A metaphor is a figure of speech or a symbolic reference that refers to something else that is literal. For example, in the Bible L-thunder refers to a literal sound but it may also stand for the M-voice of God and, in that case, it is figurative, a metaphor. Other words in semantics that express figures of speech and are commonly used are metonymy and synecdoche. The latter is when the word for a part of something, such as “wheel” is used to refer to the whole thing, the car. Less commonly, it is when the word for a whole is used to refer to a part. Metonymy is when a word, such as “ride” is associated with the thing itself, the “car.” Metaphors “extend” the meanings of individual words and in that sense are descriptors intended to afford the original literal word a more formidable sense. For the most part, in this study I am going to concentrate mainly on describing something as literal (L) or metaphorical (M). without attempting to analyze the metaphors into subtypes.
A number of years (1980) ago two linguists, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, published a book called Metaphors we Live By, demonstrating that metaphor is a tool, a figure of speech, that people use commonly in speech as they go about everyday life. It is reflected in how they talk about activities, thoughts, and their feelings. One of the metaphors they discussed lies behind the phrase “time is money,” such that what we do with a literal object like money can be metaphorically represented in time. As with money, we can spend, waste, kill and manage time, although we can’t literally find the object called “time.”
The conceptual framework of Pike in tagmemics has also helped in my thinking: what does the item contrast with, how does it vary, and how wide is its use and distribution?
The Bible is full of metaphors and nowhere are they more represented than in referring to Jesus, as in the Gospel of John. In the very first verse Jesus is called the “Word,” a metaphor that represents God’s presence. It is a synecdoche because the M-Word refers to Jesus, who is a part of the trinity. It is Jesus who was with God, was God, and existed in the beginning of time and created everything. Literally, the Word was Jesus and I therefore refer to it metaphorically as the M-Word.
Jesus is also the M-light and because of that he can give spiritual and true light to anyone in the world. But he is not the sun or the moon or the stars, so he does not provide L-light for us in the world. That is why he created the sun, moon and stars.
From the beginning of Genesis, we see light contrasting with darkness and find variations of natural and miraculous light in the Bible. Variations of natural light are found in words like daybreak, sunrise, sunset, moonlight, and so on. An instance of miraculous light occurs when an angel of the Lord visits Peter in his cell (Acts 12:7) as well as in other instances when angels appear. Artificial light is the result of torches and other lights.
The perception of M-light is part of God’s defining nature and is inherent in his Word and wisdom. The M-light of the L-Trinity is meant to illuminate the M-world, showing God’s glory and transforming people from M-darkness into M-light.
The M-Word, who is Jesus and part of the Godhead, becomes a literal human (1.14) and lives among other humans. John says that we can see his glory, but that must be the M-glory because it refers to a particular splendor of Jesus. The only “glory” we can “see” is represented metaphorically in Jesus, God’s Son, not in some literal halo or cloud. We see God as Jesus and in Jesus because God is a spirit, and we cannot see spirits (except in our imaginations). We need help to see God, and Jesus is that literal help. In the culture of the day, and in our culture as well, people claim to see “ghosts” or ancestral spirits, but Jesus is not one.
The “world” did not recognize Jesus and here the M-world stands for all the people that came in contact with Jesus. Those who believed on him became his M-children and part of his M-family. The “family” has a M-Father and an M-Son, who are, together, “God,” whom no one has ever seen (1.18). Of course, God is “real” even though we cannot see L-him or the L-Trinity. Therefore, talking about God requires metaphors.
The world (L and M) contrasts with heaven and, strangely speaking, we can be “in the world” but not “of the world.” We live L-human lives in the world, but we do not have to follow the temptations and sins of humans in the world. In God’s kingdom, His will be done in earth, as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). Or as the CEV translates it: “Come and set up your kingdom.” There is an L-Kingdom, but referring to it as a M-Kingdom helps us understand how “the kingdom of God is among you.”
John the Baptist referred to himself as the M-voice of a person shouting in the L-desert and he referred to Jesus as the M-lamb—the one who would take away the sins of the world. It was the M-lamb who would be sacrificed for the sins of the world, our sins.
The L-voice of God was heard by Adam, Moses, the prophets, as well as by the apostles and Christ himself. To some bystanders, the voice sounded like L-thunder (“The God of glory thunders, Psalm 29), and in Revelation 14.2, like mighty ocean waves. In both cases, this is a description of a M-voice. Likewise, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was a M-voice that sounded like “the roaring of a mighty windstorm” (Acts 2.2).
