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Welcome to my ROLLED SCROLL study, where I follow cultural and literary images found in the Bible in an attempt to unearth God's meaning in His pattern of usage.


Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, 
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door . . .
Quoth the Raven "Nevermore." 

(Edgar Allen Poe, "The Raven") 

One shudders in delight at the tone of Poe’s macabre poem, which carries on the literary tradition of war, death, and mystical power as symbolized by the genus corvus (including ravens, rooks, jackdaws, crows . . .). Aesop, Shakespeare, Dickens, and others went on about this ubiquitous black fowl. Of course, corvids form only a sliver of the world’s bird population, and stories throughout humanity abound with references to them:

  • In ancient Greece, the crane was sacred to Hermes and Hestia, the eagle to Zeus.
  • The pelican, legend says, pierced its breast bloody to feed its young in a show of piety.
  • The Victorian culture picked up the Greek Aphrodite’s and Jewish King Solomon’s association of love with the swooping swallow to popularize jewellery that spoke of romantic faithfulness.
  • No one could forget Rowlings’s owl Hagrid (Harry Potter), and Narnian skies flutter with many winged creatures including the hummingbird, albatross, and flamingo.
  • The Beatles (“Blackbird Singing in the Dead of Night”) also employed the trope of the bird to say something or other philosophical.

Scriptural writers, too, mentioned a great variety of birds–some quite exotic, such as storks (Jer. 8:7) and ostriches and peacocks (Job 39:13). Our feathered friends appear in many Bible stories; for example:

  • God fashioned the birds of the air on the fifth day of Creation (Gen. 1:21)–some considered unfit to eat or offer as sacrifice such as the heron, hawk, stork, cormorant (Lev. 11:13-19).
  • “Clean” bird flesh was edible and offered by the poor in Temple sacrifice to the Lord (Gen. 15:9Lev. 12:8).
  • Elijah was fed bread and meat brought to him on God’s command by an “unclean” flock (1 Kings 17:5-6). The Lord is greater than religion, His grace superseding law.
  • God used bird imagery to describe His people’s flight from and return to His presence, physically and spiritually (Exod. 19:4Deut. 32:11-12Hos. 11:11Ps. 55:6-8124:7). We cannot escape Him (Ps. 139:9-10).
  • Noah took birds (both unclean and clean) into the Ark, using the raven and the dove to determine when the waters had receded sufficiently for disembarkment (Gen. 8:6-8).
  • Jonah, whose name in Hebrew means dove or pigeon, fled his God-ordained task as prophet (Jon. 1:3).
  • Eagles symbolized punishing war (Deut. 28:49Hab. 1:8).
  • Goliath cursed David, threatening to feed his flesh to carrion birds (1 Sam. 17:44); similarly, vultures picked the bones of corpses (Matt. 24:28).
  • God, like a bird Himself, offers us protection and healing (Isa. 31:540:31Ps. 17:891:4Ruth 2:12Mal. 4:2).
  • But the Lord also uses birds to inflict holy judgment upon evil people as a general principle (Prov. 30:17) and at the end of the Great Tribulation (Rev. 19:17-18).
  • The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove as a symbol of God’s presence (Luke 3:22John 1:32), perhaps an echo of His birdlike hovering over the waters of creation (Gen. 1:2).
  • Jesus compared the value of birds to humans in showing the providential care of the Father for the birds themselves, and for humans through the birds (Matt. 6:26Luke 12:7).
  • In preaching and parable, Jesus used bird imagery to teach His followers about the nature of the Kingdom (Matt. 13: 419Mark 4:30-32).

It’s amazing how God uses humble, physical items to allude to exalted, spiritual realities.

NOTE: In these short articles tying literature and culture to the Bible, I explore what God might have been saying in His pattern of usage for each symbol. English rendition of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek varies with translations (e.g., “scroll” is sometimes interchangeable with “book”); however, the quality and underlying meaning of the selected emblem remain consistent across Bible versions. I’ve used two excellent resources for much of my research: A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (David Lyle Jeffrey) and Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III).

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21. INN          INN

The Jolly Sandboys was a small road-side inn of pretty ancient date . . . A mighty fire was blazing on the hearth and roaring up the wide chimney with a cheerful sound . . . It is not very difficult to forget rain and mud by the side of a cheerful fire, and in a bright room.

