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Things to Look for in Sentences

1. Repetition of Words

Look for words that repeat. First, be sure to note any words that repeat within the sentence you are studying. Then survey the sentences around the text you are reading and look for repetition in the larger passage.

Look, for example, at 1 John 2:15–17:

15Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of his eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

Which word repeats in the first sentence? Does this word (“world”) appear in the next sentence as well? How many times in this passage does “world” occur? Is it in every sentence? Does it always have the definite article “the,” as in “the world”? Did you also notice the repetition of “love”? How many times does “love” occur? Simply by observing the repetition of words, we have an early indication of what the passage may be about. It has something to do with the world—in particular, about loving the world.

Let’s try another passage. Read carefully through 2 Corinthians 1:3–7 below.

3Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 5For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. 6If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. 7And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

Reread the first sentence. How many times does “comfort” occur? Four times! In one sentence! Alarms should go off in your head. You’ve seen the obvious: this passage has something to do with comfort. Is there more? Look back through the rest of that passage. How many times does “comfort” reappear? Is it in every sentence? Is “comfort” used in the same way each time? Where is “comfort” used as a verb and where is it used as a noun? Which modifiers are used with “comfort” and how do they vary (“all comfort,” “thecomfort,” “our comfort,” “your comfort”)? Who is being comforted? Who comforts? Also, what about “suffering”? Which verses mention “suffering”? How many times does “suffering” occur? Who is suffering? Is there a connection between suffering and comfort? Look at word repetition in a few other passages. Note, for example, the number of times the words listed are repeated in the following sections:

John 15:1–10 (look for “remain”)
Matthew 6:1–18 (look for “Father”)
1 Corinthians 15:50–54 (look for “perishable” and “imperishable”)

2. Contrasts

Look for items, ideas, or individuals that are contrasted with each other. For an example of contrast, take a look at Proverbs 14:31:

Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,
but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.

Two different types of people are contrasted in this passage, both in the way they treat the poor and in the way this behavior toward the poor reflects their attitude toward God. One type oppresses the poor, an action that reflects contempt for God, their Creator. The other type of person is kind to the poor. His action toward the poor honors God.

What is being contrasted in Proverbs 15:1?

A gentle answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.

The New Testament writers frequently use contrasts as well. Read Romans 6:23 and identify the two contrasts:

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

What is the contrast in Ephesians 5:8?

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.

John likewise uses the light/darkness contrast, developing it over several verses in 1 John 1:5–7:

5This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 7But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

What is the major contrast in this passage? “Light“ and “darkness.“ Can we be more specific about the nature of the contrast? Yes. Note that the contrast breaks down into two parts: (1) the nature of God (light and no darkness), and (2) our manner of walking (in light versus in darkness).

 

3. Comparisons

Contrast focuses on differences. Comparison focuses on similarities. Look for items, ideas, or individuals that are compared with each other. Proverbs 25:26 provides a good Old Testament example:

Like a muddied spring or a polluted well
are the righteous who give way to the wicked.

How are the righteous who give way to the wicked like a muddied spring? Because the spring, like the righteous person, was once clean, pure, and useful but now is contaminated and useless for service.

In James 3:3–6 the tongue is compared to three different things. What are they?

3When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.

Finally, a wonderful comparison is made in Isaiah 40:31, where the renewal of strength received from placing one’s hope in the Lord is compared to the soaring of eagles:

But those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Good Bible study can make you soar like an eagle, too. So read on.

4. Lists

Any time you encounter more than two itemized things, you can identify them as a list. Write the list down and explore its significance. Is there any order? Are the items grouped in any way? For example, what three things are listed in 1 John 2:16?

For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of his eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.

What is listed in Galatians 5:22–23?

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forebearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

And what is listed in Galatians 5:19–21?

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.

 

5. Cause and Effect

Often the biblical writers will state a cause and then state the effect of that cause. Earlier we looked at Proverbs 15:1 and found that this verse contained a contrast. It also has two cause-and-effect relationships. Take a look at it again:

A gentle answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.

The first cause is “a gentle answer.” What is the effect of this cause? It “turns away wrath.” The second cause is “a harsh word.”What does that result in? As we all well know, it “stirs up anger.”

Let’s also look at Romans 6:23 again:

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In this passage “sin” is the cause and “death” the effect. Likewise, read Romans 12:2:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

What is the cause? Our transformation through the renewing of our minds. What is the associated effect? The ability to discern God’s will.

What is the cause and effect in John 3:16? Is there more than one set of cause- and-effect relationships?

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Determine the cause and the effect in each of the following passages:

I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me. (Ps. 13:6)

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. (Col. 3:1)

As you can see, cause-and-effect relationships play an extremely important role in the Bible. Always be on the lookout for them.

6. Figures of Speech

Figures of speech are images in which words are used in a sense other than the normal, literal sense. For example, think about the lamp image in Psalm 119:105:

Your word is a lamp for my feet,
a light on my path.

God’s Word is not a literal “lamp” to light up a dark trail for us. Rather, it is a figurative lamp that allows us to see our way through life (feet/path) clearly. Note that both “lamp” and “feet/path” are figures of speech.

