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Monday, April 03, 2017

Quote of the Day (31)

It helps to know what we’re looking at.
Figures of speech in the Bible have limits, as most people who are regularly obliged to listen to sermons are well aware.

A word picture is a helpful way to describe a particular aspect of a spiritual reality. Unsurprisingly, we find the word of God to be full of them: images from the parables of the Lord Jesus, the poetic metaphors of the Psalms, the similes of Isaiah or the illustrations of the apostles — lovely, practical stuff sufficiently simple and clear to express profound truths even to our children.

Taken beyond their intended range, however, these figures quickly devolve into goofiness and bad doctrine.

Points of Agreement

What I’m calling “range” others may refer to as “scope” or “specific points of agreement”. Louis Berkhof gives some sound advice on correctly understanding biblical metaphors in his book Principles of Biblical Interpretation:
“When the Biblical authors employed such figures as metaphors, they generally had some specific point or points of agreement in mind. And even if the interpreter can find still more points of agreement, he must limit himself to those intended by the author. In Rom. 8:17, Paul says, in a transport of assurance: ‘And if children, then heirs; heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.’ It is perfectly evident that he refers to the blessings which believers receive with Christ from their common Father. The metaphor contained in the word ‘heir’ would be pressed too far, if it were made to imply the death of the Father as the testator. How dangerous it would be to apply a figure in all particulars appears very clearly from a passage like Rev. 16:15, where we read: ‘Behold, I come as a thief.’ The connection will generally determine in each particular case how far a figure should be applied.”
Exactly.

In What Way?

To get the intended meaning from a metaphor, we must ask ourselves in what way ‘X’ is like ‘Y’. It is inarguable, for instance, that the figure of a lamb is used frequently to depict Messiah in scripture. The image provides us with useful insight into certain aspects of the character and work of the Lord Jesus. He was like a lamb in his meekness and silence before his accusers. He was like a lamb with respect to the acceptability and efficacy of his sacrifice to God. These are specific points of agreement between the picture and the reality.

But we cannot make all points agree, can we? Some things about the picture simply do not fit the reality. Sheep go astray. They turn every one to their own way, as we are pointedly told. That wasn’t the Lord at all. Further, the chosen image is often quite inadequate to fully express reality. When we want to talk about the Lord’s power and regal splendor, the image of a lion is a better choice. The lamb simply will not do to remind us of that aspect of him.

That’s not to suggest the choice of picture was a mistake. God doesn’t do mistakes. But we should not try to force a mere illustration to tell us things it was never designed to convey.

What Are We Talking About?

There is also a very basic question that we sometimes forget to ask when we are dealing with word pictures, and that is What or whom are we actually talking about? What exactly do these images depict?

Sometimes, the answer to this question is obvious from the passage. When the Lord tells his disciples, “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” the context in Matthew 10 shows that the “you” in the passage refers first and foremost to his twelve disciples, then later all those who would serve as his testimony within the “towns of Israel” throughout history up to his return. We Gentile Christians are not wrong to appropriate the simile — at least to the extent that wisdom and innocence should certainly characterize all believers, as other passages of scripture amply demonstrate. But the command was not initially addressed to us.

Other times, the question of what reality a specific bit of figurative language is intended to address is much more difficult to discern from context. We should be cautious about applying such illustrations too broadly. “I take it to mean this,” is not a completely useless statement, but it lacks much-needed authority.

If we want to really understand spiritual imagery, we need to recognize these sorts of limitations and ask these sorts of questions. Otherwise, the lessons we enthusiastically share from parables and Psalms are more likely to be the product of fevered imagination than careful dividing of the word of truth.

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