Some other students were not much help. They used lines like, “Go jump in the lake” just to see how this man reacted. He often laughed with them at his own helplessness with such words.
Their poor selection of humor aside, all good literature uses figurative language. Simile, metaphor, and hyperbole are but a few examples. These pop up in ordinary conversation too, but none of them are intended to be understood in a literal sense.
For instance, if I call someone a sap, I do not mean they are that sticky stuff that oozes out of a tree. If someone says they would die for a piece of chocolate pie, they are not asking someone to kill them. Every culture and language group has their own set of expressions like these too. They are also puzzles to anyone trying to learn a language or to those visiting a new place.
The Bible uses hundreds of phrases of figurative language. One I like is the analogy in the New Testament that describes believers and the relationship of Christ to His church. We are called God’s building and called the Body of Christ. This last one is used in the passage I am reading this week.
(Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell . . . (Colossians 1:15–19)For those not familiar with figurative language, this could cause their imagination to see a human body made of little people, with a head that looked like the Son of God.
Other examples include descriptions of God hiding His people under His wings, or God being our Rock and Fortress. Does anyone suppose that He looks like a chicken? Or a large boulder? Or a castle with thick walls?
Those who translate the Bible into other languages struggle with its figures of speech. To a culture with different idioms, colloquialisms and values than in the biblical era, how do you explain something like firstborn, or heavenly powers called “principalities”? What symbols make sense to them rather than the ones that make sense to us in our English Bibles?
Actually, not all of them make sense to us either. How do Christians know when the Bible writers are using a figure of speech? Sometimes it seems obvious, like the one about God hiding us under His wings, but what about, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”? People have said there is a gate to Jerusalem that called the “eye of a needle” gate. They assume that this is a real gate, one so low that a camel must crawl through on its knees. This is not true; no such gate exists, although this story is still widely told. Perhaps those who demand a literal interpretation have neglected figures of speech to the point of promoting error?
Back to my passage that talks about Jesus, I note that it says He has the preeminence. I know that all teaching, all interpretations, all ideas including figures of speech, need to pass the Jesus-test. Do they fit or mesh with what He reveals about God?
Jesus did not have feathers. He is not a huge head looking for a body. He is not a boulder, or a castle, but a Person. His message requires humility to receive, perhaps pictured by kneeling, but camels do not crawl on their knees. Entering the kingdom of God may seem like threading a needle, but God never makes physical skill a requirement to approach Him. We need humility, but that alone will not save anyone.
I know my idea about testing everything by Jesus comes a bit close to the humorous notion children sometimes get. They tell each other to say “Jesus” to every question in Sunday school and it will work. This is not what I mean. I’m saying that the answer is always Jesus when it comes to perplexities about God. What is He like? What did He do? How does He treat people? What did He demand of His disciples? What did He say to those who rejected Him? By looking at Jesus, I find out what God is like.
It helps to study culture and history to identify the figures of speech, but not always. I’m amazed how much is revealed and how many puzzles are solved by simply taking another good look at the One who is the image of the invisible God, the One in whom all His fullness dwells.