Symbolic Acts: Helpful, but Potentially Deadly

Lesson #6, for discussion on Sabbath, November 7, 2015

The prophet Jeremiah was fond of symbols and that spells trouble for a believing community that wants to keep the whole tribe together. That’s because symbols, whether enacted or visual, split the crowd right down the middle. Concrete thinkers often treat them too rigidly whereas abstract thinkers are too easily inclined to shrug and not take them seriously enough.

One of my favorite illustrations describing the difference uses a map-reading metaphor to depict the contrast, comparing the concrete thinking of the fundamentalist with the abstract thinking of the rationalist: “The fundamentalist [is] one who says that the Ordnance Survey maps are true and therefore although motorways appear to be black asphalt, they are really blue, while the rationalist sees the map with its blue motorways as simply a primitive pretty picture.”1

This week’s glimpse of Jeremiah provides the opportunity for us to see how symbols can be helpful, but also deadly. Differences in personalities and cultures can lead to significant distortions. This week’s lesson opens with a symbol from outside Jeremiah. We will look at that symbol, and three more from Jeremiah itself. In each case, we will ask what the proper application is likely to be, but also what improper applications might come to mind.

1. Question: The Bronze Serpent (Numbers 21:4-9). How does one go about determining the proper meaning and application of an ambiguous symbol like the serpent?

Note:The role of the serpent in Scripture and in culture is ambiguous. Here are two paragraphs from the chapter, “Whatever Happened to Satan in the Old Testament?” in Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? (Chapter #3). They speak specifically to the ambiguity of the serpent image:

In Genesis 3, an unbiased reader will strongly suspect the animosity which exists between the serpent and God, pointing in the direction of a full-fledged Adversary relationship. But the serpent figure is, in fact, an ambiguous one in the Old Testament. The serpent attack recorded in Numbers 21 is successfully warded off by Moses’ raising a brass serpent, the later symbol of the opponent of God! There is even evidence to suggest that the people began to worship this serpent; thus it had to be destroyed (2 Kings 18:4).

The first clear identification of the serpent as Satan in Judeo-Christian writings does not come until Revelation 12:9. In that passage there is no doubt: the Dragon, the Serpent, the Devil, and Satan are all one and the same. Considering the strong role that the serpent plays in Christian interpretation, it is perhaps surprising that his identity is never really clarified in the Old Testament. An explanation might lie in the fact that in Egypt, the serpent is both a symbol of a good deity and of an evil one. The biblical writers thus could not really develop the serpent motif without raising the specter of dualism or something worse.2

The next two symbols, “The Potter’s clay” and “Smashing the Jar” stand in a certain tension with each other, pointing, on the one hand, to the possibility of change in the yet malleable clay, but, on the other, to the impossibility of change in the jar that was smashed.

2. Question: The Potters Clay (Jer. 18:1-12). How does one know when God can take a bad situation and make something good out of it as in the case of the still malleable clay? Does the jar that was smashed point toward a situation where change is no longer possible?

Note:Jeremiah’s listeners seem to have taken issue with Jeremiah’s symbol that suggested the possibility of change. “It’s no use,” they said, and continued in their evil ways (Jer. 18:12). Remarkably, the Apostle Paul seems to have taken this very passage and turned it on its head, arguing for something very close to predestination (cf. Romans 9:19-21)! That is what is so intriguing, challenging, and potentially dangerous about the use of symbols. They can be very helpful, but they can also lead astray.

Two modern quotations have a bearing on this idea of God making something good out of something bad, one from George MacDonald, and one from Paul Tournier:

George MacDonald: “It is so true, as the Book says, that all things work together for our good, even our sins and vices. He takes our sins on himself, and while he drives them out of us with a whip of scorpions, he will yet make them work his good ends. He defeats our sins, makes them prisoners, forces them into the service of good, and chains them like galley slaves to the rowing benches of the gospel ship. He makes them work toward salvation for us.”3

Paul Tournier: “The most wonderful thing in this world is not the good that we accomplish, but the fact that good can come out of the evil we do. I have been struck, for example, by the numbers of people who have been brought back to God under the influence of a person to whom they had some imperfect attachment. . . . Our vocation is, I believe, to build good out of evil. For if we try to build good out of good, we are in danger of running out of raw materials.”4

3. Question: Smashing the Jar (Jer. 19:1-15). From a Christian perspective, is there ever a time when things are hopeless for a person or a community? What are the circumstances that reveal that a fate is fixed? Would the book of Jonah provide some “hope” for apparently hopeless situations?

