Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Speaking

Illustrate Your Messages

For preachers and teachers

God communicates to us in many ways. In a general sense, “His eternal power and divine nature” are clearly evident in the universe He created (Rom. 1:19-20 NIV). In a more specific sense, however, He uses the spoken and written word (2 Th. 2:15).

He spoke to those in the Old Testament through the prophets (Heb. 1:1-2). The Gospels and Acts document many spoken messages, while the remaining books of the New Testament are written messages.

God’s clearest revelation to and communication with mankind was through Jesus Christ some 2,000 years ago. Jesus came as the visible image of the invisible God.

A picture worth a thousand words

The Bible is full of pictorial and metaphorical language; it teems with illustrations. As human beings find it difficult to handle complex, abstract concepts, God often presents them in Scripture in symbols and pictures. Visual images and symbolism are powerful means of communication. This is well known in advertising and other media.

Metaphors and similes help us understand one thing in terms of something else that we are already familiar with. For example, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray” (Isa. 53:6) is a simile, and “You are the salt of the earth” is a metaphor (Mt. 5:13). A simile uses the words “like” and “as” to make the comparison, while a metaphor does not.

Visual images enhance the impact and the recall of a spoken message. When a message is communicated orally and visually it is being delivered through two channels to the listener. This is one of the reasons God has given us sight and hearing (Prov. 20:12; Mt. 13:15-16).

It has been said that “illustrations transform the abstract into the concrete, the ancient into the modern, the unfamiliar into the familiar, the general into the particular, the vague into the precise, the unreal into the real and the invisible into the visible.” It is significant that baptism and the Lord’s supper are visualizations of great spiritual truths.

Pictures painted by Jesus

Jesus had a spoken ministry, and the record of this in the Gospels, written decades later, contains many visual images and figures of speech such as similes and metaphors.

Jesus used everyday situations and illustrations to convey spiritual truths. He referred to His followers as “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” and used moths, rust and thieves to teach about heaven; birds and lilies to show the futility of worrying about food and clothes; sawdust and a plank to address hypocrisy; parents to illustrate God; and gates and roads to illustrate the choices we have in life (Mt.  5:13-7:14).

He also used sheep, wolves and fruit to teach about false prophets; the impact of storms on houses constructed by wise and foolish builders to contrast the reactions to His teaching; foxes and birds to show His homelessness; and clothes and wineskins to explain why His disciples did not fast. Jesus felt compassion for people, seeing them as sheep without a shepherd, and urged His followers to be involved in the harvest of people. His followers are to be like sheep, snakes and doves (Mt. 7:15-10:16).

Helping someone, likened to giving a cup of cold water, will be rewarded. The support that Christ offers us is likened to a yoke. And He used the illustrations of a kingdom and a household to counter opposition (Mt. 10:42-12:24-29).

Jesus always used parables when speaking to the crowds (Mt. 13:34).  Examples of these include: a farmer planting seed, weeds growing up among the wheat, the growth of a mustard seed, the work of leaven, the finding of a hidden treasure, the buying of the pearl of great price, the casting of a fishing net, lost sheep, workers in the vineyard, tenants of a vineyard, invitations to a wedding banquet, the fig tree, the manager of a household, being ready for a wedding banquet, the talents of money, separating sheep from goats, the rich fool, the lost coin, the lost son, the shrewd manager, the persistent widow, and the Pharisee and the tax collector (Mt. 13:1-25:46; Lk. 12:13-18:14).

Christ also used a camel and a needle’s eye to describe the impact of wealth; a coin to teach about paying taxes; a gnat and camel, a cup and dish and whitewashed tombs to describe the hypocrisy of the religious leaders whom he called snakes. He described His care for people like that of a hen for its chicks (Mt. 19:23-23:37).

Christ said the religious leaders could understand the weather, but not “the signs of the times” and likened them to yeast (Mt. 16:1-12). Also, He likened the kingdom of God to a farmer’s crop (Mk. 4:26-29).

