In this series on preaching for missionaries, I have stressed being students of Scripture and of our audience. This “double listening” (as John Stott calls it)1See the first post in this series. is critical for illustrating and applying the big idea of our biblical text. In fact, illustrating and applying form the key connection between the biblical truth and our listeners. Additionally, illustrations set the stage for the application in the daily lives of our audience.

Illustrating the Big Idea

Shining light on the big idea

Illustrations include quotes, anecdotes, examples, comparisons, statistics, testimony, and poetry. Sources include personal experience, news, history, literature, imagination, and the Bible. Whatever the type or source, they must shed light on the biblical truth and connect with listeners. That is, illustrations must help our audience understand and identify with the biblical truth. For instance, a quote from a book your listeners have probably not read would not make a good illustration. It is helpful to listen to traditional stories and everyday conversations to identify types of illustrations commonly used. Remember, your illustrations are the key connection between the biblical text and your listeners. So, they must be faithful to the biblical text and understandable to the people.

Don’t use illustrations you have to explain

A missionary friend teaching at a Bible School in Ethiopia told me the following story. A visiting pastor wanted to use the image of a “green thumb” in a sermon on bearing fruit in evangelism. He asked if the students were familiar with the expression. The missionary told him that they were not. The visiting preacher insisted he could explain it adequately. However, when he asked at the end of his message how many had a green thumb, they all held up their thumbs and said no. Clearly, an illustration that needs explanation fails to deliver. As this story shows, illustrations rarely cross cultures well.

Best illustrations come from everyday life

If illustrations are the bridge between the biblical text and our listeners, then their daily experiences will create the deepest connection. Consequently, this requires the preacher to spend time with people in their context. In this way, you can look for similarities between your audience and the original setting of the biblical text. Everyday life stories keep illustrations fresh. Bryan Chapell defines these types of illustrations:

Illustrations are “life-situation” stories within sermons whose details (whether explicitly told or imaginatively elicited) allow listeners to identify with an experience that elaborates, develops, and explains scriptural principles. Through the details of the story, the listener is able imaginatively to enter an experience in which a sermonic truth can be observed.

Bryan Chapell, Using Illustrations to Preach with Power, Crossway, 2001, p.21.

Illustrations pave the way for application by helping listeners see themselves in light of the biblical truth. Additionally, they can provide motivation to practice the biblical truth.

An example from Peter

One could illustrate how the new birth produces a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:3) by contrasting Peter’s behavior after Jesus is arrested (Luke 22:54-62) and his behavior at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-41) after the resurrection. Believers can identify with Peter’s fear and how the resurrection of Jesus changes everything.

Applying the Big Idea

Focus application on the audience

We want to help our listeners understand what they should think, feel, and do in response to the biblical truth presented in the big idea. In order to do this, we must understand what their daily life is like. If we have made a good connection with our illustrations, they will often suggest ways to apply. For instance, our listeners may feel intimidated by neighbors after their conversion like Peter did after Jesus is arrested. Yet, as they reflect on the difference the resurrection produced in Peter, we can challenge them to similar boldness. The new birth produces a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ so they too can share that hope without fear.

Puritan focus on mind, heart, and practice

Puritan preaching put a heavy emphasis on application. In fact, a major section of their sermon outlines was labeled “use.” Specifically, this focused on applying biblical truth to understanding, heart (including will), and lifestyle. All three of these doors (as they called them) were part of the application. That is, as our understanding grasps the biblical truth, it warms our hearts and moves our will. Yet, the application is not complete until what the mind understands and the heart embraces is practiced in our lifestyle.

Doriani’s model for application

Daniel Doriani’s book, Putting the Truth to Work, offers a helpful model for application. His model centers around the following four questions listeners will be thinking:

1. What should I do? That is, what is my duty?

2. Who should I be? That is, how can I become the person or obtain the character that lets me do what is right?

3. To what causes should we devote our energy? That is, what goals should we pursue?

4. How can we distinguish truth from error? That, how can we gain discernment?

Daniel M. Doriani, Putting the Truth to Work: the Theory and Practice of Biblical Application, P&R Publishing: 2001, p.98.

In this model, application focuses on duty, character, goals, and discernment. In addition, the author wants us to use these questions as a guide rather than a rigid template. That is, let the biblical text determine the focus of the application. Overall, Doriani’s book is a helpful guide for theory and practice of application.

Certainly, more could be said about illustrating and applying the big idea. The two books I have quoted are excellent sources for further study. Additionally, most homiletic texts have whole chapters on these topics. The final post in this series will focus on sermon introductions and conclusions.