When I find myself in a new city, it takes me a while to get my bearings. I need an idea of a city’s structure before I can move around with confidence.
In Pittsburgh—the biggest city near me—everything is organized by bridges and neighborhoods. If I feel lost, I look for signs for the closest bridge, stadium, or college campus. Knowing the big picture keeps me moving.
When studying the Bible, a book overview serves this same function. Knowing the themes, structure, and main point of a book is a great help when you wade into the chapters and verses. We’ve written before about how to do a book overview in your personal Bible study; today we’ll address leading a small group through the process.
Homework is Required
A fair warning: This particular small group meeting requires homework. Your group members may balk, but without homework, a book overview discussion will become a lecture. Nobody wants that.
My small group recently started Luke, and we kicked things off with a book overview meeting. Here’s what I expected my group to do before the meeting.
- Read the whole book. I asked them to read it at least once, and two or three times if possible. I encouraged them to jot down thoughts on the book’s structure and major themes as they read.
- Watch two videos. We’ve written before about The Bible Project’s book overview videos. They’re excellent. Here are the two videos that were produced for Luke. (This was the easy part of the homework!)
- Read an overview article. Either in a study Bible or an online source, I asked my group to find an article about the big purpose and themes of the book. (Here is one article I recommended for Luke. And here is another great resource on Bible book overviews.)
My group had five weeks between meetings to accomplish these tasks. Stating my expectations up front made leading the book overview meeting a snap.
The Meeting Itself
I told my group we’d discuss five simple questions at the meeting.
- Who wrote this book?
- To whom was this book written?
- Why did this person write this book to these people at this time?
- What are some key themes of the book?
- How is the book structured?
We hit all five questions, and because my friends had prepared, we had a lively discussion.
The goal of a book overview meeting should be to come up with a main point for the book you’re studying. Once you agree on this as a group, you can return to it to make sense of smaller passages. Even if you don’t hit on application during this meeting, you’re laying the foundation for future discussions.
Like a Compass in a Storm
The book overview won’t solve all of your Bible study problems. But it is a wonderful exercise for both personal and small group Bible study. When you know what an author is trying to do with the book as a whole, sometimes smaller sections of the book click into place.
Next time you start a new book in your small group Bible study, take a week to talk about the big picture. You won’t regret it!
Thanks to Peter for his help in preparing this article.
After a long, hard-fought battle, you have captured the main point of your passage. You have made many observations. You’ve asked and answered key interpretive questions. You’ve resisted the five misconceptions. Now you sit atop the glorious truth you’ve discovered, basking in the glory of victory.
In this grand moment, you may be tempted toward overconfidence. We’ve been there. We’ve felt like strutting across the local coffee shop like decorated Olympians, hands punching the air, spectators lavishing accolade upon accolade. This part of your Bible study is dangerous because, in your overconfidence, you might fail to take an honest, humble look at your work.
So before taking your victory lap, humbly filter your proposed main point through a defining and refining process, especially if you plan to teach or preach this passage. This will ensure you have an accurate main point, ready to communicate with clarity and potency.
Finding the main point tends to be one of the most difficult skills to master when learning to study the Bible, in part because of believing one or more of the following five misconceptions.
1. Your Bible study is solely dependent on the quality of your main point
Perhaps you think your Bible study is not worthwhile without a solid main point. And certainly, understanding the main point of a passage is crucial to understanding God’s word.
Yet God’s words are living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword. The words that come from his mouth will not return to him empty.
This means that the God-breathed words in this book are not dependent on us. We definitely want to be careful and handle them faithfully, but the power in them is not from us but from God. This fact frees us from needing to have perfect main points.
If you’re tempted to cancel your Bible study because you’re not sure you’ve understood the main point, don’t! Trust in the power of God’s words.
2. The main point is a summary of the passage
A summary of the passage simply retells the facts. In contrast, the main point interprets what those facts mean.
For example, a summary of John 1:1-18 might be “Jesus is the Word, the life, the light, and the glory of God made flesh.” This statement communicates (summarizes) what the passage says. But to get the main point, we must ask what these things mean, and we’ll come up with something like, “God is making himself known through Jesus.”
Summaries of the passage can lead you to the main point. But don’t settle for a summary. Dig further to understand what the passage teaches about God.The Main point must answer the question: Why did the author write this?
3. Finding the main point is more of a science than an art
Finding the main point is not an exact science. There’s no formula that guarantees you a main point if you follow certain steps or ask certain questions.
