Jesus and Metaphor

Most people seem to assume that a metaphor is simply a clever form of expression, a fancy dress for a naked truth. When confronted with a metaphoric expression, they simply strip off the clothes in order to see the concrete, literal truth.

If anyone makes too big a fuss about the metaphor itself, he is rebutted with the unanswerable, “But it’s just a metaphor!” This phrase really means, “The metaphor is unimportant; what really matters is the literal meaning underneath all the frippery.”

But is this really true? Is metaphor just a frilly waste of time that obscures the truth? Or is metaphor something more?

The answer to this question is rather important since human expression depends so heavily on metaphoric and figurative expressions. Most significantly, the primary way that Jesus explains his purpose and ministry is through metaphor.

For instance, in John 6 Jesus goes out of His way to declare Himself the Bread of Life–and to make clear that this is not just a figure of speech, not “just a metaphor.” He says in 6:35 that He is the True Manna, the “bread that came down from heaven” (6:41). But Jesus is a person, the Son incarnate in humanity–so in what way is He also bread? If we can answer this question, then we will learn something essential about metaphor.

More Bread than Bread

From the context of John 6, we can certainly conclude that Jesus is not simply drawing an analogy between manna and Himself–He is not merely saying that both He and manna came from heaven and so they are similar. Finding such analogies is the most basic function of metaphor, but in the way that a stove’s basic function is to boil water. If we stop exploring the capacities of our oven when the water is hot, we will woefully misunderstand and misuse our stoves. So it is with metaphor.

Jesus is obviously claiming a more intimate link between Himself and the bread from heaven. He claims that in some way, He really is bread, as well as a human being: “My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink” (6:55). In no uncertain terms, Jesus declares that He is not speaking in “just metaphors”; He is not finding clever similarities. Rather, He is making a bold declaration about who He really is, about His purpose and being.

The real shock comes not when Jesus says that He is bread, but when He says that He is a better kind of bread than the manna that fed the Israelites: “[My flesh] is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever” (6:58). Bread is really bread, but Jesus is even “breadier.”

The audience understands that Jesus is making this very claim. Their frustration at this “hard saying” (6:60) comes from the cannibalistic ultimatums that Jesus makes: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (6:53). These confused disciples fall away because Jesus demands that they eat human flesh and blood. Not one of those who hear Jesus brush off the difficulty of his teaching by declaring it “just a metaphor.” Instead, many of them cease to follow Jesus from that day.

The Loaf Glorifies

In John 6 Jesus teaches us the true purpose of metaphor: to reveal deep truths that cannot be expressed in straight, literal prose. Metaphor unveils the hidden heart of reality to our dim eyes. Literal expository language will exhaust itself before the fullness of human knowledge can be expressed. When literal speech fails us, we turn to metaphor–so we may express higher truths, not lesser.

But this is only one lesson we learn about metaphor from John 6. The second lesson has to do with transfiguration: not only does metaphor take us to the heart of reality, it also transfigures the objects it uses.

Consider Jesus’ metaphor. When He compares Himself to a loaf of bread, He uses a common, everyday object to open our eyes to who He truly is, to what He really is. The simple, round loaf transfigures Jesus from a dusty teacher with no credentials to the Real Food, the Real Staff of Life. Through metaphor, humble bread lifts the veil from our eyes, helping us see the world a little bit more as God sees it.

The Glorified Loaf

It is vital that we realize that the bread is glorified through this process as well. Though still a common object, bread now forever testifies though its very breadiness–through its very existence–to the Real Food and Drink of Jesus Christ. Bread transfigures Jesus, and in turn Jesus glorifies bread. This is how metaphor works, two objects mutually glorifying each other. And this is how the Trinity works as well, each Person giving glory and honor to the others out of sacrificial, other-focused love (John 13:31-32).

Jesus’ metaphor points us to the Lord’s Supper. At that Table, we really do eat Christ’s flesh and drink His blood, in some tangible, material way. If the Bread and Wine are “just a metaphor”–that is, merely a clever turn of phrase–then they could not be the source of eternal life, as Jesus declares them to be (John 6:58). If we are to have eternal life, we must eat this Flesh and drink this Blood, or else we “have no life in [us]” (John 6:53).

We eat the flesh and blood of Christ in order to become like Him. And having eaten and drunk, we also become like the bread and wine–we become metaphors that reveal the true nature of Christ to those around us. As Christians, we also must transfigure Jesus with our humble, common lives–with our loaf-lives. Through humble faith and fierce, sacrificial love, we testify to the True Bread of Life who gave Himself for the world.

“Unless you change and become like little loaves, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of a loaf of bread is the greatest in the kingdom” (cf. Matt. 18:3-5).