John saw the Spirit come down “like a dove from heaven and stay on him [Jesus].” He could not see the Spirit; instead, he saw a L-bird representing the L-Holy Spirit. Nor could Nicodemus see the L-Holy Spirit later when the Spirit was exemplified as the M-wind. Although a dove is a real bird, it was not the Holy Spirit. It was a visible representation, a symbol standing for the Holy Spirit. We can say that the dove was a M-Holy Spirit.
Closely related to metaphors are similes, which use descriptive words, such as “like” and “as” to compare one thing with another. “He is as strong as a lion,” or “weak as a chicken” are examples. These are simply alternative ways of saying “He is a lion,” or “He is a chicken.” A simple lyric compares the two:
Similes and metaphors
Are similar but nothing more
Than a comparison in different ways
Similes use “like” or “as”
And metaphors need none of that
They just say exactly what they wanna say.
A dove has become a a symbol, whereby it is used to refer to some feature that becomes related to it. The word “dove” may have various metaphorical meanings assigned to it, standing for peace or, in the example from John’s gospel, the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 3.16: “After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him.” See also: Mark 1.10; Luke 3.22 and John 1.32).
The word dove has therefore become a symbol to represent love, purity, hope, peace, freedom and associated ideas. The symbol is found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, paganism, as well as in military and pacifist groups. It is a well-known symbol and icon in Orthodox Christianity.
The Holy Spirit, also called the Holy Ghost, is the so-called third member of the Trinity and the study of it in theology is called pneumatology. Other names for the Holy Spirit in the Bible are Spirit of God (Genesis 1.1: And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters), Spirit of Christ (Philippians 1.19: “For I know that as you pray for me and the Spirit of Jesus Christ helps me, this will lead to my deliverance”), and Spirit of Truth (John 16.13: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future.”)
With a synecdoche, as already mentioned, a word for a part of something refers to something itself. For example, “head” may be used to refer to the main leader or character, as in “She is the head of the company.” it can also refer to counting cattle or people. Another example is the word “trinity,” which refers to God in three persons or manifestations. In this case, the single word refers to the whole godhead.
Returning to the gospel of John, the famous verse of 3.16 says that God so loved the “world,” a name representing the people who live on this planet, which is often contrasted with “heaven,” referring to a place where God and his people and angels live. We cannot see either of these places but can refer to them as locations with inhabitants. Such references are metaphorical.
We read in John 3.19 that the “light” has come to our planet, obviously referring in this context to Jesus and the word contrasts with “darkness,” often used to represents evil and sin. The M-light shows what exists in the M-darkness,” namely the evil actions that are done in the “dark.”
In 3.39, John refers to the “Messiah” as the “bridegroom” and to baptized believers as the “bride.” The words L-bridegroom and L-bride refer to the male and female participants in a marriage ceremony, but in this context, they should be read as M-bridegroom and M-bride.
The term “Messiah” is loaded with meaning and is highly symbolic. He is the savior or liberator for the Jewish people, proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah (9.1) and referred to 24 times in the gospel of Matthew and 22 times in John. as well as in Mark, Luke, and Acts. The descendants of Jesus are referred to as descendants of the Messiah (Matthew 1.1) and Jesus himself is called the Messiah (Matthew 1:18).
Jesus has a discussion with a woman from Samaria at the well of Jacob and she is puzzled when Jesus says that he can give her “life giving water,” where the M-water is stands for L-eternal life. She thinks of L-water and uses the name of her ancestor “Jacob” to stand for all the prophets. Perhaps “ancestor Jacob” should be M-ancestor, semantically operating as a synecdoche.
In verse 24 of chapter 4, Jesus tells the woman that “God is Spirit, and only by the power of his Spirit can people worship him as he really is.” God can be referred to as a L-Spirit, or as the M-Spirit, who has the power to enable people to worship Him. It is again the Trinity at work.
The disciples find Jesus talking to the Samaritan woman but did not question him about it. Instead, they believe he might be hungry and offer him L-food. Jesus replies that he has M-food that they know nothing about, but the disciples believe he is talking of L-food.
There are other instances of Jesus eating and when he eats with others, he blesses the bread as a reminder that not only is the M-bread from God but so is the L-bread, Jesus himself.
The contrast of eating is fasting, deliberately going without food in order to think about God and pray to Him. There is a L-fast, where a person goes without food, but there is also a M-fast, where a person waits for Jesus or the Holy Spirit in some manner.
