Tips on Tropes
by Larry White June 27,1990
I’m continually fascinated by the study of the use of figures in the scriptures. I think it a highly profitable exercise for the understanding of God’s word. When you consider that we have a God whose essence and attributes are beyond our experience or even beyond our comprehension then you will also recognize why the language He uses is so rich with figures.
Yet there is an inherent, if not a providential danger in the use of figures, viz., God might not be understood.
Jesus said, “He that has ears to hear, let him hear.” He recognized that some people didn’t have “ears” and they would miss or reject what he said. Others would twist his words like they did later with Paul when he would say things that were a little too deep to “hear”.
In the church today, a lot of debates regarding figurative language centers around whether indeed a figure is being used at all. Whole doctrinal systems can be built around or supported by the interpretation of a figure of speech. So the study of them is important.
The best advice I’ve heard on the subject was from H. Leo Boles in one of his books. He said, “In figurative expressions there is always a literal fact behind the expression to which the figure is pointing.” That is a good thing to keep in mind in order to gain understanding. Many times I have seen people get lost in the figure and teach the figure without ever coming to an understanding of that to which the figure pointed, and therefore missed the truth.
As an example, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life: no man comes unto the Father but by me.” (Jno.14:6)
We could look at this as a figure, as most people do, and say he is the way of truth and the way of life. He’s the way of truth because he reveals the truth to us so that we can know God, he is the way of life because he gives us life and we can live with God forever.
Or we could dig a little deeper in the context and notice that Jesus is answering the question, “how can we know the way?” To which he responds, “I (ego) am the way…” (i.e. the way to the Father)… “the truth and the life:” (i.e. he is the way to the Father, because of the fact that, he is the truth and the life). The “way” is the way to the Father. The way to the Father is “Truth” and “Life”; Jesus is both.
It is the difference between the term “of” and the term “namely”.
He is the WAY of TRUTH and of LIFE (He reveals truth and gives life)
- or -
He is the WAY, namely, the TRUTH and the LIFE. (He is truth and is life)
Jesus is the brightness of God’s glory and the express image of his person. If you could see God shining in all his glory, what you would be seeing is Jesus. He is the truth because he is the manifestation of God.
But I thought Jesus said, “Thy word is truth.” Well, what was in the beginning, which was with God and was God? (Jno.1:1) The word – which became flesh and was named Jesus. Jesus is literally the truth because he is himself the revelation of God’s mind and being, who is the foundation of reality.
Therefore Jesus is literally “the truth.”
Jesus does give life – but he is also the only source of life for anything that is living. You can see this in the fact that he is the creator – everything was made by him and for him and he holds everything together. You can see it in Paul’s statement in Col.3:4 that he is “our life.”
Therefore, Jesus is literally “the life.”
“I am the way, the truth and the life:” In literature these are metaphors but in the spirit they are facts. Keep Bro. Boles’ suggestion in mind when you are dealing with figurative language, especially as it relates to the being of God, and what he is able to do. Look for the literal fact behind the figurative expression.
The denominations tell us that immersion is a figure. A figure that we died to sin and are alive to God living a new life – and that’s all it is. But we look at the literal fact behind the figure and we have faith in that fact. That fact is the “operation” or working of God in immersion. In baptism he forgives us all our sins and he makes us alive along with Jesus to share his life and glory. (Col.2:12-13) Certainly, immersion is a figure – you’ll do well to find and have faith in the literal fact to which the figure points.