1. The great importance of analogy in all verbal communication
“No man is an island.” Human beings are social creatures and as such we communicate with each other. We do so in all sorts of ways.
We use body language, especially gesticulations and facial expressions, and we can make noises that have some symbolic sense, which means of course that they represent our attitude or our intention and the people to whom we are communicating usually recognise that they do. Laughs and grunts and at times even yawns (human beings are not always polite!) can be communicative devices. Some animals also send messages in this kind of way, so that, for instance, the song of a bird may signal a territorial claim to other birds, while the agitated fluttering of its wings may be intended to scare off a predator from attacking its young.
In distinction from the animals, the primary way, although not the only way, we communicate is through spoken or written language. This tells us something about the way we are constituted as human beings, and it is exactly what we would expect from the first two chapters of the Bible.
Genesis 1 shows us that God is a communicating Being, that he communicates verbally, and that he does so in an immediately effective manner. All he had to do was speak and his words effected the practical purpose that was in his mind. “And God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). It is as if thought, word and deed were absolutely one for him. Here is the greatest of all speech-acts (to use the jargon of the philosophers of language), for it was not simply an indication of God’s intention but the way that intention was fulfilled in action.
The great power and effectiveness of God’s word is confirmed for us in Isaiah 55:11 where God says of his word,
It will not return to me empty,
But will accomplish what I desire,
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
If you open your whole being to God’s word (as you should) you will certainly prove how effective it is.
Then Genesis 2 and 3 tell us that God has made us humans in such a way that we too are capable of verbal communication, but also that, because of sin, what we say does not always accord with the truth nor does it always have a constructive purpose. Experience confirms this; we each have to admit that in this respect we are certainly children of Adam and Eve.
Nobody can study language for long without realising that analogy, which is based on comparison, is a most important factor in learning new things. The study of this feature of language is a fascinating pursuit. How do analogies work?
First of all, we group items together and give them a name (or, more likely, discover that they already have one) which marks their common features. A piece of metal or wood or plastic which has a handle and two or more prongs to it we label a fork; a verbal disagreement between two or more people we call an argument. Now that we have these two useful words, “fork” and “argument” we can employ them to designate other forks and arguments. Then we extend the use of these words to items which have some sort of resemblance to them. So we speak of “forked lightning”, which follows the analogy in terms of shape, and even “a forked tongue”, which suggests that a person’s words have power to wound, just as a misused fork has. In both cases, it is important to note, dissimilarity is a feature as well as similarity.
Analogies fall into two categories. The first is the simile, which tells us that something is like something else. This can be quite vivid, but the metaphor is even more so, for it uses the language of identity, not of comparison, although the reader or listener is meant to recognise that it is comparison that is intended. We should always remember this, especially when we come to study the analogies of Scripture.
Some metaphorical expressions can shake us or even shock us into thought. Readers of the Bible are used to the strict monotheism of the Old Testament, so that when we find God addressing other beings and saying, “you are gods” (Ps. 82:6), we sit up and take notice. When the verse goes on with the words “you are all sons of the Most High” this modifies the shock a little, but we are still puzzled. We then look at the context and we see that it is about exercising judgement and so we realise that those addressed have been given this responsibility, one of God’s prerogatives that he has shared with them. We then interpret the verse in the light of this. The analogy has, however, fulfilled an important function: it has made us think.
2. The importance of analogy in Scripture
This is difficult to exaggerate. In fact, the particular form of it known as anthropomorphism runs right through the Bible. As used thus, this term refers to speaking or writing of God as if he were a human being. It is not a feature that shows up in a limited number of Bible passages, as is often mistakenly thought, but rather is a general feature of God’s revelation of himself. It is really a vast, extended metaphor that embraces the whole of Scripture, and it has a theological foundation of capital importance, for its basis is God’s creation of human beings in his image and likeness. It is this that makes comparison, and therefore analogy, possible. In Genesis 1 the fact that they are in the image of God is the one thing that clearly differentiates human beings from the rest of creation.
Of course, whatever “image” and “likeness” mean (and to discuss this at length would divert us too much from our subject), they do not mean identity. God did not make us into deities, so there are differences as well as similarities between God and ourselves, and these differences are intrinsic and not merely a result of the fall of humanity into sin. So, for instance, God has all power, while ours is limited, and God’s knowledge is comprehensive, which ours never is.
