The Big Idea

What is a big idea? And why is understanding the big idea of Bible passages so important?
Big Idea

One of the primary questions we must ask when reading a biblical text is, “What did the biblical author want to communicate to the reader?”

In other words, we must try to understand the primary message that the writer aimed to communicate through the text.

There will likely be many ideas within each text. Governing all these ideas is a central idea or message of the text. It’s the idea that ties all the other ideas together, and it’s the main thing that the author wanted us to know.

The central idea of each passage of Scripture is the big idea. It’s the central idea on which all other ideas in the text hang.

Big Idea Defined

We usually mean different things when we talk about ideas. In his book Biblical Preaching, Haddon Robinson argues that ideas have two essential elements:

  • A subject — the complete, definite answer to the question, “What am I talking about?”
  • A complement — “What am I saying about what I am talking about?”

Combine the subject and complement and you have a big idea.

For instance, take the idea, “The sky is blue.” That is a single idea that contains both a subject and a complement. The subject is, “What color is the sky?” The complement is, “It is blue.” The subject and complement are parts of the idea, but it takes both together to form a complete idea.

Subject: What color is the sky?‌
Complement: The color of the sky is blue.‌
Big Idea: The sky is blue.

The Importance of Finding the Big Idea

Robinson writes:

Because each paragraph, section, or subsection of Scripture contains an idea, we do not understand a passage until we can state its subject and complement exactly. While other questions emerge in the struggle to understand the meaning of a biblical writer, these two (“What precisely is the author talking about?” and “What is the author saying about what he is talking about?”) are fundamental. (p.29)

Understanding the big idea of the text helps us gain clarity about what the author aimed to communicate.

Understanding the big idea of a passage helps in at least three ways:

  • It enhances overall understanding — The big idea is like holding a compass in unfamiliar territory; it guides your interpretation and helps prevent misdirection from the core message. By identifying the main idea, you can better appreciate the secondary concepts that revolve around it. This interpretive strategy ensures you stay faithful to the text’s meaning while enabling you to grasp the broader biblical perspective.
  • It facilitates deeper insights — The Bible is widely known for its depth and layers of meaning. By concentrating on the big idea, we can remain tethered to the central theme while exploring its details. It allows us to explore the parts while keeping our view of the whole.
  • It promotes meaningful connections — Finding the big idea of Bible passages helps to promote meaningful connections across different passages and themes within the Bible. The Scriptures are interconnected. Similar themes echo through various books and passages. By grasping one key concept in a particular section, we can draw meaningful parallels with others – illuminating recurring motifs or overarching divine narratives that span across multiple biblical books.

Side note: If you’re a preacher, then communicating the big idea of the passage is essential. In his Yale lectures on preaching, J. H. Jowett said:

I have a conviction that no sermon is ready for preaching, not ready for writing out, until we can express its theme in a short, pregnant sentence as clear as a crystal. I find the getting of that sentence is the hardest, the most exacting, and the most fruitful labour in my study. To compel oneself to fashion that sentence, to dismiss every word that is vague, ragged, ambiguous, to think oneself through to a form of words which defines the theme with scrupulous exactness—this is surely one of the most vital and essential factors in the making of a sermon: and I do not think any sermon ought to be preached or even written, until that sentence has emerged, clear and lucid as a cloudless moon.

Finding the Big Idea of a Passage

Finding the big idea of a Bible passage is harder than it looks! It requires that we pay careful attention to the text.

Here are the steps you can take as you try to discern the big idea of the text:

  1. Choose the passage to study. In general, look for a literary unit of biblical thought. Look for a chunk of Scripture. The headings in your Bible text can often help you here.
  2. Study the passage. Examine the context. Dig into the passage. Read it again and again. Get a sense of what you think the author intended to communicate. Make a list of questions that you need answered, and when appropriate, find tools (like a good study Bible) that will help you answer those questions. Take your time.
  3. Begin to formulate the big idea. Try to determine the overall idea of the passage Ask: “What is the biblical writer talking about?” (subject), and then “What is the biblical writer saying about the subject?” (complement). Don’t focus on the supporting ideas of the text. Try to find the primary idea of the text.

Be patient! Robinson writes, “Thinking is difficult, but it stands as our essential work. Make no mistake about the difficulty of the task. It is often slow, discouraging, overwhelming.” But it’s worth it. Understanding the big idea of the text will bring you many benefits as you study and apply the Bible.

A Biblical Example

Genesis 3 is one of the foundational texts of the Bible. It explains what’s wrong with the world. It answers a number of questions:

  • Why is life so hard?
  • Why does evil exist?
  • How did the world get this way?
  • Why is work so frustrating?
  • How did the relationship between men and women become so complicated?
  • Why do we feel a sense of shame?

It could take months to explore all the ideas in this text.

But what’s the central idea? I would argue that the text is primarily focused on answering the question, “How did this world become broken?” There are many ways of phrasing this question, but this seems to be the central question that the author aims to answer.

Subject: How did this world become broken?

The answer provided in the text is something like this:

Complement: Through disobedience to God, which brought a curse on creation and separated us from God.

The complement provides the answer to the question that the subject poses.

Taken together, the big idea tries to capture the subject and complement as clearly and memorably as possible.

In this case, you could state the big idea as, "The world is broken because we disobeyed God, which brought a curse on creation and separated us from God." But you could also rephrase this to be a little more memorable, like this:

Big Idea: The world is broken because sin scarred our world and separated us from God.

This draft big idea will help us as we look at the other ideas in the passage. As we study more, we may revise our big idea to make it more accurate.


Some criticize the idea of finding the big idea of Bible passages by posing objections:

  • It’s too reductionistic. The text has many ideas, not just one, some argue. But finding a big idea doesn’t mean that we ignore the other ideas of the text. It simply means that we find and emphasize the central idea of the text while paying attention to supporting ideas.
  • It doesn’t fit the text. Most biblical texts don’t make a proposition and then offer supporting statements. This is also true, but that does not mean that the passage doesn’t have a central idea that it is communicating.
  • It’s not easy to find the big idea of a text. This is also true, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work hard at it and do the best that we can.

For more objections and answers to these objections, see Steve Mathewson’s article “Let the Big Idea Live! A Response to Abraham Kuruvilla" below.

For More Reading

If you’re interested in learning more, the following resources may be helpful:

Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Baker, 2014).

Matthew D. Kim and Scott M. Gibson, The Big Idea Companion for Preaching and Teaching: A Guide from Genesis to Revelation (Baker, 2021).

Steven D. Mathewson, “Let the Big Idea Live! A Response to Abraham Kuruvilla,” The Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society, 19.1 2019: 33–41.

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Understand the big ideas of the Bible

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