Step 3: How to Get the Big Idea
Finding the central idea of the text and staying focused on it.
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In his book, Biblical Preaching, Haddon Robinson states, "Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept." He goes on to say, "A sermon should be a bullet, not buckshot. Ideally each sermon is the explanation, interpretation, or application of a single dominant idea supported by other ideas, all drawn from one passage or several passages of Scripture." Robinson calls this the "big idea." Others have called it the central idea, proposition, or theme of the sermon.
Discovering the big idea of a passage of Scripture is not always easy. It can be like staring at one of those 3-D pictures for a long time until the image begins to take shape and then appears. In the same way, you will often have to stare at and study the text for a long time before the big idea appears. The following is meant to be a pathway to help you discover the big idea of a passage. Throughout this journey we will consider the story of Mary and Martha from Luke 10:38-42.
Step one: find and limit your text
If we believe in expository preaching, the text of the Bible must form the core and backbone of our message. This begins with choosing a text of Scripture that is a complete unit of thought. We might picture this as the skin of an apple. The text holds together and contains the material from which you will formulate your big idea.
Regardless of whether you are preaching through a book of the Bible or a single text from a book of the Bible, you must limit the text to a paragraph or unit of thought. The Bible was written as individual books. Each book of the Bible has its own unique message. Even the book of Judges, which contains a great deal of historical information, was written to prove a theological point: "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit" (Judges 17:6; 21:25). However, as the human author developed the message of his book, there were natural breaks in the message he wrote. Each of these units of thought build on each other as the writer constructs his argument. To preach in keeping with the author's intent we need to identify those units of thought and how they relate to each other.
How do you go about locating the thematic unit (paragraph)? Using common sense, and our own understanding of language, look at the passage and decide where a particular thought begins and ends. In other words, figure out where the author changes the subject. Here are a few guidelines to help out:
- Remember that there were no chapter or verse divisions in the original manuscripts of the Bible. Even the paragraph divisions included in most modern versions of the Bible were placed there by editors.
- Is there a natural and logical beginning and ending to the thought or subject? Sometimes, major connective words can help, such as "therefore" and "consequently."
- Be mindful of the literary genre you're working with. In narrative literature, the writer will often change the subject by starting an entirely new story. In poetic literature, the subject will change with a new verse or stanza. In a letter, the subject will change with a new paragraph.
The story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42 is clearly a unit of thought in that Luke changes from one story to another. However, while it seems randomly placed in the narrative, it is not unrelated to the material that surrounds it. It is preceded by the story of the parable of the Good Samaritan told in response to the question a man posed to Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" It is followed by the disciples asking Jesus to teach them to pray and the Lord's teaching on prayer.
Step two: study the text
Biblical preaching is about exposing the message of the text of Scripture. Having found a text to preach on, it is necessary to learn all that we can about that text using the historical-grammatical method of inductive Bible study. If the unit of thought is the skin on the apple, the detailed content of the passage is the flesh of the apple. The immediate goal of this is to determine the original author's intended meaning, because a passage cannot mean today what it didn't mean then. There is no easy way to do this. It takes time and hard work. It is beyond the scope of this article to explain the details of biblical exegesis, but the assumption is that work is being done before you can go on to the next step.
In studying the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42 there are several interpretive questions that need to be answered in determining Luke's intended meaning: Why is this story placed here in the narrative? Who were Mary and Martha and what was their relationship with Jesus like? What cultural expectations are assumed in this story concerning hospitality and meal preparations? What did Jesus mean when he said to Martha, " … few things are needed-or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her"? What did Mary choose?
Step three: determine the topic and outline of the text
To this point, we've found a text for our sermon and limited the text to one unit of thought. We've also studied the text to understand the author's intent. We have a good idea of what the text is saying. Now it's time to work on bringing it all together. The best way to do this is to determine the broad topic of the passage and its major sections by writing an outline.
- Determine the general topic of the passage: Like the flesh of the apple, the topic of the passage is the most accessible to us. It's the broad subject that the original author was addressing. Is the author talking about marriage? Government? Christian ministry? Prayer? Money? Relationships? If you can't identify the general topic, you need to go back and do more study. But it should be fairly easy to "sink your teeth" into the subject.
- Write an outline of your passage. This outline breaks the passage down into its natural sections as a result of the study of the text. There will normally be a few major sections, each with their own subsections. The outline is a reflection of the flow of the author's argument in the text. Every sentence should somehow be accounted for in the outline. This outline is NOT a sermon or a preaching outline. The sermon outline will be derived from this outline, but the two are not the same. As you make your outline, be sure to use full sentences so each point contains a complete idea.
After studying Luke 10:38-42 and the surrounding context I determined the topic of the passage is "the proper spirit of service." In the previous story, Jesus told an expert in the law that the two greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself. When the man asked, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus went on to tell the story of the Good Samaritan in which a man saw a need and did what he could to meet that need. It seems that Luke placed the story of Mary and Martha right after that to show that if we serve our neighbor with the wrong spirit we spoil everything. Instead, we should learn to be like Mary and sit at the Lord's feet and let him pour into us before we attempt to serve others in our own strength. The fact that Luke places this story right before Jesus' teaching on prayer indicates Mary's example has something to do with prayer. Perhaps the proper spirit of service is to let the Lord serve us through prayer so we can more effectively serve our neighbor!