—   Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop

A far cry from today’s coldly commercial business hotel, the British inn of Dickens’s day was more in keeping with Bible times, when a wayfarer would take lodging in the home of a local resident. In fact, the notion of paying for a night’s room and board was almost unknown under the code of hospitality in the ancient Near East, where private citizens welcomed passers-by to sleep and sup. The picture of the open door offering shelter, comfort, and companionship runs throughout Scripture as testimony to God’s gracious provision and protection.

The first Bible story that jumps to mind in this Christmas season is the narrative of the Nativity: A road-weary couple, turned away from an establishment already full with others travelling to Bethlehem for the census, finds shelter in the cave-stable behind the innkeeper’s house (Luke 2:1-7). But the motif of the inn begins long before the New Testament record.

God created Adam and Eve and set eternity in their hearts, with no plan to bar them from the Tree of Life (Eccl. 3:11; Gen. 2:15; 3:23-24). But ever since we left the Garden of Eden, this world has not been our home (Heb. 13:14; 1 Pet. 2:11). We are all in need of a roof and a welcoming host, as many early Bible stories attest:

  • Noah’s Ark was God’s temporary refuge for family and animals needing shelter from His storm of judgment (Gen. 6:11-14; 7:15-16).
  • Lot offered supper and a bed to two angels, who rescued him from a malicious mob by shutting the door of his house against them (Gen. 19:1-11).
  • Abraham’s servant, in search of a wife for Isaac, was invited overnight into the household of Rebekah’s father (Gen. 24:23-27).
  • Jacob fled to stay with Uncle Laban in Haran until his brother’s fury abated (Gen. 27:43-44).
  • Ruth took refuge “under the wings” of her kinsman-redeemer (Ruth 2:8-12; 3:9).
  • Moses met with God at a lodging house on the road to Egypt, but soon the Lord would welcome His people into a more suitable meeting place—the Tabernacle, God’s own “inn on earth” (Exod. 4:24; Ps. 65:4; 84:10; 122:1).

More than just isolated biblical examples speak of the inn. The Israelites had a habit of housing within their gates foreigners whom they were to treat as their own; they had themselves once been strangers in a strange land and knew the heart of the sojourner (Exod. 23:9; Lev. 19:34; see also 1 Pet. 2:10-11). Israel celebrated the fact of God’s ownership and her tenancy under Him by passing along to those living among them the hospitality, forgiveness, provision, and justice they themselves enjoyed (Lev. 25:23, 35-38; Deut. 10:18-19). Six towns in ancient Israel served as cities of refuge for anyone committing unintentional manslaughter (Num. 35:9-15; Josh. 20:9). But God Himself is our refuge, our safe “inn,” as the Psalmist reiterated time and again (Ps. 7:1; 18:2; 34:8; 46:1; 57:1; 61:3-4; 118:8):

Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; hold not your peace at my tears!
For I am a sojourner with you, a guest, like all my fathers (Ps. 39:12).

Someday in the future, the prophets declared, as God had shown Himself through cloud and fire to His desert-wandering people, He would again show His glory like a tent for Israel, sheltering them in safety and peace (Isa. 4:5-6).

The OT God, who shut the gates of Eden against Adam and Eve, in the NT reopened the way to Heaven through His Son (John 10:7; 14:6). The sin that crouched at the door of Cain’s heart, a tyrannical guest waiting to devour him, was now expiated by the substitutionary atonement of the One who was refused hospitality Himself by the people He came to save (Gen. 4:6-7; John 1:29-31; Mark 6:3-4).

During His ministry on earth, Jesus and his disciples stayed in the homes of welcoming friends (even “sinners”!) as they travelled about the countryside (Luke 10:38; 19:7; John 4:39-40; Acts 18:1-3; 1 Cor. 16:5-7; Philem. 1:22). Jesus told of the Good Samaritan, who cared for a beat-up, half-dead stranger, who paid out-of-pocket for a bed and medical care at a local inn—as the outcast Jesus Himself was willing to seek out and save perishing wayfarers (Luke 10:33-35). The NT teaches about this attitude of hospitality that should typify believers (Matt. 25:35-40; see also 1 Pet. 4:9).

Jesus Christ is the very Door to the sheltering sanctuary of God (John 10:9).

The risen Christ desires intimate fellowship with His children; He stands outside the door of our hearts, knocking and waiting to be let in (Rev. 3:20). And our Heavenly Father hears us knocking on His door through prayer (Luke 11:5-10):

And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. (Luke 11:9).

