While not the first step in preparing a sermon, asking interpretive questions helps take you from wondering to understanding what a passage has to say to the audience in modern day.
A preacher begins the sermon prep process by choosing a sermon text to preach or teach and then begins the study of that text by reading it multiple times. Next, the preacher records observations of the text in a detailed way. That brings us to the next part of our 10 Steps of Creative Sermon Prep. We call it Asking Interpretive Questions of the text, which guide the study process where we find the answers to those questions.
Bridging the Gap Between Ancient and Modern Worlds
Have you ever traveled to another country or a region of your own country that you’ve never been to? You likely experienced things that you didn’t understand. I remember the first time I tried to buy gas in New Jersey on my way to Boston from my home in North Carolina. I tried to jump out and pump my own gas, but I learned that in that part of the country you can’t do that. A gas attendant had to pump it for you. Why couldn’t I pump my own gas? Does this ad to the cost of my gas? Do these pump attendants have to et certified and trained to follow safety methods that I can’t follow.
As we look at the Bible, we read it in our own language. However, there is a culture surrounding the text of the scripture that we don’t fully understand without some help from scholars who have studied the culture of ancient Israel or the Greco-Roman world. John Stott called his seminal book on preaching Between Two Worlds illustrating this idea that the preacher stands with one foot in the ancient world and one in the modern world.
The third step of our sermon prep process helps us bridge the gap between the ancient world and the modern world of our hearers.
Asking Interpretive Questions During Inductive Bible Study
Everyone who preaches expository sermons should first make careful observations of the text without the influence of other interpreters. This helps us focus on the text and not what some scholar tells us the text means. Now, asking interpretive questions will take us another step in this inductive study process.
Inductive Bible Study is defined by Wayne McDill in 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching as follows:
Carefully examining the text for whatever information it contains on the subject it addresses and seeking to discern the universal principles thus revealed.
The previous step involved examining the text for what I already know. This step involves examining the text to understand what I don’t already know.
Asking Interpretive Questions:
At this point we still won’t open commentaries, lexicons, Bible dictionaries, handbooks or atlases. However, this step leads us to those resources.
In the last step we looked at how to set up our note-taking system to record the observations. If you haven’t already, go back and check out that post and follow the steps there first. You will use the same note-taking system in this step.
Remember that good investigative questions usually start with the following:
- Who – who are the people and characters involved in the text.
- What – identify meanings and explanations of details in the text, like meanings of key words.
- When – temporal details that aren’t explicitly understood from the text, like when was this written or when did something happen that the author referred to in the text.
- Where – location and geographical details.
- Why – purpose and reasons for things in the text.
- How – seek to understand the way things happen like steps or skills.
Recording Your Interpretive Questions
Just like our observations step (the previous step) we will through the text and write down the questions that come to mind as we read through the text. Record these questions in such a way that you can easily answer them.
How you record the questions in the asking interpretive questions phase of our study will depend on how you set up your note-taking system. I use the notes feature of Logos Bible Software. Because I’ve already recorded my observations, I will have a note on each verse or passage. These show up as icons next to the verse. In my case I use yellow squares to indicate a note exists for that verse, although users can change this.
I will open the note next to the text and go phrase by phrase through each verse. When I come up with a question, I will record them in the note in Logos.
Let’s take a passage as an example. I recently preached on Matthew 18:1-6 (listen using the player below). I opened the passage in Logos Bible Software with my Christian Standard Bible on the left half of the screen and then I right-clicked on the first verse and choose Take a Note from the pop up menu. If you use Logos, make sure you choose the Reference item in the left side of the pop up menu that shows up when you right-click on the verse (see image above).
Now start typing the questions. You may try to organize things by writing the word or phrase as a kind of heading. Then put your observations first and you questions second under each word or phrase.
If I do this with Matthew 18:1, here’s the kind of questions I might ask.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “So who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”Matthew 18:1, CSB
- What time is he referring to when he says “At that time”.
- Who are these disciples?
- How many of them came to Jesus?
- When did this occur?
- What does the kingdom of heaven refer to?
- What does “greatest” mean?
Looking at the list above, you may not be able to answer all of them. However, we can discover the answers to some of these by looking at the context, which we should do in the first part of our process where we choose the text and read it in context. However, it’s a good idea to look again here. Remember that repetition helps us understand more and learn what this passage teaches before we ever look at third-party tools like commentaries or lexicons.
Let’s take a look at Zechariah 4:6 to give you an example of how we will record questions.
So he answered and said to me: “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ Says the LORD of hosts. (Zechariah 4:6, NKJV)
- Why does he begin the word with “so”? Does it connect the verse to the previous passage?
- What does “this” refer to?
- Is this “word” considered prophetic?
- How often does “word of the LORD” show up in the book? Is it significant in the book.
- Who is Zerubbabel?
- Are “might” and “power” synonyms or are they parallel in some other way?
