One of the first things writers learn is the form and use of figures of speech. Readers also need to learn that these are not taken literally (It’s raining cats and dogs) yet must realize that every language uses them to illustrate powerful truths. They are not always as obvious as a familiar cliché.
I’m amused at the US president’s use of figures of speech. Most of them are hyperbole (exaggeration to make a point) but others not as obvious are often interpreted by the press as literal, throwing their understanding of what he is saying into a confusing tailspin.
The same is true for much of the Bible. The psalmist speaks of hiding in the shelter of God’s wings — but that does not mean God is a chicken! However, their use does not mean God’s Word should be interpreted allegorically. We use them often yet all we say is not allegory; the context usually shows what is literal and what is not.
The same is true with Scripture. However, like today, the people in those days didn’t always understand this use of language. Jesus was talking in a synagogue in Capernaum and told the crowd:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The Jews had a big argument among themselves. They said, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:47–59)
This was puzzling to them, but also to His disciples. When they heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”
But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (John 6:60–63)
Jesus was using a figure of speech. Eating His flesh and drinking His blood are not literal concepts; they are about “spirit and life” — He was telling people that their relationship to Him is like ‘devouring’ truth, like ‘eating Him up’ as we would say to a darling child. In context, Jesus emphasizes to His audience that they must hunger for Him as food because He is necessary to their very life.
Today’s devotional says that no one can faithfully preach the gospel of Christ without offending people. He gives various reasons. The main one is that being called a sinner is offensive to human pride and dignity. It takes a whack at our wisdom too, because no one can know spiritual truth unless God reveals it. If anyone gets that far in their understanding, they also discover from the gospel that they can do nothing to save themselves; we must bow to Christ and receive His grace as a gift, or otherwise perish.
While these truths and other aspects of the gospel are offensive, so also are figures of speech that make no sense. Imagine being in a foreign country and someone calls you a ‘door knob’ or a ‘closed opportunity’ or some other ambiguous phrase that you cannot interpret. Confusion can quickly turn to frustration, embarrassment, or a sense of shame, even anger.
Several hundred biblical figures of speech are a challenge for interpretation. Following Christ is about commitment and surrender. In many cases, to ‘get’ what He is saying, it also demands study and determination to learn. Not only do I need to know for myself the nature and usage of biblical figures of speech, I need to know them so I can clarify the gospel to others.
Jesus, I’m not sure what most offended those disciples who turned away from You after You used this unusual figurative language. It may have been that You asked of them more than they were prepared to surrender, or that what You asked simply went over their heads since they were upset that they could not understand You. Whatever it was, my prayer is to be able to speak and write truth clearly, especially in the use of figures of speech. These may be understood or misunderstood, accepted or rejected, but whatever the response, I don’t want it to be about me being inept in their delivery.