God has declared that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (II Timothy 3:16,17 NKJV). Since we are dealing with the God-breathed Word, we should be very careful to apply logically and accurately the rules of grammar and language.
One major area that is so often overlooked or misunderstood is the field of figures of speech. Unfortunately many sincere believers, when confronted with a statement in the Bible that is obviously not true to fact, declare, “Oh, that’s only figurative”, as if it were of little importance. Their understanding of what God is saying would come alive for them if they only realized that the reverse is true — it is not “only figurative” but that part of The Word that the Father wishes to emphasize.
Figures of speech are legitimate departures from accepted grammatical forms in order to give emphasis and emotion to what has been written or spoken. In the Word of God, figures of speech are the Holy Spirit’s marking as to what is important. When God gave the New Testament epistles to holy men, they committed it to writing in uncial letters — what we would term capital or upper case letters. There were no breaks between words and no punctuation. For example, the first part of John 3:16 would look like this (in English): FORGODSOLOVEDTHEWORLDTHATHEGAVE…
Today printers and publishers have many mechanical devices available to them when they wish to emphasize a word or a phrase. The word can be set in italic type (a typeface that slopes to the right), or in bold face type (a heavy black typeface), or it can be set in all CAPITAL letters. Using any of these methods, the word will stand out clearly from the rest of the text. Also, with the right use of punctuation, a writer can show the reader what he feels is the impact of the sentence. There are various rules that govern these matters, rules THAT vary from language to language.
Mechanical methods of marking have changed down through the years, yet for God’s Word to be accurate and applicable to all generations in all nations, some perfect method of emphasis was needed. God, in His great wisdom, employed figures of speech as the timeless and accurate way in which to give His emphasis, to His life-giving Word.
It may be true for several reasons that we may not immediately understand the figure that is employed, but we should endeavor to recognize that a figure of speech is before us. Then our task is that of II Timothy 2:15: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (NKJV). Workers need tools, and this introductory discussion of figures of speech is designed to open your mind to the presence and meaning of some of the major figures, and thus bring you closer to the mind of God as He revealed Himself in the Word.
The major Christian work in this field is Figures of Speech Used in the Bible by E. W Bullinger (first published in 1898 and still in print), a monumental 1,100-page treatise explaining and illustrating some 212 figures of speech the author had recognized in the Word of God. (You can read extracts from the Introduction online.) I am acquainted with only one other work that discusses figures of speech in any detail, and that is a 40-page appendix to the “Keyword Concordance to the New Testament” (Concordant Publishing Concern, 1970 edition; sadly omitted from current editions). This appendix is to be especially commended, for it is designed for those who do not know the Biblical languages and who do not know the technical terms for the various figures. What follows is largely based on these two works.
In the introductory paragraph to the appendix mentioned above, the unnamed author (possibly A.E. Knoch) sets the stage beautifully with these words: “God, Who studded the sky with jewels and carpeted the earth with colours, has written His revelation in language which reflects the beauties of His visible creation. The diction of the East and of the Scriptures is full of fine figures, over which we walk with ruthless tread, seldom stopping to admire the blooms beneath our feet. It is the voice of feeling as well as fact. Nor is its beauty merely ornamental. Unless our eyes are opened to their presence and we feel their force, we may fail to enter beneath the surface of bare facts, into the heart of God’s truth, and be led astray by mere externals.”
How to Recognize a Figure of Speech
Dr. E. W. Bullinger introduces his great work () with these helpful words: “A figure is simply a word or a sentence thrown into peculiar form, different from its original or simplest meaning or use. These forms are constantly used by every speaker or writer. It is impossible to hold the simplest conversation, or to write a few sentences without, it may be unconsciously, making use of figures. We may say, ‘the ground needs rain’: that is a plain, cold, matter-of-fact statement; but if we say ‘the ground is thirsty’, we immediately use a figure. It is not true to fact, and therefore it must be a figure. But how true to feeling it is! how full of warmth and life! Hence we say, ‘the crops suffer’; we speak of ‘a hard heart,’ ‘a rough man,’ ‘an iron will.’ In all these cases we take a word which has a certain, definite meaning, and apply the name, or the quality, or the act, to some other thing with which it is associated, by time or place, cause or effect, relation or resemblance.
