Calendars, posters, and great works of art all feature the marvels of human life and nature. But what if we were to look at God’s creation allegorically—representing meaning deeper than just function or beauty? The Bible uses many facets of nature symbolically. Trees, branches, fruit, bodies, lips, feet, and other things become more than we usually expect.
The art of the allegory is pervasive throughout the Bible and therefore is important to understand. Here are fourteen terms that will broaden your understanding of some crucial symbols.
Our bodies are temporarily housing our personalities and souls. They are mortal containers of the immortal. God uses our bodies as examples of how all Christians are connected and how they should interact. He calls us the “body of Christ.” God created each of us with a unique personality, background, and set of skills to perform a unique role for him. Yet God wants us to work together for the benefit of the entire “body,” of which Jesus Christ is the head (see Ephesians 4:15–16).
Lips symbolize communication. We must use discretion in using our lips for the good of others and for our own well-being. “He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin” (Proverbs 13:3). Despite all the harm we can cause with our words through gossip, lies and slander, if God is involved in our lives, our lips can honor the Lord and relay words of wisdom. More importantly, the best thing we can do with our lips is to praise God and express our thankfulness to him. In turn, our praise to God can lead to telling others about his goodness. However, since “actions speak louder than words,” we must consistently do what we say; otherwise, we will be seen as hypocrites, not witnesses.
Feet make us mobile; we’d have trouble walking without them. Feet also need a brain to guide them; they only go where they’re told. If people have a good head on their shoulders, their feet likely won’t lead them into trouble (Proverbs 4:26). God walks beside and directs the feet of those who want their lives to impact the world. Christians should not be stationary since God enables them to do all things he calls them to do and to go anywhere he leads them to go. Feet also denote victory—all God’s enemies are under his feet (1 Corinthians 15:25).
The Bible mentions two important types of trees: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God warned Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; if they did, they would die. Deceived by Satan, they ate from it anyway, and were sent away from the Garden of Eden and the tree of life (Genesis 2:16-17; 3:22-23). Their one act of disobedience plunged humankind into an existence of separation from God. In God’s eternal kingdom, all the trees will give life to the nations (Revelation 22:2).
In the Old Testament, a “branch” was a prophetic symbol of hope. The Israelites knew that one branch of the family tree, representing the Messiah, would save them (Isaiah 11:1-5). Jesus was that branch. His death and resurrection ensured that people could become a “branch” on God’s family tree.
God told his people that “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 8:3). Jesus Christ used bread as a symbol of his body being broken in death. Christians remember Christ’s death by “breaking bread” (eating bread) together during church services, just as Jesus commanded his disciples to do the night before he was crucified (Luke 22:19). This part of a church service is usually called “Communion” or “the Lord’s Supper.” Taking part in Communion helps us remember the significance of Christ’s death until he comes again. Belief in Christ’s offering of his body is like eating the Bread of Life, because we take him into our very lives (John 6:47-51).
Did you know that the followers of Jesus Christ are considered his bride? Because the marital relationship is so intimate and exclusive, God uses it to represent the relationship between himself and his people. That is one reason why the Bible repeatedly asserts the importance of keeping the marriage relationship pure and exclusive. Over and over in the Old Testament, the Lord portrays himself as a lover, wooing his beloved people. In the New Testament, the church is called the “bride” of Christ. Believers are like an expectant bride eagerly anticipates the appearance of her bridegroom. In the briedegroom’s absence, the bride must wait patiently and faithfully, looking forward to the great celebration that will occur when he comes for her (see Matthew 25:1–13).
God loves his people like a bridegroom loves his bride—protectively, tenderly, passionately, devotedly—as one head-over-heels in love. He desires that his people love and commit their hearts to him alone, as a wife commits herself only to her husband. The church, as a bride, will one day be presented to Jesus Christ, the bridegroom. God’s people are instructed to honor and submit to Christ, their husband (Ephesians 5:23-24).
Clouds are closely associated with God. God used a “pillar of cloud” as a visible symbol of this presence to lead the Israelites in the wilderness. Like the prophet Daniel, the apostle John saw visions of one “like a son of man” (see Daniel 7:13; Revelation 14:14 ) seated on a cloud. Acts 1:9 tells us that Jesus disappeared into a cloud as he ascended into heaven. One day he will return in the clouds (Revelation 1:7)—and we will be caught up together there with him (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
The breathtaking power of fire is an appropriate parallel for the awe-inspiring strength of God. He appeared to Moses in a burning bush (see Exodus 3:2) and to the Israelites in a pillar of fire in the desert (see Exodus 13:21). The destructive qualities of fire make it an effective tool for purification. Fire can refine a substance like gold, which doesn’t burn, by consuming foreign elements in it, so that only the pure gold remains. Scripture compares this purifying action to the work of God in the lives of Christians. God is working to eliminate impure thoughts and actions, leaving only the good that comes from him.
The Bible uses the word “fruit” to describe the outward evidence of what is happening internally or the natural consequences of our actions. Apples only grow on trees that have the internal biological programming necessary to produce apples. In the same way, the “fruit of the Spirit” will be produced only by a person who has the Holy Spirit within him or her. When we let God’s Spirit control us, our lives produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). In the Old Testament, fruit often represents prosperity and goodness. God promised a fruitful land to the Israelites. Those who trust in the
Lord are said to be like a thriving tree that never fails to bear fruit, even in times of drought.
Ancient Israel was an agricultural society. Life depended on sufficient rainfall and bountiful crops. Therefore, the idea of the harvest was useful in illustrating important concepts in the Bible. For example, actions have consequences— we reap what we sow (Galatians 6:7). A good harvest starts with planting good seed. The Bible says the way of life that we followed before we knew Jesus Christ resulted in death, but a life of obedience to God produces a “harvest of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:11).
Seven is an important number in the Bible. Seven is the number of God and is considered the number of perfection. Throughout the Bible it seems that God works in sevens, perhaps to remind us of his control of everything. He created everything in six days and on the seventh day he rested. Jesus Christ fed a multitude of people with seven loaves of bread. Jesus used the number seven in reference to forgiveness. One of his disciples asked how many times he should forgive someone, asking if seven times was enough. Jesus corrected him, saying that he should always forgive, no matter how many times he had been wronged—not only seven times, but seventy-seven times (see Matthew 18:22).
God did a lot of amazing things with water: He flooded the earth, turned water into blood, made water pour out of a rock, and stacked water up on either side of a dry path through the sea. The Bible describes people who crave spiritual truth as those who “thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6). Jesus offered living water to all those who were spiritually thirsty. The coming of the Holy Spirit fulfilled the Old Testament promise of living waters that would flow from within (John 7:38-39).