Using illustrations

One of the distinctives of John Calvin’s preaching was his use of “vivid expressions.” Steve Lawson explains,

Calvin used vivid expressions to enhance imagery in his listeners’ minds. John Leith notes, ‘His sermons are replete with metaphors, comparisons, and proverbial images and wisdom that appeal to the imagination.’ Most frequently, he used figures of speech drawn from Scripture itself, but many of his images had military, judicial, natural, artisan, or academic connections, and he often used common expressions drawn from routine conversations in everyday life. While humor was scarce in Calvin’s pulpit, he used stimulating language and biting sarcasm that was sure to draw a smile or shock the listener – and leave a lasting impression. (The Expository Genius of John Calvin, p. 89)

I’ve noticed firsthand just how effective a timely illustration can be in sermon delivery. Sometimes, a story or word picture produces that “aha” moment when a point suddenly clicks, and the listeners finally understand. At other times, illustrations have an almost hypnotic power to draw back the drifting attention of the audience. Furthermore, they can help set a doctrinal truth into “concrete” by giving something tangible and memorable for the congregation to remember, meditate upon, and discuss long after the sermon has concluded.

Illustrating is an art that every Bible teacher and preacher needs to develop. It’s definitely an area I want to keep improving in. Here’s my basic process for crafting an illustration:

  • Step 1 – Study to understand the meaning of a text.
  • Step 2 – Discover the timeless truth(s) of that passage.
  • Step 3 – Brainstorm and try to draw parallels between that spiritual truth and the physical world. It could be anything from nature, history, sports, current events, a book or movie, a hypothetical story, personal experience, etc. At this point, I will often enter my “timeless truth,” or a key phrase or idea, into Wikipedia and just see what stories pop up. I will also draw upon recent stories and events I’ve read on or in World Magazine. A simple Microsoft Access database has proven a good “file cabinet” for cataloguing stories and quotes that I discover and would like to use later.
  • Step 4 – Hone in on the one parallel that seems to most effectively illustrate the point.

For example, this last week I preached on the closing verses of John chapter 6:

  • Step 1 – This passage describes how and why the crowds begin to leave Jesus. Peter confesses Christ as the “Holy One of God.” And Jesus reveals that one of the Twelve is going to betray Him.
  • Step 2 – The stark contrast between Judas, Peter, and the crowds remind us that not all people will accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Some will believe, while others will tragically reject Him. We should each examine ourselves, that we are true disciples of Christ – like Peter. The regenerative work of the Holy Spirit is a mystery, which reminds me of Jesus’ statement in John 3:8 “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
  • Step 3 – The recent tornadoes in the Midwest were a powerful demonstration of the random and unpredictable nature of tornadoes. Some buildings were totally demolished, while others nearby were left unscathed. These tornadoes parallel the spiritual truth that God works in mysterious and unpredictable ways.
  • Step 4 – One place that was particularly effected by the tornadoes was Union University in Tennessee. I talked about the damage, then connected this to John 3:8. This became my opening illustration for the sermon in John 6:59-71. We prayed for the faculty, staff, and students of Union, and then I launched into my sermon.

So, now it’s your turn, teachers and preachers! I would love to know, what realms and experiences do you typically draw from? How do you maintain variety? What resources have you found helpful? How do you file illustrations for later?

Fridays are often dedicated to practical church ministry issues. If you have a question or suggested topic for the future, please email me.


2 thoughts on “Using illustrations”

  1. Excellent post. I feel like this is the weakest part of my preaching, and I needed this encouragement to spend more time on illustrations. Your ideas for finding illustrations was very helpful and worked out well for me this week. Thank you for this post.

    -Robb Brunansky
    TMS Alum, '02

  2. I like all your ideas on how to find illu. I keep a running file of interesting stuff and anytime something comes up, I put it in the file. I have about 100 pages.

    Where i do NOT get Illu:
    1. From illustration books.
    2. From computer programs. (Bible illustrator)
    3. From Readers Digest. My wife wishes I would use their stuff, but I find it pretty… lame.

    Where I do get illu:
    1. You were right on with Wikipeida. Only, I had never thought to search it the way you do. I've just been using it to confirm stories. I'll try that.

    2. The news.

    3. Life. (My children. But they have to give me permission)

    4. Reading books.

    5. The Bible. Just as the Bible is the best commentary on itself, it is also the best illustrator.

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