Illustrating God’s Truth

Illustrations are the life blood of a sermon. They create and hold interest, make a point clearer than the mere statement of it ever could, concretize abstract fact, show how to implement biblical requirements, and help make truth practical and memorable. What remarkable service illustrations can render; no wonder Christ used so many of them!

And you will do well to learn how to freely use them too.

“But I have always been weak in illustration; I really don’t know how to go about learning how to illustrate well. Can anyone with the basic gifts for the ministry learn to illustrate sermons effectively?” Yes. “Can you tell me how to do so?” Again yes. But, first, let me clarify one thing.

I want to say that, in speaking so positively about illustrations, I am not advocating the string-of-pearls sermon. According to those who use the s-o-p method of preparation, all one needs to do to produce a sermon is to get the basic theme of a passage and a dozen or more extended illustrations that fit it; those are his basic materials for sermon construction. The message thus becomes little more than a number of illustrations draped along the theme like pearls strung on a necklace. There is little or no exposition, very little reasoning or grappling with truth in it. Rather, what one does is to focus on illustrations rather than on the biblical passage. That is bad news; the authority of the preacher’s message comes from a human rather than a divinely inspired source.

No. Every sincere listener should be able to go away from every sermon knowing, at least,

  1. What the passage (or passages) dealt with means; i.e., he should now understand it even if he didn’t before;
  2. What the passage means to him; i.e., he should know what the Holy Spirit intended that passage to do to him;
  3. What he must prayerfully do to obey any commands, appropriate any promises, etc., i.e., he should know how to convert the passage into daily life today;
  4. That the authority for what the preacher is teaching clearly is scriptural; i.e., he should be able to see that the preacher got what he is saying from the passage (or passages) under consideration.

Plainly, if those four things constitute biblical preaching (and they do) then a sermon to be biblical must be much more than a string of pearls!

Yet, within the framework of the four principles, illustrations hold a vital place. Without their valuable assistance, it is difficult to achieve all four purposes.

There are various kinds of illustrations: analogies, similes, metaphors and extended metaphors, stories, parables. All of these should be used. The “I ams” of Jesus (I am the Bread of life, Water of life, Light of the world, Way, etc.) all have a wealth of meaning in the context in which they were spoken. They grow out of a rich O.T. heritage to which they allude. Illustrative phrases like “the lamb of God,” not only illustrate truth—they do, of course—but to a Jew familiar with sacrifice, they evoked memories, past teachings, and experiences, etc. When Jesus called Himself the Door of the sheepfold, the entire shepherdly imagery of the O.T. accompanied it. The connotations of the twenty-third psalm, for instance, all came alive as Jesus spoke about Himself as the good Shepherd.

So, one principle in selecting illustrations that count is to be sure that you use illustrations that evoke as much desirable response as possible from the listener. Agricultural illustrations, in a rural church (when used accurately) usually will evoke much more than in a urban church. Highly urban references will tend to have the opposite effect. Of course, the use of such references backfires when a preacher fails to gather and handle his facts with precision (just let him start talking about a “mother and father and baby bull” and see what happens in a rural congregation; but in a highly urban congregation, he might even slip it by without a member batting an eyelash!).

Yet, on the other hand, there is also an appeal that fresh, new material has when it is truly unique or unusual and when it is presented in an understandable manner. The illustrator can take nothing for granted; he must carefully describe, explain, compare, and contrast what he is talking about with what is known (“the tray, of which I am speaking, looks very much like grandma’s old tin cookie sheet”).

A second principle to keep in mind is that new use of old, familiar, routine, or everyday material is well received. Here the threadbare, unnoticed, and droll take on a new dimension, and (in doing so) new life. Because it is commonplace, such material continues to remind the listener of the truth it illustrated during subsequent weeks, when he encounters the phenomenon. I have an illustration about a garbage can that I am sure does that. Christ’s words “I am the …” are like that; they have such an effect.

A third principle that I want to emphasize is to avoid, at all cost, canned, trite, worn-out illustrations, and all illustrations that come prepackaged in illustration books. Find, develop, manufacture your own. When Jesus said, “Consider the lilies of the field …” doubtless He gestured toward flowers growing at His listeners’ feet. With Him, you have all of God’s creation as your book of illustrations; you must learn how to read it. To do so, a preacher must develop the capacity to use his senses fully. We have learned in life not to do so. We have developed the capacity to screen out much that goes on around us; we focus very selectively on our environment. This is necessary in growth, but it is detrimental to illustrative thinking. As a child you could be fascinated over a blade of grass on which an ant was crawling. Now, such things hardly ever capture your attention. Preachers—i.e., good preachers—have learned to become childlike once again. They open their eyes and ears to the full range of sounds and sights all about them. They taste, and savor whatever they eat. Their senses of touch and smell come alive again. And, from what they allow themselves to take in, they express truth as others who have lost this ability no longer can. They are alive to the fact that the same God who redeemed us in Christ is the One who created the world. Therefore, there is continuity between created things and the new creation in Christ; the whole material world becomes fair game for illustrating spiritual truth.