Note:Within the passage describing the smashing of the jar in Jeremiah is an intriguing reference to human sacrifice. Jeremiah was taking the jar to the valley of Hinnom because that was where Israel had practiced child sacrifice. Jer. 19:5 states that God had never commanded child sacrifice. But Ezek 20:25-26 states that bad laws – including the command to sacrifice their children – came from God in order that he might horrify them. That’s a classic theocentric approach which contrasts with the more anthropocentric approach of Jeremiah. One can find both perspectives in Scripture.

4. Question: The Linen Belt (Jer. 13:1-11). Is contact with surrounding culture always deadly as this symbolic act of the buried linen belt suggests?

Note:One can think of examples where God’s people were a blessing to another culture, rather than the other culture being only a curse to God’s people. That was true of Daniel in Babylon. Similarly, Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles (Jer. 29:4-23) asks them to pray for the city in which they found themselves. That was no less a city than Babylon.

In sum, we simply need to recognize that symbolic acts recorded in Scripture offer the believing community rich opportunities for careful pondering and prayerful discussion. Jeremiah’s situation was incredibly grim. Yet the Lord gave glimmers of hope – for him and for us.

1. C. S. Rodd, ed., Expository Times, Mar. 94, 179, citing a medical doctor on Genesis: Jeffrey Boss, Becoming Ourselves: Meaning in the Creation Story (Mathew Lampson, 1993).

4. Paul Tournier, Person Reborn, 80-81, via Philip Yancey, Reaching for an Invisible God, 264.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7169

Was Jeremiah’s encouraging parts of his ministry to JUST Judah? or did it boil over to the already dispersed 10 tribes of the Northern Kingdom as well?
They had been swallowed up by Assyria-- Nineveh.

To understand Jerimiah in our day we really need to understand Christ’s messages to the seven churches of Revelation. The Church is like the camel, a horse designed by a committee. The evangelical world is complacent internally and militantly hostile to all others. broken cisterns for sure. tom z

The symbols used by the Hebrew Bible do not necessarily apply to the Christian church. But some of the church’s doctrines have been completely fashioned from the OT, as if it were always relevant regardless of the context.’

The major and unique Adventist doctrines do not come from the NT, which is written to by and for Christians, but from the OT. The major and unique doctrines of the Adventist church came directly from the Torah: Sabbath of the OT (never given to Christians); tithe, also never given to Christians; the sanctuary cleansing of 1844 is a questionable date, originating in the OT and forward to long after the NT; and Revelation is applied to the Adventist church today as the Remnant which keeps (all) the Commandments.

Read the OT as the Jewish people recorded their history of themselves as God’s “Chosen People”. For Christians, Christ, who is not revealed in the NT, is our guide and the letters to Christians, the earliest NT writings, are our instructions for living the Christian life.

You never miss an opportunity to denigrate the Holy Scriptures, especially the OT, or the SDA Church, do you? It was not the Jews who made the determination that they were God’s chosen people. It was Jesus who chose them, and He didn’t revoke that status until they rejected Him (Matt. 21:43). Paul (who must not be very reliable, since he was a Jew) said the the OT was written by inspiration of God. Jesus (also apparently unreliable, since He was a Jew) commended the Jewish leaders for giving tithe. His issue was with the fact that they omitted other aspects of the law. I can’t imagine why any professed Christian should be against tithing, unless it be for selfish reasons. Paul (that nasty Jew) said that those who preach the gospel, should be paid by the church, and tithing is the only system what was in place for doing so, and it is fair and equitable. Abraham paid tithe, and He wasn’t a Jew. You accuse us of cherry picking, yet you do the same. Jesus and Paul got their theology from the OT. Nothing Jesus said was contrary to what He had given His people in the OT. Jesus was the God of the OT, and Scripture says that He is the same today, yesterday, and forever–but that was written by a Jew, of course. The NT makes no sense without the OT, and the OT presupposes the NT.

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I have seen this non-stop trend as well.

99% of Christianity is already deceived on this issue. This occurs because of shallow cut & paste teaching from pulpits and the natural human propensity found in Jer 17:9 & Rom 8:7.
The Holy Spirit inspired all 4 gospel authors to record ( 20+ to 50+ years into the NT, early church era) where Jesus countered & clarified warped Pharisee teaching on Sabbath observance.
Matt 12, Mark 2 & 3, Luke 6, 13, 14, JN 5, 7 & 9

Evidently Jesus, Holy Spirit , and gospel authors didn’t get with Paul on his supposed Sabbath abrogation . And Paul didn’t do a very good job of segregating Jew from gentile on that great opportunity in ACTS 13:42. Just think Paul got almost a whole city (ACTS 13:44) to hang around Jews on the OT Jewish Sabbath of all days…especially since Paul and the disciples were, supposedly, already transitioned to the SUNday/Lord’s day…according to the pastor pundits and scholars in Christianity. Now that makes sense ! Makes perfect sense to Jer 17:9 and Rom 8:7 victims.
Paul must have felt real uncomfortable in ACTS 16:13, 17:2 and 18:4 as well. Spending time with gentiles and Greeks with no success on weaning them off the OT, Jewish , shadow Sabbath.

