Usually when I read a passage of Scripture in class and ask “what’s the main idea?” I hear crickets. Learning to summarize the main idea of a paragraph of Scripture is tough work but pure gold for all who study, especially teachers and preachers. Once you encapsulate the central truth of your passage, you can begin to see how the rest of the paragraph builds on that concept. Doing this will save you time in the long run, and will help your hearers understand the big idea and follow a logical progression of thought. Here are a few tips to get you started, and a brief example of how it works from 1 Corinthians 13.
Use a good English translation written in paragraph form. If you like the KJV, at least find one that has the paragraphs clearly marked. Most translations are written in paragraph form. Bold the verses that begin paragraphs or use pilcrows ( ¶ ) for paragraph markers.
Don’t cheat by using study Bible or a Bible where they’ve already summarized the paragraphs.
Read the paragraph several times and don’t get bogged down with every detail. Try to understand the driving thought of the paragraph.
Write out the main idea in a couple of sentences, in 50 words or less.
Once you have the main idea, look back through the paragraph for thoughts that support that idea.
You might see that some Bible translations break up the paragraphs slightly differently. Don’t worry, this is simply because paragraphs are thought units and there’s a little wiggle room for where to break them up. Just find a trustworthy Bible that you can understand and start there.
Example: 1 Corinthians 13
Paragraph 1: Verses 1-3
1 If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.
Main Idea: No matter how gifted we may be in word or deed, if we use these gifts without love we are not profitable.
Support: It’s possible and probably that many people use spiritual gifts without the Spirit of love.
Support: All spiritual gifts derive their value from the disposition of love.
Paragraph 2: Verses 4-7
4 Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, 5 does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, 6 does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Main Idea: Love is active positively and negatively.
Support: 7 things love is or does.
Support: 8 things love is not or does not.
Paragraph 3: Verses 8-13
8 Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. 11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. 13 But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Main Idea: Many gifts assist the church as she grows up into maturity and as she gains clearer vision but one gift never fails and abides forever, love.
Support: Temporal gifts
Support: Eternal gifts
Support: The greatest gift
Take it one step further and chart the main idea of each paragraph in a small book of the Bible like Jonah or Philippians. When you’re finished you will have a concise outline of the entire book showing the progression of the book. You will also lay the ground work for multiple teaching lessons.