Help for New Expositors: Using Biblical Illustrations vs. Using Cross References. What’s the Difference?

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In my personal library I have over a dozen books whose sole purpose is to provide me with sermon illustrations. In my Logos library I have several more. But honestly, most of them sit on the shelf collecting dust. It’s not that I’m against using sermon illustrations, or that I don’t use them myself. I use them and I think that they are an important component of preaching. The problem is that sermon illustration books are often old, overworked books that lack originality and are often outdated. That means that I am always on the hunt for good illustrations. One source for illustrations is the Bible itself.

Using the Bible for illustrations has great benefits. Using one part of the Bible to illustrate another allows us to help our congregation to see parts of the Bible that we might not be preaching in for a while. This “cross-pollination” is particularly helpful for newer believers who have little or no knowledge of the Bible.

Another benefit is that using the Bible for illustration keeps the hearers in mind in the biblical world. Sometimes a contemporary illustration can help the hearer “see” the biblical truth in modern terms, but it also has the danger of distracting the listener with thoughts we had not considered. For instance, an illustration drawn from a contemporary movie might cause a listener to begin thinking about other scenes in the movie we have not reference, or even that we have given a blanket endorsement of a movie when we only intended to refer to a small part.

One last benefit of using the Bible for illustration is that the Scriptures contain a massive amount of material for illustration. Not only do we have the illustrations used by prophets, Apostles and the Lord Jesus himself, but we have the lives of biblical characters from which we can draw more illustrations. There is no need to buy that cheesy outdated sermon illustration book when you have the only Spirit inspired illustration book in the Bible itself!

But sometimes new expositors get confused about the difference between a biblical illustration and a cross-reference. The confusion is understandable because they seem to be the same thing on the surface. The big difference between the two can be summed up in the purpose for each.

Cross-References

A cross-reference is normally used when we are seeking to strengthen a sermon point or sub-point in our sermon. There are times when we have made a point that is present in the main text we are expositing, but it may be that the English text does not clearly show the stress we need it to make. We might choose to bring in linguistic insights and grammar, but we might introduce more confusion if we do that. Instead, a good couple of cross-references will help to undergird and strengthen the idea from other places in the Bible to show that this theological idea is found elsewhere in Scripture.

We need to be careful that when we use cross-references that they are what Dr. Montoya at The Master’s Seminary calls “the jugular texts.” These are Scripture references that are clear and powerful in stating what we are trying to prove. If we want to prove that God loves the world, we would go to John 3:16, if we want to prove that Jesus is the only way to heaven, we might go to John 14:6. If we wanted to state that tongues is speaking in a known human language, we would go to Acts 2:5-11. The point is that we go to the strongest and clearest texts to prove our point and we read the section that makes the point. We must not abuse the authorial intent of these cross-reference passages, but we do not need to go into the background or other information in detail in order to quote them. The purpose is to undergird and strengthen a theological idea or sermon point.

An excellent place to find cross-references other than those in the margins of most Bibles is The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge.

Biblical Illustrations

The purpose of biblical illustrations is to illustrate. That may seem obvious, but it needs to be said. That means that we are predominantly looking for examples of the concept we are trying to illustrate in the narrative and some didactic sections of the Bible. The lives of Bible characters serve well as examples both negatively and positively. Another place to find illustrations is from the teaching illustrations given by Jesus, the Apostles and the prophets. Jesus was a master illustrator, and he used both the Old Testament as well as nature to paint pictures of deep spiritual truths. Study these so you can see how they did it, and use their illustrations for the same things they did. Think about the parables, the agricultural illustrations, and the nature illustrations used by all the great biblical teachers. God has given all of these for our benefit as teachers.

Because biblical illustrations can be lengthy (particularly narrative sections), many times it will be necessary to summarize a story’s details in order to bring out the main idea you are illustrating. For example, if you wanted to use the Joseph story in Genesis to illustrate the sovereignty of God over all things including his use of evil for good, you wouldn’t want to read the multiple chapters that it takes to cover that narrative. Instead you would summarize the highlights of Joseph’s life and then read the “jugular text” of Gen 50:20 to summarize the main idea. This is a biblical illustration.

Although biblical illustrations and cross-references have many overlapping qualities, the two serve difference purposes. Both have their place in a biblical exposition, but for the sake of clarity we need to know the difference.

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