Practical Thoughts and Suggestions on the Use of Sermon IllustrationsMay 2, 2017
The most compelling, heart-stirring messages are those which bring to light the truth of God’s Word in the heart of the hearer. This is the primary task of the expositor: To take biblical truth and communicate it in such a way that the congregation has a clear understanding of the meaning of Scripture. Such a process will force men to make decisions about their lives in consideration of the truth that has been revealed. Perhaps there is no more effective way to do this than by using illustrations.
The act of illustrating comes from the Latin word illustrare which literally means to cast light upon something. That’s a good word for this visually-minded generation. By in large, most people retain information more efficiently if they can “see” it. This can be problematic for the preacher of God’s Word because “faith cometh by hearing” not by seeing. Therefore, the challenge we have is to take that which is being said and verbalize it so that the congregation can visualize it. Vines and Shaddix said this, “Illustrations are mental photographs that illumine the ideas of our messages.” Illustrations should be incorporated into the message, not to replace scriptural content, but rather to reveal the truth found within the passage.
The prophets of old used all kinds of imagery and illustrations to hammer down the truth of their messages. Jeremiah went down to the Potter’s house to see the message of God’s Word. Ezekiel pictured Israel’s return to Palestine in the valley of dry bones. Daniel described the coming world empires through the great image of a man constructed of different metals. Jesus gave radical, revolutionary truth regarding the kingdom of God through pictures, images, and parabolic language. He had the unique ability to communicate truth through the visualization of a withered tree, a buried treasure, and a wayward sheep, just to name a few. Even Paul used the imagery of the body, the building, and the bride to communicate the mysteries of Christ and His Church.
A preacher who knows when and how to use proper illustrations will lead his congregation to a fuller understanding of the truth he is trying to communicate.
The Purpose of Good Illustrations
John Broadus, in his classic book, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, said that illustrations should act as “ornaments” to the sermon in that they are only there to adorn the truth that is present in the text of Scripture. A good sermon illustration is there only to serve in the following capacities:
To Explain the Text
If a sermon illustration does not help explain the text of Scripture, it has no real place in the outline. Many people take a text and then preach stories or illustrations. This approach to Scripture may be many things, but it is NOT biblical preaching. An illustration is there to help explain the meaning of the passage being preached.
To Prove and/or Support a Particular Point
The sermon outline should be crafted in such a way to support the main proposition of the message. Illustrations should be used to accentuate the given points within the framework of the outline. Again, illustrations are there to validate, illuminate, and support the big idea of either the main thought of the text or one of the divisions or “points” of the main thought.
To Make the Abstract Concrete
For most Christians, theological issues have a variety of complexities. It is the expositor’s responsibility to help them work through the intricacies of doctrine so they can have a better understanding of scriptural truth. For example, the expositor may be able to give a precise definition of justification, but the believer needs more than a definition, they need understanding. Unless they can “own” the concept of the eradication of sin and the imputation of righteousness, they will not fully grasp the positional truth of being in Christ. The expositor should be able to use religious, judicial, or accounting imagery to illustrate the glorious truths of doctrinal issues. The expositor should strive for clarity in all that he does.
To Bring the Audience back to the Sermon
Let’s face it, people need to breathe during the preaching hour. Like an Olympic swimmer that comes up for air, the expositor must pace his sermons with illustrations and examples to give stamina and momentum to his message. Such a practice also gives the congregation an opportunity to check back in just in case they bowed out. A good story or illustration will recapture the attention of those who may have gotten lost in the expositional journey.
To Stir the Emotions and Intellect
In the compilation book, Preaching: How to Preach Biblically, John MacArthur contends, “Emotions are important. They were given to us by God, and they often move the will. I do want to stir people’s emotion when I preach, because truth that warms the heart can move the will.” Granted, we have all sat under sensational, hyped-up, emotionally-charged sermons that do nothing more than bring a few tears. But preaching to the emotion, through the power of the Spirit, under the authority of God’s Word will bring more than tears, it will bring change. Illustrations are a good means to that end.
To Teach the Congregation how to Apply the Truth Heard
A good, sound illustration is more than a well-crafted story; it is a tool. It is an instrument in the outline that teaches people how to apply what they have just heard. In the parable of the foundation, Jesus makes this very application. A house built upon the rock will withstand the torrential floods of life. Therefore, if you hear and DO the saying of Christ, your life will resemble the house that endured. This simple illustration not only gives great clarity to the teachings of Christ, it also makes plain application of what is required for successful spirituality.
