This article is first in a series of steps that will take you through the process of inductive Bible study. If you are new to inductive Bible study, you might want to start with Inductive Bible Study: An Overview, and then come back to this article.
When you apply inductive Bible study to a particular passage, your main question is: What does the biblical text actually say? You don’t want to bring in outside interpretations or apply your prior experiences to the passage. Inductive Bible study invites you to read and appreciate the text for what’s there — just as the first readers/hearers of that passage would have done.
After you’ve chosen which Bible passage you want to study, you’ll begin with a big picture overview. The goal is to see what’s there in the text from an aerial view: the big pieces that hold the passage together. Later, you’ll choose a more specific place to dive in deep. The aerial view will actually help you choose where to dig deeper.
Think about if you were going to search for gemstones underground. First, you’d want a layout of the land, a big picture survey. Then you’ll have a better idea of where to start digging.
It’s the same with unearthing the treasures in God’s Word. Of course, the Bible is chock full of amazing treasures, so really you could dig anywhere and come away with amazing insights and understanding, and draw closer to God. But it would take you a really long time to excavate every single passage. So this process of surveying first will help you find the place that makes the most sense for you to zero in on the section of scripture you want to study.
Be patient with the process. It takes time but is worth it. The beautiful thing about inductive Bible study is that through every stage of the process, you get to focus on the Word of God. How cool is that!
Starting with main units
The big picture overview is called the Survey. (To learn more about the four parts of inductive Bible study, including the Survey, you might benefit from reading Inductive Bible Study: An Overview.)
You’ll start the Survey process by looking at a passage from an aerial view and seeing where you can identify main units. Main units are the big blocks that hold the passage together. You’ll want to identify 2 to 3 main units. Any more than that, and you’ll be getting into too much detail. At the main unit stage, you want the highest aerial view you can get.
Picture an eagle soaring overhead, surveying the land below him. What are the main units he might see — the big blocks, big categories? To the eagle, that might be a lake, a meadow, a forest. Those are the main units the eagle sees as he surveys the land. That’s the big picture, and that is the level of our main units in inductive Bible study. If he were to dive in closer, the eagle would see a lot more detail. But at the big picture level, lake, meadow, and forest are the main units he sees.
Let’s see how identifying main units works in a passage from the Bible. First, I invite you to get your Bible and read through Matthew 1:1-17. Take some time to do that before moving on.
After you read the scripture passage for yourself, then keep reading here to see where I have identified main units:
Main Unit I. Generations from Abraham to David (verses 1-6).
Main Unit II. Generations from David to Babylonian Deportation (verses 7-11).
Main Unit III. Generations from Babylonian Deportation to the Christ (verses 12-17).
Here are my reasons for selecting these as the main units:
This segment focuses on the genealogy and specific generations linking Abraham to Jesus the Christ. The opening and closing verses point to the genealogical focus. Therefore, I divided the main units by generational groupings within the genealogy. This division required putting the introductory sentence with the first grouping and the concluding sentence with the third grouping.
The three large generational groups (verses 2-6, 7-11, 12-16) seem to be the major units, the importance of which is reflected in the opening (verse 1) and closing (verse 17) verses. I believe this larger naming of the generations by grouping justifies combining the opening and closing sentences into those larger groups. The opening and closing verses point to and describe the groups, rather than playing a separate major role.
The reason for breaking this text into three groups is given by verse 17, which indicates three distinct generational groupings (Abraham to David, David to Babylonian Deportation, and Babylonian Deportation to Christ). Clearly the author thought these generational divisions were important.
See how the big picture process works?
What do the main units tell you about how the author put that passage together?
What big picture insights do those main units give you?
Remember not to get into details at this point. Just look at how those main units sit together and what that tells you (at a big picture level) about the passage.
With inductive Bible study, remember, we are trying to look at what is there in the passage. At this point, by looking at the main units, it’s clear that the author is emphasizing a generational approach here in the first chapter of Matthew. So he is starting his story with a look back at the generations leading up to Christ. He also identifies them in groupings, which would seem to highlight major turning points in the history of the Jewish people leading up to Christ.