His followers were sent out like lambs among wolves. Care for our neighbor was illustrated by the Samaritan who helped the man who was robbed and beaten. Christ used a fig tree to explain the need to repent; called the king a fox; used building a tower and going to war to illustrate the cost of being a disciple; and a mustard seed and a mulberry tree to illustrate faith (Lk. 10:3-17:6). Testing by Satan was likened to sifting wheat (Lk. 22:31).

Jesus also tells us that He is like: bread which gives us eternal life (Jn. 6:35); a good shepherd who is willing to die for His sheep/followers (Jn. 10:11); and a vine which supports and supplies its followers who are like branches (Jn. 15:1-17). It is obvious that these are all everyday images that the people of that time would have been very familiar with.

A drama is a vignette of life

Drama provides additional reality and visual images through its dialogue and action. It may involve a situation or succession of events. Some prophets used drama to convey divine messages. Isaiah dramatically went around unclothed and barefoot for three years to warn Egypt and Ethiopia of their coming captivity by Assyria (Isa. 20:2-3). Ezekiel acted out the siege and destruction of Jerusalem (Ezek. 4:1-8; 5). To dramatize just how unfaithful the Jews were to God, Hosea was instructed to marry a wife he knew would be unfaithful (Hos. 1-5). In this case the consequences, punishment and restoration associated with physical adultery were used to emphasize the Jews’ spiritual adultery. In the New Testament, Agabus tied up his hands and feet with Paul’s belt to show how Paul would be tied up in Jerusalem (Acts 21:11).

Christ used a child to teach about the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 18:1-6), and drawing water from a well to teach about the “living water” of eternal life that is available to all who believe in Him (Jn. 4: 4-15). He also washed His disciples’ feet as a dramatic example of how they should humbly serve one another (Jn. 13:1-17). He gave bread and wine to His disciples to symbolize His sacrificial death (Lk:22:19-20).

Dialogues make good drama

Any passage of Scripture that involves dialogue can be dramatized to increase the listeners understanding of the concept being presented. For example, the fate of people after death, described graphically in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31), involves three characters: a narrator, the rich man and Abraham.

Other examples which could be presented as a drama are:
The Fall (Gen. 3:1-23), involving a narrator, God, Adam, Eve and the serpent.
The Temptation of Christ (Mt. 4:1-11), involving a narrator, Satan and Jesus.
The Rich Fool (Lk. 12:13-21), involving a narrator, the rich fool, God and Jesus.
The Prodigal Son (Lk. 15:11-32), involving a narrator, the son and the father.
The Death of Lazarus (Jn. 11:1-44), involving a narrator, Martha, Mary and Jesus.
The Resurrection (Jn. 20:1-29), involving a narrator, Mary, angels, Jesus and Thomas.

A voice off stage may be used rather than an actor for God in order to distinguish that aspect of the deity from Christ.

Speaking today

Visual images such as illustrations and drama should be considered whenever one is giving a spoken message with a spiritual application, as they support and help to convey a message. This is particularly important if the hearers are illiterate, as would have been the case when Christ spoke to the common people of His day.

Visual images can be sourced from the Bible, current events and history, personal experience, nature, science, and the arts. They can be expressed in various ways such as: using a figure of speech that conveys a dramatic visual image, retelling biblical stories and parables in contemporary language, or creating your own fresh modern parables. Of course, physical objects, various kinds of pictures, slides, overhead transparencies, computer images and even drawings on a black board can also be used as visual aids.

It is important to know your audience and to begin with topics that will hold their interest. For example, Paul spoke to the Jews from the Old Testament (Acts 13:14-43; 17:1-4), but when he addressed the Greeks at Athens he used illustrations from their objects of worship and their poets to reach them (Acts 17:22-28). As the latter had no knowledge of Scripture he introduced God as the creator while exposing their false gods.