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Dr. Thompson writes another great commentary on the Sabbath School lesson.
We interpret the Bible literally, but this this does not mean we ignore symbols and metaphorical language. God’s written communication to the world is a richly textured literary masterpiece and makes full use of the tools of language, including symbolism, metaphor, simile, and motif. A literal interpretation of the Bible allows for figurative language. Symbols are quite common in the poetic and prophetic portions of the Bible. By its very nature, poetry relies heavily on figurative language.

In his conclusion, Brother Thompson, correctly reminds us that “ …we simply need to recognize that symbolic acts recorded in Scripture offer the believing community rich opportunities for careful pondering and prayerful discussion. Jeremiah’s situation was incredibly grim. Yet the Lord gave glimmers of hope – for him and for us.”

Jeremiah’s life interprets his message. He is a metaphor for God’s word. Through him we see into God’s purpose and into the destiny of the people. Jeremiah becomes the “app” on God’s life “computer” helping us to better understand the themes of judgment and salvation.

Jesus’ teaching was full of symbolism. He presented Himself as a Shepherd, a Sower, a Bridegroom, a Door, a Cornerstone, a Vine, Light, Bread, and Water. He likened the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast, a seed, a tree, a field, a net, a pearl, and yeast.

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Good try; however, you neglect to include the other OT feasts that Christians attended in the NT. Let’s look at the most obvious - Pentecost. Acts 2 describes the apostles (assumed) gathered together “with one accord”, celebrating the feast of Pentecost - this after Jesus had presumably cancelled the OT feasts.

Jumping ahead to Acts 18, Paul states, “I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem…” - (which one we don’t know )- but an OT feast it must have been - IN JERUSALEM.

Acts 20:6 describes Paul setting sail from Philippi (IN GENTILE MACEDONIA), saying, "We sailed from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread,… (Paul was still keeping the feast of Unleavened Bread).

Fast forward to I Cor. 5, where Paul is calling for the Christians to “…celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

You can argue that we need to see some of these, especially ICor 5 as symbolically keeping the feast; but you can’t get away with that since I know you are adamant about taking the Bible literally. If the feast in ICor. is symbolic, so can Genesis - and you wouldn’t want to go down that path.

The point - Both Jesus and Paul lived and taught among Jews, especially Jesus. He, too, kept ALL the Jewish feasts.
The Sabbath was when the Jews came together, and was the most opportune time to give them a message. Paul, while he was out and about the gentile world, had to preach somewhere - certainly not at the temple of Zeus.

Adventists have a problem of picking certain pet parts of the OT that support the pre-determined scenario, while ignoring the ones they know could not be enforced. “How to keep the Sabbath” would be one of them. The commandment doesn’t say to “KEEP THE SABBATH”; it says to KEEP IT HOLY. What, pray tell, do you do to “keep it holy”? The rules for Sabbath keeping are in the Bible - the OT. Why aren’t we following them? Why do we waffle about “doing work” on the Sabbath (bathing; washing dishes; even cooking)? Why can we depend on others working on our behalf on the Sabbath?

The NT was not written to legitimize the OT. The NT stands on its own. It’s a testament to God’s redemptive power through Christ; not a call to celebrate the feasts of the OT.

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Paul’s letters were written much earlier than then Gospels. He was writing mostly to the new gentile believers while the Gospels were written in a Jewish context to explain Jesus and his life.

Of course, Jesus observed not only the Sabbath but all the many Jewish feast days as a good Jew his entire life–although he was berated for breaking Jewish laws. Paul was also a Jew and observed its laws; but in teaching the Gentiles what it meant to be a Christian, he never taught them to observe any Jewish holy days. They met in the synagogue to hear him and the apostles to preach on Sabbath, but in no way did that mean they became Sabbatarians as the synagogue was the town’s main meeting place. If Adventists rent another church (as often happened) it does not mean that they have become believers of that denomination. There is much more in observing Sabbath as any good Jew knows.

But the corner was turned FROM Judaism at Christ’s death to the inauguration of the New Covenant, making the old one obsolete. when the Jews rejected Jesus. The Old Covenant with its laws was but a shadow, the reality is Christ who is our guide and example, not the laws contained in the Torah.

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