Says Jesus to his disciples:
“Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when…
For more use the DOOR.
I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father…”
The context¹ here is Jesus teaching a small group of his disciples soon before being crucified.
Some Christians get uncomfortable when hearing “figurative” instead of “literal” when discussing parts of Biblical text. But here Jesus himself is declaring his verbal technique is figurative as he teaches. It is important to recognize figures of speech when reading anything–especially the Bible. Here are some examples and brief comments about figures of speech in the Bible.
And, of course, I will number them. (Don’t look for any particular order.)
(1) The Bible is full of figurative language.
(2) Calling something something else is not always a lie. It can be a metaphor. For example, God is a “rock” or a “refuge” or a “shepherd” in the usual literal sense of the word.
(3) As believers are forgiven, we shall be washed and be made “as white as snow.” Not literally white in color. This is a comparison that’s called a simile. Look for the key triggers: “as” and “like.”
(4) Abraham is told that his descendants shall be as “numerous as sand on the seashore.” That’s called hyperbole². Maybe, literally–and I say this cautiously–as small pail of sand would be more accurate. The point is that he’ll have very many. Hyperbole, when obviously used, is not a lie.
(5) Maybe the language provides no literal words for some important information. Perhaps, and I say perhaps, the best way that the author of Genesis could account for single-celled life was to say that “the Spirit hovered over the waters” on Day 2.
(6) The book of Revelation is obviously filled with figurative speech.
(7) In Jesus’ parable of “The Rich Man and Lazarus” (Luke 16:19-31), the rich man dies and goes to “torment” (typically referred to as Hell and fire) and the Lazarus goes to “Abraham’s bosom (or ‘side’).” If one insists on a literal hellfire for the lost, how is where Lazarus goes parallel to Heaven?
(8) How does one decide what is literal and what is a figure of speech? Our response: What is the sense of the text? This does not, however, mean anything supernatural is figurative. It strains the text to say that Jesus figuratively did not turn water into wine or bodily rise up from the dead. According to the Bible, and the larger context of the story God’s revealing, this is literal information.
¹ I’m pushing the envelope on isolating a verse from its larger context. Check us out, as you should do when evaluating anyone else’s possible hijacking a Bible verse for one’s personal agenda.
² There are other figures of speech such as personification, such as when we’re told “the mountains clap their hands.” But 3 is enough here.