As you observe biblical texts, always identify any figures of speech that occur. Try to visualize the figure of speech. Ask yourself: “What image is the author trying to convey with the figure of speech?” For example, consider Isaiah 40:31 again:

But those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Soaring on wings like eagles is a figure of speech. Can you visualize the image—soaring up high . . . coasting on a warm air current . . . gliding along without even flapping your wings?

Figures of speech are powerful literary forms because they paint images to which we can relate emotionally. These can be images of blessing, like that of the eagle in Isaiah 40, but they can also be images of judgment or disgust. For example, visualize the image in Matthew 23:27 and describe your emotional reaction to this image:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.

The Bible is full of figures of speech. They show up in both the Old and New Testaments. Read the following passages. After reading each one, identify what the figure of speech is. Then stop to ponder the image for a moment. Try to visualize the image; what do you see?

The LORD is my rock,
my fortress and my deliverer. (Ps. 18:2)

 

I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. (1 Cor. 3:6)

 

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. (Luke 13:34)

 

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isa. 53:6)

7. Conjunctions

If we imagine the biblical text to be like a brick house, then conjunctions are the mortar that holds the bricks (phrases and sentences) together. One critical aspect of careful reading is to note all of the conjunctions (“and,” “for,” “but,” “therefore,” “since,”“because,” etc.). Our tendency is to skip over them—but don’t do it! Without the mortar the bricks fall into a jumbled mess. So always take note of the conjunctions and identify their purpose or function. That is, try to determine what the conjunction connects.

For example, if you encounter the conjunction “but,” you might suspect some sort of contrast. Look in the text for the things being contrasted by this conjunction. Recall Romans 6:23:

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The conjunction “but” indicates a contrast between the wages of sin (death) and the gift of God (eternal life).

“Therefore” or “so” usually presents some type of conclusion based on earlier arguments or reasons. When you encounter a “therefore,” look back in the text and determine what the earlier reason was. Sometimes the reason is easy to find, lying out in the open in the previous verse. At other times, however, the earlier reason is more difficult to find. It may refer to the larger argument of several previous chapters.

Romans 12:1 is a good illustration of the hard-to-find type:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

The word “therefore,” which opens Romans 12, connects this verse to the preceding eleven chapters. For eleven chapters Paul has been discussing theology—the wonderful fact of our salvation by grace through faith. In Romans 12 he switches the subject to behavior. How should we act? How should we behave? The word “therefore” in 12:1 connects who we are with what we should do. Our behavior described in Romans 12 (and following) should be a direct consequence of God’s grace in our lives (discussed in chs. 1–11).

An easier “therefore” is in Hebrews 12:1:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

The reason for this “therefore” can easily be found in the previous chapter, Hebrews 11. It is easy to find because 12:1 identifies it for us by saying “since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.” The people in chapter 11 are the only cloud of witnesses available in the context.

The “therefore” in Colossians 3:12 is not quite so obvious:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

What does the “therefore” refer back to? Read the previous eleven verses and look for the underlying reason behind verse 12. In the preceding verses Paul tells the Colossians to put on the new self (see especially v. 10). Since they have put on “the new self,” they “therefore” should also put on new virtues—compassion, kindness, and so on.

Other conjunctions are important, too. Look, for example, at 2 Timothy 1:7–8:

7For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. 8So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God.

Note the conjunctions in verse 7 (“for,” “but,” “and”) and in verse 8 (“so,” “or,” “rather”). Which two things are contrasted by the conjunction “but” in verse 7? How does the “so” in the next sentence relate verse 8 to verse 7? Likewise, what is it that the conjunction “rather” in verse 8 is contrasting?

How significant is the conjunction “but” in Genesis 6:8? Note the contrast presented in the previous two verses:

6The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. 7So the LORD said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” 8But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. (Gen. 6:6–8)

 

8. Verbs—Where All the Action Is

Verbs are important because they communicate the action of the sentence. As you observe the text, be sure to note the verbal action. Try to identify what kind of verb is used. Is the verb a past, present, or future tense verb (I went, I go, I will go)? Does it present a progressive idea; that is, does it have continued action (I was going, I am going, I will be going)? Is it an imperative verb (Go!)?

Be especially sure to note all imperative verbs! These are often God’s commands to us. Note, for example, the list of imperative verbs in Ephesians 4:2–3:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Another important distinction to look for in verbs is whether they are active or passive. Active verbs are those in which the subject is doing the action (Bill hit the ball). Passive verbs are those verbs where the subject is acted upon (Bill was hit by the ball). This distinction is particularly important in Paul’s letters, because it often delineates between what we do and what God has done for us. Passive verbs often underscore the things that God has done for us.

Note the following active and passive verbs:

Since, then, you have been raised [passive] with Christ, set [active!] your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. (Col. 3:1)

 

In him we were also chosen [passive], having been predestined [passive] according to the plan of him who works out [active] everything in conformity with the purpose of his will. (Eph. 1:11)

Passive verbs are also significant in the Old Testament. Note Genesis 12:3:

and all peoples on earth
will be blessed [passive and future] through you.

9. Pronouns

Note all pronouns and be sure to identify the antecedent (to whom or to what the pronoun refers). Who, for example, are the “our” and “us” in Ephesians 1:3?

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.

Identify all of the pronouns in the following text (Phil. 1:27–30):

27Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel 28without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. 29For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, 30since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.


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