Step 1 – How to Study Words and Relationships in a Scripture Passage

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify four types of words – repeated, unusual/difficult, long, and significant words.
  2. Interpret the details of words by researching their meaning and usage in their historical context.

Good sermon preparation is about taking understanding the bible in its historical context, discovering the eternal truth that lies within it and delivering it your present audience in a way that is faithful, relevant and engaging. The first step to that is analyzing and understanding the text from which you will be preaching.

The bible is a book like no other, primarily because its words give life. And yet, it is also a book like any other in that it is made up of words and phrases that are linked together to form meaningful sentences. In order to understand the whole passage, you must first understand the words that make it up. Throughout this tutorial, we are going to use Ephesians 2:1-3 (ESV) as the example text for our sermon preparation. It reads:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience– 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.  (Eph 2:1 -3 ESV)

Therefore, in studying the text, or using the analogy of a human body, examining the flesh, there are two important elements:

  1. Seeing/observing the details of the text
  2. Seeking meaning from (or interpreting) the details

Observing the Details of the Text

Seeing words is not as simple as you might think. We are so used to certain words that often times we just pass over them and never think to properly understand their meaning. In order to understand your text, you need to understand both the words (or phrases) and the relationships between the words of your passage.

A word of caution: you may be tempted to pick out every word in the passage to study it. That may sometimes be necessary but, unless you can afford the time to do so, I suggest that you do a little “screening”. My experience is that pastors and church leaders rarely have a lot of time to spare so maybe five (5) is a good number to start with. You can always add – or subtract- more if you decide to do so.

Observe Words

Oftentimes a passage might have complex words which your congregation will not be able to understand easily. This is not unexpected since the bible is a very old book that is couched in thousands of years of history. But as pastors you can sometimes forget this important fact and go on to use the very same, complex words in your sermonizing often to the bewilderment of your congregation. A good saying to remember (I don’t know who said this first) is “confusion in the people comes from confusion on the pulpit”. In other words, if your audience can’t understand you, it is usually because you didn’t understand the sermon yourself and simply passed on your confusion to everyone else.

The author of the Scripture passage might also repeat certain words, often several times in a single passage or throughout an entire book. This is often done in order to emphasize a point or draw your attention to them. So don’t over-look common words because they are meant to show you something important.

In general, there are 4 types of words on which you need to focus your attention:

  • Repeated words
  • Unusual/difficult words
  • Long words
  • Significant words

Go through your entire passage and list such words. You won’t always find all each type of word in every passage, but it is a good idea to remember that things that seem simple and straightforward to you may not be as simple and straightforward for your congregation. Therefore, you must keep your mind focused on them as you go through this process.

You can list each word under the relevant category (sometimes a word can fall into more than one category. Classify such words in the category you think will be the most appropriate). After listing the words for further study, you can then go on to the next aspect of observation, which is to observe the relationships between the words.

Observe Relationships

What can you see about how the words of a passage relate to each other and to the broader context of the book/Bible? There are 6 main kinds of relationships that you can observe:

  • Grammatical – what tenses are the verbs in? What gender is used, are the nouns singular or plural?
  • Logical – is there an argument being built? Words like for, but, because are helpful keys. For example, “because” can indicate cause and effect. “But” indicates contrast. And so on
  • Chronological/Geographical – are there times and places mentioned?
  • Psychological – is there any expression of emotion or feeling? For example, are the characters happy, sad, or angry?
  • Contextual – in what kind of context does the passage occur? Was there a special occasion or festival perhaps? Where does the book fit in the timeline of the whole story of the bible? What of culture?
  • Genre – in what type of literature is the passage found? Narrative, poetry, prophetic, historical/writing

Seek Meaning From the Details

Once you have laid out the words and relationships, the next step is to find out what each of those words and relationships mean. This is a good time to use a good study bible, word study tools (think Logos, Bible Works etc.), back-of-the-bible concordances, Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicons, bible encyclopedias and any other tools to which you may have access. Don’t worry if you don’t have any of the above – there is a lot you can do with just your bible and a piece of paper. I won’t get into any depth as far as any of these tools are concerned however – check the blog and other resources for articles on “how-tos’ ” for good word studies.

The basic principles that you need to follow when seeking meaning from the details are as follows:

  1. Ask questions about the details
  2. Answer the questions
  3. Analyze the answers, and finally
  4. Apply the answers

I will explain what each of these principles mean below:

Asking Questions

Ask one or two good questions about the details. It’s helpful to remember the “5 Ws” and “1 H” (who, what, when, were, why and how) when asking questions. For example, in Mark 2:1, a good question to ask could be “Where was Capernaum located?”.

Answer the Questions

Answer the questions as fully as possible. You may also end up asking more questions as you answer the first ones so make sure you answer them as well! For example, this means doing background research using bible dictionaries (or a good study bible) to find out the culture and geographical settings of places mentioned in the bible. Often-times, the key to understanding a passage lies in understanding the geography and culture in which it is set. Even if you don’t have a bible dictionary, you can do a good job of finding out what certain words mean by using your concordance to find out where else they have been used. If there is a theological college or seminary close by, make use of their library! They will often have the resources you need and more.

