This excerpt is from Rebecca McLaughlin’s Bible study, Navigating Gospel Truth.
“Do you take the Bible literally?”
My guess is we’ve all been asked that question—or maybe we’ve asked it ourselves. What people usually mean by it is, “Are you one of those crazy people who really believes what the Bible says?” But if you read through even one book of the Bible, you’ll likely notice that it often speaks to us in non-literal ways. Recognizing this does not mean we’re watering God’s Word down or sloughing off the hard truths we don’t want to hear. In fact, God delivers some of His hardest and most painful messages through non-literal language. Today, we’ll focus on one form of non-literal communication which we find throughout the Bible: metaphor.
So, what exactly is a metaphor? At a basic level, a metaphor compares two different things. Unlike a simile, when the comparison is pointed out—for example, “My love is like a fire in my bones”—a metaphor just goes for the gold: for example, “My love is a fire in my bones.” Like someone used to driving a stick shift and automatically changing gears, we’re so used to navigating metaphors that we often don’t even notice what we’re doing.
Think about your favorite song. Most likely, it’s shot through with metaphors. I just did a Google® search and found that one of the most listened-to songs this week is, “Easy on Me” by Adele. The whole first verse of that song depends on water metaphors. Adele says she can’t bring herself to swim when she’s drowning in this silence. We all know you can’t literally drown in silence. But we totally get what she means. If someone told you that was how he felt, you wouldn’t say, “That’s not true: you can’t drown in silence.” Instead, you’d feel his pain.
People use metaphors in songs and poems and even in everyday conversations because they speak to our hearts and draw us in. The Bible uses metaphors for that reason too. But biblical metaphors run even deeper than our own. Adele looks at water, notices the ways it can be used—for washing, drinking, swimming, drowning—and uses those things to express how she is feeling. But God made water in the first place in part so He could call Himself “the fountain of living water” (Jer. 2:13) and we would understand a little more of who He is.
In Scripture, we see that metaphors communicate some of the most amazing claims about God and some of the hardest teachings. We also see how Jesus tapped into Old Testament metaphors to help us see the truth of who He is.
Today, we’re going to spend time exploring how Jesus makes the powerful and life-changing claim that God truly is our Father. But we’re also going to see that the distinction between literal and metaphorical claims is not always clear-cut.
My best friend, Rachel, was ten when her parents told her that her dad was not her biological father. The man whose genes she carried had abused her and her mother when Rachel was a baby, and they’d moved into a women’s shelter. But Rachel was much too young to remember. As far as she knew, the man who had raised her was her dad. So, it was a shock to discover that in a literal, biological sense, he wasn’t.
Our own experiences with human fathers have a profound effect on how we respond to the Bible’s claim that God is our Father. If you were well-loved and cared for by your father, you likely find it easy to relate to God in that way. If you were disappointed, abandoned, or abused by your earthly father, you may have a really hard time with the idea that God is your heavenly Father. But in the Gospels, we see Jesus calling God His Father and inviting us to call God our Father as well. This is a vital way in which the Bible invites us to relate to God. And it’s a metaphor.
You might be thinking, Wait! How can you say that calling God our Father is a metaphor? Isn’t God truly our Father? The answer is yes! God is more truly our Father than any human father could be. He is the perfect Father on whom human fatherhood is based. Just as we can use literal language to speak the truth or to lie, we can use metaphorical language to speak the truth or to lie. For example, I could make the claim that my father is a pilot. It would be a literal claim, but it would also be untrue. My dad’s a strategy consultant! But if I tell you that God is my Father, I’m using a metaphor to communicate one of the truest things I could ever say about myself.
Read Luke 1:31-32 below:
Now listen: You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David.
In just these two verses, Jesus is presented as the son of Mary, the Son of the Most High, and the son of David. Jesus is the literal, biological son of Mary, His mother. He is not the literal son of King David—who died centuries earlier—but He descended from David and He’s heir to David’s throne. What about the claim that Jesus is the “Son of the Most High”? Well, in Jesus’s day, “Son of God” was a title for God’s Messiah—His long-promised King. It would not have been taken in a literal sense. But as Gabriel’s conversation with Mary unfolds, we discover that Jesus is also in a more literal sense the Son of God: He has no human father.
In Luke 1, after Gabriel told Mary she would conceive and give birth to the Son of God, she asked him the question, “How can this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?”
The idea that Jesus was the Son of God in a more literal sense—that He did not have a human father, but that the Spirit of God made His mother pregnant—would have been completely shocking to first-century Jews. The Greek and Roman so-called gods were believed at times to impregnate human women and spawn demigods of various kinds. But the God of the Bible was completely different from these pagan deities. The God of the Bible is the one true God, the Creator of all things. He is a spiritual being, not embodied like we are. And yet the angel’s message is that Mary’s son will also be God’s Son: no demigod, but fully God and fully man.
In Jesus, we see the one person ever to have existed who is both fully human and fully God. His miraculous conception points us to this unfathomable reality. We see Jesus’s Sonship affirmed at His baptism; when the heavens were torn open, the Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove, and a voice from heaven said, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased” (Mark 1:11). Jesus is the Son of God. But amazingly, Jesus also invites us into that Father-Son relationship.
We might think that Jesus looked at human fathers and thought, Huh, the best human fathers love their kids a bit like God loves me, so I’m going to use that metaphor to help folks understand that love. But actually, it’s no coincidence. If we understand the Bible as a whole, we’ll realize that God the Father’s love for God the Son existed before human beings ever did. God made human fatherhood in the first place not just to propagate the species, but so that the best of human fathers could be tiny signposts to His fatherly love!
Let’s look at verses 1 and 18 in John 1.
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … 18No one has ever seen God. The one and only Son, who is himself God and is at the Father’s side—he has revealed him.
If your head is exploding right now, join the club! There’s no way you and I will ever understand the Trinity. The nature of God Himself is utterly beyond our comprehension. But God has built relationships into our human experience that can give us little windows into the love between the members of the Trinity and into His love for us. One of those windows is fatherhood.
Jesus especially invites us to call God our Father and to enter into the Father-Son relationship He has enjoyed from all eternity.
We’ve covered a lot of ground today, but don’t be discouraged! We’ve seen how important metaphors can be in the Gospels and how Jesus’s primary way of talking about God is at heart metaphorical. But we’ve also seen the complexity that can be woven into biblical metaphors and how the difference between literal truth and metaphorical truth is not always completely clear-cut.
I’m sitting across from my friend Rachel right now and I just asked her, “What’s your dad’s name?” She answered, “Bob.” He’s not her biological father. But he’s more truly her father than the man whose genes helped make her body.
Whoever your biological father is, your most true Father is in heaven. Take a minute now to pray the prayer that Jesus taught His followers to pray:
Our Father in heaven, your name be honored as holy. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.Matthew 6:9b-13
About Rebecca McLaughlin
Rebecca McLaughlin holds a Ph.D. in Renaissance Literature from Cambridge University and a theology degree from Oak Hill College in London. She is the author of Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (2019), which was named book of the year by Christianity Today, and of 10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) about Christianity (2021), The Secular Creed: Engaging 5 Contemporary Claims (2021), Is Christmas Unbelievable? Four Questions Everyone Should Ask About the World’s Most Famous Story (2021), Confronting Jesus: 9 Encounters with the Hero of the Gospels (2022). She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband, Bryan, her two daughters, Miranda and Eliza, and her son, Luke.