In Praise of the Highlighter Pen

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Missing the wood for the trees is easily done when studying scripture. You can get so locked into a few words or sentences that the major themes of book and its overriding purpose get lost from view. When that happens it is possible to find yourself a long way off track. Just imagine trying to deduce from a single piece of a jigsaw what the whole picture is about! I have found a useful weapon to battle with this danger – a highlighter pen.

A few years ago, as a preaching team, we were going to tackle the book of Galatians and I stumbled upon this particular approach. In preparation for the series each preacher was given a print out of the whole book with all the formatting removed i.e. no paragraph division and all the headings removed.  Then, armed with four different colour highlighter pens, we went away to read through the text several times and answer the following questions.
 
1. Indicate what appear to be the main sections of the letter. (No fewer than 4, no more than 10)
2. Highlight all the phrases that indicate why Paul was writing. What did he hope to achieve?
3. Highlight what Paul considered to be problems in the church.
4. Highlight what were the solutions he proposed
 
After a couple of weeks we came back together full of questions and insights which would never have occurred to us if we had simply started to preach using the paragraph divisions given in our Bible translations. This meant that all the way through the series each preacher had a much better sense of how their passage fitted in with the whole. It also meant that when we turned to the commentaries we were looking to find answers to our questions - a more fruitful approach than simply being swamped by the commentators’ insights.
 
At present I am working through John’s Gospel with the help of Garry Burge’s NIV Application Commentary and find that he gets his students to complete a similar exercise. First, he asks them to highlight every reference to a Jewish festival in the Gospel, then he asks them to note what stories are adjacent to these references and consider if there is any connection. Next he asks them to highlight in different colours those sections of the Gospel that are set in Judah and those that are set in Galilee and consider the significance of the pattern that emerges.  This approach can be easily expanded so that in John’s Gospel themes like ‘light and darkness’, ‘irony and misunderstanding’ can be picked out and explored. 
 
So… next time you start studying a book of the Bible, I’d like to suggest you come to it armed with a highlighter pen - and see what happens as a result!

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