With so much of the Bible being story, it is helpful to have a basic process for understanding those stories, discovering the main point the author is attempting to communicate and being able to share the truth of those stories with others.
I thought I could share a basic process I follow which has been gleaned from a number of different books on preaching narrative. (Especially – and even some of what follows may be direct quotes from – He Gave Us Stories by Richard Pratt, The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative by Steve Mathewson and Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament by Walter Kaiser. )
Step #1: Determine where the story begins and the story ends.
Step #2: Divide the story into scenes.
“Biblical stories often interrupt the chain of events through subsequent, simultaneous and antecedent breaks in the action.”
There are three key changes in setting that help us define scene boundaries: place, environmental features, and characters.
Mode of narration
“Narrative mode is determined by the degree to which the writer’s presence is felt, whether he has walked out to center stage or remained backstage, allowing the characters to tell the story through their own thoughts, words and actions.” There are several specific kinds of narration we find in the Scripture. There is direct address, descriptive mode, straight narration and dramatic mode.
Step #3 Identify the characters in the story.
There are often three kinds of characters in biblical stories:
• Supernatural beings
Step #4 Distinguish between major and minor characters and explain the role they play in the story.
The distinction between major and minor characters is primarily based on the size of the role they play in the story.
There are several common kinds of characters in different stories:
• The Protagonist (central characters, those who are most indispensable to the plot.)
• The Antagonist (the main adversaries to the central character.)
• Foils (characters who heighten the central character by providing a contrast or occasionally a parallel.)
When you have labeled the characters, it is sometimes helpful to go through the story again as a “traveling companion of the protagonist” and view this protagonist as “someone who undertakes an experiment in living. If we can see our own experiences in the events and characters of the story, we may be capturing something universal about life.”
Step #5 List different ways the characters are described in the story.
Notice carefully what we are told about the character. This may be a clue to the point of the story.
Here are several different kinds of ways characters are described in stories:
• Appearance and social status.
• Direct speech and thought.
• Descriptive comments.
Step #6 Examine the things people are saying to each other in the story.
Dialogue often points you towards meaning.
• Genesis 22:8
• Genesis 50:20
• 1 Samuel 17:34-37
Step #7 Discover the plot.
Plot is the core of all stories and usually follows the following model:
• Exposition – This is the information that gets you ready for the story.
• Rising action – This is where the story is rising into crisis mode. Once the conflict appears, the tension continues to rise as the story moves towards resolution.
• Climax- This is the moment of highest tension. What happens here determines what kind of story you are reading.
• Falling action- This is where the crisis is resolved and the plot descends rapidly from its climax to a solution of the original conflict.
“What matters most in the analysis of a narrative is to pinpoint the resolution of the plot. This moment, more than any other, is the one the reader is waiting for. It is also easier to uncover the resolution than other moments. After this resolution the dramatic tension drops and can even disappear completely.”
• Denoument – This is where the loose ends of the story are tied up. The conclusion sums up the outcome of the story or tells you what has happened to the main characters after the resolution. It may offer a special message to the reader.
Step #8 Read through the story again gathering as much miscellaneous information as you can about the story.
Step #9 Evaluate how the story fits into the bigger story. (For example 1 Samuel 15-2 Samuel 8 is a defense of the Davidic dynasty.)
Step #10 Write a single descriptive sentence title for each scene or paragraph.
Step #11 Observe the sentences and see what connection they have with one another, trying to discover what is the writer’s emphasis.
Step #12 After you discover the emphasis, determine what the story is about. This determination provides the subject of the story. Then determine what exactly is being said about the subject.
Step #13 Write a single descriptive title for the entire narrative. Here you are trying to answer the question, what is the unifying center of the story?
Step #13 Add the interpretive elements to what you have written. Here you are trying to determine what message the writer is trying to convey through the story. What is the story talking about and what is it saying about it?
Clues: What is the passage’s vision of God?
What in humanity rebels against the text’s vision of God?
What does the story teach us about how God is acting to rescue people?
What traits does this text describe that should be imitated or rejected?
Step #14 State the idea in one sentence and this becomes the exegetical idea of the story. You are trying to state a biblical concept in such a way that it accurately reflects what the author intends. What is the author’s intended meaning?
Step #15 Take the exegetical idea and try to turn it into a theological idea. Here you are trying to give in one sentence a theological expression of what the author is teaching in language that applies to all God’s people everywhere. What is the author saying that applies to all people everywhere?
Clues: What fallen condition does it reveal? What aspect of the human condition do you see that needs God’s grace?
What redemptive solution does it display? How does God in Christ meet and cover this need?
What virtue does this text exhort me to pursue as a result?
Step #16 Examine the exegetical and theological idea and try to determine how you can restate it so that it reflects historical accurateness and the literary intent of the story while using terms that will create a timeless proposition.
Step #17 Look at your big idea and determine whether you have stated it in a creative and memorable way. The goal is not to be clever, but to help your people remember the main point of the sermon.
Step #18 Attempt to develop a purpose statement for your sermon. The big idea states the truth and the purpose describes what the truth should accomplish.
Clues: Effective purpose statements reflect the purpose of the author. Ask yourself, what did the author expect to accomplish by putting this story here and telling it in this manner? Now, what do I expect to happen in the lives of the people listening to me after hearing this story? Always ask, would the author be comfortable with the way I am using his story to address this particular situation?
Step #19 You might answer the following questions from and about the text:
What do my people need to know?
Why do they need to know it?
What should they do with it?
Why do they need to do it?
How can I help them remember?
Step #20 Develop a structure for explaining the text, communicating the big idea and applying its purpose in a way that your congregation can easily understand.
Here are several suggestions:
*Introduce the sermon by developing the crisis that the story resolves. Then use the scenes as your main points to help people see God’s remedy.
*Identify a dilemma you or your audience have faced. Show them how in the text the people faced a similar dilemma. Tell them what God says about that dilemma. Help them see how they should respond to what they have heard. Identify how they can put into practice what they have learned.
*Tim Keller offers the following basic approach:
The Plot winds up: WHAT YOU MUST DO.
“This is what you have to do! Here is what the text/narrative tells us that we must do or what we must be.”
The Plot thickens: WHY YOU CAN’T DO IT.
“But you can’t do it! Here are all the reasons that you will never become like this just by trying very hard.”
The Plot resolves: HOW HE DID IT.
“But there’s One who did. Perfectly. Wholly. Jesus the—. He has done this for us, in our place.”
The Plot winds down: HOW, THROUGH HIM, YOU CAN DO IT.
“Our failure to do it is due to our functional rejection of what he did. Remembering him frees our heart so we can change like this…”
*Jonathan Pennington offers the following model:
1. Introduce the situation
2. Retell the story – “All the speaker is doing at this point is serving as a midwife to help deliver the story to the current hearers by explaining, clarifying, highlighting, and giving skilled interpretive insight.”
3. Draw out the main point
4. Apply the story with illustrations