Making Textual Observations: Step 2 in Creative Digital Sermon Prep
After you pick a text, you’ll want to start observing what’s in the text. The preacher looks at the passage to discover what God says to his people. It’s an important step because it focuses on what God says instead of what we think it says.
Making Textual Observations means following a few important steps before you ever even open a reference work like a commentary, Bible dictionary, lexicon, or concordance. You’ll start with the Bible text itself and see what you already know, and then move on to the discovery of what you don’t know. We call this next step: Making Textual Observations. You will look at the text in context and see what’s there with no preconceived notions.
Pray for God’s guidance as you observe the text asking Him to remind you what you already know about the text.
Read and re-read the text both by itself and in the context of the chapter, the larger section of scripture, and the book of the Bible (if it’s a shorter book).
Set up a system for recording your observations.
Create an outline of the passage.
Record observations looking at each word, then each phrase, and then each sentence and then each verse and then each paragraph.
Reread the text to add final observations about the passage as a whole.
We assume that you will pray at every stage, so we won’t spend much time explaining what to pray. Ask God to bless your preparation with understanding and wisdom as the Holy Spirit helps interpret the text for you. Ask him to give you a sense of the passage’s intended meaning and ask him to avoid clouding that understanding with your own prejudices. My seminary professors called eisegesis.
System of Notes for Making Observations of the Text
Your system of notes will depend on your situation, personality, and preferred way to work. Since this series focuses on Creative Digital Sermon Prep, we’ll focus on digital forms of note-taking. Here’s a list of options for recording your notes that I’ve heard of preachers using over the years.
Use Bible software note-taking features.
Record the notes in a document in your word processor.
I use my Bible software to take notes for making observations of the text. It’s right there in the same program where I do my research and reading. I can later find it by looking for icons connected to a verse, so my study of a passage today can assist me when I study the same passage later. Also, you can search the notes. A lot of Bible study programs will show your notes when you search.
Some people prefer to take handwritten notes. That’s where apps like Notability on an iPad. I’ve used Notability. I open a new note, paste my Bible passage into the note and then draw and underline and highlight using my Apple Pencil. You could do the same with Evernote, Google Keep, and Microsoft OneNote.
Setting Up a Word Processor for Making Observations of the Text
Most of us already own and know how to use a word processor. I use Microsoft Word, but you can use any word processor like Google Docs to Apple Pages or any number of online or free word processors. If you don’t like the way your Bible software note-taking features work and would not prefer to use handwriting to take notes, then consider using the tool you already understand.
Create a file for your sermon, and then start recording the observations. When it’s time to write the sermon, you have all the observations in the same document. You could save the document in a folder on your computer, print it off for later reference, or you could write your sermon in that same file.
Others, who use a word processor, prefer to keep the notes separate from their sermon. I’d recommend creating a folder on your computer for each book of the Bible numbered by book number from 1 to 66. That way, they are easier to find in canonical order. Inside each folder, you can create note files for each chapter or each passage. So your list might look like the following if you prefer a folder or a file per chapter:
Or it might look like the following if you prefer a file per passage:
In the second list, you separate the chapter (the first two numbers) from the verses with the underscore _ mark. Windows and macOS won’t let you use a colon as a file or folder name. That’s why I don’t create the file that looks like this: 01:01-03. Separate the verses with a dash. That’s how I create my files when I preach through a book of the Bible, so that’s how I would create my notes files if I used my word processor for making observations of the text.
Inductive Bible Study
We want to approach our study in an Inductive way. Inductive Bible Study avoids bringing outside influences to bear as much as possible for a believer. We do this by observing specific details and hold off on conclusions until after seeing all the specifics. You go from the parts to the whole.
Detective novels like Sherlock Holmes used inductive reasoning to solve crimes. He looked at the details or facts of the case to conclude “whodunit.” We do the same, but with the facts seen in a passage to discover God’s intended message.
In an inductive study of the Bible, we let the text itself speak. The main idea comes from the text, not from our thinking or opinion. Second, we look at how the writer covers the main idea and how the writer applies that idea to life to discover the original writer’s intended message, as inspired by the Holy Spirit of God.
