When I write an article, I want to make a point. To make that point stick, I follow a series of steps. First, I try to capture your attention with the first sentence or two. Second, I introduce my thesis early. Third, I explain the thesis and apply it. Finally, I land the article with a strong sense of arrival (or liftoff, if I want to inspire you with a certain Bible study practice). Along the way, I pepper my writing with salty metaphors, everyday illustrations—like the time I explained how Bible study was like teeball—and clear conclusions. Therefore, I have something to say, and I want to set you up to hear it.
Nonfiction works this way: An author has something to say, but that author must bring the readers along for the ride. From the beginning of the work to the end, a journey of discovery unfolds. We call this journey the author’s train of thought.
The Bible works similarly, and our Bible study hits pay dirt when we hop aboard the author’s train of thought.
Why it Matters
The author’s train of thought outlines his main ideas. And his main ideas are, well, his main ideas. If you’d like to grow at fighting for the main point and reading passages in context, you’ll want to grow your ability to follow a train of thought. The tracks have been laid. Will you walk along them?
Example #1: Romans 4
Look at how Paul’s argument unfolds, and hop aboard for the ride:
- Rom 4:1: What did Abraham gain in this matter [How did he get the righteousness of God (Rom 3:21)?]?
- Rom 4:2-8: He didn’t get it by works.
- Rom 4:9-12: He didn’t get it through circumcision.
- Rom 4:13-15: He didn’t get it by law.
- Rom 4:16-17: Therefore, he got it by faith!
- Rom 4:18-22: Abraham’s faith = despite outward circumstances, being fully convinced God is able to do what he promises.
- Rom 4:23-25: Our faith works the same way (believing God’s promise despite our circumstances) and achieves the same result (the righteousness of God).
What’s at stake for Paul in this chapter? How Jews can be made right with God. How it’s always been this way for them. How it’s no different now for non-Jews.
Looking at the immediate context, we see that Paul addresses key questions asked by the Jewish members of his Roman audience.
- What about good works? (Rom 3:27-28)
- What about circumcision? (Rom 3:29-30)
- What about the law? (Rom 3:31)
And for Jew and Gentile alike, God’s righteousness remains available—not through good deeds, religious rituals, or law-keeping, but by believing him who raised Jesus from the dead (Rom 4:24).
Example #2: Hebrews 1-5
Hebrews hits us between the eyes with its train of thought. I can think of no other book that announces each point this clearly before explaining it. The announcements come as transitions from one major section to the next.
- Big idea: God has spoken by his Son who sat down (Heb 1:1-4).
- First point: Jesus became “as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs” (Heb 1:4).
- Jesus’ more excellent name (Heb 1:5-14)
- Jesus’ superiority to angels (Heb 2:5-18)
- Second point: Jesus had to “become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God” (Heb 2:17-18).
- Jesus the faithful high priest (Heb 3:1-4:14).
- Jesus the merciful high priest (Heb 4:15-5:10).
The rest of the book continues in the same way, announcing the points before explaining them. The author scatters sections of application between major points. The main idea comes alive with each point: Jesus accomplished the work of salvation God sent for him to do. Therefore, he is “more” and “better” than the things God used to communicate salvation in the Old Testament. Hop aboard the train of thought when you study Hebrews, and you’ll find buckets of gold at the end of each rainbow.
Example #3: Job 4-5
It works for poetry as well. Look at the first speech given by one of Job’s friends, and track the thinking stanza by stanza.
- Can I remind you of where your confidence should be (Job 4:1-6)?
- You are guilty (Job 4:7-11).
- You are mortal (Job 4:12-21).
- You’re a fool (Job 5:1-7).
- Seek your confidence not in yourself, but in God (Job 5:8-16).
- Accept the Almighty’s discipline (Job 5:17-27).
Think about how Eliphaz moves from one thought to the next, and we can discover his underlying point: “Hardship is always a sign of God’s corrective discipline; therefore, Job, you’re despising God’s redemptive work in your life.” Of course, the larger context of Job makes it clear that Eliphaz is wrong (Job 42:7-8). But that doesn’t stop Paul from turning Eliphaz upside down to see if he can shake some treasure out of his pockets (1 Cor 3:18-19).
Of course, some passages won’t have much train of thought (think Proverbs 10-29). And narratives look a little different. But don’t miss this train, or your Bible study might not get where you’d like it to go.