Symbolic Language & Literalism

Recently we have been going into some depth about the use of literary ideas in the scriptures – namely how much symbolism is used. I am going to try something here – pick a few random chapters in scripture – and see if I can find symbolism being used.

Luke 12

“Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees” (vs.1)

“And He told them a parable” (vs.16)

“Be dressed in readiness, and keep your lamps lit” (vs. 35)

“I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!” (vs. 49)

Ephesians 6

“Put on the full armor of God” (vs. 11)

“Stand firm therefore, hag girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness” (vs. 14)

“shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace” (vs. 15)

“shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (vs. 16)

“take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit” (vs. 17)

1 Peter 2

“like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word” (vs. 2)

“living stone…you also, as living stones” (vs. 4 + 5)

“a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense’ (vs. eight)

“out of darkness into His marvelous light” (vs. 9)

“fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.” (vs. 11)

“die to sin and live to righteousness” (vs. 24)

“continually straying like sheep” (vs. 25)

To be perfectly honest – namely in Peter – there was so much examples of this metaphorical idea it was hard to know where exactly to draw a line. However, I think I did a fair job – and Luke 12 contained like 3 parables in the whole chapter – I mentioned it once.

What is worth noting is that symbolism bolsters the idea being mentioned – via comparison to some other idea or actual symbol. However, it also leaves us quite open to varying interpretations and what some of that stuff means. This is where we kind of have to be more studious in looking at those passages and seeing what is being said.


(a) I have come to cast a fire upon earth – Now we know Jesus wasn’t an arsonist – so what is he saying there?

(b) Shield of faith – we know Christians were not dressed as Roman soldiers – so what does that image say?

(c) Die to sin and live to righteousness – literal? Are you dead yet? I am not sure of the exact type of phrase this is – but I think it’s symbolic. Still – what does it mean to ‘die’ to ‘sin’?

This is the point of the use of symbolic language and metaphors – to say something – and sometimes it requires some real work to dig out all that is being said and how this relates to our faith. I could of went to the Tanakh for more instances – but I checked one single Psalm and I didn’t want to mess that up at all (but there was a lot of symbolism being used also).

Point being – something doesn’t have be literal to have a deep meaning – or even to contain some truth.  


5 thoughts on “Symbolic Language & Literalism

  1. Figured I would write the first comment in this section to start this off:

    “I have come to cast a fire upon earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!”

    The image is fairly simple to explain – about building a fire – but hasn’t been ‘kindled’ yet – the place – ‘upon earth’. The kindling (start of the fire) is simple to explain – Jesus’ death and resurrection event (which is foreshadowed in the next sentence). I think Jesus is stating what happened in Acts 1 + 2 – since this is Luke writing – and how this movement will gain momentum after Jesus’ death/resurrection. The ‘fire’ will remain more or less – and it is also contains refining elements – like when a crop is burned at the end of the year to clear the land – so it can grow again next year.

    “taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one”

    This is definite armor imagery – a shield deflecting away fiery arrows so they do not harm you. The sheild is directly called one’s ‘faith’ – or those teachings that ground someone. The ‘fiery arrows of the evil one’ are definitely attacks from evil sources (ex: Idols and cults) or even evil ideas (ex: drunken orgies). Your foundation – your faith – your shield – should be able to protect you from the ideas of any evil idea that seeks to destroy/dismantle you.

    “so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness”

    Die = death and sin = living against God’s mandates for human community. This death is symbolic in nature – and means to consider yourself dead (cannot react) to the ideas of sin. A dead person cannot move, think, or breathe – and contains no life to finish or start anything – this attitude needs to be had towards ideas of ‘sin’. The problem with ‘sin’ is it destroys people and communities – willfully going against the intents of God for humanity will also help to destroy it. Sin is things like – murder, adultery, greed, envy, theft/larceny, rape, torture, fraud, etc. What destroys humanity is not caring about your neighbor and the end result is always a ‘sin’.

  2. The troubling thing about symbolism is that one symbol can mean so many things. It would be helpful if we knew Paul’s, John’s, or Jesus frame of reference. A symbol can mean one thing to me and something different to another person. Take the example of an eagle, which is mentioned in the Bible. It can take on all kinds of meaning depending on who you talk to. To some creative people its like the Bible is making prophetic statements about USA, to a First Nations (Native American) maybe it provides bibilical credibility to cultural ways, to a person from the Middle East it may mean something else.

    One of the more amusing uses of the Ephesians 6 passage was given to me during a seminar by a mens ministry leader. He engouraged us to literally put on the whole armour of God, by imagining the helmet, breastplate, girdle, shoes, shield, and sword. Don’t know how it worked in his mind, the whole imagining and literal putting on of stuff. It sure was amusing though.

    But regardless of how it worked in his mind, I had trouble with the idea of literally putting on whole armour. First of all I’m not a Roman soldier, and secondly I think Paul(?) was making a different point about the whole armour of God thing, which I may try to explain later.

  3. You should go back and revist your “Pardes” post…that seems like a more productive approach on interpretation rather than either or, literal/figurative dichotomies.

  4. “You should go back and revist your “Pardes” post…that seems like a more productive approach on interpretation” (Hineini)

    I agree Hineini – however – symbolism is a huge part of the biblical narrative and that’s basically the only point I am trying to make. Which, for me, does not exclude the literal (in finding the meaning) but excludes literalism in the sense someone’s ‘eyes cannot be fire’ for example. I still agree with the Pardes approach but I also am very aware that somethings cannot be literal or we’d be inventing some fantastic images about reality which may not be accurate.

  5. “The troubling thing about symbolism is that one symbol can mean so many things” (Just1)

    I agree – but I think that’s where a student will put in th study to find what it meant to the Tanakh texts (even Jewish culture) – since this is where this wonderful imagery is pulled from. However, I do think symbolism in and of itself does make interpretation a lot tougher – but I also think funner.

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