Engaging Exposition (14): Identifying the Main Idea of the Text

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Our exegetical model requires the interpreter to inspect, inquire, and investigate every biblical text. When this is done, it is time to identify the author’s main idea of the text (MIT). This is the fourth and final stage of the exegesis process.

Much has been written about the importance of stating the main idea of the text, or what some call the textual idea, in a clear and concise manner. Wayne McDill believes that the main idea of the text should be written as a past-tense sentence.* Wording the MIT in the past-tense helps the interpreter remain focused on the meaning of the text rather than its significance at this point. This statement should be clear and concise.

As you attempt to identify the MIT, there are several textual clues that may help you. First, attempt to discover if the MIT is stated overtly. Often, especially in the Epistles, the author clearly states the MIT. Second, in the event the author’s MIT is not stated overtly, look for the repetition of key words or phrases. This is often the key to finding the MIT. Third, in the absence of an overt declaration or the repetition of key words or phrases, look for a dominant theme or image as the author’s MIT. This is an excellent strategy for dealing with Historical Narratives, Parables, and even Psalms.

The goal is not that every interpreter arrive at a statement that is worded exactly the same. This will seldom happen. The goal is to include all of the information necessary to answer the question: “What is the author’s intended meaning?” Here is an example of how we might word the MIT of Phil. 2:1-11: “Jesus demonstrated humility through his incarnation and obeying God to the point of death on the cross.” This statement emphasizes the MIT, which is Jesus’ humility, while demonstrating the way he modeled it for the Church.

Once we have stated the MIT, it is time to answer a second question: “What is the significance of the author’s intended meaning?” At this point in the process of exegesis we are ready to reflect upon the significance of the text for the contemporary audience. Michael Fabarez reminds us of this when he states, “Meaning is discovered as I rightly understand the truth presented in a passage of Scripture; significance is discovered as I rightly determine the impact that truth is intended to make on my congregation.”** As we attempt to answer this second question of Hermeneutics, the goal is to identify the key areas of application for the contemporary audience.

Depending upon the genre, the application may be overtly stated or simply inferred. Often, the application of the text is clear when we study Epistles. The application of texts in other genres, like Historical Narratives, may be more difficult to identify. As we seek to identify the significance of a text, we may ask yet another question: “What is the author saying about the MIT?” Often, this will help us discover the application of the text. Keep in mind that while every text has one primary meaning, it may have several applications. We will deal with application at greater length later in this series.

When the interpreter reaches this point the process of exegesis, informed as it is by the principles of Hermeneutics, the exegetical stage is complete. The pastor-teacher has examined the substance of the text, discerned the structure of the text, and discovered the main idea of the text and its significance for his listeners. At this point, it is time to begin the process of using this material to craft an expository sermon.

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* Wayne McDill, The 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching, 88.

** Michael Fabarez, Preaching that Changes Lives, 37-38.

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