Literal and Figurative
How to understand the language of the Bible.
Jesus took bread and said, "Take and eat; this is my body" (Matthew 26:26). Did Jesus Christ intend for this statement to be taken literally, or was he using symbolic language, a figure of speech? Christianity has been divided on that question for centuries.
Whenever we read the words of the Bible, we are faced with a choice: Does God intend this passage to be taken literally, or is the meaning symbolic or metaphorical? Is the language used strictly literal or is it a figure of speech?
Our goal in understanding the Bible is not to prefer either literal meanings or figurative meanings. It is to understand what God intended the words to mean. Sometimes God intended a literal meaning, sometimes a figurative meaning, and occasionally both. We need to explore each context.
The Bread of Life
When Jesus gave 5,000 people bread and fish (John 6:1-15), for example, he gave them real bread to satisfy their physical need. Here we are reading literally. But just a few verses later, we are told that Jesus is "the bread of life" (verse 35). Here we must read figuratively: Jesus is the source and sustainer of eternal life.
The real bread that Jesus gave the people had symbolic value. The bread portrayed the important truth that just as Jesus could miraculously create and give the substance of physical life to humans, he could also give them eternal life.
His miracle pointed to a spiritual truth that is much more important than satisfying physical hunger. His miracles were special signs that can help us believe in him and thereby have eternal life (John 20:31).
"Do not work for food that spoils," he told the people, "but for food that endures to eternal life" (John 6:27). What is that life-giving food, the source of eternal life? It is Jesus.
When Jesus told people that they must eat his flesh (verse 53), he did not mean it literally. Even when he said that his flesh was "real food" (verse 55), he did not mean it literally. He explained that flesh is not important (verse 63). To be given eternal life, we need something spiritual.
The words of Jesus "are spirit and they are life" (same verse). They are vital for our salvation. We must understand them in the right way - in their spirit, their intent, in addition to any literal meaning.
Jesus' figurative language
Jesus called himself a shepherd, a gate, a light. Some of the most theologically important words in the Bible are figures of speech. We should not interpret them literally, because they aren't meant to be read literally.
In everyday speech, we often use figurative language. We might say, "He was green with envy," or "She really got my goat." By using such figures of speech, we can communicate better than if we had to use words literally.
In the Bible, if we always prefer a literal meaning, we may miss the point. The disciples made this mistake when Jesus told them to beware of the "yeast" of the Jewish leaders (Matthew 16:6). The disciples thought about their failure to bring any bread.
Jesus Christ reminded them that he could create bread for thousands if necessary. He wasn't worried about physical bread. The disciples then understood that Jesus meant doctrine or teaching when he had said "yeast" (verse 12). It was a figure of speech.
Jesus explained his ministry in figurative language rather than in plain words (John 16:25). His parables, for example, often puzzled people. Even his disciples had to ask him to explain what he meant (Mark 4:10, 13). Many of his teachings are still the subject of debate.
"If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out," Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:29). But can an eye really cause us to sin? No. Jesus was making a bold statement to emphasize an important principle.
Do we believe the Bible? Certainly! We believe what it means, the spirit or the principle of what it says, not merely what the words mean literally. We believe that Jesus gave people literal bread, and that he is the bread of life. We can believe a figurative statement just as well as a literal one.
Let's look briefly at some biblical commands. "You shall not murder," the Ten Commandments tell us (Exodus 20:13). Jesus interpreted this literally and symbolically. This commandment forbids not only murder but also hatred (Matthew 5:21-22). If we insist only on a literal meaning, we miss the more important spiritual intent.
God's laws are not arbitrary rules. They are based on spiritual principles. We should keep the laws of God not with arbitrary exactness, but accordance to the spiritual intent.
"Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain," Deuteronomy 25:4 tells us. The literal meaning is sensible — it is based on a good principle. Paul applied this verse — in principle, not in letter — to human workers, including those who preach the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:7-12: 1 Timothy 5:17-18).
Sometimes we find that the principle may be applied in the same way. Sometimes we obey both in the letter and according to the principle, sometimes in principle only, when the literal is obsolete.
Prophecies fulfilled in type
Biblical prophecies often include figures of speech. Some predictions came to pass exactly as written. Others were fulfilled in type — one thing representing another.