Since we Christians are God’s voice on earth (2 Cor. 5:20), why not use our God-given creativity to include appropriate pictures and actions the next time we speak for Him?

Published, April 1999

See the other article in this series:
- Target your messages


Target Your Messages

Preachers and teachers

God is in the business of communication, and the Bible is His super-special message to us – given so we can be saved, and tell others about His marvelous gift (2 Cor. 5:19-20; 9:15; 1 Th. 1:8). So Christians should endeavor to be good communicators, especially preachers and teachers.

God has communicated to mankind either directly as He did to Abraham, through a prophet or teacher such as Isaiah or Paul, or through the text of the Bible. Today He speaks to us through the Bible, as it is read or presented by others. We should communicate the messages in God’s Word to others by our words and by our example (Mal. 2:6-7) – to turn people from sin to the Savior.

When communicating, it is important to: research the receivers of the message; catch their interest so they pay attention; tell them what to know – influence their thinking; tell them what to do – influence their behavior. Let’s look at three examples from the New Testament.

Jesus In Samaria
In John 4:4-42 we read about a missionary journey undertaken by Jesus to the country of Samaria. When He arrived at the town of Sychar, being tired from the journey, He sat down beside the well and talked with a Samaritan woman.

Research the receivers. As the Son of God, Jesus knew all about those He spoke to. He knows people’s thoughts (Mt. 9:4; 12:25). On this occasion He knew that the Samaritan woman had been married five times and that she wasn’t married to the man she was living with (Jn. 4:17-18).

Catch their interest. Jesus began the conversation by asking for a drink of water. Although his request was simple, she was amazed because usually Jews would not speak to Samaritans. Then He offered her “living water.” At this stage she didn’t understand that He was referring to eternal life. Next He told her that she had been married five times and that she wasn’t married to the man she was living with. She was astounded at this and assumed He was a prophet.

Tell them what to know. Now that He had her attention, Jesus said that He was the promised Messiah that they were expecting to come (Jn. 4:26). This didn’t need to be explained, as the woman knew that the Old Testament prophets had foretold the coming of the Messiah.

Tell them what to do. The woman now had to decide whether to believe the news she had been given. From her response, it is obvious that she accepted that Jesus was the Messiah. As this was the greatest news that could happen, Jesus didn’t need to tell her what to do next – she was so excited that she told everyone in the town the good news.

Response. Many of the Samaritans believed that Christ was the Savior of the world as a result of her testimony: “Many of the Samaritans … believed in Him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I ever did.’” (Jn. 4:39-42 niv). Here we see that the woman passed on the message to others like a chain reaction (2 Tim. 2:2). This shows that the words of our messages can be important in leading others to Christ.

Messages To Jews
This pattern of communication is also evident in various messages given by the apostles to Jews in the book of Acts.

Research the receivers. In this case the apostles were speaking to fellow Jews – they had a common heritage. This means they knew them very well, including their needs and interests.

Catch their interest. On these occasions the apostles usually began by recounting incidents from Jewish history. It may have been prophecies by Joel (Acts 2:17-21), mention of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Acts 3:13) or facts about their ancestors such as King David (Acts 2:29). Stephen recounted the lives of Abraham, Joseph and Moses (Acts 7:2-53).

Tell them what to know. Then they told the people that Jesus was the Christ and the evidence of this was the fact that He was raised from the dead (Acts 2:24, 32, 36; 3:15). When the people were convicted of this, they became upset and asked what they should do (Acts 2:37).

Tell them what to do. They were urged to repent by turning from their sins and turning to follow God and show this by being baptized (Acts 2:38; 3:19).

Response. There were two responses to this preaching. First, many became believers (Acts 2:41; 4:4). Second, the religious leaders were angry and put the speakers in jail (Acts 4:1-3). On some occasions the message was cut short by the opposition, such as when Stephen addressed the Jewish leaders (Acts 7:57-58) and when Paul addressed a crowd in Jerusalem (Acts 22: 22-24).

