Things to Look for in Paragraphs

1. General and Specific

Sometimes an author will introduce an idea with a general statement—that is, an overview or summary of the main idea. The author will then follow this general statement with the specifics of the idea. Often these specifics provide the supporting details that make the general idea true or explain it more completely. For example, I can make a general statement, “I like dessert.” I can then explain this more fully with the specific details, “I like apple pie, strawberry shortcake, chocolate ice cream, and cheesecake.” This is a movement from general to specific.

Although the biblical writers do not write of chocolate ice cream, they do often use the general-to-specific literary feature to communicate to us. For example, Paul makes a general statement in Galatians 5:16:

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.

“Walk by the Spirit” and “gratify the desires of the flesh” are general statements. They are broad generalizations. We as readers want to know more details or specifics about each of these. Paul obliges us and presents the specifics of gratifying the desires of the flesh in 5:19–21a:

19The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.

He next moves on to the specifics of how to “walk by the Spirit” in 5:22–23:

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

Romans 12 is also a general-to-specific passage. Paul makes his general statement in verse 1:

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 specifics start a few verses later in 12:9 and continue on into chapter 15. Romans 12:9–13 is cited below as one set of examples. Note the specific nature of the exhortations:

9Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Also keep in mind that the authors will frequently reverse the order and go from specific to general. The writer will first list the specifics (“I like apple pie, strawberry shortcake, chocolate ice cream, and cheesecake”) and then recap the idea with a generalstatement summarizing the main point (“I like dessert”). A good example of this is the famous chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13. Verses 1–12 present the specifics:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. . . .

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered. . . .

Verse 13 then recaps the chapter with a general statement that summarizes the main point:

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

2. Questions and Answers

Occasionally an author will raise a rhetorical question and then answer that question. Paul does this several times in Romans. For instance, in Romans 6:1 he asks:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?

Paul then answers his own question in verse 2:

By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?

In the verses that follow, the apostle continues to discuss the answer to his opening question in 6:1. He uses this type of question-and-answer format in numerous other places in Romans as well (3:1, 5, 9, 27–31; 4:1, 9; 6:15; 7:1, 7, 13; 8:31–35; 11:1, 7, 11).

This technique is not limited to Paul’s letters. Mark uses the question-and-answer format in several places as the backdrop for the story of Jesus. For example, in Mark 2:1–3:6 there are five episodes that revolve around a question and an answer. The five questions are:

  1. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (2:7)
  2. “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (2:16)
  3. “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fastng, but yours are not?” (2:18)
  4. “Why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” (2:24)
  5. “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (3:4)

The first four questions are raised by opponents of Jesus. The Pharisees and others are challenging the religious behavior of Jesus and his disciples. In the verses that follow each question, Jesus answers the inquiry with a clear justification of his actions.

  1. “But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” (2:10)
  2. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (2:17b)
  3. “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?” (2:19)
  4. “Have you never read what David did. . . ? The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (2:25, 28)

The fifth question, however, is asked by Jesus and is directed at the Pharisees. The answer to his question is obvious, for the lawful thing is to “do good,” as Jesus does by healing the man’s shriveled hand, and not to “do evil” and “to kill” as the Pharisees are plotting to do to Jesus (3:6). However, even though Jesus has answered their questions, they fail to answer his.

Note that Mark balances this five-question episode that occurs early in his book with another five-question episode at the end of his book (11:27–12:40). The opponents are the same in each episode. Also, in each episode the opponents ask the first four questions and Jesus asks the last question.

3. Dialogue

Dialogue, of course, overlaps with the question-and-answer feature discussed above. The four questions in Mark 2:15–3:6 are part of an ongoing dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees. Dialogue may seem at first glance to be too obvious to worry about. Clearly, in narrative material dialogue is employed frequently and is easy to spot. But do not simply read past the point of the dialogue. Note the fact that a dialogue is taking place. Then ask questions of the dialogue. Who are the participants? Who is speaking to whom? What is the setting? Are other people around? Are they listening? Are they participating in the dialogue? Is the dialogue an argument? A discussion? A lecture? Friendly chitchat? What is the point of the dialogue? You may find it helpful to color-code the dialogue. Assign one specific color to each participant and then color the conversation accordingly.

The stories of the Bible contain a multitude of wonderful dialogues. Recall Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Another famous dialogue occurs between Peter and Jesus in John 13:6–10, where they discuss whether or not Jesus will wash Peter’s feet. Clearly one of the most unusual discussions in the Bible is the conversation between Balaam and his donkey in Numbers 22.

Some dialogues, however, are not as easy to spot. These “less-than-obvious” dialogues, however, are often important to the meaning of the passage. The book of Habakkuk, for example, consists primarily of a dialogue between God and the prophet. In 1:1–4 Habakkuk asks God why he allows injustice to continue in Judah without doing anything to stop it. God answers in 1:5–11 by promising to send the Babylonians to invade Judah and to destroy the nation. Habakkuk objects in 1:12–2:1 because an invasion is not quite what Habakkuk had in mind. Nonetheless, God answers the objection in 2:2–20 by stating that the invasion is inevitable. Once you recognize the dialogue format of Habakkuk, the message of the book becomes clear.

4. Purpose/Result Statements

Always identify purpose/result statements. These are phrases or sentences that describe the reason, the result, or the consequence of some action. They are frequently introduced by result-oriented conjunctions such as “that,” “in order that,” and “so that,” but they can also be introduced with the simple infinitive. The following examples illustrate the use of purpose/result statements.

