How to Interpret Bible Symbols

How to Interpret Bible Symbols

Avoiding Symbolic Misuse

By Thomas Taylor

The Bible is full of symbols, allegories, types, anti-types, shadows, metaphors, and many many more expressions of human language. It is amazing to me that God’s Word is not a set of rules but a book full of stories, songs, poems, parables, and vivid language to show us the things of God. As a minister, I have found it a very difficult thing to express spiritual things into human language, however the Bible does it masterfully. That is why it is always wise to use the Bible to explain the Bible. God knew exactly what it took to get across His Message and it is available to us in the written pages of the Holy Scripture along with the revelation given by the Holy Spirit. However, we must avoid the pitfalls of human denominational bias and religious predispositions to truly find what God is saying. Too many Bible teachers have gone astray in their doctrine. One way that that becomes obvious is when they misuse Bible symbolism.

The most common technique used to teach wrong doctrine is the misuse of symbols. If you look at any wrong doctrine, it is almost a guarantee that somewhere along the line the person teaching used a symbol, then interpreted that symbol to fit their pet doctrine rather than properly interpreting it. Here I want to cover some of the major areas of symbolic misuse. Plus I want to warn any Christian teacher to beware of “spiritualizing” any passage to prove a point without full study and objectivity. That begins the path toward symbolic misuse and false doctrine. Here I would also like to write down a set of rules to use so that you will not go astray in your use of symbols in interpreting and teaching the Bible.

The danger with symbols is in their interpretation. Once any thing or story of the Bible is considered a symbol or allegory, its interpretation can become subject to human bias and religious doctrinal predispositions. We must guard against this at all cost to find the Truth of God’s Word. As Bible students, we must set aside denominational inclinations and find what God’s Word really says for ourselves. In my 25 plus years of studying God’s Word and church doctrines, I have watched where ministers miss it doctrinally.  And in almost every single case, once they miss it, they wrongly turn to symbols to justify their position because they cannot find a scripture that actually says what they believe. But a symbol must never be used to establish a doctrine. The Bible, without symbols, must clearly teach the doctrine first, then symbols can confirm the doctrine. Go back over what you believe. Do you have explicit multiple scriptures to back up your case, or is it just symbolic interpretation of the scriptures? If it is the latter, you are almost certainly in error.

A simple rule of thumb is:

Interpret the Bible literally, unless it is obviously symbolic. Do not try to find some hidden meaning to the Bible and force symbolism that is not there or questionable at best.

Symbolic Misuse

I am going to give some moderate to extreme examples of symbolic misinterpretation. You may not have gone to some of these extremes, however I challenge you to reexamine what you believe and make certain you have interpreted the Bible correctly. Make sure you have not fallen into any of these symbolic pitfalls:

  1. Rejecting the explicit literal reading of the passage to accept a symbolic one.

    1. This is the most important rule and the most violated. There so many cases of this, it would impossible to list them. But here a few of the bigger ones:
      1. For example, some have taught that God did not literally create the world in six days. They reject the literal six days the Bible states, then they turn them into a symbol and interpret them as six “geological ages.” Therefore, they wrongly teach God created everything over millions of years to try to make the Bible coincide with secular science.
      2. For example, some have taught God did not literally form Adam from the dust of the ground and breathe into him life on the sixth day of creation. They falsely teach that that is just mythology and symbolic. Then they go on to teach evolution.
  2. Trying to make any and every passage into a symbol or allegory.

    1. Every passage of the Bible is not a symbol or allegory. If you try to to force everything into some deeper meaning using symbols, then you are delving into Esotericism.  If you continue down this path, then you could end up no different than a Freemason, Numerologist, or practitioner of Kabbalah.
  3. Making something that is obviously symbolic into something literal.

    1. For example, when Jesus said His disciples will “take up serpents,” He did not mean we are to literally go find deadly snakes and handle them in our church services as an act of faith. He meant we would have authority over evil spirits.
  4. Interpreting things of the spirit world as symbols.

