Step 2: Get Familiar
In order to really understand a book or section of Scripture, your small group needs to get comfortable with it. The best way to do that is to read it multiple times. Have you ever noticed new aspects of a movie when you watch it the second, third, or fourth time? The same is true for reading scripture.
It's best if you can read the text you're studying 10 or more times. Ideally, each member of your small group can complete this task before you meet for the discussion. However, one or two read-throughs might be helpful. Keep these things in mind while reading:
- What stands out?
- Do you notice any reoccurring words or themes?
- Focus on a different character or aspect with every read.
For Philemon this isn't too difficult—it's only one page.
Step 3: Note the Nuances
English versions of Scripture were translated from the original languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic). If you ever took another language in high school, you'll know that there isn't always an easy English equivalent to every foreign word. Because of this, there can be slight word variation between the many English versions of the Bible.
Some translations seek to use words that are as equivalent as possible to the original (like the ESV, NASB, or LEB) and others seek to use words that carry the essence of the original intent (like the NIV or NLT). By reading a book or section of Scripture in various translations (many of which you can find at BibleGateway.com), you can pick up on the small differences and nuances between them. This will give your small group a more complete understanding of what the original language depicted. It will allow them to see some of the translational differences without having to know ancient Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic.
- Are there any major differences between translations?
- Do any of the variations drastically change the meaning?
- Does one version clear up something that was confusing in another?
In verse 19 of Philemon, the difference between the New Living Translation (NLT) and the Lexham English Bible (LEB) is worth noting. The LEB states: "Lest I mention to you that you owe me even your very self besides." The NLT, on the other hand, states: "And I won't mention that you owe me your very soul!" The difference of "self" and "soul" can be profound.
This distinction helps us recognize a difference between a possibly literal translation of the Greek word and a more interpretive explanation of what that word may have been suggesting. "Soul" evokes the idea that Paul may have been the one that helped Philemon come to faith in Christ. "Self" could mean the same thing, but "soul" evokes it in a more obvious way. Differences like this are crucial in helping us see the bigger picture.
Step 4: Establish the Characters
1. Identify the author. Establishing authorship is a crucial piece of the puzzle. The more your small group knows about the writer, the more they can understand the author's intent.
The author is typically established in the first few verses of a book.
- Search the outlying verses if you're studying a section of Scripture in the middle of a book.
Discover how the author is communicating.
- Are they writing a letter? Are they recounting events?
- How does this affect what you know about them?
Search for anything distinctive about the author:
- Do they mention where they are?
- Do they talk about their past?
- Can you gather anything about their personality?