Jesus often had this idea on His mind, illustrating divine hospitality with pictures of guests and of doors opened and closed:

  • The story of the wedding feast criticizes the religious leaders of Israel for rejecting God’s invitation into His kingdom; only guests properly dressed for the banquet will be received (Matt. 22:1ff).
  • We must be ready for Jesus’ return, waiting in welcome for Him as guests anticipating the procession of the groom (Matt. 25:1-13).
  • We are to be on guard—house servants actively awaiting the arrival of the owner, doorkeepers controlling access to His home—for when He returns, Jesus will “come in” and recline at the table with us and serve us as His guests (Mark 13:32-37; Luke 12:35-40).
  • Despite God’s receiving us into the hospitality of His presence through Christ, a time is coming when entrance to the Master’s kingdom will be complete (Luke 13:22-30; see also Heb. 4:6-9). We are invited to enter today.

Two millennia ago the Bethlehem homeowner closed his door against the laboring mother who bore Christ in her womb, yet Jesus was delivered to us so that He could in turn deliver us to the doorway of Heaven, our eternal destination.

At night we win to the ancient inn / Where the child in the frost is furled, / We follow the feet where all souls meet / At the inn at the end of the world . . .                                                

—   G.K. Chesterton, A Child of the Snows



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20. WITCH          WITCH

Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw . . .

Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing . . .

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Shakespeare’s MacBeth conjures a picture of witchcraft that has prevailed through four centuries of literary imagination: three foul sisters hunker over a simmering vat in a dark cavern, brewing potions and casting powerful spells. This play was written during the translation period of the King James Bible (1604-11), and both texts use the word “witch”—coming from the Old English wicca, relating to religion and the sacred. Current versions of Scripture instead use the word “sorcerer.”

But biblical reference to the magic arts includes a wide vocabulary of terms that are often interchangeable and undifferentiated in role, with no real distinction made between witches, wizards, sorcerers, and poisoners; lists also include the forbidden practices of astrologers, seers, mediums, and necromancers. The civilizations of Old Testament days abounded in divination and oracles, charms of protection, and interpretation of omens. It was from this occult worldview that God separated out a people to be His very own—to worship Him alone. He condemned the practice of all such activity as idolatrous.

The first mention of sorcery in the Bible shows Moses and Aaron in a standoff before Pharaoh and his Egyptian magicians (Exod. 7:8-13). Recorded shortly thereafter is God’s absolute rejection (via capital punishment) of any fortunetelling or use of demonic power:

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live (Exod. 22:18 KJV).

God’s character mandated that His people follow a holy lifestyle, turning to Him rather than defiling themselves by seeking the supernatural “wisdom” of the surrounding cultures (Lev. 19:31; 20:6; Deut. 18:10-14). But time and again the Israelites turned away from the Lord, offering their children as burnt sacrifices to the gods and otherwise “selling themselves to do evil” (2 Kings 17:17), as we can see through the stories of some infamous Bible characters:

  • Balaam was a pagan diviner asked by a Moabite king to curse his enemy Israel; in attempting to appease the powerful Jewish God, Balaam first sought out the will of the Lord—who used a donkey to open the enchanter’s eyes to His truth over the falsehood of omens (Num. 24:1-2 and following).
  • Saul in sinful desperation resorted to consulting a medium to call up the apparition of Samuel—and God, abhorring satanic involvement, yet graciously intervened with a vision of the dead prophet to rebuke the king (see 1 Sam. 28:7 and following).
  • The notorious and arrogant Jezebel practiced witchcraft, and ruined Israel’s peace by killing God’s prophets and pandering to the seers of Baal and Asherah (1 Kings 21:25; 2 Kings 9:22; see also Rev. 2:20).
  • King Manasseh broke away from his father’s godliness to re-establish Assyrian astral worship, Canaanite spiritist practices, and Molech-inspired human sacrifice (2 Kings 21:1-6).

Isaiah declared judgment upon Israel for all this sorcery, comparing the fate of the idolatrous against that of God’s righteous remnant (Isa. 2:6; 19:3; 47:9-12; 65:11-12). He admonished Judah not to fear her coming tribulation, for “Immanuel” God would be with her (Isa. 8:8-10) if she ran to His Word rather than to soothsayers:

And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn (Isa. 8:19-20).