An exegetical outline of this passage is as follows:
I. Jesus is welcomed into the home of his friends Mary and Martha (verse 38).
II. Mary and Martha each relate differently to the Lord (verses 39-40a).
A. Martha is distracted by all her preparations.
B. Mary is preoccupied with Jesus as she sits at his feet and listens.
III. Martha complains to Jesus that Mary has left all the serving to her (verse 40b).
IV. Jesus gently corrects Martha and affirms Mary's choice (verses 41-42).
A. Martha's service rendered her worried and bothered.
B. Mary chose the one thing necessary, which could not be taken away.
Step four: state the exegetical idea of the text
Returning to our image of an apple, we have identified the skin as the unit of thought and the flesh as the easily accessible details of the passage. The next thing to find is the core, which is the exegetical idea of the passage. Like the core of an apple, it is usually the most difficult to get at. The exegetical idea is a single unit of thought that binds together and gives meaning to all the particulars of the text.
We find the exegetical idea by answering two questions. First: What is the author talking about? This is called the subject. Second: What is the author saying about what he is talking about? This is called the complement. The complement completes the subject. At this point, the subject and complement should be stated in a way that addresses the biblical world, which the author was addressing, rather than the modern world, which we live in now. Later, when we craft the homiletical big idea, we will word it to address the modern audience. The following are two examples of using these two questions to get at the exegetical idea, beginning with Luke 10:38-42.
Subject: In contrast to Martha, how does Mary show the proper spirit of service?
Complement: By placing herself in a position where the Lord could serve her.
Exegetical big idea: Mary shows the proper spirit of service by placing herself in a position where the Lord could serve her.
Here is another example from Ephesians 4:7-13:
Subject: What is the purpose for which the ascended Christ gave gifts to the church? Complement: So that the church will be built up and reach Christ-like maturity. Exegetical big idea: The ascended Christ gave gifts to the church so that the church would be built up and reach Christ-like maturity.
This exercise becomes much more difficult as you deal with longer and more complex passages of Scripture, as well as different genres. For example, in narrative literature, the big idea is often not explicit in the text and interpretive skills must be at their finest to understand the author's main point.
Step five: craft the homiletical big idea
We are now ready to determine what the sermon's big idea will be. The homiletical big idea is similar but also different from the exegetical idea of the text. The main difference is that it is stated in language that addresses the modern audience rather than the biblical world.
The purpose of the homiletical big idea is to give unity to the message. The human mind craves unity and order. God has created us to seek unity and order in any presentation of ideas. Unless we take time to provide the sermon with a unified focus and a clear sense of where we're going, people will find us frustrating to listen to. Furthermore, they will seek to find a big idea in the chaos of our message. Our big idea, however, may not be the one that we're trying to communicate. The best way to unify the sermon is to summarize it in one complete sentence that accurately captures the truth of the entire message.
The statement of the homiletical big idea should be biblical because expository preaching is relentlessly committed to exposing the text of Scripture. When we state the homiletical big idea, we're telling people what God wants them to know and do from this text of Scripture. We have no authority to do this unless the Scripture is actually teaching what we say it's teaching.
The statement of the homiletical big idea should be brief because length and complexity obscure truth rather than clarify it. The longer your homiletical big idea, the harder it will be for you and the congregation to remember. This also means that the big idea should be clear because unclear statements don't communicate. An unclear homiletical big idea can take the form of an incomplete sentence, such as "Paul's charge to Timothy" or "The goal of Christian love." These phrases don't really communicate anything because they're incomplete. Another way of making the homiletical big idea unclear is to use unfamiliar language or technical jargon. An example of this is, "The incomprehensible omniscience of Yahweh encapsulates every form of ontological reality."
Finally, the statement of the homiletical big idea should be memorable, because the Scripture's truths are memorable. The stories of the Bible are told in memorable ways. Each Psalm was originally set to music because songs are easy to memorize. Proverbs are memorable. They are written to pack truth into "sound bites" that are easy to learn and easy to pass on to your children. Even the teachings of Jesus were given in a memorable way. He taught in parables, which were stories that often had a surprise in them. If the Scriptures were written in such a way as to be memorable, it's incumbent on us as preachers to communicate memorably. In crafting a homiletical big idea for Luke 10:38-42 I stayed close to the wording in my exegetical big idea: The key to maintaining the proper spirit of service is placing yourself in a position where the Lord can serve you.
Notice that this is a full sentence; it is brief and worded so that it addresses the modern audience. Notice also that this idea turns on the idea of service. We normally think of service as something we do for the Lord, but this idea turns that upside down and speaks of his service to us, making the idea memorable.
Mark Mitchell is pastor of Central Peninsula Church in Foster City, California.