Finding the main point is more of an art, where you use different tools to discover the author’s intentions. You put yourself in the author’s shoes.
And when we call Bible study an art, we’re speaking less of the art of creation and creativity, and more of the art of fine arts criticism. Or more specifically, the art of literary analysis. We’re not creating meaning, but simply uncovering the meaning already present in the text.
So don’t expect any series of steps to drop the main point into your lap. Rather, acquire the careful discernment required to understand the author’s intentions.
4. The main point is a precise phrase you’re looking to find
Don’t think of it as a treasure hunt for the right answer, nor as an encryption key to break a code.
Think of it like a gem—one beautiful idea with many facets. You can come at the main point from different angles. Don’t put pressure on yourself to get the wording exactly right. There is no secret answer key of main points for the Bible.
And note: While there usually is no single, “right” main point for a passage, there can certainly be many wrong answers. For example, possible main point statements for John 1:1-18 could be:
- God is making himself known through Jesus.
- Jesus reveals God to the world.
- Jesus is the God who created the world and now brings life to it.
But it would be incorrect to say the main point of John 1:1-18 is that “Jesus is the first created being” (poor observation) or that “Jesus was rejected by those who should have received him” (focusing on a sub-point of the passage’s argument).
5. Wise teachers should always agree about a passage’s main point
Because finding the main point is more art than science, and because the main point can have many facets from which to view it, we should expect some disagreement or differences in stating the main points. Commentators can state the main point differently, and yet still have a good understanding of the passage. Pastors can preach different sermons from the same passage and yet still be faithfully representing the passage.
So if you and your Bible study co-leader come up with similar main points, but you phrase them differently, don’t be surprised! As long as you’re looking at the same gem, it’s OK if you don’t frame the main point the same way.
The main point is not an observational summary but an interpretive statement. We’re looking in the text, not for a specific phrase, but for the author’s intention, which, like the facets of a gem, can be looked at from multiple directions.
Picture a miner digging down 20 feet and hitting copper. Though he isn’t thrilled, he figures it’s the best he can do. So he packs up and leaves, ignorant of the gold just a few feet further down. We’re like this when we study the Bible but don’t quite get to the author’s main point. And how much more valuable is the Lord’s word than gold?
So don’t give up! Keep digging to understand God’s word.
Why the Main Point Matters
Can you imagine pouring yourself into your study of a passage, only to discover you were missing the main idea?
I (Lincoln) had that experience a few months ago. After reviewing my notes for an upcoming sermon, my ministry supervisor asks me straight out: “What would you say is the main point of the passage?” And upon hearing my answer, he holds nothing back. “I don’t think that is the main point of the passage.” Though it is hard to hear this, I know he is right. I can’t even justify my proposed main point to myself. And now I feel like a total failure. Will I ever be able to understand or teach the Bible accurately?
While finding a text’s main point is not easy, it is crucial. Consider what happens if we teach the Scripture without grasping the main ideas. At the very least, the message (even if it has some real truth) doesn’t arise clearly from the page to stick in your listener’s hearts. At the worst, you could be working at cross-purposes with what God actually wants to communicate through the passage. But finding the main point empowers you to access the boundless power of God’s transformative word. Whether you lead Bible studies, teach and preach, or study the Bible on your own, finding the main point of a passage is foundational to understanding and communicating who God is.
A Crucial Question
If you’re familiar with OIA Bible study, you’ve probably experienced the challenge of finding the main point. After observing, you ask questions, especially “why” questions. You consider the context. You try to figure out the author’s intentions. But often, you feel stumped.
We find one particular question to be crucial when it’s time to identify the passage’s main point:
Why did the author write the passage this way?
It’s not a flashy or revolutionary question, but it usually gets the job done. And it does so by causing us to examine a few more specific questions.
- What gives the passage its shape?
- What does the author emphasize?
- How did the author get from beginning to end?
- How does the structure of the larger section, and the book as a whole, help us see what the author is trying to get across in this passage?
For example, notice how the shape of John 6:60-71 reveals much about the author’s main point:
- This relatively short passage concludes a long discourse between the Jews and Jesus. These final verses show the responses to Jesus’ teaching.
- The passage begins with many disciples following Jesus but ends with few. John 6:66 says, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” This statement serves as a turning point in the narrative.
- This turning point raises the following questions: 1) “Why did so many people turn away?” and 2) “What was the difference between those who turned away and those who continued to follow Jesus?”
