The preacher’s task is to present “the mystery of godliness,” the divinely revealed Word of God recorded in the Holy Scriptures (I Timothy 3:16; 2 Timothy 3:16). He does this by preaching the Word through a sermon, a spiritual discourse designed to explain the Scriptures and apply them the to the preacher’s audience (2 Timothy 3:16; 4:2; Titus 1:9).
This is no small task to assign to any man. He must understand the lofty thoughts of God and His will and then communicate them to a sinful world by explaining and applying the Word of God to each heart (cp. Ezra 7:10; 2 Timothy 2:15; 2 Peter 3:16). The chief requisite in Biblical preaching is clarity. The preacher must be clear in his comprehension of the text and his explanation and application of the text. The latter task calls for the use of illustrations. Illustrations are expressions, ideas, words, and experiences common to humanity that help explain the heavenly truths revealed in Scripture. It is the clear explanation of the “mystery of godliness,” using the known to explain the unknown.
To illustrate means to throw light upon something. Illustrations are “lamps” or “spotlights” that throw light upon the abstract or on that which is difficult to comprehend. The use of illustration in sermons is an absolute must. Every preacher must learn to collect and use illustrations to explain and apply Scripture. Only those who do not preach regularly to a congregation and do not regularly and methodically expound the Word of God minimize the use of illustrations in sermons.
The two most significant proponents of illustrations are the Author of Scripture, God, and the Architect of faith, Christ. From Genesis to Revelation, God reveals His will in story.
The Bible teaches creation not in abstract but in story and picture. Redemption unfolds in human history, in the Word becoming flesh, and everything culminates in the glorious description of the celestial city. Thus it says that “God…spoke…to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways” (Hebrews 1:1).
Christ is our next witness to the necessity of illustrations. He is the master teacher, the ideal preacher, and the ultimate model of exposition of truth. Follow Christ in the Gospels, and you will be amazed at the ubiquitous use of every form of illustration, from simple adjectives to extended stories. As an exercise in the Lord’s use of illustrations underscore all the “lights” He uses in the Sermon on the Mount to explain life in the Kingdom of God. Follow His example and never be unclear or dull again. In short, the great difference between a good preacher and a poor preacher is that the poor preacher says, “In other words.” The good preacher says, “For instance, For example,” or “Let me illustrate.”
The Functions of Illustrations
Illustrations serve several functions in the process of preaching the Word. They are ready tools in the art of preaching effective sermons. By grasping their functions, the preacher will have at his disposal just the correct illustration for optimal effect in his preaching.
- Illustrations make the truth concrete. Revealed religion is done in abstract truth. The preacher’s task is to take what is abstract and make it concrete. He must take the lofty truths and bring them down to where the average mortal can comprehend them. Hence he takes the known to explain the unknown. Someone once said, “Truth made concrete will find a way past many a door where abstractions knock in vain.”
- Illustrations make the truth interesting. Boredom and irrelevance are the chief killers of most sermons. The smell of death is upon any sermon without illustrations. Illustrations spark interest and excite the imagination. The Bible is fascinating to read because it is God’s truth in story. We are not just reading “stories,” but God’s Word in human history. Would you want to interest the young people in your pews? Illustrate the truth from an event in your youth.
- Illustrations make the truth impressive. The proper use of illustrations can help make the truth impressive and weighty. The preacher must avoid silly and “lightweight” illustrations that cheapen, if not annul, the truth. Read the Lord’s use of parables in Matthew 13, and you walk away with a profound appreciation for the kingdom of God.
The Lord’s parables were weighty, and He imbedded them in His preaching as a regular habit (cp. Mark 4:33-34).
- Illustrations make truth persuasive. Every sermon is to be persuasive. The preacher is not only imparting and explaining truth, but he is also about the task of having his hearers obey the truth. This takes the element of persuasion. Consider the background to the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. Through this great illustration, a parable, Christ not only explained what “neighbor” meant but used it to persuade the lawyer to “go and do the same” (Luke 10:37). If the preacher does not persuade, the people will hear but never do. James reminds us that people need to be more than just hearers of the Word (James 1:19-25). Illustrations have a way of making things clear and thus win acceptance.
