Staff & Sling
Ministry

Joseph E. Hébert, Ph.D.

98119 N 3745 Rd
Okemah, OK  74859
918 623 3078

Symbols and Metaphors

Scriptures are replete with metaphors, analogies and symbols. God uses these to explain heavenly matters in such a way that we may understand them. "If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?" (John 3: 12).

In this article I want to briefly consider a few of these symbols. I don't intend to look into any of them in depth. Instead I want to consider them briefly, just to see what we might learn.

Water

Perhaps the best known symbol in scripture is water. As a symbol water is a central part of the Christian sacrament of baptism. As such, it symbolizes cleansing, but more than that it symbolizes repentance. We see this throughout scripture, beginning with the deluge.

And GOD saw that the wickedness of man [was] great in the earth, and [that] every imagination of the thoughts of his heart [was] only evil continually. And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them. But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD, (Genesis 6: 5 - 8).

And so God repented His creation through the cleansing, a baptism of sorts, of water. But it doesn't end here.

In the Exodus the Israelites repented their abiding in Egypt by passing through the Red Sea, a kind of foreshadowing of baptism. Bear in mind that to repent something is to turn away from that thing. Thus, this event symbolized repentance unto miraculous salvation. The Israelites repented their old life in bondage in Egypt (as we repent a life in bondage to sin in a carnal world) by trusting God to provide their salvation and the promised land (as we trust God for our salvation and a holy life in His kingdom).

And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD caused the sea to go [back] by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry [land], and the waters were divided. And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry [ground]: and the waters [were] a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left, (Exodus 14: 21, 22).

I will not stop to dwell on it here, but the astute reader will note that once the children of Israel had repented their old life, once they had accepted God's salvation, there was no way for them to go back to their old life in bondage. This fact speaks directly to the question of eternal security.

Now consider the Brazen Laver of the Tabernacle. And do not miss the placement of the Laver, after the altar where sacrifice is made but before entering into the Holy Place.

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Thou shalt also make a laver [of] brass, and his foot [also of] brass, to wash [withal]: and thou shalt put it between the tabernacle of the congregation and the altar, and thou shalt put water therein. For Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet thereat: When they go into the tabernacle of the congregation, they shall wash with water, that they die not; or when they come near to the altar to minister, to burn offering made by fire unto the LORD: So they shall wash their hands and their feet, that they die not: and it shall be a statute for ever to them, [even] to him and to his seed throughout their generations, (Exodus 30: 17 - 21).

From the placement we see that God ordained an order to things. The first article of the Tabernacle was the altar. Thus, first must come the sacrifice. Next was the laver wherein the priests could repent of their corruption, the filth of this world, as manifest in the cleansing with water, before entering into God's Holy Place.

But note too that even before the priest could offer a sacrifice to God, he first had to go through this cleansing with water, this baptism. Thus, before beginning His ministry on Earth, Jesus too was baptized with water (Matthew 3: 13 - 17).

There are many more instances in scripture wherein we can see that water symbolizes repentance and cleansing, far more than I could cover in this article. So I will leave it as an exercise to you, the reader, to see where else you might find this symbolism in scripture. In the meantime, understanding this makes plain the meaning of Jesus' words when He said "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and [of] the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God," (John 3: 5). We must first be born of water, which is to say repentance.

Your salvation, my salvation, our salvation must begin with the turning away from, the repentance of, our old sinful lives. Then will Jesus baptize us with the Holy Spirit. Then will He make us His workmanship.

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: [it is] the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them, (Ephesians 2: 8 - 10).

Clay

Indeed, as Christians we are His handiwork.

But now, O LORD, thou [art] our father; we [are] the clay, and thou our potter; and we all [are] the work of thy hand, (Isaiah 64: 8).

Take a very short moment to think about clay. In its natural state, it's just a hard lump of earth. But if baptized with water it becomes a malleable putty that can be made into whatever the potter desires.

Similarly, as carnal men we are but dust of the ground, literally the earth on which we live. But once born of the water, which is to say once we are repentant, we too become pliable to His hand, fashioned into whatever He desires.

Of course, we would also do well to realize that clay most easily becomes malleable in water if it is first broken into pieces, which is to say ground into dust. Maybe we shouldn't be too surprised to find that before Jesus makes us into what He desires, first He breaks us.

Salt

But clay isn't the only earthen metaphor God uses to explain His will for us. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth.

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men, (Matthew 5: 13).

Today we think of salt as a common seasoning. It's hardly considered valuable, but this was not always so. In Jesus' day salt was so valuable as to be considered coin in trade. Men were paid their wages in salt, hence the phrase, "worth his salt." The modern words "saline," "salad" and "salary" all derive from the Latin root "salis,." meaning salt.

Many people forget that refrigeration is a relatively modern convenience. But not so many years ago food that wasn't eaten fairly quickly spoiled. Consequently spices were extremely valuable. Spices prolonged the shelf-life of foods and thereby diminished the urgency with which men needed to constantly replenish their food stores. You may have heard it said that man explores because it is his nature to explore, but this is not so. The spice trade, not some innate need to explore, was the impetus for global exploration. The spice trade then, much like petroleum today, was the economic engine that drove world markets.

