Sermon Illustrations and the Gospel of John

Nearly three years ago, I began preaching through the Gospel of John. Along the way, something interesting happened—I found myself using far less sermon illustrations than I had in the past when preaching other genres of Scripture. It wasn’t by design—at least not as part of a purposeful plan that I had going into John—it just sort of happened. More often than not, I simply found myself preaching passages in John which just didn’t seem to “need” an illustration.

In retrospect, I realize there is probably an underlying reason for this. If one of the purposes of sermon illustrations is to turn that which is abstract into something concrete—to turn your listeners’ ears into eyes and help them see what you’re saying—it simply makes sense that illustrations would be needed less frequently when preaching narrative material. After all, most passages in the Gospels and other narrative books are already concrete, and the best way to help your listeners see what you’re saying is to simply preach what is there.

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13 responses to this post.

  1. In my limited experience in preaching gospels i would have to say AMEN!

  2. I just finished preaching the Gospel of John about six months ago. My experience is very similar to yours. I too found myself becoming aware that I was using fewer illustrations than at other times and in other genres. And in doing so it didn’t feel like there was anything missing. The narrative is the illustration. The story itself is the grabber. It is both freeing and challenging. Freeing in that the compelling nature of the story is right there in the text; challenging in that I need deliver the message in a way that releases the Spirit-given power of the text and does not drain the power out of the story through over-analysis. That is a challenge, but a wonderful one.

    • I think this is really the difference between preaching narrative and epistles. I have been working on this as I too am in John. I have found myself quoting people less and really trying to help the people to understand the narrative and the context of it being preached.

      While I do not always agree with Sinclair Ferguson’s take on passages, I think he is a master at making narrative ‘pop’ so to say.

  3. Matt,

    Good thoughts and excellent post. I think there is illustration in the classic homiletical sense where one offers a story or quote that, as you noted, brings the abstract to the ground level. I agree there is less of a need for this in preaching narrative than say epistles. At the same time, I find myself using more comparative illustrations. These are shorter, more pithy, and often with a metaphorical sense.

    So for example, one of my favorite sayings of Jesus is when he looks at the Scribes and says, “have you not read?” There is no need to tell a story at this point but this can be a great opportunity to connect the boldness of His question with those in your audience. So we might say, “This is like asking an engineer if he knows how to use a slide-ruler or asking a librarian if she knows how to read.” The scandal of Jesus’ question is that they had in fact read but their layers of tradition had obscured the truth and hardened their hearts. Narratives by nature know how to sing, we just need to open the doors to the music hall.

  4. Posted by Scott Christensen on January 5, 2010 at 11:55 am

    I have been preaching in John for close to 3 years now. I have not really thought about whether I use more illustrations or not. However, one thing I have come to realize is how illustrative the book itself is. Jesus teaches in an illustrative way. For example I have just finished a series on John 15 – the Vine and the branches. Passages like this are so rich there is very little need to pile other mataphors on top of the excellent one Jesus already uses.

  5. Posted by Matt Waymeyer on January 6, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    Good stuff, all. What I like about your example, Paul, is that those kinds of comparative illustrations don’t disrupt the flow of the narrative like other forms of illustrations might be inclined to do. Which makes them a more attractive option when preaching a Gospel. Thanks for the insight.

  6. Matt & Paul,

    How different do you preach narrative than more ‘didactic’ teaching? I know that we are always to exposit the Scriptures (which of course I agree with) but how differently do you package them?

    I really bombed on a passage last week by not preaching it well. I am in narrative (John).

    I am reading “The Word Made Fresh” by Dale Ralph Davis, and he has some helpful stuff on OT narrative.

  7. Posted by Matt Waymeyer on January 7, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    Hayden: Great question. I’m going to have to give that one some thought and get back to you. Incidentally, the reason Paul is so scarce this week is because he is in Los Angeles defending his D.Min. dissertation on preaching NT narrative. So I suspect he might have something to say on this subject over the course of the next few weeks and months. But give him some time—he probably needs a bit of a breather!

    • I look forward to it.

      I have been thinking about this alot because my propensity is to shoe horn everything into one way.

      The study process should always be the same, but I have noticed that in narrative different ‘things’ emerge from the study. I think it is far easier to exposit 1 John than John because of this.

      Just an observation.

  8. I will be looking for it.

    By the way, can you send me a copy of your dissertation on the subject? (Only if you like :–)) I am really interested in the topic.

  9. Posted by Mike Jarvis on January 13, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    Likewise, Paul, I would love a copy of your dissertation, if that’s possible. And, I, too, am looking forward to the series. Thanks!

  10. Posted by Scott Christensen on January 14, 2010 at 11:38 am

    Can we all have a copy?

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