Scriptural Metaphor and the true glory of God

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A lot of the scripture uses metaphors, especially when it describes Christ’s work in the gospel, or God’s judgement. There is a common use of poetic simile to put across a point strongly and vividly. The Hebrew reader of both the Old and New Testaments was used to these metaphors. If we take these metaphors literally, we misconstrue the scripture and also the image of God.

Christ’s coming in the gospel is likened to both a lamb and a lion. How can he be both? The lion overcomes his enemies, the lamb shows us how he does this, by using peace. These are not metaphors describing different parts of Christ’s work, but describing the same thing: Christ’s victorious cross.

Isaiah depicts Christ putting on his armour, to come to battle on the behalf of Israel. This was describing the coming incarnation of Yahweh in the Messiah. The armour speaks of the intensity and certain victory of God’s purpose. But it is metaphor. The way God did battle was through a baby born in a manger: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice.” He achieves justice without violence, but with faithfulness, which is his covenant-keeping sufferings.

Paul used similar metaphors to describe Christ’s unexpected means of conquest. In Colossians, Paul said that when Christ was stripped naked on the cross, he triumphed over the powers of the world. There is hardly a more beautiful text in the scripture. Stripping the Son of God bare on the cross revealed our own nakedness before the world. Our nakedness of injustice, our nakedness of unrighteousness was exposed publicly. In doing this, in humbling himself to the cross, God was able to achieve his saving purpose. His victory, Paul likened to the triumphant procession of a Roman Emperor after a brutal battle. The humility of God was his total triumph over our sin.

You can see how useless it is to use these metaphors to excuse our own wrath against the enemy. They describe the opposite, the humility of God in the face of his enemy. And this humility delivers God a crushing victory.

This is the complete paradox of the gospel and this is what renews our life and our world. Seeing God in this way, as the servant, not as “the punisher in chief,” changes our profile towards our enemy in the world. It makes us servants in order to overcome evil. This takes violence out of our hands, and one day, out of the world.

These metaphors are all through scripture. He will rule with a rod of iron, tread upon his enemies, break them in pieces, grind them to powder, scatter them as dust. All these metaphors depict the true power of God, in a way we never thought of God, in weakness. The symbols depict the conquest of this weakness, in contrast to our human cultures that worship strength. The symbols were fulfilled by the opposite action. In was in being rejected that the stone became the head. In was in becoming a victim that he crushed our oppression of one another.

We often hear people say things like, “Christ came in his first coming as a lamb, but he is coming the second time in glory.” I guess they are referring to images like those in Revelation, like the Son of Man coming on a shining horse, with a sword coming out of his mouth, and hair that glows like wool. Or images in Thessalonians of Christ coming on the clouds of glory with fiery vengeance.

These images are also metaphors. God’s glory refers to his rule. He rules on behalf of the poor: “For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.” (Psalm 72:12-14)

In the book of Revelation, he comes to save the persecuted. But he doesn’t do this in violence. He does it by his cross renewing our hearts, so we turn to each other in love and service. The judgement side of his glory is a warning to those who refuse his peace and care for others. They will be consumed by their own hardness of heart. The violence and destruction will come from themselves. These metaphors have their origin in many Old Testament passages, like this one from Psalm 18:

“Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it. He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet. He mounted the cherubim and flew; he soared on the wings of the wind. He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him, the dark rain clouds of the sky. Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced, with hailstones and bolts of lightning. The Lord thundered from heaven; the voice of the Highest resounded. He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy, with great bolts of lightning he routed them. The valleys of the sea were exposed, and the foundations of the earth laid bare at your rebuke, Lord, at the blast of breath from your nostrils.”

None of this is literal language. None of it is violence that comes from God. It is all human violence, where people destroy each other in their own greed. This is the fiery judgment that Thessalonians and the book of Revelation spoke of: the Jewish rebellion leading up to AD 70 and the Roman burning of Jerusalem that followed. None of it was God’s violence and none of these metaphors are calling God’s followers to be violent. Rather they tell us the opposite: if we follow cruelty against the weak, our hardened hearts will bring that violence back upon us.

These metaphors speak of a new people who follow God’s restorative rather than punitive justice. Those who don’t seek to restore the fallen, like God did for us, end up eating themselves up in self-made retribution, the fruit of a tit-for-tat world. The retribution is depicted in metaphor as coming from God, because God’s judgement eventually allows communities that refuse to restore others to make way for communities that serve the weak. These metaphors need to be read in their proper context, a God of love restoring an evil world. If not, you end up with two Jesus’s.

We see Jesus shining in gold and white when he appeared to John on the isle of Patmos. The intention of this is to express God’s glory in metaphor. Where do we see God’s glory? On the cross. This is where we see the image and likeness of God. When Jesus was about to die, he prayed, “Father, glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.” The means to make your true nature plain before the world. The cross reveals the glory of the true God, to one who humbles himself to serve and deliver others, including his enemies.

It isn’t that there are two Christs, one who dies for others, and another who shines in glory. It isn’t that we can leave the first Christ behind and somehow follow the other. The image of the second is the scripture’s description of the first. The glory the shining picture represents is God’s self-giving love, in contrast to the world’s self-absorption: God’s humility contrasted with the world’s egocentricity. This is his glory, not his clothes, not his gold and shining light. The light is his character. We don’t follow “the glory,” we follow the character. That is the true glory.

We speak about the glory of Christ in his resurrection as compared to his sufferings. “If we join him in the fellowship of his sufferings, we will reign with him in the glory of his resurrection.” We think of God’s city with its golden streets. The glory of his resurrection is a world, a new creation, in which neighbourliness reigns. It’s a world in which God’s self-giving nature fills all. The glory of God is his neighbourly love. This is the glory that shall cover the earth. God isn’t interested in the gold, he is interested in the reality these images depict: a world of genuine relationships, in which we all live for each other and not for ourselves.