BibleTools

Topical Studies

 A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z


Bible verses about Figurative Language
(From Forerunner Commentary)

John 3:1-12

Among all of the Bible's teachings, the instruction given in John 3 regarding being born again is perhaps the most liable to being misunderstood. In fact, as soon as it was out of Jesus' mouth, Nicodemus misconstrued His meaning, taking Christ's spiritual symbolism literally and physically. Ever since, people have stumbled over various parts of Jesus' teaching in this passage, and usually the stumblingblock is the imagery.

To convey essential, spiritual principles, Jesus uses imagery extensively in the gospels, and perhaps the most in the book of John. Along with John 3's imagery of the new birth, the book contains many references to light, water, bread, blood, blindness, sheep and shepherds, fruit, seed, vines, and several others. In nearly every case, they have spiritual meanings that transcend a plain, literal sense.

The book of John also contains a remarkable witness to the fact that Jesus was constantly being misunderstood. An example appears in nearly every early chapter and continues sporadically to its end. Even in the last chapter, Jesus has to tell Peter three times to feed His sheep before the apostle realizes that His Master is teaching him that he could demonstrate his love for Him by truly caring for His people for the rest of his life.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Born Again or Begotten? (Part Three)


 

John 3:3

John 3:3 begins to show the profound importance of the born-again instruction by the fact that this doctrine is the subject of the very first of Jesus' discourses recorded by John. It is as if everything regarding our spiritual future begins and proceeds from this point. Interestingly, this discourse does not cover how men should live but how men are made alive spiritually.

In Ephesians 2:1-6, the apostle Paul reveals a major detail of why a spiritual birth is necessary:

And You He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.

Twice, Paul says in these six verses that we "were dead"—not physically dead but spiritually dead. An individual cannot conduct his life before he is born, nor can a dead person direct his steps and regulate his life. Clearly, God perceives a person as spiritually dead before he is born again. Being born again thus begins a convert's progress toward his transformation into Christ's image and living in the Kingdom of God for all eternity.

Interestingly, Romans 4:17 states that "God . . . gives life to the dead." Being born again is also likened to a resurrection, but nowhere does the Bible show resurrected people as begotten as a fetus confined to a womb. Rather, Scripture shows the converted as adults freed from spiritual death and at liberty to move about, live life, make choices, and interact with others, putting their new spiritual life to practical use.

Luke 9:60 confirms Paul's declaration in a statement by Jesus that illustrates how God perceives the overwhelming majority of people on earth. Jesus commands the man who said he would follow Him but first wanted to bury his dead father, "Let the dead bury the dead." He obviously means, "Let those yet physically alive but spiritually dead bury one of their spiritually—and now physically—dead companions." Jesus thus confirms that God perceives those not yet truly Christian as spiritually dead and in need of spiritual resurrection to spiritual life.

Psalm 115:17 adds to this: "The dead do not praise the LORD, nor any who go down into silence." Though this statement obviously applies primarily to the physically dead, it also suggests that the spiritually dead cannot praise God with true spirituality. Jesus' teaching on being born again speaks of a new birth, a new beginning from a state of spiritual death imposed on us because of our sins. Thus, a person cannot begin spiritual life and truly praise God as a Christian until he is first born spiritually. Plainly, discerning figurative language is vital to understanding this doctrine.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Born Again or Begotten? (Part One)


 

John 3:6

Some have mistakenly used this verse as proof that an individual is not born again until he is composed of spirit. However, Jesus is not considering a person's bodily composition at all. A Bible student can be misled by abruptly abandoning Jesus' use of spiritual imagery and returning to a literal interpretation. Like the rest of the context, verse 6 must be understood spiritually and figuratively.

The verse states why the new birth is necessary. Flesh can continue to give birth only to what it has always produced: flesh. Yet, Jesus states clearly in John 6:63, "The flesh profits nothing." In John 8:15, He accuses the Jews of judging Him according to the flesh rather than using God's Word—which is Spirit—as their evidence. In both of these cases, Jesus is also speaking figuratively.

In Greek, "flesh" is sarx (Strong's #4561). Jesus and Paul commonly use the term as a metaphor for sinful man's nature, sometimes also described as "carnal." Used in this way, sarx is morally negative, even though by creation a person's flesh is not intrinsically negative. Figuratively, it symbolizes the unregenerate moral and spiritual state of man that almost continuously generates sinful acts. "Flesh," then, represents the inward, carnal inclination rather than muscle, skin, and bones—disposition rather than composition.