Paul In Athens
When Paul was in Athens he spoke daily in the public square to all who happened to be there. As a result, he was invited to speak to the Areopagas, the council in Athens that met on Mars hill (Acts 17:16-34).

Research the receivers. Paul was “greatly distressed” that the city of Athens was full of idols. He “walked around” and looked carefully at their objects of worship (Acts 17:16, 23). He was with the people in the market place day by day and debated with their philosophers (Acts 17:17-18). So Paul did his homework and got to know the people of Athens very well.

Catch their interest. When given the opportunity to address the Areopagas, Paul began with their objects of worship, saying he had seen an altar with the inscription “To an unknown God.” He said, “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23). He also quoted one of their poets (Acts 17:28). As he was speaking to Gentiles and not Jews, they didn’t have a background knowledge of the Old Testament, so he found another subject of common interest.

Tell them what to know. After arousing their interest, Paul told them about the true God, the Creator who made the world and everything in it (Acts 17:24). He began with creation and then emphasized that God is not an idol – He is separate from creation (Acts 17:29).

Tell them what to do. Then Paul told the Athenians to repent by turning away from their idols and turning to God, or face God’s judgment (Acts 17:30-31). God showed that Jesus would be the judge by raising Him from the dead.

Response. When he mentioned the resurrection, some sneered, some believed and some said, “We want to hear more about this later” (Acts 17:32-34).

It is interesting to note that when Paul spoke in a Jewish meeting, he used the approach under the heading “Messages to Jews” (Acts 13:15-45). However, he used the story of creation when he spoke to those who were not familiar with the Old Testament (Acts 14:15-17).

Successful Communication
As an archer strives to hit the bull’s eye, believers should endeavor to target their messages. When this occurs there is an obvious response in the receiver. The things that can help us reach the target in our communication are:

Research the receivers. These are the targets. Know what life is like for them. What are their interests, their dreams, their concerns, their needs? Ask them questions. Listen to the answers and make sure you know them and understand their situation. Empathize with them, as Christ has compassion for people (Mt. 9:36; 14:14; 15:32). If you don’t know the target, you don’t know where to aim, making it difficult to carry out the next point.

Catch their interest. Start on common ground. Use stories, illustrations, metaphors or drama – whatever it takes to get their attention. Jesus did this on two levels. First, He came as a man: “He shared in our humanity” (Heb. 2:14). Second, He used many parables. If the receivers are familiar with the Bible, build on this by asking if they understand it (Acts 8: 30). If they need to be introduced to the Bible, start at the beginning with the creation story and the origin of sin.

Tell them what to know. These are facts and principles that should be planted in their minds so they can understand the Scriptures and God’s purposes (Lk. 24:45). Be careful to take the context into account when interpreting Scripture. Speak the truth in love – your attitude is important (Eph. 4:15). Speak with gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3:15). Include personal experiences – Peter and John said, “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). Remember, this is not just intellectual knowledge for its own sake, because next we should tell them what to do.

Tell them what to do. God’s Word demands a response – we should “do what it says” (Jas. 1:22). His truths should be practiced in how we think and how we behave. True Christian faith leads to good works (Jas. 2:14-26). Jesus spoke so that people would put His words into practice (Mt. 7:24, 26). Make sure you include something on the application of the topic to people – otherwise it may be just an intellectual exercise and the receiver may think, “It’s got nothing to do with me.” Aim to challenge, convict and touch the conscience, but don’t seek to cause guilt feelings.

Finally, speak clearly – use words and concepts that are familiar to the receiver (1 Cor. 14:9, 11). Paul asked for prayer that he would make his messages as clear as possible (Col. 4:4). Avoid making the message too long and summarize the main points to communicate the most important part of the message (1 Cor. 15:3).

May God help us to cover all these points when communicating with others.

Published: July 2002

See the other article in this series:
- Illustrate your messages


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