We don’t want to read into what this might mean for Matthew. Simply make note of its importance to the author, and keep that as a reference point when working more deeply in this chapter of Matthew. The beauty of inductive Bible study is that the layers begin to unfold the more closely we look. Don’t rush the process and don’t jump ahead. Wait for what God reveals as you move through each step of the process.
Main units are just the beginning. In future lessons, we will be taking the next steps of inductive Bible study. Let your initial insights with main units inspire you to keep digging. Identifying main units should make you curious to go deeper.
Think about how the main units of Matthew 1:1-17 grab your attention. Often, genealogies are easy to skim over. But when you slow down to identify these main units, you get curious about why the author chose to put this emphasis here, and what bearing that will have on both a deeper look at this passage as well as the story to come in Matthew.
Let’s set that little spark aside for the future. For right now, let’s practice identifying more main units.
Keep It Simple
When you identify main units, you want to keep those as few as possible. Your main units will become the basis for all the inductive Bible study work you will do with that passage. So keep it simple.
You ideally want to identify 2 or 3 main units. Try not to break it down any more than that.
Let’s look at an example using another passage: Matthew 5:17-48. Go ahead and take the time now to read through that passage.
After you’ve finished reading the passage, go ahead and take a look at the main units I have identified:
Main Unit I. Fulfilling the Law and the Prophets (verses 17-20).
Main Unit II. Deeper Understanding of the Law and the Prophets (verses 21-48).
Read the passage again, looking at my main units as you go along. Can you see how I broke those down?
Now take a look at the reasons I broke the passage into those main units:
In the first main unit, the author lets the reader know that Jesus has come to fulfill the law and the prophets (verses 17-18), and that the stakes of righteousness are high (verses 19-20).
There is a clear break between the first and second main unit.
In the second main unit (verses 21-48), the author quotes Jesus’ teaching concerning the different areas of the law that cause people to stumble. He makes things “worse” for the reader by giving a deeper meaning to the law. He makes things better for the reader by giving examples of the heart change that is needed to fulfill the law.
Setting my notes aside, go ahead and read the same passage again: Matthew 5:17-48.
Where would you break it into main units, and what would you name each main unit? Your answers don’t need to be the same as mine. Mine are just a starting guideline, an illustration. Choose what works for you.
Remember to keep your main units to 2 or 3. They should be very broad in focus, big picture level.
Decide on your main units, give each one a name, and be sure to specify the Bible verses of each main unit, so you have a reference to go back to.
After you break the passage into main units (with a name and corresponding Bible verses for each), I would like for you to give your explanation of why you identified those particular main units.
And don’t worry. Identifying main units is often hard to get the first few times around. It took me two semesters to really “get it.” Keep practicing and it’ll become more natural and clearer.
Stay Focused on the Big Picture
When you read a particular passage for the first time, it often helps to read the passage quickly, so you don’t get caught up in the details. Reading straight through keeps you focused on the bigger elements of the passage. Remember that eagle flying overhead? He’s not walking through the forest or meadow or swimming on the surface of the lake. He is soaring overhead, taking in the big picture view rather quickly.
A big key to learning inductive Bible study is to keep practicing. The more you practice, the more natural this process will become.
Let’s try another practice exercise for identifying main units. Take a look at Matthew 9:35-11:1. Take time to read that passage now.
After you have read the passage straight through, take a look at the main units I’ve identified for that passage:
Main Unit I. Jesus Teaches, Preaches, and Has Compassion (verses 9:35-38).
Main Unit II. Jesus Sends out His Disciples (verses 10:1-11:1).
Go ahead and read the passage again using my main units. Can you see how I broke those down?
Now take a look at the reasons I broke the passage into those main units:
This segment opens and closes with Jesus teaching and preaching. But at the opening, He notices that laborers are needed to do as He is doing (verse 9:37). So He calls His disciples, gives them authority (verse 10:1), and sends them out into the harvest fields (verse 10:5).
There is a clear break between Jesus preaching, teaching, and seeing the need for laborers (first main unit), and then Jesus charging and sending out His disciples (second main unit). The majority of this segment is Jesus’ instructions in sending out His disciples (second main unit). This segment closes with Jesus resuming/continuing His preaching and teaching.