Analyze Your Answers

As a preacher, one of your main objectives is to be faithful in your interpretation of the bible. This is a difficult task, but there are ways you can check (besides consulting other people, including biblical scholars who are more learned than you). Ramesh Richards suggests conducting the following “tests” to judge the accuracy of your interpretation:

  1. The test of authenticity – is this what the author meant to say?
  2. The test of unity – is my interpretation consistent with the rest of the passage, book, bible and biblical doctrine?
  3. The test of simplicity – is my interpretation simple, and not complex or contrived?
  4. The test of honesty – did I discover what the text means instead of imposing my own feelings and thoughts upon the text?

Apply the Answers

The trick here is not to ask what the passage means to you (or even your audience). You must first understand how these answers applied to the original hearers in their particular situation. As you discover what the passage meant to them, you can then go on to sketch some possible application and meaning for your own audience. This is where a lot of the “meat” for your sermon (Step 7) will come from, but you must be very careful to reign in your mind so that you don’t get too ahead of yourself; your final application will depend on Step 5 (the purpose bridge) and Step 6 (the big idea of the sermon).

Now that we have laid out the principles, let’s look at some practical examples on how to put these principles into practice:

Practical Example: Ephesians 2:1-3

Observe Words

Unusual words

Repeated words

Difficult words

– Dead (v.1)

– Prince of the power of the air (v.2)

Following (v.1,2)

Trespasses, sins (v.1)

Note: I don’t have any “long” words. Sometimes, these may be more obvious in the original Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic texts.

Observe Relationships

Grammatical

Logical

Geographical

Contextual

Genre

You were (v.1)

And you… (v.1)

…of this world… (v.2)

Ephesians lived in Ephesus

Epistle, New Testament

Note: I did not list any psychological relationships. Perhaps “wrath” and “passions” might be candidates for observation under this category since they invoke emotion, but they could also fall under word observation.

Seek Meaning 

From words:

Unusual

Repeated

Difficult words

Dead (v.1)

Following (v.1,2)

Trespasses, sins (v.1)

Ask

Who is being described as being “dead”?

How can someone be dead, yet alive?

What does it mean to “follow” someone or something?

Who were they following?

Is there a difference between a trespass and a sin?

What does it mean to trespass/sin?

Answer

Figurative term, spiritual not physical. Of someone who does not believe Jesus is savior. Jn 14:6.

Think, act in the same way. Matt 4:19. To be just like the other person. Ephesians used to follow evil, not good.

They thought and lived like the world around them. Behaved like Satan not Jesus. Loved and lived in sin and rebellion. Ungodly, immoral.

Closely related, interchangeable terms. Trespass is violating a moral code or boundary. Sin is departing from doing the right thing (Acts 3:19), missing the mark like archer trying to hit bullseye.

Apply

Dead person can’t save himself. Can’t even cry out for help. Therefore, salvation completed dependent on God (Eph 2:10).

You should think, believe and act like Jesus and not the society around you.

Sin is sin, whether you miss by a little or by much. Therefore, all need grace and forgiveness. And Jesus provides it abundantly.

From relationships:

 

Grammatical

Logical

Geographical

Contextual

Genre

You were (v.1)

And you… (v.1)

…of this world… (v.2)

Ephesians lived in Ephesus

Epistle

Ask

What are they now

What was the previous argument?

In contrast to what other world?

In what sort of society did Ephesians live?

How should we read epistles?

Answer

Followers of Christ, children of God

Paul had been talking about power which raise Jesus from the dead.

In contrast to heaven where there is perfection and fullness of goodness

Roman city, incredibly wealth, worshipped goddess Diana “mother of all creation. Rituals included sex with prostitutes in the temple. Sanctuary for criminals

As a letter containing what we should believe, the foundation for those beliefs and how we should act in light of those beliefs

Apply

 

Same power raised Ephesians, and now us

Believers are to “set their eyes on things above” (Col 3:22)

Living in the world means temptation to live like the world. Sin is a powerful, needs a powerful savior to overcome (Jn 17:16)

Paul’s words are exhortations, not suggestions.

Key Takeaways

  • Observe details by looking out for long, unusual/difficult, repeated and significant words
  • Seek the meaning of those words (and relationships) by asking and answering questions, and analyzing and applying the answers.

Exercises

  1. Practice by applying these steps to any one of these passages (or one of your own choosing) – Ephesians 2:4-7, Psalm 1:1-3, Psalm 1:4-6, Colossians 1:1-3.

Practice!

    Step 1: Practice Studying Words and Relationships

    • Words (incl. verse #)TypeAsk QuestionsAnswer QuestionsApply Answers 
      What word or phrase do you want to study? Then determine what type of word it is (Long, Unusual, Repeated, or Difficult) under "Type". Ask one or two questions about the words/phrases.Finally, type in the results of your research including definitions, historical context, meaning etc. of the word/phrases. Use the "add/+" button to insert another field (use only one field per word/phrase)
    • Relationship (incl. verse #)TypeMeaning 
      Remember the types of relationships (list the relevant one under "Type"): Grammatical Chronological/Geographical Logical Psychological Contextual Genre
    • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sources

  1. Anonymous.Stand up, Speak out: the Practice and Ethics of Public Speaking. University of Minnesota, 2011.
  2. Bell, John, and Gary Cross. Langham Zimbabwe Preaching Seminars Level One Handbook. Langham Preaching Zimbabwe, 2014.
  3. Robinson, Haddon W. Biblical Preaching: the Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Baker Academic, 2001.
  4. Robinson, Haddon W., and Craig Brian. Larson. The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching: a Comprehensive Resource for Todays Communicators. Zondervan, 2005.

 

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