What if I told you there is a tool available to expositors that, once mastered, will keep you from ever having to worry about sermon outlines again? Would you be interested?
Here is the tool: structure. Become competent in discerning the structure of a text and your sermon outline basically writes itself.
So where do we begin? This is a great quote to jump start some thoughts on the structure of a biblical text:
Every book has a skeleton hidden between its covers. Your job as an analytical reader is to find it. A book comes to you with flesh on its bare bones and clothes over its flesh. It is all dressed up. You do not have to undress it or tear the flesh off its limbs to get at the firm structure that underlies the soft surface. But you must read the book with X-ray eyes, for it is an essential part of your apprehension of any book to grasp its structure. (How to Read a Book, Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren)
With the correct orientation and posture toward the text and after employing the helpful tools of understanding authorship, literary type, and context, the expositor is ready to understand the structure of the text. This is crucial to grasping its emphasis, the intended message of both the human and divine author. In that emphasis lies the transformative power of the word of God. To determine structure and how the author has put a particular text together, we ask, “What was the author’s intent here? Why did he put it together like this? Why is it here and how is it functioning in this particular location?”
To use the previous quote on reading, structure is like a skelton, the bones of a biblical passage over which. It is the overall framework of a passage. Our human bodies have a bone structure and within those bones the marrow produces our life-giving blood. In exposition, we must discern the structure, wherein we discover what is being emphasized. (While all details are important, they are not all equally important. Some of the details serve to support and highlight other parts.) Once the emphasis is understood through the structure, then we have discovered the life of the text. In that emphasis we find the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives.
How do we discover structure? Read the passage many times, all in one sitting and as a whole. Read it out loud. Use tools that help you understand the original language or, if you are capable of doing so, read it in the original language. Don’t get lost in the subpoints and view it from the perspective of the forest, not just the trees. Get the 50,000 foot view, and don’t just interact with it by a view from the runway. Take into account the particular literary genre of your passage.
That last point merits elaboration. A common mistake made by expositors is to use the same methodology with every passage of Scripture. This fails to take into account the diversity of literary form employed by the biblical writers. To treat a letter of John in the same fashion as a poetic utterance from an Old Testament prophet is malpractice.
There are three basic types of text types in Scripture: discourse, narrative, and poetry. Each of these have their own unique features and must be handled accordingly. With discourse, grammar is king and one must look for the relationship between grammatical forms. Narrative (story) involves the unfolding of a plot and the emphasis is discovered in the conflict of the story and its resolution. Poetry, as figurative expression, employs imagery and parallelism, both of which must be handled in a vastly different manner from discourse.
Rightfully handling the word of truth requires a apprehension of its structure. Invest the necessary in this work, not just with an individual passage but in developing your skills in the overall discipline. When you do, you will have discovered a tool to help you do your expositional work each week.