5 Questions to Unpack a Bible Passage to Teach

Someone asked me recently how I address a Bible passage in order to teach about it.  I certainly don’t claim to be an expert, but I do have a system.  Of course the process begins and ends with prayer, but God has wired me to think systematically, so I need a format that works for me in writing a sermon message.

When teaching on a specific passage of Scripture, I consider five questions about the Bible text:

What does it say? – I usually look at several translations, and depending on the passage, may research the original words if needed.  I want to know what the verse or verses says in a way that I can understand it.  At this point, I attempt to understand the text within the context it was written…time period…location of writing…people to whom it was written.

What does it mean? – I always allow Scripture to interpret Scripture first.  I like to use cross references and word searches for specific words or phrases I may not understand or want to explore further.  At this stage, I want to understand the passage in the context of the entire Bible.

How does it apply it to my life? – Here I’m basically trying to decide how I can apply the truth in the text to the way I live my life…what changes I need to make in my life…how my life should be lived because of the truth in the text.  This is where I use commentaries, or other writings to help me better understand the text.  I want to know how this passage, written so many years ago, has relevance for me today.

How does it apply to others? – Now I ask myself, “How can the people listening to this message apply this text to their life?”  Although a text has only one true meaning, it can have multiple applications in a person’s life.  I try to consider as many of these as possible.  I see part of my job communicating as helping listeners connect the passage to their life, the changes that may need to be made, and how to live out the truth of the text in their life.  Of course, the real teacher is the Spirit of God, but I also know God uses teachers to help people grasp Biblical principles and apply them.

How can I communicate so they will understand and apply it to their life? – The final question is perhaps the hardest step for me, but equally important to the other steps.  I want to teach in a way that appeals to different learning styles in the room, captures and holds people’s attention and engages them in the message enough that they will consider the message even after the message is delivered.  The real win for me is not when people enjoy a message as much as when they are willing to make changes in their life to live it.

Now obviously, once you do something many times you start to form habits and so I don’t always think through these questions consciously, but basically this is the process I go through each time I preach.  Also, it should be noted (because if I don’t someone will for me) that this entire process should be done in a spirit of prayer.  My end goal is that God would use my limited abilities to communicate His truth.

Preachers, what do you do differently?  What commentaries, programs, or websites help you the most?

Also, just curious, what style or method of preaching engages you the most? Is it through illustration, humor, visuals or simply reading the Bible aloud?  (or something else)

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17 thoughts on “5 Questions to Unpack a Bible Passage to Teach

  1. Howard Hendrix book, Living by the Book, on practical steps for studying the Bible for any person emphasises three things…all of which you have in your 5 questions. Observe what is written. Interpret what is written and then apply what is written. His underlying exhortation to it all is, "there is one meaning but many applications". The scriptures are given that we can know God, understand His ways and obey them with all we have. Getting to a place of understanding the scripture we read helps us obey more fully. It is important, I feel, that we cry out to the Holy Spirit to give us understanding and light. I don't feel it's "magic" …i.e. the Spirit does it in us in a moment. I feel there is the part that we play in coming to learn and working at it with the Spirit's help. Hendrix says that the more we "observe"….the more time we give to it when looking at a verse or paragraph or chapter or book…then the less time we will have to take to "interpret" it. The more time we take to observe, the more will answer itself in the "interpreting" and "application" part. We try to get to the interpreting and application too quickly instead of going into the text (like walking into a room) and just stand and look at it for a while without drawing any conclusions. Bombard it with questions to observe it…why? what?when?where?who? how? With those comments in mind, I suggest going back to your questions and see how many have been given to observing…interpreting and applying.

  2. 1. Pray
    2. Read the text.
    3. Write out my own thoughts on the text.
    4. Read the text again to ensure I'm understanding the text and what I'm trying to communicate.
    5. Pray again, especially if I'm struggeling.,
    6. Consult the commentaries for deeper understanding.
    7. Develop applications from the text and search to find unique applications of the text or if necessary misuse of the text.
    8. Pray.
    9. Go preach God's word.
    10. Praise God.

  3. The former senior pastor at my church used to "sit down" with an imaginary audience of people from different ages and backgrounds. He wanted to make sure that everyone in the congregation was getting something out of the sermon whether it was a little nugget or a large chunk.

    The questions you listed I'm going to try to remember as I work on my biblical discipleship study. I've just started geting into commentaries on my WORDsearch as I read through the Bible. Now I've got to work on beginning and ending the time in prayer.

  4. How does understanding the original languages figure in with you? You are a pastor and you may have at least a basic understanding of Greek/Hebrew or you may not. It is debatable whether you have to know those languages to get the fullness of the Scripture (they do help though with the nuances in translation between languages), Also, could you elaborate a little on how you approach communicating to all learning styles; preachers are taught to preach/teach in a certain way, so we aren't always exposed to sensory communication examples. Thanks, Ron.

    • I just research the original language as an added step if I'm unclear. I don't think you have to always read it to "get the fullness of Scripture". Most weeks I don't do this…but understanding the fullness of a word such as grace, love, peace, etc. sometimes makes this helpful.

      As far as communication styles, that means that sometimes I use more story illustrations…sometimes a picture…sometimes I just read from the Scripture…sometimes I show something in printed form…trying to appeal to all the sensory styles. Make sense?
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

      • Oh absolutely, I was just curious. I am from a more expositional background and often times we are not given many tips on creativity aside from word choice. I have a more dramatic style of presentation and one class mate put on my Homiletics evaluation, "The hit on the pulpit was too dramatic, remembering you are preaching and not giving a show." But, in all fairness, that was not just some random pounding. I am always trying to learn to better to communicate with my audience. Thanks, Ron.

        • I agree. I say stick with your pounding. Most seminaries don't necessarily teach how to communicate..they teach how to preach. I think there's a difference. Preaching is part of communication, but good communication..and good preaching (in my opinion) involves shaping a message in a way that is most effective.
          Twitter: Ronedmondson

  5. What did it mean to the original readers?

    What is the simplest way to say it?

    What do I expect people to do as a result of this passage? (What is the most practical way to say it?)

    What gives the passage size (what does it say Theologically)?

  6. I’ve used this system of bible study since I’ve been in ministry. Especially your last point on effectively communicating you message. Many generations of people with a mixture of different lifestyles & cultures can be a problem, but I’m glad God has given me the ability to reach any demographic. Thanks for the post.