The Need for Illustrations in Teaching

ID-10085795--cropped As a curriculum writer, one of the most difficult aspects of developing a lesson is coming up with appropriate, concrete illustrations. Why bother with these illustrations? Why not just stick to the Bible text? Ligonier Ministries recently posted an article by R. C Sproul on this very subject, “The Need for Illustrations in Preaching.” Notice how much of what he points out also applies to teaching children, as they are especially in need of bridging the gap between concrete and abstract thinking:

[Martin Luther]…said that the makeup of the human person is an important clue to preaching. God has made us in His image and has given us minds. Therefore, a sermon is addressed to the mind, but it’s not just a communication of information—there is also admonition and exhortation...There is a sense in which we are addressing people’s wills and are calling them to change. We call them to act according to their understanding. In other words, we want to get to the heart, but we know that the way to the heart is through the mind. So first of all, the people must be able to understand what we’re talking about…

That which makes the deepest and most lasting impression on people is the concrete illustration. For Luther, the three most important principles of public communication were illustrate, illustrate, and illustrate. He encouraged preachers to use concrete images and narratives. He advised that, when preaching on abstract doctrine, the pastor find a narrative in Scripture that communicates that truth so as to communicate the abstract through the concrete.

In fact, that was how Jesus preached. Somebody came to Him and wanted to debate what it meant to love one’s neighbor as much as oneself. “But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ Then Jesus answered and said: ‘A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves…’” (Luke 10:29–30). He didn’t just give an abstract, theoretical answer to the question; he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. He answered the question in concrete form by giving a real-life situation that was sure to get the point across.

What might this look like when teaching children? Imagine teaching a group of children what it means that God is a jealous God: He will not share His glory, or the honor and praise He deserves (Isaiah 42:8, Exodus 34:14).

What?…God doesn’t share?

Daddy and Mommy tell me I must share.

Sharing is good.

Why doesn’t God share?

Enter an Illustration: Have a contest between the teacher and a child to see who can do the most jumping-jacks in 1 minute. The winner will receive a beautiful first place ribbon and cheers from the rest of the class. But when the child wins the contest, the teacher steals the first place ribbon, places it on himself, and tells the class to cheer for him instead of for the child. What happens? Without fail, the children in the class get very vocal…“That’s not right! You (the teacher) didn’t win!” And no, they won’t cheer for the one who stole 1st place from the real winner. You have now grabbed their minds and hearts, as it were, to understand “not sharing” in a whole new way. Explain the Illustration:
  • The true winner is the one who deserves to receive the ribbon and be applauded.
  • It would be wrong for someone else to steal the winner’s award and the applause he deserves.
  • It would also be wrong for you to applaud and praise someone who is trying to steal first place from the true winner.
Connect the Illustration to Biblical Truth: Isaiah 42:8—I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.
  • Usually, we think of sharing as a good thing, and many times it is a good thing.
  • But there are some things that it would not be right to share.
  • God would not be right to share first place, His glory, with anything or anyone else. He alone is God. He is the best!
  • There is a special word in the Bible that means that God will not share His glory or the honor and praise He deserves.
Exodus 34:14—for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God, Apply the Truth:
  • Because God is jealous, He will protect and guard His glory so that no one can take first place from Him.
  • We must love God most of all and give to Him the worship and praise that He deserves.
  • Because God is jealous, it will never be okay for us to treat other things or people as if they are better or greater than God.
  • Because God is jealous, He will also protect and guard all who worship and praise Him–His people.

(Image courtesy of bplanet at

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