    1. The world of the spirit is real, more real than this world. The spirit world came first. When we read about angels, demons, Hell, and Heaven, they are literal are intended to be read so.
    2. For example, some teach Hell is not a real place but rather a symbol for dissatisfaction and loneliness in life.
  5. “Spiritualizing” something that is referring to natural physical events.

    1. This is also a common mistake even among many Christians. They “spiritualize” a passage, i.e. turn something of the physical realm into the spirit realm, which completely destroys the meaning. (What really bothers me is that they even call it “spiritualizing” a passage, implying spiritual things are not real. Then they go on to interpret the passage in a very liberal and errant way.)
    2. An extreme example is the teaching of the Jehovah’s Witness cult, that Christ was not physically raised from the dead but rather spiritually raised only. This is a serious false doctrine that undermines the very essence of Christianity.
    3. However, a more common example among Christian Bible teachers is Amillennialism. Many do not believe the Bible is talking about a literal thousand years in Revelation 20 when the devil is bound and Jesus reigns on earth. They turn that into a symbol, saying Jesus  is “spiritually” reigning now, to follow denominational doctrine rather than God’s Word.
  6. Loosely interpreting a symbol to bash another group’s doctrine or to validate their own doctrine.

    1. Some interpret the Mark of the Beast 666 to bash any doctrine other than their own.
      1. For example, some groups falsely teach, if you worship on the wrong day, that is the Mark of the Beast.
    2. Some interpret the Cross to validate any doctrine they teach, whether there is a direct relationship to the Cross or not.
      1. For example, some teach regeneration is “the Cross,” justification is “the Cross,” sanctification is “the Cross,” renewing the mind is “the Cross,” persecution is “the Cross,” trials of life are “the Cross.” All of these are Bible doctrines individually, but not all of them have a direct relation to the Cross. Saying all of these are “the Cross” muddy’s the true meaning of the symbol, so much so that it begins to have no meaning at all.

OK, so we have learned some of the pitfalls of symbolism. But now let’s lay down some rules to abide by as we read our Bible and learn the wonders of Bible symbolism. This a very rewarding area of study, if done correctly. God’s Word is full of many symbols and allegories that bring confirmation to the open teachings of the Bible. There is no need to find some “new” revelation by forcing symbols that are not there. We have plenty of symbols that are obviously there which help us understand the depths of God’s revelation in written Scriptures with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Symbolic Interpretation Rules

  1. Do NOT use a symbol to establish a doctrine

    1. Doctrine can only be established by clear and explicit Scriptures – at least 2 Scriptures
    2. Symbols can only be used to confirm an already established doctrine
  2. The interpretation of a symbol cannot contradict ANY explicit Scripture.

    1. No matter how sure you think you are, or what you think you “heard from God,” if your interpretation of a symbol teaches something opposite of the plain teachings of the Bible, you are wrong.
  3. If a passage is obviously symbolic, look for the interpretation of that symbol within that passage first.

    1. After a symbolic passage, the Bible will sometimes tells you “this is the interpretation,” so do not deviate from that explicit interpretation.
  4.  If the interpretation is not explicitly given, look for the interpretation by examining the context of the passage in which it was given. Next, use other Bible passages which use the same symbolic thing to help interpret the meaning of that thing.

    1. You cannot just figure out a symbol with your head which lends itself to cultural bias. You must use the Bible to interpret the Bible. It is best practice to look the symbol up everywhere it is mentioned in the Bible to help you get a better understanding of the word used.
  5. The interpretation of any symbolic thing may not be the same throughout the Bible.

    1. The Bible may use a symbol to mean one thing in one passage but it may be interpreted differently in another passage. You must study the symbol thoroughly in all passages to interpret its meaning within each passage.
  6. The Holy Spirit is our guide.

    1. Pray as you interpret symbols. Pray in tongues to “get into the spirit” and God will reveal the meaning of Bible. But you must also objectively study His Word.
For further study of symbols, the best resource I have found is Kevin J. Conner’s book “Interpreting the Symbols and Types.

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