphasize?  What does he intend to do for Abraham, and what does he want from him? And what does this have to do with whether he should tell Abraham about Sodom?

3.     What does Abraham’s dialogue with God (18:20-33) reveal about Abraham? About God? About their relationship?

4.     Why does the author of Genesis include the brief vignette in 19:27-28?

Regarding Sarah:

5.  Why did the Lord ask Abraham where his wife Sarah was? (18:9)

6.  Everything God tells Sarah in 18:9-15 closely parallels what God had recently told Abraham in 17:15-22. Do you think Abraham had not told Sarah, or had she failed to believe what he told her? What is God’s purpose in coming back to share the same information again?

7.  What is the point of the laughter in both these accounts?

Regarding Sodom:

8.  Why did Lot insist so strenuously on bringing the visitors home? (19:1-3) What does he know about Sodom?

9.  Based on this passage, what do you think the “sin of Sodom” was?

10.  Can a city really be so bad that it lacks even ten decent people?

Regarding Lot:

11. As a man sitting in the city’s gate, Lot appears to be a prominent citizen of the town. His going out to face the mob (verse 6) suggests either that he had courage or that he thought people wouldn’t attack him personally. Considering verse 9, what do you think was the true state of his relationship?

12. What does his offer of his daughters (verse 8) tell you about Lot?

13. Why do his sons-in-law think he is joking? (verse 14) What does this suggest about Lot?

14. Overall, what idea do you get of Lot? Why the epilogue in verses 30-38?

Regarding the world:

15. What sense do you get from this passage of the wickedness of the world? Is it widespread?

16. What is God doing about the wickedness of the world, and what kind of instruments does he have at his disposal?

Study 6

Read Genesis 20, 21

1. These two chapters begin and end with Abraham and Sarah’s interactions with Abimelech. What do we learn about Abraham’s social situation? What problems does he face? What assets does he bring?

2. Twice in the last year (17:21; 18:10) God has told Abraham and Sarah that they will have a son within the year. Given that this is the long-awaited fulfillment of God’s promise, why would Abraham move into Abimelech’s territory and tell him that Sarah was his sister (20:2), practically inviting him to take her for a wife?

3. What picture do you get of Abimelech from his dream dialogue with God? (Verses 3-7)

4. What three questions does Abimilech demand of Abraham? (verses 9,10) What do they tell us about Abimelech?

5. What three answers does Abraham give? (verses 11-13)  Do any of them stand up?

6. What picture do you get of Abraham from his dialogue with Abimelech?

7. At the time Isaac was weaned (verse 8) he was perhaps about three and Ishmael would have been in his mid-teens. What would cause Ishmael to make fun of Isaac?

8. Why would it bother Sarah so?

9. Why did Abraham let Ishmael go? Is this an act of faith or an act of weakness? What makes you think so?

10. Verse 20 asserts that God was with Ishmael as he grew up. In what way? What is the difference between Isaac’s place before God and Ishmael’s?

11. Perhaps fifteen years before, Hagar had run off into the wilderness, and God had sent her back. Why do you think God is now content for her to leave?

12. When Abimelech and Abraham meet again (verse 22 and following) Abimelech asks Abraham to swear to keep the peace, Abraham lodges a complaint, and the two men end up signing a treaty. Why is all this necessary and important? What does it say about Abraham’s position in society?

13. If you had wandered into Abraham’s camp and heard of these events, where do you think you would have seen God at work? How visible was God’s activity? What were the telltale signs?

14. How about today? Is God’s work visible? What are the telltale signs?

Study 7

Read Genesis 22

People have been staring into this text for thousands of years. It’s really pretty simple, and yet we keep staring. It’s worth taking time to soak in the details and so follow Abraham’s experience closely. Then we need to ask: what does this say about Abraham, what does it say about God, and what does it say to us?

1.     In verse one, why does God call Abraham’s name? Why does Abraham respond “here I am”?  Why is this verse necessary? (Notice that the same call and response is repeated in verse 11.)

