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Overview: The exegetical process can be compared to the shape of an hourglass.
You start with the big picture (WHOLE),

move to the little picture (PART),

and then move back to the big picture (WHOLE) again.

Synthesis, the Bird’s-eye view

Analysis, the Worm’s-eye

Synthesis, the Bird’s-eye view again

1. Read through the entire Biblical book containing your passage in one sitting and write down a one-sentence summary of the main theme of the book.
Do this several times over a period of a few days. You must have a good idea of the WHOLE before you try to interpret the PART! Keep your previous statements of the biblical book’s big idea or main theme so that you can see your progress in clarifying and understanding the biblical author’s main thrust. You will probably find that you tend to focus on one theme or another at different times, so that your best summary may be a “cut-and-paste” combination from some of your previous statements. Ideally, you would read through the biblical book 8-10 times over a several day period and have 8-10 increasingly accurate statements of the biblical book’s main idea. Your final statement becomes your controlling exegetical idea for interpreting all of the passages within the book. Therefore, this is an important step and is not to be slighted! It should be broad enough to encompass all the particulars of the book, but narrow enough to distinguish this book from other biblical ones.

2. As you develop your statement of the biblical book’s main idea, you should also develop an outline of the main structure of the argument of the book.
This may not be sophisticated at first. However, once you understand the author’s main idea, you now have eyes to see the contours of his strategy and structure for achieving his goal. Sketching out the structure of the book is as important as determining its main idea because your structure determines the main idea of the section of the book in which your passage resides. Therefore, this step determines the controlling idea of your passage’s immediate context and is not to be slighted. It follows very closely on the heels of Step #1 and overlaps significantly with it. In determining the book’s structure or “skeleton,” you need to be particularly sensitive to summary statements at the end of a section, key transitional -conjunctions, and the introduction of new topics. Determining the skeleton or structure of the gospels is particularly difficult because of our lack of expertise in narrative literature. Nevertheless, entering into the process will make you a better interpreter.

3. After having established the skeleton, now establish the specific part of the skeleton you want to exegete, i.e., establish the limits of the passage you want to teach.
Normally, you should exegete at least a paragraph, since the paragraph is the basic unit of thought (versus the verse or sentence). Look at the paragraph breaks in your Greek text and compare these with the paragraph breaks in translations. This is usually easier in the epistles. In the gospels, you may want to do one pericope or incident in the life of Jesus. However, given the genre of narrative literature, it may be more fruitful to take 2-3 pericopes at a time in order to capture the progression, contrasts, multiple examples, etc. The goal is to select a passage which is short enough to cover in the time you have, yet long enough to give you enough material to work with and to kept you progressing through a longer book (if you are teaching through the whole biblical book).

4. Now give a tentative exegetical idea for this passage. State the passage’s subject (what the author is talking about) and complement (what the author says about this subject).
You are now zeroing in on the specific “big idea” of your passage within its setting in a section of the biblical book (whose basic idea you have already stated in Step #2) and within the setting of the whole book (whose basic idea or main theme you have already stated in Step #1). This is very hard work, as you have probably already discovered! However, faithfully laboring over the exegetical idea of the passage will give you the proper contextual safeguards for good interpretation. Do not skim over this step! Discovering the author’s intent as expressed in the passage’s exegetical idea is a dynamic interface between the flow of the argument in the broader and more immediate contexts (Step #2) and the flow of the argument within the passage itself. You should find yourself flipping back and forth between these external and internal contexts. Even if your initial exegetical idea for the passage is wrong, it forces you to surface the “big idea” of the passage that you have already formed. This is the way our minds work. We tentatively form conceptions of the whole before we examine the parts. You are recognizing this process and objectifying it by writing down your understanding of the whole of this passage. This demands a lot of quality meditation on the passage!

5. Translate the passage and arrange it in a syntactical display which clearly delineates the internal structure of the passage.
The amount of time that you should spend on translating and creating a syntactical display should vary according to the genre of New Testament literature. Do not spend a large amount of time on this step when you are in the gospels or Acts. Narrative literature is more fruitfully understood by spending the bulk of your time in tracing the broader flow of the argument and establishing the relationship of your passage to the book’s preceding sections (and sometimes the following ones). Additionally, tracing how themes within your passage have been previously developed or how they compare or contrast to the treatment of the themes in earlier passages is extremely important. Therefore, do not get bogged down in the Greek in narrative literature. Rather, translate the passage and establish its structure from your analysis of the Greek syntax. Look for key connectives, repetition, contrasts, comparisons, etc. In the epistles and Revelation, you will want to devote more time to this step because of its fruitfulness within these genres.

