A few people have asked me recently how to prepare a text to preach or teach in a Bible study. In the next few posts, I will share some tools that I have learned to help to read the biblical text better, understand its meaning and purpose, and share that with others.

This first post gets to the most important part: the need to understand our text well and identify its main claim. The idea is to find out the central motivation in the text. What is it trying to get done? This will be what we want to communicate in a sermon, not our own ideas. Doing this part well will give power and authority to the message, because you won’t just share your words, but you will open the Word of God for your hearers.

The tool I propose below consists in six questions to ask your text to get to its main claim. These are taken from Greg Sharf’s book, Prepared to Preach, (Christian Focus, 2005).

Once you have your text (a basic logical unit), read it a few times, in different translations, and try to answer the following questions. While you study the text, jot down notes in another notebook or text file: things that are strange, that surprise you, that you don’t get, that could be a good illustration, etc. These notes will be useful later for preparing the presentation.

This phase can take from 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the text.

1. What is the text I am reading functionally?

E.g.: a poem, a letter, a historical narration…then go more specific: an exhortation, a command, a story, an illustration, a hymn, etc.

2. What is the main subject?

E.g.: faith, perseverance, the magnificence of God, etc.

Note: identify only one main subject. There will be more things, but there is one that will be prominent amongst all the rest. This one controls the text. If there really are a few different ones, you might need to cut down the chunk of text you are going to share from.

3. What is the author saying about the subject?

E.g.: Faith is a gift from God, perseverance marks the Christian life, etc.

Note: many times the sub-themes that you found earlier enter into this category. They help explain the main subject.

4. What response is the Holy Spirit requiring from believing readers?

E.g.: Increase their faith, encouragement by remembering God’s work, to abandon an idol that has substituted Christ in their life, etc.

Note: It is helpful here to think of the historical context to find out what response was sought in the original listeners.

5. How is the Holy Spirit eliciting the intended response?

E.g.: With a story of someone who didn’t have faith but God gave her faith anyway, with a logical argument, etc.

Note: Often in this phase you finally get the grammatical structure of the text: how the pieces are fitting together to prop up the main point (e.g.: the three arguments Paul uses to convince his reader to believe the gospel). Try to write this structure down, or draw it out. This will be very useful for the sermon or presentation later.

6. How does this particular passage contribute to the large picture, that is, to the story of redemption?

Ask yourself, What would be missing in this book if this passage wasn’t here? What would be missing in the canon (the whole Bible) if this passage wasn’t here? Considering the period when it was written ask, How does this contribute to point towards the cross and the gospel of Christ (is it before his death, resurrection or ascension or after it, how does that influence our understanding of it)?

Note: this is a step that we often forget, but it is absolutely crucial for a Christocentric sermon (i.e. a Christian sermon). We must see how Christ is seen in this passage. Remember that he is the fulfillment of all the law, the prophecies, and the stories. If it is a command, how is Christ reflected and how has God’s grace in him affected it?

After answering these questions, What should I have?

  • The text’s “proposition” or main claim: This is the central purpose of the text, what it is trying to get done. Write it out in a sentence with only one verb. This is the focus that is going to control your presentation of the text.
  • A basic grammatical structure: Here is where you put together the pieces, answering the question, How does the author present his proposal?
  • A bunch of notes of stuff that can be included in your presentation, such as application ideas, insights, even illustrations that may have come to mind.

With what you have now, we’ll go on to the “bridge” phase, which will take you from the biblical message to a message to share with people here and now. I’ll talk about that in the next post.