2.     In verse 2 God says to take “your only son, Isaac, whom you love.” Actually, Abraham had another son, whom he also loved. Why does God say this?

3.     Abraham obeys first thing in the morning. How quickly would you have responded?

4.     One feature of this story is that God takes Abraham to a new place of sacrifice, even though Abraham had already built altars to him in several  other locations. Why do you think this new place is indicated?

5.     In verse 8, do you think Abraham is hoping for some kind of divine alternative to sacrificing Isaac?

6.     “Now I know,” God says in verse 12. What does he know? How does he know it? What difference does it make?

7.     The mountain place is called “The Lord Will Provide,” according to verse 14, and it quotes a significant saying relating to the Temple Mount. (“On the mountain of the Lord” ) What is the deeper meaning of this saying? How does it apply to us?

8.     In verse 15 God takes an oath, on the basis of Abraham’s obedience. Is there anything new in what he promises?

9.     What do you think God is doing in this whole scene? Is he testing Abraham for his own benefit, or for Abraham’s?

10. Think about what we have seen of Abraham so far. Is there anything new revealed about him here? What do we learn?

11. What do we learn about God? Is something new revealed?

12. Does God test you? If so, how? Why do you think he does it?

13. Do you think this chapter shows God in the way he typically relates to his chosen people? Or do you think this is a one-time-only event that can never be repeated? Why do you think so?

Study 8

Read Genesis 23:1-24:10, Genesis 25:1-18

We come to the deaths of both Sarah and Abraham. The focus is on Abraham’s preparing for the future, establishing a toehold in the Promised Land and planning for his son Isaac’s marriage. Abraham is not looking back, but we can, reflecting on what Abraham and Sarah accomplished in their long lives.

1.     From Abraham’s interactions with the Hittite elders in Hebron, what do you gather about Abraham’s social status? Practically speaking, what does it mean to be an “alien and a stranger?” (23:4)

2.     What do you think is Abraham’s motive in wanting to buy land for Sarah’s burial? What is the alternative?

3.     What do you make of the elaborate courtesy shown by Ephron and Abraham? Is this genuine mutual appreciation, or a bargaining tactic?

4.     Note Genesis 50:24,25, where Joseph asks his offspring to promise to carry his bones back to this cave in the Promised Land. According to Exodus 13:19 and Joshua 24:32 that is exactly what happened hundreds of years later in Moses’ time. What is the significance of burial in Palestine for these Israelites?

5.     Abraham next focuses on Isaac’s marriage. Why did he send his servant all the way back to Mesopotamia to his brother’s family? What was the alternative?

6.     What is Abraham’s most urgent concern in what he says to his servant? Why?

7.     What hints do you get about Abraham’s relationship to God from this passage?

8.     In chapter 25 we learn more about Abraham’s extensive (and complicated) family. Notice that Ishmael came around for the burial, even though he didn’t inherit (verse 9), and that Isaac chose to live at the same place where Hagar first met God. Why do you think Isaac is singled out for inheritance and protection? What makes him special?

9.     At the end of Abraham’s long life, what has he accomplished?

10. What forces make Abraham’s legacy vulnerable?

11. Given that God has made very large promises to Abraham, do you think he died satisfied? How do you think he envisioned the future for his family?

12. How do Abraham’s accomplishments compare with yours?

13. How do Abraham’s hopes compare with yours?

Ephesians: A Bible Study

November 16, 2009

Please note: this is a rather specialized post intended for those who are in Bible study groups. I crafted these questions for my own group and am passing them on for anybody who would like to use them.

Ephesians: A Bible Study Guide by Tim Stafford

(Nine Weeks)

(Feel free to use and distribute. If you sell it, send me a royalty check.)

Study 1–Ephesians 1: 1-14

  1. In this incredibly dense and tangled patch of prose, what is the main point that Paul is trying to communicate?
  2. Who are the actors? What do they do? (Please list who does what.)
  3. What is our role and how important is it?
  4. What is the point of the whole exercise? I mean, why did God plan and operate this whole thing?
  5. Note and list the words that get repeated. What do you think they mean? How is their meaning elaborated in this context?
  6. What, if anything, gets you excited in this passage?
  7. Go back to question 1 and answer it again.

