Help for New Expositors: How to Find the Main Idea for Preaching (part 2)

enIn my last post (you can read it here: ), I walked through my method for becoming more familiar with the biblical text through the process of reading, translating, and diagramming. Although at this point much progress has been made, there is still more work to do before we can confidently say we know the main idea of the text. Up to this point the study has been with the Bible alone–no commentaries should have been used thus far. This is important because we want to hear from God what His word says to us without the contamination of outside voices. Although we will need to fight against our own personal ideas and presuppositions being imposed upon the meaning of the text, this would be much more difficult if we had the input of others at this early stage. Now that we have listened to the Word with dependence upon the Holy Spirit, we are now ready to begin answering some of the observation questions we have developed in our reading and translation.

The next step we need to take is to tentatively identify the main theme of the passage. This may be changed as we continue studying, but we should have a good idea of a major theme that has risen to the top of our understanding from our studying at this point. Write this down and set it aside.

Next, choose several commentaries that will speak to the text you have chosen to study. If you need help knowing how to choose a commentary and the differences between some commentaries and others, read my post on how to select a commentary, and just as important, when to use them. You can find that post here: Now, take out that list of observations and questions that you gathered from reading through your Bible 25 times, and with your commentaries handy, go looking for the answers to the questions and curiosities that you found. Background commentaries will help with the cultural issues you observed, exegetical and critical commentaries will help with linguistic issues that popped up when you translated or read various translations. Try to avoid reading expositional commentaries at this point because they might tempt you to short-cut the process of self-study by giving you the answers too easily. In these types of commentaries, usually built off of sermons, you would find an outline, illustrations, and even application. Plagiarism is still a sin, and is especially grievous in a minister of the Word.

Hopefully as you read the commentaries you had several conclusions confirmed from your own study. It is a special satisfaction that comes when you read the same things you found in your study in the pages of commentaries. It helps you realize that you too can study the Scriptures for yourself! If you find that you had unique ideas or were in disagreement with all or most of the commentaries regarding the main ideas or interpretation of the text, you might want to go back and re-study the passage again. It is possible that you got it right and everyone else got it wrong–possible, but highly improbable. Commentaries act as a check on our study to make sure that we aren’t far off in our conclusions. If you are certain you got it right, make sure that you have strong reasons that are defendable by the text of the Scriptures. God has given to the church many excellent Bible teachers (Eph. 4:11), and we shouldn’t ignore the wisdom given by the Spirit without very good reasons.

After your review of commentaries, you should be ready to put together a textual or exegetical outline. What is a textual or exegetical outline? It is an outline that follows the contours, storyline, or argument of the author. Sometimes this is done through textual markers seen in the original languages or grammar. Sometimes it is suggested by the flow of a narrative and the changing of scenes. It doesn’t have to be pretty, it just needs to accurately hit the high points of the text. Don’t try to alliterate or be fancy–just get the main ideas down. This outline should reflect the totality of the text you have studied. At this point, you may begin to see how you will break up a longer passage to be preached in larger chunks as multiple sermons.

Next, looking at the main theme you wrote down earlier, and your textual outline. What would you say is the doctrinal theme? In other words, what main theological idea rises to the top of this passage? Try to be brief and accurate–“love” is too generic, but “the love of God for the Church” would be more accurate. Think of this as a label for a box that your whole sermon text will fit into. If some of the text doesn’t fit this theological theme, then you need to adjust it and make sure it covers the whole text.

When you have come to the doctrinal or theological theme, ask yourself how well you know this doctrine. Perhaps it is one that you have studied well and in depth and you know what the whole of Scripture teaches about it. Wonderful! You can move on. But if you are lacking in your understanding, it would be best to take a look at a good systematic theology (or two) and read up on the subject. It might be that the doctrine is found in a few places that you will need to review, like our above subject “the love of God for the Church.” There you should look up the “love of God” under the attributes of God, and under “the love of Christ.” You probably would also want to look up this love under the subject of “the Church.” Additionally, you might want to check and see how God’s love for the Church is different from his love for other entities like Israel, unbelievers, and “the world.” Once you have armed yourself with what the whole Bible teaches on your doctrinal subject, you can be assured that you will not say something about your passage that is untrue in another passage you might have been ignorant about. That’s always embarrassing.

Now we are ready to consider forming the preaching proposition or main idea of the sermon. That will need to wait for the next post.

One thought on “Help for New Expositors: How to Find the Main Idea for Preaching (part 2)

  1. Pingback: Help for New Expositors: How to Find the Main Idea for Preaching (part 3) | Always Reforming

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