- How does might/power contrast with the Lord’s Spirit?
- How does the title “Lord of hosts” connect to this passage.
Asking Interpretive Questions: Word Studies
Many people will treat word studies as a separate part of the preaching process. However, it’s really just one subset of the asking interpretive questions step in sermon study. We repeated ask the question “What does that word mean?” Notice in our list above, we ask that of the word “greatest.” But we may want to look up the meanings of many words. So, I actually do this as part of this process. After I created my list, I will then do a word study on each key word.
What kinds of words will we look up?
- Key verbs – all verbs that are not being verbs or linking verbs like forms of “to be”, although you might want to look up the verb tense, voice and mood of these simple being verbs too if they add to the meaning of the text.
- Adjectives – descriptive words that modify nouns
- Adverbs – descriptive words that modify verbs and adjectives
- Nouns – not pronouns or proper nouns since they don’t usually bring with them meaning, although that might not be true in some situations.
Search for the Word
Before consulting things like lexicons and dictionaries, I like to find out what the Bible says about the word by searching for that word. To do this, I right click on a word. For example, in Zechariah 4:6 we will want to study the word “might” found in the NKJV. So, right-click the word and choose it in the pop up menu. You have a choice to make.
Notice that in the pop-up above we see two columns. On the left you’ll notice some Hebrew words. The first is the word in that manuscript as it appears in this verse. The second is the lemma and the third is the root. I usually choose to search the root or the lemma.
In the second column choose to search in the Bible. You can choose “inline” which finds it in the copy of the Bible you have open. I prefer to choose Bible because it opens another window with my search results, which I can quickly glance at to find any instances of that word that will help me interpret the meaning of the term. Record the observations you discover from this search in your notes.
Logos Exegetical Guide
To do word studies in Logos I use the Exegetical Guide. It quickly and easily finds all the major words and then organizes a list of the lexicon entries for those words below some other word study information.
In Logos go to the Guides menu and click on Exegetical Guide. Then type your reference in the box on the top left of the window that opens up. The guide will run and search the library for the right content.
Another way to open the Exegetical Guide, you can highlight the verse or verses you want to run the guide on and then right click to pull up the pop up menu. You will make sure that the passage is selected in the left hand list int he pop up and then click on Exegetical Guide in the bottom of the right hand list to run the guide.
We will focus on the Word by Word section of the Exegetical Guide, however, it shows us a few other things above that. Here’s what the guide includes by default:
- Your Content: any items you’ve created in the past for this passage.
- Textual Variants – textual commentaries, apparatus, and original language texts in your Library.
- Word by Word – the list of words along with other grammatical details. We’ll focus on this part in the section below.
- Grammatical Construction – shows interesting grammatical details of the verse.
- Important Words – gives a link to a Word Study Guide for some of the most important words in the passage. I don’t use this because the Word by Word lets me choose the words I want to study since this list might leave off some that I consider important.
- Lemma in Passage – lists all the lemmas in the passage with links ot do a Word Study. You might want to consider using this instead of Word by Word, but I don’t.
- Important Passages – shows other passages that are pertinent to study of this passage.
- Ancient Literature – find this passage in ancient literature.
- Commentaries – find your passage in commentaries.
- Journals – same as commentaries only for journals.
- Grammars – shows text in grammar books in your library.
- Visualizations – tools that show the verse in a visual diagram in the original language.
Note that if you’ve edited your Exegetical Guide you may not see all of the above sections. I edit mine to only include the Word by Word, the Grammars, and the Lemmas.
Word by Word Section of the Exegetical Guide
The Word by Word section of the guide will help us do word studies on the major words. It includes the following:
- Each verse in both English and either Greek or Hebrew and each word is a link to the word listed in the Word by Word list.
- Lexical form of the word with a link to run a Bible Word Study guide on that word.
- Audio link to hear the word pronunciation
- English transliteration
- Simple meaning
- Declension of a word
- Biblical Sense Lexicon entry which shows meanings in context of the verse
- Lexicon entries list which shows the word in each lexicon in hour library
I look over this guide to find any information that might help me interpret the meaning of the word in that verse. You can click many of the above items to open them and get more information. For example, click the audio icon to hear the word’s pronunciation. Click the grammatical form in the declension to find out what something like Passive or Dative words mean. You can then click each lexicon name to open the lexicon to that word.
I then record any of this information in my notes just like we did in Making Observations the second step of the sermon prep steps. Note that you can also add notes to each word in the Word by Word section of the Exegetical Guide.
If you follow the above steps, you will collect a healthy bunch of information in your word studies. This will help you understand the message of the text and prepare you to come up with a single Big Idea for this passage.
The Inductive Bible Study process also helps the preacher know where to focus their study. You will look for answers to your questions in Logos Bible Software’s tools like Bible Dictionaries, the Maps, Timeline, and other tools.