Paul writes in Romans 7:18, "I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells," meaning nothing good spiritually. Later, in verse 25, he admits that his "flesh [serves] the law of sin." In Galatians 5:15-17, he positions the Holy Spirit as the opposite of the flesh, declaring that these two are at war:

But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another! I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish.

Biblically, the term "born" or "birth" is used, not only to indicate coming from the womb as in mammalian birth, but also to describe the source or beginning of a thing, an event, or series of events. For example, we speak of the birth of a nation, an institution, or a concept. The "womb" of those births was an event or series of events that triggered the inception of a new direction, manner of life, activity, or thought.

This is how Jesus is using "born" or "birth" in John 3. He is not speaking of the birth of a human child but the birth of a new nature. The events triggering this birth are the calling of God, repentance from sin, justification through faith in Christ's death, and the receipt of God's Holy Spirit. All of these are effects of the acts of the spiritual God.

Conversely, human nature gives birth to more human nature and thus more of human nature's sinful works. It cannot do otherwise. As Job 14:4 says, "Who can bring a clean thing out of any unclean? No one!" Paul makes the same point theologically:

For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:6-8)

The flesh expresses itself, produces, and gives birth to the works of the flesh and thus to immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, and other evils, as Galatians 5:19-21 details. Though the flesh is capable of doing some good things (Matthew 7:11), in relation to God and His way, the evil will always dominate. The natural, fleshly condition of man will always exhibit the same propensities. In contrast, the Holy Spirit gives birth to and is expressed by the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, etc. (Galatians 5:22-23). Therefore, a change must take place from a life dominated by the natural human heart to one motivated by God's Spirit—or a person will never be prepared for the Kingdom of God.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Born Again or Begotten? (Part Two)


 

John 3:8

John 3:8 expands on the sovereign character of God's personal involvement in each person's new birth. At the same time, Christ teaches us that we should judge what has happened in the born-again person's life by what it produces. He illustrates this by saying, "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit."

This is another verse where people jump to a wrong conclusion, concluding that Christ is speaking of a post-resurrection situation. They do this by assuming that a person is not born into the Kingdom of God until the resurrection. At that time, they will indeed be composed of spirit and be invisible like wind. With that as their assumption, they give themselves the "hatpin test," saying, "I can't possibly be born again yet because I'm still human." We must not fall for this line of reasoning, though, because such a thought directly contradicts the exceedingly clear Colossians 1:13, as well as other scriptures. Once again, people who have concluded this have not correctly analyzed another of Jesus' figurative illustrations. The Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35)! There is another answer, a right answer.

Interestingly, the Greek word underlying "wind" is the same as the one underlying "spirit": pneuma. This truth supplies one facet of proper analysis because wind and spirit share a few characteristics: They are both invisible to human sight, and neither can be controlled by humans. In other words, each is sovereign and independent in its actions. The wind does as it pleases. No human can direct where the wind comes from, nor order where it is to go or what it is to do.

However, even though wind is itself invisible, its effects can be seen. In addition, the sound of its movement can be heard, and the changes it produces—such as trees swaying, dust blowing, and clouds passing across the sky—can be seen. In this same manner, the invisible Spirit, by which a person receives spiritual birth and produces spiritual fruit, operates.

Notice in verse 8 that the definite article "the" appears before the word "Spirit." In this case, "Spirit" is not used as a mere general term, but Jesus draws attention to a particular Spiritthe One who causes our spiritual birth, our Father in heaven. He is spirit (John 4:24), and He is holy (I Peter 1:16). Who can order Him about and direct the course of His actions? He does as it pleases Him. His operations are sovereign, and He has power over even the most hardened of sinners.

We can witness the changes that He produces in people by noting that the formerly sinful person is becoming holy; the immoral person is becoming moral; the stubborn, obstinate person is becoming gentle, thoughtful, and helpful. In other words, just as with the wind, we see the effects of an invisible cause. The Father grants regeneration and repentance, and He reveals Himself, bestowing His Spirit and spiritual growth on whomever He will (Romans 9:15-16). He does these things at the times and in the ways that please Him.

The born-again person knows his life has changed and enjoys it, but we do not always grasp how God operates on our hearts to subdue our wills to His. However, if we take up the challenges of God's calling, understanding comes. As Paul says in I Corinthians 2:10: "But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God."

