Rhetorical Device in Expository Ministry: similes and paraphrases

This is an ongoing series on the use of rhetorical device in preaching with a side focus on the preaching of Calvin. These are simply informal observations and various stray thoughts that I have brought together on this broad subject. Comments and ideas are welcome.

2. Similes and synonyms

John Stott has written, “Preaching is an activity of bridge-building between the revealed Word and the contemporary world.” This bridge is made with words that are preached. Those words will either be like a bridge that has been left in disrepair or one that is well-built with clear markings. Synonyms and similes are rhetorical devices that will help the expositor build the bridge more effectively. To use a synonym in preaching is to use a different word to provide more “color” and “flesh” to the point being made. A simile will accomplish the same thing yet with a larger comparative phrase.

Hughes Old tells us that Calvin used “a generous supply of synonyms to convey the fullness” of his teaching. Old assures us that to read Calvin in “sixteenth-century French is a pure delight for a lexicographer.” Nevertheless, and I’m sure Old would agree, the power of preaching does not rest in the choice of words and phrases. To be sure, preaching is more than this in every way but it is not less than this. Therefore, preachers should weigh their words carefully and make full use of the range of their vocabulary to communicate the message of the Word of God. Avoid vagaries and words that lack concrete clarity. Work hard at precision and explanation while avoiding needless redundancies. Examples of similes can be found all over Scripture: “don’t be tossed like the waves of the sea” and “the kingdom of heaven is like…”

3. Paraphrases

In one sense the whole sermon is a paraphrase of the text we are preaching. If it’s not then we might be missing the point of the text completely. By definition, an exposition is an expansion and retelling of a text. We are not inventing new material but we are explaining and applying material that has already been delivered. Our job is to unpack the words, grammar, meaning, and context while repackaging them all in a clear and natural style that exalts the Word through the sermon. To paraphrase means quit literally to rephrase a particular statement in different words and phrases. This can be an effective means of communication and chances are you already do this in your sermon but recognizing where you use it and how to refine it will make your usages all the more clear.

A paraphrased statement in a sermon might begin with, “It’s as if Jesus is saying…” or “Moses is essentially telling the people that…” We may paraphrase a particular statement or even an event. The latter is when we describe the situation in “brighter color” with the help of background material and knowledge we gained in the introductory phase of our study. Certainly, the larger context plays a role here as well. Take for example the shortest verse in the NT which says, “Jesus wept.” A basic paraphrase would simply say something like this:

“Here is Jesus standing outside the tomb of his dear friend Lazarus, weeping.”

This paraphrase conveys a little more emotion and color than the original verse but not much. However, if we said:

“Here is the transcendent God of the universe, the one who will be exalted above all things, who will sit at the right hand of the Father, being fully God yet showing the humility of being fully man. The one we see here outside of this tomb is not strong in the eyes of the world but like Isaiah said ‘he was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’ This is the one who is weeping for His dear friend and this is the one who sympathizes with our weaknesses. YET it is this weeping man that will also call his friend from that very tomb. He will command a rotting corpse to get up and make its way out for all to see when He shouts the command, ‘LAZURUS, COME FORTH!’ Here inside of these two words, “Jesus wept” we see a humble man moved by the death of a friend. Yet the text also shows a man who is fully God, who is sovereign Lord, creator and sustainer of all life. We must see Him in all His fullness here. He is not a dispassionate or reclusive god or even a mere man who is a slave to his emotions. Here we have the God-Man. Sad yet sovereign, moved yet the Mover, and compassionate yet infinitely powerful.”

On a practical level, I try not to go overboard editing my manuscript notes. However, I do check them for redundancies which can often be cured with a synonym or a clearer phrase. Make time to give a final edit to your notes, even if it’s a once over just before you preach. Go back to your most recent sermon and notice where these rhetorical devices would have proved more effective. You might take note of patterns or stylistic problems that can translate into hindrances for those who are there to hear your message. However, guard your editing practices from hyper self-criticism. Biblical sermons are not works of art without stylistic problems or imperfections. I have seen some preachers go overboard in editing and get caught up in the “romance” of crafting a sermon. T. H. L. Parker is wise to comment about the expositor that “a proper humility before God and modesty concerning himself and his capabilities are not to hinder the preacher from the bold assertion of the authority of the message he has to deliver. Indeed, it is a dereliction of his duty if he does not claim that authority” (Calvin’s Preaching, 44).


One response to this post.

  1. That’s good stuff. And that last quote is powerful. I am learning here. Thanks for that.

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