Illustrations in preaching

In many ways the success of preaching depends upon the success of the illustration. An idea without an accompanying illustration is like an airplane without wings; the idea is not going to fly. The most successful preachers soon discover that illustrations have a way of personalizing the message, of attaching an address to it. As preachers, when we fail to use illustrations, it's the same as writing a lengthy letter but failing to address the envelope before mailing it.

W., Floyd Bresee, Ph.D., is associate secretary for continuing education of the Ministerial Association of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Ali Baba, in an old Arabian Nights tale, was fleeing for his life. Suddenly he was face to face with a dead end. Mammoth rock walls rose before him and on either side. His enemies were closing in from behind. It seemed there was no way to escape. But Ali Baba shouted two secret words, ''Open Sesame. " As if by magic, giant rock doors swung open before him. He rode through to safety and riches.

Preacher, have you ever had that dead-end feeling in the pulpit? Have you found yourself facing people whose minds seemed as impervious as rock to the truth you were trying to present? Have you been hotly pursued by feelings of failure? Have you desperately wished you had two magic words like Ali Baba's that would open doors and let the truth get through?

You do have two magic words: for instance. As you lay an illustration before your congregation, eyes focus on the pulpit. Minds focus on the sermon. Doors swing open. The truth gets through! 1

Importance of illustration

Let's first examine the reasons why illustration is an important way of conveying truth.

1. The Bible is largely a book of illustrations. Remembering this makes the Bible both more interesting and understandable. Underlying virtually the entire Old Testament is illustration of how God leads His people. Notice how Paul emphasizes this fact: "Now these things which happened to our ancestors are illustrations of the way in which God works, and they were written down to be a warning to us who are living in the final days of the present order" (1 Cor. 10:11, Phillips).*

We wouldn't become nearly so con fused over such subjects as the Old Testament sanctuary if we remembered always to look at it as God's way of illustrating how Christ saves. The Gospels perfectly illustrate truth by telling the life story of the only One who ever lived truth perfectly. If you're going to teach truth the way God teaches it you must use illustrations, for His Book is a book of illustrations.

2. Jesus always illustrated. Mark 4:33, 34 asserts, "And with many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it. But without a parable spake he not unto them." The Sermon on the Mount has some fifty-six metaphors. You can read the entire sermon aloud in fifteen minutes. If the sermon was delivered just as it is recorded Jesus was using more than three illustrations a minute.

With Jesus the kingdom was always like something. Look at just one chapter with me—Matthew 13. In verse 24 Jesus says, "The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field." In verse 33, "The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened." In verse 44, "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field." In verse 45, "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls." And in verse 47, "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind." In our Lord's preaching, the kingdom was always like something.

3. Paul used illustration. Before the angry mob at Jerusalem and when on trial before Agrippa he used a narrative—the experience of his own conversion (Acts 22 and 26).

Unfortunately today some feel that sermon illustrations are unspiritual and shallow. But if God in Scripture so consistently and persistently used illustrations, is it right to call illustrations unspiritual? Certainly the Bible is not unspiritual. If great minds such as those of Jesus and of Paul used illustrations, should we call illustration shallow? Certainly we would not call Paul and our Lord shallow.

Definition of Illustration

Illustration comes from the Latin word lux, meaning "light." It might take the form of a narrative, an analogy, or whatever, but its purpose is not the same as storytelling. It is never used primarily to excite or entertain, but to throw light on truth.

Storytelling, on the other hand, is that which is used for its own sake and is out of place in the pulpit. It deserves the indignation heaped upon it. Brown differentiates illustration from storytelling in the following way: "The word illustrate means literally to throw light or luster upon anything. The illustration is never to be regarded as an end in itself; it shines for the sake of something beyond. When the lighted candle is held up to the painting, it is not intended that the beholders should look at the candle but at the painting upon which the candle throws its light." 2

Too little light prevents you from seeing the picture, because of the darkness. But too much light also keeps you from seeing the picture, because of the glare. Too little sermon illustration prevents many in the congregation from seeing the truth you are presenting. But too exciting and dramatic an illustration leads them to see the story instead of the truth. Sometimes the best story makes the poorest illustration.

When a listener has remembered your story but can't for the life of him recall what it taught, though it may have been a good story in itself, it was a bad illustration. A story can be like a livingroom lamp. It's beautiful—something to look at. A sermon illustration should be like a streetlamp. It doesn't attract much attention to itself. Its business is lighting up the community.

Christ didn't tell hair-raising stories as a preface to long theological discussions. Instead He used simple analogies almost continuously and with a proper balance of emotion. He didn't focus on the extreme ends of the reason-emotion continuum, but stayed in the middle, using both as continuously as possible.

