Observation does not work in haste. It takes time to keep looking at something and really see it. I’m told that you cannot get the best out of an art gallery by rushing around and taking mental snapshots (my default approach). I know that neither can you get the best out of a Bible passage from a quick glance. The problem is that we find triggers to move on.
One trigger that often gets us, and therefore undermines our observation, is that we “find a message.” We look at the passage, see a superficial outline, and then move on to forming the message. In reality we would do well to continue observing the passage.
For example, Colossians 4:2-6. When I first looked at that a few weeks ago, the structure was fairly obvious. Paul is asking the Colossians to keep on praying (verse 2), for Paul to have opportunities to speak the gospel (verses 3-4). Then Paul moves on to describe how their conduct should be toward outsiders (verses 5-6). The structure is simple and it preaches: pray for ministers, and interact well yourselves.
It works, it preaches, but further observation helps to unite the passage further. As it stands, my outline so far is really two almost distinct ideas. However, the passage flows as one thought. For instance, Paul urges them to pray for God to open doors for the gospel (v3), so that he may speak as he “ought to speak.” (v4). Likewise, perhaps the action of the readers described in verse 5 implies the opening of a door, so that they will have opportunity to speak “as they ought” to speak (v6). The passage is asking for prayer for “ministers” as well as for themselves, but it is not so distinct as “pray for ministers, but simply interact well yourselves with outsiders.” No, the prayer (and the action) is for the opening of doors and then the appropriate speech to follow. If the language of “minister” is used for verses 3-4, then it must also be used of verses 5-6. There is a unity to the passage that a superficial outline may miss.
Often it is easy to see something that will preach, and then stop looking. Let’s be diligent to wrestle more with the text, to believe there is greater unity to the thought than may at first appear. The writer had a clear thought, let’s honour that by pursuing the thought as we study.