Why Use Illustrations?
“WHY is it you speak to them by the use of illustrations?” the disciples asked Jesus. His answer was: “To you it is granted to understand the sacred secrets of the kingdom of the heavens, but to those people it is not granted. For whoever has, more will be given him and he will be made to abound; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them by the use of illustrations, because, looking, they look in vain, and hearing, they hear in vain, neither do they get the sense of it; and toward them the prophecy of Isaiah is having fulfillment which says: ‘By hearing, you will hear but by no means get the sense of it; and, looking, you will look but by no means see. For the heart of this people has grown thick, and with their ears they have heard with annoyance, and they have shut their eyes; that they might never see with their eyes and hear with their ears and get the sense of it with their hearts and turn back, and I heal them.’ However, happy are your eyes because they behold, and your ears because they hear.”—Matt. 13:10-16, NW.
Many with good physical powers of seeing and hearing do not have mental perception and deep understanding. Because they do not comprehend the underlying significance of what they see and hear they are spoken of as having eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear. They are spiritually blind and deaf. They have eyes in their head but not in their heart. Because of the vital importance of the gift of this vision Paul prayed that his fellow disciples at Ephesus might be enriched with it by Jehovah, and it is also a suitable prayer for us today: “That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the accurate knowledge of him, the eyes of your heart having been enlightened, that you may know what is the hope.” (Eph. 1:17, 18, NW) As Isaiah had foretold, when Jesus came the majority of Israelites heard him with annoyance and closed their minds to his message and their hearts had grown thick and fatty, not able to be reached or touched by the truths Jesus spoke. They were proud, haughty, selfish and unworthy of being converted and spiritually healed. They did not have eyes of the heart or understanding.
The message of salvation was not for such. It was not granted to them to understand the sacred secrets. So Jesus spoke to the multitudes in illustrations so that these unworthy ones would not be healed. The spiritual healing was for those who had eyes of the heart, and they would abound in more knowledge and understanding, in more enlightenment for the eyes of their heart. How did the use of illustrations effect this? It is shown by this instance recorded at Matthew chapter 13. Jesus had given the illustration of the sower who had sown seed on varying soils and had noted the different results that followed. To the majority of listeners it was just a nice little story, interesting and colorful, but worth no further thought. They departed without getting the deeper meaning, without mentally perceiving and understanding the figurative language. In other words, they were not interested. But some were interested, were humble and meek and wanted to be enlightened concerning the deeper meaning. So they tarried and made inquiry, and Jesus fully explained the illustration and the eyes of their humble hearts were further enlightened. This method of teaching had the advantage of weeding out those not interested enough for Jesus to spend time with. It eliminated from his audience the indifferent ones who only wanted their ears tickled with vivid little tales, and left behind those who were spiritually hungry and on whom he could then concentrate.
But Jesus’ use of illustrations accomplished more than to weed out the unworthy ones. They were invaluable in instructing the meek disciples. When his followers would get the hidden meaning it would be more clear and forceful and vivid because of the illustration associated with it, and they would remember the truths longer because of being able to visualize the illustration. Even at times the enemies of Jesus got the point of the illustrations he used. For instance, one religious leader in Israel, when told to love his neighbor, asked who really was his neighbor. He wanted to prove himself righteous, not really craving enlightenment. By the illustration of the good Samaritan Jesus made him acknowledge a broader definition of neighbor than he preferred to put on the term. On another occasion Jesus spoke to the hypocritical religious leaders and by a series of illustrations exposed them, and they got the sharp point of these illustrations and were stung by them and wanted to seize Jesus, but they feared the crowds.—Luke 10:25-37; Matt. 21:28-46.
ILLUSTRATIONS USEFUL IN PRESENT PREACHING
Hence Jesus’ use of illustrations to hide truth from unworthy ones was only one use he put them to. Jehovah’s witnesses have used figurative language for the same purpose in this generation. For example, in years past the Yearbook of Jehovah’s witnesses in giving reports on the progress of the work in lands where it is banned quoted letters from the countries that spoke of the number of plants, their care and cultivation and the yield from them. In this illustrative way the report gets through the censors, its true meaning, the number of congregations and their increase, being hidden to them but discerned by the followers of Christ.
