A Guide to Bible Study Methods - Lesson 4

Ten Steps for Exegesis (Part 1)

In this lecture, we get into the practical details for how to exegete a passage. Dr. Strauss explains the first four (of ten total) steps for English Bible exegesis: 1) identify the genre, 2) get the big picture, 3) develop a thesis statement and 4) outline the progress of thought. This lecture teaches new skills and provides examples for you to put them into practice.

Mark Strauss
A Guide to Bible Study Methods
Lesson 4
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Ten Steps for Exegesis (Part 1)

I. Review and Introduction

II. Ten Steps for English Exegesis

A. Identify the Genre (the Literary Form)

B. Get the Big Picture: Establish the Historical and Literary Context

1. Historical Context

a. Epistle

b. Gospel

c. Prophetic Literature

2. Literary Context

a. Step 1

b. Step 2

c. Step 3

d. Step 4

3. Cardinal Rule of Getting the Big Picture

4. Shortcuts for Getting the Big Picture

C. Develop a Thesis Statement

1. Identify the Subject and the Complement

2. Hints for Developing the Thesis

D. Outline the Progress of Thought in the Passage

1. Qualifications of a Good Outline

2. Two Kinds of Outlines

a. Parallel

b. Progressive

III. Summary

  • It is important to recognize your presuppositions when you study and interpret the Bible. The writings of the Bible reflect diversity in authorship, genre and cultural background. The common theme that unifies the Bible as a whole focuses on the story of creation, fall and redemption.

  • Hermeneutics is the science and art of biblical interpretation. The science of hermeneutics provides methods, rules, and a measure of objectivity while the art of hermeneutics speaks to the skill that is learned through practice. The goals of exegesis are to determine the meaning of a passage in its original context, and to determine the significance of the passage for today.

  • The first goal of hermeneutics is to determine the author’s intended meaning of the text. The interpretation process must take into account the genre of the literature and the historical and literary context. The meaning of the text controls our application. In this lecture, you will get a glimpse of the process of interpretation by looking at four principles of exegesis, the four steps we take to cross the bridge from our contemporary culture to the original context of the Biblical authors. 

  • In this lecture, we get into the practical details for how to exegete a passage. Dr. Strauss explains the first four (of ten total) steps for English Bible exegesis: 1) identify the genre, 2) get the big picture, 3) develop a thesis statement and 4) outline the progress of thought. This lecture teaches new skills and provides examples for you to put them into practice.

  • The final six steps in the exegesis process are consulting secondary sources, analyzing syntactical relationships, analyzing key terms and themes, resolving interpretive issues and problems, evaluating your results from the perspective of wider contextual and theological issues, and summarizing your results. (At the 26-minute mark, the verse reference, John 14:6 should be John 14:26.)

  • Dr. Strauss leads us into exploring the riches of Biblical words in this lecture. He explains some common misconceptions and gives us safeguards so that we do not wander into exegetical fallacies. If you want to know the way forward in Biblical exploration, then listen in as Dr. Strauss outlines the basic principles for doing Biblical word studies correctly.

  • In this lesson, Dr. Strauss discusses two extremes to avoid when applying Scripture. He also gives us five principles to guide our contextualization of a particular passage. Listen in and grow in your ability to apply Scripture in your context to your life in meaningful ways.

This class asks the questions of what is Bible study? Why do we study these specific 66 books? What type of literature are we studying? What are the practical steps we should take? How do we determine a word’s meaning? How do we apply the text to our lives? These questions and more are answered in this course.

This is the second class in the sequence on hermeneutics. The class entitled Hermeneutics should be attended first. There is overlap between the two classes, but the first is more about your approach to studying the Bible and this class is more a practical, hands-on look at Bible study.

Recommended Books

A Guide to Bible Study Methods - Bible Study

A Guide to Bible Study Methods - Bible Study

This guide is intended to be used with the free class from BiblicalTraining.org. Bible Study Methods
A Guide to Bible Study Methods - Bible Study

Dr. Mark Strauss

A Guide to Bible Study Methods


Ten Steps for Exegesis (Part 1)

Lesson Transcript


I. Review and Introduction

We are continuing our study of hermeneutics, introduction to Biblical interpretation. We will review briefly where we have been over the course of these sessions. We started off by looking at presuppositions for accurate biblical interpretation, presuppositions that we are approaching the text with including the evangelical view of Scripture that the Bible is God’s word, that the interpreter must be filled with the Spirit; these are some of the presuppositions we approach scripture with. 

