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 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