Illustrations are also valuable to instruct. Reasoning in the abstract is hard for many persons, and to use illustrations helps greatly to clarify the point. It makes it possible to visualize, and to this visualization the abstract truth is attached. It becomes more concrete in the mind of the learner, and certainly it is remembered longer because of the vivid illustration. Also, by illustration sometimes a point can be tactfully presented that would otherwise offend or close the mind of the listener. For example, the subject of Christmas is a sentimental one with millions and they do not like to learn that it is based entirely on pagan practices, that it is not the date of Christ’s birth at all. To start them thinking on the subject one might use this illustration. Suppose a large crowd comes to a man’s home to celebrate his birthday. He does not favor the celebration of birthdays. He does not like to see anyone become drunk or gluttonous, nor does he approve of revelry. Yet they come to his home, they get drunk, they overeat, they get loud and noisy, some of them commit immoralities, and they bring presents for everyone there except him! Imagine that! At this birthday celebration everyone gets gifts except the one whose birthday is being celebrated! And on top of all of that, these supposed friends do not even come on the right day, but instead pick a day that is the birthday of an enemy of his and practice the customs established for this enemy’s birthday celebration! Would that not be repulsive to this fine man? Exactly like that is the attempted celebration of Christ’s birthday by Christendom.
Perhaps one of the outstanding uses of illustrations is to side-step bias or prejudice or partiality. We are usually biased in our own favor. We tend to protect ourselves, our opinions, our actions, our cherished beliefs, and if anyone criticizes them we automatically defend them. Pride makes it hard for us to admit we are wrong. If it was a matter of conduct we make excuses or think of extenuating circumstances. It is not just a matter of logic, of reasoning on the situation. It is a question of emotion also. And emotion is not always reasonable. Oftentimes it wins the tug of war with logic. But if we can reason on the same situation without knowing we are involved, logic and reasoning can do their work unhindered by personal feelings. Here is where the illustration comes into play. It will side-step prejudice, sever the person from the event, put him in the position of an impartial observer with no personal stake involved, and will let him decide purely on the basis of right principles. Illustrations divorce our personal emotions from influencing our thinking and enable us to reach honest and logical conclusions. Then, with the principle established, it can be applied to our own case. Thus illustrations can make us face facts our emotions would blind us to.
The Bible gives us an illustration of this use of illustrations. It is found at 2 Samuel 12:1-9, 13 (AS): “And Jehovah sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him, There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own morsel, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter. And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him, but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him. And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, As Jehovah liveth, the man that hath done this is worthy to die: and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity. And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man. Thus saith Jehovah, the God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hand of Saul; and I gave thee thy master’s house, and thy master’s wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added unto thee such and such things. Wherefore hast thou despised the word of Jehovah, to do that which is evil in his sight? thou hast smitten Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon. And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against Jehovah.”
If Nathan had initially called attention to David’s actions David might have tried to defend himself or make excuses or think of extenuating circumstances. We automatically search for a defense. Instead, Nathan used an illustration. He chose a good one, involving a pet lamb. David had been a shepherd boy and loved his sheep so much he fought a lion and a bear to protect them. He would feel keenly the injustice of the rich man’s cruel act. He passed judgment as an impartial person, not being personally involved. Or so he thought. Then, after he had rendered an incensed and impartial decision, he learned he was the guilty man. What could he say? He had already gone on record. He could only acknowledge the greatness of his sin, and Jehovah made him suffer keenly for it.
Today as we preach we bump into much prejudice. People have pet doctrines and their pride is keenly hurt to have to say they have been wrong for years. Prejudice keeps them from facing the Scriptural facts. Illustrations can be useful here. Here is one that may be used. You hear of a father that has a son who misbehaved. The boy’s wrong was serious; it must be punished. So you are told the father held the boy’s hand against a red-hot stove, actually cooking it. What do you think of that? Is that the act of a loving father, or of a fiend? Are you not nauseated by such horrible injustice? But later you learn that the father never did that at all. The one who told you he did lied to you. Are you not indignant with the liar? And how do you think the loving father will feel toward the liar who is blaspheming him, and even toward you if you continue to believe he is so fiendish? So it is with those who teach that Jehovah torments people in a place of hell-fire. He is not less loving than human fathers, but more so. He corrects, but does not fiendishly torture. And how do you think he feels toward those who lie about him, saying he is such a fiend? And toward those who believe the liars, even after the truth is presented to them?
From the foregoing it is clear that illustrations are useful in preaching today. They make truths clearer, easily visualized, remembered, and enable us to present sensitive issues tactfully and dodge the personal prejudices that blind our listeners. The illustrations will not convert the unworthy ones, but they will make the meek listen and inquire further. We know the questions that frequently arise, the objections that are often raised when presenting the truth at the doors. Anticipate them. Think of illustrations to answer them. Use illustrations in back-call discussions, planned in advance. Use them in service talks and public lectures. But use them in moderation. Be selective. Use only a few, and keep them pointed. Overworked, they will become commonplace and lose their force and make the presentation seem jerky. A few fine ones are better than many mediocre ones. The Bible is exemplary in its use of illustrations. Copy it.