Secondly, we moved on to the question of the nature of the Bible. If we are going to understand and read and interpret the Bible we have to know its nature and we identified two key words, unity and diversity. Diversity referring to the human side of revelation, that God’s word was given to us in many times and many places by a variety of authors with different theological perspectives; that is the diverse side of Scripture, the human side. Then we talked about unity, the fact that though written with such diversity the Bible has one central theme; that theme is God’s plan of redemption, God’s plan of salvation through Jesus the Messiah. So, the nature of the Bible, unity and diversity. 

Then we introduced our topic of hermeneutics in terms of its methodology and we said that there were two basic steps of hermeneutics. We drew an analogy of a bridge. On one side of the bridge is us, on the other side of the bridge is them, that is our world is on one side, the modern reader; on the other side is the world of the text, the author and the original audience. The goal of hermeneutics is to cross the bridge back from our world, from our context, from our culture, cross the great chasm of time, of language, of world view, of history and enter the world of the text, to hear the text as it was intended to be heard by its original audience by the original writer. But that is only half the process. We call that exegesis. Exegesis is determining the author’s original meaning by entering the world of the text to hear the author’s meaning in its original context. 

The other half of hermeneutics is called contextualization; it is the application side of hermeneutics. It is moving from them, from their world once we determine what the text meant to Paul, to John, to Isaiah in their original context, then we take message and bring it back across the bridge to our world to see its significance for us today. Exegesis is the meaning of the text; contextualization is the significance for today. That is the process of hermeneutics. 

After that then we moved to the text per se, the interpretation of the text, and last time we looked at four key principles of exegesis. The first principle, if you recall, was that a text has one meaning and that is the author’s intended meaning. The second principle was that the meaning of the text is genre dependent; depends on the genre, so a parable must be read as a parable or we will misunderstand it. A proverb must be read as a proverb or we will misunderstand it. Narrative must be understood as story with all of the characteristics and features of story. So the meaning of a text is genre dependent; that is out second principle. 

Our third principle of interpretation is that context is the key to interpretation and we saw that there are two kinds of context for every written text. There is historical context. Historical context refers to the whole life setting in which the book arose; the geography in which where the book was written, the historical background, the cultural background, the religious background, the political background; all of that as well as the specific historical context, that is the immediate life situation in which the book or letter arose. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, let us just take that as another example, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was written in the ancient near eastern Greco-Roman world in Corinth. Understanding what Corinth was like in the first century will help us to better understand that letter. But then that letter also has a specific historical context and that is the life situation in which Paul wrote. What was going on in the Corinthian church? What problems or issues provoked Paul to write this letter? So that is our third exegetical principle, our third exegetical principle once again is context is the key to meaning. 

Our fourth principle that we talked about was the principle the text is given priority. We do not bring our agendas to the text and read them into the text, rather we let the text teach us and yet we do bring ourselves to the text. So we pointed out that interpretation is a process of a spiral from text to context, that we come to the text with our concerns, we listen to the text, however, in response to our concerns. So those are our four principles of exegesis.

II. Ten Steps for Exegesis

What I want to do now is in this session I want to talk not about principles but about actual steps. This is the practical side of the exegetical process. I have ten steps for English exegesis, for English Bible interpretation. Determining the meaning of the text in its original context is the goal of exegesis. We have identified general principles by which we accomplish that, now I want to look at ten steps. In this session we are going to cover and look at ten steps of exegesis. We saw four main principles of exegesis. We saw four main principles of exegesis, now we are going to cover ten steps and in this session we will cover the first four in some detail and in the next session we will cover the next six steps, five through ten, in our ten steps of exegesis. I am going to try to give you some examples, illustrations of each. 

At certain points you might want to stop this tape and take some time to actually practice what we are talking about with each of these ten steps. I will try to keep reviewing the ten steps so you can keep them in order. So these are ten steps for interpretation, ten steps for exegesis, ten steps for determining the author’s original meaning. 

A. Identify the Genre (the Literary Form)

Alright, here is our first step. The first step coincides with one of our principles and that is the first step of any interpretation is to identify the genre, to identify the literary form. You simple will misread a text if you do not correctly identify its form. If I receive a letter from someone, I immediately have to identify that as a letter in order to understand what kind of an act of communication it is. 

Suppose I pick up a children’s book and the first line of the children’s book says “Once upon a time there were three bears.” Well the first thing I need to do is I need to identify that literary genre. That literally genre is a fairytale. If I identify it wrongly, if I identify it as, say, history or historical narrative, then I am going to be looking for the wrong things. I might wonder where these bears live; I might wonder whether they are brown bears or grizzly bears. But those are not questions I need to be concerned with. If I identify this as a fairytale I realize that it is not a true story, that it is meant to teach some moral lesson or to entertain.