While in captivity, Daniel honoured God above Babylon’s magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, astrologers, and diviners who used incantations in exorcisms, cast spells, sought revelation in the stars, and decreed the fate of others. The meaning of royal dreams and visions were not correctly revealed to this court of “wise men” but rather to Daniel (Dan. 4:7; 5:5-12). Only Daniel’s God directs the future; only the God of Israel is worthy of praise (Dan. 2:19-23; 4:34-35).

Words of judgment ring out from the last books of the Old Testament against the conjurings of Israel (Micah 5:12-14; Mal. 3:5). But occult activity was still ongoing four centuries later, when Jesus cast out demons throughout Galilee and sent His disciples out with the same power, and when Philip evangelized Simon the Magician in Samaria (Mark 1:39; Luke 9:1; Acts. 8:9-13). Paul encountered the fraudulent wizardry of a Jewish “prophet,” the maniacal ravings of a possessed slave girl, and the conversion of Ephesians who burned their scrolls of magic (Acts 13:6-8; 16:16-18; 19:18-20). In his epistles, Paul preached against participating with demons in the works of the flesh, listing idolatry and sorcery alongside drunkenness and orgies (1 Cor. 10:20-21; Gal. 5:18-22).

The book of Revelation seals up the written Word with a damning verdict against witchcraft (that is, use of drugs, potions, spells, and enchantments as one calls upon demonic powers through incantations, charms, and amulets). God will allow the hell-bent to suffer everlasting torment, for the sins of Babylon in deceiving the nations with her sorcery will eventually come to fruition (Rev. 9:20-21; 18:21-23; 21:8). In the closing chapter of the Bible, the final words of Jesus Christ ring out to explain the destiny of witches and their ilk, as well as the blessedness of those found instead in Him:

Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood . . . Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price (Rev. 22:12-15, 17).



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19. HAND          HAND

One summer day years ago, as I was stitching on my Bernina at my kitchen table by the window against the backdrop of the wide prairie sky, my three-year-old son asked me,

“Mommy, did God ’chine the clouds?”

His words conjured up an image of the Creator working some great celestial sewing machine, surrounded by billowy white gauze that He gathered and shirred and tucked and tacked and hemmed as He filled the heavens with His handiwork.

My son had hit upon the fact of God’s creation as the first great “work of His hands” we read about in Scripture, and the phrase is used as well for the many doings of both God and mankind—for both good and evil (Ps. 8:3-6; Ps. 90:17; Deut. 28:12; Deut. 31:29). In fact, the word “hand” is used about 1,800 times in the Bible (KJV), two-thirds of them in a symbolic sense. For example, hands folded in slumber represent sloth (Prov. 24:33-34). Hands uplifted in prayer or full of blood or fashioning idols indicate one’s attitude towards God (1 Tim. 2:8; Isa. 1:15; Ps. 135:15). An open or closed hand signifies generosity or hardness of heart, while washing hands can be a declaration of innocence (Deut. 15:7-8; Ps. 26:6; Matt. 27:24). God’s right hand shows His power, protection, righteousness, and possession (Exod. 15:6; Ps. 17:7; Ps. 48:10; Ps. 16:8; Ps. 110:5).

Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand (Isa. 41:10 NASB).

Figuratively, people are the work of the potter’s hand (Lam. 4:2; Jer. 18:1-7; Rom. 9:20-21). God’s mighty hand brought Israel out of Egypt—out of the enslaving hand of Pharaoh (Exod. 3:19-20; Exod. 7:4-5). God stretches out His hand in judgment as well as in redemption and restoration (Jer. 21:5; Ps. 81:14; Isa. 1:25; Ezek. 20:33-34). And every believer has surely felt His chastisement for unconfessed sin:

When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer (Ps. 32:3-4).

But an overview of the physical hand as it appears throughout Scripture gives a framework for its anthropomorphic or anthropopathic application (that is, ascription of human physical or emotional attributes to God). Given the overwhelming number of occurrences of the hand image, my choice of examples in the following outline is admittedly subjective.

Who can forget that earliest of stories in which Adam and Eve, clutching forbidden fruit, were cast from the Garden to prevent their eating from the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:6; Gen. 3:22-24)? Sin abounded but God’s grace prevailed as Cain’s hand dripped with the blood of his murdered brother, Noah’s hand welcomed the dove back into the ark, and Abraham’s hand was stayed from killing his own son (Gen. 4:11; Gen. 8:9; Gen. 22:9-12). Jacob, born holding onto the heel of his older twin brother Esau, later wore goat hair gloves to trick their blind father into blessing him instead of the rightful heir (Gen. 25:26; Gen. 27:15-16, 23). All that Joseph did prospered “in his hand” (NASB) until his master’s wife tore off his cloak as Joseph fled from her seduction; he was imprisoned until his political office was restored, when Pharaoh placed his royal signet ring on Joseph’s hand (Gen. 39:2; Gen. 39:11-12; Gen. 41:42).

