Step Two – Introductory Survey

After you have selected a sermon text, you are ready to begin moving from this text to a sermon. A good way to begin this journey by doing an introductory survey of the content and context of the text.

        1. Pray for wisdom, insight, the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

As Christians we recognize our need for wisdom, insight, and the Holy Spirit’s guidance. And this is certainly the case when we take up the task of interpreting and applying a text of Scripture.

Paul in Ephesians 1:17-19 prays for his readers “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe….”

We preachers can and should pray this same prayer for ourselves.

2. Review introductory information about the book of the Bible in which the text appears.

As you begin your survey of your sermon text, it is a good idea to review introductory information about the book of the Bible in which the text appears.

Here you are concerned with such matters as the author of the book, the date at which it was written, the place it was written and its destination, and the purpose for which it was written.

It is also helpful to know what type of literature the book is (its genre) and how the book is structured (its outline).

You can find all of this information in study Bibles, Old Testament and New Testament introductions, and the introductory sections of good commentaries. The website has some helpful introductions to some of the Old Testament books and to each of the books of the New Testament.[1]

I have put together some information about commentaries on this page. As you continue to study the Bible, you may find it helpful to develop your own summaries of the introductory information for each of the books of the Bible.

3. Read the chapters that surround the text.

If you haven’t already done so, get some idea of the context of your text by reading the chapter in which it appears and perhaps the chapter before and after that chapter.

4. Read the text in a variety of translations.

It is often helpful to read the text in multiple translations. This can be done using Bibles with different translations. You can find a number of translations on the Bible Gateway website. Or, if you own Bible study software, you may have access to a number of translations.

As you read various translations, it is wise to use Bible versions that differ in their translation philosophy.

The English Standard Bible and New American Standard Bible tend to be more literal translations. They use a translation philosophy sometimes called “formal equivalence.” They adhere more closely to the forms and grammatical structures of the original language.

The New International Version and Good News Bibles make use of a translation philosophy known as “dynamic” or “functional equivalence.” As stated in the Preface of the NIV (2011), “The first concern of the translators has continued to be the accuracy of the translation and its faithfulness to the intended meaning of the biblical writers. This has moved the translators to go beyond a formal word-for-word rendering of the original texts. Because thought patterns and syntax differ from language to language, accurate communication of the meaning of the biblical authors demands constant regard for varied contextual uses of words and idioms and for frequent modifications in sentence structures.”[2]

5. Review where the text begins and ends.

After reading the text in several translations, you will want to review where the text begins and ends.

As you become better acquainted with the content and context of your text, you may discover that what you initially thought was the beginning of your text is not the best place for it to begin or what you initially thought was the end of your text is not the best place for it to end.

Your goal is to have “a text that can stand as a reasonably coherent unit of thought.”[3] To achieve that, you may need to add or subtract verses at either end.

6. Answer some questions about the text.

In his book, The Witness of Preaching, Thomas Long lists a number of questions that may be asked of the text. Here are some of those questions:

What is the main thought of the text, around which other thoughts are organized?

Is there conflict in the text or behind it?

What question is the text seeking to answer?

What is the text saying? What is the text doing?[4]

To those questions, I would add a question from Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching that I have found helpful:

What is the fallen condition focus?

This may be related to the question the text is seeking to answer. Chapell writes, “The corrupted state of our world and our beings cries for God’s aid. He responds with the truths of Scripture and gives us hope by focusing his grace on a facet of our fallen condition in every portion of his Word.”[5]

So the fallen condition focus of the texts of Scripture is “the mutual human condition that contemporary believers share with those to or about whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage for God’s people to glorify and enjoy him.”[6] It “is a human problem or burden addressed by specific aspects of a scriptural text.”[7]

I am not sure that every text of Scripture has a “fallen condition focus,” but many do.

Another question I like to ask early on in my preparation is:

How is the text related to God’s gracious redemption in Christ? How does it show the meaning of or the need for redemption?

Taking the time to write out thoughtful answers to these questions will be very helpful when you move on to actual sermon composition.

  1. and, accessed on 4/4/19.
  2. The New International Version. (2011). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  3. Long, Thomas G. The Witness of Preaching, Third Edition. Louisville, KY.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Digital 84.
  4. Ibid. 93-100.
  5. Chapell, Bryan. Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2005. Digital. 15.
  6. Ibid., 50.
  7. Ibid.