“It may be asked, ‘How are we to know, then, when words are to be taken in their simple, original form (i.e. literally), and when they are to be taken in some other and peculiar form (i.e. as a figure)?’ The answer is that, whenever and wherever it is possible, the words of Scripture are to be understood literally, but when a statement appears to be contrary to our experience, or to known fact, or revealed truth, or seems to be at variance with the general teaching of the Scriptures, then we may reasonably expect that some figure is employed. And as it is employed only to call our attention to some specially designed emphasis, we are at once bound to diligently examine the figure for the purpose of discovering and learning the truth that is thus emphasized.
“There is an additional reason for using greater exactitude and care when we are dealing with the words of God. Man’s words are scarcely worthy of such study. Man uses figures, but often at random and often in ignorance or in error. But ‘the words of the Lord are pure words’ (Psalm 12:6). All His works are perfect, and when the Holy Spirit takes up and uses human words, He does so, we may be sure, with unerring accuracy, infinite wisdom, and perfect beauty. We may well, therefore, give all our attention to ‘the words which the Holy Ghost teacheth’ (I Corinthians 2:13).” Thus, with great clarity and beauty, Dr. Bullinger introduces the subject.
It may come as a shock to you to realize that much of God’s Word is not literally true. Some of its most precious and important statements simply cannot be taken as they stand. This is perhaps as great a shock as that when you first discovered that the Bible was an Eastern book and that the customs and mannerisms you were reading about have little in common with the way a Westerner lives today. Neither of these concepts are contradictory to the great truth of the God-inspired Word. They are simply an acknowledgement of the way in which God handled human words as a vehicle of His thoughts and of the cultural background against which His words are set.
When Jesus told his disciples “Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep”, they took His words literally and were thus mistaken. The words spoken by Jesus were not false, they were figurative. “Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead” (see John 11:11-14). Some of the greatest statements found in the Word of God are emphasized and shown their importance by the use of a figure. Anything in God’s Word that is not literally true to fact is not false, it is figurative. When God spoke, He said what He meant, and it is up to us to show ourselves as “a worker who does not need to be ashamed”.
Classifying the figures
The Greeks and the Romans devised several ways in which figures of speech can be classified. Most of these are too involved and somewhat unnecessary to our present discussion. Perhaps it is sufficient to say that all figures can be classified under the following major heads:
1. Figures involving omission;
2. Figures involving addition; and
3. Figures involving change.
I will not necessarily introduce the common figures in this order, but it does throw some light on the fact of how figures are produced from plain statements of fact. Some figures deliberately leave out words in order to hurry the reader on to the important part of the statement; other figures add words in order to slow the reader down; and yet other figures change words or change the order of words in order to catch the reader’s attention.
In the time of Shakespeare and the time of the King James Bible, every grammar school student would have been able to recognize the figures we will be discussing, and also give to them their correct Greek or Latin name (see “Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language” by Miriam Joseph [Part One]; 1947 ). What ground we have lost in these days of “enlightenment”! To help you remember the figures of speech that I will discuss and illustrate, I am going to use English names for them (as given in the Keyword Concordance) and not the technical names. Should you wish to know the technical names, I suggest you obtain or get access to Dr. Bullinger’s work.
I believe it will take a lifetime of study to know and recognize the vast number of figures in God’s Word. However, the important thing at this point of time is for you to start recognizing one or two, so that when you do, you will stop your reading and think: “Now, what is God emphasizing here?” The more often you observe a figure, the more you will recognize it the next time and thus grow in your appreciation of its greatness.
Literal and figurative meanings
There is a great problem in not distinguishing between the literal and the figurative meanings of words. This has caused tremendous confusion with commentators and with lexicons and concordances. Too often a figurative usage has been taken and listed as an alternative meaning of a word. Then someone comes along, checks out the listing, and picks the meaning that suits their particular theology or thinking on the subject at hand. That word may have been used in a figurative sense in one part of the Bible, but that does not mean that it can be applied somewhere else as it suits the students fancy or theology. This is a problem in translations such as the Amplified Bible.
“In seeking to fix the exact significance of a word, only its literal usage should be consulted. Here alone the actual meaning appears. The figurative is a departure from it” (Keyword Concordance, pp. 350-351). There is a definite principle that should be constantly in mind: “The literal meaning of a word is one and constant; the figurative usage is diverse and variable.” (page 351).
The basic meaning of a word will remain the same, and its figurative meaning will still bear some resemblance to the basic meaning. Let us also remember that as we attempt to establish the variation in the figurative meaning, we must always go back first to the basic meaning and work out from there. Do not take a figurative meaning and allow it to influence your understanding of the basic meaning, for if the foundation is not sure, the superstructure will tumble.
