Skill 1: How to Diagram a Passage For Your Next Sermon

Authors note: This article is a continuation of a recent post titled, 10 Skills Every Preacher Uses in Sermon Prep. In the article I gave a brief overview of the ten skills. I will now provide an in depth analysis of the first skill. 


What’s the first step you take after you pick your passage of scripture that you want to preach? Do you go straight to commentaries? Do you simply pray and hope that something comes to your mind?

Diagramming Biblical Passage

There are a variety of places we could start, but in order to stay grounded in the text, we must start with the text itself. One of the best ways to stay grounded in the text is to diagram the text. Diagramming shows us the intended meaning of the author. It shows us what the original audience would have understood. Our first step in sermon prep must be to diagram the text.

I guarantee that if you take the time to put into practice what I am about to show you, it will greatly enhance your sermon preparation and delivery.

Breaking Things Down

Thoughts are constructed by paragraphs, paragraphs of made up of sentences, and sentences are made up of words. In order to understand what the author was saying, we must see the way it was written. To see this, we must diagram and break down the text. This brings us to a better understanding of the intended meaning of the author.

Now before I explain how to diagram, let me suggest 3 benefits to diagramming the text structure.

3 Benefits of Diagramming  

  1. You will clearly distinguish the primary focus of the passage. It’s easy to lose sight of the author’s main point. When independent clauses (complete sentences with a subject and verb) mix with dependent clauses, we can end up focusing on the secondary clauses all because it “jumped out” at us. For example, if I said, “The house is large with seven rooms and a huge backyard,” what am I saying? Is my focus the seven rooms? The huge backyard? No, my main point is that the house is large. The evidence is the rooms and the backyard. Similarly, diagramming will help keep our focus on what the Holy Spirit was really saying through the writer.
  2. You will become better acquainted with the text. The more you work at something or study it, the better you will understand it. Likewise, the more you study a passage, the better you will be able to understand it. As a result, your explanation of the passage during your preaching will make better sense to you and your audience.
  3. You will know where you should focus your attention. As you diagram your text, it will become evident what your primary focus should be. This will catapult you to a better understanding of what the thrust of your sermon should be. The big idea of the text will revolve around the central point of the text.

So how do we diagram a text? Let’s use 1 Peter 1:3-5 as our working example and learn how to do this. Don’t worry. If this seems difficult for you at first, remember that most things take practice to really get comfortable with it.

1 Peter 1:3-5: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

The 7 Steps of Diagramming

Step 1. Find and write down the first independent clause.

I suggest that you go to an online bible and copy and paste the passage into a word-processor. This will be the easiest way to break apart and diagram the passage.

Typically, the passage will begin with the independent clause. An independent clause is a sentence that has a subject, verb, and a direct object. In our example, God (subject) (is) blessed (adjectival verb). The rest are dependent clauses that support the main idea sentence. Once you identify the main clause, hit enter on your keyboard to bring the rest of the passage under it.

Blessed be the God and Father (This is the main statement.)(The rest of the text lies below it)

of our Lord Jesus Christ who according to his abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope Through the resurrection Of Jesus Christ Form the dead…

Step 2. Place the rest of supporting clauses underneath the independent clause.

A supporting clause is a complete or incomplete sentence that supports another sentence by further explaining, illustrating, arguing, or applying it. For every supporting sentence to another dependent or independent sentence, put it underneath the clause or sentence that it supports.

For example, you start with the independent clause, below it you have a supporting clause, and below that you have the supporting clause of the supporting clause, etc. (See diagram below.)

Blessed be the God

(and) Father

of our Lord Jesus Christ (Modifies God & Father)

who

according to his abundant mercy

has begotten us again

to a living hope

through the resurrection

of Jesus Christ

from the dead

Note: Step 7 will provide order and an explanation to why certain phrases are under others.

Step 3. Put the connectives/ conjunctions in the left margin in parentheses.

Words like, “if,” “but,” “and,” should be put to the left in parentheses. This will help you visualize what that author is saying. In other words, conjunctions are put to the left.

Step 4. Underline all the verbs.

Verbs are important in all writing. By underlining the verbs, you will see the primary themes in the passages. For example, if you underline all the verbs in Joshua 1, “be strong and courageous” will inevitably surface as a repeated verb.

Step 5. Circle uncommon words.

Words that are not used often typically carry important meaning with it. A word study can be beneficial to the meaning of the passage. If you have little or no knowledge of the original Greek and Hebrew languages, use this resource for you study. If you possess a working knowledge of the languages, this resource is essential.

Step 6. Highlight theological words in the passage.

What are theological words? These are words that have greater meaning and span throughout all of scriptures. Examples of theological words are “God,” “Jesus Christ,” “redemption,” “salvation,” “resurrection,” etc.

Draw lines to connect words that are separated by dependent clauses. The reason for this is because sometimes phrases that belong together are interrupted by other clauses. For instance look at this final and completed diagram outline of our passage.

For the complete list of all the rhetorical functions, check here.

DON’T GIVE UP  

I want you to note that this may seem mechanical and rigid at first. With time, it will become a natural part of how you handle a text. It took me a while to get comfortable with diagramming. Now that it’s become my routine, I can read over a passage a few times and do a lot of the diagramming in my head without having to completely write it out.

There will be times that you will want to skip this first step. Don’t do it. The sooner you nail down the skill of diagramming, the sooner you will be able to read over a passage and internally map it out.

I am excited with you as you embark on this discipline of diagramming your passage. May the Holy Spirit guide you and develop this skill in you. I believe the Holy Spirit wants to be involved in all of your sermon prep- not just the delivery!

Question: What further questions do you have regarding passage diagramming?