Step 2: How to Outline the Structure of A Scripture Passage

Step 2 Structure the Text and Summarize

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify grammatical keys and content cues.
  2. Structure the text according to its major and minor keys/content cues.
  3. Summarize the text in your own words.

The second step to a great sermon is learning how to outline the structure of the text. Just like a human being has joints that connect the skeletal structure of the body together, so does any passage in the bible (or any other piece of writing!).’ In this step, you are trying to figure out how the text has been put together. What are the main thoughts in the passage, and how are they connected? Then having outlined the structure, you will go on to summarize the different parts of the passage.

First, you will learn to:

  1. Structure the text according to its major and minor keys/content cues.
  2. Summarize the text in your own words

Structure the Text

In a human body, bones are connected together by means of joints. There are big joints which link big bones together (e.g. your arm is connected to the torso by the shoulder joint) and there are small joints which link smaller parts of the body together (e.g. the joint connecting your finger to your palm). In the same way, a text or passage will major points and minor points. There are two types of “joints” or key words that link the words/phrases together, namely grammatical and content cues/keys.

Grammatical Keys

These grammatical keys or joints are called conjunctions. Conjunctions are often very short words which seem like they are insignificant, when in fact, they often hold the key to understanding a passage. Therefore, it is important not to neglect them.

For example, a sentence like “Luke went into the kitchen to make a sandwich” would not be meaningfully complete if there were no conjunctions. The conjunction “to” is only two letters long, but it gives meaning to the entire sentence. It joins the two phrases “Luke went into the kitchen” and “…make a sandwich”, combining them to make a complete statement. So not only do you now know that Luke went into the kitchen (answering the question what did Luke do) but you now also know that it was because he wanted to make a sandwich (answering the question why Luke did do it?).

There are many grammatical keys that indicate structure in a passage. This list is taken from Scripture Sculpture by Ramesh Richard

Grammatical Keys Indicating Structure


Little Words as Structure Indicators


For, because, since, as


For, because, since, as , that


That, so that, so , which, for


In order that, which, to , unto, until, towards, for


By, from through, out of, in


Until, till, to, when, whenever, from, through, of, in , b, according to, against, with, concerning, to, out of


Where, wherever, from, in, through, into, upon, with, concerning, till


Just as, just, as, with, to

This list is not exhaustive, but these are probably the most commonly occurring grammatical keys. Punctuation marks are also key grammatical keys, so do not ignore them. Take note of commas, colons and semi-colons, question marks, full stops etc. Also, you need to take note of how your particular bible version splits passages. They’ve already done half the work for you!

Be aware, there are most likely going to be many grammatical keys in each passage you deal with, especially the longer ones. My advice is to stick with the ones the split or connect major chunks of thought together.

Content Cues

Another way of outlining the structure of a text is by observing changes in the content or in the subject of a passage. For example, in the sentence “John went to buy bananas and apples in the grocery store. Then he went to the mall to get his hair cut”, the content of the paragraph changed from shopping for fruit to paying for a haircut. You can divide this sentence into the things John did at the grocery store and the things John did at the mall.

Four steps for structuring a text

To structure a text, Ramesh Richard suggests the following step:
  1. Identify all the possible grammatical or content keys or joints in the text
  2. Separate major keys from smaller keys
  3. Understand the meaning of the major keys
  4. Outline the text according to the relative importance of the marker

Major vs. Minor Keys

Not all grammatical or content keys are equally the same. Some joints are more important than others. Using the earlier example, “Luke went into the kitchen to make a sandwich”, there are two grammatical keys in this sentence “into” and “to”. “To” is a major grammatical key because it tells us the reason why Luke went into the kitchen. Its impact on the meaning of the passage is greater than that of “into”, even though it is the smaller of the two keys. Ultimately, you have to decide whether a joint/key is major or minor.

Summarizing the Text

Summarizing the passage is fairly simple. You do this by restating each section of the passage (or each major point) but using your own words and mainly focusing on the major joints of the passage. Central to this will be using the definitions of the key words and phrases which you studied in Step 1. Imagine if someone were to ask you what that particular scripture is talking about. In summarizing, you are trying to explain the meaning and main points in a way that they would understand in a few sentences.

Don’t be surprised that when dealing with short passages, your summary might actually be longer than the actual passage itself. The important thing is that you restate the text in your own, clear and simple words, using your word studies from Step 1. See these principles in practice with the following examples of how to outline Ephesians 2:1-3.

Practical Example (Ephesians 2:1-3)

1 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.

Grammatical Keys


Major Keys

Minor Keys

Vs. 1

And you were

in the trespasses and sins

Vs. 2

in which you once…

, following the course…(the comma)

, following the prince… (the comma)

, the spirit…(the comma)


Vs. 3

And were by nature

– Among whom (the hyphen)

, carrying out… (the comma)

Of the body

And the mind

Content Keys

Verse 1 – You were dead

The passage is talking about the former lives of the Ephesian Christians before they came to know Jesus. The rest of the verses go on to describe what that looked like. So the main content of this passage is about the former lives of the Ephesian believers.

Structuring Ephesians 2:1-3

So, by splitting the text by its major joints, you can make a basic, general outline of the passage as follows:

  1. The Ephesian Christians were once
    1. Dead in their sins (vs. 1)
    2. In danger of the terrible judgment of God (vs. 3)

You can expand this outline to include the minor joints because they explain in greater detail, the major points of the passage. It would then look like this

  1. The Ephesian Christians were once:
    1. Dead in their sins (vs. 1)
      1. They lived sinfully like the world around them (vs. 2)
      2. They lived in obedience to Satan, indulging in fleshly desires like everyone else (vs. 2,3)
    2. In danger of the terrible judgment of God (vs. 3)

Notice how I used the meanings/definitions of the words from the word study in step 1 in structuring the text. Your work from step 1 will be even more crucial for the next part of step 2

Summarizing Ephesians 2:1-3

Before they came to know Jesus as their Lord, the Ephesian Christians had no spiritual life in them. They lived completely trapped in terribly sinful ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. They lived like slaves, blindly imitating the immoral behavior of the world around them and they lived in obedience to the will of Satan. As a result, they were in danger of suffering the terrible judgment of God, when he shall punish all wickedness and sin.

Now that you have structured the text, let’s get to the heart of the matter, finding the Big Idea of the text in Step 3

Key Takeaways

  • Structuring the text involves finding major and minor keys, and content cues.
  • Your word and relationship study from Step 1 is crucial to summarizing the text in your own words.


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. Remember to use the same passage you picked in Step 1 to ensure consistency.


    Step 2: Practice Outlining the Structure of the Passage

    • E.g. Genesis 4:1-5
    • Key(incl. verse #)Major or Minor?Notes 
      Outline the passage using its major and minor keys.
    • Major PointMinor (sub) Point 
      Based on its major and minor (sub) points. If you have multiple sub-points under a major point, add a new line, leave the "Major Point" field in the new line blank, and add the additional sub-point.
    • If you are familiar with sentence-flows or diagramming, you can do so here.
    • Summarize the passage in your own words.
    • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.


  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. Richard, Ramesh, and Ramesh Richard. Preparing Expository Sermons: a Seven-Step Method for Biblical Preaching. Baker Books, 2001.
  4. Robinson, Haddon W. Biblical Preaching: the Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Baker Academic, 2001.
  5. 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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