- The disciples who turned away gave a reason: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60). Jesus also knew they were grumbling and asked if they took offense at his words (John 6:61).
- After many turned away, Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks if they want to go away as well (John 6:66). Peter explains their reason for staying: “You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:69-70).
Do you see how both groups of disciples comment on Jesus’ words? The first group turns away because they are challenged and offended by Jesus’ words. The second group keeps following because they hear Jesus’ words and receive them, knowing them to be the words of eternal life. This text reveals a lot about people by their response to Jesus’ words, and by the inherent contrast in the structure.
Here’s where we think John is going: People’s responses to Jesus’ words demonstrate whether they’ll follow him or fall away. There is our main point.
You could state the main point in many ways, but the passage clearly highlights both Jesus’ words and what we do with them. May the Lord help us to hear and love the words of eternal life found in the Scriptures!
Do you see why structure matters? The passage has a significant change (the number of people following Jesus) from beginning to end, which shows us the author’s intentions: to demonstrate the impact of our response to Jesus’ words. This insight arises from examining why the author wrote the passage this way.
Finding the main point of a passage is not easy, but it’s worth it. The main point is your front-row ticket to the revealed glory of God, and it will equip you to think and speak with clarity and power when you teach the word.
As Christians learn to study the Bible, we pay more attention to the details. We notice repeated words, names, grammar, and genre. We train our eyes to spot anything surprising or out of place.
What we do with these observations is just as important as making them in the first place. Observing the text is like stocking the pantry. We gather raw materials, but we don’t know what we need until it’s time to cook.
The Problem with Interesting Details
Most of our Biblical observations arise because a detail captures our attention. We’re interested in a certain feature, conversation, or nuance in the text.
Yet when we move from observation to interpretation, we must be careful. Though there might be curious or compelling details in the passage, we should try to zero in on the main point. We’re likely to miss what God has for us if we concentrate on what is intriguing instead of what is most important.
Ideally, we should give our attention and thought to themes and details in proportion to their importance. Granted, we don’t usually know the major thrust of a passage until we’ve spent some time with it. But if we want to land on the main point, we should give our energy to the evidence and supporting truths that point in that direction. If we camp out on curiosities, we might be off the mark when stating the main point. And if we miss the main point, our application might be unnecessary or misdirected.
Additionally, we should avoid the trap of speculation. If we get obsessed with a detail or surprise in the passage, we’ll wonder why it’s there. When we interpret, we’ll try to answer related questions even though the answers are nowhere to be found in the text. While enjoyable on an intellectual level, this is merely spinning our wheels—expending mental energy without making progress.
The natural question, then, is this: How do I know if a detail is important? How do we know what to keep and what to discard?
Here’s the brief answer. If it leads to the main point, it’s important. If it doesn’t, it’s not.
In other words, when you follow the author’s train of thought, is this detail included? Is information about this character or description repeated or used later in the passage? It this detail were omitted from the text, could you still make your argument about the main point?
Here’s an example. The fifth plague is described in Exodus 9:1–7, and we read in verse 6 that all the livestock of Egypt died. However, both later in chapter 9 (verse 20) as well as in chapter 14, additional livestock are mentioned. How can this be if all the livestock died? You might pay attention to the phrase “livestock which are in the field” in Exodus 9:3 and speculate about exactly where the pestilence affected the animals. You might wonder whether Egypt simply stole animals from surrounding nations after all their animals died.
We’re not told. And all the wondering and worrying distracts from the main point of the passage: God judged Egypt and not Israel. The later reappearance of livestock is an interesting detail, but not an important one.
Build on the Main Point
It’s irresponsible to build doctrine on or draw application from mere curiosities in Scripture. Some of the oddities in the Bible are interesting, but not valuable.
When you ask questions related to your observations and turn to answer them, be vigilant. Answer only answer those questions where the text provides an explicit answer or one drawn through reasonable deduction.
We honor the Lord as we draw our main doctrine and application from the main points of Scripture. And to get to the main point, we must make sure to focus on what’s important, and not only what’s interesting.
In an excerpt from the ESV Men’s Devotional Bible, Bryan Chapell summarizes well “The Main Message of Your Bible.” Here is a taste:
God doesn’t intend for this divine crusade of redemption merely to interest us. As the apostle Paul writes, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). The history, poetry, symbols, and instructions of Scripture vary greatly in style but not in their intention: all are intended to affect our response to life in our fallen world. Though evil is always present and frequently prevails, we are not to despair. With a patient confidence in God’s ultimate providence, and the assurance of the Scriptures that his redemption is ongoing, we always have hope.