Identifying the genre, the literary form, is critical, is important with any work of literature, because the genre determines the rules by which we understand the text. So, for this step the question you ask is what are the rules for understanding this literary form? Epistles, or letters, are interpreted differently than narrative literature. Poetry and proverbial literature have their own rules of interpretation. Now, we will take some time to discuss the rules of select literary genres, literary forms in a later session, but here were will simply say the first step to all interpretation is to identify the literary genre, so you know the way truth is communicated. Truth is communicated differently in different literary forms.

For example, historical narrative; historical narrative – truth is communicated factually through the language of the narrative. We are looking for historical facts. We are also looking for features of narrative like plot and characters and so forth, but with historical narrative we are looking for facts. With a parable what are we looking for? If Jesus told a parable, we are not looking for historical facts, we are not looking for the question of whether the good Samaritan was an actual character or actual person in history. We are looking for the moral lesson that Jesus wants us to understand or the truth that he wants us to understand from that story. If Jesus tells a proverb we are not necessarily looking for an absolute truth. We are looking for a general truth that teaches us how to live life in light of God’s truth, God’s wisdom. So, different literary forms are interpreted differently. That is our step one, identify the literary form.

B. Get the Big Picture: Establish the Historical and Literary Context

Here is our second step of interpretation. Our second step of interpretation is to get the big picture and by that we mean to establish the historical and literary context of the document that is under study.

1. Historical Context

The historical context, as we have talked about, means the life setting of the letter or the book. Now we have talked about two ways of reading; we read inductively and we read deductively and as we determine the broad historical context of the book to get the big picture we need to do it both inductively and deductively.

The best way to get the big picture is to read the entire letter or the entire book all the way through looking for its overall themes. So the point here is that before I can read and study a passage in say Philippians, Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I have to understand what the whole letter is all about. Before I can truly understand a single passage in the Gospel of Mark I have to understand the overall message of Mark, how the book progresses from beginning to end. So that is what I mean by getting the big picture; it is establishing overall the big picture of the document so that then I can accurately interpret each passage within its context.

Alright, so determining the historical context is done both inductively and deductively. Inductively, we would read through the entire document seeking to establish the broader life setting of the book. Let me give you some examples of how we would do that with different literary forms or genre.

a. Epistle

Take an epistle. What are we looking for as we read through an epistle? Well, we would be looking for things like the author. Who is the author of this letter? It makes a big difference as to who wrote it concerning who wrote is as to what the meaning will be. We will want to know the recipients; to whom is the letter written?

So, at the beginning of most of Paul’s letters he will say, "Paul an apostle of Jesus Christ;" well there is the author. Then he will identify the recipients, "to the church of God at Corinth," for example. Understanding who the author is, understanding who the recipients are is essential for getting the big picture. You would look for in a letter the occasion and purpose. What prompted the author to write this letter and what was the reason that he is writing?

Going back to our example of Corinthians; we know by reading through the entire letter what Paul’s purpose in writing this letter was and what the occasion was. The occasion was that Paul is in Ephesus on his third missionary journey and he gets a visit from some of the members of the church, a three-man delegation, some members of the family, the household of a woman named Chloe. He probably received some other reports as well. He receives reports of some problems in the church at Corinth. So his purpose in writing, then, we talk about the occasion of the letters, the life situation that prompted its writing, the purpose in writing was to answer questions from the church and correct problems from the church.

The main themes, then, are a whole host of issues related to church problems, problems of disunity, problems of sexual immorality. In this letter of 1 Corinthians we have problems of lawsuits, concerns about the way the spiritual gifts are being used, concerns about the way the Lord’s Supper is being practiced, and as we go through the letter getting the big picture we look for these particular theological themes. We look for the author’s theological perspective. What theological themes resurface again and again in this letter? So, that is what we mean by determining the historical context of an epistle.

Let me give you another example just to illustrate this. Let us talk about Paul’s letter to the Galatians. We talk about the author; the author is the Apostle Paul. We would see that, again, from the first word of the book; Paul identifies himself as Paul. The recipients are the churches, not the singular church, but the plural churches in Galatia. Now there is a debate as to which churches in Galatia, whether these are churches in southern Galatia or churches in northern Galatia, that could be resolved by examining commentaries, we will talk about that in just a moment, but you would identify the recipients as the members of the church in Galatia.

The occasion, what is the occasion that prompted the letter to the Galatians? As you read through the text you will see that the Galatians are apparently deserting the faith, are turning to a different gospel, because of some false teachers that have come into their midst. That is the occasion, that is the life setting that prompted Paul to write. The purpose then is to correct this church, to call them back to the authentic faith, to the authentic gospel of justification by faith alone.

