Whether you call it the “main idea,” “big idea,” “propositional statement,” or something else, we are going to be looking at how to make sure you preach the main idea of a section of Scripture so that you are not preaching about an ancillary idea or worse, force your own idea upon the passage. In this post I will be walking through a process I have developed for myself. To help myself with this, I have made a worksheet. In a previous post, I shared it on this blog. You can see it and download it here: https://always-reforming.com/2014/07/24/a-simplified-sermon-preparation-checklist/
The first thing that you need to make sure you do is to be as familiar as you can be about the portion of text you are preaching from. Make sure you have included the whole pericope (pəˈrikəpē), which is the whole unit of thought—in other words, don’t choose only a few verses within a section, or half a narrative section. The pericope will be at least a full paragraph, but might be more. Don’t worry if there is too much to preach at one time. You will be able to break the section into smaller preaching units later, but for now, you need to study the whole section together as one unit. If you are able to read Greek or Hebrew, those texts will also help you see the major units of the text.
To familiarize yourself with your text, you need to begin by reading it over and over again. I’d suggest you do this in your preferred English translation for preaching. Read it over at least 25 times. As you read through, take notes about what you see, questions you have that will need to be answered, and other observations about the text. Don’t stop to do research at this point, but rather set aside these questions and observations for your study later. When you are finished reading the text repeatedly, you should almost have it memorized—or at least be very familiar with it. Why 25 times and not more or less? Although this is only my suggestion, I think that 25 times will yield more in observations and the flow of the textual outline than less readings will. More reading will be helpful, but with limited sermon preparation time and diminished return for your time investment, reading more times is a luxury many cannot afford.
After having read the chosen text over and over you need to read it in multiple English translations. Bible software makes this easy to do. Read it in the most common translations and paraphrases available—ESV, NASB, NIV, KJV, NKJV, CSB, HCSB, The Message, TNIV, etc. You only need to read each of them once, but note the places where there are significant changes or disagreement. This might clue you in to translational issues or manuscript variants that you will discover later.
The next step will not be possible for everyone. If you can, translate the passage from the original languages. If you do not know Greek or Hebrew, you can use aids and software, but please understand that this is not the same as knowing the languages—recognize that tools are helpful but they are not the same as knowing the language. I have seen some students of the Word who do not know the original languages say wrong things, even embarrassing things, while giving the impression to their congregation that they know more than they do. Since most pastors are not linguistic scholars (even those who do know Hebrew and Greek), we need a strong dose of humility in this area and to know our own limitations.
While you translate your passage, note key words, repeated words, word plays, hapax legomenon (words that occur only once in the Bible), inclusio (a type of textual “envelope”), chiastic structures, and other linguistic markers that your text might have. These are the hidden gems of the text that expositors are blessed to see firsthand. Some of these we may expose to our congregation because they are helpful to them to understand the passage, while others we may not include in our sermon but will enjoy their richness and depth for ourselves.
Next, diagram your text either from the original language or in your preferred English translation. The practice of sentence diagramming will help you to see subordinate clauses and phrases, controlling verbs, and other grammatical clues to the structure and the intended emphases of the biblical writer. By doing this, you will make sure that you are not emphasizing a minor idea when the author is emphasizing something else. If you don’t know how to diagram a text, I would highly recommend you learn how to do so. A book like Walter Kaiser’s Toward an Exegetical Theology can help and give examples. For further help, Lee Kantenwein’s book Diagrammatically Analysis is also a good place to look. Both are available to purchase from places like Amazon.com
If you have done all of the above so far, you will have deeply immersed yourself into the passage and will have becoming aware of the theme(s) of the passage you are intending to preach—textually, and theologically. You aren’t there yet and this exegetical data isn’t yet a sermon ready to preach, but you are well on your way.
My next post will pick up from here and move on to the next few steps that will help us on our way to finding the main idea of a passage before we put together our sermon and proclaim, “Thus says the Lord.”