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works. (Eph. 2:10)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. (John 3:16)

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. (John 15:16)

Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deut. 6:3)

I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. (Ps. 119:11)

5. Means (By Which Something Is Accomplished)

When an action, a result, or a purpose is stated, look for the means that brings about that action, result, or purpose. How is the action or result brought into reality? How is the purpose accomplished? For example, read the second half of Romans 8:13:

. . . but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

The means by which the misdeeds of the body are put to death is the Spirit.

Likewise, ponder a moment Psalm 119:9:

How can a young person stay on the path of purity?
By living according to your word.

The purpose or action desired is for a young person to stay on the path of purity. What is the means? Living according to God’s Word.


6. Conditional Clauses

Identify all conditional clauses. These are clauses that present the conditions whereby some action, consequence, reality, or result will happen. The conditional aspect will usually be introduced by the conditional conjunction “if.” The resultant action or consequence will occasionally be introduced by “then,” but often the resultant action or consequence has no specific introductory words. Whenever you encounter a conditional clause, always determine exactly what the required conditional action is (the if part) and what the result or consequence is (the then part).

Identify the conditional clause and the result or consequence in each of the following:

If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. (1 John 1:6)

Condition: if we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in darkness
Result or consequence: we lie and do not live out the truth

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Cor. 5:17)

Condition: if anyone is in Christ
Result or consequence: the new creation has come; the old has gone, the new is here

If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. (Deut. 28:1)

Condition: if you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today
Result or consequence: the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth

7. The Actions/Roles of People and the Actions/Roles of God

Biblical passages often refer to actions of people as well as those of God. Identify these and mark them as separate. Ask the questions: What does God (further identify as the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit) do in this passage? What do people do in this passage? Then ask whether there is any kind of connection between what God does and what people do.

For example, read Ephesians 5:1–2:

1Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

What are the actions or roles of people in this passage? We are told to be imitators of God in the same way children are imitators. We are also told to live a life of love as Christ did. What is Christ’s or God’s role in this passage? Christ’s role was to offer himself up to God for us; God’s role is to be the one who is imitated.

In addition, be sure to observe when references to God are made in relational terms (father, husband, king). For example, in Matthew 5:43–6:34 there are fourteen references to God as “Father” (5:45, 48; 6:1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 14, 15, 18, 26, 32). By his repeated use of “Father” in this passage (from the Sermon on the Mount) Jesus is clearly trying to convey an idea of relationship to God as a Father (both his and ours).


8. Emotional Terms

The Bible is not a book of abstract, technical information. It is a book about relationships, primarily relationships between God and people. Emotions play a big role in relationships. This is frequently overlooked in biblical interpretation. As part of your careful reading, when you observe the text, be sure to underscore words and phrases that have emotional overtones—that is, words that convey feeling and emotion. Also be sure to note words such as “father,” “mother,” “child,” “daughter,” “son,” and the like. These usually have underlying emotional connotations as well.

Read Galatians 4:12–16 and note the emotional connotations of the italicized phrases and words:

12plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you. You did me no wrong13As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, 14and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. 15Where, then, is your blessing of me now? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me16Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?

“Plead” is much more emotional than “ask,” isn’t it? Paul seems to have intentionally chosen strong emotional terms to express himself in this passage (and throughout Galatians). What feelings does Paul express here? Why does he bring up their past relationship, recalling how they once welcomed him? How strong is the phrase “torn out your eyes”? Likewise, what kind of connotations does the word “enemy” carry? The Old Testament uses emotional terminology even more frequently than the New Testament. God himself will open up and pour out his broken heart on account of his spiteful, rebellious people, as Jeremiah 3:19–20 testifies:

19“I myself said,
“‘How gladly would I treat you like my children
and give you a pleasant land,
the most beautiful inheritance of any nation.’
I thought you would call me ‘Father’
and not turn away from following me.
20But like a woman unfaithful to her husband,
so you, Israel, have been unfaithful to me,”
declares the Lord.

Observe the two emotional analogies God uses. Israel is like a son who has spurned and rejected the relationship with his father, and she is also like a wife who has cheated on her husband and had affairs with other men. These two relationships (parent/child and husband/wife) are without doubt the two most emotionally charged relationships that people experience. These relationships can bring extreme joy as well as devastating heartbreak. In Jeremiah 3 God wants his people to know that they have hurt him emotionally by their rejection of him.

9. Tone

Try to identify the tone of the passage. This will often be closely related to the identification of emotional terms (see above). However, once you have noted any emotional terms, continue on to determine the overall tone of the passage. Is it one of anger? A scolding tone? A sorrowful tone? Or a tone of unimpassioned explanation?

For example, contrast the tone of Colossians 3:1–4 with that of Galatians 3:1–4:

1Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Col. 3:1–4)

1You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? 3Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? 4Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? (Gal. 3:1–4)

In Colossians 3:1–4 Paul is using a calm, explanatory tone. He does not use strong emotional terms. In Galatians 3:1–4, however, Paul’s tone is quite different. He is chiding or scolding the Galatians. He even sounds as if he may be a little angry or at least disappointed with his readers, or both. His tone is part of his message, however, and it is important to note the tone of each passage you study.

What is Jesus’ tone in Matthew 23:33–35? Is he calm, gentle, and loving in his tone?

33You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berakiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.

Note too the tone of despair and gloom in Lamentations 3:1–6:

1I am the man who has seen affliction
by the rod of the Lord’s wrath.
2He has driven me away and made me walk
in darkness rather than light;
3indeed, he has turned his hand against me
again and again, all day long.
4He has made my skin and my flesh grow old
and has broken my bones.
5He has besieged me and surrounded me
with bitterness and hardship.
6He has made me dwell in darkness
like those long dead.

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