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How to have a ‘wow’ moment in group Bible Study

I remember it like yesterday  About 15 years ago, a group of girlfriends and I decided to meet monthly in one another’s homes to read through a Biblical book,  share insights and enjoy each others’ company.  It turned out to be a pretty unbeatable formula as we realized most of us thrive when two basic things occur:  creating community and continuous learning.  Our Bible Study group accomplished both in spades.

“Christ at the Last Supper” by Harry Anderson (1906-1996)

That Saturday morning we stumbled upon a practice that turned out to be hugely valuable: we staged the Last Supper, one of the New Testament’s most well-known stories.  By that I mean we literally tried to recreate the scene by thinking through the seating arrangement John’s Gospel described–although we weren’t really sure what we’d accomplish other than hoping for a clearer understanding of that momentous scene (see John 13:21-30).

We assumed it would have been John on one side and Peter on the other, knowing those were his two special disciples, indicated by events like the Transfiguration where they were the only ones included.  But in the prior foot-washing story, we realized Peter is neither first nor last, but somewhere in the middle (see John 13:5,6).  When Jesus returns to the table,  announcing Judas’ coming betrayal (see John 13:17,18), we read:  One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him” (John 13: 23).  This is John.  The next verse reveals Peter’s distance, not nearness:  “Simon Peter therefore motioned to him (John)  to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking (John 13:24).

I’ll never forget the moment when we simultaneously realized the text implied it was Judas probably sitting in the other honored seat next to the Master.  Could it be that Jesus was providing Judas one final opportunity to make a decision other than betrayal, an opportunity to be a better version of himself?  An opportunity to rise instead of fall, to take a stand for what Judas knew was right, rather than surrender to the same evil influence that Jesus had successfully denounced at the launch of his ministry (see Matt. 4, Mark 1:12  and Luke 4).

In seeing that tiny detail of that history-changing night, I realized that love means never giving up on someone, continuing to engage, to stay with them to offer one more opening to make a choice that could change the course of a life.   Talk about the opportunity for second chances! You might not initially think such a detail could be helpful, but it has provided a standard of forgiveness and patience that has guided me many times in the intervening years.

Recently I read this statement that confirmed what we glimpsed, written by a Jewish convert to Christianity who wrote extensively on Jewish practices in the New Testament, with emphasis added:

“Jewish documents are explicit in the arrangement of the table. It seems to have been quite an established rule that in a company of more than two, say of three, the chief personage or Head, in this case, Christ, reclined on the middle divan. We know from the Gospel narrative that John occupied the place on his Right hand, at the end of the divans, at the head of the table. But the chief place next to the Master would be to His left. We believe it to have been actually occupied by Judas. It is thought that Peter sat at the head of the table across from John. The rest of the disciples would occupy such places as were most convenient, or suited their fellowship with one another”  (from The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah by Alfred Edersheim,  1825-1889).  

I share this treasured insight gained from a simple Bible Study group moment because I’ve so come to believe in the blessings such study can bestow on everyone who participates in something similar.   It’s the adult version of ‘back to school’, with significant spiritual lessons to be gleaned.   It’s a joy to watch at least eight new groups start this fall, using one of the eleven (soon to be twelve)  BibleRoads workbooks, then hearing of the friendships and insights that grow from such associations.

I was thinking of this as preparation proceeds for an upcoming four day Bible Study at the beautiful Cedars’ Camps in the Ozark’s, on “Mark’s Gospel”.  If people have never been to such an event, they might not know what to expect.  Just consider any study project where you first prepare on your own by studying and answering provided questions, then think and pray through a text, researching it in various resources.   Then benefit from coming together to share those insights with others who also want to dig deeper.   Combine that with facilitation providing cultural, historical and religious background, asking key questions, urging people to think more deeply, and suddenly the text comes alive in new, fresh ways.