Throughout the ministry of Jesus, and later the disciples and Paul, we read of L-miracles, in the form of physical healings, and the casting out of demons. A miracle is something that takes place outside of the normal physical and natural possibilities. Sometimes we refer to something outstanding as a “miracle,” when we mean it would unusual, like the Texas Rangers winning the World Series, or when a truck just misses us on the highway.
A hallucination, dream or vision is not a miracle: such things are often unnatural and surreal, but they do not actually happen. We read of people who “die” and got to “heaven” and come back to tell us about it. However, no one has ever seen a person who makes such claims ascend into heaven like Jesus did, or what Paul wondered about when he went to the “third heaven.”
In John, chapter 5, a man who had been L-sick for 38 years kept trying to get into the pool of Bethzatha, but someone else always beat him to it. We aren’t told if people are actually healed when they get into the pool, but Jesus saw the man and knew he had been sick for a long time. He asked him if he wanted to get well, surely a self-evident question. Jesus didn’t help the man get into the pool, he simply told him to get up and walk. Jesus performed a L-miracle—we don’t know that the pool could accomplish miracles.
Jesus completed this miracle on the Sabbath and the Jewish authorities were not happy about it. The L-Sabbath was symbolic of the whole law—all its prohibitions and promises. Jesus had equated himself with God, who established the Sabbath and informed them that he was doing God’s work. He was equating himself with God the Father and it did not sit well with the Pharisees.
When Jesus said, “I am the bread of life,” this is not a difficult metaphor to understand. He is proclaiming that he is, like bread, providing sustenance for us to live. But when he says that people should eat his flesh and drink his blood (6.53ff) it is a stumbling block to listeners. How can they possibly eat his L-flesh and drink his L-blood? Jesus explains, in a round-about way, that he does not mean it literally. He is talking about his M-flesh and M-blood, his life and death. Only be living with Him and through his power can we obtain real life on this earth and only by believing in his L-death and L-resurrection can we live with him in heaven. The ancestors ate real angel’s food—manna—in the desert, but it did not give them eternal life. Jesus alone is the “real food” because he is the living M-bread that came down from heaven. We M-eat him and live, meaning that we believe on him and L-live forever.
Many of his followers “turned back” when they heard this teaching. They could not understand the meaning of the metaphors. Indeed, “flesh and blood” referred to stand someone alive, not someone who was dead. We will see Jesus in the L-flesh and we believe that we now can live by eating his M-flesh. Strange?, but not if you keep the semantics straight.
John, Chapter 7, speaks of Jesus and his L-brothers, although Roman Catholics get around the literalness by claiming these are half-brothers or M-brothers of Jesus, and that they are not literal sons of Mary and Joseph. Only in this way can Mary remain a “perpetual virgin.”
When asked, Jesus says that his knowledge comes from God, who sent him. Again, a heretical claim as far as the “Jewish authorities” are concerned. Jesus has appealed to the authority of his M-Father and this convinces the religious specialists that he has a L-demon in him. Jesus refers them to L-Moses and notes the fact that circumcision can be done on the Sabbath. Then why not heal someone then as well. “Does that make sense,” he seems to say, and, of course, it doesn’t to the Jews.
Jesus continues to teach, and in the Temple, he again asks the religious leaders if they realize the authority he is using to teach—again a reference to the L-Father. They are incensed and try to seize him, but he slips away again. They send guards after him because he claimed that where he was going (heaven) they could not go (7.34). The Pharisees hear him literally and think he must be going to some Greek area to hide out.
In Chapter 8, verse 12 (and 9.5), Jesus tells the Pharisees that he is the light of the world. Should we interpret that as M-light or L-light? I think it has to be metaphorical because when people of that day looked at Jesus, they did not see a halo or a luminous body, like appeared on the mountain when he was transfigured before the very eyes of his disciples. The glory of God does produce L-light that transcends what one would normally see. But here Jesus is comparing the M-light that he provides with M-darkness of those who do not believe and follow him.
Jesus appeals again (v. 18) and says that he is speaking and testifying on behalf of the “Father” and the Pharisees interpret him literally and want to know where his Father is located. Jesus replies that if they knew him, they would also know the Father and he repeats that he only tells them what he has already been told by the Father. More confusion on the part of the Pharisees especially when Jesus says that he is “from above” (v. 23).
The Pharisees are particularly offended when Jesus says that his teaching will “set them free” (v. 32) because they interpret him literally and think he must be referring to Abraham and claim that they are his descendants, and therefore they are not slaves.