Find the Common Thread
Remember that your main units should be very broad in focus at a big picture level. You don’t want more than 2 or 3 main units.
Sometimes it’s hard to keep it at 2 or 3, especially for larger passages. But keep working through it until you can find a way to group sections together into just 2 or 3 main units.
To do this, you may have to look at how things connect. You might be looking at what appears to be several distinct sections. But is there a common thread that holds them together? What if the eagle sees different kinds of trees as he soars overhead? He might see a patch of pines, a cluster of oaks, and maybe some maple winding through the middle of the woods. But he can identify the whole area as “forest,” despite these differences. “Trees” would be the common thread.
What is the common thread that connects verses into a main unit in your Bible passage?
The way this process was taught to me is like this: What is the very simplest way you can hold all these sections together with no more than 2 or 3 main units? Keep trying until you find that simple division.
Putting my notes aside, read the previous passage again: Matthew 9:35-11:1. Where would you break the passage into main units? See if you can get the main units down to just 2 or 3. Then give each unit a name. Remember to list the corresponding Bible verses for each main unit as well.
After you do that, I would like for you to give your explanation of why you identified those particular main units. Remember, your identification of main units and your reasoning can be different from mine and anyone else’s. The important thing is that you know why you’ve chosen those main units, which is why I recommend that you always jot down your reasoning. Your reasons don’t have to be elaborate, just clear.
Let’s Practice Again
Let’s try an exercise from scratch.
Go ahead and read Matthew 16:1-20.
What does the passage look like from a big picture perspective?
What are the biggest main units you can come up with to hold this material together?
Remember, you are aiming for 2 or 3 main units at the most. Go ahead and see what you come up with.
After you identify and name your main units (remember to list the Bible verses for each main unit as well), go ahead and give your reasons for choosing those main units.
Sometimes in the process of giving your reasons, you will either reaffirm your choice, or you might see where you want to choose differently. It’s another step that helps you think through, learn, and reinforce the process.
When you explain your reasons, this also helps others see where you are coming from. If you and a friend decide to review your work together (which I highly recommend), you will be able to see how you each came up with your main units (perhaps differently). This creates more opportunity for you to “see” the passage perhaps in a different way. You each may have come up with different main units. But you might see where each is valid. That discovery will add to your understanding of the passage.
After you finish identifying the main units of Matthew 16:1-20, you can scroll down to see my main units for this passage, along with an explanation of why I chose those as my main units.
Main Unit I. Pharisees and Sadducees Demand a Sign (verses 1-4).
Main Unit II. Beware of the Leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees (verses 5-12).
Main Unit III. You Are the Christ (verses 13-20).
Here are my reasons for how I broke this passage into main units:
Each main unit has a self-contained lesson or interaction: first between Jesus and the Pharisees and Sadducees (verses 1-4); next between Jesus and the disciples, warning them about the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (verses 5-12); and then a separate main unit with the interaction between Jesus and His disciples around Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ (verses 13-20).
In addition to the separate content, there are also indications of separate units because at the end of the first main unit, Jesus leaves them and departs (verse 4). Thus, the second main unit begins a new scene. Then the third main unit begins in a new location (verse 13), separating it from the second main unit. Additionally, the second main unit is bracketed by Jesus’ warning to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees (verses 6, 11) with related intro (verse 5) and conclusion (verse 12).
Remember that your main units do not have to match mine or anyone else’s. Just know why you’ve chosen the main units you have. But also stay open to something you might not have noticed at first.
I encourage you to keep practicing this step of inductive Bible study — the step of identifying main units. Go through other Bible passages and try this exercise of identifying the main units. It’ll be great practice for you in learning inductive Bible study, and you’ll get the benefit of engaging with scripture the whole time you are practicing. Stay tuned here for future lessons that explore the next steps to the inductive Bible study process.
Copyright © 2022 by Janet Eriksson
Janet Eriksson is an intercessor, writer, and teacher in Dahlonega, Georgia. She loves conversation with friends, front porch swings, sweet tea, and spending time on lakes and rivers. The author of nine books and editor of many more, Janet blogs and teaches at Adventures with God. She enjoys volunteering with Kerri Johnson Ministries. Janet received her M. Div. from Asbury Theological Seminary.