Module 3 – How to observe a passage

  1. Home
  2. Bible School
  3. Module 3 – How to observe a passage

How to observe a passage

This is the script to lesson 3 – How to Observe a Passage. Please feel free to download this script if required from our downloads page to help with your studies

Module Info

Now I want to describe how to observe a passage of Scripture.  On tape one we dealt with how to read and take in a whole book of the Bible so as to hear and to feel its overall message.  Now, having done that, we examine each paragraph and begin to observe what is there.  It is like flying an aeroplane over a large terrain and then, having seen the whole of the country, landing our aircraft and beginning to examine each tree and piece of grass.  We can understand the particular because we have taken in the universal.

We can to do this with our model book Ephesians.  We have read and re-read it; now it is time to find the first paragraph in Chapter 1 and to begin to observe what is there.  We are not just going to read and make notes and ask questions.  We did that as we read through the book as a whole.  Now we are going to search out and observe every detail of what is there.  As we do that, we shall begin to see what God has said, and be well on our way to understanding His message in the book.

When we come to the Scriptures to observe a passage, we should never, never assume anything.  Most of us have some theological background and so most of us come to the Bible assuming that we know what is there.  And that assumption blinds our eyes more than anything.  You never can assume that you know what is there.  You must always come as a little child to be taught, to receive of that Word, to hear what is there and not what you think is there.

There is a passage in John’s Gospel, Chapter 12 Verses 28 and 29, which states that God spoke from heaven.  And as He spoke from heaven, some of the people thought it thundered.  Now I questioned that when I first read it.  How can you liken the voice of God to thunder?  And I realized that in those days there was only one sound that ever came from the sky, and that was thunder.  And so when there was the voice of God speaking in the heavens the people immediately assumed that because it came from the sky, it must be thunder.  They missed the word of God because they assumed that that noise was thunder.

If you come to the Word of God but you have already assumed what you are going to find there, you come with your blinkers on: anything you see there must fit into what you have already decided is there.  So, of course, it can be a very dangerous thing to read the Word of God, because as you do so you might find that some of your cherished notions are being blown apart, smashed to pieces.

There are two ways of reading the Bible.  One is called ‘exegesis’, and that means that God speaks out of it.  The word ‘exegete’ comes from the same Latin ‘ex’ as the word ‘exit’.  It means that God’s Word will speak out to you.  So you come to the Scripture and you say, ‘I do not know anything. I’m going to study this passage assuming I know nothing. And it is going to speak out to me.’

The other way to study is called ‘isogesis’, which means that you speak into it.  Isogesis is coming to the Bible after deciding what you are going to find there, and trying to find verses to prove what you thought was right.  You are reading into it.  I am afraid that most of us are isogetics.  We come with preconceived ideas, and we are going to see in the Bible what we want to see.  But I am telling you to observe that Book assuming absolutely nothing.

Take off your denominational glasses and do not let anybody tell you what you have to believe.  You come to the Word of God to observe its every word and to hear what it has to say.  There are times when a whole message hangs on whether it says this or that.  Never leave a stone unturned as you come to observe the Scripture.

If you have a question, follow it through, because in that question the Holy Spirit is leading you to the truth that He is seeking to show you.  Incidentally, there is no question that is silly.  Almost everyone who asks me questions always prefaces their question with that expression ‘now I know that this is going to be a silly question, but…’.  Well, it is not.  There is no such thing as a silly question.  You have got to get all the facts.  Do not start interpreting.  Just get the facts, even if they do not make sense to you.  Then sit in front of those facts like a little child who asks, ‘Daddy why? Daddy why why why?’  Be a little child and sit before those facts and question them and question them.  The Holy Spirit will give you answers, and gradually you will begin to see what the truth is.

Let me suggest the kind of question that you would ask of a passage through which you are seeking to hear God’s Word.  You would ask, first of all, what the important words are.  You will find in every passage that there are some words that are very important.  There are some words that you could drop and the sentence would still be there.  But there are other words that are obviously what the whole thing is talking about.  Then ask yourself if you really know what those words mean.  What if I was to test you right now on the meaning of the words ‘justification’ or ‘sanctification’?

