Figurative Speech: “The Kingdom Is Like …”

by Robert Turner
Plain Talk, vol. 13, no. 10, pp. 4-5--December 1976

Is the church (God's people) the "body of Christ" (Ephesians 1:23); or is it like (in some respects) a "body," and since He is "head over" these people, therefore like the body of Christ? Are we literally His hands, feet, etc? Or are we figuratively His body? To ask such questions is to answer them in any sane mind. Yet, many seem reluctant to apply common sense reasoning to Bible figurative language.

The most common and effective way to teach an unknown is to compare it to something known. The common simile says this is like that. "His remark was like a knife" — it cut. figuratively; or, it had a point, or, it was mounted on a handle. The exact use is left to the user and is usually indicated in the context. When the comparison is made to an event or happening this is called a parable, or a fable (depending on the type of "story" told as an illustration). In some figures of speech the "like" is omitted ("tell that fox" Luke 13:32) or is a deliberate exaggeration (running "like lightening"; but all convey a message limited by context and intent. Metaphorical language is so common it is practically inseparable from communication. We use it all the time, and I just finished using it. ("All" the time? Or just much of the time?)

One need not know the names or the technical descriptions of figures in order to properly use and interpret them. It doesn't take a genius to know we do not drink a container; or that Jesus, holding bread in his hand as he spoke, did not mean "this is (literally) my body" (I Corinthians 11:23ff). The bread and fruit of the vine symbolize or represent the body and blood of Christ. But symbolism, a form of figurative language, is also subject to the limitations placed upon it by the author. We have no right to alter the elements of symbolism established by the Lord and the Holy Spirit, or to place significance upon circumstances or details which were given no significance by divine authority.

Some figures seem to invite unauthorized extension more than others. The "kingdom" figure is much abused by the repetition of the Jewish materialistic concept. Some expect Christ to sit on the literal chair of David, ruling over a "this world" realm. His teaching concerning the nature of His kingdom (Mark 12:23-23; Luke 17:20-21; John 18:36-37) and the many references to its present existence (Acts 2:30-33; Colossians 1:13) seem to make no impression. And the "child of God" figure is extended to teach a right of fellowship for the unborn "child," or that once one is a "child" he forever remains in God's family Because a literal child so remains, or a literal king has a gold throne, many do not hesitate to assert these things of the figures. Did King Herod have a bushy tail?

The same illustrative material may be used in more than one figure and with different meanings. We become a child of God by "birth" (or adoption) but the "child" figure may also be used to emphasize the necessity for displaying characteristics of our heavenly Father (John 8:38-47; Matthew 5:43-45). In every case, the author determines the use of his figure, and we must be content to make only the application authorized by context.

The people of God are those who hear, believe, and obey the call of the gospel of Christ (II Thessalonians 2:14; Acts 2:37-41). Generally speaking, we are either in darkness (in sin, unacceptable unto God), or we are in the light (in truth, acceptable). Those who are acceptable unto God are described or designated by a multitude of figures, each emphasizing some particular characteristic of the saints. God's people are like workers in His vineyard, like soldiers in His witty, like sheep in His flock. Those are not different relationships — they are applied to the same people. When one becomes a branch upon Christ, the vine he also becomes a lively stone, built upon Christ, the foundation. He enters one acceptable relationship, variously described by these figures.

Each figure has its own language or terminology. One is built upon the foundation when God's people are likened to a building, but he is born, when God's people are likened to a family. It would be a mixing of figures to say one was born into a vine, or enlisted in a flock, or built into a family. If "born of God" is a mystical, "better-felt-than-told" process, then so is that of becoming a worker in the Lord's vineyard, or a runner in the Christian race.

In each of these figures, Christ is put in the most prominent position. He is the King in the kingdom, the Shepherd of the flock, the elder brother in the family, and the head of the body. His position is not simply an honorary one, but its importance is established by its function. As head of the body, He directs its activities; as King, He rules all who will be subject to Him, who therefore make up his kingdom. He is the vine that gives life to each branch, and without whom there can be no fruit. He protects the sheep and directs and pays the laborers. Christ is the foundation upon which each building block depends.

It is also important to note that in every figure the unit is an individual. "If a man abide not ... he is cast forth as a branch." Members of the body are saints, not congregations. The family of God is a "brotherhood," not a "churchhood." His kingdom is made up of citizens, not of "communities" (as Campbell thought). This is a vital point. It establishes the direct relationship of saints to Christ. Our primary obligation is to be faithful to Christ, not to the church. The true church is not the object of our faith, but the result of faithfulness to Christ. It is the duty of each saint to maintain faithfulness, and a faithful church will be the result of such fidelity.

Most figures have a central theme and are given to teach a single point. When God's people are likened unto a kingdom, "rule" is the theme — God rules, through Christ, in the hearts of His people. But we may be told, "The kingdom is like.." a treasure — in value; or leaven — the way it is spread; or mustard seed — which from a small start produces big things. We should never make more of the figure than is obvious in its context. Finally, no figure teaches a permanent relation. Our position in each is subject to our remaining faithful.

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