Metaphors paint pictures of the intangible. They pick up concepts from the realm of abstraction, wrap them in familiar clothes and introduce them to minds that couldn’t welcome them otherwise. Without metaphors, all that is indefinable could never be shared and even in crowds we would stand alone. Thus, Paul eager to share the eternal gospel turned to metaphor. Just as the athlete wins the race by disciplining his body in training, the Christian wins the battle against self by strict discipline. All metaphors have limits however, and so elsewhere Paul depicts the Christian as hiding behind armour as he marches to victory.
Indeed, metaphors make unfamiliar concepts palatable they befuddle the mind when dragged further than they can walk. Paul’s metaphors and arguments have been contorted by people even while he was alive (2 Peter 3:15, 16). We still do this today. In our case, I suppose the problem largely emanates from the fact that although medieval scholars demarcated the Bible into chapters and verses to make reference easier, we have turned the verse into a cage in which we train God to say whatever pleases us.
How then can we guard against twisting his words? I’d say we ought to let Paul speak for himself. Remaining mindful of its historical context, we ought to read each Epistle as a whole instead of being stuck on one portion of the text. A castle built on one verse is right next door to one built in the air on “Demolition Avenue”. That would only be fair.
What drove Paul to risk being misunderstood and encapsulate intangible concepts like salvation and atonement in rich metaphors? I think it was because he had a real belief in Jesus that he wanted to share with those around him. Before Damascus, his brand of evangelism was the cutting edge of sword but afterward he learned to take the time to present his beliefs in a way that his audience could understand. It wasn’t an easy road – his failure to reconcile with John Mark caused him to lose a valuable partner in Barnabas – but he learned patience and humility (although he never worked with Barnabas again, he reconciled with him and John Mark)
Like Paul, Christians today find themselves in a world that is either indifferent or (increasingly) hostile to us. To be fair, the hostility isn’t entirely unprovoked but we still have to tell our story. Maybe it’s time we also learned to understand the people around us so they can understand us. Maybe it’s time to be soberly innovative and come up with relevant metaphors of our own. Maybe it’s time to be “all things to all men”.