The main themes would be justification by faith alone. It would be the danger of legalism; that is of trying to be saved by your own works. A theme you will see of living in the Spirit and the power of the Spirit, rather than the power of the flesh. So by reading through the entire letter we are looking for main themes, we are looking for the author, we are looking for the recipients, we are getting the big picture. It is essential before we can understand and read a specific passage in an epistle to understand the big picture. That is an epistle.

b. Gospel

Let me just give you a few other examples. A gospel. You are reading the Gospel of Luke let’s say or the Gospel of Mark. What are you looking for? Well, again, it is important to read through the entire Gospel, in one sitting, if possible, in order to get the big picture. And how do we determine the big picture, the historical and literary context? What are we looking for? We are looking for things like the historical and the political setting; we need to know something about first-century Palestine. Israel at the time ruled by the Roman Empire; understanding the history and background of how Israel got to where it was during Jesus’ life is important for understanding the Gospels. So when we see that Jesus is brought before the Roman, Pontius Pilate, during his trial, understanding the relationship of Pilate’s authority over the Jews is critically important for understanding the Gospels. So, determining the historical, political, religious setting; understanding who the Pharisees were; understanding who the Sadducees are; that background is part of our understanding the big picture.

Then within the Gospel itself trying to determine the portrait of Jesus Christ, what is most important to this Gospel writer in terms of his presentation of Jesus Christ. For example, as you read through the Gospel of Mark you would notice that Jesus as the mighty and powerful Son of God is a central theme of the portrait of Christ found in the Gospel of Mark. You would also see, however, that the suffering role of the Messiah, the suffering role of the Son of God, is a central and important part of Mark’s portrait. How do you get that? Well, you get that by reading through the text and discerning it from the text. The historical background of key characters and groups like the Pharisees and the Sadducees, as we mentioned before, would be part of the historical context.

Important settings within the Gospel would be important parts of the historical context. For example, Mark’s Gospel, the early part, is centered in Galilee and the whole Gospel then becomes a movement from Galilee to Jerusalem where Jesus will suffer and die. In Luke’s Gospel, Jerusalem and specifically the temple play a key central role throughout the Gospel because Jerusalem and the temple represent Judaism but they also represent the presence of God; God’s city, God’s presence in the temple, and so that ambivalence between Jerusalem as God’s city as representing his presence but then Jerusalem is representing Israel in opposition to God. That play between those two becomes important setting for the Gospel of Luke.

You would be looking in a Gospel for plot. How does the narrative progress from beginning to end? Where do conflicts arise in the Gospel? Where does the gospel climax? What is the resolution in the Gospel? We might say there are four Gospels, they are all the same with reference to those features, but they are really not, the plot progresses somewhat differently in each of the Gospels and the climax is in some ways come at different points in the gospels.

Just to illustrate this, Mark’s Gospel in many ways the announcement of the resurrection is the resolution because at least in most of our earliest manuscripts there are no narrated resurrection appearances in Mark’s Gospel, rather it is the announcement, the proclamation of the resurrection, that is the great resolution Mark’s Gospel.

Matthew’s Gospel has a different resolution. Matthew’s Gospel – the resolution is not just the resurrection and the resurrection appearances but the Great Commission as Jesus goes up on a high mountain and commissions his disciples to make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. So the Great Commission becomes the great resolution in Matthew’s Gospel.

In Luke’s Gospel the resolution is somewhat different because the resolution is not just the resurrection appearances but Jesus’ ascension, Jesus ascends. That is the final scene in Luke’s Gospel. But Luke’s Gospel really does not resolve at that point because Luke’s Gospel is followed by a sequel which is the book of Acts. So the resolution in Acts is really when Paul eventually gets to Rome, when the gospel goes from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, to the ends of the earth, and Paul reaches the center of the known world, Rome, the center of civilization in the first century and proclaims the gospel there and even then the resolution is open-ended as the gospel is continuing to move outward.

So the point here is that following the plot, the narrative progression, is a key part of the historical and literally contexts, the historical context of reading a gospel. So we looked at how to read an epistle, how to read a gospel.

c. Prophetic Literature

Let me just leave you one more example of how to get the big picture of a particular literary form and that would be prophetic literature. Getting the big picture of prophetic literature would mean understanding the general historical setting within Israel’s history. When Isaiah wrote, what was going on in Israel’s history? Well, Isaiah wrote during the period of the Monarchy when kings were ruling, when Israel was divided into a southern and a northern kingdom; the southern kingdom of Judaea, the northern kingdom of Israel. Isaiah writes and predicts the coming devastation of the northern kingdom by the kingdom of Assyria, the empire of Assyria. Understanding that historical setting is crucial for understanding the book of Isaiah.

