There must be high demand for Bible outlines, since they show up everywhere. Almost every study Bible outlines each book. Almost every commentary has a central outline. Most sermons and study guides outline their passages. And most introductory essays on books of the Bible share a few key topics: date, author, audience, key themes, and—you guessed it—outline.
We generate and consume Bible outlines in massive quantities, but have you ever considered what goes into creating an outline? How do you know if the outline is accurate or not? And what makes some outlines better or worse than others, at least for specific purposes?
Let’s assume you’re already convinced it’s worth your time to pay attention to structure. (If you need more convincing, see how structure shapes the meaning of a passage and 10 reasons why we should take note of structure.) How does that structure translate into a formal outline? What should you look for in an outline? Why are some outlines of the same text so different from one another?
Outline #1: Observational
The first way to make an outline is to summarize what the passage says. This type of outline takes the bare facts of a passage and puts them in order.
For example, here is part of an outline of Job from the Gospel Transformation Bible:
III. The Intervention of Eliphaz (Job 4:1-5:27)
IV. Job’s First Response to Eliphaz (Job 6:1-7:21)
V. The Intervention of Bildad (Job 8:1-22)
VI. Job’s First Response to Bildad (Job 9:1-10:22)
VII. The Intervention of Zophar (Job 11:1-20)
VIII. Job’s First Response to Zophar (Job 12:1-14:22)
This outline contains some important observations. Job’s speeches alternate with those of his 3 friends, who each speak in turn. If you continue through the outline, you’ll see that Eliphaz and Bildad each speak three times, and Zophar speaks only twice. But Job has a response to each one of their speeches.
This outline gives you a straightforward, clear grasp of the text’s structure. Similarly observational outlines for other books of the Bible might go like this:
I. Jesus’ Birth (Luke 1-2)
II. Jesus’ Galilean Ministry (Luke 3-9)
III. Jesus on the Way to Jerusalem (Luke 9-19)
IV. Jesus in Jerusalem (Luke 19-21)
V. Jesus’ Suffering and Death (Luke 22-23)
VI. Jesus’ Resurrection (Luke 24)
I. Introduction (Prov 1-9)
II. Proverbs of Solomon (Prov 10:1-22:16)
III. Sayings of the Wise (Prov 22:17-24:34)
IV. Hezekiah’s Collection (Prov 25-29)
V. Proverbs of Agur (Prov 30)
VI. Proverbs of King Lemuel (Prov 31:1-9)
VII. The Virtuous Woman (Prov 31:10-31)
These outlines tell you exactly what happens in the text, and they’re great for helping you get your bearings in a book. But they don’t say much more than the foundational what.
Outline #2: Interpretive
For example, here is part of an outline of Job (same section as above) from the ESV Study Bible:
B. The friends and Job: can Job be right before God? (Job 4:1–25:6)
1. First cycle (Job 4:1–14:22)
a. Eliphaz: can mortal man be in the right before God? (Job 4:1–5:27)
b. Job: life is futile (Job 6:1–7:21)
c. Bildad: the wisdom of the sages (Job 8:1–22)
d. Job: how can a mortal be just before God? (Job 9:1–10:22)
e. Zophar: repent (Job 11:1–20)
f. Job: a challenge to the “wisdom” of his friends (Job 12:1–14:22)
This outline goes beyond bare observation and shows the flow of ideas from one speech to the next. The chief benefit of such an outline is that it gives you not only the what but also the why. It focuses not only on summaries but also on main points (do you know the difference?). The chief weakness of such an outline is that it’s more likely to be mistaken or even off-center, since it’s not as clearly based on the surface of the text.
Different Outlines for Different Uses
In some cases, the observational outline will be more useful. Such cases include the first pass through a book overview, a detailed review to confirm the validity of an interpretive outline, or a quick compass check to find your place in a book (I’m slogging through Isaiah 25 and need to be reminded of the larger sections).
In other cases, the interpretive outline will be more useful. Such cases include teaching or preaching, concisely organizing the main points or train of thought, or moving toward application.
Let’s say you’re studying Mark 15:1-20 to teach to others. You might begin your own study with a simple observational outline:
- Jews deliver Jesus to Pilate (Mk 15:1-5)
- Pilate delivers Jesus to be crucified (Mk 15:6-15)
- Soldiers mock Jesus (Mk 15:16-20)
But I hope you don’t teach the passage that way. That outline doesn’t help anyone to understand why Mark wrote these things. Something like this will be more useful for teaching:
- Don’t mistake this King’s identity (Mk 15:1-5)
- Don’t miss this King’s release (Mk 15:6-15)
- Don’t abhor this King’s mockery (Mk 15:16-20)
Can you see the difference? Do you see how you can get from one outline to the other? Can you see benefits to each one? Why do you think some outlines are better than others?
Disclaimer: Links to Amazon are affiliate links.
- You may click on them and buy stuff.
- This blog will receive a small commission at no extra cost to yourself.
- All parties, including the FCC, will be warm and well fed.