Breaking it down and finding the flow

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I’ve been writing a few posts about how I study a passage in the Bible in order to give you a feel for how to go about the close textual analysis involved in exegesis. This should be helpful to anyone who is planning to preach, lead a Bible study, teach a youth group or even tell a Bible story to Sunday School but it is also useful for any of us in personal Bible study as we seek to “slow down” our reading of the text to see what it actually says.

Today I want to show you how I go about analysis of the text in order to see its logical flow and identify the main idea in the text.

The first stage is to break the text down into bite sized units. You can either analyse by clauses or go further and separate each phrase as I have moved towards here.


a servant of Christ Jesus,

 called to be an apostle,

 set apart for the gospel of God, 

which he promised beforehand 

Through his prophets in the holy Scriptures,

 concerning his Son, 

who was descended from David

according to the flesh

 and was declared to be the Son of God in power

according to the Spirit of holiness

by his resurrection from the dead,

Jesus Christ our Lord,

 through whom we have received grace and apostleship 

to bring about the obedience of faith

for the sake of his name among all the nations,

 including you

who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

To all those in Rome

who are loved by God

and called to be saints:

Grace to you and peace

 from God our Father

and the Lord Jesus Christ.

This enables us to see how each phrase or clause relates to each other. I can show the flow of the text by beginning to indent the text so that supporting information to the main idea in a clause is indented to the right as follows.

Now we can see where the main ideas are and we can show the flow of the text. It is helpful to at this stage identify the words that link co-ordinate and subordinate clauses. Co-ordinate clauses work equally with the prior clause and are able to stand alone in the text. They tend to be linked by words like “and” or “but”. You could try taking out the previous clause or phrase and things would still make sense.  For example in the text above, Paul could have written

“To all those in Rome […] called to be saints.  Grace [….] to you from […] the Lord Jesus Christ.”

This would still make perfect sense. Indeed, notice here a clue to the divine nature of Christ that he just like the Father is able to give grace and peace. Our slowing down is once again helping us to read the text more closely and spot things we might otherwise have missed.

Remember that our aim right now is not just to spot these individual things but to see how things flow together.  You can also use arrows to show the flow as I have done here.

This highlights again that the text includes three key ideas. 

               Paul – there is then a description of who he is and what it means for him to be an apostle

               To all those in Rome  -so we know who the letter is from

               Grace and Peace – the aim of why he is writing.

The flow is simple here because the text does not contain those key words that connect subordinate clauses and enable us to see if an idea is connected backwards or forwards. Look at Romans 1:16 -25 and you will see the connector word “for” which connects clauses and phrases backwards, those clauses which begin with “for” supply extra explanation as to the reason for the first statement.  You will also see the word “therefore” sometimes you will see phrases like “so then” or “for this reason.” I would point forward with an arrow at this stage to show that the next statement is the big reason that the previous text has been building up to.

So the sentence flow would appear as follows:

Now we can identify what is the big idea, or what is the primary thing that the writer is saying to us. This should prevent us from just wandering aimlessly through the text identifying lots of interesting but disconnected things to say.  We have identified three things here, that the letter is from Paul, that it is to those in Rome and that it brings a greeting of “Grace and Peace” The main point then is the greeting. The clue is that if we just had a paragraph which told us that the letter was from Paul and to the Roman church but we would still be left asking “what is it that Paul is going to say to the church.”  The main idea of the text is this.

“The church in Rome received Grace and Peace from God (The Father and The Son together).”

Of course, we do not want to leave things there and so, our next step would be to find application for us.  Now the intermediate step is to ask whether we can apply directly to our context what is said in that context (remember Old Testament passages are applied first through Christ but this one is already explicitly about something we receive in and through Christ).

So, it is possible to say that:

“You and I can receive Grace and Peace from God”

This remains though just a statement, it touches the intellect but does it derive any change. So, we want to next adapt the statement to make it a “Behavioural change.” Actually the behavioural change can function at an intellectual and emotional level. Indeed, when I preached this book a few years back I insisted that before we began to look at what we were meant to be doing, there were truths we were meant to

  • Know
  • Remember
  • Treasure
  • Enjoy

Each of those words could be used to begin our behavioural change statement. The text asks me to

               “Know/Remember/Treasure/Enjoy the truth that I can receive Grace and Peace from God.”

However, if Grace and peace are to be received from God, we can go one step further and simply say that the imperative here, the behavioural change, is a call to

               “Receive Grace and Peace from God.”

That is the aim indeed of the whole letter to enable us to do just that.

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