“Without an Illustration He Would Not Speak to Them”

“Jesus spoke to the crowds by illustrations. Indeed, without an illustration he would not speak to them.”​—MATTHEW 13:34.

1, 2. (a) Why are effective illustrations not easily forgotten? (b) What forms of illustrations did Jesus use, and what questions arise about his use of illustrations? (See also footnote.)

CAN you recall an illustration you heard, perhaps in a public discourse, many years ago? Effective illustrations are not quickly forgotten. One author noted that illustrations “turn ears into eyes and free listeners to think with pictures in their heads.” Because we often think best in pictures, illustrations can make concepts easier to grasp. Illustrations can breathe life into words, teaching lessons that become fixed in our memory.

2 No teacher on earth has ever been more skillful at using illustrations than was Jesus Christ. The many parables of Jesus are recalled with ease nearly two thousand years after they were spoken. * Why did Jesus rely heavily on this particular teaching method? And what made his illustrations so effective?

Why Jesus Taught With Illustrations

3. (a) According to Matthew 13:34, 35, what is one reason why Jesus used illustrations? (b) What indicates that Jehovah must value this method of teaching?

3 The Bible gives two noteworthy reasons why Jesus used illustrations. First, his doing so fulfilled prophecy. The apostle Matthew wrote: “Jesus spoke to the crowds  by illustrations. Indeed, without an illustration he would not speak to them; that there might be fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet who said: ‘I will open my mouth with illustrations.’” (Matthew 13:34, 35) “The prophet” quoted by Matthew was the composer of Psalm 78:2. That psalmist wrote under the inspiration of God’s spirit centuries before Jesus’ birth. Is it not remarkable that hundreds of years in advance, Jehovah determined that his Son would teach with illustrations? Surely Jehovah must value this method of teaching!

4. How did Jesus explain why he used illustrations?

4 Second, Jesus himself explained that he used illustrations to sift out those whose hearts were unresponsive. After he related to “great crowds” the parable of the sower, his disciples asked: “Why is it you speak to them by the use of illustrations?” Jesus answered: “To you it is granted to understand the sacred secrets of the kingdom of the heavens, but to those people it is not granted. 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 unreceptive.’”​—Matthew 13:2, 10, 11, 13-15; Isaiah 6:9, 10.

5. How did Jesus’ illustrations sift the humble listeners from the proudhearted?

5 What was it about Jesus’ illustrations that separated people? In some cases, his listeners had to dig in order to get the full meaning of his words. Humble individuals were moved to ask for more information. (Matthew 13:36; Mark 4:34) Jesus’ illustrations, then, revealed truth to those whose hearts hungered for it; at the same time, his illustrations concealed truth from those with proud hearts. What a remarkable teacher Jesus was! Let us now examine some of the factors that made his illustrations so effective.

Selective Use of Details

6-8. (a) What advantage did Jesus’ first-century listeners not yet have? (b) What examples show that Jesus was selective in his use of details?

6 Have you ever wondered what it must have been like for those first-century disciples who directly heard Jesus teach? Privileged though they were to hear the voice of Jesus, they did not yet have the advantage of consulting a written record to remind them of the things he said. Instead, they had to carry Jesus’ words in their minds and hearts. Through his skillful use of illustrations, Jesus made it easier for them to remember what he taught. In what way?

7 Jesus was selective in his use of details. When specifics were relevant to a story or necessary for emphasis, he took great care to provide them. So he said exactly how many sheep were left behind while the owner searched for a stray, how many hours workers labored in the vineyard, and how many talents were given in trust.​—Matthew 18:12-14; 20:1-16; 25:14-30.

8 At the same time, Jesus left out nonessential details that might get in the way of our grasping the meaning of the illustrations. For example, in the parable of the unmerciful slave, no explanation was given as to how that slave had managed to run up a debt of 60,000,000 denarii. Jesus was stressing the need to be forgiving. What mattered was, not how the slave fell into debt, but how his debt was forgiven and how he, in turn, treated a fellow slave who owed him relatively little money. (Matthew 18:23-35) Similarly, in the illustration of the prodigal son, Jesus offered no explanation as to why the younger son suddenly demanded his inheritance and why he squandered it. But Jesus did detail  how the father felt and responded when his son had a change of heart and returned home. Such details regarding the father’s response were essential to the point Jesus was making, that Jehovah forgives “in a large way.”​—Isaiah 55:7; Luke 15:11-32.

9, 10. (a) When portraying the characters in his illustrations, on what did Jesus focus? (b) How did Jesus make it easier for his listeners and others to recall his illustrations?