The second part of understanding the prophets, getting the big picture would be determining their central message. What is the central message of the author? What is their purpose in writing? What within Israel is provoking this writing and what is the goal? Isaiah is calling Israel back to repentance as many of the prophets are doing.

A third key thing we need to look for in prophetic literature are the key themes. What themes does Isaiah return to again and again? What is Isaiah’s theological prospective? All of these are part of getting the big picture of prophetic literature.

So, once again, this is our second step of exegesis and it is to get the big picture, to read the document entirely through, in one sitting if possible, to try to determining the overall message of the book. We do that inductively by reading the entire document through, several times, if possible.

Now there is another side of getting the big picture, and that is reading the book deductively or confirming and refining the results that we have discovered by reading inductively. How do we confirm and refine? Well, we will talk about this a little later on, but we can check the commentaries, see what they say. What do the commentaries on Mark’s Gospel tell us about things like author and recipients and occasion and purpose? How do they enlighten us about the specific and general historical contexts of these books? What do the commentaries say about the main theme?

So what are we doing, if you recall, and I will take a step back to clarify, if you will recall inductively is moving from facts, the text itself, to conclusions. Deductive methodology then goes from conclusions to proof. You say okay, my reading suggest that this is the central theme of Mark’s Gospel. How I can check and confirm that? We will find out what biblical scholars are saying and read some of the commentaries. Alright, so, getting the big picture is both an inductive methodology as well as a deductive methodology.

2. Literary Context

We have been talking about historical context. Getting the big picture by determining the historical context, that is the life setting of the letter or the book, but we also need, then, to identify the literary context. And if you recall from our discussion of literary context, literary context refers to the progress of the book as it moves through the argument that is developed or the plot as it is developed. The best way probably to determine the literary context is to outline the entire book; to outline it in terms of its basic structure. Now I have a method of outlining a book that I am going to briefly describe and you can use this method when you make your own outline of a book, so it is basically a four-step method to outline a book.

The first step is to break the book down into each of its main paragraphs. Most Bibles will separate a book into its many paragraphs. Your goal then is to identify each paragraph and summarize each paragraph with a brief phrase, a short phrase.

The second step then is to group those related paragraphs into sections; maybe the first five paragraphs of a book have one theme and the second five paragraphs have another theme, the third five or seven paragraphs have another theme, group those into a larger section and summarize what those paragraphs relate to. Summarize the theme of those paragraphs.

The third point then would be to look at those groups of paragraphs and see if they can be grouped together in even larger sections. From there then you can reverse that process and take each of those larger sections as a major point within your outline and then each of the smaller sections becomes a sub point and each of those smallest sections then become your sub-sub points and by reversing the process that we have just described you can develop an outline. 

Our cardinal rule with reference to getting the big picture is no matter how short on time you are in terms of your sermon or lesson preparation it is essential to establish the historical and literary context of the passage under study. In other words, to get the big picture; it is absolutely essential. Determining who wrote the book, why they wrote it, what is its central themes, what is its purpose; these kinds of questions are critical for any passage that you are going teach.

Now at times you would not have time to read through an entire book. Suppose you need to teach on a particular passage that has a specific theme and you do not have time to do an entire survey of a long book. Well, this is where you can take certain shortcuts; you can avoid making errors in interpretation by using some of the better tools.

For historical context, for example, you can consult the introductions to the Bible or the survey, the biblical surveys, because a biblical survey or a biblical encyclopedia or a bible dictionary will give you brief overviews of what each of these books are all about. Look for things like the author, the recipients, the purpose, the themes, the theology in these reference tools.

For literary context a good tool is a Bible handbook, because a Bible handbook goes passage by passage and summarizes every section of a book. And so, let’s just say, for example, that you were teaching on Romans 8 and you want to teach on Romans 8, but you have not systematically studied the entire letter to the Romans.

Well, two things you need to do; you need to find out what the overall message of Romans is. You can do that by consulting a Bible introduction, a Bible survey book, a Bible dictionary, a study Bible itself as well as reading through maybe certain sections and once you have identified what is the overall message, what is the central theme of Romans, then you need to establish the literary context. You can do that by consulting a Bible handbook and reading through briefly how Paul has developed his thought leading up to Romans 8. How Romans 8 serves as a particular climax for Paul’s thought in chapters 1-7.

