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What Is the Shape of This Text?

At this stage, your goal is to get into the mind of the author in order to expose the structure of the text and determine the progression of his thought. John Stott said, “The golden rule for sermon outlines is that each text must be allowed to supply its own structure. The skillful expositor allows the text to open itself up before our eyes, like a rose unfolding to the morning sun and displaying its previously hidden beauty.” Several examples may be helpful.

Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians:

“[9] And this I pray, that your love may overflow still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, [10] so that you may discover the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and blameless for the day of Christ; [11] having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, for the glory and praise of God.”

To expose the text’s structure we need to see how Paul is thinking through the logic of these sentences. The first words alert readers that this is a prayer. And the rest of verse 9 is the content of Paul’s prayer: “that your love may overflow still more and more.” This is what Paul is praying. And as we move to verse 10, we see the telling “so that” indicator. This is the so that of his prayer, or his goal for these believers, which has two parts. His immediate aim is in verse 10: that they might “discover the things that are excellent” and “be sincere and blameless for the day of Christ.” But his ultimate is at the end of verse 11: “the glory and praise of God.”

Do you see how this passage divides nicely along the contours of Paul’s thought?

This is the endeavor of this step—to mirror the argument and shape of the text that the writer employed. Not all sermons need to have three points. The outline should follow the logic of the author.

How you find a passages’ structure will vary across different genres of Scripture. For example, this step will look different in the psalter. Take Psalm 34. After analyzing the text’s content, you realize that this psalm was an acrostic, meaning that each line begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. If you were to neglect the first step, you might miss the way the author divided this text.

As you see the way in which the author is thinking, the intent of the text will become clearer to you, which is our next step.

Up Next

Jun 8, 2021

Step 4: Understand the Text’s Intent

Jun 8, 2021

Step 5: Isolating the Sermon’s Intent

Jun 8, 2021

Step 6: Organize the Sermon’s Structure