Outlining a Bible passage for dummies, Acts 17:24

This is part one of a series of posts describing how to prepare a sermon or a Bible study lesson. Last month I presented a series of posts that showed how to prepare a study of a book of the Bible. The same steps apply whether you are creating a study of a book of the Bible, a Bible study lesson, or a sermon. These steps are: pray (each step should be bathed in prayer), read the material (three times if possible), write a summary of the book , write an hermeneutical outline that describes the text (telling what God said through the human authors to the original audience then and there), write a theological outline that presents the timeless theological ideas (which apply to both the original audience then and there, as well as your intended audience here and now ), write an homiletical outline  (outlining what you will present in your sermon/lesson/study), write the study/lesson/sermon. In each step, you use the material from the previous steps.

But having done so, I recalled how difficult it can be do prepare an outline that describes the text for someone who has never done so. So this time, I am presenting a slightly modified method of creating a study/lesson/sermon. I think it is easier. This time our focus is how to create a sermon or lesson to be taught. We will skip the summary, since this is specific to a particular passage. We will also do the first outline slightly differently.

I had been to Bible college and learned one way of outlining scripture. It was kind of difficult to get the hang of it as it went against what I had done previously, though it was extremely helpful. But when I worked with a pastor of missionaries, he showed me a different way to outline a biblical passage. This is much easier and helps you see connections you may have missed otherwise. It is so easy that I call it “Outlining for dummies.” I was since taught this same method in a class in seminary. Both methods of preparing the textual outline are helpful, but I think this is one is easier.

First you have to realize that there was no punctuation and no chapter breaks in the original text. So sometimes what appears in the next chapter should actually be part of the current one. Also, sometimes what is broken up over sentences may actually belong to one long run on sentence – this can change the focus or emphasis of what is being read. Because of this, it is best to outline an entire book of the Bible before tackling the task of preparing a study or a sermon. Of course, this is sometimes not possible due to time constraints, but it is still desirable.

Now, the idea in this method of outlining the text is to look for natural breaks in the text. Look for dependent clauses, independent clauses, nouns, verbs, adverbs, lists, synonyms, antonyms, connecting words (such as, like, because, hence, since, but, and, or, nor, therefore). You can break the passage where you think it makes the most sense, rather than based on punctuation. Then the text after each break gets put on the next line. You have to line up the text indentation with the text from above so lists, opposites, commonalities are all put at the same level. Each time you work with a portion of text, you have to decide if the text you are currently working with belong at the same level as the list you began previously, or further left with a previous idea. We need to look for answers to questions like who, which, what, when, where, how, and why. Then the text that all address the same question for the same subject are put at the same level. A dependent clause would probably belong at the same level as the beginning of the independent clause. The text that all belong to a given list also will be put at the same level.

You can choose to include the punctuation or not. Sometimes it helps you see things and sometimes it gets in the way. It is YOUR outline of what you think God is saying to the original audience, so you decide. In the example below, each dependent clause happens to be all at the same level, but this is not always the case. So don’t be surprised if at some point in time, the indentation goes on and on to the right for a long time before coming back to the first level – if it ever does. This is the way of outlines sometimes.

For simplicity sake, we will look at Acts 17:24. Pray for God’s guidance before you begin, and even as you continue to create the outline – that you might learn what God has for you and your audience.

24) “The God

who

made

the world and

all things in it,

 since He

is Lord

of      heaven and

earth,

does not dwell

in temples

made with hands;

I started with ‘The God’. I put that on a line by itself, because it is the noun, the subject – what the passage was describing.

Then I chose to put the word “who” on a line by itself because it begins to address the answer to the who question by describing “The God”, and for that reason, it is indented to show the relationship to “The God.”

Then I chose to put “made” on a line by itself, indented again to show the relationship to “who”. This was followed by “the world and” on the next line, indented again to show the relationship to “made” from the previous line. But notice, there is a connecting word here: “and”. I left it at the end of the line and broke the text there because it is part of a list (of two), putting the “all things in it,” on the next line, indented to show its relationship to “made” from the line above. I could have put “made the world and” on one line. Thus, we see The God”, “who”, “made” (what did He make?) “the world and”, “all things in it”.

Now we see “since”. This word that tells us the answer to a why question, so we put that on the next line. But this time, we indent it to show its relationship to “the God” instead of to “who”. I left the “He” at the same level as the “since” because the following text will be in relation to the “He”, but is part of the “since” clause. Then I put “is Lord” on a line by itself, because this addresses the question of what. WHAT is He? Lord. It is indented to show the relationship to “He”. Then I put “of      heaven and” on the next line, because it tells us WHAT He is Lord of. Notice the space between “of” and “heaven”. I put it there so I could more easily align the text on the following line. Again, there is a connecting word (“and”), so this is part of a list – in this case, a list of two. So the next part of the list (“earth”) goes on the next line, aligned with the other parts of the list. So we can see the answer to why at a glance now “The God” “since He” “is Lord” “of heaven and” “earth”.

Now we see a verb “does”. This is actually associated with “The God”. I chose to keep the words “not dwell” on the same line as “does” because it makes a nice phrase, telling me what God does. So we put it on the next line at an indentation level that shows this relationship: “does not dwell”. This tells us “The God” “does not dwell”. I broke the line there because the next bit of text (“in temples”) is a what that describes a where. so  we put “in temples” on the next line, indented to show its relationship to “dwell”. Again, I chose to break the line there because the next bit of text (“made with hands;”) is an adjective, and tells us what kind of temples.

Now we can see how using this outlining for dummies method makes it easier to make an outline. If you now look at the entire outline of the verse, we have a subject and 3 phrases that address who, why, and what. We can see the who phrase is that God made 2 things: the world and everything in it. We can see the why phrase describes God as Lord of two things: heaven and earth. We can see the what phrase is that God does not live in manmade temples.

Next time I will give a textual outline of the entire passage Acts 17:24-31, using this “outlining for dummies” method.

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4 Responses

  1. I enjoyed this article very much. I read about something similar to this a while ago and have enjoyed using it.

    I have done this for an entire chapter in 2 Tim 1 at this post.

    http://www.richimages.net/?p=1682

  2. I think you did a great job explaining outlining. When I went to seminary, I had a course that essentially taught Inductive Bible Study, which is the basis of all exegesis for sermon prep. This approach is a step in that process.

    This blog appeared 3 1/2 years ago, but I just wanted to encourage you, as you truly taught the nuts and bolts of outlining. I guess I am like most people – I don’t post a comment when I should. Keep up God’s work.

    • Thank you. I write this blog to help people understand God’s Word, to help them learn to study and apply them. I appreciate the encouragement.

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