And so, our point here is that sometimes you simply cannot do a detailed study of an entire book in preparation for teaching it. In those cases you can use the tools that will give you the information you would gain by a detailed reading of the text. But once again, the cardinal rule, no matter how short on time you are it is essential to establish the historical and literary context of the passage under study. 

Alright, that is our second step to exegesis; our first was identify the genre or literary form. Our second is to get the big picture; get the overall message of the book by establishing the historical and literary context.

C. Develop a Thesis Statement

Our third principle is to develop what I would call a thesis statement. You are moving now from the overall book to an individual passage, a passage that you want to study or passage that you want to teach and the most important thing, it seems to me at this point, is to identify the central idea or the big idea or a thesis statement; all of those things mean the same thing.

When I hear young preachers or young teachers teach it seems to me the two greatest problems they tend to exhibit when they teach or preach is they either preach too little, we could say, too little of the text, and by that I mean they might read the text at the beginning of the sermon, but then they preach on something entirely different. They might have something they want to say to the congregation and they essentially ignore the message of the text they have just read and they preach on their own agenda, their own thing. That is one problem I sometimes see in young preachers or in old preachers as well.

The other problem is preaching too much, not preaching too little of the passage, but preaching too much of the passage. And this is where the preacher or teacher will back a dump truck full of information up to the congregation, up to the audience, and will dump it on them. They will have done so much wonderful study of the passage, they will have all the details of the historical background and culture and context. They will have done a detailed verse by verse, word by word exegesis and they will want to share with the congregation absolutely everything that they have learned about this passage. And the problem is the people leave after that message and they haven’t the slightest idea what they have heard, because there has been an information overload, there has just been too much information.

So the two greatest dangers, it seems to me, are passing on too little information, in other words missing the point of the passage, or passing too much information. Well this third step, developing a thesis statement or a big idea or a central message or central idea of the passage helps us to avoid that difficulty, because here you establish in one sentence, and I would stress you should do it one sentence, what the central message, what the main point, the key emphasis of this passage is and then by doing that you will always be focusing on that particular central message, you will not waiver into extraneous details if you clearly identify the central message.

There is lots of ways to do this. I would refer you to a wonderful book by Haddon Robinson, a very classic book on preaching called Biblical Preaching. Haddon Robinson describes this process as identifying what he calls a subject and a complement. The subject is the question of what is the passage talking about, what is the central theme of the passage; identifying that is identifying the subject. Identifying the complement then is identifying what does the passage say about this particular subject. So the subject is what is the central message, what is the theme, what is the passage talking about. The complement, how does this passage describe that or what is the passage saying about the subject? And so, identifying the subject and the complement to a particular passage will enable you to clearly and concisely identify the central message or the thesis statement. Identifying what is the main idea of this passage.

Now this is hard to describe apart from just doing it and so let me just give you a passage to examine, I will give you a couple of passages, maybe an Old Testament one and a New Testament one to examine and try to come up with a thesis statement, and then I am going to give you some principles as to how I think you can go about identifying the main idea, the thesis statement of a passage.

Take Psalm 23, for example. Here is a Psalm, a self-contained unit. Psalm 23, one of the most beloved Psalms in the Psalter. Read that Psalm and then try to identify a subject and a complement. That is, what is the central message, what is the main point of this Psalm and what does the Psalm say about the main point. So, you might want to turn the tape off and do that, I will not read the Psalm for you right here, and then I will come back and talk briefly about some of the options here.

Alright, Psalm 23, what is the big idea? What is the thesis statement, the central point? We talked about dividing that central point into a subject and a complement. When I do this in my classes often times my students will come up with a big idea; something like, "Because the Lord is my shepherd I can trust in him to provide for me and to protect me." Or something like, "Using the metaphor of a shepherd, the Psalmist expresses his trust in God’s provision and protection." And that clearly is at least part of the central idea.

The Psalm begins, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.” So it certainly describes this shepherd image. But as we then read through the Psalm we check to see if this entire Psalm is summed up in that thesis statement. I just want to read the Psalm and point out to you how that thesis statement actually misses something.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” Okay, there is that shepherd imagery and the provision. “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me. Your rod and your staff they comfort me.”

Now up to that point the Psalmist is clearly describing, this is all shepherd imagery. The shepherd leads me in green pastures. He brings me to quiet waters where I can drink. He guides me along the path. He takes me through the valley of the shadow of death. His rod and his staff comfort me.” All of that is shepherd imagery.

But suddenly, at this point, the metaphor changes. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Notice how the metaphor changes; the metaphor changes from shepherd imagery to a household and this would be particularly maybe a king whose subjects, maybe his noblemen, are invited to his home for protection, to his castle for protection and for a rich banquet.

