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Preaching - Illustrating the Sermon

By Jess Hall Jr.

religion, articles, christianity

Properly illustrating a sermon is a difficult time-consuming task. It might be called "going the second mile" in sermon preparation. Have you ever heard a preacher justify his failure to illustrate properly his sermon by saying, "I don't use illustrations, I just preach the Word." While a preacher can preach the Word without using illustrations, he cannot omit illustrations and follow the Word's examples of preaching. Scripture abounds with illustrations, e.g. parables, similes, and metaphors. Parables comprise approximately 52 percent of Luke. Parables comprise approximately 75 percent of Jesus' recorded teaching. Given Jesus' use of illustrations and parables, is it not vanity for one who claims to follow him to assert that the use of illustrations somehow detracts from preaching the Word? Clearly, while illustrations (other than from scripture) will not be accompanied by a scripture citation, scripture blesses (if not encourages) their use.

Scripture's use of illustrations should be instructive. Very little of Jesus' public teaching consisted of syllogistic reasoning or definition of terms. In describing Jesus' teaching, Mark wrote, "And without a parable spake he not unto them: but privately to his own disciples he expounded all things" (Mark 4:34). Jesus is himself the living illustration. "And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).

But someone asks, "Don't Paul's letters concentrate on propositional teaching to the exclusion (or at least the downplaying) of illustrations?" While the observation is correct, the comparison is unfair. Paul's epistles are just that-epistles or letters. They are not sermons. In his recorded sermons, Paul not only uses illustrations, he selects them carefully based upon the hearers he is addressing. Even in his epistles Paul recognizes the need for illustrations. In fact, it was Paul who identified scripture as a rich source of illustration: "For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that through patience and through comfort of the scriptures we might have hope" (Rom. 15:4). However, while scripture was the source for many of Paul's illustrations, it was not his only source. He alluded to Jewish history, the market place, the stadium, sports, the army, warfare, armor, the temple, the home, Greek poetry, and the school. One of his most beautiful illustrations is the comparison between the husband/wife relationship and the relationship between Christ and his bride, the church (Eph. 5:21­33). Whatever the source, Paul endorses the use of illustrations.

An illustration has been aptly described as a short cut to the hearer's mind. By either refusing to use illustrations or using poor illustrations, preachers both lengthen the journey to the hearer's mind and make it more burdensome. The inevitable result for most hearers is that, tiring before the journey ends, they rest by the side of the road while the preacher trudges on.


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Published November 1997