Let us also beware of applying a figurative meaning to all usages of one word. For example, even though in one parable we are told that “the sower soweth the word” (Mark 4:14), we cannot assume that every time the word “seed” or the phrase “that which is sown” is mentioned that it refers to the Word of God. In another parable the “good seed are the children of the kingdom” (Matthew 13:38). Let us only apply a figure where it belongs.
Since figures of speech are the Holy Spirit’s markings as to what is important in The Word, it will become an interesting and vital subject for every believer that is really concerned about what God has spoken to them. Do we need any other motive for our study?
Figures of likeness
Figures of likeness are employed where there is a comparison to be considered. The important fact about figures of likeness is that they depend on unlikeness. The two objects being compared must be unlike in the main yet similar in perhaps one or more particulars in order to be a figure. Under no circumstance must the likeness be allowed to go beyond these particulars or the figure is violated. This rule is often violated by the enthusiasm of some preachers when dealing with the many parables in the Word. A parable is a figure of likeness, yet the likeness is only to be considered in the salient points and not in the multitude of detail that is given in order to make the word picture complete.
I will illustrate the problem with an example from the Book of Revelation. It matters little to endeavour to assign a meaning to a hair on the end of one of the ten horns of the seven-headed beast that rose out of the sea (Revelation 13). That the beast itself is symbolic of someone or something is obvious, but the majority of the detail is given to complete the picture, so that the symbol is not confused with other beasts or persons in the Book of Revelation who also have horns.
All figures of likeness may be expanded into a simile by adding the formula “is like”. This is a simple test to determine whether the figure is to be recognized as a figure of likeness. A simile actually states that one thing is like or similar to another in some respect — “All flesh is like grass”.
The metaphor is bolder, for it leaves the realm of fact and says that one thing is another — “All flesh is grass”. Now let us think about these two statements for a moment. In what way are human beings like grass? At first thought you would say there is very little agreement between a blade of grass and a fine example of humanity like yourself. But God has used the expression “all flesh is like grass” and there must be a reason for such an emphasis to be made. By using such a figure, God is showing that there is some really tremendous truth to be understood.
I Peter 1:24-25 actually makes the statement we have been considering. Sometimes in the translation of the Word of God, the word “as” is used where in other places the word “like” is found, and whenever you see either word you should stop and consider whether the figure of resemblance (simile) is present. Now let us read the verse and endeavour to discover what resemblance there is between a blade of grass and humanity. “For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: but the word of the Lord endureth for ever.”
The immediate context indicates that the resemblance is in the area of the life span of grass. Grass grows quickly, and in time of drought dries up quickly. When compared to the eternal endurance of God’s Word, the life span of man is seen to be as short as that of grass. Obviously we should give more time to those things that last for ever, than to those short-lived material things that we think are such an important part of our life.
Now we can see the beauty of the figure of resemblance. It is a figure because it is not true to fact. I see people every day of my life and yet I have not seen anyone yet that looks like a blade of grass! I have seen some who are thinner than I am, with only room for one stripe down their pyjama pants, but they are still not like a blade of grass! And so the statement before us is a figure, and it is the figure of resemblance, for God has pointed to some resemblance between grass and humanity.
So that we understand this particular figure better, I want to take a further example of its use, this time from Psalm 1. As we read verse 3 you will notice the word “like” is employed: “And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season. Whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper.” The word “he” refers back to the man described in verse 2, and the figure of resemblance is used to emphasize some resemblance between this man and a tree. It is obviously a figure for we have yet to see a man who actually looks like a tree. Now the righteous man is compared, not with any tree, but with one that is receiving adequate moisture for growth (in this particular case, by irrigation), one that bears its fruit at the right season, and one that shows its continual life by the luxuriant canopy of green leaves. What a beautiful tree, standing there in all its glory! And each point of resemblance mentioned has a parallel in the life of a righteous man, who has all the potential for fruit-bearing and prosperity as does the tree.
Verse 4 declares that “the ungodly are not so”. None of the glorious aspects of the life of the righteous man are found in the ungodly. Verse 4 continues: “… but are like the chaff which the wind drives away.” The old method of separating the chaff from the wheat was to throw the wheat into the air on a windy day. The chaff would be blown to one side while the wheat would fall down into the dish again. “The ungodly … are like the chaff.” They serve no useful purpose, but are only fit to be blown away, separated from the prosperous godly people. The figure is again that of resemblance.
