Word Studies 2 – Identifying Key Terms

This week we are pondering the specific skill of word study in preaching.  Today I’ll focus on identifying key terms, then tomorrow we can consider the actual processes involved.

So how do you identify words to define more carefully?

1. Prayerfully read and study the passage.  Sounds silly, but until you get some decent familiarity with the passage, you can’t start identifying words.

2. Recognize that not every word is equal.  All words are equally inspired, but not all words are equal in a passage.  You might assume this is obvious.  After all, a weighty word like justified or righteous must be worth studying, while a normal word like in or of is obvious, right?  Sometimes wrong.  A “weighty” word may not be a key term in a particular passage (it may be given in the build up to the point of a prayer, for instance), while an obvious word may be the key to the whole section.

3. Recognize that your time is restricted.  It would be great to do a full chase on every term in a passage.  Actually, hypothetically it might be great in your study phase, if you had infinite time.  But in reality studying every word equally will distract you from the force of the passage in your study, and it will certainly confuse people in your preaching.  For instance, in Ephesians 1:15-23, I would cover the first 47 words fairly briefly.  Why?  Because I want the focus to be on the point of the passage, which is what Paul is actually praying from the end of v17 onwards.  If I give detailed explanations of faith, Lord, love, saints, prayers, God, Father and glory in my sermon, people will be numb by the time I get to Paul’s actual request.

So how to identify key terms?

A. Look for repeated terms.  In Ephesians 3:1-13, the term mystery is repeated and seems important. (Dynamic equivalent translations may hide repetition of terms, prefer formal equivalence for focused study.)

B. Look for structurally important terms.  Down in verse 8, grace was given to Paul with the results being the rest of verses 8-10.

C. Look for key connections or little words.  In this passage, the as, of verse 5 feels significant when the passage is read carefully (even better, when the passage is broken down to a phrase by phrase structural outline, or disagrammed if you have that skill from Greek).  Incidentally, once you start looking at the structure of epistle text like this, a good formal translation needs to be the working text, not a dynamic equivalent text.

D. Look for key terms in the wider context.  A term may only be used once in the passage, but be critical in the flow of the book.  For example, stewardship in verse 2 is important in the flow of Ephesians 1-3.

E. Look for key terms that are missed by the other guidelines.  Here’s the catch all.  It forces you to keep looking and observing the text.  In this case, it allows you to notice that glory in verse 13 is massively significant.  Doesn’t look it structurally, but actually Paul digressed in verse 1, so completing that thought in v13 is a big deal here.

Five Looks and Two Options

This post is building on the previous two.  Yesterday I shared “Five Looks” approach to Bible study to illustrate a discussion on Monday’s post.  The issue raised on Monday was do we preach the main thought of a text, or a biblical theology prompted by the main thought of a text?  The question really focuses in on step 4 of the “five looks” – Look Forward.  How does looking beyond our focus text help us in the process of interpretation?

Some would say that we must read all of Scripture through the lens of later revelation, and that consequently all preaching must progress the story to its full conclusion.  I beg to differ, while asking for careful hearing so that I am not just dismissed as being somehow outside the pale of someone’s definition of orthodoxy!

It is important to consider a text in its biblical context.  This includes what comes later, as well as what came before.  However, we should not explain a text in light of later revelation such that the text itself, as inspired originally, is left stripped of its value.  The human author did not know the later revelation, so why must we require later information in order to interpret the text as it stands?  The progress of revelation matters greatly, but we need not immediately read a passage through a later lens.  We look at a passage in its context of the progress of revelation, but then progress the story beyond that if necessary and helpful.  We do not need to meld the latter with the former into one “super-interpretation” (although I would call such a process actually a diminished interpretation).  Rather we should do one, then the other, recognizing that the order matters.

Study, understand and preach a passage in its context (recognizing where it fits in the progress of revelation).  If necessary, develop the greater story to its culmination.  If you like, using the “five looks” approach presented above: step 4 carefully understood is important in our Bible study, but in preaching we should preach the fruit of steps 1-3, plus 5, adding in 4 if necessary and helpful.