If this is something you’re interested in, please feel free to be in touch and/or watch a free, short video on some tips that could be helpful.  While nothing substitutes for individual prayer and study, there are  benefits from being part of group Bible Study:

  • Getting to know fellow church members and friends at a deeper level
  • Appreciating the accountability the group demands (don’t show up if you’re not prepared)
  • Having a deadline (such as monthly or bi-weekly meetings) to ensure Bible study is a priority in busy lives
  • Learning more about the Bible’s history, culture, politics, religion, and geography — all with the goal of making its stories more understandable, accessible and relevant to today
  • Learning to speak the same language of the Bible that other Christian friends use vs. employing denominational language that others may find unfamiliar or puzzling
  • And above all, finding new spiritual insights that are applicable to lives today

On such occasions, one can feel ideas bursting like popcorn in the room.  Fresh insights now flood thought and suddenly a familiar passage is illumined in startling new ways.  The atmosphere of loving, non-judgmental support surely adds to the clarity and insight participants gain.  And most importantly, individuals leave with a sense of how to dig more deeply and thoughtfully into a Biblical text on their own.

We would love to hear your experiences in a group Bible Study,  so please take a moment to share any that are meaningful.  And happy digging!


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Sara Banacle
Sara Banacle
September 13, 2018 7:37 am

At least two of today’s leading scholars have thoughtfully challenged the long-held assumption that John was the beloved disciple: Ben Witherington and James Tabor. Following their explorations — of two different candidates! — adds even more depth and poignancy to the story of the last supper, Jesus’ provision for his mother, and the evolution of the Jesus movement into the early Christian church.

September 13, 2018 8:47 am

I am so looking forward to Bible Study next month! After attending Bible Study from Asilomar to AU Camp in Colorado and now to Cedars, and a great trip to Israel and Jordan, it’s hard to pinpoint how it has changed my life and how I approach the Bible. The friendships and experiences are as important to me as the deep dive into the Scriptures. I bought Madelon’s CD on Mark years ago and have listened to it at least 50 times. But I know there is much more to learn from this book, Love is core of Bible Study.

Lucy Harper
Lucy Harper
September 13, 2018 3:00 pm

Fascinating, Maddie! At first I didn’t see the evidence that Judas was seated to Jesus’ left, even though it seemed possible since it was in context of Jesus announcing that one of the disciples would betray him. I thought it could have been James seated to Jesus’ left, since Peter, Janes, and John were clearly in Jesus’ inner circle. Then it dawned on me where Judas was seated after I read what Jesus said about who would betray him, “‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ So… Read more »

September 13, 2018 7:33 pm

BTW, our Illinois Bible Study group (modest size, about 8 when everyone comes) loved your Romans workbook. And during almost every meeting, someone would say, in various wordings, “So what is the RIGHT answer to this question? We should ask Madelon to provide an answer page!” Your video on Group Bible Study provides some good alternatives to an answer page. The workbook approach is definitely an improved format over trying to facilitate a group without workbooks. For one thing, everyone comes prepared, having read their assignments in advance – this didn’t happen without the workbooks. People are catching onto the… Read more »

Ginny Stopfel
Ginny Stopfel
September 15, 2018 2:57 pm

It is so natural when reading a Bible narrative for a mental picture to form accompanying the story. In my chaplain’s jail ministry, I have observed that this doesn’t automatically happen for people, as I assumed it did. I want to affirm that “activating” these stories does indeed make them real and best of all creates thinking. Thanks.

James Sawatzky
James Sawatzky
November 16, 2018 3:52 pm

Interesting points on the position of the apostles, which I must admit have never given much thought. I do have a comment on Judas and his “second chance”. I have always thought he has received a bum rap all these years. If he had not betrayed Jesus, we would not have the crucifixion or more important to CS the resurrection. I can’t imagine Jesus wanted him to change his mind as it would have screwed up the whole plan. Had Jesus not foretold the whole thing?

Steele Honda
April 5, 2019 7:56 pm

Thanks for pointing out that one of the benefits of group Bible study is that it gives you a deadline and ensures the Bible is a priority in a busy life. I am thinking about joining a group bible study class because I think it would help connect me with other people who believe as I do. I also think that it would be nice because group discussion really helps with my understanding and learning and helps me think of things in a way that I probably wouldn’t otherwise.

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