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” The king provides protection for his subjects. “You anoint my head with oil.” That is a sign of hospitality in a banquet image. “My cup overflows.” There is abundance of food and drink at this banquet. “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." There is that household image of provision and protection.

So we will realize that though the Psalm is certainly about shepherd imagery, there is a metaphor change in the middle of it. So a complete big idea or a complete thesis statement would encompass those two ideas. So here is an idea for a thesis statement for this Psalm. Using the metaphors of the Lord as his shepherd and as a banquet host, the Psalmist expresses his trust in God as protector and provider. So you have got the dual image of both shepherd and banquet host.

Now let me give you some hints. Students sometimes struggle with how to find the big idea. Let me give you some hints for identifying the main idea and I will illustrate them with the Psalm that we just looked at and then we will do one more of these big ideas. Here is the first hint. Ask the question, what one theme gives this passage unity? As you read through it, what one theme? Well, Psalm 23 the Lord as shepherd and as banquet host clearly gives this passage a unity from beginning to end.

Our second hint, here is a second hint, after asking what one theme gives this passage unity, and these hints are related to each other; the second hint is look for a theme that occurs repeatedly, especially at the beginning and the end. A good writer, as a good speaker, will state first of all what they are going to be talking about and then at the end they will summarize what they just talked about. Well, obviously this Psalm begins just like this, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” Well, that is going to be the central theme, it is at the beginning and the banquet imagery continues on into the end, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” So look for a theme that occurs repeatedly, look for a theme that occurs at the beginning and the end.

Here is a third hint. Try outlining the passage. If you are having trouble, particularly identifying the thesis statement or the big idea, try outlining the passage and by that I mean follow the progress of thought in the passage. That will give you clues as to what the main idea is. If you outline this passage, Psalm 23, you will see that the first half of the Psalm deals all with shepherd imagery, the second half turns to a protective household or king protecting his subjects in a banquet context. So, if you outline the passage you would see that there are two central metaphors there.

Here is a fourth point, a fourth hint for how to identify the main idea. Test out a theme. Ask, does every verse relate to this theme? Now if we had done that with the Psalm we would have seen there were problems with identifying solely the shepherd image. Here is the question, ask does every single line, every sentence relate to this theme? And as we move through Psalm 23 we see that the first half of the Psalm, the first two-thirds of the Psalm, every single sentence relates to shepherd imagery. But suddenly it changes to imagery related to a banquet scene. And so, by testing the theme you would recognize what this thesis statement is.

Fifth and finally, turn your subject into a question and the complement should answer this question. Let me do that with Psalm 23. If I ask, in what way is God a shepherd and banquet host? Well, the answer to that would be he provides provision, he provides protection, and so you can identify the complement by asking a question. First of all by identifying the main overall arching theme, what the passage is talking about, and then raising a question about what is it saying about that and what it is saying about that becomes your complement.

Alright, let’s try this process with another passage. Turn in your Bibles to Philippians 1, an introductory section in Philippians, Philippians 1:12-18. Let me read this passage. “Now I want you to know brothers and sisters that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear. It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of good will. The latter do so out of love knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way whether from false motives or true Christ is preached and because of this I rejoice.” Alright, take that passage now and try to develop a thesis statement and we will come back together.

Alright, let me just suggest a possible thesis statement. There are many different ways this can go. We are looking for a subject and a complement. What one theme holds this entire passage together? I am not sure what you would have come up with, but let me just make a suggestion; here is what I came up with anyway. I said, Paul rejoices that the gospel is advancing despite or even because, we might say, of his imprisonment.

That is the subject and then the complement could be through a variety of means, simply through a variety of means or you could identify those means. Through his testimony to the palace guard, through the courage given to others and even through those who preach with false motives. So the passage is about the gospel advancing despite Paul’s imprisonment; the complement would be how the gospel is advancing despite Paul’s imprisonment. Either by listing those means or simply by saying through a whole variety of means.

Now once again our hints for identifying this main idea. What one theme gives this passage unity? Well, the advancement of the gospel is clearly something that is repeated all the way through from beginning to end. Our second hint, a theme that occurs repeatedly, especially at the beginning and the end. Paul says at the very beginning, “I want you to know that what has happened to me has served to advance the gospel.” So he introduces that theme right at the very beginning.

Our third hint, outlining the passage. If you were to outline the passage you would begin to identify the ways in which the gospel is advancing despite Paul’s imprisonment. Fourth, you would test the theme. Does every verse relate to the advancement of the gospel? It certainly does, each verse from beginning to end. And finally turning your subject into a question. If the advancement of the gospel is your subject within your thesis statement, the complement is how does the gospel advance and Paul answers that question, how is the gospel advancing despite Paul’s imprisonment. So there is just a methodology of how to develop a thesis statement. Alright, that was our third step of exegesis. 