An illustration, then, is not for entertaining, nor is it a blank space between arguments. Rather, it is that which applies argument to life. Did you ever try to hang a picture for your wife when you had only a nail and no hammer? Ever try to drive the nail with your wife's high heeled shoe? On the other hand, did you ever have a hammer and couldn't find a nail? The best of hammers would only make a mess of the wall. Which do you need to hang a picture—a nail, hammer, or both? The nail is your idea, the lesson you want to get across in your sermon. The hammer represents your illustration. Having an idea without an illustration is like having a nail without a hammer to help it penetrate—to drive it home. Having a story without a lesson to teach is like having a hammer without a nail for it to strike against. You need both.

What do you see on this page? Ideas? Words? Not really. What you see on this page is ink. But the ink is being used in such a way that, hopefully, we become oblivious to it and see only ideas. The perfect illustration is like that. It becomes almost oblivious. It leaves the listener thinking, not of it, but of the idea it illustrates.

Purposes of illustration

Let's look at six reasons for using sermon illustrations.

1. Illustrations make truth easier to understand. We best learn a new thing by its being likened to something we already know, by the unfamiliar being compared with the familiar. This is the basic principle underlying the use of illustration in preaching. Beecher reminisced: "I have seen an audience, time and again, follow an argument, doubtfully, laboriously, almost suspiciously, and look at one another, as much as to say, 'Is he going right?'—until the place is arrived at, where the speaker says, 'It is like—' and then they listen eagerly for what 'it is like' and when some apt illustration is thrown out before them, there is a sense of relief, as though they said, 'Yes, he is right.'" 3

Far from being shallow, well-illustrated preaching dares to present deeper thoughts. What if I have an argument that I would like to include in my sermon but it would demand the most careful attention of even the deepest thinkers in the congregation. Dare I include it? Only if I illustrate it. A deep thought well illustrated and practically applied will gain the interest of both the thinker and the child in your audience.

2. Illustrations hold attention. In the strictest sense many sermons that are preached never are delivered. The pharmacist sends his delivery boy out with a prescription for Mrs. Jones. But the day is hot, the bicycle is slow, and Mrs. Jones lives clear across town. So the boy throws the prescription in a trash can and goes swimming instead. Did he deliver it? Well, he got it off his hands. But you can be sure his employer will insist that delivery was made only when the prescription got into Mrs. Jones's hands.

Like the boy, we ministers tend to become lazy. We step into the pulpit with God-given truths, but we fail to provide the illustrations that will grip people's attention. When the sermon is over we pull our sanctimonious robes about us, insisting, "I said it. If the people didn't hear it, that's their problem." Not so. A sermon is really delivered, not when the preacher has gotten it off his hands, but when his people have taken it into their hands and hearts.

Romans 10:17 gives a formula for building faith: "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." The formula is simple: WORD + HEARING = FAITH, A sermon is for the purpose of increasing faith. Our formula suggests that the Word of God must be combined with hearing before it produces faith. In other words, it's not how much of the Word of God we preach, but how much is heard, that will build faith. William James put it this way: "What gets your attention deter mines your action." And illustration is simply the most successful means avail able for focusing people's attention on truth.

Dad used to set two older brothers and me to work sacking grain. Being the youngest, I invariably held the sack, and my brothers did the shoveling. There's a bit of a trick to putting your forearm into the grain sack just right so its mouth hangs open wide enough for a whole scoopful of grain to go in. We shoveled a lot more grain than we sacked, but the problem was that Dad gave us credit only for the amount that went in, not the amount of grain that was shoveled. Is it not possible our heavenly Father measures sermons the same way? He's not so much impressed by the amount of truth we handle as by the amount that goes in. Good illustrations help hold people's attention. And that's how more truth goes in.

3. Illustrations retain truth longer. When a piece of film is developed and an image emerges, the process is not yet complete. The film must be put through a fixer before the image can last as long as the film lasts. In preaching, not only do we want to impress our listeners with truth, but we long for that impression to last. Illustrations are the fixers making permanent the image of truth.

But preachers must not overlook the principle behind Jesus' use of illustrations. If He were preaching in our cities today, He would illustrate with freeways and supermarkets, not with shepherds and sheep. The principle behind Jesus' choice of illustrations is that they should tie truth to things people would be doing so they will be reminded of the truth every time they do them.