Study 2–Ephesians 1:15-23

  1. Paul introduces his first great prayer (there are two in Ephesians) with the words “for this reason.” He is explaining why he gives thanks for the Ephesians and prays for them. As you refer back to the first section of Ephesians that we studied last week, what do you think is “this reason?” What is it about God’s great plan that motivates Paul to pray?
  2. What about us? Is there something in the magnificence of God’s plan that motivates you to pray?
  3. Paul prays that the Ephesians would receive two gifts from God (verses 17 and 18). What are they?
  4. What does it mean to pray that somebody receive “the Spirit of wisdom and revelation?”
  5. What does it mean to pray that “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened?”
  6. What are said to be the end results of these two prayers?
  7. When you pray for those you love, do you pray for these kind of results? Why or why not?
  8. How would you explain “the hope to which he has called you?”
  9. How would you explain “the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints?”
    10. When talking about God’s power, Paul doesn’t refer to Old Testament displays such as creation or exodus (as the Psalms often do) but to Jesus’ resurrection and heavenly authority. Why does the resurrection trump those other displays of God’s power in Paul’s encouraging words to the Ephesians?
  10. If this kind of power is “for us who believe” (verse 19) how does it show itself?
  11. What is the church and how does it fit in all this? (verses 22-23)
  12. Is this a model prayer for us? How should it influence our prayers as a Bible study group?
  13. Does anybody pray for you like this?

Study 3–Ephesians 2:1-10

  1. Let’s review: how would you summarize the main thrust of 1:1-14?
  2. What does Paul pray constantly that the Ephesian Christians would “get?” (1:15-23)
  3. In this new section (2:1-10) Paul introduces the personal history of the Ephesian Christians—past, present and future. What does he say about their past? Please write down everything you learn about them, as Paul sees them.
  4. What does he say about their present?
  5. What does he say about their future?
  6. These verses seem paradoxical—the Ephesians were dead, yet they were living—in sin. (vv. 1-3) How could they be active and yet dead? What does Paul mean when he says they were dead?
  7. Why does it matter that this new life was not produced by the Ephesians’ will but by God’s gift? (vv. 8,9) Why should it matter who is responsible so long as the end result is good?
  8. Where is the dignity for humanity in this story?
  9. What end does God have in mind? (v. 7) How do you picture that?
  10. What does Paul want the Ephesians to do? If God is responsible for their salvation, and even for their good works (v. 10), for what are they responsible?

Study 4–Ephesians 2:11-22

This is the third time Paul has told the Ephesians’ story. In 1:3-14 he explained their lives in what you might call “the love story,” in which the Father loves and cherishes his child. After a prayer that the Ephesians would “get it” about God, Paul tells their story again in 2:1-10, this time as “rescue from death.” Now, in this passage, he tells their story a third time.

  1. What was the situation of the Gentiles in Ephesus? (2:11-13)
  2. How was this different from what Paul described in 2:1-3, “You were dead”?
  3. Paul seems to regard the division between Jew and Gentile as very significant. Why?
  4. To make peace between the two communities, what did Christ Jesus do? Why this and not a meeting to explore mutual understanding?
  5. What place did the law play in creating and promulgating hostility?
  6. What does Paul mean, “he himself is our peace”? (2:14)
  7. Paul uses temple-language to describe the new, unified community in verse 21. What was the temple to the Jews? To the Gentiles?
  8. What kind of religion is formed by these developments, and how is it different from the old?
  9. In what way does this passage clarify the stories of what God has done as told in 1:1-14 and 2:1-10?
  10. In the first-century social situation, this new unity between Jew and Gentile had obvious significance, perhaps like desegregation in the South. But what does it mean for us?
  11. Does the church today sometimes replicate the Jew/Gentile division in another form?
  12. If so, what is the answer? What creates peace?

