For preachers and teachers
When we were travelling to Cornwall in southern England, we got in a hire car at Heathrow airport and followed a map to a roundabout. But we didn’t know which was the right exit! The signs weren’t obvious and it was raining, so we couldn’t tell which direction was south by the position of the sun in the sky. So we went around the roundabout a couple of times and then took an exit and pulled over as soon as possible. Then we got out a GPS and followed it to Cornwall. It helps to know where you are going! You key in the beginning and the end and the GPS works out the route between the two.
Giving a message is like a journey. You are taking people on a journey from the start to the end. Your job is to get them there safely. You don’t want to get lost along the way! And you don’t want them to leave before getting to the destination! As a GPS helps our journey, preparation helps our message.
Near the end of his life, Paul’s gave this command to Timothy. “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of His appearing and His kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:1-4NIV).
So a preacher or teacher is to “be prepared” (v.2). We need to allocate time to prepare our messages. We also need to explain Scripture – we do it with “careful instruction” because it needs to be understood clearly (v.2). Furthermore, we need to apply it to the listeners (“correct, rebuke and encourage”). They need to know what to do.
So let’s go on a journey looking at three main components of a message:
- Explanation – What is God telling us?
- Illustration – How can we remember it?
- Application – What is our response?
Because they involve God, preaching and teaching messages are not just ordinary human speeches. Whether it is based on a passage from the Bible or on a topic, we want to know what God says and what it means. That’s what gives authority to our message. That’s why the listener needs to understand and apply the message.
In order to include God’s viewpoint, in our message we need to explain something from the Bible. Otherwise it’s just a subjective human opinion. The Bible is God’s message to us. So selecting the main Bible passage or the Bible verses used is very important. It should follow much prayer and Bible study.
We have two main tools to explain a Bible passage. These are the written text and the context. Read the text many times to understand it yourself. Summarize it. Does it divide into a few sections or aspects that can be the sections of the message? I use subheadings to divide a message into sections. In each section I include explanation, illustration and application. It’s like a sandwich.
What is the main point? (In this case it was to always be ready to “preach the word” or “proclaim the message”). What did it mean to the original readers? In view of subsequent Scripture and our place in history, what does it mean to us now? I mention the main point in the introduction and the conclusion of the message. That’s what I want people to remember. So it is repeated. Don’t clutter the message with lots of other detail or too many Scripture references.
Are there figures of speech in the text? Explain these.
The context helps us understand the text. Here’s the context of 2 Tim. 4:2
- Paul is in a dungeon in Rome when Emperor Nero is persecuting Christians.
- Paul had trained Timothy. He was his mentor. They went on many missionary trips together.
- Timothy was in Ephesus where evil and sexual immorality were prevalent. Christians were in the minority and Christian faith was denounced and ridiculed.
- What happens before and after the passage? In our example, after describing the evil of the last days, and because God was watching and the coming reward (v.1), Timothy was to “preach the word”. This is followed by the reason for preaching – because people are rejecting the truth for myths (v.3-4).
Have you ever viewed a video that explains something? I have seen ones that explain more about word processing. It’s not enough to see the buttons and icons on a screen; we need to know how to use them. “Explain Everything” is an app that helps teachers record lessons and demonstrations. It’s used to make these videos. Explaining a Bible passage is like one of these instructional videos.
We explain so our listeners can understand the message. How well are we explaining? It’s good to aim your message at teenagers. Can they understand it? Can they get the message? If not, then I suggest that many of our listeners will miss it as well. Use simple language so people can understand. And don’t be too technical.
Like the route of a journey on a GPS, a message needs a beginning and an ending. So after determining the main point and the subheadings, I write the Introduction and the Conclusion. These give the framework to the message and stop us going off the topic.
Now that the people understand our message, we need to help them remember it.
We use illustrations to catch attention and help people remember our message. A picture (or image) is worth a thousand words. That’s why images are powerful in Facebook, Instagram, and advertising. Facebook uploads six billion photos per month and YouTube uploads 72 hours of video every minute.
The Bible teems with illustrations. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are visualizations of great spiritual truths. I use an illustration to catch attention at the beginning of a message and try to illustrate each section of the message.
The main point in our example was to always be ready to “preach the word” or “proclaim the message”. Imagine in ancient times when a town crier brought a message from the king. He gathers a group of people and says, “Here ye, hear ye, by royal order of his highness, the king, this town has been granted 100 soldiers to protect you from the rebel bands who plunder the king’s subjects”. Everyone cheers. And he continues, “Furthermore the cost for this protection shall be born not by taxation but by the king from his royal treasury!” More cheers! “Moreover, the king would have you know that he loves you, his loyal subjects, and will use all his royal counsel and power to defend you and supply your wants”. More cheers. “And lastly he sends his royal blessing. Blessed be the people who trust the king!” (Adapted from John Piper). That crier was always ready to proclaim the king’s message!
We illustrate our messages so people stay alert and remember them. How well are we illustrating? Are we using visual images from the Bible, or current events, history, personal experience, nature, science, or the arts? Drama or video is another form of illustration.
Now that the people understand and remember the message, we need to help them respond to it.
Even though it was written thousands of years ago, we can always learn something about how to live for God today from the Bible. These applications can be divided into three categories.
First, what is necessary? What applies to us all? In our example, all believers should be ready to explain their Christian faith to someone else.
Second, what is possible? What applies to some people sometimes? In our example, if you are giving messages at church, you need to put enough time into preparing these.
Third, what is impossible? How the passage cannot be applied? In our example, it doesn’t mean that everyone at church should be preaching and teaching to the rest of us.
Computers have hardware (which are the physical components) and software (which are the instructions programmed into the memory). An application is a kind of computer software that helps us perform activities. For example, a word processer helps us produce documents and a spreadsheet helps us manipulate data. Applications on smartphones and tablets are called apps. A message without application is like a computer without these programs or a smartphone without apps. It’s not much use.
We apply our messages so people know what to do and can respond. How well are we applying? Are we applying to unbelievers? Are we applying to Christians whether they are backsliding or fruitful? Are we applying to youth, middle aged and the elderly? Are we applying to singles, marrieds, and families? Are we applying to the lonely, the disappointed, and those struggling? What should these people stop doing, start doing or continue doing?
We have looked briefly at the use of explanation, illustration and application in the preparation of a message. Let’s use these to proclaim God’s truth effectively. As a GPS helps our journey, preparation helps our message.
Written, August 2014
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 yeast, the finding of a hidden treasure, the buying of the pearl of great price, the casting of a fishing net, lost sheep, workers in a 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.
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 and 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
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).
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.