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 Preaching II: Personal study of a passage

Julian Spriggs M.A.

I: Two Approaches III: Message Outline

This page gives some practical help in how to study a passage of Scripture yourself, as you prepare to give a message, or lead a Bible study. This personal study should come before you begin the process of writing of your message, or creating the outline for a small group Bible study. These will be developed at a later stage, out of your own study of the passage.

Studying the passage is the first step in preparing to speak. The method employed during this step is the same, regardless of whether you will be preaching, leading a small group Bible study, giving a teaching on a topic, leading a devotional, or any other format of ministering the Word of God.

The aim of this personal study is to become very familiar with the text, and understand what it meant to the original readers. This process is called exegesis - drawing the original meaning out of the text.

From its original meaning, you can then begin to find its message for all time, what we can call 'the timeless principle'. This timeless principle should be a truth which is not limited to a single individual, or to a particular time in history, or geographical location. It should also be free from any cultural limitations. Most passages will have one major timeless principle, as well as a number of secondary principles.

One example is the timeless principle of forgiveness found in the Book of Philemon. Paul wrote a personal letter to Philemon, calling him to extend forgiveness to his runaway slave Onesimus and to welcome him back as a brother in Christ. Even though this book was written to one particular individual nearly two thousand years ago, in the very different cultural context of slavery, there are still the important principles of forgiveness and restoration, which are valid at any place and at any time, and which are not culturally bound.

The timeless principle then should become the main point of your message, which you then need to apply to the immediate situation of your audience. The job of the person ministering the Word of God is to bridge the gap between the world of the Bible, and the world of today. The message from the author to his original readers needs to be made relevant to the people listening.

To summarise: the process runs as follows:
1. Determine the meaning of the text to its original readers
2. Identify the timeless principle, and any secondary principles
3. Apply the timeless principles to your congregation, in a very practical way.

On this page, I will describe the process of studying the text and finding the timeless principle. I would recommend that you read and apply this page first before progressing to the next steps. From the main point and secondary points you can develop a sermon outline in order to preach, or plan a discussion and questions to use in a small group Bible study. Other pages on the web-site will describe how to do this. The main point can also be used in leading a personal devotional talk from the text, or developing a topical teaching.

More information about how to study the Bible inductively is available on the pages in the section on inductive Bible study.

Choose your passage

This can happen in a variety of different ways. The passage may be chosen for you when you are invited to speak. The church may be working through a book of the Bible, and you are given the passage that comes next in the book. In this case, the decision has been made for you. Otherwise, they may ask you to speak on a particular topic, and you will need to choose an appropriate passage.

If no request is made for a particular topic or passage, then it is up to you to decide. The best place to start is to pray and ask God what message do these people need to hear. He may direct you to a particular passage, or lay a particular topic on your heart. It will often be something that God has been speaking to you recently.

However, if you are really stuck, and cannot think of what to speak about, take a look at the Relevant Preaching page, which lists some life-issues of the most concern to the majority of people. If you choose one of these, and bring a relevant message based on the Word of God, it can be guaranteed to be a help and encouragement to your audience.

You can either choose a passage, then develop a message from that. Otherwise you can choose a topic, then find a good passage which addresses that topic. For expository preaching, it is best to have one main passage, and possibly refer to other verses, rather than having several main passages. For the differences between topical and exegetical preaching, please see the Two Approaches page.

If you are asked to preach regularly to the same congregation, then it may be worth considering giving a series of messages. In a series you can do a number of different things. These are just a few examples:
a. Work through a whole book of the Bible, or a section of a book
b. Look at several different Bible characters
c. Look at a single topic, such as prayer, but using different Bible passages
d. Preach on a selection of Jesus’ parables
e. Preach on a selection of Psalms, perhaps with a common theme

These are the steps in personal study of the passage

1. Look at the context of the passage

It is of the utmost importance that you study the text in the context in which it was written. You will need to consider both the literary and historical contexts.

Literary context

The passage forms part of whole book of the Bible. For shorter books, I would recommend that you read through the whole book, to identify the main message and major themes of the book. Look carefully to see where your passage fits into the structure of the book, particularly what was happening, or what was said, immediately before and after your passage. This is also equally true for the long books, but reading all through the whole Book of Isaiah is quite a challenge!

Historical context

Each book had its particular historical setting and cultural context. To gain some knowledge of these will greatly enrich your understanding of the text, and its meaning to the author’s original readers. These are some helpful questions to ask:
Who wrote the book? Who was it written to?
When was it written? From where was it written?
Why was it written? What is the main purpose of the book?
If it is a letter, where does it fit into the Book of Acts?
If it is a letter, what problems is the author addressing in the church?
If it is prophet, where does it fit into the history of Israel or Judah in the Book of Kings?

If you have access to a Bible Dictionary, read the article about the book to find out more helpful information. The introduction to a commentary on the book will also give more information.

There is more information about how to find out about the historical context on the historical background page.

