Engaging Exposition (16): Getting at the Main Idea of the Text (MIT)

The main idea of a text (step 3) naturally derives from our studying of the Scriptures (step 1) and our structuring of the Scriptures (step 2). Having prayed over the entire process, we have: 1) tracked and identified the key verbs and parsed them; 2) looked for key words needing definition; 3) identified repetition of words and phrases; 4) located the seams in the text, which inform us as to the proper division of the passage; 5) noted the context; 6) searched for helpful and supporting Scripture; 7) written out any and all observations and applications discovered in the discovery process; 8) examined our study aids and commentaries for helpful insight, as well as a check and balance to our interpretation.

The MIT is the text’s heart. Every text will usually have several ideas that need to be studied and developed. Still, each text will also have a main idea that all other ideas support and amplify.

There are three key questions that help us identify and clarify the MIT. They are:

1) What was the main point then? (Idea)

2) What was the biblical author talking about? (Theme)

3) What was the biblical author saying about what he was talking about? (Complement)

The main idea is the single idea around which the details of the text are woven. Since we want to communicate one major point for the people to hear, understand, and obey, we seek to communicate the major idea of each Scripture text in contemporary terms.

The main idea of the text is the single unit of thought that binds together and gives meaning to all the particulars of a text. In some manner it should relate to your title.

It should always be in the form of a full grammatical sentence, stated clearly and concisely. It places a laser beam focus on 1) what the author is talking about and 2) what the author is saying about what he is talking about.

In order to get the main idea of the text, put the content of the subjects, themes, main points, or summaries together. In arriving at the MIT you are looking for accuracy and adequacy. The MIT should precisely reflect your particular text and must cover the assertions of the text.

Now, here are some practical steps to consider in this stage of your work in the study.

1) Give a tentative title to the text. This could well be the “theme” of the MIT.

2) If possible, write a personal translation or paraphrase of the text reflecting the flow or argument of the text.

3) Write out the main idea of the text. Put the theme and complement in full sentence form. The full statement does not need to be long, but make it adequate. You will most likely refine it and even shorten it as you work with it.

If you really desire to be an expositor of the Word of God, you will seek to impress on your people what the author stresses-the truth of this text. Remember, God is the ultimate author of the text. We want to honor what He put there. A good message should have a one sentence statement that summarizes the passage being taught.

The task is not always easy, but if undertaken, it pays rich rewards. Here are a few of those dividends:

1) The preacher will avoid the often-heard criticism that expository sermons/teaching lacks structure.

2) The discipline gives the preacher a better understanding of the truths he will share with his people.

3) It will assist those hearing the message to understand the message.

Unless we find the right words to identify the MIT, how will we ever teach that idea? Carefully locate the theological themes in the text. This will provide insight into its main idea. You can usually recognize the theological themes in the text by looking at the significant words you see there. Some words in Scripture bear enormous theological weight (e.g. justification, sanctification, reconciliation, repentance, calling, faith, election). Consider the plain and obvious meaning of the text for indications of the main idea. Look for a pivotal verse in the text which may contain the main theme. Though every text does not have a pivotal verse, many will. It will be the one verse which seems to capture the idea and summarize the meaning of the entire section.

Engaging Exposition (15): Developing the Main Idea of the Text

By way of summary, we have noted the following as essential components of steps one (studying) and two (structuring) of the hermeneutical process:

1. Study the book as a Whole.

  1. Consider the questions of date, authorship, recipients, and purpose (general matters of introduction.)
  2. Develop an outline of the entire book (study Bibles and commentaries will be helpful.)
  3. Examine the relationship of the passage under consideration in both its near and far context.

2. Establish the Best Textual Base Possible.

  1. Use the original languages if you can.
  2. Compare various versions and translations.

3. Investigate the Text Linguistically (e.g. word by word within its context and semantic range)

  1. Make a lexical (definitional) study of crucial words.
  2. Research the passage for key words, phrases, and ideas.
  3. Track the verbs!
  4. Cross reference.

4. Determine the Genre of the Discourse

  1. What is the literary type (history, poetry, prophetic, apocalyptic)?
  2. What literary devices are used?
  3. Is there any indication of the life situation from which the material came?

5. Analyze The Structure Of The Passage

  1. Determine if the material constitutes a literary unity.
  2. Is there a logical sequence of ideas present?
  3. Isolate the basic themes or emphases.
  4. Outline the text you are studying. Use the outline as the framework for your teaching.

We can also highlight some of the basic interpretive rules we discovered that must constantly guide us in the hermeneutical/homiletical construction process.

  1. The context rules when interpreting the text.
  2. The text must be interpreted in light of all Scripture.
  3. Scripture will never contradict itself.
  4. Scripture should be interpreted literally (or “naturally” according to its genre.)
  5. Do not develop a doctrine from obscure or difficult passages.
  6. Discover the author’s original intended meaning and honor that meaning.
  7. Check your conclusions using reliable resources.

Now, at this point we want to introduce a diagram that provides an overview of where we have been and where we are. It should help you get a grasp of the “big picture” of sermon development.

Akin Triangle

In our pyramidic diagram you can see a number of interesting points and parallels.

1) The hermeneutical and the homiletical beautifully balance one another.

2) Steps 2 and 6 complement each other, as do steps 3 and 5.

3) If the hermeneutical aspect of sermon development is done well, the homiletical component will naturally follow because the latter should flow from the former.

4) This method is simple and easily transferable to others we might teach and instruct in building biblically faithful expository sermons.

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

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.