6. Now establish your exegetical outline by bringing your exegetical idea (Step #4) together with your syntactical display (Step #5), modifying your exegetical idea if you have gained more insights from the structural display of the passage.
If you have an accurate statement of the subject of the passage, it should probably occur in each of the main points of your exegetical outline. If not, then you may have a wrong exegetical subject and need to modify your exegetical idea accordingly. The best type of exegetical outline is a sentence outline. This is because it forces you to make whole statements about the exegetical subject. These sentences are the main points of your exegetical outline and the development of your exegetical complement. In other words, taken together, the main statements of your exegetical outline = the complement. They tell you what the author is saying about the subject of the passage. Of course, these main points of your exegetical outline should flow directly out of your syntactical display and should be easily validated by appealing to the syntax and structure of the passage.

7. Consult good commentaries and historical background sources to gain additional insights into the content, syntax, structure, and theology of your passage, again modifying your exegetical idea or outline if you missed a significant issue or point.
This is where you gain some good insights that will supplement your own meditative insights into the passage. In particular, compare their treatment of the Greek and its syntax, their outline of the passage’s development, and especially, their historical and cultural insights. These historical/cultural items become some of the most helpful and certainly colorful items in the interpretive process. Sadly, most commentaries will be weak in establishing exegetical ideas and in tracing the flow of the argument. These are crucial areas that you will need to do much of the work yourself! Consult at least one devotional commentary to supplement your thinking about the passage from that perspective.

8. Now that you have established an accurate exegetical idea and a crisp exegetical outline, you must turn to exegeting your audience and establishing their needs and your message’s purpose.
In light of the exegetical idea of your passage, answer what needs it addresses in your hearers. What areas of their lives does it touch? How is it relevant to them? What concerns, deficiencies, felt needs, real needs, etc. in their lives does it address? Again, this is something that will take some significant prayer and meditation time to discern their needs. After you can clearly state your audience’s needs, you can turn to the statement of your message’s purpose. If your hearers’ needs = the target of your message, then your purpose = the arrow you wish to shoot. A fuzzy target may call forth a wobbly arrow! Therefore, establish a clear statement of your audience’s needs and a crisp statement of your purpose in addressing those needs with the exegetical idea of the passage. Once you have objectified their needs and your purpose, you can begin to package your exegetical material with a homiletical wrapping. However, do not slight the establishing of your target and your arrow! This is a crucial step that will bring an incredible amount of clarity to the communication process. It will seem mechanical at first, but it will help you be far more discerning in the homiletical portion of the process and far more purposeful in choosing illustrative and persuasive materials.

9. Create your homiletical idea (subject + complement) from your exegetical idea in light of your hearers’ needs and your sermon’s purpose.
With your exegetical subject and complement at the top of the page, fill a whole sheet of paper with homiletical subjects and complements that address the needs of your hearers and fulfill the purpose of your message. The goal is to be true to the biblical author’s intentions as expressed in your exegetical idea, yet to be contextually sensitive and relevant to your audience’s needs. This is a dynamic tension that will never be eliminated! It is inherent in the whole exegetical process. Therefore, you must live with the tension and be creative within these parameters. Experts in creativity tell us that it takes 100 suggested ideas to come up with 8 ideas of any merit. This is why you will need to set aside some time to develop a good homiletical idea. Remember: Your subject and complement remain the same as you move from your exegetical idea to your homiletical idea! However, you are simply choosing different words that are much more contextually relevant to your audience to express the same basic idea. Again, you may end up mixing and matching subjects and complements in “cut-and-paste” fashion to come up with the best idea.

10. In light of your homiletical idea and your exegetical outline, develop your homiletical outline, which gives you the main points of your sermon.
You have the very same tensions in developing your homiletical outline that you encountered in developing your homiletical idea. First, you must be true to the structure of the passage as expressed in your exegetical outline. You must teach the passage according to the structure that the author has given! However, you must also contextualize your language to your audience’s needs and interests and you must use language that reveals how your homiletical outline develops your homiletical idea. Again, you should use a full sentence outline to state the main points of your homiletical outline and also to express all of the sub-points of your outline. This will force you to think and express yourself more crisply and clearly. Make sure that your outline clearly develops your homiletical idea in an obvious manner.

11. Develop an interesting introduction and a strong conclusion to your sermon, along with helpful transitions between the main points of your homiletical outline and with relevant illustrations.
A good introduction does 3 things: it grabs the audience’s attention, it surfaces a need in them, and it orients them to the subject of the sermon. Therefore, it will take hard work to come up with a good introduction. Normally, it is the last thing you do after you have illustrated your main points and developed a strong and applicational conclusion. Consult some of the fine books on preaching like Haddon W. Robinson’s pair: Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Baker) and Biblical Sermons: How Twelve Preachers Apply the Principles of Biblical Preaching (Baker). These books develop in wonderful detail some of the mechanics of introducing, concluding, and illustrating. Again, however, these parts of the process are developed after much prayer, meditation, and thoughtfulness about the text and your audience.

12. Pray and ask the Lord to impress you with any wrong or irrelevant things that you should delete or any new things that you should add so that you may glorify Him through your teaching of His Word.

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Copyright © Walt Russell. All rights reserved.
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