If I was a pagan and did not know anything, could you explain to me in two or three words what it is to be ‘born again’?  On and on we could go.  Those words pepper the Bible.  Could you tell me in two or three words what ‘faith’ is in the Bible?  On and on.  Do you really know what the words mean?  Sometimes a whole new world opens up when you discover the meaning of one word.  But then you have to ask another question, ‘What does this author mean when he uses this word?’  Because, you know, a word may have a shade of meaning and not every time does it exactly mean the same.

Let me give you an example.  Paul uses the word ‘faith’ in his Letter to the Romans.  If we were doing a study of Romans, then we would have read through the book three or four times, and we would have found that the word ‘faith’ keeps leaping up at us.  Faith is the great theme of Romans.  Well, I ask, what does Paul mean by the word ‘faith’?  He means that Jesus Christ has done all, and he responds to that and rests in that alone.  When I read the Epistle of James, I find that the same word ‘faith’ is there, but that James is not using it in the same way as Paul does.

He is not contradicting that, but he has another shade of meaning and that other shade of meaning is that faith without works is dead.  James is saying, ‘If you are resting on what God has done, then it had better show up in your life now. Your faith has got to act.’  Then as I read Hebrews, whoever wrote that book, I find that the word ‘faith’ is there too. But Hebrews is always looking ahead, and faith is reaching out to the end.  Even though I may be being beaten up now, I will carry on carrying on because I have faith.  So it is not enough just to say ‘I know what faith means’; I have to ask what this author means by the word.

I do not want to confuse you by suggesting that every time an author uses a word it is going to have a different meaning.  But you have got to be aware of the fact that an author may be using a word with a shade of meaning to it that is not necessarily found elsewhere in the New Testament.  Also you need to ask yourself whether the word is to be taken literally or figuratively.  For example, Jesus said ‘I am the door’; ‘I am the vine’; ‘I am the good shepherd’.  It should be obvious that these words are being used figuratively.  ‘You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world.’  There are some people in America who are really waiting around to become all alight and all aglow, and they will quote those Scriptures to you: ‘We are the light of the world and so we shall wait on God until we are shining.’  That is a gross misreading of the Scripture because it is obviously a figurative passage.  So as you come to a word or passage, you should be asking if it is figurative.  If it is, then you think about it in a different way than if it was a straight discourse.

Then you have to ask yourself what the writer is doing in the passage.  (Now you may be saying, ‘When I come to read I cannot remember all this.’  No, of course you can’t.  But as long as you become aware of these things you will be surprised how quickly it becomes very automatic.)  So, what is the writer doing?  He could be comparing.  That is, he may be taking something that you know and comparing it to something you do not know, so that by understanding what you do know you can understand something that you do not.

In Isaiah Chapter 1 Verse 18 God says, ‘Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow’.  Quite honestly, it is very hard for me to think of ‘sin’.  What is it?  ‘Very well,’ God says, ‘I’ll take something you will know. You know what scarlet and snow are like. Well, your sins are like scarlet but when washed away they shall be as white as snow.’  In that way He leads me to understand something by comparison.  Another example is when Jesus gives the contrast between the wise man who built his house on the rock and the foolish man who built his house on the sand.  Until I realize that there is a contrast going on, I do not really understand what Jesus is saying there.

You should look all the time for a summary.  Many times the writers of the Bible will summarize, that is they will add up everything they have just said and put it together in one sentence.  I think the one that is plainest of all is Hebrews Chapter 8 Verse 1, where the writer actually says ‘now the main point in what has been said is this…’.  And you find that that summary helps to get your mind in focus.

Watch for questions that the writer is using.  Romans is a classic example of that.  Paul continually asks questions.  In Chapter 3 he addresses himself to the Jews and the Gentiles and in Verse 1 he asks, ‘Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision?’  The rest of that chapter is Paul’s answer to that question.  When you become aware that that chapter is the answer to his question you are in a much better position to understand what the chapter is all about.  If you simply look at the middle of that chapter, you will not know what he is talking about.  In Chapter 6 of Romans Paul is in the middle of a discussion on baptism.  In Verse 1 he asks, ‘What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase?’  That is a tremendous question, but if you start in the middle of the chapter you would not know what he is talking about because he is answering a question.