Because of these differences, we must never reverse things and presume to make God in our image, for we may be using the dissimilar features rather than the similar ones. Idolatry employs analogy but quite wrongly, for it conceives of deity as visible, which is contrary to the teaching of Jesus in John 4:24, where he says, “God is spirit.”
The vast range of anthropomorphism in the Bible makes its right interpretation of capital importance. We need to ask in each case what are the similarities and what the dissimilarities.
Ezekiel 1 is important for our present theme. The prophet has had a vision of God, and he is seeking to tell us what he saw. He can do so only in language he clearly feels inadequate, even though he must use it. Words and phrases such as “like”, “looked like”, “appeared”, and “appearance” occur a number of times in the chapter, and finally he says, not that he saw the Lord, nor even that he saw the glory of the Lord, but rather that he saw “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD.” Yet, even though he uses such language, it is clear that there was a true revelation of God to him. The revelation was real, even though it was impossible adequately to describe it.
We will now look at some examples of the way analogies are employed in the Word of God. :
3. The analogies employed in Isaiah 1:1-10
The Book of Isaiah is particularly rich in illustrative language. The student of analogy could be occupied for a very long time on this book alone. We will take a small sample from its opening ten verses, and see what lessons we may learn about how to understand biblical analogies. Read through Isaiah 1 1-10 now.
In verse 2 the prophecy begins with dramatic exhortations, “Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth!” This suggests a trial scene. God’s people face the judgement of their God. The case is heard, not before a jury, but before chosen assessors, no less than the heavens and the earth! All this makes the passage extremely vivid, and alerts the hearer or reader to the great importance of what God is saying.
In verse 3, the people ofIsraelare described as the Lord’s children whom he has reared. This is very suggestive, implying a special, intimate relationship. Family life is a feature of all societies, and so it is meaningful to us. Like all the Bible’s social analogies, however, we must understand this in a biblical and not in a present-day western context where, sadly, lack of loving discipline and family disintegration are all too prevalent. It is clear, for instance, from the Book of Proverbs, that godly instruction and discipline were always to be major features of family life as God ordained it for his people. This is patterned on the fact that God himself gives instruction and exercises discipline towards us, and so we are to follow his example in doing so to members of our families.
When the prophet says the domestic animals “know” their master, this may well mean they have learned to trust his providing hand. When he appears on the scene, they move towards him. Because the people ofIsraelhad a filial relationship to God, and so a much deeper one than animals to their master, this ought to have produced not only trust but loving obedience.
In verse 4, the people are presented as loaded with guilt. The image of burden-bearing is a favourite one in Isaiah. In Chapter 1 it occurs again, quite differently, in verse 14, where God says he is weary of carrying the heavy burden imposed on him by the hypocritical worship offered to him by his people. In verse 24 the Hebrew shows that God is saying he intends to shrug off his foes as a man shrugs off a burden he is carrying. Ultimately the prophet employs the image to convey the amazing truth of God-given penal substitution when he writes of God’s suffering Servant, “he will bear their iniquities” and “he bore the sin of many” (Isa. 53:11, 12). Here, as in 1:4, it is sin which is being carried but now by the Innocent in place of the guilty in the wonder of the atonement God provided through his Servant.
Verse 4 contains another metaphor, one we could easily miss, when God complains that his people have turned their backs on him. It is unlikely however that the words “turned their backs” immediately produce a picture in our minds, and this is probably true for the original readers too. Figures like this that are frequently employed can become “dead metaphors” which have lost their power to stimulate the imagination. This is no criticism of the prophet, for dead metaphors are still useful words, and we use many every day. They still convey meaning but no longer through pictures created in our imaginations.
Verses 5 and 6 are very graphic, depicting the whole nation as an individual suffering excruciating punishment, and it is clear that it is God who has inflicted this because of their rebellion against him. The individual/nation analogy is drawn out, with particular injuries specified, to drive the lesson home.