Study 5–Ephesians 3

Having told the Ephesians’ story three times—once as a tale of loving predestination, once as a story of rescue from death, and once as a story of a lost people joined into God’s people to make a new temple for God—Paul now tells his own story as it relates to the Ephesians. He concludes with an amazing prayer and benediction. With this, he has set the stage for the rest of the book, where he will begin to lay out the practical implications for action.

  1. Paul begins by saying, in paraphrase, “I’m in prison because of what I do for you Gentiles.” Why do you think he wants the Ephesians to know this?
  2. Paul’s story begins with his insight into the mystery of Christ. What is that mystery? How did he come to understand it?
  3. Why is that mystery so significant?
  4. Given Paul’s insight into the mystery, what is Paul supposed to do with it? In other words, what is his job, as he understands it? (verses 7-9)
  5. If Paul does his job, what will be the result? (verses 10-12)
  6. Paul ties up this section in verse 13, suggesting that he wants to turn upside down the Ephesians’ view of his imprisonment. What does he suspect they have been thinking of it? What should they think and feel, and why does that matter?
  7. Paul turns to prayer in verse 14. What does he mean that every family gets its name from the Father? Why is this significant to the Ephesians?
  8. Twice in his prayer Paul mentions power. How does he pray that power will manifest itself?
  9. Love is lovely stuff, but given what we have learned about the Ephesians, why do you think it is so central in Paul’s prayer for them?
  10. Why is it central to you? To your loved ones? To your friends?
  11. What are you asking for? What is the most you can imagine? Why is that not enough?

Study 6–Ephesians 4:1-5:2

Having set out a magnificent and inspiring story of what God is doing in the universe, and in the Ephesians, Paul now brings his letter to practical implications.

  1. Paul begins by urging the Ephesians to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” Go back through the first 3 chapters and list at least five things God had called them to do and to be.
  2. Verses 2-6 emphasize living together in unity and peace. What about their calling makes this imperative?
  3. “Unity” might be interpreted to mean uniformity and a total lack of hierarchy, but in verses 7-11 Paul acknowledges that different members of the body of Christ will look and act different. What is their “differentness” based on? What is its purpose?
  4. What does a church of mature, well-taught Christians look like? What are some of its marks? (Verses 12-16)
  5. Beginning at verse 17, Paul immediately tells them how not to fulfill their calling. They must not live like Gentiles, whose hopelessness he described in 2:11-13.  How does he describe the Gentiles’ lives (verse 18,19)? How might this be different from the Jews? Does this describe any group today?
  6. How (by contrast) were the Ephesians taught to live? (verse 22)
  7. If God has given us a calling and a life, why do we have to “put it on?”
  8. List the expectations for a Christian’s life that Paul gives in verses 25-32. Do any of these seem to have particular relevance in our lives?
  9. 5:1-2 closes this section with a command to imitate God, as he shows himself in Jesus. What are we to imitate, and how does that look?
  10. Why do you think this section is necessary? What do you think it accomplished in the life of the Ephesians that the first 3 chapters did not?
  11. What about the life of our church community? Is there something parallel that needs to be stressed?

Study 7–Ephesians 5:3-20

In this section we carry on learning how to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (4:1).  It’s practical advice mixed in with amazing asides.

  1. Go over our last lesson (4:1-5:2) and make a list of the main pieces of practical advice.
  2. Paul starts this section concerned with an unholy trinity of immorality, impurity and greed (verse 3 and 5). What are his reasons for being against them?
  3. Verse 4 considers how we talk, as did 4:15, 25, 29. Looking at all those verses, what do you learn about what kind of talk to avoid? What talk should you pursue?
  4. Twice in this section Paul refers to “the disobedient.” (verses 6, 12) Who are they? What do you think this word reveals about Paul’s basic understanding of the motivation for sin?
  5. Considering verse 5, what hope is there for any of us?
  6. In verses 8-14 Paul uses the metaphor of light and darkness. What does the metaphor itself reveal about the nature of good and evil?
  7. What is the source of light? What does it produce?
  8. If light comes from God, what is our part? Who can resist the light?  (The little ditty in verse 14 is worth pondering.)
  9. The comment that “you once were darkness” (verse 8) seems to harken back to Paul’s description of the Gentiles’ way of life in 2:12 and 4:17-19. Do you think Paul is fair to the Gentiles?
  10. In the next section (15-20) Paul switches from the metaphor of light to the classic Jewish contrast between wisdom and foolishness. What are the characteristics of wisdom? What are the characteristics of foolishness?
  11. Paul returns to the way we talk in verse 19, this time with a musical theme. Should we take this literally?
  12. In this section, what advice do you find most helpful? Most challenging?