Bible outlines help us simplify and organize the author’s message. That’s why expository sermons outline passages and study Bibles outline books. I can’t remember the last time I read an introduction to a book of the Bible that didn’t propose an outline for the book.
But some outlines are less helpful than others.
Take, for example, this outline of Job 4-14 from the NIV Zondervan Study Bible:
- First Exchange: Eliphaz (4:1-5:27)
- Job’s Response to Eliphaz (6:1-7:21)
- Second Exchange: Bildad (8:1-22)
- Job’s Response to Bildad (9:1-10:22)
- Third Exchange: Zophar (11:1-20)
- Job’s Response to Zophar (12:1-14:22)
This outline succeeds at observing Job’s structure, but it does little to help us understand Job’s message. Many outlines stop short of significant usefulness when they state all the “what” but little of the “why.” In other words, they outline content but not meaning. They outline observation but not interpretation. They give us summaries but not main points.
What’s usually more helpful is to outline the logic of the passage. Figure out how the main points of each section flow into and out of one another, constructing a theme or message that the author wants to communicate to his readers. When an outline packages the building blocks of the book’s argument, readers are more likely to benefit from it quickly.
For example, consider this outline of Job 4-14 from The Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible:
- Eliphaz: You Strengthened Others but Now Are Fainting (4:1-5:27)
- Job: You Do Not Know the Weight of My Grief (6:1-7:21)
- Bildad: All Agree that God is Just (8:1-22)
- Job: But How Can Man Be Just Before God? (9:1-10:22)
- Zophar: Does Your Talk Justify You? (11:1-20)
- Job: I Know that I Shall Be Justified (12:1-14:22)
I might argue that the last statement should be broadened to better capture the main point of Job’s entire speech in chapters 12-14—I would state it as “My Dangerously Unpredictable God is More Trustworthy Than My Clearly Logical Friends”—but that would be a minor quibble. The point is that the editors of The Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible give us more than the order of speeches; they attempt to state concisely the message of each speech. In doing so, they help us get farther down the road in our study of the book. And for this I applaud them.
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I’m facing a parental dilemma. The young man renting our spare bedroom offered to take a few of my children to a shooting range to teach them to handle firearms. This fellow is training to be an officer in the United States Navy, and he’s responsible and trustworthy—but still!
Should I allow it or not? I’m no curmudgeon when it comes to risk; I practically taught my children to climb trees before they could walk. But might they still be a shade too young and immature for this responsibility? We already tend ample wounds from plastic swords, light sabers, and Nerf weaponry; can these children handle a Marlin .22 caliber rifle or a Sig Sauer Mosquito handgun?
Never point a gun at anything you don’t want to shoot.
Treat every gun as if it were loaded.
Keep your gun on safety until you are ready to fire.
Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire.
Regardless of where you stand on pacifism or gun control, I’m sure you’d agree that guns are dangerous and require extreme caution. In this way, guns are just like study Bibles. We should have rules about how to use them safely.
Last week, I wrote about the 10 blessings of study Bibles. I also consider it my duty to caution you about their 10 curses. Some of these curses are inherent in the “study Bible” genre; other curses are common but not insuperable weaknesses. Thus, some study Bibles avoid some of the curses.
1. They are big and bulky—Rarely will you catch somebody carrying one in a backpack. To be fair, though, the ESV Study Bible has a compact version and convenient online access. Others offer similar options.
They draw your attention away from the biblical text
2. Not much text per page—Especially in the New Testament, and especially in Paul’s epistles. When study notes abound, there’s less incentive to read passages in the context of the chapter, section, or book (one must do a lot of flipping).
3. Cross-references receive greater attention—Not only do you get the usual center-column cross-references, but every 2 or 3 study notes highlight even more cross-references. But cross-references are way overrated. Along with word studies and harmonization, they are one of the most common distractions from rich, contextual Bible study. You’ll do better to ignore them, at least until you understand the passage at hand. Get the main point; then correlate with other texts.
They can be strong at “what” but weak on “why”
4. Study notes that miss the mark—They usually have only enough space to do one of two things: 1) observe the text well but leave no room for interpretation, or 2) provide interpretation that rings hollow because it’s not supported through explicit observation.
5. Book introductions that answer questions you aren’t asking—Some book intros are superb; others get bogged down with too many details. Often the difference lies in whether the intro clearly presents the book’s logic (train of thought), or whether it delves into topics like the exact dating of Mark’s Gospel and whether Mark was written before or after Matthew.
