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Volume 14, Issue 1: Stauron

House of Bread

Gary Hagen

C.S. Lewis once wrote, "It is the very nature of thought and language to represent what is immaterial in picturable terms."1

From our earliest years we hear, think, or say things in terms of pictures. This format can serve a number of functions. As Gregory and others have written, using a thing that is known to explain that which is unknown is an essential means of teaching. For example, death is often referred to as falling asleep and waking elsewhere. Who among us cannot remember falling asleep as a small child—only to awaken the next morning somehow transported and tucked snugly in between our own flannel sheets? Since metaphor is a basic construct of semantic memory, these verbal vehicles are extremely effective pedagogical tools.
At other times, such picturesque speech can serve merely as a form of verbal shorthand, wrapping many attributes into a single phrase or sentence. The saying "Don't be a big baby" immediately calls to mind an image of a large person complete with pampers and pacifier. We understand this to convey immaturity, whining, high-maintenance, and emotional shallowness. The contrast of "big" and "baby" drives home that this is highly age inappropriate.
But sometimes verbal imagery is used simply as a more attractive, effective, and natural form of communication. What is amazing is how effortlessly this occurs. Almost subconsciously images roll off our tongues and are comprehended without difficult mental translation ("Hmmm, let's see, what he really meant was . . . what?"). Our expressions find this form naturally because this is the way God created us to think. Metaphor helps us to see the familiar from a new perspective.
Both Scripture and church liturgy are treasure troves of rich metaphor. We sing "A Mighty Fortress is our God" and recite "the LORD is my Shepherd." The LORD is the rock of our salvation. Jesus told His followers to take up their crosses — daily. John told us to behold the Lamb of God. His words are sweeter than honey. Believers are the light of the world. God blots out our transgressions. Judgment comes from the hand of the LORD. Disciples are fishers of men.
All sentences in the preceding paragraph were metaphors. If space permitted, we could discuss simile, allegory, metonymy, and more. How are they different? Or perhaps more importantly, what do they have in common? Simply put, all of these are used to enhance meaning or refine description. Our word metaphor comes from the Greek word metapherein, which means to transfer. Metaphors display a characteristic of one thing to describe another. The wind whispers. The king is a lion. An old golfer is on the "back 9 of life." An argument is ironclad.
One of the increasingly common sins of blue-chip evangelical apostasy is a method of Scripture interpretation that takes much of this verbal imagery and turns it into mere myth. The end result is to say that it cannot be taken as a guide for faith or practice. Or at least not all of it, just the parts we like. Often this is done by mythologizing the tenor (the subject) of a metaphorical passage or the vehicle (the thing someone or something resembles). But just because there is no specific lion in view doesn't say the king lacks the traits (courage, power, ferocity) ascribed to a lion. Nor does it follow that lions are fantastic fabrications.
The opposite of this error is to do what some cults have done in literalizing the wrong figures of speech. Mormons, for example, say God must have a body since the Bible talks of the face, hand, and strong arm of the Lord. This latter problem was the type of fallacy that tripped up Jews and disciples alike in John 6. This passage still causes problems, but not because the saying is hard. It is because our hearts are hard with unbelief, and in Scripture this includes a petrified brain (John 12:40 cf. 6:36).
In John 6, the disciples had just finished cleaning up 12 baskets of leftovers from five barley loaves that fed 5,000 hungry men. When these men crossed the Sea of Galilee from Tiberius to Capernaum the next day to find Jesus, He accused them of looking for breakfast. He warned them to work "for the food which endures to everlasting life." Undeterred, the crowd asked for another sign—more bread from heaven. Christ said He is the true bread of heaven (vv. 35, 41), and told them that they must eat His flesh and drink His blood to have eternal life. This metaphor offended just about everyone because they failed to see it properly.
Opinions are divided as to whether this is an early reference to the Lord's Supper. But either way, we have to be careful not to fall into a wooden understanding of regenerational communion. My understanding is that Jesus was simply speaking prophetically of His sacrifice on the cross, the giving of his flesh and blood, as being the only source of eternal life. And we are filled with this "food" only by coming to Him believing in His sacrifice (vv. 29, 35, 47, 51). This faith in turn comes by His word as applied to our hearts by the Holy Spirit (v. 63 cf. vv. 68_69).
Our salvation was won by the One who is the perfect metaphor, the exact picture, "the express image" of God (Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:14_15; 2 Cor. 4:4): the Word of God. He was God, born in the flesh (John 1:1, 14).

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