One Step Closer: Identifying Sub-Units in Inductive Bible Study

This article is part of a series that goes through each step of the inductive Bible study process. If you are just joining, you might want to start at the beginning with this article: The Big Picture: Identifying Main Units in Inductive Bible Study. Even if you have already read through that article, you might want to review it again before moving on to this next step.

Now that you’ve gotten used to identifying main units, in this next step we’ll practice identifying sub-units. For each main unit, you will come up with several sub-units that help you see how the author groups the material within each main unit. 

Why do we identify to two levels? So we can get a clearer sense of how the main parts of the passage fit together. 

In inductive Bible study, we want to see what the author is doing — how he is structuring the passage for the purpose of communicating his amazing message about God and our relationship with Him, which is the big theme woven throughout all of scripture. The biblical authors use different ways of structuring the sections of their book, so readers like you and me can understand that life-giving message from God. That’s why we do inductive Bible study — to get that message into our heart so we can (a) believe it with our whole heart, (b) live it, and (c) share it with others in whatever ways God calls us to share.

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The first step of seeing how the author has structured the passage is to identify the main units and sub-units. That’s why we do this exercise, to help us see the big picture of what’s there.

Later in the process of inductive Bible study, we are going to dive deep and look more closely at a certain paragraph. Remember in the main units article, we talked about an eagle surveying the land? What if he sees a lake and wants to dive in for a fish? Well, before he can dive, he needs to know the lay of the land and, ideally, the best fishing spot! Sub-units take us one step closer to seeing where we may want to dive in deeper as we go further along in our story of a particular passage.

If that doesn’t make sense yet, that’s okay. It will start to make more sense as you go along. If you are willing to do each exercise at each step of the process, learn how to do each step well, then you will start to see how the pieces fall into place. The whole process will become clearer.

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Identifying Sub-Units

As we begin to practice identifying sub-units, you will use the same basic idea that you followed for main units, keeping the number limited: 2 to 3 sub-units (per main unit) is a good amount. Sub-units give you a little more detail than main units, but at this point we still don’t want too much detail. We are still flying overhead with the eagle and surveying the whole landscape.

Looking again at our eagle analogy that we used for main units, it may look like this with sub-units added:








     Ground Cover





We’ve gone a little closer, but still not very deep. We aren’t looking at fish in the lake, let alone types of fish, colors of algae, rock formations, lake currents, shape of surface waves as wind blows across the water. That comes later, when we learn and practice Observation and Inference.

At this point with sub-units, we aren’t seeing that deeply. But we are seeing a tad more than we did with main units. That being said, I’ve sometimes found it helpful to break a passage into more sub-units, around 4-5. While I still encourage you to try for as few as possible, don’t be discouraged if you end up with a few more. I would say make it your goal to have fewer sub-units, but as you’re learning, more is okay.

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Matthew 5:17-48

Let’s go back to Matthew 5:17-48 that we worked on with main units. As usual, I’d like you to read the passage first by itself. Go ahead and do that now.

Now take a look at your main units from last time. Also review your reasons for why you chose those main units.

Read the passage again, looking at your main units.

Now, take each main unit and break it further into 2-3 sub-units (a couple more if needed).

After you’ve identified your own sub-units, you can take a look at how I broke these down:

I. Fulfilling the Law and the Prophets (17-20)

A. Jesus Comes to Fulfill the Law (17-18)

B. Righteousness and the Kingdom of Heaven (19-20)

II. Deeper Understanding of the Law and the Prophets (21-47)

A. Grounds for Judgment Redefined (21-26)

B. True Meaning of Adultery (27-31)

C. Do Not Swear at All (32-37)

D. Go the Extra Mile (38-42)

E. Love Your Enemies (43-48)

My sub-units may be different from yours, and that’s okay. In fact, I probably chose too many sub-units for the second main unit. I have five of them. I bet I could find a way to consolidate if I go through it again.

How about you? Did you have fewer sub-units than I have? If so, that’s awesome. Congrats!

Do your sub-units give you a sense of what you will find in the text, at a fairly big picture level with a just a tad more detail? Then you’ve done what you needed to do. Your Survey road map is becoming a little clearer. And you have a foundation for moving to the next part of the Survey process.

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Matthew 9:35-11:1

Before we leave our study of sub-units, let’s practice two more times.

You know the drill by now. Let’s look at our second passage: Matthew 9:35-11:1. Read it first, straight through. Take a moment to do that now.

Now take your main units that you identified in the main units lesson. Break each main unit into 2-3 sub-units. After you’ve chosen your sub-units, scroll down to see mine.

Here are my sub-units for this passage:

I. Jesus Teaches, Preaches, and Has Compassion (9:35-38)

     A. Jesus Teaches and Preaches (9:35)

     B. Jesus Has Compassion (9:36)

     C. Need Laborers for the Harvest (9:37-38)

II. Jesus Sends out His Disciples (10:1-42)

     A. Jesus Gives His Disciples Authority (10:1-4)

     B. Jesus Tells His Disciples How to Go out (10:5-15)

     C. Jesus Warns His Disciples (10:16-23)

     D. Jesus Reassures His Disciples (10:24-33)

     E. Jesus Says He Has Come to Bring a Sword (10:34-39)

     F. Jesus Talks about How to Follow Him (10:39-43)

As you can see, once again I have a lot of sub-units for the second main unit, probably too many. This is a long passage, so even with six sub-units, I still get a pretty good big picture view. But I could probably consolidate as well. Even so, I feel comfortable enough moving ahead in the process with the sub-units I have here.

How did this exercise go for you?

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Matthew 16:1-20

Because inductive Bible study is built on practice, let’s do one more exercise identifying sub-units.

Let’s take our third passage: Matthew 16:1-20.

Read it by itself first. Then look at the main units you identified for this passage in the main units lesson.

For each main unit, identify 2-3 sub-units.

Remember to list each one (in outline form) with Bible verses, and give each one a name.

How did it go? Are you getting used to identifying sub-units?

Here’s how I broke down the sub-units for Matthew 16:1-20:

I. Pharisees and Sadducees Demand a Sign (1-4)

     A. Demanding a Sign (1)

     B. You Don’t Know the Signs of the Times (2-3)

     C. Only the Sign of Jonah Will Be Given (4)

II. Beware of the Leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees (5-12)

     A. Beware of the Leaven (5-6)

     B. Disciples Discuss Bread (7-8)

     C. Jesus Challenges Disciples to Perceive (9-11a)

     D. Beware of the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ Teaching (11b-12)

III. You Are the Christ (13-20)

     A. Who Is Jesus? (13-15)

     B. God Reveals Jesus is the Christ (16-17)

     C. Jesus Will Build His Church (18-20)

As you can see, I came up with fewer sub-units this time. That should give just enough detail, while still keeping focused on the big picture of how these main ideas hold together in this passage.

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That’s the whole first stage of the inductive Bible study Survey process. You got it! 

You are ready now to move to the next stage of identifying major structures, which will follow in a future lesson. Identifying major structures is a fascinating part of the process. Each structure is unique and interesting. 

Structures are often easier to recognize than main units and sub-units. It’s just a matter of learning what the major structures are, what they look like in the context of Bible passages, and practicing your ability to recognize them. That’s what we will start doing in the next lesson. I hope to see you there!

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.

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