In this excerpt from Illustrating Well, Jim L. Wilson reflects on the importance clear and relevant preaching illustrations can be to communicating a message, and how prophets throughout the Bible used those same principles.
In preaching, the goal is not exclusively to communicate the preacher’s idea; it is to communicate the meaning that the biblical authors intended while they were under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This adds another layer of complication. The Bible is an ancient book written by multiple authors, each within the specific contexts of original audiences that spanned more than a thousand years. The geography, customs, culture, and languages of the Bible are foreign to most modern readers. All these realities form additional communication obstacles. This is where good sermon illustrations, used effectively, can help.
Sermon illustrations that are familiar, clear, interesting, and appropriate can assist audiences in understanding, applying, or experiencing the Bible’s teachings. Good illustrations assist preachers in overcoming communication obstacles that hinder effective meaning transmission with their congregations.
Certainly, preachers have to get it right. Their sermons (including the illustrations) must be biblically accurate and theologically rigorous. However, good theology is not enough. Pastor and author J. D. Greear says, “I regularly look for both exegetical insight and illustrative insight as I’m researching specific texts, because the people in my church don’t just need good theology; they need to understand and feel the gospel. And the perfect illustration or story will often make a gospel truth relevant in a way that dozens of word studies never will.”
The point is not that a well-illustrated sermon does not need theological rigor; nothing could be further from the truth. Every sermon should be theologically rich and thoroughly biblical and should have its meaning emerge from the text. Nevertheless, preachers should also present the message in a way that is accessible to people.
To reach the minds and hearts of their listeners, preachers must do more than explain truth; they must demonstrate how the truth relates to and works in real life. The truth must become more than an abstract concept; it must become a concrete reality—one that the listeners can relate to and apply to their lives. Seeing a concept demonstrated increases the hearers’ understanding of the concept and their motivation to apply it to life situations.
There is something about a good illustration that helps the unfamiliar become familiar and the distant become close. In the Old and New Testaments, as well as throughout church history, prophets, teachers, and preachers have used illustrations to increase their effectiveness in communicating.
Truth Was Demonstrated in the Old Testament
The Old Testament is filled with God’s prophets demonstrating, not just proclaiming, God’s message. When God wanted Jeremiah to understand the impending decay of Judah and Jerusalem, he had him buy a new linen loincloth and wear it without washing it. Later, God instructed Jeremiah to hide it for an extended period in the rocks next to the Euphrates River. After a long time, when God instructed him to, Jeremiah retrieved the rotten garment, which was now falling apart (Jer 13:1–8). After Jeremiah saw (and smelled) the result of the prolonged decay, he was prepared to fully hear and proclaim the message from God: “This is what the Lord says: Just like this I will ruin the great pride of both Judah and Jerusalem. These evil people, who refuse to listen to me, who follow the stubbornness of their own hearts, and who have followed other gods to serve and bow in worship—they will be like this underwear, of no use at all” (Jer 13:9–10).
This was not an isolated incident. On another occasion, God required the prophet Isaiah to walk around naked and barefoot for three years. Strange behavior, but it had a purpose—to illustrate that captivity was coming and that the people would walk into their destiny without anything (Isa 20:1–4). God also instructed one of his prophets to marry a prostitute, which became an analogy for Israel’s unfaithfulness to God (Hos 1–3).
The prophets helped the people understand, visualize, and experience their message. They did more than tell the people something; they demonstrated the truth.
Jesus used analogies to help people understand his teaching
Jesus used normal, everyday items in people’s lives to represent extraordinary kingdom truths. John records many of these in his Gospel. At a well, Jesus told a thirsty woman that he could provide “living water” that leads to eternal life (4:13). He spoke of bread (6:35), light (9:5), doors (10:1–3, 9), and shepherds (10:11). Beside the tomb of a dead man, he said that he is the resurrection and that those who believe in him will live even after they die (11:25–26). He also taught using vines and branches (15:1–8), servants and masters (15:20), a woman in labor (16:21), and lambs (21:15–19). These analogies helped the people understand, apply, and experience his message.
In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7, Jesus used salt (5:13), light (5:14), lamps and baskets (5:15), moths and rust (6:20), birds (6:26), and flowers (6:28). He also used specks and planks (7:3); dogs, pearls, and pigs (7:6); a hungry child (7:9); gates (7:13); wolves (7:15); and grapes, bushes, trees, and fruit (7:16–20). Jesus closed the sermon by referencing rain, floods, foundations, and buildings (7:24–27). Jesus used everyday, ordinary, familiar items from his hearers’ lives to teach them something new—about a life that they could experience in his kingdom.
This post was adapted from Illustrating Well: Preaching Sermons That Connect by Jim L. Wilson (Lexham Press, 2022).