In the introductory survey, you have been reflecting on the content of the text. But now you want to do some more in-depth study. I recommend the following steps, which I have drawn from New Testament Exegesis, by Gordon Fee.
1. Check to see if there are important textual issues.
Manuscript copies of the Old Testament in Hebrew and ancient translations of the Old Testament sometimes may differ from one another in their wording. Likewise, manuscript copies of the New Testament in Greek may differ at some points. Occasionally these differences are significant. It is wise to be aware of these differences as you begin to interpret the text.
Gordon Fee gives the following helpful advice: “Look specifically for textual variations that would affect the meaning of the text for your congregation in the English translation. These are the major textual variants. There is not much point in concerning yourself with the minor variants—those that would not make much difference in the English translations.”
If you know the original languages and have access to critical editions of the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek, you can check the textual apparatus to learn about such textual issues.
The “Exegetical Guide” of Logos Bible Software has a section called “Textual Variants” that can be very helpful. Logos has a helpful resource called The Lexham Textual Notes on the Bible. Another helpful resource is A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament by Bruce M. Metzger.
If you do not know the original languages, good commentaries or the footnotes of a translation such as the New International Version or the New Revised Standard Version can alert you to significant textual issues.
An example would be Matthew 5:22. In the KJV, this verse reads, “But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment… ,” while in the NIV it reads, “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister, will be subject to judgment.” The NIV has this footnote: “Some manuscripts brother or sister without cause.”
If you look up this verse in the commentary section of the Bible Hub website, you will find the following note in the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges: “without a cause] The Greek word is omitted in the oldest MSS., and has probably been inserted by a copyist desirous of softening the expression.”
If you are interested in learning more about textual criticism, a number of resources are available online.
2. Check to see if there are important translation issues because of ambiguous or unclear grammar or differences in punctuation.
Another step in studying the content of a sermon text is taking note of any translation issues that are the result of ambiguous or unclear grammar or differences in punctuation.
An example of ambiguous grammar is the phrase, “the love of Christ” in 2 Corinthians 5:14: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died.” This could mean either Christ’s love for us or our love for Christ.
Ellicott in his commentary on Bible Hub writes, “The Greek, like the English, admits of two interpretations—Christ’s love for us, or our love for Christ. St. Paul’s uniform use of this and like phrases, however, elsewhere (Romans 5:5; Romans 8:35; 1 Corinthians 16:24; 2 Corinthians 13:14), is decisive in favour of the former.”
Differences in punctuation arise because the original manuscripts of the Bible in Greek and Hebrew do not have punctuation marks. Because of this, translators have to decide which words go with which.
For example, it is not always clear whether words belong at the end of one sentence or at the beginning of another. The New International Version translates Ephesians 1:4-5 as follows: “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will….” A footnote to verse 5 says, “Or sight in love. 5 He,” indicating that the words “in love” could be understood to be connected to the phrase at the end of verse 4, instead of being connected to the beginning of verse 5.
The Lexham English Bible translates verses 4-5: “just as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him in love, having predestined us to adoption through Jesus Christ to himself according to the good pleasure of his will….” The LEB footnote to verse 4 reads: “Or ‘before him, having predestined us in love’ (the phrase ‘in love’ could go either with v. 4 or v. 5).”
How can you learn about these translation issues? You may be alerted to them by reading the text in the original language, by reading different translations and comparing them, by reading the footnotes of some translations, or by reading commentaries.
Whatever the issue, you will need to decide which translation of the sermon text and which explanation of the grammar you are going to use as the basis of your sermon.
If you decide to use a translation different from the one used by most of your hearers, you may need to explain to your hearers your reasons for doing this. As you do that, you will need to be careful not to undermine their confidence in the translation they regularly use.
3. Translate the text (if you are able to).
If you know the languages in which the Bible was originally written (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek), it is wise at this point to translate the text yourself. Translating the text will alert you to alternative ways the text can be translated.
If you have not learned the original languages, comparing different Bible versions by setting them side-by-side can give you some idea of the translation alternatives. The Bible Study Tools website has a page (https://www.biblestudytools.com/compare-translations/) that allows you to compare translations and put them in parallel columns.
4. Analyze the structure of the text.
The way you analyze the structure of a text depends on the nature of the text.
Texts from the epistles that consists of just a few verses can be analyzed phrase by phrase. It may be helpful to set them out visually, showing how the phrases are related to one another.
For a longer passage, “arcing” can show how the verses relate to one another. John Piper gives a brief description of arcing here: https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/what-is-arcing-and-why-is-it-important . An overview of Bible arcing can be found here: http://www.xwisdom.com/node/35 . John Piper has provided a more detailed description of Bible arcing in his booklet “Biblical Exegesis,” available as a pdf file here: https://cdn.desiringgod.org/pdf/booklets/BTBX.pdf .
For Biblical narratives, it is helpful to do an analysis of the structure of the narrative. As Greidanus points out, “Although there are various modes of narration (straight narrative, description, comment, and scenic), the predominant mode of narrating is the ‘scenic,’ that is, ‘the action is broken up into a sequence of scenes. Each scene presents the happenings of a particular place and time, concentrating the attention of the audience on the deeds and the words spoken.’”
Studying the content of your sermon text is essential if you are going to prepare an effective sermon.
- Fee, Gordon D. New Testament exegesis: a handbook for students and pastors Third Edition. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002 ↑
- Ibid., 140. ↑
- Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft/German Bible Society, 1994. ↑
- A good series of online articles on New Testament textual criticism can be found at: https://bible.org/series/new-testament-textual-criticism. Another helpful article is: https://bible.org/seriespage/part-vi-textual-criticism-chapter-eight-constructive-criticism. A course consisting of thirty-six lectures on New Testament textual criticism is available at: https://www.biblicaltraining.org/textual-criticism/daniel-wallace ↑
- https://biblehub.com/commentaries/2_corinthians/5-14.htm, accessed 4/4/19. ↑
- https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Eph.+1%3A3-14&version=NIV, accessed 4/4/19. ↑
- https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Eph.+1%3A3-14&version=LEB, accessed 4/4/19. ↑
- Greidanus, Sidney. The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988. 199. ↑