Now the same truth could be stated very plainly without the use of a figure in perhaps this way: “The righteous are stable, prosperous people but the ungodly are useless people.” But how that lacks color, and feeling! How much better is the tremendous picture we see in our minds of luxuriant trees versus dried-up chaff carried by the wind. Can you now see the beauty and impact of figures of speech? God has carefully placed His emphasis in the Word and our observation of it brings much blessing.
Let us now look at a parable in our quest for an understanding of the figure of resemblance. You will no doubt remember the two houses, one built upon a rock and the other built upon sand. Matthew 7:24-27 contains the record. “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him [there is the word “like” and it indicates that the figure of resemblance is now going to be employed] to a wise man who built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.” The picture is vivid, isn’t it? It is an illustration of a person who hears the word of God and who applies it by action to his or her life. This one is standing firm on the solid foundation of the Word, even though the storms of limiting appearances and unbelief are raging around.
“Now everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like [the word “like” again, indicating the figure of resemblance] a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.” Again the picture is so vivid that is leaves very little to the imagination. In fact, for added emphasis the two pictures are set in perfect contrast one to the other. The one hearing and walking on the Word of God is contrasted with the one who is not. The house built upon the rock is contrasted with that on the sand. The steadfastness of one is contrasted with the insecurity of the other. The language is figurative but it is not false; it is loaded with emphasis and vitality so that we comprehend the truth that God’s Word is teaching in these verses.
One further example of resemblance will have to suffice. Isaiah 24:2-3 makes this statement: “And it shall be: as with the people, so with the priest; as with the servant, so with his master; as with the maid, so with her mistress; as with the buyer, so with the seller; as with the lender, so with the borrower; as with the creditor, so with the debtor. The land shall be utterly emptied and utterly plundered, for the Lord hath spoken this word.” The words “as” and “so” also indicate that the figure is that of resemblance, and you will notice that they are used six times in verse 2. The emphasis is made very strongly that absolutely everybody in the land was going to be affected by this situation. For example, there are lots of differences between a servant and his master, and yet here they have one point of likeness — they will both be affected by the judgement of God. The emphasis is so strong as you read down through verse 2 that by the time you get to the end of the verse you are really wondering what is going to happen to all these people, and the climax comes in verse 3 when you discover that the land is going to be emptied and plundered.
So the first figure of likeness that we should be alert for is the figure of resemblance.
You will recall that we illustrated the previous figure of resemblance by the phrase “all flesh is like grass.” Now we take the thought one step deeper by the figure of representation and say “all flesh is grass.” This gives much greater impact and makes the comparison bolder. The figure is correctly known as a metaphor, a Greek word meaning a transference or a carrying over. However, the word “metaphor” and the phrase “metaphorically speaking” are so commonly used in English to designate any or all figures of speech, that I suggest you do not use it as a label for the figure of representation. When I speak of any or all figures of speech, I call them “figures of speech” or “a figure” or perhaps I would also say “figuratively speaking”.
Having defined the term, notice Isaiah 40:6-8: “The voice said, ‘Cry out!’. And he said, ‘What shall I cry?’ ‘All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field… surely the people are grass…” The emphasis is made bolder by declaring that one thing is another. To give further examples, “All we like sheep…” (Isaiah 53:6) is the figure of resemblance; “We are… the sheep of His pasture …” (Psalm 100:3) is the figure of representation.
Perhaps it will help if I give this illustration. Suppose I take a photograph out of my wallet and show it to you. I might say “This is me ten years ago.” But that is a figure of speech, for it is not true to fact that a little piece of shiny paper is actually me! However, the image on the paper is a representation of me, and it depends on the ability of the photographer as to whether it is a good or a bad representation! Now you might think (and with good cause) that I was being pedantic if I said “This is a representation of me taken by photography ten years ago!” But since English-speaking persons prefer to omit words rather than add them, we constantly use the figure of representation, and would say, “This is me ten years ago.”
“You are the salt of the earth…” (Matthew 5:13). You represent to the world what salt represents to other things — preservation from corruption. “I am the door..” (John 10:9). Christ represents the function of a door. Christ is the entrance to the sheepfold and to the Father. In both these examples you will notice that there is “a distinct affirmation that one thing is another thing, owing to some association or connection in the uses or effects of anything expressed or understood” (E.W. Bullinger). It could be said that the figure of representation is an abbreviated figure of resemblance, for it omits the statement of likeness.