As you are observing the passage, you would look for things like that.  You would look for questions and be aware that an answer is coming.  Another example is in John’s Gospel Chapter 3.  The method that John used in recording that conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus was questions.  How can a man be born when he is old?  If you pick out of John Chapter 3 all the questions that go on between Jesus and Nicodemus you will find that the answers rapidly take shape and have a new meaning to them.  So be aware of all the questions that are being asked.

You will find that often there is a general statement that is followed by a particular.  In Matthew’s Gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount, you have it very plainly.  First of all there is a generalization.  In Matthew Chapter 6 Verse 1 Jesus says, ‘Beware of practising your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; [because if you do] you will have no reward with your Father who is in Heaven’.  That is a general statement.  Then He becomes very particular in the use of the word ‘therefore’.  In the second verse He says, ‘When therefore you give arms…’  But His general statement is still ‘do not practise righteousness before men’.  And then He says in Verse 5, ‘And when you pray…’  And again in Verse 16, ‘And when you fast…’  In each case He is going back to that original statement.  You could understand a certain amount from each one of those particulars, but when you remember the general statement you know a lot more and you are able to understand the passage a lot better.

Look for the climax of a passage.  Now that will only come with practice, but as you read through a passage you will feel the thing building.  The writer is proving, he is arguing, he is declaring.  And then his argument comes to a climax.  He has arrived at his point, and in that he usually bursts.  And you know that that is the climax of the whole passage: that takes in everything that has gone before.

Watch for times when he uses similes.  You will always find those: it will be that something is ‘like’ or something is ‘as’.  ‘All we like sheep have gone astray’.  Man is shown to be like a sheep.   Or it may be a metaphor, which is much stronger.  There is no ‘like’ in a metaphor.  Jesus did not say ‘I am like the bread of life’.  He said ‘I am the bread’.  As you are aware of these things, the passage will begin to open up to you and you will see things you that never saw before.

Be very aware of the mood.  I talked about that in general on the last tape, but I shall be very specific now because now you are observing the passage.  What mood is here?  Well, be very aware of sarcasm because that probably explains more passages than any other mood.  Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians was very sarcastic.  He really was.  In First Corinthians Chapter 14 there is a very difficult passage of Scripture that I have personally and maybe contentiously interpreted.  In Verses 34 to 38 Paul says,


  •  Let the women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. But let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only? If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. But if anyone does not recognize this, he [himself will not be] recognized.

If you read that passage in a deadpan tone of voice you would not know anything of what Paul is saying.  Now I am going to apply what I have just said.  What is the man doing here?  I search this passage and I find that there are two questions here.  Verse 36 asks, ‘Was it from you that the word of God first went forth, or has it come to you only?’  Now, what is that doing there?  Paul has been speaking about women in the church, and he suddenly turns right around with two questions.  I have pondered and pondered that, and I believe that I am right in my interpretation.  I do not have many commentators to back me up, but it makes a lot of sense to me.  Throughout this letter to the Corinthians, Paul has been quoting what they have said.  And now he answers them back.  Now remember that he is being sarcastic, and read Verses 34 to 37 in that tone:-

  • Let the women keep silent in the churches because they’re not permitted to speak, indeed! Why do you say, “Let them subject themselves as the Law also says”? Why do you insist that if they desire to learn anything, they should ask their own husbands at home? You say that it is improper for a woman to speak in the church! What? Was it from you alone that the word of God first went forth, or has it come to you only? If anyone thinks he is a prophet let him hear what I have to say.

Do you see how a tone can change the sense?  I have challenged many people to give me any other explanation of Verse 36.  There is no explanation of why that verse is there.  It is like a bone sticking in your throat: you are following one theme and suddenly that question is there.  It is only fully explained if you realize that there is a tone to this passage.  [Another English translation asks ‘Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?]

The question is the key.  By asking these very pertinent questions you begin to see how the Word of God can come alive.  Ask the question, ‘What would this mean? What would this passage mean to those who first read it?’  And that means that you have to put your head into the first century.

