The Rule of Three is a way of organizing written and spoken language by grouping items into a set of three, the minimum number of items needed to establish a pattern.
The first item introduces the topic, the second suggests the pattern, and the third either drives the pattern home or unexpectedly changes it.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears is an example of using the Rule of Three to drive a pattern home. First, Papa Bear’s bowl of porridge, chair, and bed are too extreme in one way. Then Mama Bear’s bowl, chair, and bed are too extreme in another. Finally, Baby Bear’s bowl, chair, and bed are just right.
The Rule of Three is used to opposite effect in The Three Billy Goats Gruff. The First Billy Goat introduces the topic: “How do I cross the bridge without being eaten by the Troll?” The Second Billy Goat suggests the pattern: “My brother is a bigger and better meal” But the Third Billy Goat unexpectedly changes the situation when he defeats the Troll and clears the bridge so that they all “live happily ever after.”
This use of the Rule of Three is often put to humorous effect, with the unexpected third item in the series working as the punch line of the joke. Perhaps that’s why so many jokes have three characters: “A priest, a rabbi, and a pastor walk into a bar…”
The Rule of Three is used structurally to build the framework for composition, but it is also used rhetorically to create a memorable moment within that composition.
For example, Abraham Lincoln employs the Rule twice in his Gettysburg Address to create two of the most striking moments of the whole speech: “We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground… that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Jesus often uses the Rule of Three in his parables. He builds his Parable of the Good Samaritan on a framework of three. First comes the priest, then the Levite, but it’s the Samaritan who stops to help the man in need (Luke 10:25-37). In this case, the unexpected identity of the third passer-by gives the parable its punch.
Jesus uses a framework of the Rule of Three to opposite effect in his Parable of the Great Dinner. In this case, the Parable’s punch comes by confirming the patterns of the guests’ apathy toward the invitation. “The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land’, the second said ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen,’ the third said ‘I have just been married,’…I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner” (Luke 14:17-24).
Jesus also uses the Rule of Three for rhetorical effect.
In the Parable of the Sower, the goodness of the good soil is driven home with the flourish that it yielded a harvest “thirty and sixty and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:8).
In the Parables of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin, Jesus emphasizes God’s concern for the lost by describing God’s search for them under three actions. The shepherd leaves the ninety nine sheep, goes after the one, and searches for that sheep (Luke 15:4), while the woman lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and searches carefully for the coin (Luke 15:8).
Suggestions for preaching
Naturally, I have three suggestions:
1. Structural — There is something to be said for the Three Point Sermon. If it works for fairy tales, if it works for jokes, and if it works for parables, the Rule of Three should work for sermons too. A three-point sermon is easy for the preacher to write and the congregation to follow. The first point introduces the sermon theme, the second confirms and develops it, and the third either drives it home or gives it a concluding twist, depending on your homiletical purpose.
2. Alliterative — A threefold alliteration gives a nice flourish to the sermon: “It’s not plain Jane, it’s not over the top, it’s just right.” Talk about “the power, the passion, the presence of Jesus Christ.” Talk about the Passover as “anticipation, participation, and emancipation.” Talk about the Wilderness as a place of “silence, solitude, and seclusion.” It’s easy to do, and it gives your sermon that little something extra.
3. Illustrative — It is often easier for me to discern and describe a principle than it is to illustrate and apply it. If I can give three examples of the principle, I can at least draw a thumb-nail sketch of what an illustration or application might look like, even if I am unable to fill in all the details. This last Sunday, for example, I asked, “Where do we see the fruit of the Spirit among us? Look at our mission support, our Food Drive, our Sunday School.” Add a couple of examples to each point, and a sermon that had been up in the air suddenly has a flight plan for a smooth landing.
The Rule of Three is not a hard-and-fast law, but it is a handy rule of thumb to follow when writing and preaching sermons.