We see a further example of the figure of representation in Matthew 13:36-43. Jesus had taught the multitude a number of parables, and then He sent them away. He went into a house, “and his disciples came unto him, saying, Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field. He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man.” The one who is sowing the seed in the parable represents the Lord Jesus Christ. It was not Jesus himself who was sowing the seed in the field, for it is only a parable, a figure of representation. “The field is the world”; no, it is not — one field is not the whole world. So the phrase is not true to fact, therefore it must be a figure of speech. The word “is” (the verb “to be”) is present, one thing is said to be another, and so it is a representation — the field represents the world. “The good seed are [the plural of the verb “to be”] the children of the kingdom”; the seed represents them. “The tares are [represent] the children of the wicked one; the enemy that sowed them is [represents] the devil; the harvest is [represents] the end of the world; and the reapers are [represent] the angels.” The figure of representation is used in a series to interpret the parable. Every major part of that parable has some meaning, but in order to make it clear to us a figure had to be employed, the figure of representation.
Now let us examine a statement of fact in John 4:24 This is part of the discussion Jesus had with the woman of Samaria at the well. Jesus said to her, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” The verb “to be” [“is”] is not present in the Greek but is necessary in English, and so it appears in italics in the King James version. The italics indicate what has been added by the translators. However, the absence of the verb “to be” in the Greek is proof that the phrase “God a Spirit” is not a figure but absolute truth. In fact, the text reads “Spirit is God”, placing the emphasis upon the nature of God as a truth to be comprehended.
Now keep that truth in mind as we look at the I John 4:8, where we read another statement concerning God. “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” The word “is” is present in the original text and here we have a figure of representation, because the plain statement of fact in John 4:24 was that “God is Spirit.” Now we read that “God is love.” Everything about God speaks of love, God acts on the basis of love, God sheds abroad His love, God is the ultimate picture of love, but actually “God is Spirit.” John 4:24 is literally true, but I John 4:8 is a figure.
We have then a beautiful figure emphasizing that one of God’s characteristics is love. You could read many other statements in the Word that declare God is light, God is holy, God is pure, God is just, and you will find all these have the verb “to be” in the statement and are therefore representations. These figures of speech emphasize and bring to our attention some part of God’s character. If you will read the rest of the discussion in I John chapter 4, you will find that from verse 7 onwards it concerns love down through to verse 12, and then from verse 16 to verse 21. The whole context has to do with love, and so through a figure of speech God’s attribute of love is emphasized to us. There would be very little virtue in saying throughout that passage that God is Spirit, but to show one of His characteristics, that God is [represents] love, has tremendous impact in the whole argument. One characteristic of God is love, and since we are children of God we ought to be expressing the same kind of love that God has. How tremendous it is to recognise the figure of representation in the Word of God. It is most important in the New Testament to observe whether the verb “to be” is present or not, and to do this you may need to check a version such as the Concordant Literal New Testament, Newberry’s Bible, The Companion Bible, or some other annotated Bible that will indicate this to you.
The Figure of Implication
Let us take our study one step further and observe the figure of implication. Perhaps this is the most frequently employed figure of speech in the Word of God. In the figure of resemblance which we have already discussed, we would perhaps say, “You are like a beast.” In the figure of representation, we might say to somebody, “You are a beast”, but when we come to the figure of implication, we would simply say to that person “Beast!” The figure of implication does not have any likeness in it, as does resemblance, and it does not need a verb; it simply comes straight to the point and the implication is inherent — “Beast!
Now the best thing for us would be to see some examples of this figure. In Matthew 16:6, we read of the teaching of Jesus: “Then Jesus said unto them, take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.” Leaven is like the yeast that you put into the dough of bread so that it rises. Leaven is a physical thing. Now surely Jesus is not talking about the ability of the Pharisees and the Sadducees to make bread. No, it must be a figurative usage, the figure of implication. That the disciples were not well trained in figures of speech is clear from verse 7: “And they reasoned among themselves, saying, It is because we have taken no bread.” They took the figure literally! “Which when Jesus perceived, he said unto them, O ye of little faith, why reason you among yourselves, because you brought no bread? Do you not yet understand, neither remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets you took up? Neither the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets you took up? How is it that you do not understand that I spake it not to you concerning bread, that you should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees? Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of the bread, but of the doctrine [teaching] of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees” (verses 8-12). Isn’t that. a tremendous record?