To Leverage Persuasion
The preacher is constantly preaching to persuade. The idea of every message is to usher people to a cross roads. If all the congregation gets is an hour of information, they will inevitably walk away unmoved from the exposition. We must bring them to a point of decision. An effective and compelling illustration can oftentimes persuade men to see the need of their hearts. This is not manipulation, this is getting people to see, with the heart’s eye, what is being admonished from the text.
To Give Memory to the Truth Heard
People may not remember your title, outline, points, introduction, or conclusion, but a well-crafted story is hard to forget. The idea is not to give them such a compelling story that they disregard the scripture. The idea is to preach the Scripture in such a way that the illustration drives home the main thought in a memorable way.
The Particulars of Good Illustrations
Charles Spurgeon said a sermon without illustrations is like a house without windows. He went on to say, however, that no one wants a house made up of only windows. If your sermon is to be effective it must have some illustrative components, but the illustrations cannot monopolize the message. What are some features of a good illustration, and how should we incorporate them into the message? A good illustration should be:
Some of the best illustrations you can use are biblical stories and pictures. If the Old Testament is the New Testament concealed, and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed, then the expositor would serve himself well to use the illustrations found within his own Bible. If you are preaching about the essential qualities of a servant of God from one of the epistles, you could easily illustrate the message through the lives of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, or Joshua. If you are preaching from the book of Ruth you could easily associate her redemption with the Gentile’s hope. Biblical illustrations are typically the best way to bring home a biblical truth. (A word of caution: When using biblical illustrations be sure not to take passages out of context).
Honest and Accurate
You do not have to necessarily use a biblical illustration to be effective, but you do need to be honest and accurate. Even the most honest and trustworthy expositor faces the temptation of embellishment when it comes to stories and illustrations. You can and should be creative when crafting the message but not at the expense of lying in the pulpit.
The only thing worse than boring and dull exposition is a boring and dull illustration that tries to explain the exposition. Include illustrations in your sermon that will capture the attention of your congregation. We are to incorporate these things to better accentuate truth. Make sure you are not boring people with the glorious truth of Scripture.
An illustration should be theologically-fitting to your main proposition, but it should also be appropriate in the context of your audience. Refrain from off-color remarks that may hinder the working of the Holy Spirit. Get permission from people before you use their stories and personal life experiences. Make sure your words and statements are fitting and suitable for the congregation at hand. If you are speaking at a men’s meeting, it may be perfectly fine to speak on certain subjects; but those same subjects could potentially be inappropriate for a different setting. Use discretion and common sense when picking certain illustrations.
This may seem repetitive, but it is essential: Illustrations are there only to support the main thought of the passage. The scripture should never be used to support a story, rather, a story is to be used only to support the scripture. Make sure your illustrations do not dominate the preaching hour.
Short and Climatic
I put these two words together because they work in accordance with each other. Climatic stories and illustrations should be quick, simple, and to the point. If you work your exposition the way the text deserves, you will not have to spend thirty minutes telling some sappy stories to compel the congregation; the text should do that. The preaching should be outlined in such a way that by the time you reach your climatic statement or appeal, the illustration will be in place only to give a quick validation to the expounded truth of Scripture.
If an illustration is not relevant to the congregation’s life, it more than likely will prove to be ineffective. If you are preaching in a suburban, inner-city church, you may be hard-pressed to use ancient farming practices as a suitable illustration. If you a preaching in a rural country church you may find it difficult to explain the ongoing commute problems from one location to the next. Know your audience and discern whether or not the illustration will actually illuminate truth in their culture.
The Places of Good Illustrations
Illustrations are literally all around us. The world itself is an illustration of God’s creativity, power, authority, and soon-coming, global reconciliation. Your family serves as ongoing illustrations of love, relationships, trials, and growth. Your ministry gives way to all kinds of illustrations concerning service, worship, stewardship, and administration. On and on, illustrations abound in every aspect of our lives. Once I find a good illustration, I hang on to it. I keep a database of all kinds of stories, illustrations, poems, and articles. Over the years, I have collected tens of thousands of tidbits, maxims, quotes, and stories. Such a library makes for efficient and time-saving study during those crucial hours of a hectic work week.
Here is a small list of places to find quality material:
- Books, magazine, periodicals, websites
- Personal life stories and experiences
- Personal life stories and experience of others
- Biographies of great men and women
- Statistics, research, polls
- Current Events, national news, social media events
- Poems, poetry, literature, short stories
- Humor, jokes, quotations, statements from famous individuals
- Scripture, cross-references, biblical examples