Moses’ hands were full with freeing the Israelites from slavery as he wielded the staff of God to effect the plagues against Egypt—turning the country’s water into blood, summoning gnats and hail and locusts to devastate the land, bringing down pitch darkness upon the enemy, and parting the waters of the Red Sea in final victory (Exod. 4:2-5; Exod. 7:19; Exod. 9:22; Exod. 10:12; Exod. 10:22; Exod. 14:21). Moses obeyed God’s command to strike the rock at Horeb with his staff, bringing water to the thirsty wanderers; later he sinned by the same actions of his hands when he disobeyed God’s command in the Desert of Zin and suffered the penalty (Exod. 17:5-6; Num. 20:8-12). The stone tablets of the testimony, written by the finger of God on Mount Sinai, were carried down in the hands of Moses, who angrily broke them on the ground before Aaron’s hand-cast golden calf-idol (Exod. 32:2-4,15-19). Following the instructions given on the tablets, Moses oversaw the building and decorating of the Temple, accomplished by the hands of willing craftsmen and women—though Moses also warned the people not to think it was their hands that brought them prosperity (Exod. 35:10, 25-26; Deut. 8:17). One might think of the hand almost as a theme in Moses’ life.

So we begin to see the extent of God’s usage of the motif even in the first books of the Bible. As we continue to flip through the scriptural accounts, we remember Balaam as he beat his talking donkey that saw the angel with the drawn sword in hand, we recall Ehud the Benjaminite assassin who thrust his blade into the belly of the Moabite king, and we think about Jael hammering the tent peg through the sleeping enemy’s temple—examples representative of God’s using weapons in human hands to get His point across ([pun intended] Num. 22:22ff; Judg. 3:20-22; Judg. 4:21). With his bare hands Samson killed a lion and scraped out honey from its carcass, tied the tails of 300 foxes with torches to burn the enemies’ crops, killed 1,000 men with a donkey’s jawbone, and finally collapsed a whole house by manually pulling down two pillars and dying in the process—all used by God to release Israel from the hand of the Philistines (Judg. 14:6-9; 15:4; 16:29-30; 13:5). David’s hand that played the lyre to soothe mad King Saul also killed Goliath (1 Sam. 16:23; 17:49). Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal and proved God’s holiness when his prayers caused “a little cloud like a man’s hand” to arise from the sea and rain on their parade (1 Kings 18:44). The intrinsic sanctity of the Ark of the Covenant, improperly transported against the Law, was desecrated by Uzzah’s misplaced hand (1 Chron. 13:9-10).

Old Testament visions often included the image. A seraph with tongs held a burning coal to Isaiah’s “unclean lips” and declared his guilt forgiven (Isa. 6:4-7). Ezekiel’s four-fold creature sported human limbs, and an outstretched hand delivered to the prophet a scroll of woeful lamentation; in fact, the book of Ezekiel with its focus on the glory and character of the Lord contains dozens of references to this motif, commenting on judgment for corruption and disobedience, righteousness and purification of God’s people, and the restoration of Judah (Ezek. 1:8; 2:9-10; see also Ezek. 8:3; 10:2-7; 20:34; 23:37; 40:3). No one can forget Daniel and the handwriting on the wall or Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the block of stone, “not cut by human hands,” that smashed the feet of clay (Dan. 5:1-5; Dan. 2:31-35).

The OT comes to a close and the NT begins with a mention of this motif: a surveyor—possibly the Angel of the Lord—marked out the boundaries of Jerusalem with the measuring line in his hand (Zech. 2:1) and John prophesied the coming Messiah:

He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire (Matt. 3:11-12).

The hands of Jesus on earth showed salvation in action. He stretched out His right hand to heal—touching diseased skin and withered limbs and blind eyes, raising the dead to life (Matt. 8:3; 12:13; Mark 8:25; Matt. 9:18). He laid His hands in blessing on children and lifted Peter out of the tempestuous waves and dipped His hand into the dish alongside His betrayer, Judas (Matt. 19:13; 14:30-31; 26:23-25). Jesus’ hands were pierced for our transgressions, and into His Father’s hands He committed His spirit at death, after which He took His place at the right hand of the throne in Heaven (Isa. 53:5; John 20:20; Luke 23:46; Matt. 26:64).