In verse 8 the prophet uses what appear to be three similes for the situation ofJerusalem(“the daughter ofZion”), cut off from its environs by the invading Assyrian army, although the third turns out to be literal. Even without knowledge of farming methods in theHoly Land, these will engage powerfully with the imagination of many readers today as well as with those who originally heard them.
Perhaps the most powerful use of illustrative language in this short passage is in verses 9 and 10. A well-known historical event can often be a valuable source of analogies. Sodomand Gomorrahsuffered destruction from God because of their sins (Gen. 14), and of course Isaiah’s hearers knew this. So then when the prophet says God had spared Jerusalemthat fate, his listeners may well have thought, “Of course he did, because we are not really like them.” But then, in verse 10, he moved from simile to metaphor. Jerusalem had become Sodom; it had become Gomorrah; its sins had made it indistinguishable from these flagrantly wicked cities. The sins of his listeners had made the analogy almost complete. The prophet’s movement of language from similarity to identity would not be lost on them. It is a wonder they did not stone him.
Here then, in summary, we see how powerful analogies can be. that we need to interpret them in terms of the culture of their time, not our own culture, and that sometimes an image loses its power to engage the imagination. Perhaps too, this study may have suggested to some reader that it is worth while learning Hebrew, a language abounding in concrete images.
4. The analogies employed of God’s relationship to his creation and therefore to us
Sometimes we become so preoccupied with some issue, which may be very important, but our preoccupation may mean that we miss other matters of importance. The accounts of creation in Genesis are a case in point. Many books have been written discussing how Genesis 1 and 2 relate to each other, whether they are to be taken literally or figuratively, whether or not they are influenced by religious ideas current among the people of theNear Eastat the time they were written, how they relate to the findings of modern science, and so on. These questions are not unimportant but there are other matters of much spiritual value which are often bypassed by such preoccupation. High among these are the analogies found in these passages and also in other biblical passages which relate to the creation. We will look at some of the more important of them.
a. The King
This is a major feature of Genesis 1, even though the actual word is not used, for in the whole passage God gives instructions that are immediately obeyed. An ancient Near Eastern monarch was not like a modern constitutional monarch whose power is limited; he accomplished his purposes simply by speaking. His word was power, and that word had to be obeyed. We have already seen that recent philosophers of language have laid stress on the different functions of language and particularly on the fact that a word spoken often accomplished something. It is not merely a word; it is an act.
How true this is of God as he is pictured in Genesis 1! The first sentence is a very general, utterly comprehensive and awe-inspiring one, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” There is no indication of his method of creation; simply the fact is stated.
Then however the writer becomes more specific. He writes, “And God said, ‘Let there be light! and there was light.” What a statement! Here is an act of kingly power, in which God simply speaks and his will is fulfilled. Not only so, but it establishes the great importance of light, the one interest which unites scientists like Einstein with artists like Monet. Both our understanding of the order of the created universe and our appreciation of its beauty depend on light, created by God. The scientist and the artist ought both to acknowledge God, the Creator of light, in all their work, and those of us who are neither scientists nor artists should do so when encountering their work.
The psalmist in Psalm 33 was impressed by the effectiveness of God’s creative word, declaring,
By the word of the LORD were the heavens made,
their starry host by the breath of his mouth …
For he spoke, and it came to be;
he commanded, and it stood firm (vv. 6, 9).
The sovereignty of God, thus established at the very start of the Bible, is a theme that runs right through it. It occurs in many passages that view God as Creator, passages in the prophets like Isaiah 40 and Amos 4:13, and many of the psalms. The sovereignty he demonstrated as Creator was shown also in human history and particularly in his sovereign choice ofIsraeland the church. His kingship finds its final exercise in the Book of the Revelation, where we see God’s purpose finally and fully accomplished. It is interesting that sovereignty is often the chief idea many people have of God even if they know little or nothing of the Bible’s teaching.
Is it any wonder then that in Genesis 3 we see how seriously God took human disobedience to his sovereign word! That serious reaction by God carries on right through the Bible. We are meant to take it with due seriousness ourselves.
When we look at other analogies, we find so many of them to be based on elemental human needs. My wife and I enjoy watching some of the programmes on auction sales which are popular on British TV at the present time. The items offered for sale are extremely diverse and represent a very large number of specialist skills. Yet a little thought shows that all these skills are really diversifications of a limited number of very basic ones, related to our most fundamental needs, the need for shelter, for clothing, for food, for basic utensils (manipulation of clay), and, we must never forget, for worship. All these are represented in the language the Bible uses of God as Creator.
