One of the first things that people who teach Sunday school or are in ministry ask me when they find out I am a preaching professor is “Where can I find good illustrations?” This is the question of origination. But before giving good places to find good materials, we must explore where you should not find them. The worst place for you to find illustrative material is a book of illustration. The reason this is the case is not because those books do not contain good material but because the illustrations, as good as they may be, often come off as canned. They are not true to your own experience or even remotely related to your own experience.
So where should we look?
Jesse Northcutt, who taught preaching at Southwestern for many years, used to say that the best place to find illustrations is the whole realm of human experience. It is important for the preacher to be a keen observer of human life all around him. Northcutt also emphasized what he called the discipline of voracious reading. Many preachers think that they are too busy to read. Their schedules are full of deacons meetings, hospital visitations and committee meetings. With this type of schedule, they do not believe that they can work reading into their schedule. I do not know what it will look like for you to work this into your schedule, but if you are going to be an expositor and deliver text-driven sermons, you have to be a reader. But perhaps more important than anything that I can say is that if we are going to be expositors of the Word of God, we are going to have to develop text-driven illustrations.
THE ROLE OF CAREFUL EXEGESIS
What on earth is a text-driven illustration? Let us explore the suggestiveness of careful exegesis. Looking at Romans 12:1-2, it is obvious that this text is rich and that these verses provide a fertile foundation for a great expository sermon. “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” Most would agree that a man preaching that text should make sure to deal with the words present, conform and transform. The proper exegesis of a text can lend itself to vivid illustrations.
Focus in on the words conform and transform. Conform, the compound Greek word suschimatizomai, implies “to assume an outward expression that does not come from one’s inner being and is not representative of it but is put on from the outside.” The present imperative preceded by the negative me forbids continuation of an act already in progress. So you could translate this “Stop assuming an outward expression that does not come from within you and is not representative of you but is put on from without and is patterned after this age.” The suggestiveness of the exegetical nugget is profound. One writer has said that “Christians often masquerade as materialists in outward conformity to current values while contradicting the inwardness of their spiritual life.”
What about the word transform? This is the word metamorphomai. You may think of the English word metamorphosis and about the caterpillar that goes through this inward change and transforms into a beautiful butterfly. The word “transform” means “to give outward expression of one’s inner being.” That is, on the outside there is consistency with what is on the inside. The Christian life is the outward expression of the inward nature.
The illustration immediately springs from this passage. I grew up in East Texas, and when I would go outside in the front yard in the fall and look in the flower bed, there would be little lizards, and I would try to chase them around. As I would chased them, I would see them one moment but the next moment I could not. Why? Because when the leaves began to fall, the lizards would get against those brown golden leaves, and they would assume the color of those leaves.Then when springtime came and everything was green, guess what color the chameleon was? He is always changing his outward appearance to reflect the environment around him. You can take this illustration and say to your people, “We cannot be chameleon-like people. We cannot go through life like lizards that constantly change their color or expression on the basis of what is around them.”
Another example can be found in Romans 6:13. You can almost call this a sermon in tenses. “Do not present your members to sin as instruments of unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life and your members as instruments for righteousness.” Notice the two uses of the word present. The first use is a simple present tense and speaks of successive, repeated acts of sin. That is a sinful way of life. But the second use of the word present is an aorist imperative. The idea is different from the first use. It speaks of a supreme act of self-surrender that carries with it all future decision. The exegesis suggests a vivid illustration.
In 1519, the Spanish Conquistador, Hernando Cortez, cruised into Vera Cruz with eleven ships and almost 600 men. He made his men get off the ships and then, before moving inland, he moved the men on shore and ordered that all the ships be burned. That one act made it clear that there was no turning back. It was a decisive commitment of surrender. Sometimes the tenses of the words in the Greek text will suggest the idea of your illustration.
Let me encourage you in finding your illustrations to be a keen observer of life all around you and read voraciously. This will often mean doing something that is very difficult for a number of people. I know of nothing more counterproductive to the development of a creative illustrative focus in your preaching than engaging in mass hours of television consumption. It stifles creativity because it does all the work for you. You are constantly bombarded by images, and we enjoy it because we are mentally tired. If you engage in a steady diet of television and then complain that you do not have time to read, then perhaps you need to look at your schedule. Can you imagine what would happen if you cut two hours a week from your television schedule and devoted that time to reading and thinking creatively with a view of developing text-driven illustrations?
