One of my favorite parts of the Inductive Bible Study process is the Detailed Observation. This is the “step” that comes after the Survey. Remember, the Survey is the first “step” where you take an overview of the Bible passage you are studying. The Detailed Observation is the “deep dive” where you look at a few verses close up. The Survey helps you decide which verses you want to examine more closely.
Before going further with this lesson, you may want to review and refresh with the following overview of the whole process: Inductive Bible Study: An Overview.
If you are ready to move into the Detailed Observation “step,” we’re going to look at some examples of Detailed Observation in a passage from Matthew. Detailed Observation has two parts – Observation and Inference. In this lesson, we are simply going to look at Observation.
My examples will be drawn from the RSV translation of the Bible. You are welcome to use a different Bible translation, but I recommend one that closely follows the original language, i.e., not paraphrased. The NIV tends to work really well for Inductive Bible Study, as do the RSV and NRSV. Try to use a version that isn’t marked with paragraph headings, if you can. In Inductive Bible Study, you just want to look closely at the text itself, without a publisher’s influences.
Go ahead and turn in your Bible to Matthew 4:17-22. Before you begin to read the passage, take some time and pray, asking the Holy Spirit to open your heart to hear His Word. Then go ahead and read the passage several times. Don’t think about your knowledge of the story. Just look at the words that are on the page, and read the text on its own terms. Listen, really listen to what the text is saying.
Types of Observations (To Name Just a Few)
For Detailed Observation, you want to examine the text close-up from various angles. For example:
- Which specific words jump out at you?
- What sequences do you observe, where one thing follows after another?
- Do you see any comparisons, contrasts, cause and effect, or repetition of terms? What are they?
- What imagery or symbolism is used?
- What are the actions, and who is doing the actions? Who is receiving the actions?
- How does this passage connect to the one before it and the one after it?
- What is the setting? How is it described?
- Do certain words refer to other words or phrases? What are they? How do they connect?
- What are the verbs?
- What is emphasized?
- What is significant by its absence?
Those are just some of the many questions you can ask about a text to help with your observations. It may seem awkward at first, but the more you practice detailed observation, the more natural it will become.
Remember – you’re not “adding to” or bringing in your own understanding. You’re simply observing what is in the text.
Sometimes it helps to write, “I observe that … ” each time you make an observation. That helps you keep yourself out of it and stay focused on the text itself. (As you get used to the process, you won’t have to write that, but it’s a helpful way to start.)
At this point, you are only making observations. You are not trying to look at what they mean. That comes later. Simply observe and report what you observe.
Before you look at my examples below, see if you can come up with 10 simple observations from this text (Matthew 4:17-22). Make a list of what you observe, including the verse(s) and observation.
Here are some of the observations I came up with by closely observing Matthew 4:17-22:
Verses 17-18: I observe that Jesus preaching is followed directly by Jesus gathering fishermen.
Verses 17-20: I observe that the description of the fishermen with their nets comes directly after Jesus’ words about the kingdom of God being at hand.
Verses 17-19: I observe that Jesus’ invitation for the fishermen to follow Him comes directly after His preaching and His words about repentance and the kingdom of God.
Verse 20: I observe that the word “immediately” gives a sense of either urgency or not lingering or hesitating. (This word is repeated in the next paragraph, verse 22, under similar circumstances.)
Verses 19-20: I observe that the author emphasizes the role of nets for the fishermen. (This imagery is carried over into verse 21 as well.)
Verses 19-20: I observe that the author contrasts the casting of nets and the leaving of nets.
Verses 17-20: I observe that the author gives two different sentences of Jesus’ words, and each is followed by a demonstrated response to these words.
Verses 19-20: I observe that the author sets up an “if-then” connection and two-way dynamic: “Follow me, and I will make.” If you follow, [then] I will make. The offer is conditional (if-then), and the possible response requires a two-way exchange: the brothers can follow Him, and then He will make them fishers of men. The response becomes actual in verse 20, but it is preceded by the conditional.
Verse 17: I observe that the content of Jesus’ preaching highlighted in this narrative is repentance and the kingdom of heaven. The content of Jesus’ preaching sounds similar to what John the Baptist was preaching (in the RSV, the words of Matthew 4:17 are identical to Matthew 3:2). And this paragraph follows right after a reference to John the Baptist (verse 12).
Verse 17: I observe that Jesus specifically refers to the “kingdom of heaven.” Not an earthly kingdom. Not a hypothetical kingdom. Not the “kingdom of God.” But specifically the “kingdom of heaven.”
Those are just a few of the many observations we can make about Matthew 4:17-22. If yours don’t match mine, that is okay. There are so many more and different observations you can make. But hopefully those examples will give you some ideas of what’s possible through Detailed Observation.
If you’d like, keep going and make more observations. Keep your list for next week’s lesson, when we will learn to ask questions about our observations that will bring us deeper into this passage.
Till then, God bless your time in His Word.