Then ask, ‘What was the situation of the writer? What was his spiritual situation? Where was this man in his mind?’  These were real men with real thinking, real emotions.  The book that we are considering is Ephesians.  Paul was in prison when he wrote that.  What was his state of mind?   Here is a man who has gone across the whole world, preaching in city after city.  Now he is cooped up in a little room and not even allowed outside.  He can only look out of his window, and anyone he preaches to has got to come to him.  You have to take that into consideration when you read any one of his Epistles.  They were written by a man in very constricting circumstances.  It amazes me that in Philippians, which was written at the end of that two-year imprisonment, he is full of rejoicing.  ‘And again I say to you, rejoice.’  Here is a man under constricting pressures and yet filled with rejoicing.  It puts an added meaning to it.

So where is the man emotionally?  Also, where was he physically?  Where was he geographically?  Where was he actually located when he wrote this?  It may have something to say to what you are reading.  Where were the hearers emotionally and geographically?  Again, be constantly aware of where those people were.  It makes a difference.  Many of the books of the Old Testament were written to people who were near pagans.  That awareness makes a difference to your reading and your interpretation of the book.

Then, what is the atmosphere?  Do not be afraid to use your imagination.  I never really want to preach from any of the life of Jesus until in my imagination I have felt the sand of the Sea of Galilee between my toes.  I have been on a boat ride across the Sea of Galilee.  I have sat on a hillside and listened to Jesus speak.  Pure imagination.  And so you have to use yours.  Sit in a dungeon with Paul when he is writing his letter to the Ephesians.   Sit there and feel the atmosphere.  Or, sit in the courtyard of a Roman house and hear what is going on.  Imagine that you are part of a congregation that meets in a Roman house.  You are surrounded by slaves, and you are hearing a letter being read that has come to this congregation from Paul.

We did that once in our Bible School.  We took the Letter to Thessalonians and I inserted my name instead of Paul’s, and the name of our Bible School instead of Thessalonica.  Then we read it as  ‘The Epistle of Malcolm to the Salem Bible School’.  And when there were names mentioned, we inserted the names of some of the students.  I think that the whole class came alive to the Thessalonian Epistle in a way that they had never done under any preaching.  They realized that it was a real letter sent to real people by a real person, and that men sat in a real courtyard in a real Roman House.

So take into consideration the tone and use your imagination, and ask the questions Where? When? Who? What? How? Why?  Ask those questions of every word and every phrase.  It will not take just half an hour; it will take a lot longer than that.  Then take one long look at the passage and then say, ‘So what?’  You have got all your evidence.  So what?  Bible Study should not just be an intellectual exercise.  You have to ask, ‘What are the implications here? What relevance does this have to my life? So what? What did it mean to those who first heard it? What relevance did it have to them?  What did it do to their inter-personal relationships, their relationships to the Government, their whole outlook on life? So what?’

When I ask these questions I wonder what I would have written.  In Philippians Chapter 4 Verse 4 Paul says, ‘Rejoice, and I say again rejoice.’  But probably if I had been writing a prayer letter from the mission field I would have said ‘pray for me, pray for me. I’m in terrible trouble here. It is awful, I’m in prison, it is terrible. Pray for me. Get me out of here’.  However, Paul does not say that.  An example of his kind of prayer request is in Colossians Chapter 4 Verse 3: ‘Pray for me so that more doors will open and I can keep on talking.’  He does not say ‘pray for me so that I can get out of here’, but ‘pray for me so that I’ll have doors opening here’.  When I realized that, I had to re-read the whole book.

Now I want us to apply some of this to our model, Ephesians Chapter 2.  I have taken Chapter 2 Verses 19 to 22 because I feel that that passage lends itself to what I am trying to say.  I want you to see what I am doing and why I do it, so that you can go and do it a thousand times afterwards and come into your own experience of knowing God’s blessing.  We shall assume that you have read the whole book right through.  Now you have started again at the very beginning and have moved through piece by piece until you have reached these verses.  So let us look at the passage:-

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and [members] of God’s household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone. In [Him] the whole building being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; in [Him] you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.

First of all, note Verse 19.  ‘So then’ suggests either a summary or a climax that Paul has been working up to from somewhere.   Therefore in reading this I would have to take into consideration the rest of the chapter.  And I would go back and trace how he comes to this point.  Also, he is speaking figuratively.  He is talking about a building — stones, a cornerstone, and the stones being fitted together.  But really he is talking about people, and so this is a figurative passage.  That is going to help us a great deal in our future interpretation of it.