It is small wonder that Nicodemus was perplexed by Jesus' instruction. He apparently had never dreamed of such a personal, intimate, and continuous relationship with the Creator God.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Born Again or Begotten? (Part Three)


 

Colossians 1:18

"Firstborn" is a term that appears quite frequently in Scripture. People most frequently think of it in terms of Jesus. He was Mary's firstborn (Matthew 1:25). He is also referred to as being "the firstborn among many brethren" (Romans 8:29). In Colossians 1:18 and Revelation 1:5, He is called "the firstborn from the dead." These biblical references are then linked in the minds of some with the belief that the resurrection, as described in I Corinthians 15:50-53, is a Christian's birth into the Kingdom of God, despite the fact that Paul never mentions being born in the context of resurrection (in fact, in I Corinthians 15:8, he uses "born" in terms of his calling!). So is this conclusion correct?

The Bible uses the term "firstborn" in a way that some may not realize, and in this way, "firstborn" may not indicate a literal birth at all! Once again, we are dealing with a term that has a spiritual meaning different from its literal one. Clearly, in the earliest parts of the Bible, "firstborn" indicates the eldest son. Within the Hebrew culture, it indicated a position of strength and the son to whom leadership of the family would pass when the father died. Thus, firstborn was a position of distinction and a fair measure of sanctity.

However, as one continues through the Bible, one begins to find that "firstborn" does not always mean that the person so named is literally the first born. Abraham passed on this right to Isaac, not Ishmael, who was the actual firstborn. Jacob was not Isaac's firstborn ("the older shall serve the younger"), but God certainly esteems him above Esau ("Esau I have hated").

Joseph, son of Jacob from Rachel, was not literally Jacob's firstborn. When the true eldest son, Reuben, disqualified himself, the right of firstborn did not automatically pass on to the second born, Simeon. Instead, Jacob passed that title of prominence and its prerogatives on to Joseph (I Chronicles 5:1-2). Surely, God had a hand in this transference. This clearly shows that God Himself does not necessarily follow the traditions of Israelitish culture but awards this prominence to the one prepared for the responsibility.

A great deal of further evidence of the use of the term "firstborn" flows directly from God Himself. Ephraim was not Joseph's firstborn, as Genesis 48:13-22 clearly shows. Jacob gave him that prominent position and title by God's inspiration. God commanded Moses to say to the Pharaoh of Egypt, "Israel is My son, My firstborn" (Exodus 4:22). Many nations were "born" long before Israel, but God gave the title of preeminence, "firstborn," to Israel. Later, in Jeremiah 31:9, God says, "For I am Father to Israel, and Ephraim is My firstborn."

God uses "firstborn" in ways that we are generally unfamiliar with but that are nonetheless consistent with its use elsewhere in both Scripture and secular writings:

» Job 18:13: "It devours patches of his skin; the firstborn of death devours his limbs." Here, Bildad refers to a disease that he describes as powerful and deadly.

» Isaiah 14:30: "The firstborn of the poor will feed, and the needy will lie down in safety." The phrase indicates the poorest of the poor.

» Psalm 89:27: "I will make Him My firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth." This refers first to David, who was not himself a literal firstborn son, but also and more importantly, to Jesus Christ.

In these examples, "firstborn" is being used as a superlative, indicating preeminence, special quality, or significance to God. When it refers to Jesus Christ, it implies a preferential status, priority, dignity, sovereignty, and oneness with God. His relationship with God is unique, of the highest and greatest significance and quality. His relationships to creation, man, and especially to His brethren are also unique.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Born Again or Begotten? (Part Three)


 

 




The Berean: Daily Verse and Comment

The Berean: Daily Verse and Comment

Sign up for the Berean: Daily Verse and Comment, and have Biblical truth delivered to your inbox. This daily newsletter provides a starting point for personal study, and gives valuable insight into the verses that make up the Word of God. See what over 140,000 subscribers are already receiving each day.

Email Address:

   

We respect your privacy. Your email address will not be sold, distributed, rented, or in any way given out to a third party. We have nothing to sell. You may easily unsubscribe at any time.
 A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z
©Copyright 1992-2017 Church of the Great God.   Contact C.G.G. if you have questions or comments.
Share this on FacebookGoogle+RedditEmailPrinter version
Close
E-mail This Page