This inductive approach means first looking at the text without outside influences and trying to figure out what it means for ourselves. We then consult external sources to find the meaning or confirm what we already perceive the meaning is.
The preacher can follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit using the inductive approach. We then take advantage of Bible dictionaries, lexicons, commentaries, Bible handbooks, and other preachers’ sermons to help us confirm our findings or check us against wild theological error.
Process of Making Observations of the Text
For Bible, study observation means identifying significant details in a careful examination of the particulars of the Scripture passage. The aim of recording these observations is to understand the intended meaning of the writer.
Wayne McDill, 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching: Second Edition, Revised and Expanded, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2006), 38.
Making observations of the text is the first step in Inductive Bible study. Think of yourself as a journalist asking about an event from a participant in a new story or a historian who’s trying to write about something important in history that took place. You could also approach this like a detective who’s trying to get at the truth without letting her preconceived notions get in the way of the facts and the rightful conclusions.
The list of Investigative Questions helps:
Let’s take Ephesians 1:7-8 as an example text.
7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he richly poured out on us with all wisdom and understanding.
(Ephesians 1:7-8. CSB
We can begin by asking questions like the following:
In context, “Him” refers to Jesus.
Our redemption is “in Him,” meaning he is the source and creator of that redemption.
We have this redemption, meaning it is something we presently possess thanks to Jesus.
The redemption comes through the blood of Jesus – his blood made it possible.
Blood refers to the cross and sacrifice of Jesus.
Blood would invoke reminders of OT sacrifice.
Forgiveness comes as part of the redemption.
God forgives us, which brings about our redemption.
Trespasses are sins related to breaking a boundary or crossing a line.
That list only covers the first half of verse seven. We still have not looked at the context and how it relates to the verse before and after. We still have not talked about the author, Paul, and the recipients, the church at Philippi.
This first part of Inductive Bible Study needs to be that comprehensive. We should look for details we can see in every word, phrase, sentence, verse, and passage as a whole. We should focus on the things we know from the text at hand or context. Avoid bringing in your outside understanding at this point. For example, the preacher may know what Greek words are behind the text. Resist including such information at this point. We’ll talk about word studies later.
Using Bible Software Notes to Record Observations of the Text
We don’t have time to look at how to record observations in the notes feature of every Bible study program or app available. Instead, I will focus on how I do it using Logos Bible Software.
Using Logos Bible software, open your passage. The do the following:
Select all or part of the verse.
Right-click on the selected verse.
Click on Reference Ephesians 1:7 in the left-hand column of the pop-up menu as seen above (substitute your Bible passage reference instead of Ephesians 1:7).
Click on Take a Note on the right-hand column, as seen above.
Record your observations based on the above investigative questions.
Digital Bible Notes in the Margins
Many Bible students love to keep notes in the margins. I’m not sure how you do that for sermon prep since I keep so many notes that I’d never fit them all in the margins of a Bible. Still, some do it that way, and I’ve got a digital version of the same thing.
Use a tablet or PC with digital inking built-in. Copy your Bible passage to a document in something like Word, Pages, or any program or app that can create a PDF. Save the PDF in a spot that lets you put it on your tablet, phone, or PC with inking built-in. Then open it in an app.
Microsoft offers a good alternative to PDF files. Use OneNote. It has inking built into the program on a PC and mobile versions.
Using whatever device you prefer to draw or write, do the same thing you do above but with a digital pen, pencil, or stylus. You can also draw on the screen like John Piper in his Look at the Book series (see image above). We covered this in a Theotek Podcast when we had Bible Mark Up’s developer on the program. Bible Mark Up lets you ink on the text (see below).
In this second step of the process, the student simply wants to look at the text and decide what the bare text says without looking at outside resources. Let the Holy Spirit begin to implant the ideas in your heart. Don’t worry about understanding everything. Just look at what you already know and record it. You’ll be amazed at how much you can come up with by thinking really hard about this.
Dr. Kevin Purcell is pastor of High Peak Baptist Church, an author and writer at Church Tech Today (www.churchtechtoday.com). He used to write for a number of other Christian and secular technology and mobile tech sites. Now he's one of the hosts of the Theotek Podcast, which you can find by checking the menu above or over at www.facebook.com/theotekpodcast.