‘So then, you’.  Who are the ‘you’ that he is addressing there?  ‘You are no longer strangers and aliens’.  What is a stranger and what is an alien?  How does Paul use the expression ‘strangers and aliens’ in this particular case?  What does he mean by those two words when he uses them?  He says that the Ephesians are no longer strangers and aliens.  So something had happened to them.  What had happened to them that they were no longer in the position of being strangers and aliens?  What were they now?  Of course the next phrase or sentence immediately answers that, but we need to ask the questions.

The second part of Verse 19 says ‘but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household’.  What is the implication of the words ‘fellow citizens’?  Who are the saints?  What is the meaning of ‘citizen’?  What are the implications of citizenship?  What does Paul mean by the expression ‘household of God’?  How many times have you read that phrase and never questioned it?  Could you tell me what a saint is?  And do not tell me that he is five hundred years old!  What is a saint?  And yet we read it over and over again and never question it.  In Verse 20, why does Paul use the figurative expression ‘having been built?’  What is the meaning of the word ‘built’ there?   Then he says ‘on the foundation of the apostles and prophets’.  How are the apostles and prophets the foundation of whatever is being built?  And in fact, what is an apostle and what is a prophet?  How is it that Jesus Christ is the chief cornerstone?  What does that mean?  What is a cornerstone?  [These questions will be answered on side two of this tape.]

Notice the tense of the verbs.  In Verse 19 Paul uses the present tense.  He says ‘you are no longer strangers, but you are fellow citizens’.  But in Verse 20 he says that something happened in the past ‘having been built’.  Notice also that it is in the passive tense.  ‘Having been built’.  They have not built themselves; they have been built by someone else.  So who built them into what, and when?

Then in Verse 21, what does ‘the whole building’ mean?  And how are these stones fitted together?  What in fact does it mean to be fitted together?  It says that the building ‘is growing’.  My first question upon reading that is, ‘How can a building grow?’  And then it says ‘into a holy temple in the Lord’.  What does Paul mean by the expression ‘holy temple’ and what is the significance of ‘in the Lord’?   Notice again the present tense ‘is growing’.  So having been built [past passive] the building is growing [present].

Notice in Verse 22 the phrase ‘in Him you also’.  What does Paul mean by that expression ‘you also’?  Then it says ‘are being built together’.  Notice the passive tense again.  So somebody is being built together with somebody by somebody else.  What is the implication of that?  It is something that is going on right now.  Then, what does ‘dwelling of God’ mean?  What did it mean to Paul?  And he says here ‘in the Spirit.’  Is there any difference between ‘in the Lord’ (Verse 19) and ‘in the Spirit’ (Verse 20)?  Notice that it says here ‘built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit’.  One might have thought that it would be the dwelling of God.  Is there anything to note there?  Is it worth noting?  [These questions will be answered on side two of this tape.]

Now do you see what I mean now by questioning?  You do not have the answers yet: that’s OK.  At least you have woken up your minds and have delved into the passage.  You have searched and you have sought.  And after you have amassed all the evidence, something at least is beginning to become clear.  Now write a paragraph describing what you feel is there.  You are not interpreting.  You are just putting in a paragraph what you see in the passage.  Something to the effect of this:-

Paul is stating that certain persons who once were strangers and aliens now have a relationship with a citizen along with certain other saints, that they are founded upon apostles and prophets and Jesus Christ. The result of this is that they are growing to become the habitation of God.

Now I have not exactly paraphrased it.  I have re-stated it in my own words.  You may even see much more than that.  You might read over that passage and discover things that I have not seen.  And discovering what is there prepares you to interpret it.  That is, to actually deduce from that evidence.

So first of all we came inductively, without knowing what was there.  But now we have got all the facts, we are in a position to think deductively.  That is, from those facts that we have got we can now find out what is really there and interpret it.  We shall do that on side two of this tape.


Other Projects

Module 12 – The fingerprint of God

Module 11 – Jesus Lord of the mind

Module 10 – Setting your mind on Christ

Module 9 – Wise worker

Module 4 – How to interpret a passage
Module 2 – How to read a book