Isaiah 40:3-4, for an extreme example, predicts that valleys will be raised and mountains brought low. Luke 3:4-6 indicates that this prophecy in Isaiah was fulfilled by the preaching of John the Baptist. The valleys and mountains of Isaiah 40:3-4 are apparently symbols for something else and therefore not to be taken literally.
The apostle John saw a beast coming, out of the sea (Revelation 13:1) and another beast out of the earth (verse 11). Were the animals real, or only a vision? Were they literal or symbolic?
If we interpret the prophecy literally, we might worry about mutant dinosaurs. But few students of the Bible interpret these beasts literally as fearsome wild animals. Rather, the beasts symbolize a typological fulfillment.
Is figurative interpretation a second-best approach to the Scriptures? In these cases, certainly not! It is what God intended.
Through Isaiah God prophesied that the Messiah would reign on David's throne with justice and righteousness forever (Isaiah 9:7). But did Jesus fulfill this prophecy? If we had lived then and insisted on a literal interpretation of the prophecies that describe the Messiah as a conquering hero, we would have rejected Christ, the spiritual fulfillment of God's Word.
One part of the Bible says God's people should sacrifice animals; another part says they should not. The new covenant has superseded the old. Christ fulfilled the symbolism of the sacrifices, so they are no longer needed. The Old Testament sacrifices had a literal meaning. People who lived in that time period understood them literally. But those sacrifices also had typological significance, pointing to Christ. The literal meaning was temporary, but the figurative meaning - which was there all along - is more important.
Truth in symbolic language
Some people prefer a literal interpretation of the Bible and defend it to extremes. Before they even see the context, they assume that the literal meaning is closer to the truth. They accept a figure of speech only grudgingly.
Their respect for the Bible is admirable, but a bit misguided. They are afraid that figurative interpretation can go too far. Such people fear that the Bible will be "spiritualized away." For example, for any law some don't want to keep, the law might be called culturally obsolete or an exaggeration. Any miracle they don't think happened might be called a parable. Details of prophecies might be waved aside and proclaimed fulfilled in some vague symbolic way. Mary wasn't really a virgin, and Christ won't really come back, and God doesn't really exist, and everything is a big hoax, some might say.
But that is a dishonest way to interpret the Word of God. These examples show figurative interpretation can be taken too far. But that does not mean we should reject it or resist its every use. Insisting on the literal meaning as being true and accurate, and figurative interpretation as a watering down of the intended meaning, is an exaggeration.
When we read, we understand words in a literal sense first, then in a figurative sense if the literal doesn't make sense. That's the normal way we use language, and it's a sensible way to start. Literal first, figurative second.
But figurative meanings are not second best or inferior or anything to apologize for. They are often better, closer to the truth. Symbolic meaning is usually more powerful and profound.
For example, it would be difficult to state literally the profound truth, "l am the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25), or "I am the way and the truth and the life" (John 14:6). As the Bible discusses spiritual truths, we should expect to find figurative language more often in the Bible than in a history textbook.
The evidence is clear that parts of the Bible are meant figuratively, and we are rejecting the Word of God if we refuse to consider the possibility of figures of speech. We should not refuse to understand a method the Bible itself uses.
It is dishonest to reject figurative meanings when they were intended, just as it is dishonest to read them where they shouldn't be. We should not be hasty to seek a figurative interpretation, nor should we be hasty to reject one. We need to cautiously examine each verse in its context, and to exercise some patience with ourselves and with interpreters who come to different conclusions.
All students of the Bible need to be aware of the figurative devices in the Bible and interpret accordingly. We need to carefully read and study the Bible to become familiar with the way it uses language.
A feel for the context
We need to get a feel for the context. We need to see the types of literature contained in the Bible, the way it uses poetic language, the way it gives commands and relates history and predicts the future.
To help us in our reading, a simple introduction to the Bible can be helpful. Perhaps you might be able to buy one of the books listed below at your local Christian bookstore, or read them at a library. These short, easy-to-read paperbacks have been designed for beginning Bible students.
Knowing Scripture, by R.C. Sproul. InterVarsity Press, 1977. 125 pages.
Taking the Guesswork Out of Applying the Bible, by Jack Kuhatschek. InterVarsity Press, 1990. 163 pages.
Understanding Scripture: How to Read and Study the Bible, by A. Berkeley Mickelsen and Alvera M. Mickelsen. Hendrickson Publishers, 1992. 141 pages.