This shows the unsophisticated nature of so much of the Bible’s language, for it engages with our normal human interests and concerns. The Bible is not simply a book for scholars, but for ordinary folk. This phenomenon may also identify creativity as one aspect of what it mans that we have been made in the image of God.
b. The Builder
One of our greatest requirements is for a home, a place of shelter. Students of Genesis 1 have long seen God’s work on the first three days as establishing the structure of the universe, and that of days four to six as giving content to that structure. Architects like Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who was interested not only in designing fine architectural structures but also the furniture to be used in them, were also following this kind of pattern and sequence, whether they realised it or not.
Today the work of erecting a building involves a number of skills. The architect designs it (and in this connection needs some ability as a draughtsman), the structural engineer is concerned with its stability, the quantity surveyor keeps the costs ever in view, while the contractor undertakes and coordinates the practical implementation of the work, involving as it does a number of different trades. These functions were less separated between different people in ancient times but they all had to be implemented.
This kind of language is used of God’s creative work. In the magnificent anthropomorphisms and rhetorical questions of Isaiah 40:12, speaking of God, the prophet asks,
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand,
or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?
Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket,
or weighed the mountains on the scales,
or the hills in a balance?
In revealing himself to Job at the end of the book that bears his name, God takes up the same theme when, with gentle chiding, he asks Job,
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions?
Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone …?
Here much imagery familiar to the building industry is being used, so it is not surprising to find reference to heaven as a vault, an “expanse” (NIV), in Genesis 1, with lights set in it, the sun, the moon and the stars.
Some writers refer to the Biblical cosmology as a “three-storeyed universe”. Is this appropriate?
Yes, provided we see this simply as the language of analogy and do not interpret it too woodenly. We all operate with mental models of various sorts, and in the history of science many models have been used, for we cannot do without analogy. The Semitic languages, including Hebrew, are highly picturesque.
What kind of building is the universe? As we shall see, it is conceived of in the Bible in two ways, which in Ancient Near Eastern terms were not contradictory but complementary. It is both a house and a temple.
It is a house, a house not only for human beings but also for God. This introduces us to the fact that God is not only transcendent (that is, supreme and sovereign, exalted above his universe) but also immanent (that is, present everywhere within it), but of course as a spiritual, not a physical Being.
There are times when God is said to dwell in heaven, as in 1 Kings 8:49, where at the dedication of the temple, Solomon refers to “heaven, your dwelling place”. At other times, however, it is recognised that he inhabits the whole universe, described in the Bible as the heavens and the earth, and yet that even that is totally inadequate to contain him. In the same Solomonic prayer, Solomon asks, “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built” (1 Kings8:27).
This introduces us to the fact that the created universe is not only home but temple for God. The two are closely connected, for he is worshipped as a great God, but not as far off but rather as near to his worshipping people. He is in the midst of them, and his dwelling-place is his temple. As Solomon clearly saw, this is not just the edifice inJerusalem, but the whole created universe.
Recognising this may transform our attitude to the world in which we live, for we will see it always as a place in which to worship the God who made it and indwells it, the same God as the One who has met us in Christ.
c. The Cultivator
Farming is a basic industry in virtually all societies, and God the Creator is spoken of as if he were a farmer or a gardener. On the third day of creation, he caused all kinds of plants to spring forth from the earth, and in Genesis 2 and 3 the centre of attention is a garden, of which it is said, ‘The LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden” (Gen. 2:8).
He is a Cultivator because he is a Provider, for it is clear both in Genesis 1 and 2 that he had the physical sustenance of life in view in his creation of plant life. When pagans wanted to worship them, Barnabas and Paul, speaking of the true God, declared,
He has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17).
Barnabas and Paul were really saying that this is a fact of God’s general revelation to all humankind. The abundance and variety of our food bears testimony to the goodness of our Creator and of course reminds us of our responsibility to see that all are adequately fed.
d. The Potter
This again is a fundamental human cultural activity. All over the world, clay objects have been found, many of them the tools of primitive people, while others have been in human shape. These have often, but not always, been either for idolatry or for some form of witchcraft, for all the gifts of God can be misused.
