Text Flow – Step 1.1 – Basic Grammar

This is part 1 of 2 , subjects & verbs, in Basic Grammar.

Grammar–blech! Nobody likes it and once we finish our education we tend to forget as much as possible. After all, who really cares about subjects, and adverbs, and adjectives, and gerunds?

As much as we may hate it, grammar is a part of all written languages, including the Bible. In John Piper’s thirty-four page booklet, Biblical Exegesis: Discovering the Meaning of Scriptural Texts, he says this about the grammar of the Bible.

An evangelical believes that God humbled himself not only in the incarnation of the Son, but also in the inspiration of the Scriptures. The manger and the cross were not sensational. Neither are grammar and syntax…Therefore, if God humbled himself to take on human flesh and to speak human language, woe to us if we arrogantly presume to ignore the humanity of Christ and the grammar of Scripture.

Biblical Exegesis, John Piper, p. 5

Love it or hate it, grammar is an important part to better understanding Scripture. The Biblical authors used grammar and syntax to convey the meaning they wished their audiences to understand. Likewise, we will briefly study grammar and syntax to come as close to that meaning as humanly possible. With that brief introduction, let us begin our journey.

Verbs-It’s Where The Action is!

Photo courtesy of PXhere.com

We start with verbs because they are words of action and tell us what’s happening in the text. The Bible wouldn’t make much sense if we left out all the verbs. There are two types of action that verbs perform: transitive and intransitive.

  • Transitive verbs transfer the action to a direct object (discussed later in part 2 of Basic Grammar). In the sentence, Bob hit the ball, the action of the verb hit is transferred to the word ball. In simple terms to be a transitive verb, there must be someone or something for the action of the verb to act upon.
  • Intransitive verbs, on the other hand, have no object which to act upon. They are still verbs but the action remains, so to speak, with the person or thing performing the action. In John 11:35 we read, Jesus wept. The verb is wept yet it does not weep on someone or something. The verb is somewhat stagnant and has no object. Therefore it is called Intransitive. That is, the action does not transfer to something else.

Verbs also have something called a voice. No, they don’t talk but they do show action in two kinds of ways. Their action is either active or passive. in the action voice the subject performs the action. Bob hit the ball, tells us that the verb is being done by someone or something, in this case Bob. But in the passive voice things get flipped around. Now the action of the verb is the subject. Bob was hit by the ball, tells us that Bob is no longer the one performing the action, but is rather the one being acted upon. Passive verbs are usually written using a helping verb to make it passive.

Kinds of Verbs

Now that we understand the kinds of actions verbs perform we need to understand the different kinds of verbs we will encounter. At this point, I believe it will be helpful to introduce to be verbs and helping verbs.

There are eight be verbs: be, am, is, are, was, were, being, been. When we talk about finding verbs we must also include these being verbs. Take John 1:1 for example:

John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

The two be verbs are italicized and underlined and show a state of being. When picking out verbs and their subjects it is important to include these in clauses you may separate out. It is also worth pointing out that Being verbs don’t take an object and can be considered passive.

Auxillary verbs, or Helping verbs, help complete the action of the verb. Galatians 1:4-5 is a prime example of a helping verb.

Galatians 1:3–4 Grace to you and peace… from our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,

The word ‘might’ helps to complete the meaning of the verb, deliver. Helping verbs should be included in their clauses as we begin to separate them. Now, let’s continue with the kinds of verbs we will encounter. There are three major kinds of verbs we typically see.

  1. Finite – these verbs simply assert something happened. These are the only kinds of verbs that can be the main verb of the main clause. We will flesh all this out in later posts.
  2. Participles – these guys are often used as an adjective and describe further the noun or verb they modify. In John 6:51 Jesus states, I am the living bread. The word ‘living’ is describing Jesus further. He is not only bread that came from Heaven, He is living bread. Participles also indicate the means or the manner in which action is carried out. Paul uses participles in this way in Ephesians 6:17-18 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; 18 praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints.

    The two participles in verse 18, praying and being watchful, modify and describe the manner how spiritual armor, namely the sword of the Spirit and the helmet of salvation are taken up through prayer and watchfulness. (Cohick, L. H. (2010). Ephesians. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books. pg. 158). Participles can be versatile in their function so it is important to ascertain their use when you encounter them.
  3. Infinitives – These are verbs with our English word ‘to’ preceding them. Like participles, they can be used a number of ways including being objects, subjects, and showing the purpose of an action.

1 Samuel 15:22 So Samuel said: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, As in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams.

The infinitive ‘to obey’ is functioning as the subject of this sentence. In the New Testament infinitives can also be used to express the purpose or result of an action. In Matthew 4:1 the infinitive ‘to be tempted’ is semantically functioning as an infinitive of purpose. The passage then could be read as “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness [for the purpose] to be tempted by the devil.” As we progress through the steps we will touch on how infinitives are subordinate to their clauses.


