Reasons & Uses for Symbolism in the Early Church

Gospel of Matthew

(13:34) Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.

Gospel of Mark

(4:33-34) With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.

Gospel of Luke

(8:9-10) His disciples asked him what this parable meant. He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, 
 ” ‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.’

Gospel of John

(16:25) “Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father.


(6) For at no other time have the Egyptians ceased from their false worship save when the Lord of all, riding as on a cloud, came down here in the body and brought the error of idols to nothing and won over everybody to Himself and through Himself to the Father.  He it is Who was crucified with the sun and moon as witnesses.


(4) What, then, mean milk and honey?  This, that as the infant is kept alive first by honey, and then by milk, so also we, being quickened and kept alive by the faith of promise and by the word, shall live ruling over the earth.

John Brown

(1)  ” ‘Heaven and earth passing,’ understood literally, is the dissolution of the present system of the universe, and the period when that is to take place, is called the ‘end of the world.’ But a person at all familiar with the phraseology of the Old Testament Scriptures, knows that the dissolution of the Mosaic economy, and the establishment of the Christian, is often spoken of as the removing of the old earth and heavens, and the creation of a new earth and new heavens”

(1) The period of the close of the one dispensation and the commencement of the other, is spoken of as “the last days,” and “the end of the world,” and is described as such a shaking of the earth and heavens, as should lead to the removal of the things which were shaken

(1) It appears, then, that is Scripture be the best interpreter of Scripture, we have in the Old Testament a key to the interpretation of the prophecies in the New. The same symbolism is found in both, and the imagery of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and the other prophets helps us to understand the imagery of St. Matthew, St. Peter, and St. John. As the dissolution of the material world is not necessary to the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, neither is it necessary to the accomplishment of the predictions of the New Testament. But though symbols are metaphorical expressions, they are not unmeaning. It is not necessary to allegorize them, and find a corresponding equivalent for every trope; it is sufficient to regard the imagery as employed to heighten the sublimity of the prediction and to clothe it with impressiveness and grandeur. There are, at the same time, a true propriety and an underlying reality in the symbols of prophecy. The moral and spiritual facts which they represent, the social and ecumenical changes which they typify, could not be adequately set forth by language less majestic and sublime. There is reason for believing that an inadequate apprehension of the real grandeur and significance of such events as the destruction of Jerusalem and the abrogation of the Jewish economy lies at the root of that system of interpretation which maintains that nothing answering to the symbols of the New Testament prophecy has ever taken place. Hence the uncritical and unscriptural figments of double senses, and double, triple, and multiple fulfillments of prophecy. That physical disturbances in nature and extraordinary phenomena in the heavens and in the earth may have accompanied the expiring throes of the Jewish dispensation we are not prepared to deny. It seems to us highly probable that such things were. But the literal fulfillment of the symbols is not essential to the verification of prophecy, which is abundantly proved to be true by the recorded facts of history.”

T. Francis Glasson

(1) Our matter-of-fact Western outlook makes it difficult for us to appreciate the highly pictorial language of the Eastern writings

(1) It should be noted that when Jewish writers apply Daniel 7:13 to the Messiah, they usually regard the clouds as symbolic and as referring to ‘the great magnificence and the power which God shall give unto the Messiah.”

(3) As far as saying before the High Priest is concerned, the view that Jesus was not speaking literally but was referring to some spiritual triumph is not a new one.

(3) The language here is obviously symbolic and as Dr. C.H. Dodd says:  ‘We may suppose it was equally symbolic in the mouth of Jesus’  (Companion to the Bible, p. 375)

Sir Isaac Newton         

– “The figurative language of the prophets is taken from the analogy between the world natural and an empire or kingdom considered as a world politic. Accordingly, the world natural, consisting of heaven and earth, signifies the whole world politic, consisting of thrones and people, or so much of it as is considered in prophecy; and the things in that world signify the analogous things in this. For the heavens and the things therein signify thrones and dignities, and those who enjoy them: and the earth, with the things thereon, the inferior people; and the lowest parts of the earth, called Hades or Hell, the lowest or most miserable part of them. Great earthquakes, and the shaking of heaven and earth, are put for the shaking of kingdoms, so as to distract and overthrow them; the creating of a new heaven and earth, and the passing of an old one; or the beginning and end of a world, for the rise and ruin of a body politic signified thereby. The sun, for the whole species and race of kings, in the kingdoms of the world politic; the moon, for the body of common people considered as the king’s wife; the starts, for subordinate princes and great men; or for bishops and rulers of the people of God, when the sun is Christ. Setting of the sun, moon, and stars; darkening the sun, turning the moon into blood, and falling of the stars, for the ceasing of a kingdom.”