In Genesis 2, God makes a beautiful clay object, a human being. This will have completely outclassed even the exquisite sculptured statuary of the Greeks. He then forms another beautiful human being out of the rib of the first. Both are given life. Interestingly two analogies are combined here, for in Genesis 2:22God is said to have built Eve, as the Hebrew shows. The Bible writers are not afraid to mix metaphors occasionally!
In Job, God refers to his creative work as involving clay, although this time not in the making of pottery, when he says,
“The earth takes shape like clay under a seal;
its features stand out like those of a garment” (Job 38:14).
e. The Storekeeper
Almost all work requires more than one ability in the person doing it. In some, the predominant need is for physical strength, while in another it is analytical or synthetic thought. Such thought is employed both to discern order and to create it. Most of us need to have some sense of order. A tidy desk tends to reflect a tidy mind!
Beautiful order is one of the chief characteristics of Genesis 1. We may think of sin in many different ways, but one of its chief characteristics is that it is so disorderly. We do not know how long after their creation it was before Adam and Eve sinned. but however short or long it was, it deeply disturbed the divinely-given order of their lives. Not only so, but it introduced a principle of disorder into God’s visible creation, just as Satan’s fall had already introduced that same principle into the invisible creation.
A storekeeper certainly needs to be an orderly person (as the proverb puts it, “a place for everything and everything in its place”), and God the Creator is presented in some passages as the divine Storekeeper. In Psalm 33:7, the psalmist says,
“He gathers the waters of the sea into jars;
he puts the deep into storehouses.”
and in Job 38:22 God refers to the storehouses of the snow and of the hail.
All this is reassuring for it shows that God always has adequate resources to achieve his purposes and also that he can make complete provision for the needs of all his creatures, ourselves included.
f. The Clothier
Speaking of the lilies of the field, Jesus said, “not even Solomon in all his splendour was clothed like one of these” (Matt.6:29), and of course it was God who clothed them.
Many ideas are associated with clothing, including need for warmth and provision for modesty, but ideas frequently associated with it in Scripture are appropriateness and beauty. The unfallen angels are clothed in white, for they are holy, and the beauty of the High Priest’s garments (Exod. 28:2) speak of his divinely-initiated and gracious work on the Day of Atonement in bringing the people ofIsraelnear to their God. In one of the parables of Jesus, a man inappropriately clothed for a wedding feast is cast out (Matt 22:11-14), and in a fascinating passage in First Corinthians Paul writes about the different glories of the sun, the moon and the stars, and of human beings, and then says,
the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable,
and the mortal with immortality (1 Cor.15:53).
This clothing is, of course, the act of God, who thus in his grace beautifies human beings that they may be aptly clothed for their place in his new creation.
g. The General
The majestic account of God’s creation in Genesis 1 contains the words, “he also made the stars”, which seems almost like a throw-away line and which has been described as “the greatest of all under-statements”. Then in 2:1 there is a summary statement, “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.” The closing expression here suggests the work of a general in marshalling a great army, and the same kind of language is used towards the close of another magnificent chapter in Isaiah 40:26 and 28. As the work of creation is complete, all is now ready for orderly and concerted action under the command of God, the King-General.
h. A significant feature of these analogies
Some religions and philosophies have promoted the idea that God created the universe out of his own being, so that it became a kind of extension of his own substance, an extension of what he is in himself, and so could be viewed as itself divine. This is known as “emanation”. This idea is never once suggested in the Bible. All the analogies we have been looking at indicate that God created the universe as something apart from himself. This does not mean, of course, that he has not shared any of his qualities with it, for he has. Existence itself is a divine quality, and in creating he shares it with his creation. Even at the human level, what a person creates tells us something about her or him, but what a person creates is not continuous with himself or herself.