2. Set the limits of your passage

The passage should not be too long, or too short. A long passage obviously takes a long time to read out loud in a church service, making it difficult for the congregation to keep their concentration. With a very brief passage, the danger is taking it out of context. As you study, look for the natural start and finish of the passage.

For Paul’s letters, a suitable length is normally one paragraph, or a maximum of two - a paragraph being a collection of sentences forming one unit of thought. For the Gospels, this would be one parable, or the account of one event in the ministry of Jesus. For Old Testament narratives, a single story is ideal, which will be around the length of one chapter.

3. Write or type out the passage

I find that it is very helpful to have a copy of the text to work on with a larger print font than most printed Bibles. If you have access to an on-line Bible, or Bible software, you can print out the passage you have chosen.

It is also very helpful to use the word processor to lay out the text in a fairly logical manner, giving more space in the margins and between the sentences. Double-spacing can also be beneficial. You can lay out the text according to the sentence structure, so a new line is started for each sentence, when someone is speaking, or where there are quotations from the Old Testament. Lists can be set out in a column, reasons or results can be indented, and contrasts can be shown clearly in the layout. This process is described in much more detail on the text layout page.

Here is a short example: (Romans 1:16-17)

  For I am not ashamed of the gospel;
    it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith,
      to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith;
    as it is written,
      “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

This is so much easier to work on, and clearer to study from than the way it is printed in the Bible:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

4. Observe the text carefully

This is the time to study the passage in detail, looking to see what it actually says. During your observations, I suggest that you aim to read it through at least ten times. At this stage, resist the temptation to ask what it means, or how it is applied today. Spend some quality time looking at the text carefully, and becoming familiar with it.

These are some of the things to look for:
Who are the main characters? (also, identify the pronouns which refer to them)
What do we learn about the main characters?
What are they doing? What are they saying? Who are they talking to?
What emotion or atmosphere is seen?
Timing - when? Look at verb tenses (past, present, future)
Geography - where? Look at a map.
Look for repeated words and themes.
Look for contrasts and comparisons.
Look for quotations from OT. Find out which passage the author is quoting.
Look for figures of speech and figurative language.
Look for reasons (so, because), and results (so that)
Look for conclusions (therefore) and summary statements.
Look for commands and warnings.
Identify the significant words, whose meaning is crucial to the passage.

It is very helpful to mark the text using coloured pencils, so you can see the main characters, repeated words and other observations very clearly. When you observe something, make sure you make a note of it on a piece of paper.

A more detailed list of observation questions are available on the observation questions page.

5. Interpret the text

After thorough observation, you are now ready to ask what it meant to the author’s original readers. As you read and study the Bible, develop the habit of asking continually, “What DID it mean?”, and, “How would this have spoken to their original situation?”

The key question is to ask “Why?”. Such as: Why did the author say this? Why did the original readers need to hear this?

Your interpretation should develop out of what you have observed. So it can be helpful to ask such questions as: Why did he repeat this particular word? Why did he quote the OT at this point?

This is also the time to work out the meaning of what is said. What do the significant words in the passage mean? What does this figure of speech mean?

Read about the passage in one or two commentaries to gain further understanding, and to identify any areas of controversy. However, it is best to refrain from reading commentaries until after you have done your own study.

More detailed information about the process of interpretation is available on the interpretation questions page.

6. Determine the main point of the passage

You should now be ready to identify the main point the author was wanting to make? Try and summarise the main point of the passage in your own words.

7. Identify the timeless principles

After thorough observation, and accurate interpretation, it is now time to bring the message of the text across the centuries and apply it to today. From your study, identify the timeless principles as described above. The most important timeless principle should be the same as the main point of the passage, which should then become the main point of your message. In this way, we can be sure to bring the true meaning of the passage.

If there are more than one important timeless principles, then these can become the other points in your message.

Allow the passage to speak to you, and challenge you personally. This will give you authority to preach on it. Take time to read the passage more devotionally, bearing in mind the observations and interpretations you have made.

For more information about how to determine relevant personal application from a passage, see the application page.

Oh dear!

By this stage, you may feel quite daunted with the amount of study that is needed. Ministering the Word of God is a serious business, which aims to change people’s lives, and should therefore not be taken lightly. All experienced preachers emphasise the need for a thorough study of God’s Word before preaching from it.

If you believe God is calling you to preach, I would recommend that you consider seriously committing yourself to more systematic Bible study, and perhaps think about enrolling on a training programme through a Bible college or seminary. There are many courses available by distance learning at a reasonable cost.

What next?

By this time you have probably covered many pages of paper with notes, and marked up your text with coloured pencils, but you should now have a far greater understanding of the passage. Now is the time to get more organised, as you begin to prepare your message or small group Bible study.

For information on how to structure a message, please go to the Message outline page; and for how to lead a small group Bible study, please go to the Small group study page.

I: Two Approaches III: Message Outline