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.