The truths of Jesus' sermons were remembered every time a listener saw a lamb or a lily. Every time the people lost something they remembered the lessons of the lost coin or the lost sheep. Every time they had company they thought of Jesus' teaching about the man who borrowed bread at midnight for his company. Ellen White suggests: "Christ's illustrations were taken from the things of daily life, and although they were simple, they had in them a wonderful depth of meaning. . . . Ever afterward, when His hearers chanced to see these objects, they recalled His words. Thus the truth became a living reality; the scenes of nature and the daily affairs of life were ever repeating to them the Saviour's teaching." 4 If, like Jesus, you want your sermons to go on preaching themselves all week long, illustrate them with things your people will be doing that week.

4. Illustrations prove religion relevant, They are a means of showing that Christian theory works in everyday life. Listeners often wonder whether it will. Preachers tend to forget that it must. Good illustrations prove that it does.

Your audience will perceive your sermon as relevant to life if you illustrate it with experiences similar to theirs. An illustration about a child being spanked is usually more relevant than one about a soldier charging into battle. Most of your audience have been either on the giving or receiving end of a spanking, but what woman in your congregation has ever fought on a battlefield?

The day before he preached Beecher liked to spend some time at the docks. He claimed acquaintance with every gatekeeper at Fulton Ferry, every engineer or deckhand on the boats. Or he liked to ride on an omnibus and talk with the driver. His sermon was still forming in his mind when he went out to observe life, asking himself whether or not this idea would work there. From watching life on Saturday he brought illustrations that made his sermon relevant to life when he preached on Sunday. Proudly Beecher asserted, "If ever I saw one of those men in my church, I could preach to him, and hit him under the fifth rib with an illustration, much better than if I had not been acquainted with him. I have driven the truth under many a plain jacket." 5

5. Illustrations present strong truth without offending the audience. We might not look at this as a principal purpose of illustration, yet Matthew 13:10-13 shows Jesus used it this way: "And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. . . . Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand." Apparently Jesus used illustrations to make His teachings both easier and harder to understand— easier for those who wanted to under stand, and harder and more obscure for those who didn't.

Abolishing slavery was not a popular idea in many congregations during pre-Civil War days, even in the North. Many people didn't appreciate their ministers' preaching about it. Yet the consciences of some preachers wouldn't allow them to keep quiet. The solution? Some used examples out of slavery to illustrate sermons on other subjects. The illustrations gradually got to the people's hearts when no amount of argument would have. Illustration sometimes makes it possible to present strong truth without offending the audience.

6. Illustrations motivate. Merely to announce what ought to be done with out helping motivate people to do it is of little value. Enveloped in a cloud of dust, the county agricultural agent drove into the farmyard and bounced onto the old farmer's porch. The farm looked pretty much run-down, and the farmer sitting in the creaking rocker did too. The agent, enthusiasm personified, began sharing what he thought were exciting ideas for improving the farm, but the old man stopped him in mid-sentence. "Simmer down, sonny; I know how to farm twice as good as I'm farmin' already."

Most people are not living even half the truth they already know. They don't so much need to know more as they need to be motivated more. While the principal purpose of illustration is not to excite the emotions, illustrations do help listeners feel the truth. And people mostly do what they feel like doing.

Sources of illustrations

Naturally it's much easier to defend the importance of illustrations than to find good ones when you need them. At times we're all tempted to throw up our hands and say we just can't.

The University of Northern Iowa once offered a general art course that included a most unusual exercise. The teacher brought to class a shopping bag filled with lemons and gave a lemon to each class member. The assignment was for the student to keep his lemon with him day and night—smelling, handling, examining it. Next class period, without warning, students were told to put their lemons back in the bag. Then each was asked to find his lemon. Surprisingly, most did so without difficulty. They had fondled and scrutinized and lived with that lemon until it became intimately theirs.

The sermon illustrator must do with life what the student did with that lemon. The preacher must perpetually turn life over, examine it, study it, always asking the Holy Spirit to show him how it illustrates Christianity. This must be at least partially what is meant by "Pray without ceasing." We all live life. The preacher must truly observe it. A thousand illustrations pass before each of us every year, but we need to train ourselves to see them.

The minister who complains about having no illustrations is admitting either that his religion isn't relevant to life or that he doesn't yet possess what every successful preacher must develop—the "homiletic bias." The homiletic bias means more than training yourself to see the world; it means always seeing it in spiritual colors. What does it teach about Jesus? How does it illustrate His kingdom?

