Step 3: How to Find the Big Idea of a Scripture Passage

Step 3 The Big Idea of the Passage

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the importance of the Big Idea of a passage.
  2. Formulate the Big Idea by combining a subject and complement.

The third and perhaps most important, step in preparing your sermon is finding the “big idea” of the text. Some people call it the “thesis statement”, “main proposition” or “central” idea – they are just different words for the same thing.

First, you will learn:

  1. The importance of the Big Idea
  2. To Discover the Big Idea by combining a subject and a complement.

What is the Big Idea

The “big idea” of the text is the one, eternal truth that is being communicated by your passage (although some passages such as Psalm 132 may have a temporal/primary meaning and a secondary, often Messianic fulfillment). It is one sentence which summarizes the entirety of your passage (no matter how small or how big – even the whole bible has a “big idea”). Everything in the passage or portion of text you are studying is built around that central proposition and, in some way or the other, connects to it. As you will see later on, the same is true for Step 5, forming the heart of your sermon.

Every good book, article or speech you ever read or heard was in large part good because it clearly and effectively communicated one all-encompassing thought (it’s “big idea”) in a way that engaged and captivated you. That is the goal of your preaching just as it was the goal of the biblical writers.

The authors of the bible were skilled, masterful communicators (after all, they wrote led and directed by the Holy Spirit) yet, not simply because of the way they communicated, but more so because of what they communicated. That is what makes the bible such a wonderful, enjoyable and gripping book – it is built around a captivating message that is delightful to the ear and nourishing for the soul.

As with every step, don’t rush this. Take your time. Work it and rework it until you are confident you have nailed it. The entirety of your sermon depends on it. If you find yourself stuck and uncertain at this point, don’t panic. Pray then simply go back and redo the first two steps and then give it another shot.

Discovering the Big Idea

I can’t emphasize this enough, your goal in the first three steps is to discover what God was saying to the original hearers of your bible passage and how he wanted them to respond. So this is not the time to say what you think the passage means to you in your own life, but what God wanted the passage to mean in the lives of those who first heard or read it.

Now that you know why the “big idea” is important, let’s walk through how to find it.

Big idea = Subject + Complement

How are ideas formed? Ideas are formed when you join a subject and a complement. Think of it in this way:

  1. The subject asks the what is the passage talking about?
  2. The complement answers the question what is the passage saying about what is it talking about? (I know, it’s an awkward construction!).

The subject is best presented as a question, and the complement is best presented as a statement answering the question (get it? The complement completes).

A Simple Example

For example, let’s say you are studying the sentence “The man is walking”. How was this statement, which is a big idea, formed? By bring the subject and complement together.

Subject:

To find the subject, ask what is the sentence talking about? Answer: the man.

Complement:

To find the complement, answer the question what is the sentence saying about what it is talking about? In other words, what is the sentence saying about “the man”? Answer: he is walking.

Big idea:

Add the two, subject and complement together to find the big idea.

The man (subject) + he is walking (complement) = The man is walking (big idea).

Sounds a little silly right? After all we ended up with exactly the same statement with which we started off? Not quite. It is easy to figure out the main idea in a short, simple sentence like this one, but not so much when you are dealing with a long complicated passage. When you are looking for the big idea, in a sense, you are trying to “reverse engineer” the passage and find out the central thought that led the writer to write whatever it is they wrote. Let’s look at a more practical example using Ephesians 2:1-3.

Practical Example: Ephesians 2:1-3

Ephesians 2:1-3 summary recap:

Before they came to know Jesus as their Lord, the Ephesian Christians had no spiritual life in them. They lived completely trapped in terribly sinful ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. They lived like slaves, blindly imitating the immoral behavior of the world around them and they lived in obedience to the will of Satan. As a result, they were in danger of suffering the terrible and just judgment of God, when he shall punish all wickedness and sin.

Subject

Question: What is the passage talking about?

Answer: The lives of the Ephesian Christian’s before Jesus saved them.

Now rephrase this as a question to get:

What were the lives of the Ephesian Christians like before Jesus saved them?

Complement

What is the passage saying about the lives of the Ephesian Christians before Jesus saved them?

They were trapped in sin, were slaves to the world and were followers of Satan who lived under the threat of God’s just punishment.

Big idea of Ephesians 2:1-3

Combine the subject and complement (you may need to reword it a little to make better sense) and express the big idea in a single, pithy statement to get:

Before Jesus saved them, the Ephesian Christians were trapped in sin, slaves to the world and followers of Satan who lived under the threat of God’s just punishment.

Test and see if it is indeed a faithful expression of the big idea. You can ask yourself, if I had to tell someone who has never read the bible what Ephesians 2:1-3 says, would this sentence capture and convey Paul’s main point? If the answer is no, then repeat step 3 (or go back to the previous steps if necessary).

You will have noticed that Steps 1 to 3 were a process of discovery. You studied the words and relationships, outline the structure of the passage, and finally found the Big Idea of the passage. This is because your duty as a preacher is to discover the truth in God’s word, not to invent it. However, the next four steps are about you crafting your sermon. This is where you take that core, eternal truth you found in Step 3 and communicate it to God’s people (your audience) in a way that is engaging, relevant and applicable to them in their own context.

Key Takeaways

  • There is only one Big Idea of the text (although some passages such as Psalm 132 may have a temporal/primary meaning and a secondary, often Messianic fulfillment).
  • The Big Idea is formed by combining a subject and a complement.

Exercises

    Practice by applying these steps to any one of these passages (or one of your own choosing) – Ephesians 2:4-7, Psalm 1:1-3, Psalm 1:4-6, Colossians 1:1-3.

    Remember to use the same passage you picked in Step 1 to ensure consistency.

Practice!

    Step 3: Practice Finding the Big Idea of the Passage

    • What is the passage talking about? Best phrased as a question.
    • What is the passage saying about what it is talking about? Best written as a statement.
    • Subject + Complement = Big Idea
    • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sources

  1. Anonymous.Stand up, Speak out: the Practice and Ethics of Public Speaking. University of Minnesota, 2011.
  2. Bell, John, and Gary Cross. Langham Zimbabwe Preaching Seminars Level One Handbook. Langham Preaching Zimbabwe, 2014.
  3. Richard, Ramesh, and Ramesh Richard. Preparing Expository Sermons: a Seven-Step Method for Biblical Preaching. Baker Books, 2001.
  4. Robinson, Haddon W. Biblical Preaching: the Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Baker Academic, 2001.
  5. Robinson, Haddon W., and Craig Brian. Larson. The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching: a Comprehensive Resource for Todays Communicators. Zondervan, 2005.

 

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