9 Jesus was also judicious in the way he portrayed the characters in his parables. Instead of providing elaborate descriptions of the characters’ appearance, Jesus often focused on what they did or how they responded to the events he narrated. Hence, rather than describing what the neighborly Samaritan looked like, Jesus related something far more significant​—how the Samaritan compassionately came to the aid of an injured Jew lying on the road. Jesus provided the details that were needed to teach that love of neighbor should extend to people other than those of our own race or nationality.​—Luke 10:29, 33-37.

10 Jesus’ careful use of details kept his illustrations concise and uncluttered. He thus made it easier for his first-century listeners​—and countless others who would later read the inspired Gospels—​to recall them and the valuable lessons they taught.

Drawn From Everyday Life

11. Give examples of how Jesus’ parables reflected things that he no doubt had observed while growing up in Galilee.

11 Jesus was a master at using illustrations that related to the lives of people. Many of his parables reflect things that he had no doubt observed while growing up in Galilee. Think, for a moment, about his early life. How often did he see his mother prepare leavened bread by taking a piece of fermented dough saved from a previous baking and using it as a leavening agent? (Matthew 13:33) How many times did he watch the fishermen as they let down their nets into the clear blue waters of the Sea of Galilee? (Matthew 13:47) How often did he observe children playing in the marketplace? (Matthew 11:16) Jesus likely took note of other commonplace things that found their way into his illustrations​—seeds being sown, joyful marriage feasts, and grain fields ripening in the sun.​—Matthew 13:3-8; 25:1-12; Mark 4:26-29.

12, 13. How did Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds reflect his familiarity with local conditions?

 12 Not surprisingly, then, circumstances and situations of everyday life are sprinkled throughout Jesus’ many illustrations. Therefore, to appreciate more fully his skill in employing this teaching method, it is helpful to consider what his words meant to his Jewish listeners. Let us take a look at two examples.

13 First, in the parable of the wheat and the weeds, Jesus told about a man who sowed fine wheat in his field but “an enemy” invaded the field and oversowed it with weeds. Why did Jesus select that particular hostile act? Well, keep in mind that he related the illustration near the Sea of Galilee, and the main occupation of the Galileans was evidently agriculture. What could be more damaging to a farmer than to have an enemy come secretly into his field and oversow it with harmful weeds? Secular laws of that time show that such attacks did happen. Is it not obvious that Jesus used a situation that his listeners could relate to?​—Matthew 13:1, 2, 24-30.

14. In the parable of the neighborly Samaritan, why is it significant that Jesus used the road that went “from Jerusalem to Jericho” to make his point?

14 Second, recall the parable of the neighborly Samaritan. Jesus began by saying: “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among robbers, who both stripped him and inflicted blows, and went off, leaving him half-dead.” (Luke 10:30) Significantly, Jesus used the road that went “from Jerusalem to Jericho” to make his point. When relating this parable, he was in Judea, not far from Jerusalem; so his listeners likely knew about the road in question. That particular road was notoriously dangerous, especially for someone traveling alone. It wound through lonely terrain, providing many lurking places for robbers.

15. Why could no one rightly justify the indifference of the priest and the Levite in the illustration involving the neighborly Samaritan?

15 Something else is noteworthy about Jesus’ reference to the road that went “down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” According to the story, first a priest and then a Levite were also traveling that road​—although neither stopped to help the victim. (Luke 10:31, 32) The priests served at the temple in Jerusalem, and the Levites assisted them. Many priests and Levites resided in Jericho when they were not working at the temple, for Jericho was only 14 miles [23 km] from Jerusalem. Hence,  they undoubtedly had occasion to travel that road. Note, too, that the priest and the Levite were going along the road “from Jerusalem,” thus heading away from the temple. * So no one could rightly justify the indifference of these men by saying, ‘They avoided the injured man because he appeared to be dead, and touching a corpse would have made them temporarily unfit to serve at the temple.’ (Leviticus 21:1; Numbers 19:11, 16) Is it not clear that Jesus’ illustration reflected things that were familiar to his listeners?

Drawn From Creation

16. Why is it no wonder that Jesus was intimately acquainted with creation?

16 A number of Jesus’ illustrations and parables reveal his acquaintance with plants, animals, and the elements. (Matthew 6:26, 28-30; 16:2, 3) Where did he get such knowledge? While growing up in Galilee, he no doubt had ample opportunity to observe Jehovah’s creations. More than that, Jesus is “the firstborn of all creation,” and Jehovah used him as the “master worker” in creating all things. (Colossians 1:15, 16; Proverbs 8:30, 31) Is it any wonder that Jesus was intimately acquainted with creation? Let us see how he put this knowledge to skillful use in his teaching.

