In a second-grade Sunday School class, the students are told to guess what is being described. “It has brown fur, a bushy tail, climbs trees…” Finally a student shyly responds “I know it has to be Jesus, but it sure sounds like you’re talking about a squirrel.”
There is so much analogy, metaphor and allegory in and out of scripture that I’m having a hard time deciding where to start. The Bible is rich in symbolism and imagery. Let’s start with something simple in the Old Testament. When the camp of Israel was being plagued by snakes, Moses was told to fashion a brass serpent and place it on top of a pole. If anyone was bitten by a “fiery asp” all he had to do was look at the pole and live. The serpent on the pole is a metaphor for Jesus. We are all bitten by sin. (Serpent, Eden, see how many levels this works on?) We will die if we do not look to Jesus on the cross. Jesus himself even says that as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.
That’s an easy one to follow. I contend that everything in Judaism is about Jesus – Moses leading the Hebrews out of slavery, through the wilderness and entering the promised land; the Passover; circumcision; Adam; the alter, temple, and high priest. I could go on. The events of the Old Testament are historical facts and help us to understand New Testament theology. By understanding the role of the high priest we can better understand what Jesus does as he continually goes into God’s presence to intercede on our behalf. But you don’t have to take my word for it.
The Apostle Paul refers to two sons of Abraham, one by Sara and the other by Hagar. Paul recounts the history and explains that the events may be interrupted allegorically. (Galatians 4:24) So the Old Testament is metaphorical for the New. What about Jesus’ use of symbolism? Over and over he draws comparisons to what the Kingdom of God is like. It’s like a collector searching for pearls; it’s like a woman that looses a gold coin; it’s like planting a field; it’s like the return of the Prodigal, and so forth. Jesus is like a shepherd, except when he is like a sheep. We are all like sheep that have gone astray, unless we’re fishers of men. Or fish.
Can you remember the first time you saw The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe? Did you realize it was about anything other than a magical land with talking animals? I wonder what C.S. Lewis would think about Veggie Tales. So what’s the point of all this? We are finite in our understanding. God cannot simply come right out in the Bible and tell us what he is thinking. Even if we understood our tendency is to disbelieve. We – collective, human-kind we – often have to be told things again and again. So stories and themes are repeated, many times. Jesus is a burning bush, and a sweet branch that makes water potable, and a serpent on a pole, et. al. God’s kingdom is like a little child on Jesus’ lap. The church is the body of Christ, or else the bride of Christ. Why? Because we need the symbols and pictures to even hope to understand. We cannot understand God otherwise. He loved us while we were unlovable, enough to send his only Son. Jesus loved the same way, enough to not only die but suffer abuse, torment and the cross. It just doesn’t make sense.
Our minds are small. Like a child that hasn’t learned to read, we open the Bible and look at the pictures. (See what I did there?)