Study 8–Ephesians 5:21-6:9

In this passage Paul continues to urge the Ephesian believers to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” In other words, there ought to be congruence between the amazing transformation that God is doing, and their actual lives. Obviously, Paul did not regard this as automatic! (Even though he was confident in the power of God to overcome all obstacles.)

Having dealt with interpersonal issues, Paul comes to relationships within households. Most homes would have a married couple, children, and slaves all living as members of the family. It’s helpful to look at this section as a unit, to notice what these different kinds of relationships have in common (and how they are distinct).

  1. In Paul’s treatment of these three pairings–husband and wife, parents and children, masters and slaves—what is parallel? (For example, all three start with the subordinate partner.) What is different?
  2. Why do you think Paul addresses household relationships? What’s different about this advice from what came before?
  3. On the scale of radical to conservative, where does Paul fall?
  4. Many people have argued that Paul is endorsing slavery. Do you think that is so? Why or why not?
  5. Greco-Roman tradition would have the father as absolute ruler of the household, no questions asked. Is that what Paul is endorsing?
  6. What is the difference between “submit” and “obey?”
  7. Generally, what is different about the husband-wife relationship from these other relationships, in Paul’s way of thinking?
  8. Since no Christian today would tell a slave to obey his/her master, why do they tell children to obey and wives to submit?
  9. How do you understand the statement that “the husband is head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church?” Has your understanding changed over the years?
  10. What does the parallel of Christ and the church tell you about marriage?
  11. Do you have trouble living by Paul’s advice for marriage? Why or why not?
  12. From a Roman perspective the most radical advice Paul offers is to the husband. Is it still radical today? In what way?
  13. From today’s perspective, the most radical advice Paul offers is to the wife. Do the many changes in society and family mean that Paul’s advice must be updated? Why or why not?
  14. What is the desired outcome if the Ephesians heed this passage? What does that have to do with our calling in Christ?

Study 9–Ephesians  6:10-24

We come to Paul’s last words in Ephesians, which at first glance seem somewhat detached from the rest of the book. Paul’s most urgent concern has been to portray the new life that God has given the Ephesians. He has rescued them from a godless and/or hopeless existence and placed them in a new family as part of his plan to redeem the whole world. Paul considers at some length how they should live up to that calling, both in their individual lives and in their homes. Only now does he bring in the concept of the Ephesians at war with the powers of darkness.

  1. Who are our enemies?
  2. Why do you think Paul only deals with them at the very end of the book?
  3. From what Paul has been telling the Ephesians about their lives throughout this book, what would be the motives and goals of these enemies? (It may help to review Paul’s prayers for the Ephesians.)
  4. Do you experience such enmity in your own life? How?
  5. Where do we find strength to face these enemies? (Note verse 10.)
  6. What, according to verse 13, can we hope to achieve by fighting them?
  7. Paul says nothing about defeating the enemy. Why is that?
  8. It may be helpful to distinguish between body armor, strapped to us, and armor that we actively wield. What pieces of armor become, as it were, a second skin? How do they function in your life?
  9. What pieces of armor require our active use? How do they function in your life?
  10. What does a Christian look like who uses this spiritual armor?
  11. How are we to pray, and for what?
  12. In verses 19-20, what do we learn about Paul?
  13. What have you learned from our study of Ephesians? What do you want to be sure to remember?