Jesus turns the tables on them and tells them that their “father” is the L-Devil, who is a liar. This must really provoke them because they had claimed that Jesus has a demon in him and now, if the devil is their Father, they are with the head demon. The Pharisees reply with a further insult: that Jesus is a Samaritan with a L-demon in him and that although Abraham and the prophets died, it is heretical to say that those who believe the words of Jesus will never die.
Jesus also announces that Abraham saw the time of his coming, which is again interpreted literally by the Pharisees. You are not even 50, they say, so how could you see Abraham?
The problem of interpreting the words of Jesus literally instead of metaphorically occurs again and again in John’s writings.
In Chapter 9, Jesus heals a man who is L-blind. The Pharisees investigate the healing and are not willing to believe that the man was L-blind. Later (v. 39) Jesus explains to the man that he came into the world to heal those who are M-blind and do not believe. If they were L-blind they would not be guilty and judged. Instead, they are M-spiritually blind.
The great view of Jesus as the M-shepherd occurs in chapter 10. The M-shepherd calls the M-sheep by name and tends the gate for them. He is in fact the M-gate as well and looks after the M-sheep pen as well. He also has other M-sheep (v. 16) that he will allow into the M-sheep pen. Jesus is again accused by Pharisees of having a L-demon (v. 20) and he is rejected. However, the sheep hear his voice and recognize him.
We read about Lazarus, brother of Martha and Mary, in chapter 11. Lazarus L-dies and Jesus tells his disciples that he is M-asleep, but they take asleep literally and want to go and wake him up! Then when Jesus tells them plainly that Lazarus had died, Thomas wants them to go and L-die with him. Did the disciples expect Jesus to die then as well?
Jesus waits and then after four days leaves for Bethany where Lazarus and his sisters lived. Martha meets Jesus and rebukes him by saying that if he had been there Lazarus would not have L-died—Jesus would have healed him. Jesus reproves her by saying that he is the M-resurrection, and that Lazarus will L-live again even after L-death. He then brings Lazarus back to life, still wrapped in grave clothes.
We read of the anointment of Jesus at Bethany (12.12-19also recorded in Matthew 26 and Mark 14). A dinner had been prepared for Jesus at the home of Lazarus. Note that “dinner” stands for all that would be eaten so it is a metonym whereby the whole (dinner) stands for all the various foods that would be eaten.
Mary took expensive perfume and poured it on the feet of Jesus. Judas Iscariot complained and said the money for the perfume should have been given to the “poor,” a word that represents all the people who were lacking in some way. Again, the word is a metonym.
The triumphant entry into Jerusalem by Jesus upsets the Pharisees to the extent that they claim (v. 19) that the “whole world” (clearly a metonym and hyperbole) is following Jesus.
Some Greeks come looking for Jesus and find Philip, who finds Andrew, and the two of them go to Jesus. What follows from Jesus is a short parable about a L-seed of grain falling into the ground and M-dying before it can produce grain. He compares this with M-hating one’s earthly life in order to have L-eternal life. The picture is of a L-life here on earth that becomes a L-life that is eternal, but the physical death here is metaphorical—it doesn’t refer to a natural death while we are on earth.
Jesus, in speaking about his own death, is replied to by a voice from heaven—a metonym for the literal person of God. He also again refers to himself as the M-light (v. 35) and how those who do not accept and believe in his light walk in M-darkness. The unbelief of the people is highlighted by quoting the prophet Isaiah who said that God had M-blinded their eyes and M-closed their minds so that they could not understand.
In John 13.2, we read that the L-Devil had put into the M-heart of Judas Iscariot the thought of betraying Jesus. Did Judas “think” with his “heart”? No, but that was (and is) a common way of talking about thinking. Thoughts take place in the configuration of the “brain,” and it is metaphorically the “seat” of our thinking. We have idioms like “to beat one’s brains” when we are trying to figure out something that is difficult. A person can be referred to as “all brawn and no brain,” meaning they have lots of muscle but not much thinking power. If we “pick someone’s brain,” we want to find out what they are thinking and if we are trying recall something lost in our own thinking we might “rack our brains.” These are idioms, figures of speech, that show how we believe the brain operates in our body.
When Jesus was about to wash Peter’s feet (13.6), Peter objected, seeing it as only a literal act. Jesus said that “If I do not wash your feet, you will no longer be my disciple” (v. 8). Peter does not grasp the metaphorical significance of what Jesus is doing and wants his body L-washed. Jesus replies that it is unnecessary and that all of the disciples, except Judas, are M-clean.