In the second and third centuries, the Christian church was plagued by various Gnostic systems, which held to the emanation view of God and the world and tried to interpret the Bible to fit this. Irenaeus. a contemporary of these Gnostics, in his great work, Against Heresies ,sought to refute this and to show that this was in fact a twisting of the Bible’s teaching to make it fit an alien outlook Such twisting did not die with the Gnostics.
i. Genesis and Jesus
No reader of Genesis can fail to notice how different Genesis 1 and 2 are, particularly if we notice that the real break comes between Genesis 2:3 and 2:4. The first chapter is grand in design, almost liturgical in form, and truly cosmic in its description of God’s creative acts. The second is intimate and focuses on the creation of human beings.
Some approaches to these chapters treat them as if they are contradictory. It is true that their styles are very different and also that they present God’s creation of human beings differently. The possibility that they were originally penned by two different writers raises no real problems for the Bible-believer so long as it is recognised that they were not intended as contradictory but rather as complementary accounts, although it should also be said that stylistic difference does not prove difference of authorship, for every great writer is capable of stylistic variation (it is one of the marks of high literary talent). The same event may be presented differently and yet in each case with factual faithfulness. These chapters have differences of emphasis, and placing them side by side may be regarded as a stroke of genius. Much better, it should be seen as evidence of divine inspiration. Here we see metaphors in perfect balance, each complementing without modifying the other. Because of this they have the effect of setting the tone, not only for the rest of Genesis but for the rest of the Bible.
As we have already noted, in chapter 1 God is a king, majestically issuing commands, effecting his grand design simply by his powerful word, while in chapter 2 he is the gardener and potter, getting his hands dirty in the forming of human beings. To use the language of the theologians, Genesis 1 reveals his transcendence (the fact that he is above his creation) and Genesis 2 his immanence (the fact that he is within it).
When we come to the New Testament and to the Gospels and their presentation of Jesus, we see the same God in action, but now as incarnate. Here too he effects his will by the speaking of a word, as a Roman centurion recognised when he said to him, “just say the word and my servant will be healed” (Matt. 8:8), and here too he gets his hands dirty when he applies mud to blind eyes and gives them sight (John 9:6-7). Those same hands were impaled on the cross, where in deepest agony he dealt with our moral dirt, and the words placed above it by Pilate asserted his kingship, even though they were intended to be sarcastic.
j. The application of these analogies to the New Creation
The New Testament writers describe the Christian church in many different ways. One of the most far-reaching is as a new creation (2 Cor5:17-18, Gal. 6:15). We are reconstructed, from within outwards by the grace of God. The old things have passed away and the new have come and all this is of God. When the new heavens and earth come (Rev. 21 and 22; cf. Rom.8:19-21), they constitute the home God has prepared for his people, who have already been newly created in Christ. It is therefore no surprise that many of the analogies employed of the original creation are used in connection with God’s new creative work.
The church is “God’s building”, and what is that building? Not the buildings in which Christians meet for worship and fellowship, because the word “church” is only applied to those by extension, for in the New Testament it applies to the people, not to their meeting- place. The church is the house of God, the temple, based on Christ himself who is the chief Corner-Stone and in whom the whole building grows and develops (Eph. 2:19-22).
This is a most exalted designation for a group of people who, although redeemed, are still sinners, and it is immensely challenging. Paul applies that challenge not only to a local church (1 Cor6:16) but even to the individual believer (1 Cor.3:16). Both of these verses should be read in their contexts to feel the full force of the challenge. In Revelation 21:22, writing of the New Jerusalem, John uses the imagery somewhat differently, but still with a focus on Christ, when he says, “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.”
Then again we are God’s field (1 Cor 3:9), and language applicable to plant-life is used of the church. James says that Christians are “a kind of first fruits of all he [God] created” (Jas.1:18). This again reminds us of that most basic of passages, the parable of the sower, which we looked at in our first study.
In Jeremiah 18 and 19 the image of the potter and the clay is used ofIsrael, and Paul takes this up in Romans 9:19-23, relating it to God’s work of grace and judgement.
God the clothier appears in the New Testament, when Paul uses both housing and clothing as metaphors for the resurrection body (2 Cor. 5:2-3), while in Revelation, the saints are said to be clothed in white raiment (Rev. 3:18).
In Ephesians 6:10-20, the armour provided for the Christian, which is described piece by piece, suggests that we are viewed as soldiers in the spiritual army of Christ, with whom we are to keep in touch by prayer.