17, 18. (a) How do Jesus’ words recorded in John chapter 10 reveal that he was familiar with the traits of sheep? (b) What have visitors to Bible lands observed about the bond between shepherds and their sheep?

17 Among the most tender of Jesus’ illustrations is the one recorded in John chapter 10, where he likens his close relationship with his followers to that of a shepherd with his sheep. Jesus’ words reveal that he was very familiar with the traits of domestic sheep. He indicated that sheep allow themselves to be led and that they faithfully follow their shepherd. (John 10:2-4) The unique bond between shepherds and sheep has been observed by visitors to Bible lands. In the 19th century, naturalist H. B. Tristram noted: “I once watched a shepherd playing with his flock. He pretended to run away; the sheep pursued and surrounded him. . . . Finally all the flock formed a circle, gambolling round him.”

18 Why do sheep follow their shepherd? “Because they know his voice,” said Jesus. (John 10:4) Do sheep really know the voice of their shepherd? From personal  observation, George A. Smith wrote in his book The Historical Geography of the Holy Land: “Sometimes we enjoyed our noonday rest beside one of those Judæan wells, to which three or four shepherds come down with their flocks. The flocks mixed with each other, and we wondered how each shepherd would get his own again. But after the watering and the playing were over, the shepherds one by one went up different sides of the valley, and each called out his peculiar call; and the sheep of each drew out of the crowd to their own shepherd, and the flocks passed away as orderly as they came.” Jesus could hardly have found a better way to illustrate his point. If we recognize and obey his teachings and if we follow his lead, then we can come under the tender and loving care of “the fine shepherd.”​—John 10:11.

Drawn From Events Known to His Hearers

19. To reject a false notion, how did Jesus make effective use of a local tragedy?

19 Effective illustrations can take the form of experiences or examples from which lessons can be drawn. On one occasion, Jesus used a recent event to reject the false notion that tragedy befalls those who deserve it. He said: “Those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, thereby killing them, do you imagine that they were proved greater debtors [sinners] than all other men inhabiting Jerusalem?” (Luke 13:4) Jesus argued eloquently against fatalistic reasoning. Those 18 souls did not perish because of some sin that evoked divine displeasure. Rather, their tragic death was a result of time and unforeseen occurrence. (Ecclesiastes 9:11) He thus refuted a false teaching by referring to an event that was well-known to his hearers.

20, 21. (a) Why did the Pharisees condemn Jesus’ disciples? (b) What Scriptural account did Jesus use to illustrate that Jehovah never purposed a rigid application of his Sabbath law? (c) What will be discussed in the following article?

20 In his teaching, Jesus also drew upon Scriptural examples. Recall the time when the Pharisees condemned his disciples for plucking grain and eating it on the Sabbath. In reality, the disciples violated, not God’s Law, but the Pharisees’ strict interpretation of what constituted unlawful work on the Sabbath. To illustrate that God never purposed such an unduly rigid application of his Sabbath law, Jesus referred to an incident recorded at 1 Samuel 21:3-6. When hungry, David and his men stopped at the tabernacle and ate the loaves of presentation, which had been replaced. The old loaves were ordinarily reserved for the priests to eat. Yet, under the circumstances, David and his men were not condemned for eating them. Remarkably, that account is the only recorded instance in the Bible regarding the use of the old loaves by nonpriests. Jesus knew just the right account to use, and his Jewish listeners no doubt were familiar with it.​—Matthew 12:1-8.

21 Truly, Jesus was a Great Teacher! We cannot help but marvel at his matchless ability to convey important truths in a way that reached his listeners. How, though, can we imitate him in our teaching? This will be discussed in the following article.


^ par. 2 Jesus’ illustrations took many forms, including examples, comparisons, similes, and metaphors. He is well-known for his use of the parable, which has been defined as “a short, usually fictitious, narrative from which a moral or spiritual truth is drawn.”

^ par. 15 Jerusalem was higher in elevation than Jericho. Therefore, when traveling “from Jerusalem to Jericho,” as mentioned in the parable, a traveler would be “going down.”

Do You Remember?

• Why did Jesus teach with illustrations?

• What example shows that Jesus used illustrations that his first-century listeners could relate to?

• How did Jesus put his knowledge of creation to skillful use in his illustrations?

• In what ways did Jesus make use of events that were known to his hearers?

[Study Questions]

[Pictures on page 15]

Jesus told of a slave who refused to forgive a relatively small debt and of a father who forgave a son who had squandered his whole inheritance

[Picture on page 16]

What was the point of Jesus’ parable of the neighborly Samaritan?

[Picture on page 17]

Do sheep really know the voice of their shepherd?