Bishop Thomas Newton

(2) It is true, his figures are very strong, but no stronger than are used by the ancient prophets upon similar occasions.

(2) Thus it is, that, in the prophetic language, great commotion’s and revolutions upon earth are often represented by commotion’s and changes in the heavens.

(3)  this I conceive to be the case here, and the destruction of Jerusalem to be typical of the end of the world.  The destruction of a great city is a lively type and  the image of the end of the world; and we may observe, that our Saviour no sooner begins to speak of the destruction of Jerusalem, than his figures are raised, his language is swelled, and he expresseth himself in such terms, as in a lower sense indeed, are applicable to the destruction of Jerusalem, but describe something higher in their proper and genuine signification

N. Nisbett

– When these prophecies were first delivered, concerning the ruin of Babylon, of Idumea, and of other nations, which were devoted to destruction by the Almighty for their iniquities; the prophets speak of these calamities, in the high wrought language, familiar to the Eastern nations, and they could only be understood figuratively of what was to happen to them.  In their literal sense, the Sun and moon and stars continued to shine as before, without any essential alteration in them; nor can it be made to appear, that the prophets had any allusion to a literal completion of the dissolution of these powers; it being their frequent practice to speak in a metaphorical, without regarding the literal sense of their expressions.

– The difficulty of applying these expressions, to temporal calamities , will, I apprehend, be removed, by observing with Sir Isaac Newton, that in sacred prophecy, the darkening, smiting, or setting of the sun, moon and starts,  is put for the ceasing of a kingdom, or for the desolation thereof, proportional to that darkness. -And it is an observation of Dr. Warburton, which I am persuaded will give great pleasure to the reader, as it had dome to myself, “that this language was borrowed from the ancient hieroglyphics:  for as in hieroglyphic  writing, the sun, moon, and stars were used to represent states and empires, kings, queens, and nobility; their eclipse and extinction, temporary disasters, or entire overthrow, &c. so in like manner, the holy prophets call kings and empires by the names of the heavenly luminaries; their misfortunes and denote the destruction of the nobility, &c.  In a word, the prophetic style seems to be speaking hieroglyphic.  These observations will not only assist us in the study of the Old and New Testaments, but likewise vindicate their character from the illiterate cavils of modern libertines. who have foolishly mistake that for the peculiar workmanship of the prophets’ heated imagination, which was the sober, established language of their times, and which God and his Son condescended to employ as the roperest conveyance of the high, mysterious ways of Province in the revelation of themselves to mankind.” (Warburton’s Divine Legation, vol ii, bk 4)

– I have already taken notice of an obvious reason for the use of the figurative expressions of the Apostle, when he speaks of the signs which were to precede the destruction of Jerusalem, viz. that he might not expose himself, or his fellow Christians t the resentment of the evil magistrate; and this is a principal cause of the obscurity in which some of these expressions are now involved.

– And whoever gives attention to the writings of the Apostles will see, that they very frequently adopt the language of the ancient prophets, and often without giving any notice that they do so; taking it for granted that those to whom they wrote were sufficiently acquainted with it.

Dr. Owen

(1) This is the planting of the heavens and laying the foundation of the earth in the world.  And since it is that when mention is made of the destruction of a state and government, it is in that language which seems to set forth the end of the world.

Milton Terry

(1) Such apocalyptic forms of speech are not to be assumed to convey in the New Testament a meaning different from that which they bear in the Hebrew Scriptures.

(1) The most prosaic writer may at times express himself through a whole series of sentences in figurative term, and incorporate the extended metaphor in the midst of the plain narratives of facts

(Lady Ophelia)


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