Christopher Columbus was not looking for a New World. Neither was he looking for gold or precious gems. He was looking for a more direct route to the Orient, a spice trade route. You've probably heard of "the Northwest Passage." But did you realize that it was a fabled route to the Orient, to the spice trades? All of Europe wanted to find a way to the Orient that was shorter, and that did not involve navigating the Capes (either Horn or Good Hope).

So until fairly recently, at least from a historical perspective, most of a man's time was spent finding or producing new food, simply because the food he had decayed quickly. Spices in general could keep food palatable for a while longer, but salt could actually preserve food and keep decay at bay. This is our role as Christians, to preserve those around us by keeping decadence at bay.

Note that Jesus said that salt can lose its savour (Matthew 5: 13). He also said that once salt lost its savour it was no longer good for anything except to spread on walkways and roads (to increase traction like we do today during icy weather). So how can salt lose its savour?

Today we have salt that's chemically pure. It's a sodium atom bound to a chlorine atom. That's it. Actually there's a good chance that your salt is iodized, meaning that it has iodine atoms added into the mix, but that isn't really germane to the topic. The point is that a sodium chloride molecule, a salt molecule, is very reactive. It will break apart into sodium (Na+) and chlorine (Cl-) ions, each of which will bond with other things, quite easily. Don't fret over the chemistry. The point is that once a salt molecule is broken apart into sodium and chlorine ions, it isn't salt anymore. In other words, the more impurities it comes in contact with, the more it becomes contaminated, the more it is used up and the less salty it becomes.

Similarly, as the salt of the earth we must take care not to become contaminated with the worldly things around us. Otherwise we too can lose our savour. And then, to paraphrase Jesus, what good are we?

Leaven

And finally, we certainly can't consider contamination symbolism without considering leaven. There is perhaps no better metaphor in scripture than the invocation of leaven as a symbol for sin.

If you've ever partaken of the Lord's Supper, the Holy Communion sacrament derived from the feast of Passover, you've used unleavened bread to symbolize Jesus. Whether the shewbread in the Tabernacle, or the bread eaten at Passover and during the feast of Unleavened Bread, or the wave offering on the feast of First Fruits, unleavened bread symbolizes Jesus (see e.g. I Corinthians 11: 23, 24). It is always unleavened because leaven symbolizes sin.

Parenthetically, note that the bread which symbolizes us, the wave offering on the feast of Weeks (the feast of Fifty Days or Pentecost) is leavened (Leviticus 23: 17). Because leaven represents sin it is appropriate that the bread which represents us, sinful people, be leavened.

But returning quickly to our topic, leaven is the perfect symbol for sin. In I Corinthians 5: 6 and Galatians 5: 9 we read that a little leaven leaveneth the whole loaf. And so it is with sin. If you are guilty of just a small sin, the tiniest most trivial of all sins, you are wholly a sinner.

For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all, (James 2: 10).

But the similarity is even better than this. It turns out that all you need to start a colony of yeast, of leaven, is to set flour and sugar mixed in warm water on a counter. Yeast is so pervasive in this world that some will find it, move in and take over the whole mixture. You then have a lump of leaven, a colony of yeast. If you set your flour mixture outside, where the yeast are more plentiful, they will find it even faster. But even inside, as sheltered as modern homes are, the yeast will find their way in. They are that much a part of this world.

Sin is much the same. It's pervasive. As long as you're in this world sin will find you. You can't stop sin from finding you, but you can make it easier or more difficult for sin to grow in your life.

If you keep your mixture indoors it will take longer for the yeast to colonize because they simply aren't as plentiful in the conditioned and filtered air. On the other hand, if you set your mixture outside where the yeast are most plentiful, then the yeast will colonize most swiftly.

Similarly, if you live your life holy, which is to say separated unto God's will and service, it will be far more difficult for sin to take root in your heart. Or, again on the other hand, if you live your life in the world, and for the cares of the world, sin will take over your life most swiftly.

So where do you spend your free time? Do you spend time active in your local church, in the fellowship of the saints? Or do you spend your free time at the mall, or the local coffee shop, or in a casino or night club?

I want to close with this final thought. I've heard men ask why they can't be a witness for Christ, an example for others who are lost, while in a casino or a night club. Of course, they never ask this in terms of wanting to go to the local bar and pass out gospel tracts. They always ask this in terms of participating in the lifestyle that goes on in such places.

The truth is that all Christians are to live their testimony always and everywhere. But it is spiritual folly, the hubris of spiritual youth, to use this as an excuse for living that lifestyle.

You can not set flour and sugar mixed with warm water outside and not grow a yeast colony. Neither can you live in that world and not have sin take hold and grow in your life. It will destroy that testimony you sought to bear. If you really want to be a testimony to those around you, live your life holy unto God. That's the only way your testimony will survive. As for spending time with people in those dens of iniquity, understand that it is you, not they, who will be changed. A little unleaven can not unleaveneth the whole loaf.


Matthew 3: 13 - 17 Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him. And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

I Corinthians 11: 23, 24 For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.

Leviticus 23: 17 Ye shall bring out of your habitations two wave loaves of two tenth deals; they shall be of fine flour; they shall be baken with leaven; they are the firstfruits unto the LORD.

I Corinthians 5: 6 Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?

Galatians 5: 9 A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.