Look Look Look Look Look

Perhaps you have come across the “Five Looks” approach to Bible study?  It is a clear and helpful approach credited to Andrew Reid of Ridley College, Melbourne.  Here is a brief synopsis:

1. Look Up – We need to receive the Bible as the word of God.  This implies a commitment to prayer and faith.

2. Look Down – We must recognize the Bible as the work of human authors.  This implies careful consideration of the deliberate communication as designed by the human writer. So, exegesis is about considering and understanding the text itself, while also adding in two more looks…

3. Look Back – We need to see a text in its biblical context by looking back to what has gone before, and:

4. Look Forward – We need to see a text in its biblical context by looking forward to what comes after the text.

5. Look Here – Finally it is important to apply the text today and consider it’s application in today’s world.

This is a helpful approach.  Tomorrow I will add a post commenting on this approach to Bible study in light of my post from yesterday.  Feel free to comment in the meantime.

The Mastery Challenge – Rationale pt 2

Here are the last three points of rationale for my list.  This follows on from the last two days of posts.

5. The brick wall approach urges book by book study – By definition it helps avoid the “mastery of preferred proof texts approach,” or the “selected doctrines based on preferred theology approach,” or other less than ideal approaches.  To be a real Bible man or woman, I’m convinced we need to really know the books of the Bible (i.e. verses in context!)

6. The brick wall approach taps into personal motivation – What do you want to study next?  Romans?  Revelation?  Psalms?  Esther?  Nahum?  This approach says go for it!  When the heart is in the task, the study is a delight.  When discipline alone is boss, then the tanks feel permanently empty.

7. The brick wall approach recognizes that study is never exhaustive – So you’ve done a few weeks in John, and for now you feel that is enough.  You’ve come to a point of closure, thanked the Lord, finished well and moved on to another book that is attracting you.  Does that mean you are done with John?  Of course not.  In a few months or years you’ll come back, motivated again, and you’ll go deeper and further.  By then you’ll be building on top of other bricks that have been laid in the mean time.  Perhaps a study of Psalms will bring John’s use of Davidic Psalms out in a fresh way, for instance.

This approach encourages success by generating achievable goals, by tapping into personal motivation, and by progressively building throughout life in a way that never suggests completion, but recognizes progress continually.

I could add more rationale, but I’ll leave it at that for now.  I’m not saying this is the only way, or even the best way, but I’ve yet to find an approach to Bible mastery that has tempted me to change my approach (or to change what I suggest when asked for my suggestions!)

The Mastery Challenge – Suggestion

Back on April 7th I wrote about the need for us all to prioritize mastering, and being mastered by, the Bible.  Winston commented and asked for my suggestions on this.  I’ll share my thinking briefly here.  I’d encourage you to read the earlier post again to refresh your memory and stir the motivation – it is here.

My approach is to split personal Bible study into two halves.  These two halves are best explained as a foundation and brick wall approach:

Half 1 = Foundation – The foundation is to be reading through the whole Bible.  My strong encouragement is to keep reading through the whole Bible, at a fairly persistent pace.  Allow the big story to wash through you.  Don’t get caught up in details, or in trying to remember every interesting fact you find.  Don’t try to pronounce every long name.  Just keep moving.  Like pouring water through a sieve, the goal is not to retain, but to be cleaned and to get a big picture awareness of the Bible God has given to us.

Half 2 = Brick Wall – With the other half of the time available I suggest getting your teeth into study.  By default I would suggest a book-by-book approach.  God didn’t give us a topical index, or a collection of proof texts; He gave us a collection of books.  So pick a Bible book and study it.  Use whatever skill and resources you have.  Begin with inductive study of the book, constantly moving between analysis of the details and synthesis of the whole.  If you have original language skill, use it.  If you have quality commentaries, eventually consult them.  Make it your goal to master and be mastered by the book you are studying.  After a few weeks of this you will find that your motivation for that book wanes and you feel like you are coming to finish point in your study.  I like to be able to explain my way through a book, section by section, without looking at the text.  Perhaps you would choose another way to define the finish line.  Then move to another book you want to study.  Periodically you can do a topical study, or a character study, or a theological study, or whatever, but default back to book by book.

Tomorrow I will share my underlying thinking that helps to make sense of this approach.

