Sermon preparation involves moving from the big picture, to the smallest detail, and then back to the big picture. We move from the forest, to the trees, to the leaves, to the trees, to the forest.
In expository preaching, our study moves from paragraph, to phrases, to words, to phrases, to paragraph. A structural analysis, or paragraph flow, allows us to see how these three elements work together.
I have developed the rules and methods I describe over ten years. I was first taught structural analysis in my seminary sermon building class, during my first year at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Over the next two years of my M.Div. work, I revisited the idea in Hermeneutics and second year Greek. I appreciate the teaching of Jere Phillips, Ken Easley, and John Mahony regarding this step. I have come to rely so heavily on it that I cannot study a passage without it.
A structural analysis breaks apart a preaching paragraph through the use of separate lines and indentations. I begin each new sentence at the left margin. I then break each sentence apart by moving phrases to another line and indenting under the previous sentence section. Trust me, it is easier to do than explain. Below is an example from James 1:2-4.
James 1:2–4 (NASB95) —
2 Consider it all joy,
when you encounter various trials,
3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.
4 And let endurance have its perfect result,
so that you may be perfect and complete,
lacking in nothing.
These two verses are a simple example. Commas indicate when to separate clauses.
When I look at the structural analysis, I understand it as a series of questions and answers.
Consider what all joy? Consider encountering various trials as joy. Why? Because those trials produce endurance. What is the purpose of endurance? Its purpose is to perfect and complete us. What does it mean to be perfect and complete? It means to lack in nothing.
At this point, I am just beginning to study. It is okay that I might not understand the answers to the questions. But, I know what I need to find out.
Admittedly, this step can be performed mentally rather than manually. However, I find that seeing the text’s structure brings out the meaning for me.
Also, it provides a practical way to organize my study notes, as the picture of my structural analysis from James 1:22-27 shows. This paragraph presented no difficulties, but it does give you an idea of how I use this method to organize my study.
This method works with all scriptural genres, with each presenting unique challenges.
Wisdom literature often uses parallel language. Notice my approach to Psalm 1:1
Psalm 1:1 (NASB95) —
1 How blessed is the man who does
not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
The psalmist offers three descriptions of the blessed man. Each description could stand alone and, therefore, deserves equal study and presentation. By indenting each segment in parallel, I have represented the author’s intended meaning visually.
Narrative texts contain dialogue. My rule for discourse is to begin each sentence of dialog on the left margin. I keep the speaker’s statement together by not spacing between his or her sentences. Here is an example from John 3.
John 3:1–15 (NASB95) —
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees,
a ruler of the Jews;
2 this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him,
we know that You have come from God as a teacher;
for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
3 Jesus answered and said to him,
I say to you,
unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
4 Nicodemus said to Him,
“How can a man be born when he is old?
He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born,
5 Jesus answered,
I say to you,
unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
6 “That which is born of the flesh is flesh,
and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
7 “Do not be amazed that I said to you,
‘You must be born again.’
8 “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it,
but do not know where it comes from and where it is going;
so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said to Him,
“How can these things be?”
10 Jesus answered and said to him,
“Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?
I say to you,
we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen,
and you do not accept our testimony.
12 “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe,
how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
13 “No one has ascended into heaven,
but He who descended from heaven:
the Son of Man.
14 “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
even so must the Son of Man be lifted up;
15 so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.
Several things are happening in my analysis of this paragraph. First, I have separated Jesus’ and Nicodemus’ dialogue by several spaces. This separation makes clear the conversation’s flow. Second, within the separate dialogues, I have not divided the individual sentences with spaces between lines. I can view each reply as a unit. Also, I have placed several phrases in parallel, such as the beginning of verses 3, 5, 11 and the two clauses of verse 6.
Structural analysis is as much an art as a science. At times, you will not agree with the translator’s punctuation. That is okay. Go with your opinion, but be open to changing it as you continue your study.
This method works for English, Greek, or Hebrew. But, you must use a literal English translation to experience the full benefits.
The only way to learn structural analysis is to practice. I suggest, if you are not currently using this tool, to copy and paste your preaching text into a word processing document and begin punching the enter and tab keys where you think you ought. Try it with the examples I have given and compare the results. This step is key for me. I hope it is as helpful for you.