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Symbolism in Jesus’ Teachings

People often ask questions which are related to problems with symbolism.  Symbolism is an area where a lot of people get puzzled or go astray, so I'll explain my approach to understanding it.


Interpret Jesus' teachings literally wherever possible

I always try to interpret Jesus' teachings literally, unless:

  1. The record tells us that it is symbolic, ie it is phrased as a simile (“It will be like a man going on a journey…”) or as a parable (“He also told them this parable…”). Then we know for sure that we need to interpret it symbolically, not literally.  Therefore, I don’t think that the parable of the lost sheep (Lk 15:3-6) was primarily about farming, nor do I think that the parable of the talents (Mt 25:14-30) was about making money.  Or:
  2. It is absolutely impossible to understand it and apply it physically.  
    Eg eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood (Jn 6) might have been physically possible in Jesus’ time, but none of his disciples did it, and it’s definitely impossible for us now, so we have to consider a symbolic interpretation instead.

Some people are inclined to interpret Jesus’ teachings symbolically even when there is a perfectly good literal meaning to what he said and there is no reason, need or support for interpreting it symbolically.  For example, there is a Christian group who believe that "evil spirit" in the gospels is just a turn of phrase for mental illness, and there are no such things as demons or evil spirits.  But "evil spirit" can and should be taken literally to mean a spirit which is evil, and Jesus makes far more sense with this understanding (eg Mk 5, Mt 12:43-45). Sometimes, symbolic reinterpretation is actually a cover for not wanting to believing what Jesus said.

If we claim that a spade is not a spade, but it’s really a symbol for whatever reinterpretation we care to pluck out of the air, then we can make Jesus’ teachings mean virtually whatever we wish, and they lose their true meaning.


Jesus' plain-language teachings are most important

Jesus' plain-language teachings (including the parables he explained) are more clear and certain than his unexplained parables.  Therefore we need to begin our study of any topic with his plain-language teachings, and then we can see how the parables might fit in around these.  The parables illustrate principles which are stated in plain language elsewhere;  they are secondary and supplementary.  If we don't have a good understanding of his plain-language teachings and just focus on an isolated parable, the risk of misunderstanding is high.  

For example, we know that Jesus' teachings on money were all about giving up everything, selling our possessions and giving to the poor, not saving up money on earth, and not serving Money. When we come to the parable of the talents (Mt 25:14-30), we might be tempted to think it's all about making lots of money -- but that can't be so, because that would go against all Jesus' plain-language teachings on money.  Instead, we read of a master entrusting something (money in the parable) to his servants before going on a long journey, and then judging them upon his return regarding how they handled that something.  It's in the context of Jesus' departure and much later return and judgment, so it's fairly obvious that the master is Jesus, and the servants are people like the disciples and us.  What did Jesus actually entrust to his disciples at his departure?  It certainly wasn't money.  He left them his teachings, an assignment, and the Holy Spirit.  And on what basis did Jesus say he will judge people on his return?  Certainly not on whether they've made a lot of money.  He said he'd judge people on whether they kept or rejected his teachings (Jn 12:47-50) and did what the Father wanted them to do (Mt 7:21-23).  So these must be the "talents":  his teachings and the Holy Spirit, not money.

For another example, we know that Jesus taught that whether a person will enter into the kingdom of heaven depends upon their righteous actions (eg Mt 25:31-46).  When we come to the symbolic phrase "born of the Spirit" which is necessary for entering the Kingdom of God (Jn 3:8), it is tempting to think this means saying a prayer inviting Jesus into my life, because many evangelical churches teach this.   However, this is unlikely to be so because it doesn't involve the righteous actions which Jesus taught were essential;  and he specifically said that calling him Lord (Mt 7:21) and having a personal relationship with him (Lk 13:22-30) was not sufficient to enter the Kingdom.  It is much more likely that "born of the Spirit" corresponds to the baptism of the Holy Spirit as occurred at Pentecost, which occurred in disciples who were well and truly following Jesus' teachings, not in those who'd just decided they'd like to begin.

Thus, all we really need to know is contained in Jesus' plain-language teachings.  Even if we couldn't interpret a single symbol in his parables, it wouldn't matter all that much.


The message of a parable may not require us to decode its symbols

Often, all we need to grasp is the main principle or concept.  For example, in the parable of the lost coin (Lk 15:8-10), the main point is that God cares deeply for any sinful person and will go to great lengths to "find" them and persuade them to repent (like a woman carefully searching for a lost silver coin).  We don't need to ask, "Why ten coins?  What does "lighting a lamp" represent? What does "sweeping" signify?" 

Sometimes, all we need to understand from a parable is given by Jesus' concluding comments in that parable. So, even if we couldn't decipher a single symbol in a parable, like that of the wise manager (Luke 16), we still know the bottom line messages because Jesus spelled them out after the parable (use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves so that when it is gone you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings;  and no one can serve both God and Money).


