5 Steps for Finding the Point of Any Passage in Scripture
“How do I find the point of a biblical text?”
This is a question I often hear from small group Bible study leaders and student leaders in the church where I serve. And nothing would give me greater pleasure than telling them (and you) that I have a magic formula that will take them from their text directly to its point, or better yet, its application.
I don’t have that magic formula. I do, however, think there are a handful of things that you can try to find in your text, no matter where you are in the Bible, that will help you find the point.
1. STRUCTURE AND EMPHASIS
First, consider the passage’s structure and emphasis. I like to start with the structure, or how my passage breaks down into different sections of verses that work together.
Of course, how we find the structure will depend a bit on the type of text. If I am looking at a narrative, plot and characters are helpful. I will look for the setting, the climax, and the resolution. If I am looking at a speech or letter, I will look for a flow of ideas with a logical point. If I am looking at poetry, I will try to identify the different stanzas and begin to summarize them.
And no matter what section of the Bible I am in, I always, always, look for repeated words and ideas. A literal translation will help you here. The diagnostic question I like to use is: “How has the author organized this passage?” And once I have started to sketch out a structure, I ask myself what emphasis is being revealed by this structure.
Second, consider the context. No passage of the Bible exists alone. Rather, every text is part of an argument, story, or collection of passages that has purposefully been arranged by the author.
What comes before my passage and what comes after are important, and will help me to understand what is in my passage. It may help to realize the topic the author is addressing. It may help me to see a larger section in my book. It may provide a helpful correction to something I have been misreading in my passage. It may even help me to understand the historical situation of the first audience.
Context is key. And my diagnostic question is: “Why has the author put this passage here, at this point in the book?”
3. BOOK THEME
Given what I just mentioned about context, it only makes sense to zoom all the way out and ask about the book. What is the author’s agenda with this book?
Of course, it takes some work to really understand the theme of a whole book. Nevertheless, I think it is an important step to ask: “How does my passage—and particularly that emphasis I found in the structure—relate to this bigger theme of the whole book?”
In Luke 24:13-49, Jesus teaches that the whole of Scripture points to his death and resurrection, and the results of this gospel are repentance and forgiveness of sins. Without understanding this, we run the risk of interpreting a passage only moralistically or somehow separated from the gospel.
So, it is important to use all the tools of theology (especially biblical theology) to ask: “How does my passage relate to the gospel?” Of course, there are a lot of ways to do this badly. So, it is important that we make legitimate connections between our text and the gospel.
Once you’ve done your work in structure, context, book theme, and theology, it is time to start synthesizing. Whether you call this the main point, the theme of the passage, or the big idea, it is important to take this final step. The question I like to ask myself is this: “What is the author trying to teach his first audience?” What is he saying? What’s his main point?
Don’t kid yourself: this is not an easy process. For me, this represents an hour or two of preparation for a small group—and probably 12 hours of preparation for a sermon! But whatever time you have, I think it is helpful to work this way.
Of course, once you’ve discerned the main idea, you still need to think through application. Still, as far as working on the text, this is where I start:
- How has the author organized this passage?
- Why has the author put this passage here, at this point in the book?
- How does my passage relate to the theme of the whole book?
- How does my passage relate to the gospel?
- What is the author trying to teach his first audience?
For a little more on this process, see David Helm’s book Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today (Crossway, forthcoming April 2014).