Let’s review. Our first step was identifying the genre. Our second step was getting the big picture. Our third step was developing a thesis statement.

D. Outline the Progress of Thought in the Passage

Our fourth step is to outline the progress of thought in the passage. Now we have already talked about doing this as a means of identifying the main idea or the thesis statement, but now we will talk about a few helpful points on how to actually do this. Ask, how is this thesis statement developed in the progress of the passage? Your points, your sub points, in other words, the progress of thought should reflect this development.

There are various ways to outline a passage, but however you outline the passage, every point in a good outline must do two things. Every point in a good outline must first relate directly to the big idea, relate directly to your thesis statement. Once you have established a thesis statement every sub point or every point you are going to teach should relate directly to the big idea.

Secondly, every good outline should clearly and accurately explain the progress of the argument in the passage. In other words, every point you should be able to see how it relates to the big idea, but also how it relates to the point made before it and how it relates to the point afterwards. When I am testing my students on this, one of the problems I often see is I will read an outline, I don’t really have any idea how each of the points relate to each other. Understanding how they relate to each other is essential for a good outline.

Now it seems to me there are two main kinds of outlines, and I will illustrate them for you. Two main kinds of outlines, particularly when you are teaching or preaching a passage, one kind of outline I could call parallel outlines. A parallel outline is where each of the sub points is parallel to one another generally answering some question about the thesis statement.

To develop a parallel outline turn your thesis statement into a question; we saw that in Philippians 1:12-18. The question might be, in what ways is the gospel advancing despite Paul’s imprisonment? So here is an outline of that passage.

  • Introduction: The advance of the gospel despite Paul’s imprisonment.
  • Then three points, point number one: the gospel is advancing through Paul’s testimony to the palace guard, that is verse 13.
  • Point two: the gospel is advancing through the courage given to others to proclaim it, that is verse 14.
  • Third: the gospel is advancing despite the false motives of some, that is verses 15 and 16.
  • Our conclusion then would be: the most important thing of all is that Christ is preached and that would be in verse 18.

So you can see the outline does two things, each of the points relate directly to the thesis statement and, secondly, there is a clear and logical progression from beginning to end. Alright, that is a parallel outline.

The other kind of outline I would call a progressive outline. A progressive outline is not a list of parallel answers to the big idea, but progressively develops the flow of the argument or the progress of the story. Each point must still directly relate to the thesis statement, but there is progress rather than parallel.

Let me give you a couple of examples of progressive outlines. Here is one on Romans 12:1-2; you might turn to that passage. Romans 12:1-2, “Therefore, I urge you brothers and sisters in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. This is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is, his good, pleasing, and perfect will.” Alright, work on a thesis statement for Romans 12:1-2 and we will come back together and I will suggest one for you.

Alright, here is a thesis statement for Romans 12:1-2. In light of God’s free gift of salvation Paul calls believers to present themselves as living sacrifices in God’s service. Here is a progressive outline of that passage.

  • The command to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, verse 1a.
  • The reason to present your body as a living sacrifice, verse 1b.
  • The means of presenting your body as a living sacrifice, verse 2a.
  • The result of presenting your body as a living sacrifice, verse 2b.

You can see this is a progressive outline because it identifies different aspects of what it means to present your body as a living sacrifice.

Here is another example; narrative literature often has progressive outlines. Mark 2:13-17, the Call of Levi. You might do that as an assignment.

Let me then suggest for you a thesis statement. Mark presents Jesus’ mission as directed not to the self-righteous, but to sinners who recognize their need of salvation. The outline would progress. The first point would be the call of Levi. The second main point would be the meal in Levi’s home. Then you would have sub points under that, the challenge by the religious leaders, why does Jesus eat with sinners. The sub point under the meal in Levi’s home, the first sub point A we could call it. The challenge by the religious leaders, why does Jesus eat with sinners.

The second sub point would be Jesus’ response. And Jesus response is two-fold so we could have sub-sub points. The first of his response is the proverb that only sick people need a doctor. The second response sub-sub point would be the application. The Son of Man came to call sinners. So we have got the proverb only sick people need a doctor and the application the Son of Man came to call sinners. So those are just examples of how an outline works. 

III. Summary

Alright, our first four points, our first four steps of exegesis are 1) identify the genre, 2) get the big picture, 3) develop a thesis statement and 4) outline the progress of thought. In our next session we will go through the remaining six steps of exegesis.

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