First of all, remember not to look at commentaries, yet. And I forgot to mention last time, that if you have a study bible with footnotes, like the MacArthur Study Bible or the ESV Study Bible, try not to read those either. We want to allow the text to speak first.
We also want to remember to pray before studying, recognizing that without the Holy Spirit’s guidance, our effort is pointless.
Today we want to look at the huge task of discerning the main theme of the book. What is the main idea? We also want to discern the purpose of the book. The purpose and the main theme are not the same thing. The purpose is why it was written. The main theme is the what of what was written. They always work together; they never contradict each other.
For example, in the book of 1 John, John tells explicitly in 5:13 why he wrote the book: I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. If we then closely read the book of 1 John in light of that purpose, we quickly find that each chapter is playing a role in the accomplishment of that purpose, which leads us to the main theme of the book.
So the questions that must be answered are: what is the purpose? And, what is the main theme? Generally, the purpose will be easier to find, and it will then help you discern the theme. The book you are studying may tell you very explicit the purpose for its being written.
If you are studying 2 Timothy, there is a great hint in chapter one. Paul doesn’t explicitly say, “I am writing to you to…”, but he does write something very close. If you can pick that out of chapter 1, you’ve got your purpose. Then if you read the rest of the book in light of it, you’ll be well on your way to discerning the theme.
If the book doesn’t explicitly tell you the purpose, review the list of things you observed about the author and the recipients. Frequently, these things will point you in the right direction. If you are studying Philippians, you’ll find that Paul doesn’t give an explicit reason for writing, but he does say something about himself in chapter 1 and his understanding of the purpose for his staying alive. That is huge and has everything to do with why he would be writing the book.
That next step is charting the book. When we chart a book, all we are doing is going through the book summarizing each paragraph in eight or fewer words. If you have a modern study bible that breaks the text down into paragraphs, that is great. You’ll be able at a glance to see where the paragraphs are broken. This is far more reliable than chapter divisions and verse divisions. The chapter and verse divisions were added by editors a few hundred years ago and occasionally come in awkward places. So read by paragraphs, not chapters and verses. One word of caution, though – if your study bible already has section titles giving the main idea of the section, do your best to ignore those. We want to discover things on our own before checking our work against the work of others.
As you take each paragraph, try to summarize the whole paragraph not just the first sentence or two. We want just the bird’s eye view. Don’t get bogged down in the details or tripped up by something that you don’t fully understand. We’ll deal with the nuts and bolts later. At this point, don’t read much slower than a skim.
One method for doing this, outlined in Grant Osborne’s The Hermeneutical Spiral – a method that I have adopted – is to take a sheet of paper, turn it side ways, and make a column for each chapter of the book. Under the chapter 1 column, write the verse numbers contained in the first paragraph (ex. 1-3) and then your short summary of the first paragraph. Then do the same for the second paragraph, and so on through the whole book. If you find summarizing a whole paragraph too difficult, summarize each sentence, and then try to summarize the paragraph.
Once you’ve summarized all the paragraphs, go through your chart and try to follow the writer’s progression of thought. As you do that, you’ll notice where he transitions from one subject or thought to the next, and you’ll be able to begin grouping related paragraphs into sections. Frequently, new sections are introduced with transitional conjunctions like then, therefore, wherefore, but, nevertheless, for this reason. Draw a horizontal line between each section. Do that for the whole book.
Then you can group those sections into your larger main sections. This may take some time, but hopefully you’ll have read the book so many times that you will have a good feel for where these major breaks are.
When I complete a book chart, I like to go through and give a summary title for each major section. This is very helpful in crystallizing the main theme of the book, because the main theme of the book will be a summary of all the sections together. And you should find that the theme lines up with the author’s purpose for writing the book. If there were no clear indications what that purpose was before you charted the book, the chart will help you with discerning that purpose. (If you click this link, you can download my book chart for Ephesians. It might be helpful to see an example.)
Finally, read through the book one more time, searching for a verse or phrase that most accurately conveys the theme of the whole book.
And that’s the overview. Now you know the author, the recipients, the purpose for writing, the key words and ideas, how the book is structured, the author’s progression of thought, and the main theme. It’s tons of work, but it will pay huge dividends in accurate interpretation. The overview will be your road map as you begin to take a closer look at the details of the text.
Again, feel free to contact me with any questions: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next week we’ll look at the second phase of a book study, Observation.