How does one learn to become aware of his world so that he may use it to illustrate? He must relearn that which was natural to him as a child. I shall give you two concrete suggestions for doing so. If you follow them faithfully for six months, you will begin to experience a great change.

First, buy a small notebook that you can carry with you. Keep it for any illustrations that come your way, as it were, intruding themselves upon you. But don’t just wait for them; seek and you shall find!

As the first order of business every morning when you enter your study (after prayer) look around at, listen to, smell, touch what is there. Look at things you never noticed before—cracks in plaster, holes in rugs, scratches in the desk; they all contain messages if you will only read them carefully. Listen to that hum, the bird singing outside, the sound of water gurgling through a pipe in the wall. What are these sounds telling you? Nothing? Then listen, imagine, think, think, think! Run your hand over the smooth surface of the desk, the rough texture of a concrete block in the outside wall—is there a truth hidden there? Of course—at least 50 of them, if you will only attune yourself to them! That pen, lying on your desk, like the human beings who may use it, has potential to bless or curse others, those pages of crumpled, discarded thought in the wastebasket have a word to speak about God’s attitude toward humanistic ideas; that telephone which is your link with the outside, all these items, and thousands of others like them, are available to you for use. Focus on one—say the telephone—see how many different aspects of it provide illustrations. Why, the telephone alone could keep you busy manufacturing illustrations for a month!

Now, each day, write down in your notebook at least one illustration from your study. Don’t do anything else until you do that. Don’t be too concerned about how good or how bad the illustration may seem. In time, you will soon discover, your illustrations will become better and better. You’ll not only get the hang of discovering them more quickly, but you’ll learn how to put them into words more easily. Manufacturing illustrations, before long, will actually become fun.

The second suggestion is to take your notebook into the church auditorium every week and write down at least five more illustrations from what you see or think about there. That practice will enable you during the coming weeks to actually point to something around you in a sermon (as Christ did in referring to the lilies) as you give an illustration (“Do you know that that chandelier over there is.…”; “This organ that you have heard played so beautifully wouldn’t work at all if.…”

Now, all of the illustrations above have to do with things. I put the emphasis on these, because they are easier to work with at first, and a preacher should begin with them. They are good, especially for making brief, telling points and giving sermons a touch of color and relevance, here and there. But the most effective illustrations are stories and accounts of people in action (“A sower went out to sow”) and/or in conversation (cf. the parable of the prodigal son). In the parables, for instance, dialog is often used with real power; it brings the listener closer to the story so that he becomes more fully involved in it. Read the parables, noting all the direct discourse that occurs (set apart by quotation marks in most modern translations).

But, how can you develop stories, incidents, etc., that you may use as more extended illustrations? Basically, by

  1. making up your own stories (“Suppose a farmer had just plowed his field …”)
  2. studying good examples of story-telling wherever you can find them
  3. by keeping your eyes and ears open to what is happening around you in life wherever you are.

When others are idling, with their minds in neutral, you must be looking, listening, and absorbing all you can. Jot down notes immediately; otherwise, you’ll forget. Then, later, work over the notes, putting the story in better form. If you follow this advice, you will find it possible to collect reams of stuff in no time. Out of it, there will be more than enough good material to use, or to revise for use.

After a minister has worked hard at this regularly, daily, he will notice something interesting beginning to happen: as he is preaching, illustrations will pop into his head—out of the blue. Some of these will be good; early on, most won’t be so good. At first, he should wisely avoid using them on the spot as they occur. But, as soon as the sermon is over, he should jot them down and work them into better form later on (the major problem with them will be one of form).

This matter of form is of importance to illustration. One must think about the best ways of wording and using an illustration. This takes time and careful thought—usually writing out key words and phrases you want to remember when using the illustration. That is especially true of those that depend—like many jokes do—on a “punch line” (or denouement). Sequence, also can be of significance.

But for the illustration craftsman, the time will come when, after having done all these things in a disciplined way, these processes will become automatic and unconscious, so that at last you will be able to trust yourself to use many of those illustrations that (you will find) increasingly occur for the first time when preaching right on the spot. They will come in proper form and sequence more and more. That is when preaching really becomes free! Then, you will discover yourself writing such material into your outline after the sermon to use the next time you preach the sermon. But the prelude to this is much disciplined labor over illustrating.

Because illustrations put windows in sermons that enable people to see, you must use them; there are too many blind wall sermons at which people stare blankly for half an hour or more, because they lack good illustrations. You may think that you see a truth, but do you really until you can illustrate it? That is a pretty good test of your own understanding; and it helps preclude self-deception (which is so prevalent). Illustration reduces fuzziness in both preacher and listener. So come alive yourself to all of God’s creation as the illustration book of spiritual truth and, then, your preaching and (at length) your congregation will come alive too!

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