When Jesus says that “I Am Who I Am” he is speaking both literally—he is the Son of God—and figuratively—he is the one who shares and is the Father. It is another way of saying “I have always been who I now am.”
The disciples press Jesus to know who will betray him and he performs a symbolic act: he takes a piece of bread, dips it in the wine, and gives it to Judas. The L-bread and the L-wine—his M-body and M-blood—are represented in this act.
Thomas questions Jesus, who has said that there are many rooms in his Father’s house. Is Jesus speaking literally about a house and rooms? Various translations seem to treat it literally, with words and expressions like “dwelling place,” “abode,” “places to live,” and even “rooms to spare.” It seems to me that the Father’s “house” is a M-house and it has M-rooms. It is not one that we can easily envision without using our own cultural images.
Jesus also says that he is the “way, the truth, and the life” (v. 6) and most translations leave it literally as stated, although a couple use “road” or “path” for “way” and one adds “only way.” Because Jesus is referring to himself, these words are metaphorical figures of speech even when it is he literally—as a person—who provides these features.
The Holy Spirit is promised in 14:15-31, who is referred to as a L-Helper, L-teacher and one with L- and M-power, all attributes that are demonstrated later, especially in the book of Acts.
Chapter 15 employs several figures of speech: Jesus as M-vine, the Father as M-gardener, and believers as M-branches. The Father M-prunes the M-branches so that they are M-clean and can produce M-fruit. They can then M-remain in the M-vine. Any M-branches that do not produce the M-fruit are thrown into the M-fire and M-burned. However, when Jesus talks of believers having “joy” in him and being his “friend,” he is talking literally.
We have already noticed the metaphorical nature of “world” and it occurs again in vs. 18-24 when Jesus tells the disciples that the M-world (people who are not Christians) will hate them. They will be expelled literally from synagogues (16.2) and they will become objects of scorn.
Chapter 17 is mainly a record of the prayer Jesus had for his disciples: that they would be kept “safe” from the “L-Evil One” (v. 15) by the M-power of the M-name of the Father and that they might have L-joy as they continued to L-live in the M-world. He wanted the truth of God’s word to be the resource for their “dedication” to the Father. Jesus wanted the disciples to somehow see the M-glory that the Father had given him before the L-world was L-made. The result would be that the L-love the L-Father has for his Son would be transferred to the disciples as well.
This is a chapter in which we see the “M-heart” of Jesus, his deep emotional feelings toward the disciples and his desire for them to be “faithful to the end.” He knows the “M-world” will hate them and he wants them to be prepared and to extend the L-message of the Father’s L-love.
The remainder of the Gospel of John tells of the arrest of Jesus, his so-called trial, the denial of Peter, the crucifixion, resurrection, and his appearance to Mary Magdalene and the disciples. These are literal instances of the last period of the life of Jesus. He appears before the Roman governor Pilate, is sentenced to death, and dies a horrible crucifixion.
Even on the cross, we can see some metaphorical scenes: Jesus sees his L-mother and tells her that a particular disciple is her M-son. Then he tells the disciple: she is your M-mother and the disciple takes her to live in his home.
Joseph of Arimathea asks for and receives the body of Jesus and Nicodemus anoints it for burial. Jesus is buried in a special unused tomb- but three days later he is no longer there. When Mary Magdalene does see and recognize him, she wants to hug him, but he tells her that he has not yet returned literally to the Father. What does this mean? Is he referring to his new and glorified body that he will ascent to heaven in?
Later on Sunday he appears to most of the disciples and shows them his L-hands and L-side, making sure they know that he is the person they knew and not someone else. He then L-breathes on them and the receive the L-Holy Spirit. Jesus provides a special and personal revelation of himself to doubting Thomas and Thomas acknowledges him as “My Lord and my God.” (20:28)
Finally, in the Gospel, Jesus appears to seven disciples at Lake Tiberias and while there he meets Peter, and provides him with a special revelation of where and how to fish. The result is a miracle: 153 L-fish and a net that did not tear with all their weight. It was still not clear to the disciples who Jesus was, but when he eats L-bread and L-fish with them, their eyes are opened.
When Jesus has his discussion with Peter, he wants to know how much Peter really loves him. He tells Peter to prove his love by taking care of his M-lambs and M-sheep. He also prophesies to Peter about how he will die—probably L-blind and being led about by others.
John summaries the activities and miracles of Jesus with a grand hyperbole: “If they were all written down the M-whole world could not hold the M-books.” (21,25)