6. Outlines that summarize but don’t explain—Most outlines focus on observation (summarizing content), not on interpretation or logic (following trains of thought). This helps you find certain episodes within a book, but it doesn’t do much to help you understand their placement. In addition, many study Bible outlines treat Bible books like stream-of-consciousness term papers: I, II, III.A., III.B., IV., etc. I just saw one that went from I to XVI with no further subdivisions! I always check out Dorsey’s Literary Structure of the Old Testament when I study an OT book. I wish there were a comparable volume for NT books.
7. Lack of clear main points—You’ll find pages of word analysis and historical background. And many study Bibles have summaries of content. But a summary is different from a main point. Only the most courageous editors take the risk of stating “the main point (or the main theme) of this book is ____________.” Even better is when they give you main points for not only each book, but also for each chapter.
They can hinder discovery
8. They train you to micro-analyze the text—Words often get more attention than sentences, which get more attention than paragraphs, which get more attention than chapters, etc. Study Bibles sometimes train our senses accordingly, like the young pastoral candidate I once interviewed who thought he’d attain maturity in his sermons when he could preach on a single verse.
9. They train you to observe (and observe small) but go no farther in the study process—This point follows from points 4-8 above. Some folks think they’ve studied the Bible because they’ve read the notes and looked up the cross-references. But have they learned to ask questions and answer them? Can they figure out (and fight for) the main points? Have they learned to apply the same truth to different groups of people?
10. They lead you to believe you can’t study the text on your own—If I locked you in a room with nothing but a pencil and a clean text (no study notes or cross-references), would you know what to do with it? Would you even think it possible you could know what to do with it?
Study Bibles deliver amazing blessings, but please use them with extreme caution.
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In the first post of this series we looked at a tried-and-true method for achieving bland, ineffective Bible study. Today we’ll add a second method to our arsenal:
2. Find Your Own Meaning
The Bible calls itself a “sharp double-edged sword.” That sounds awfully dangerous, doesn’t it? No need to worry; you can keep that sword safely in its sheath by looking for a private, personal meaning for every text you read. Just come up with a summary of the text which you can claim is true for you (and not necessarily true for anyone else), and you’ll be safe from being pricked by the Word.
You need to know this tip because there are people out there who still hold to the idea that a text has an objective meaning. They would say that an author has a single main point in mind while writing which he or she wants to communicate to readers. The problem with this is that you’re left dangerously exposed to any number of ideas which might upset the serene status quo of your own thinking!
Here’s a quick example: John 3:16. Ask one of those objective types what this verse means, and he’ll start yammering on about “context,” being “born again,” etc, etc. What’s worse, he’ll probably land on a rather unsettling conclusion involving sin, death, faith, and the need for repentance. So much for safe, empty ritual! A much simpler and safer approach would be to say, “I’m so glad God loves the world. That means He loves me. That makes me happy.” Why go further than that?
So instead of asking, “What does this text mean?”, ask, “What does this text mean for me?” See the difference those two little words make? They’re all you need to protect yourself from annoying life-changing truths!
Here’s a few particular suggestions for applying this tip:
- Remember to apply our first tip for bad Bible study: assume you already know what the text says. You’ll be much better positioned to make up your own meaning if you start with what you think the text says rather than what it actually says.
- Avoid thinking about the fact that the text you’re reading was written by a particular person (in a particular place at a particular time). Instead, imagine the words floating ethereally. This makes it easier for you to attach your own meaning to them.
- Similarly, try not to think about the fact that the text was written to a particular audience. If you start thinking about other people who have read the same words you’re reading, it’s harder to make up your own private meaning.
- In Bible study meetings, keep the discussion centered on feelings. If you have to say something about the text itself, stick with vaguely spiritual statements like, “Wow, it’s just amazing that it says such-and-such.”
Give it a try! Apply this tip in your Bible reading, and I guarantee you’ll stay safe from stinging conviction, tumultuous encouragement, and lofty joy. Instead, you’ll stay in control and you’ll know just what to expect: nothing much at all.
One word of caution: Finding your own meaning will help you read the Bible without danger of learning anything, but be careful not to apply the strategy too generally. There are times when it’s a good idea to consider what the author intended to say. For example, I would not recommend finding your own meaning in the following types of writing:
- Emails from your boss
- Instructions for operating power tools
- Anything written by the IRS