Bible · Christianity · God

Should I take that Bible passage literally or figuratively?

These days it’s not uncommon to hear certain people in Christian circles claim that Bible stories are not literal occurrences but are just symbolic to teach us moral lessons. Others claim the Bible is made up of literal historical occurrences that should not be seen as symbolic even though we as Christians can learn from them.

We may believe that one scenario or the other has to be true, but given how Christ and his apostles handled scripture, I believe the stories recorded in the Bible were things that really happened–from God creating the universe in seven literal days to Moses leading Israel out of Egypt to Christ and his miracles to how the gospel was spread to form the New Testament church. Yet in the midst of those literal occurrences, I believe those literal events can be used symbolically to teach us real spiritual truths.

The following are several examples of what I mean (not in chronological order as they appear in scripture):

Melchizedek

In Genesis 14, Melchizedek was a literal priest of Jehovah and a king who reigned in Salem, the future Jerusalem. He also literally blessed Abraham. In Hebrews 7, we are told by Paul the literal Melchizedek was symbolic of Jesus Christ in not only his name (Melchizedek means “king of righteousness”) but also in the place he lived since Salem means “peace” and he was, therefore, king of peace. No birthdate or death date was given for Melchizedek, which was symbolic of Christ’s eternal priesthood, according the Hebrews 7.

Abraham’s two sons

Genesis tells us the literal Abraham literally had two sons at odds with each other. Each son was literally under a different covenant from God, but Isaac was the true heir. In Galatians 4:21-31, Paul teaches that the two literal sons and their two literal mothers are an allegory, a symbol. Hagar and Ishmael represented the temporary, earthly Mosaic law (Old Testament) while Sarah and Isaac represent the eternal, heavenly New Testament for God’s true heirs.

The tabernacle

Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers tell us about the literal construction of the tabernacle and the procedures surrounding its use. Paul in Hebrews 9 explains how those literal things figuratively foreshadowed the ushering in of the New Testament through the Lord Jesus and the weaknesses of the Old Testament.

Noah’s Ark

Genesis 6-8 is about the literal ark built by the literal Noah and his literal sons and the literal flood that covered the whole planet as Noah, his three sons, and all their wives survived on the ark. Peter explains in 1 Peter 3: 20-21 that Noah’s Ark and the flood were symbolic of salvation and Christ’s baptism by Jesus Christ’s literal resurrection. Peter specifically noted here that baptism does not cleanse us of sin, but is simply symbolic of having a good conscience toward God.

The rock that gave Israelites water in the desert

Exodus 17:6 gives us the account of the literal rock at Horeb that God literally told Moses to strike to supply the Israelites with literal water. 1 Corinthians 10:4 metaphorically says the rock was Christ and the water is metaphorically the spiritual drink he gives us.

All in all, the literal true stories God has given us in his word are so rich in symbolism, it will probably take until Christ’s return to understand their depth.

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