You don’t have to read the Bible very long before you appreciate the fact that God speaks to us in pictures a good deal of the time. Pictorial speech is part of the language of Scripture in the same way that rain is part of the weather. It may rain more at certain times of the year, but it can rain at any time. In the same way, while certain portions of Scripture may be saturated with imagery, you’ll find it sprinkled throughout the pages of the Bible.
Think about the speech of Jesus. He spoke of the kingdom using mustard seeds, fishing nets, and yeast. He spoke of His disciples salting the earth and illuminating the word. And there were times when He employed absolutely outrageous word pictures — people swallowing camels, beams of wood being pulled out of eyes, wolves dressed up to look like sheep, and throwing pearls to pigs. Many people have become immunized to these due to familiarity, but what an impact these images must have had on their original audiences!
1. Understanding word pictures is different than understanding literal speech.
“Jesus blessed the bread,” is quite different than “I am the bread of life.” In the first, everything is straightforward and literal. We know what’s involved with that. In the second statement, we have a bit more work to do. It’s obviously not a literal statement, but what exactly does He mean? In what way is He the bread of life? Answering this doesn’t just mean thinking of ways that Jesus is like bread. We must look at the context to determine the parallel Jesus is making. He had just fed several thousand people by multiplying five loaves of bread and two fish. There had also been a discussion about Moses and the manna from heaven. All of these things should be taken into account as we work with the picture.
2. Pictures (like parables), can be over-analyzed.
Usually a picture is meant to convey a certain truth. Israel ate the manna associated with Moses and they died. Jesus died, but rose again, so that those who ingest Him will live forever (6:48-58). I think that’s the basic truth we’re to get from John 6. But could we not also say that Jesus provides sustenance for us, that, we need Him every day, that He should be the staple of our (spiritual) diet, etc.? We could and all of those are fine truths—I am just not convinced they are what John intends for us to get from his account and that is what we’re after, isn’t it?
3. Pictures need to be understood in their original context.
Bread has a meaning similar to what it did to people in the first century, but that’s not the point in the text. Jesus is the bread from heaven — shifting the metaphor from ordinary bread to the manna Israel received in the wilderness. Since Jesus connects His death with the bread (v. 51, 62, 64), and the Passover Feast was near (v. 4), it’s possible He is also incorporating the unleavened bread of the Passover to reinforce the truth that He must die and they must partake of Him (v. 51-58). In fact, His words about eating His flesh and drinking His blood are highly reminiscent of the language He uses in the upper room, which He intends to insert here.
Does this violate our principle of a picture conveying one truth? No, because regardless of whether the bread refers to just one thing (the manna) or two (the manna and the unleavened bread), the central truth is still about Christ’s death and our life through taking Him in.
If all of this sounds somewhat involved, it is. But like everything else, the learning curve is steepest at the beginning and with a little work and some good reference materials, you can learn to appreciate the pictures of the Bible.