Deciphering symbolism

If a symbolic interpretation is necessary, then I look for the key to decode it in specific places:

  1. I look at Jesus’ own explanation of the parable or teaching he has just given.  He often gave the key to the symbol he had just used.  Eg he explained the parable of the sower (Mt 13:18-23) and the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Mt 13:36-43) to his disciples, and there is no need to guess or invent additional "meanings".
  2. Jesus’ concluding comments may give a clue as to what the symbol meant, even if they don't explicitly state the key.  Eg in the parable of the wise manager (Lk 16), Jesus didn’t state who the manager’s master represented, but at the end he concluded that a person cannot serve two masters, and specifically that a person cannot serve both God and Money (Greek mamonas, Old English Mammon).  This gives us a strong clue, because the parable is all about the wisdom of leaving a certain master;  and so it is likely that the master of the manager in the parable represented Money or Mammon, ie working for and trusting in money and possessions.

If no explanation was given at that time, I need to look further afield for the "decode".  However, if this becomes necessary, I must realise that I cannot be certain that Jesus intended the decode from elsewhere to be applied to this particular instance.  I should therefore always preface it with "probably" or "possibly" -- not "it is";  and I can't base any important conclusions solely on the meaning I would then like to give to the parable.

Numerous false doctrines among the churches are based on symbolic decodes plucked from outside the passage itself.  It is one of the most "effective" ways of distorting Jesus' teachings.

Nevertheless, having raised those cautions, the places further afield where I look next for a decode are:

  1. I look for clues in the immediate context, because often Jesus spoke on a theme which he developed or carried through several sentences.  For example, what does "You are  the salt of the earth" mean (Mt 5:13)?  Just before, Jesus talked about the disciples being persecuted for following Jesus and doing good (righteousness), and that this would gain them a great reward in heaven.  Just after, Jesus talked about the disciples being like a city on a hill which can't be hidden, or like a lamp which should be put on a bowl where everyone can see it, and concluded, "In the same way, let your light shine before men, so they can see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." The theme is that the disciples would be unavoidably noticeable and stand out.  Although this would attract some persecution, their pains would be amply rewarded, and it was essential that they still "let their light shine" so that others (who were more appreciative) could see their good deeds.  In this context, salt is also something which is very noticeable and stands out from other foodstuffs.  This is the way salt is supposed to be, and if it isn't that way, it's useless and fit only to be thrown out.  The property of salt which is significant to this analogy is already described by the context;  and there is no need to speculate about salt's other properties like its ability to preserve food, or its ability to make other foods palatable, none of which make much sense.
  2. I look to see if Jesus gave a key for this same symbol on other occasions.  For example, Jesus did not fully explain the parable of the ten virgins (Mt 25:1-13);  what did the lamps and oil represent?  On two other occasions Jesus used the symbol of a lamp—and did explain it.  In Mt 5:14-16 he likened a lighted lamp to “your good deeds”.  In Lk 11:33-36 he likened a lighted lamp to a person’s eye and implied that it had to do with a person’s right perception.  This gives us three decode options for the lighted lamps in the ten virgins parable:  (a) good deeds;  (b) right and true perception;  or (c) something else.  Which one applies?  The parable of the ten virgins is about Jesus' return, and Jesus immediately went on to talk about how he would judge people upon his return according to their righteous actions (Mt 25:31-46) -- ie good deeds.  This makes it most likely that the lighted lamps in the parable of the ten virgins were also referring to keeping on doing good deeds until the time of his return.   
    However, since the same token is often used to symbolise different things in different contexts, we cannot be dogmatic about which one of them (if any) applies in another setting.  For example, water was used as a symbol for both repentance (Mt 3:11) and the Holy Spirit (Jn 7:38), and was used in baptism (Mt 3:11).  When Jesus talked about "born of water and the Spirit" (Jn 3:5), does the "water" refer to repentance, the Holy Spirit, water baptism -- or something else, like natural physical birth as the following verse hints at?  The passage doesn't say, so all of these possibilities must be kept in mind;  and we need to be wary of preachers who insist, "It can only mean water baptism".
  3. If there is no key in Jesus’ teachings, I look even further afield, to the writings Jesus quoted from and was familiar with:  the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets.  Eg who did Jesus mean by “the chosen ones” (Mt 24:22)?  In the Psalms and Prophets, God sometimes referred to Israel and the Israelites as his chosen ones (eg Ps 105:6, Ps 135:4, Is 41:8, Is 45:4).  It is therefore likely that “the chosen ones” of Mt 24:22 also refers to the Israelites, and this fits the context well.
  4. Failing all of the above, we can look to the Holy Spirit for insight.  The risk with this is, of course, that different people can come up with very different “insights”—some divine, and some just random.


These principles are applied in several of the FAQs, such as the ones on eating Jesus' flesh and on the parable of the wise manager.

Having said all this, I would encourage people to concentrate on Jesus' plain-language teachings and the parables he did explain, and not get bogged down speculating on some of the less clear parables.  As someone once famously said, "It's not the parts of the bible I don't understand that worry me;  it's the parts I do understand which worry me."  There's plenty to be going on with in the parts of Jesus' teachings which are easy to understand!