The Mastery Challenge

In my mind, this post should go without saying.  I’ve been reminded that it doesn’t.  I just read a mini-article on the subject by Robert Clinton.  He states that what we are considering here is a vanishing breed.  He calls them “Bible-Centered Leaders.”  But in the midst of the article, he states that leaders should have an “appropriate, unique, lifelong plan for mastering the Word in order to use it with impact in their ministries.”

Simple question – have you made a personal commitment to a lifelong pursuit of mastery of the Bible?  Clinton refers to the Navigator’s five-finger approach, then his personal “core books” approach.  I have a foundation and brick wall approach.  The specifics don’t matter here.  The question is, do you have a specific, describable, tangible, practical, effective plan to pursue mastery of the Word of God?

We have too many preachers and pastors and leaders and influencers in the church today who are informed by contemporary bestsellers, educated both in Christian and secular approaches to ministry or organizational leadership, up-to-date on cutting edge ministry ideas, pragmatically plugged in to the busy schedule of life, connected to an insane level, thoroughly saturated in networking media, blessed beyond belief by access to a library not even dreamed about in history, functioning in overload on multiple levels . . . but, good as some of these things may be, fundamentally weak on the core need of anyone seeking to be a man of God – mastery of, and by, the Word.

Can you take a piece of paper and write down your strategy for mastering the Word of God, and in the process, being mastered by it?  Can you write down where you are in the process?  Can you immediately state your current study focus in this pursuit?  Can you identify several areas of biblical weakness, as well as some specific areas of relative strength?

If not, what is more important?  Why not put aside the pressing, urgent, busy stuff and take some time to drive a marker into the ground, to prayerfully make plans and to set out on that journey?  If we are not gripped with a passion to master the Word of God, what is our goal?  To be a paperback preacher?  To be an e-networked pastor?  To be upwardly mobile on the ministry ladder?  These all seem so fragile compared to the real need of the church today – leaders who passionately pursue God in His Word, who sacrifice to master it, who are continually more mastered by it, who have genuine substance, who are “thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

A Life’s Work

As preachers we have the privilege of intensive Bible study. Most believers have the privilege of Bible study, but few have the added pressure of having to communicate it to others. However, it is easy to fall into the trap of simply meeting the next deadline and preparing the next sermon. This way of functioning can easily get us trapped in a “micro” approach to God’s Word. Instead, I’d like to encourage us all to be “macro” students of the Word.

Bible study requires both micro and macro views. My first professor of hermeneutics used to refer to the analysis-synthesis interchange. This speaks of the moving back and forth between analyzing the details and synthesizing the passage as a whole in its larger context. Details, like words, can only be truly understood in their context or setting.

Three things push us toward micro Bible study. The first thing is preaching itself. We tend to need details that “will preach” in order to make the sermon sound biblical and interesting. The second thing is personal preference. Some of us are more micro-inclined, while apparently fewer are more macro-inclined. Third, Bible school training has traditionally given more micro tools and approaches, leaving many students unsure how to pursue “bigger picture” study.

We need to master the Book, book by book. As we study a book in order to preach it (or for personal growth – imagine!), let’s try to be aware of the whole. How does the argument flow throughout, how do the pieces fit together? Keep a document that is all about the big picture of the book. As one writer puts it, “Begin to build up a living understanding of Colossians, or of Genesis, or of Mark’s Gospel – whatever – as a whole. Make it your life’s work, and take your time. Let yourself enjoy it.”

I agree. We can never truly master the Book, but let’s spend our lives trying, book-by-book.

Time for Feeding Instructions

When you start a new series consider whether it’s time to be more overt with some study instruction.  This is especially helpful when shifting to a new genre.  For instance, after spending some time in an epistle you shift to a series from Proverbs.  Help people re-orient themselves by deliberately setting aside a message to communicate the basics of Proverbs – how they work and how to study them.  By demonstrating this with a particular proverb the sermon still has definite value in itself.  However, if you are able to equip people to study the Proverbs for themselves, then the sermon’s value is inestimable.

Instructing and equipping people to handle the text should be an ongoing project, but why not let that project boil to the surface when moving into a new genre (Psalms, Proverbs, Parables, Prophets, ePistles, etc.)