Two Main Types of “Illustration”

I recognize that there are multiple legitimate ways of “illustrating” a sermon, although I suspect the helpful options are sometimes more limited than we might imagine.  I sometimes prefer to think in terms of explanations, proofs or applications rather than the more generic term “illustrations” (which can and does slide into time-fillers, interest-adders or expected-anecdotes . . . all of which I would resist).  To simplify things, I think there are essentially two sources of helpful “illustration” that we should always look at.

1. The Contemporary Life Example.  How did Jesus illustrate?  Generally not with other biblical passages/stories (and this to very Bible aware Jews, totally unlike the increasingly biblical illiterate listeners of today).  Nor with historical examples (and this to a very historically oriented people).  But with everyday examples that listeners could easily relate to.  Good illustrative material comes from the everyday experiences we can describe and use to help people to understand biblical truth, or visualise themselves applying the message.

2. The Inherent Textual Imagery.  Generally speaking, Jesus was teaching new and direct truth, we are teaching Bible passages.  So the other main category of “illustration” material is the imagery right in the text itself.  Help people to see what the passage is saying (whenever possible use the imagery implied by the passage itself rather than rushing to another passage, or rushing to some “interesting” extra-biblical material).

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2 thoughts on “Two Main Types of “Illustration”

  1. I completely agree that we are far too prone to leave the illustrations found in the text and go off in search of our own. However, how would you recommend illustrating passages where Jesus didn’t include illustrative material, such as the beatitudes?

    • Thanks Dave. I would say that we should do whatever works. That is, the goal is neither to illustrate nor to not illustrate, but to seek to communicate and re-present the text effectively. If “illustration” would help, then by all means, do so.

      Regarding illustration or imagery found in the text, some preachers overlook a layer of material. If there isn’t an actual illustration being used, they jump to contemporary illustrations. But there is a layer in between. That is, does Jesus use terms that evoke imagery? Poor in spirit, persecute, mourn, etc. Actually the beatitudes are full of imagery-intensive language. So I would let that be a prompt, rather than treating it as mere proposition devoid of illustration, if you see what I mean.

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