Additionally, we must grapple with the issue of illumination. I believe we must ask this question of all of our illustrations, “Does this shed light on the text, or is it just a cool story?” A gentleman I knew was a great pastor and a great preacher in his day, but on one occasion I heard him preach, and he told a very interesting and humorous story at the beginning of his sermon. It was riveting and drew the audience in so that at the end, he hit the punch line, and everyone laughed. But his next words were, “I do not know what that has to do with the sermon, but I just thought it was a pretty good story.” I would suggest that this is not the model we should follow.
Spurgeon said that the sermon illustration is like a window in the house that lets in light. That is what the root of illustrate means. The Latin illustare means “to cast light on.” We must ask whether our illustrations are illuminating or merely an imposition? Are we imposing something that is not going to promote the development and expansion of the text? In many cases, I hear preaching by men who are gifted communicators, who do not violate the Scripture, because what they say is essentially true and can be supported by Scripture. However, what generally happens in their sermons is that they stand and read a text of Scripture, have a good opening illustration, return to the text for two to three minutes, and spend the rest of the sermon linking anecdote to anecdote to illustration to quotation and then wrap up the sermon. This is not expository preaching, and it is certainly not text-driven preaching. Can it communicate? Yes. But what I am saying is that illustration is meant to illuminate the text so we must be careful to give illustrations that are true to the text and avoid placing impositions on it.
As one thing leads to another we must also address the principle of subordination. A subordinate clause in English grammar supports a main clause. I am arguing that on the basis of text-driven preaching, illustration is to be the servant and enabler of exposition. That is why I have a problem with a sermon that is short on treatment of the text and long on illustration. The stories may be good, but that is not true expository preaching. In the end, what builds and shapes and changes the lives of the congregation is the Word of God as the Holy Spirit fires it up and inspires it and uses it to change and radically transform the lives of your hearers.
So we must ask the question, “Does my use of illustration serve or stifle biblical exposition?” You do not want to bombard the congregation with illustrations at the expense of biblical exposition. John Broadus, a professor of preaching at Southern Seminary who wrote one of the foundational books on preaching, described the illustration as ornamental, adorning and adding beauty to the sermon. I think it is helpful for us to think about the fact that illustration should serve exposition and needs to grow from what has been called “the native soil of the text.” If you are like me, when you hear a good story, you begin thinking about how it will fit well into a sermon, but be careful not to force an illustration on a sermon. Make sure that the illustration has a foundation in the native soil of the text and really sheds light on the text.
Similarly, the illustration ought to serve the main idea or thesis of the sermon. The more I preach and teach preachers, the more I am convinced that one of the key issues in the clarity of preaching is the establishment of the thesis statement or main idea. What is a main idea? It is simply an 18- to 25-word sentence that summarizes your entire sermon. Brian Chapell, in his book Christ-Centered Preaching, says that your sermon needs to pass the 3 a.m. test. The test is that if someone wakes you up at 3 a.m. on Sunday morning before you enter the pulpit in a few hours and asks you what your sermon is about, you should be able to express your sermon in a simple, direct, focused sentence of 18-25 words. Haddon Robinson, in his book Biblical Preaching, writes about the main idea and adds that the main idea involves subject and complement. The subject involves what is true, and the complement involves what to do. In your main idea there ought to be the inclusion of what is true and what to do. Good illustration in the sermon should not only shed light on the text, it should reinforce the main idea that you are trying to communicate.
One thing I have to constantly remind my preaching students is specification. In your illustrations and applications, aim for specificity. Anchor the truth in the daily lives of hearers. Fasten and nail it down. Do not just say you need to pray more, show them what it looks like. You need to strive for descriptive specificity rather than dull generality. Dr. Northcutt used to say that preaching needs to paint pictures to help the congregation see the truth and think about the truth. There are men who have told me that they just preach the text and do not use illustrations because they do not understand the justification for them. I think Dr. Northcutt’s justification is sufficient. We need to paint word pictures for our people so that they can experience and think about the truth. We want to paint word pictures that will clarify their thinking about the text, and that involves the work of being a wordsmith.
Mark Twain once said that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. In your illustrations, be serious and intentional about crafting your words and delivering your illustrations. What you want to do in illustration is turn on the lights and open the door to shed light on the text in an illuminating way. Excellent illustration always paves the way for riveting application. What you have done is painted a word picture that is connected with the text and the main idea with clarity, unity of thought and forcefulness so that when you zero in on that application, it is driven deep into the minds and hearts of your hearers. Since this is true, details matter.