Before we leave this section of our subject, we should note that there are passages in the Old Testament where one or other of these analogies is used in a way that has divided the commentators and theologians in their interpretation of it, where the immediate context is about God’s promises of blessing on Israel, but where some have seen this as to be fulfilled in the church, which they see as the New Israel.
Take, for instance, Isaiah 35:1-2 and 6-7, where God appears as the great Cultivator and where the prophet says,
The desert and the parched land will be glad,
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
It will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendour of Carmel and Sharon…
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
Here the emphasis is not so much on the provision of food as rather on beauty, which is also a gift of God. Is all this to be taken literally or figuratively? Commentators are not completely agreed. Such passages need to be considered in the light of their literary context in the book where they are found and also in the theological context of the whole Bible. To explore this issue at all fully would take us too far away from our present subject. My purpose in this book is not to answer all the questions it will raise but to stimulate deeper study of Scripture and to encourage reflection on it.
5. The Parables of Jesus
These are of course of great importance and are based on analogy. We have considered them in an earlier study.
6. An unique analogy and a great privilege
One analogy applied to God in the New Testament is employed in a most special way, for it is used of relationships, not simply between God and his creatures, but within the Holy Trinity. This is the analogy of fatherhood. Here we are on very holy ground indeed, and our thinking, speaking and writing about this subject should reflect that.
It is used by Jesus of himself and the Father in all four Gospels but most frequently in the Gospel of John, where it is a major theme. That this relationship is very special is indicated in many ways, for instance by the fact that the definite article is used both of the Father and the Son when they are referred to together. Also Jesus calls God “my Father” in a most intimate way, foreign to the normal usage of the Jews of his day. Both these features may be found, for instance, in John 5:16-27.
This kind of language is followed also in the Epistles of John. Paul however uses the term “Lord” of Jesus much more frequently than “Son of God”, but it has been noticed that whenever he used the latter there is a certain elevation of style, reflecting his awareness of the greatness of the title, at these points in his epistles. Examples of this can be found in Romans 8, verse 3 and especially verses 28 to 32.
There are several other ways in which the analogy is used of God, with varying degrees of intimacy, although only one is at all frequent, when he is so described as Creator, twice in the New Testament. In James1:17he is called “the Father of the heavenly lights.” Here the NIV has inserted the word “heavenly”, to make the sense clear, as these must have been the lights intended by James. Here then it is fatherhood as origination which is in view. Also in his sermon atAthens, in a passage where God’s creative work is to the fore, Paul says that God
gives all men life and breath and everything else” (Acts17:25),
and a little later,
as some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ Therefore, since we are his offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by man’s design and skill” (Acts 17:29).
Then we see him as the Father of Israel collectively in Exodus 4:22-23 and distributively in Deuteronomy 14:1, Isaiah 1:2, and occasionally elsewhere.
The most important exception to its unique use of God as the Father of Jesus is when he is referred to as the Father of Christians. This is very frequent, and should be seen as related theologically to the revelation that he is the Father of the Lord Jesus. By the grace of God we are united to Christ and as “in him” are sons and daughters of God. No more exalted description of Christians can be conceived, and it is our greatest privilege. It suggests intimate fellowship, fullest provision, constant protection, wise instruction, loving discipline and sure guidance. On our part it implies trust and obedience.
The awe in John’s heart at this wonderful relationship finds expression when he says,
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.
The consummation and fullness of this relationship will take place when the unique Son appears in his second advent, and so John goes on to say,
Dear friends, now are we children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is
Finally, he immediately makes clear the great challenge of this, when he says,
Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself. just as he is pure. (1 John 3:1-4)
Jesus is God’s unique Son – let us worship him! We are God’s sons and daughters through him – let us marvel at this privilege and, by the Spirit of God’s Son within us, seek to live in accordance with this high calling!
7. Some suggestions for the study of other biblical analogies.
It would be profitable to study the various ways in which Christians are described in the New Testament, beginning in the Acts of the Apostles, moving on to the Epistle to the Ephesians and then to the First Epistle of Peter.