A subject of a sentence is a noun that performs the action of the verb or is acted upon by the verb. In order to find the subject of a clause you simply ask who or what performed the action. Using the example of John 11:35, “Jesus wept,” we can find the verb, wept, and ask who or what wept? The answer is Jesus is the one who wept. This would be the subject of that clause. Of course things become a bit more complicated when there are several clauses in a sentence. Sometimes the main subject and main verb are separated by several clauses and phrases. When this is the case, care must be taken to pick out the correct pieces. 1Peter 1:10 should suffice for an example.

1 Peter 1:10. Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully…

At first glance it is easy to think that prophets is the subject and prophesied is the verb. But the entire relative clause has to be ignored to find the correct verb for the word prophet. Once we go over the different kinds of clauses and phrases it should become a little more clear. In our next post we will begin to flesh out grammar a bit more as we talk about direct objects and indirect objects.

Below is a practice sheet you can download. The answers are given on the second page.

Bible & Coffee-An Aid to Help With Bible Study


One of the greatest needs our culture has at this moment is understanding what the Bible says and the proper way to interpret and apply what has been read. Interpreting passages wrongly gives us a skewed perspective of who God really is and what He has promised us through the gospel. On the other hand, a close and careful reading allows us to see Him as Scripture proclaims.

One of the best tools to accomplish this is text flow diagramming. You may have heard this method referred to as block diagramming, semantic diagramming, text hierarchy, phrasing, or numerous other labels. The main gist of a text flow is to visually layout a passage of Scripture so that you can clearly see the main points of a passage. It is done through a several step process that includes careful reading of the text several times and then proceeding to allow the main clauses to stand at the left-hand margin while indenting the subordinating clauses and phrases under the main clause(s). The result is a visual stair step (or block) like aid that represents the flow of thought of the author. Below is an example from Galatians 1:1-5

Text Flow of Galatians 1:1-5

A brief glance at the diagram reveals the main thoughts of Paul and his companions writing and their desire that God would give them grace and peace through the person of Jesus. It doesn’t sound too spiritual but those are the main points in Paul’s introduction to the Galatians.

Some Words of Caution

It’s tempting to see a Scripture that really stands out and try to force it to be the main point. Text flow diagramming, although flexible and not as rigid as line diagramming, is bound by grammatical rules. How we “feel” about a particular verse does not automatically mean it should stand as the author’s main theme or the central focus of an entire pericope. Therefore, it is important to let the author’s meaning and the grammar (which will be discussed in a follow-up post) dictate what the main point is.

One last caution would be understanding that text flow diagramming is a starting point and should never be the only part of your Bible study. You need to put the work in and dig as deep as you can with other resources. You can see some of my favorite tools on this page.

how is text flow helpful?

Besides laying out the main points visually, text flows are useful as a study aid in several ways:

  1. Text flows give a bird’s eye view of an entire passage. Scanning the page will help you see the big picture of a pericope and the main topics the author is trying to drive home.
  2. Text flows provide a natural outline. Since the main points are available at a glance you can easily outline a passage. The subordinating clauses often serve as sub-points, helping to flesh out the main clauses.
  3. Text flow syntactical labels (discussed at a later time) help identify the connection of individual clauses and phrases to the main clause.
  4. Text flows when done properly, align closely with the grammar of the original languages. (this is mainly the Greek text. Hebrew is different.)
  5. Text flows are easier to learn than traditional diagramming.
  6. Text flows still force you to slow down and observe the whole text.

the tutorial outline

Our journey to understanding the Bible will be taken in steps. It is important to try and learn these concepts well. After every step, practice what you have learned by reading a familiar Bible passage and picking out the key elements you learned that day. Let’s get started by looking at the outline

Step 1 – Basic Grammar

We will identify the basic grammar essential to understanding the Bible. Scripture was written according to the grammar and syntax of the time and it is important for us to understand it, as well. This lesson will cover the following:
• How to find subjects, verbs, direct objects, and indirect objects
• Different types of verbs
• Apposition words

Step 2 – Clauses and Phrases

This lesson will focus mainly on how to identify clauses and phrases. And yes, they are different.
• What are clauses?
• What are phrases?
• Different types of phrases

Step 3 – Identifying Propositions

This is where we begin to dig into the text. Everything we’ve learned up to this point will come into play, so make sure you learn the previous lessons well.
• Finding propositions
• Splitting propositions
• when some propositions stay together
• Prepositional Phrases and their contribution to the text

Step 4 – Indenting Subordinating Clauses

This step will go into detail on how and where subordinating clauses should be indented.
• Two methods of indentation
• Extracting phrases
• “Testing” subordination for correct placement
• Using arrows to show subordination

Step 5 – Semantic Labels

We will identify and place semantic labels beside each subordinate clause.
• Categories of semantics
• Color coding schematic of labels

Step 6 – Final Touches

In the last step we will see what is done once we finish the text flow.
• Proof reading your diagram
• Internalizing your study (how is God’s word changing you?)
• Creating an outline
• Further study

I pray that text flow diagramming will be another useful tool in your Bible study belt. It will take practice and perseverance just like any other skill. But once you get the hang of it, I think you will find that it will be one of the most important steps in the observation phase of your study.