The Power of Spotting Metaphors in Your Bible Study

You’re reading along in Philippians and your eyes traverse Paul’s famous phrase, “our citizenship is in heaven.” Your job, Bible student or teacher, is to understand this metaphor well enough to explain it to others. But at first, it may not feel like a metaphor. It’s so commonplace among Christians that Paul’s fresh imagery may have been covered with a patina of familiarity—a familiarity which has bred, not contempt, but mental dullness.

That’s why it’s so helpful that Logos has now tagged all the metaphors in the New Testament through our newly complete Figurative Language dataset.

Catch that: you can now search metaphors. And that’s a good thing, because language is metaphorical all the way down.

There, that was a metaphor.

The power of metaphor

To say language is deeply metaphorical is not to say that it is incapable of referring to the real world or of conveying truth, only that we very often understand things in terms of other things. “Understanding” itself often means “placing something into its proper context, giving it its proper set of relationships to other things.” Christian thinker and writer Alan Jacobs says, “We always and inevitably strive to understand one thing in relation to another thing that we already know.

Vern Poythress suggests that because “in our modern context many people are heavily influenced by the prestige of science and its achievements…. they may begin to think that only precise, literal, scientific description of speech are of value.” Figurative language, he says, is then “seen as mere adornment, or even as false to the nature of reality.” But Poythress doesn’t see it that way. “God has built the world so that analogies and possibilities for metaphor abound. Scientific analysis offers only one perspective out of many.” (177)

It is part of our nature to understand through metaphor, because we are made in the image of a God who made it a necessary constituent of language—and who frequently uses it himself. He calls believers “sheep,” “salt,” “light,” “living stones.” He calls himself a “Rock,” a “Shepherd,” a “High Tower.” He, a Father, calls his Son “the Word.”

The new Figurative Language Dataset

To be able to search for the elements of a metaphor—this is a major new way of searching the Bible. As I keep saying—and my face is not quite yet blue, so I’ll keep saying it—Logos can search for meaning, not just for form (though it can of course do the latter, and powerfully). Let’s look at three example insights you can get into the New Testament by using our new Figurative Language Dataset.

But first, a tip. Make a visual filter to highlight this new dataset so that you actually think to use it. Just make a new filter (Documents > Visual Filter) and turn figurative language text blue:

You’ll be able to see all the text in the New Testament that is tagged as figurative language.

1. Citizens of heaven

This way you won’t read right past “our citizenship is in heaven” without noticing it’s a metaphor. The visual filter pushes this phrase up out of the text so you can more readily pay attention to it.

What are the constituent elements of this metaphor? “Heaven” is actually something of a metonymy for “God”—a related idea is stated instead of the thing itself. But you couldn’t say “citizen of God.” No, “citizen of heaven” conceptualizes God’s dwelling place as a country.

And that’s what you see when you right click on the word “heaven.” At the bottom of the resulting context menu are all the tags (from all the datasets you own) that apply to this particular part of the New Testament. And on this word there is a tag from the Figurative Language dataset: “Country as Heaven.”

Only countries have citizens. This phrase in Paul, then, is metaphorical, because heaven doesn’t provide all of the accoutrements of modern or ancient citizenship. No paper documents (at least none that we have access to), no passports, no customs officials, no state department, no obtaining the citizenship by the payment of money (Acts 22:28). Before I did some digging in Bible dictionaries, I wasn’t sure what “citizenship” entailed to the Philippians. Metaphors by nature have some openness, even some ambiguity, to them. I’d posit, given the whole context of NT theology in which Paul writes, that the parallels he’s drawing include an organized kingdom with leadership, membership in that kingdom, various unnamed responsibilities and privileges which go along with that membership, and (I think) an already/not-yet eschatology not far different from Augustine’s two cities concept.

The great thing about a rich metaphor like this one is that Paul doesn’t have to specify all those associations; they kind of come in a package. Neither, however, does he get to specify in detail which details belong and which don’t. Language, even God’s language, does not have to be exhaustively precise to communicate truth. So I wouldn’t go to the mat with people who would expand or retract my list (such as the author of the Lexham Bible Dictionary article on citizenship who suggested that the cultus of a city-state was part of the citizenship concept; that’s an interesting idea worth further exploration). I’m just thankful that Logos tagging raised this phrase to my attention and forced me to grapple with what it was communicating.

The upshot: in Philippians 3:20, Paul is telling the Philippians that they do not fully belong in this cosmos, because their real and ultimate belonging is “elsewhen.” By flagging this as a metaphor, Logos helped me dig into Paul’s meaning.

2. The Lord is near

Now let me give a quicker example, or actually a pair of them in one phrase:

Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand. (Phil 4:5)

That last clause is interesting. “The Lord” is tagged as a metaphor—not because a title for human masters (“lord”) is being used to describe him, but because “the Lord” here is being used metonymically to refer to the Lord’s return.

That’s why “at hand” is tagged as “Time as Object.” But note something: the “hand” here is not the object. The Greek doesn’t have the word “hand”; the ESV is being mildly functional rather than essentially literal. The Greek word is ἐγγυς (engus), most commonly glossed “near.”* But Paul isn’t saying Jesus is physically near; he’s using physical nearness as a metaphor for the imminence of Christ’s return. (Language is so cool.)

If good Bible reading means training yourself to slow down and notice and then label or describe meaning that is otherwise merely intuitive, the Figurative Language Dataset just helped you do it twice in one phrase.

3. Don’t let sin rule

All of the tags in Logos are searchable. There are eleven passages, for example, in which time is viewed as an object (including “time is short” in Rev 12:12 and “time is near” in Rev 1:3). Let me show you one more example of something you can search for using the Figurative Language dataset, this one coming from Romans 6:

There’s a lot of blue here in Romans 6, a lot of metaphorical speech. And “sin,” if you click on it, is tagged in the Figurative Language Dataset like this: “Ruler as Sin.” Search the whole NT for “Ruler as Sin” by right clicking on “sin” and searching the Bible for other instances of that meatphor.

In the same way, you can search for 1) all the passages in which any NT concept is personified, 2) all places where the concept of ruler is used as a metaphor, or 3) any time sin is pictured metaphorically.

(Run a Passage Guide on Romans 6:12 and it will now show you all the Figurative Language tagging, too.)

Blue faces

My face is indeed starting to get blue, because I’ve got to say this again: how cool is it that you can search the Bible for metaphors! How cool is it that a fairly subtle visual filter (make it as subtle as you want using any highlighting style you want) can mark metaphors! The Figurative Language dataset, now covering the whole New Testament, provides another useful lens on the text of Scripture, helping you see what is truly there instead of reading past it.

*When English translations include metaphors that are not in the Greek, they are not tagged. It is the Greek which is tagged in the Figurative Language dataset.

Written by
Mark Ward

Mark Ward (PhD, Bob Jones University) is an editor in the book division at Crossway. He is the author of several books and textbooks including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption (BJU Press, 2016), Basics for a Biblical Worldview (BJU Press, 2021), and Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (Lexham Press, 2018). He is an active YouTuber.

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Written by Mark Ward
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