Metaphors in the Bible

Metaphors

Whether we realize it or not, we are all familiar with metaphors. A metaphor is a figure of speech that refers to one thing by giving an example that helps illustrate the deeper meaning. The Bible frequently uses metaphors to illustrate God’s lessons for us. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words!

There’s also a special form known as a simile that generally uses the word “like” to highlight the illustration. It’s important to note the obvious mistake in taking these illustrations too literally. Since nearly every single book of the Bible uses similes and metaphors we must understand how these important illustrations are used and not miss God’s lessons.

A couple of quick examples are in order: First, Solomon’s bride describes him as like a gazelle or a young stag (Song of Solomon 2:9). No one should mistakenly picture Solomon as a four-footed animal with antlers! Second, many of the voices that speak to John from heaven in his book of Revelation are described a like trumpets, like many waters, like loud thunder and like many harpists (cf. Revelation 14:2). Nothing in this should lead us to picture heaven as filled with actual trumpets, white-water rapids, thunder or harpists… unless we are deliberately missing the point of figures of speech.

All of this reminds us to read carefully and not miss the illustrated lessons of God. So let’s take a quick look at a few of the metaphors or word picture illustrations of the New Testament that are applied to us.

In John 10 Jesus uses the metaphor of a shepherd and sheep. He is the good shepherd that loves His sheep to the point that He will actually lay down His life for them (John 10:14-15). We are His sheep, called to follow Him, known by Him, protected by Him and obediently listening to Him (cf. John 10:27).

The lesson, of course, has nothing to do with us eating grass or being shorn for our wool. Rather it has everything to do with our relationship with our Savior.

Jesus call us both salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16). Salt both enhances flavor and is one of the oldest known preservatives. The New Testament world was well acquainted with salted meats, fish and pickled items. Salt was commonly bought and sold and there were salt mines and salt “farming” (at the Dead Sea, for example) all over the region (and world-wide, in fact).

The illustration of Jesus to compare His people to salt is a perfect one since it relates to everyday life. By the way, Jesus’ comment about salt becoming “tasteless” is interesting when you realize that the only way for that to actually happen is for it to be either so contaminated with something else that the taste is lost, or else it must be chemically changed into something else. Either way, it becomes useless by being changed into something else!

Jesus’ second illustration here is also easily understandable and relatable. Light is only useful when it is on and shining where it can be seen. Interestingly for this illustration is the fact that in John’s Gospel Jesus specifically says that, while He is IN the world, He is the Light of the world (John 9:5).

When we put these two lessons of the Light of the World together, we see the responsibility that Jesus is putting on us as His family. Since He has returned to Heaven, we are called to BE HIM in this this world. Paul, of course, comments on this very illustration when he says, It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20). If Christ is alive in us, then we are responsible to BE HIS light in this world.

Putting God’s metaphors together makes a powerful lesson and helps us better appreciate our job, our responsibility in this world.

Next week we’ll look at a few more examples of these word pictures. In the meantime, may we as good sheep be good salt and good light for Jesus!

— Lester P. Bagley