Suppose I described a car accident and said, “These two cars were going down the road, and one car moved out of its lane into the other car’s lane, and there was a collision.” This is not very exciting. How much better would it be if I said, “On October 31 of last year, on Interstate 20 between Fort Worth and Arlington, Louise Jones was driving her Cadillac Escalade when, seemingly out of nowhere, a pick-up driven by Charles Jones of Bedford, Texas, moved into her lane. She was forced to make a split-second decision, and she jerked the wheel of her Escalade, causing her car to spin out of control and flip three times until she landed in a gully off the road.” I believe you would agree that those specific details heighten interest.
In your illustrative materials, you should strive for variation. Utilize a variety of illustrative sources. Sensitivity is important. Early in my ministry I found a story about cats, and not being a lover of cats, I did not think twice about using it. In the story something happened to the cats, and as soon as the sermon was over, an elderly lady made a beeline to me and told me how offended she was by what I had said. This was an important lesson for me. Be careful with your use of humor or criticism in your illustrations. When it comes to variety, many preachers have a natural proclivity to gravitate toward illustrations from their own world and interests. Almost every preacher who plays golf will work golf illustrations into the sermon. While this is not bad, I have heard some preach so that you would think that they are preaching to a group of PGA tour followers. You must know your congregation. Some preachers have the ability to use humor quite well in illustrations. If you are one of them, let me encourage you to use it carefully and not overdo it because you never want to give the impression that the preaching of the Word is somehow akin to the Tonight Show monologue. The preacher in the pulpit is engaged in a holy errand, and there is a gravity and weightiness in dealing with the souls of men and women.
What about personal illustrations? While there is certainly a place for the personal illustration we must guard against the tendency, whether intentionally or not, to give the impression that we always do it the right way or that we are the hero. That is not the purpose or goal of the illustration. On the other hand, while I think there is a place for authentic, vulnerable, transparent communication, be careful not to overdo it. The goal is not to expound yourself but to expound the Word of God. Any exposition of yourself in personal illustration that does not highlight the text is out of bounds if you are going to preach a truly expository sermon.
Avoid overload. You can load the sermon with illustrations to the neglect of exposition of the text. But you can also overload the sermon with illustrations from one particular venue. There are times when a pithy, on target quotation can carry the weight of the most vivid illustration. Do not overload your sermon with quotations.
Where do I use illustrations in the sermon, and when? This is the issue of implementation. Although I cannot give a number of hard and fast rules, I can say that with my classes, I require at least two illustrations in the sermon. Do not over-illustrate the sermon. Rather, use good illustrations that shed light on the text, and they will carry the ball for you. But when do you use them? You might want to use one in the introduction. When teaching sermon development, we talk about the functional parts of the sermon: explanation, illustration and application. While I do not want to be pharisaical and say that for every explanation you must have an illustration, I think you will want to do so in a number of cases.
Since your introduction should only be about 10 percent of the total time you preach, you must be succinct and deliberate in your opening illustration. One option for beginning your sermon with an illustration is the “Now, Then, Always” approach. This works especially well with deductive texts like the Epistles. You start the sermon with an illustration from contemporary life that is specific and detailed. This is the “now”. You then move to the “then” of the text. For example, “When James was writing to dispersed and persecuted believers in the book that bears his name, he knew what it was to address and deal with suffering and discouraged people.” You may follow this with a little background on the book from which you are preaching. I often have my students then read the text and as soon as they are finished reading the text, they state the “always,” which is the thesis or main idea. You tell your people the main idea of the sermon, and the rest of the time will be spent expanding that. If I were preaching an Old Testament Narrative, I would not use the “Now, Then, Always” approach because Old Testament narrative is not deductive. It is more inductive. It is a story, so you change things to match the text.
One final note on illustrations: Do not flag your illustrations. Have you ever been driving down the road at about 65-70 miles per hour and you see traffic slowing and finally coming to a standstill? As you look ahead you can see a highway department worker waving a flag that says “SLOW.” I am afraid that is what we sometimes do with our illustrations. Instead of making a smooth, seamless transition into the illustration, we use trite cliches like “let me illustrate,” “the story is told,” or “I am reminded of the time.” That is not natural to our conversation. You just need to be sensitive as you introduce your material that you use variation so that you do not get in a rut and minimize the impact of the illustrations with trite cliches. Do not flag it, make it flow with the sermon.
Illustrations can be powerful tools in the hands of a faithful, expository preacher. Draw them from the text and be careful to avoid the pitfalls.