Metaphor is already intrinsic to the Trinity. Jesus is not the Father. And then again, He is indwelt by the Father, and He in turn indwells the Father. “He who has seen Me,” Jesus said, “has seen the Father.” This fundamental is/is not relationship is the relationship of metaphor. A world created by the Triune God, to express Himself, will perforce be a world of metaphor.
It starts with creation. On the fourth day God made the sun “to rule the day” and the lesser lights “to rule the night,” and from Genesis 1 right on through the Bible, the heavenly bodies symbolize ruling powers. Jacob, limping, blessed, and for the first time master of his own household, crosses over Penuel as the sun rises on him. This symbolism is not simply a literary motif; the Bible is God’s spoken word, as is the world. One would expect a correspondence, and there is. The sun rises, and we rise to work; it sets, and we go to bed. When it is weak, we are cold, and stay indoors; when it is temperate, we go out. If it is too strong, we seek shelter again — a celestial case for limited government, if we have eyes to see. But in the end, the Sun of Righteousness rises with healing in His wings, and in His new heavens and new earth, there is no more night. Nor, for that matter, is there a sun, because when the ultimate fulfillment has come, the sign is no longer required. Until then, we see the sign used over and over; symbols are multivalent.
God tells Noah that He will set his bow in the sky as a sign that He will never again destroy the earth with water. People often fail to notice this for some reason, but the bow is a weapon. God didn’t choose this particular sign haphazardly. The glory of God around His throne is a rainbow, according to St. John the Evangelist. God’s glory is a weapon, and the saints of old knew it; Isaiah was afraid for his life then he saw God’s glory with his own eyes. But when He makes peace with man, He hangs His glory-weapon in the sky for a sign, and this is what a rainbow means, not just in Scripture, but in the sky.
God made vegetation “for the service of man,” and gave it to us for food. With it, we make bread and wine, processed foods in which we join our work with God’s. Chase these symbols through Scripture, and you’ll find that bread means sustenance, God’s provision for us. Wine means — among other things — rest. Likewise, the loaf of bread on your kitchen counter is sustenance and provision, God’s answer to your prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” The glass of shiraz you will drink this evening — it has shalom in it, and when it seeps into your body from your stomach, you will relax, and rest. Christ in turn gives us bread and wine at His table, sustenance and rest, and we long for the day when He partakes of it with us in His kingdom. This bread and wine is His body and blood, and we are what we eat: Christ’s Body. We who feed on Him will live because of him, and we who have believed enter into His rest.
Since we live in a world of metaphor, we ought to live in a particular way, a way consonant with the story the metaphors tell, which is the true story of the world. We are priests, and priests are dramatists, responsible for presenting true pictures of how God deals with men. Under the Old Covenant, God Himself kindled the fire on the Tabernacle altar. When Nadab and Abihu brought strange fire before the Lord, fire He did not kindle, He killed them. We bring God what He supplies; fire from another source ruins the picture. We read that account today and think, “Thank God we don’t live under the Old Covenant.” But God continues to take priesthood seriously. The Corinthians, priests after the order of Melchizedek like their Brother and Captain, likewise died when they made the Lord’s Table a picture of division when Christ had made it a picture of unity.
Pinch-minded folk take the seriousness of the matter as deterrent to artistry and creativity. For fear of a misstep, they fear to do anything at all, but that is just burying their talent in the backyard instead of investing it. These people do not know God very well, or they wouldn’t think He wants such a thing. He sent His Son that we might have life, and have it more abundantly.
Even under the Old Covenant, there was demand for creativity. When Israel crossed the Red Sea, they sang a song of praise composed for the occasion. Suppose some mincing fundamentalist had said to them, “Don’t do that; you might offend God by saying something wrong!” Can you imagine them listening to him? Me neither.
The Tabernacle was beautiful, carefully crafted from top to bottom by artists and artisans, all of it inspired by the vision Moses saw on the mountain. The entire Tabernacle service was silent, except for the occasional trumpet blast, but David created an entire service of song to go with it. The musical service was performed before the Ark of the Covenant on Mount Zion until Solomon’s Temple, and then was integrated with the animal sacrifices there — and again, the Temple was itself a work of art. We who sing David’s songs (as Paul and James told us to do) must find music to match the lyrics. And if we are obedient to the lyrics, we will also dance, and sing to the Lord new songs, which means that we must keep writing them. The early Lutheran church knew this, and spent a lot of money to get world-class obedience (Pachelbel, Handel, the Bach family, etc.) How far we have fallen!
Hosea had life-as-performance-art going long before any postmodern art theorist dreamt it up. God used him to teach Israel — and us — a valuable lesson. Jesus told story after story, creative tales to reveal to some, and conceal from others, the truth about Himself, themselves, and His coming kingdom. How can we, called to teach the nations all that He taught us, do any less?
Nor is our artistry restricted to worship and teaching. Like the river of life that flows from under the throne of God, priestly artistry flows out into the world. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a simple enough command, but what does it mean today? Depends; who is your neighbor today, and what is his life like today? Does he need help shoveling snow off his walk? A bag of groceries? Comfort after the death of his mother? A set of jumper cables? Chicken soup? Wise love discerns the need, and discerns a means of meeting it. Done well, provision signifies what it accomplishes; it is a symbol of our love, and through us, of God’s love too.
Marriage is about love and making babies, but it’s also a picture of Christ and the church. God requires righteousness from all marriages, but God requires a Christian marriage in particular to be a good picture of Christ and the church. An abusive husband is lying about how Christ treats the church; a rebellious wife is presenting a picture that helps to legitimize a rebellious church and make it seem normal. But as you know if you’re married, good marriage is an art. There’s no formula, no cookbook recipe for a great marriage. There are some guidelines — thou shalt not commit adultery, for example — that will keep you from having a terrible marriage if you follow them. But the key principles — husbands must sacrificially love their wives as Christ loved the church; wives must respect and submit to their husbands as to Christ — these require great artistry to apply well.
Calling those principles “a recipe for a happy marriage” is like saying “throw all the balls up in the air, and don’t drop any” is a recipe for juggling, or “hit him and don’t let him hit you” is a recipe for a winning boxing match. Sure, but how? Therein lies the art, and it will make good use of all the creativity you can muster.
Tim Nichols is a pastor at large with Headwaters Christian Resources and a massage therapist in Englewood, Colorado. He is a coauthor of the Victorious Bible curriculum.