Now that is where most Christian believers sit today; they just do not realize the figures that are employed. The disciples should have known that when Jesus spoke of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, he was not talking about buying bread from that group, for bread is not related to Pharisees and Sadducees; they were not known as bakers in the community. They were sects within the Jewish faith, and each of those names, Pharisees and Sadducees, represented a particular viewpoint within the Jewish religion. Why relate bread to religion? It doesn’t fit, so we have a figure, and the figure is implication. I believe that perhaps this incident is one of the greatest illustrations on record of the need to understand figures of speech in the Word of God.
Here’s another example from Matthew 15:22. Jesus had come to the coast, into the area of Tyre and Sidon, “And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away, for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then she came and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread and cast it to dogs” (verses 22-26). Now wait a minute, we have read nothing prior to this about dogs. Why are dogs suddenly brought into the argument? Because it is a figure of speech, a figure of implication. This woman from Canaan was not part of the Jewish religion and this was why Jesus said that He came only to the lost house of Israel, the Jewish people. He said that you do not take bread that belongs to the children and cast it to the dogs. You do not take the help that is intended for the Jewish people and give it to the other nations. Therefore, by implication, the word “dogs” is used for people who are outside the Jewish faith. But this woman turned it around beautifully and in verse 27 she said, “Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” And she received what she wanted through the grace and mercy of Jesus.
This same figure of implication is used in Psalm 22:16, a prophecy concerning Jesus on the cross, and it says that “dogs have compassed me.” Now this was written not to indicate that there were many dogs running around the foot of the cross, but by implication the fact that at the time of his death Gentiles would be surrounding the cross.
Let us look at another example of implication, this time in John 2:18-21: “Then answered the Jews and said unto him, What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things? Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days? But he spake of the temple of his body.” Once again a figure of speech was misunderstood by the hearers. By implication Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, that is, my body, and in three days I will raise it up.” Instead of giving a lengthy dissertation on how a temple and a body have certain similarities between them, the temple is simply substituted for the body, and we have the figure of implication.
For a final example, notice Acts 20:29: “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.” Is it true to fact? No, Paul was not concerned that there were wolves coming to church. It is a figure, a figure of implication concerning those who would come in and spoil the church in the same way as wolves would spoil a flock of sheep. So instead of saying that people with wolf-like characteristics are going to come into this group of believers, he said, by implication, “Wolves shall enter in among you and spoil the flock.”
This figure is used constantly throughout the Word of God. It is a bold figure, a strong figure, but in order to recognize it you must have your thinking abilities in full working order. Implication is one of the figures of likeness.
The Figure of Parable
A parable is simply an extended figure of likeness in the form of a story — a likeness with action. It is “a story with a hidden meaning, without pressing in every detail, the idea of a comparison… This likeness is generally only in some special point. One person may be like another in appearance, but not in character, and vice versa; so that when resemblance or likeness is affirmed it is not to be concluded that the likeness may be pressed in all points, or extended to all particulars. For example, a lion is used as a resemblance of Christ, on account of his strength and prowess. The Devil is likened to a lion because of violence and cruelty. Christ is compared to a thief, on account of his coming, being unexpected; not on account of dishonesty” (Bullinger).
In Luke 4:23 we have the shortest named parable in the Word of God. “And he said unto them, Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself…” (The text actually reads “parable”, this being the only place the King James translators have rendered parabole as “proverb”.) Jesus is compared to a physician who attends on his own case, and the action of a physician is added to the likeness. This is a beautiful parable, full of deep meaning in the likeness suggested and the action — the physician is curing himself.
Another parable is found in Matthew 13:24-30: “Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field; But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.”
This parable gives much detail and it is necessary to establish which points have teaching value — that is, which physical things have likeness to spiritual matters and which points are merely background detail to complete the picture. Fortunately, God in His wisdom has given us the key to many of the parables, in this instance in verses 36-43 of the same chapter. The field, the good seed, the tares, the enemy, the harvest, the reapers, and the gathering and burning of the tares, are all given a spiritual meaning. No mention is made of the men who slept (the servants of the householder), the binding into bundles of the tares, nor of the barn, and so these points are given in the story simply to complete the picture. Any attempt to allot to them spiritual significance would be to go beyond the revealed will of God.
“Perhaps the most extensive parable in the Scriptures is the tabernacle and its ritual” (Keyword Concordance). Notice Hebrews 9:8-9: “The Holy Ghost this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing: Which was a figure [the text is “parable”] for the time then present…” A parable then is simply a story giving a likeness, and by observing that likeness we can learn great spiritual truths.
This page Copyright © 2002 Peter Wade. The Bible text in this publication, except where otherwise indicated, is from the King James Version. This article appears on the site: https://www.peterwade.com/.
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