Outlining as a tool for deeper Bible study


outlining tool

Why bother to outline?

To go deeper in Bible study, you need to outline the passages you are trying to understand. Outlining forces you to focus on the flow of the context from paragraph to paragraph and from verse to verse.

You probably have more experience outlining than you think. Every to-do list, recipe, how-to list, and every schedule of events is an outline. Acronyms also are really outlines.

The more detailed your outline, the more you should be able to understand what the passage is all about.

Sample passage: Philippians 2:1-18

Let’s take a sample passage, Philippians 2:1-18. This seems to be a unit of text, because v. 1 is a change in thought from the previous verses, and v. 19 changes the thought again.

Translators who break the text into paragraphs suggest four sections: vv. 1-4, 5-11, 12-13, and 14-18. Combining the last two seems reasonable, because v. 12 begins with “Therefore…”, and v. 14 seems a continuation of the thought of v. 13.

The thought flowing through the whole passage seems to be unity, “being one in spirit and purpose” (v. 2). If so, then the three sections have this flow:

1) Attitudes that promote oneness, Phil. 2:1-4
2) Jesus is your model for these attitudes, vv. 5-11
3) God can work in you and through you, vv. 12-18

Analyze each section, then, according to the clues you find in the text.

Analysis of Philippians 2:1-18

Section 1) starts with “If,” with v. 1 giving a list of conditions, all of which are true, followed by “then,” three commands (counting the main verbs) flowing out of these conditions.

That yields this structure:

1) Attitudes that promote oneness, Phil. 2:1-4

a) Four things you share that promote oneness, v. 1.

i) Encouragement from our union with Christ.
ii) Comfort from His love.
iii) Mutual sharing of the Spirit.
iv) Tenderness and compassion.

b) Three attitudes you need to cultivate, vv. 2-4.

i) What you should be, v. 2

A) Like-minded with the same love
B) One in spirit and purpose

ii) Attitudes you should not have, v. 3a

A) Selfish ambition
B) Vain conceit

iii) Attitude you should have, v. 3b

In humility consider others better than yourselves.

The second section, vv. 5-11 has two parts: the opening exhortation to follow the example of Jesus (v. 5), and a poetic rehearsal of Jesus’ attitudes that led to his sacrifice and exaltation (vv. 6-11). This larger, second section has at least three sub-parts: His attitude leading to the incarnation (vv. 6-7), His attitude leading to the cross (v. 8), and God’s exaltation of the Humble Servant (vv. 9-11).

The resulting structure is this:

2) Jesus is your model for these attitudes, vv. 5-11.

a) Follow the example of Jesus, v. 5.
b) Christ’s attitudes that led to his sacrifice and exaltation, vv. 6-11

i) His position before becoming human: equality with God, v. 6a.
ii) He emptied Himself to become human, vv. 6-7.
iii) His position after becoming human: a servant in human form, v. 8a.
iv) He humbled Himself to serve and die on the cross, v. 8b.
v) God highly exalted His humble Servant, v. 9.
vi) His final position: Lord of heaven and earth, vv. 10-11.

The third section, vv. 12-18, opens with “Therefore,” applying in a practical way what the opening exhortation and the model of Jesus set forth. Looking again to the verbs of this section, we find one command with the basis for obeying it, followed by a second command with the result of following it. The section concludes with reassurance of Paul’s confidence that they will respond to his commands.

This, then, is the structure of the third section:

3) God can work in you and through you, Philippians 2:12-18.

a) Your salvation causes you to work with fear and trembling, v. 12.
b) This is because God is at work within you, v. 13.

i) He empowers you to want to serve Him.
ii) He empowers you to actually serve Him.

c) As you work, never complain or argue, v. 14.
d) These results will happen if you heed this command, vv. 15-18.

i) Results for the Philippians, vv. 15-16a

A) You will become blameless and pure children of God, v. 15a.
B) You will be without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, v. 15b.
C) You shine like stars in the universe, v. 15c.
D) You hold out the word of life, v. 16a.

ii) Results for Paul, vv. 16b-18.

A) I will boast of you on the day of Christ, v. 16b.
B) We may be glad and rejoice together, 17-18.

Try your hand at outlining

Here are three passages that you can analyze and outline:
Luke 15:11-32 – The Prodigal Son and His Brother
Amos 4:6-13 – “Yet You Have Not Returned to Me”
Judges 15:1-20 – Samson’s Strength and His Need
As you gain experience in outlining, you will discover that analyzing each passage you read will come more and more easily. The flow of the context will become more and more transparent, causing your understanding to deepen and your “aha!” moments to occur more frequently.

Want to go deeper?

Here are two great resources to help you see how others outline the text:

The Structure of the Old Testament by David A. Dorsey (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2004).

Dorsey has not only provided us with an analysis of the structure of every Old Testament book, but has also written an excellent introduction, explaining the principles he followed in his analysis. Highly recommended.

Harper Study Bible by Harold Lindsell

The HSB is available in a number of different translations. It features a running outline of every chapter of each book of both Old and New Testaments. The notes are sparing and seek to show different opinions on controversial texts. Occasionally, Lindsell reveals but does not aggressively promote his premillennial presuppositions.

Steve has been a Bible teacher for over 30 years. He has written many articles, more than 20 e-books, and several study guides, most recently, Overcoming: Guide to Understanding the Book of Revelation. His website, DeeperStudy.com, encourages all people to go deeper in their understanding of the Word of God, the Bible, and to become authentic, New Testament Christians who serve a risen Lord.

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