- Illustrations make truth practical. The preacher’s task includes the application of truth, not merely explanation. Illustrations apply truth. They help to answer the questions, “What shall we do?” or “How shall we do it?” Nathan’s illustration of the ewe lamb and the heartless rich man provoked David’s wrath and led to his application to David’s cruel heart by saying, “You are the man” (2 Samuel 12:7). Illustrations serve as the “diagrams” in God’s rulebook of life. They provide pictures as to how we are to behave. The preacher may say, “Husbands, love your wives,” but unless he illustrates, the man will return home without a clue about his behavior toward his wife. If a sermon has no application, then the preacher is unnecessary.
- Illustrations make truth memorable. The great peril of most sermons is that people forget them by the end of the week. The truth may go through all the steps of the parable of the soils and thus be lost. Even in the best of soils, people may forget the truth. An illustration of truth acts like “Velcro,” making it stick to the mind and heart. Humility has the “Velcro” of the Parable of the Tax Collector and the Sinner (Luke 18:9-14). A love for sinners has the triple “Velcro” of the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (Luke 15). People rarely forget an illustration that affects sight, smell, sound, and soul. And if they don’t forget these illustrations, they will also remember the truth.
The Types of Illustrations
Clarity in preaching is the greatest requisite. Hence, the preacher must use every form of “illustration” available in speech. Humans have perfected communication over the centuries, and the preacher studies it to learn how to communicate truth. In the course of examination, he will discover that illustrations take many forms. Truth can be illustrated through analogy, metaphor, simile, parables (both Biblical and secular), historical allusions (Biblical and secular), biographical incidents, and anecdotes. The preacher can also draw from the wealth of his personal experiences. Hence, he should learn to live widely to gain as much experience as possible. Obviously, the longer a man lives, the greater his “book of illustrations” will grow.
Modern technology also makes it possible to show pictures or video clips that illustrate a truth. These should illustrate the truth, not usurp the place of truth.
The Sources of Illustrations
Finding illustrations may be one of the most challenging tasks for the preacher since not all preachers know how to find and use good illustrations. There are some ready sources for illustrations available to every preacher.
First and foremost among good sources of illustrations is the Bible itself. Using the Bible as a source of illustrations confirms the truth by cross-referencing, but also helps to teach people the Bible. The more the preacher knows the Bible, the greater the wealth of illustrations.
Other sources of illustrations include his personal experiences, pastoral work (to be used with caution), news channels, the internet, general reading (especially biographies), and listening to sermons.
The preacher can use another preacher’s illustrations if he gives credit for them. The main trait a preacher should develop is to be a good observer of human nature and events. If he does so, he will never lack for illustrations.
One final thought, the preacher should not shy away from books on illustrations. Most of the great preachers have written books on illustrations. These are excellent sources, but they also serve to “prime the pump” when he cannot come up with anything.
Some General Observations
- Work on the Art of Illustration. The use of illustrations in preaching is more complex than it sounds. We must study how to use them effectively. Practice is the best method, but also learn by observing other great preachers using illustrations.
- Collect illustrations. It helps to find some way to collect, save or store illustrations and then find a way to retrieve them. Each preacher should find the method that works for him.
- Use illustrations. Some will criticize the use of illustrations. The best gauge is the response by the people of God. When they say, “Pastor, I got it,” that is the best compliment. Remember, if you cannot illustrate a truth, it is because you do not understand it clearly enough, and if it is not illustrated, then the sermon is not ready.
- Be ethical and careful. Above all, be honest and sincere in the illustration. Never use someone else’s experience and call it your own. Check statistics to make sure they are correct. Give credit for the use of another’s illustration. Do not embellish an illustration to make it more effective. Do not build a sermon around an illustration (no matter how good it is). The illustration is the servant of the truth, not the other way around. Take great care that an illustration does not offend or embarrass someone. When using family or particular individuals, ask for their permission. Better to be safe than sorry. Remember, a word preached cannot be retrieved.