Sometimes these descriptions are quite literal. So, for instance, they are called ” believers” and “disciples”. These literal descriptions are short forms of longer ones, for Christians are believers in Christ and disciples of Christ. The first of these needs to be given some clear thought. The most important thing about anybody’s faith is its object, to whom or to what it is directed. Faith is of no value if it is not in Christ or the God of Christ. According to Luke, the Pharisees had great faith but it was in themselves (Luke 18:9)! There is a form of Buddhism to be found inJapan which emphasises that salvation is by faith, and some forms of it even hold that it is by faith alone, but the object of faith is not Jesus but Amida Buddha, who is not even an historical figure.
These literal descriptions in the New Testament are however outweighed numerically by figurative ones. So, figuratively, Christians are brothers and sisters, members of Christ’s body, citizens of God’s kingdom, and so on. Some of these (especially brothers and sisters) are so intimate that we tend to forget they are analogies. This is because the element of dissimilarity is comparatively small and that of similarity so large. This fact is worth reflecting on. It applies also of course to the fact that God is our Father. In these family analogies the element of dissimilarity almost vanishes. This makes membership of God’s family very wonderful and increasingly so as we more and more explore its implications.
So much of the Bible’s analogical material finds its focus in Christ. He is often said to be incomparable and so he is in the sense that no adequate comparison could ever be made to him. But because analogy embraces both similarity and dissimilarity, he is also comparable, for he is prophet, priest, king, shepherd, vine, bread of life, and so on. These descriptive expressions are all illuminating and they all help us to see the fullness of being, of holiness and of grace, that are Jesus, and yet he is beyond them all, for he is the incomparable Christ.
In studying these Christological analogies, you could start in the Gospel of John, then move on to Colossians, Hebrews, James and Revelation. Once you have done this, it would be worth noting how many of these pictures are found in the Old Testament, and how many of these are used there as descriptions of God. This study could strengthen immensely your awareness of the deity of Jesus.
The fact that Christians are described as children of God is expressed in the New Testament by such analogical ideas as regeneration, or new birth (see John 3) and adoption (see Romans 8), and you would find it profitable to extend your study to embrace other terms used of salvation, for you will find that these too are analogical. So, for instance, “justification” uses the language of the law-court and “reconciliation” that of disharmony in human relationships. The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology contains helpful articles on such themes. Particularly it will help you to understand these words and ideas in terms of their biblical background. This is very important, as, for example,Israel’s judicial system did use witnesses but it did not employ juries.
No doubt other profitable themes will suggest themselves to you from your own studies in the Word of God.
8. A Closing Comment
One of the chief qualities of poets is that they habitually think in analogies. The world of their minds is a world of many pictures. For the imaginative reader, the whole Bible is full of pictures and each contributes to our imaginative understanding of God’s truth. What a rich book this is! The Bible has been called “God’s University”. It’s a good description, and just now we are considering this university’s art department.
Some of the analogies may seem contradictory. So, Jesus is called both the Good Shepherd and also the Lamb of God. Is this contradictory? By no means, for the two analogies are not intended to be different parts of the same picture but rather different pictures, although in one passage they are used together, as if to point up the paradox. This is in Revelation 7:17, where John writes,
“For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.”
Readers of Revelation familiar with Psalm 23 will certainly notice an echo of this here, but also the paradox of the Lamb acting as shepherd. This is not the only paradox this book presents to us, for in Revelation 5 the Lamb is also a Lion. In this way we are shown that Jesus and his work are so great that many different analogies need to be used of him.
Clearly we must balance these with each other so that we do not draw wrong conclusions. The dominant one in Revelation is undoubtedly the Lamb, with its implications of blood sacrifice. Because the Lamb also suggests gentleness, we are told that he is also the Lion, strong to fulfil the purposes of God. If he is a Shepherd, is he caring for us so that we will provide a tasty meal some day? No, because he is also the Lamb, who has given his life for us. It has been well said that an important task of a theologian is to balance biblical metaphors, and this is certainly true.
This study is endless. If you spent all your time simply studying the biblical analogies, you would never exhaust the subject. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was not perhaps thinking specifically of analogies, and yet what she uttered is appropriate in relation to them, when she wrote,
“Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God.”
Pray that God’s Spirit, who inspired this marvellous Word of God, will enable you to see more and more of God’s truth about Jesus as you discern it – and him – in the many analogies of which the Bible is just packed full.