Bible study tips: Word pictures

For SP - 20061013

Good Bible study is far from ho-hum. The power and excitement of God’s word to us is often revealed in the rich language of “word pictures” or metaphors. And until we take a good look at those pictures, we might miss out on the real message God wants to give us.

Recently I led a college group through a study of Ephesians. When we came to Paul’s prayer in chapter 3, we spent a whole session exploring the metaphors in the passage. Here are the verses we were pondering:

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:16-19, NIV).

That’s a lot to say in two sentences! But don’t let the length of those sentences get in the way. The word pictures are terrific! There are six of them suggested here: God’s glorious riches, Christ dwelling in believers’ hearts, believers being rooted and established in love, grasping how wide and long and high and deep is Christ’s love, and being filled with the fullness of God.

I introduced this passage to my group by reading it aloud and pointing out the word pictures Paul employs. Then I asked the members to focus on the first metaphor in verse 16. I handed out pencils and blank paper to each person, and instructed them to draw a picture or write a description of how they visualized God’s “glorious riches.”

After they had taken a minute or two to do this, I asked them to take turns sharing and explaining their pictures. They had visualized overflowing treasure chests, priceless jewelry, a rainbow with a pot of gold at the end and much more. I encouraged them to react to each other’s ideas, and as our discussion progressed, the images built on each other until the group had developed a fabulous picture of God’s riches stored up for them in inexhaustible piles, available in a multitude of dazzling colors and shapes. The group repeated this procedure with each of the subsequent word pictures in the passage, and the result was one of the liveliest discussions we’d had in our whole study of Ephesians.

You can use the same approach in your group Bible study any time you are dealing with a colorful or poetic passage. The basic steps are simple:

  1. Read the passage aloud and listen carefully to discover the word pictures used in it.
  2. Give members time to visualize and develop the word pictures. Have them draw or write their personal responses to each one.
  3. Encourage the group members to share and discuss their pictures, allowing their imaginations to take the discussion even further. You might even try reading the passage aloud again, this time inserting some members’ responses or holding up their drawings.

When using this approach, it’s important to take all suggestions seriously, even the ones that seem far-fetched or funny. One woman in our group, responding to the phrase “that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19), visualized a water balloon. After the laughter died down, the group began discussing the image and found that it provided helpful insights. Our lives are as limp and shapeless as empty balloons if we don’t have God’s Spirit filling us. When God begins to pour his nature into us, we will be surprised how we can be stretched far beyond the capacities we thought we had. And we will feel ourselves “fit to burst” with a sense of joy and fulfillment when we find that God is beginning to give us his own character and to include us as partners in his own purposes.

Though visualizing Paul’s word pictures seemed like playing, the approach produced serious benefits for our group. It jarred us out of our traditional ruts of interpretation, forced us to avoid pious platitudes and allowed us to hear God speaking afresh.

— Margaret Parker. Used by permission.