That's the way Jesus did it. He observed everything. He looked for illustrations everywhere. Notice how broad and all-inclusive was His observation of life as indicated by His illustrations on homelife (leavening bread, borrowing from a neighbor, patching clothes, lighting lamps, sweeping floors, the boy who didn't want to live at home, children playing games in the street); business (lending money, collecting money owed, paying taxes); trades (managing orchards and vineyards, building houses, fishermen sorting their catch, bosses and servants); nature (wheat, tares, harvesting, flowers, birds); politics (kings going to war); and social events (feasts, weddings). To illustrate as Jesus illustrated means two things: staying close to life, and staying close to God so that you see Him in every facet of life.

Keeping these principles in mind, let's look now at five sources of illustrations. First, the Bible. Biblical illustrations have both advantages and disadvantages. An advantage is that they carry weight because they are taken from Scripture. A disadvantage is that most people have heard them so often they tend to be bored unless the illustrations are creatively done.

A few suggestions may help. Do enough research so you can make the narrative live. Use a "suppose" and translate the ancient experience into a modern setting. Utilize less familiar illustrations such as the life of Demas or Onesimus. Many Old Testament incidents are not well known in most congregations today. Unless you have a genius for narrative, use Bible illustrations more as proof, not as a substitute for examples from contemporary life.

Second, the congregation is a source. If the basic lessons for your next sermon have been gleaned from Scripture early in the week and are churning in your head seeking ways to be taught, then as you visit and minister to your congregation throughout the week, illustrations are almost certain to come. It is a simple fact that the sermons that come from the congregation tend to fit the congregation. They also tend to create a family atmosphere. Then your parishioners will respond, "This sermon is about us" or "One of us has a problem similar to that."  

Caution! If the illustration is laudatory, people won't object to your telling something about them in public. But be extremely careful about intimate details. Someone is listening to how well you keep confidences before daring to trust you with the hurt in his or her own heart. I am shocked by the number of people who have come to me saying they don't share their problems with their pastor for fear he'll share them with the whole congregation as a sermon illustration.

Third, your personal life is a source. The preacher should not talk too much about himself in the pulpit, yet a careful observer should probably be able to compose a biography of his pastor from a year's sermons. Your own illustration is better even if it's not so good. That is, what you know for certain about Christianity is only what has worked for you.

However, don't be the hero of every personal illustration. It encourages people to hear of your humanity now and then and to know that you're aware of it. On the other hand, don't glorify your wayward youth or brag about mistakes of the past. Some preachers make it sound as though the only fun they've had was serving the devil.

When using illustrations from your own home, always talk lovingly about your wife. Ladies in the congregation are unbelievably sensitive in picking up little nuances about what kind of husband you make. Also, don't embarrass your children by either building them up or running them down. They already have enough of a goody-goody image surrounding them without Dad's sermons magnifying the problem.

Fourth, your file is a good source. Always write down an illustration as soon as you hear or think of one. Forget that you can remember, and remember that you are bound to forget. Have you heard about the preacher who had such a beautiful thought that he immediately dropped to his knees to thank the Lord for it, but when he got up he forgot what it was? Write it down. And have a well-organized topical file so it will be readily available when you need it.

Fifth, books of sermon illustrations are sources. These are left to last, because they should probably be used only as a last resort. Their greatest value may actually be in reminding you of some incident closer to your life or that of your congregation. Use them as "pump primers."

There's an old saying, a bit judgmental, yet true, that tells why we must use illustration: "Little minds dwell on people, mediocre minds dwell on things, large minds dwell on ideas." If only "large minds dwell on ideas," then how are we going to get ideas into little and mediocre minds? By associating them with people and things!

Reverently I ask, Did you ever stop to think that the use of illustration is like the Incarnation? "In Christ's parable teaching the same principle is seen as in His own mission to the world. . . . Men could learn of the unknown through the known; heavenly things were revealed through the earthly; God was made manifest in the likeness of men. So it was in Christ's teaching: the unknown was illustrated by the known; divine truths by earthly things with which the people were most familiar." 6

Let us, like Jesus, continuously link the divine with the human through illustration.


* From J. B. Phillips: The New Testament in Modern English, Revised Edition. © J. B. Phillips 1958, 1960, 1972. Used by permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.

1 Halford Luccock, Communicating the Gospel (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1954), p. 136.

2 Charles Reynolds Brown, The Art of Preaching (NewYork:TheMacmillanCo., 1922), p. 124.

3 Henry Ward Beecher, Yale Lectures on Preaching (New York:]. B. Ford&.Co., 1872), p. 158.

4 Counsels to Parents and Teachers (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1943), p. 261.

5 Beecher, op. cit., p. 97.

6 Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1941), p. 17.

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W., Floyd Bresee, Ph.D., is associate secretary for continuing education of the Ministerial Association of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

September 1984

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