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Key words are one of the first things to look for when you OBSERVE a Bible passage. Before we can understand what a passage means, we must observe it to know what it says. Observation is the first step in inductive Bible study.  (Also see “What is Inductive Bible Study,” “The 4 R Bible Study Method,” “10 Observation Tips for Better Bible Study,” and “9 Tips to Help You Interpret the Bible.”) 

While not every passage you read will have obvious key words, many will. With just a little practice, this tool of the biblical author will become easier to spot.

What are Key Words and Phrases

Biblical authors often taught through repetition. They emphasized important points and truths by using the same words or phrases over and over. The author intentionally used this repetition to draw our attention. This literary tool is like shining a spot light on a speaker on a stage. Listen up. Notice this. This is important. 

Recognizing these repeated words or phrases are key to understanding the author’s main point. We don’t have to guess what’s important because the author clearly shows us. 

When you look for key words in a passage, be sure to record them in some way. I use an orange highlighter to mark every instance of the key word in a passage. That way they jump off the page. But come up with a way that makes sense to you. For instance, you could record them in a journal or write them in the margin of your Bible. (Also see Bible Highlighting for More Effective Bible Study.)

Key words might be a noun, an adjective, or a verb. And it’s not just single words the biblical authors used this way. They also used phrases and clauses. (I give some examples below.)

When you look for key words, also look for variations. The author might use different tenses of the same word. For instance, in Hebrews 12:26-28, the author used “shake” and various tenses (“shook” and “shaken”) five times.  

Be sure to include any pronouns or synonyms the author used in place of the word to mean the same thing. For instance, in Philippians 1:12-17 Paul used the word “imprisonment” (ESV) three times. But he also used the word “here” to refer to prison, so he used the same key word four times in that short passage. 

Different Ways the Biblical Authors Used Key Words

Saturation in a short passage

This is the most noticeable use of key words and phrases in Scripture. When we see the same word of phrase used multiple times in a short passage it really jumps out at us. 

For instance, in Psalm 136, the psalmist used the clause “His love endures forever” 26 times in 26 verses. That makes it pretty clear what he wanted us to understand. God’s love is faithful and eternal. 

In John 1:4-9 the Gospel writer included the word “light” seven times to describe Jesus and His work. John obviously wanted us to learn something about Jesus and His nature.

Repetition through a whole book

John also used the word “light” 27 times through the whole Gospel. When you read the book in a short time frame it’s noticeable. John wanted us to see “light” as a theme of his Gospel. 

Running theme through the whole Bible 

I’ve also noticed that “light” is a theme throughout God’s Word. 


And God said, “Let there be light (Genesis 1:3) 


And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:5)

And all in-between…

To provide structure

Sometimes an author used a repeated key phrase to help organize his material. For instance, in the book of Judges, the author used the phrase “And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” seven times. Each time it introduced the start of a repeated cycle – the people sinned, God judged their sin through enemy oppression, the people cried out for help, and God raised up a judge to help them.

To show a change or shift

I just studied the Gospel of John so I have lots of examples from this incredible book. In John, he referred to Jesus’ “hour” seven times. The first three times Jesus said His “hour has not yet come.” The last four times He said “the hour has come.” John wanted us to notice this important change. In the first half of the book, John focused on Jesus’ ministry and preparation of His disciples. Then the time came for Him to turn toward the cross. His ministry was over, the time had come for Him to lay down His life. 

To establish a pattern

In the passage commonly referred to as “The Hall of Faith” (Hebrews 11:1-40), the author used “by faith” eighteen times. This repetition not only highlights the author’s main point, it also set a pattern for his list of examples. All his examples showed that if we want to please God we will life “by faith.” We don’t just have faith we must live by it. No matter our circumstances or when we lived. (If you want to learn more about the book of Hebrews see my new devotional book “Deep Rooted: Growing through the Book of Hebrews.”)

Have you ever marked key words in a passage before? If so, how do you mark or record them?

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