Nine Marks: Include a Metaphor

Metaphors are figures of speech, and Jesus was the master of the metaphor:


  • “I am the good shepherd”
  • “Broad is the road that leads to destruction”
  • “Let your light shine before men”


Hardly a page of any of the Gospel narratives is void of some use of the imagination to communicate the truth. Paul the Apostle described the Christian as one protected by the armour of God (Ephesians ); John the Apostles called upon Christians to live in the light (1 John 2); Peter the Apostle reminded his readers that the devil was a roaring lion, seeking to devour them (1 Peter 5:8); and James the Apostle asserted: “The tongue is a fire” (James 3:6).  I suspect all of them could trace their use of metaphors to the Lord Jesus himself!


A long-forgotten preacher used this phrase in a sermon and I have never forgotten it: “drowning in a sea of doubt.”  I love the song “Piano Man” written and sung by Billy Joel. The setting is a bar and his descriptions of the patron are full of figures of speech; one is “making love to his tonic and gin” while another is “sharing a drink they call loneliness.”  I once preached a series of sermons about core doctrines of the Christian faith; I invoked the image of a skeleton and entitled the series “Bones of Conviction.”


Some preaching traditions—especially the African American—emphasize the use of picture language, and this gives their young men and women an advantage in developing sermons.  In his famous sermon n the National Mall in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. is justly noted for the repetition of the phrase, “I have a dream.” Especially evocative is this sentence in that address: “One hundred years later the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of prosperity.” But equally powerful was the extended metaphor that dominated the first part of that sermon:


“In a sense we’re come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men–would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.'”


Those young preachers who grow up listening to this kind of preaching, where language pictures are a natural and essential part of the homiletic tradition, are blessed indeed.  Other young ministers come from more rationalistic or didactic environments and will need to be very intentional about metaphors. Which is why I have this in this collection of nine marks of a good sermon. And this is why many seasoned speakers value poetry and urge young preachers to read and write poetry. One of my mentors, Ken Chafin, actually took up poetry writing after his retirement and published a book of poems. He said more than once he wished he had reversed those callings: poetry first, then preaching; which prompts me to offer this list of simple ways to train the imagination to see, think, and speak metaphorically:


  • Read poetry and lots of it. Shakespeare is excellent and so is Emily Dickinson: “Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me; the carriage held but just ourselves and Immortality.” All music–sacred and secular–runs over with metaphors; and don’t forget about the poetry of the Bible: “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1).
  • Use metaphors in daily speech. Recently, I described the work of the Academy of Preachers as providing “the on-ramp to the homiletic highway.”
  • Mark the metaphors in the Bible; memorize these texts; use them in sermons, prayers, and other ministerial speech. Set a goal of using a metaphor in every prayer, every sermon, and every presentation. At first, this will seem strained and unnatural; you may even feel awkward. But usage will take you to a place of comfort and skill, and your people will notice and be thankful.


Nikia Williams was a student at Southern Polytech Institute in Georgia when he came in January of 2013 to preach at the National Festival of Young Preachers in Atlanta. His sermon exhibited excellent use of metaphors drawn from the building trades, all of which he brought together in these four sentences in the conclusion to the sermon:


“Paul evangelized the Corinthians and wrote this letter to encourage them to have an Extreme Makeover: Faith Edition. First, go through demolition and rid themselves of those things keeping them from holding a relationship with God.  Second, review the blueprint of purpose, knowing that God has destined us for greatness. And third, build with our renewed faith and live in our destiny.”


Training the mind to see with metaphors (and the voice to speak with metaphors) will pay rich dividends in memorable and useful language, and the gospel of our Lord deserves every verbal advantage at our disposal.