During Christ’s earthly sojourn, we mortals touched God with our hands—He came in the flesh to bring us immortality (1 John 1:1; 2 Tim. 1:10). In a future time, an angel will carry a golden censer burning incense symbolic of the prayers of the saints ascending before God, and he will throw it onto the earth as the trumpet judgments begin to bring devastation to this world (Rev. 8:1-7). Clothed in robes made white in the blood of the Lamb, righteous martyrs holding branches and the harps of God will praise the Lord before His throne (Rev. 7:9-12; Rev. 15:2). Creator God—who laid the earth’s foundations and spread out the heavens and measured the waters in the hollow of His hand—hides us in the shadow of His hand (Isa. 48:13; Isa. 40:12; Isa. 51:16). His children are eternally safe in His palm (John 10:27-29). Someday King Jesus, the firstfruits from among the dead—who holds in His hand the seven stars and lampstands of the Church, the sealed scroll of judgment, and a sharp sickle to harvest the earth—will resurrect our bodies, as well, to everlasting life (Rev. 1:20; 5:1; 14:14-16; 1 Cor. 15:20; Mark 14:58-62):

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens (2 Cor. 5:1).



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18. FRIEND          FRIEND

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather, it is one of those things which give value to survival.                               —C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves                                                                                                          

In Lewis’s enduring text on the natural and supernatural loves, he explores the place of interpersonal, flesh-and-blood, human friendship that is a noble theme to consider:

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up! (Eccl. 4:9-10 NASB)

Several words in the original Bible languages are translated as “friend” and represent a spectrum from relative facelessness to intimacy, depending on context. A friend might be simply a fellow mortal or neighbour, a colleague, perhaps a kinsman, or even someone dear, highly favoured, and loved within a covenant of peace, communion, and fellowship.

The motif becomes complex when considering the whole scope of relationships—including, in New Testament words, both philia (friendship of a primarily reciprocal nature, the idea of loving as well as being loved) and agape (love not arising from the impulse of feelings and not primarily relational, but with resulting side benefits; this is the all-surmounting, holy love essential to God’s being).

We begin our study by looking at horizontal, human friendships.

The traits of a friend include fidelity, confidentiality, and a sense of loyalty that overlooks offense (Prov. 11:13; 1 Chron. 12:17; Prov. 17:9). There’s no room for treachery in friendship; instead, good friends stick together even in the bad times (Prov. 27:10; Prov. 18:24; Prov. 17:17). They are emotionally invested; for example, Jonathan and David had a strong bond that outlived death to be expressed to the next generation (1 Sam. 20:11-17; 2 Sam. 9:6-7):

The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. (1 Sam. 18:1)

Friends care for one another and enjoy giving gifts in meeting needs (1 Sam. 18:4; Acts 27:3). Purity of heart and words of graciousness will win even a king’s devotion (Prov. 22:11). Consider Ruth’s readiness to sacrifice, as she declared solidarity with her mother-in-law, Naomi, in their exile:

“Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16)

Friends talk face-to-face and rejoice in each other’s successes—lost money found, a wedding in the community (3 John 1:13-15; Luke 15:8-9; John 2:1-2). They are deeply familiar with one another, and spend time and “take sweet counsel” together (Ps. 55:13-14; Prov. 27:9)—although not at the expense of honesty, for,

Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend . . . Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another. (Prov. 27:5-6, 17)

We often read of Bible companions sharing meals as David feasted with his mighty men, and physically embracing as Esau hugged Jacob (1 Chron. 12:38-40; Gen. 33:4). But not all who share a table are trustworthy, not all who embrace truly love (Ps. 41:9; Jer. 41:1-2; Deut. 28:54). Discernment in choosing companions is of paramount importance:

A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends . . . Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare. (Prov. 16:28; Prov. 22:24)

Indeed, bad company ruins good morals; Amnon followed the plot of his crafty friend Jonadab and raped his own sister Tamar (1 Cor. 15:33; Deut. 13:6-8; 2 Sam. 13:3-14). Sometimes one’s enemies band together in alliance against the godly, like Job’s three fair-weather friends, or Pilate and Herod on the day of the Crucifixion (Job 2:11; 16:20; 19:19; Luke 23:12).

The Bible sets the world’s definition of friendship in juxtaposition against God’s:

It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in humans . . . Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh, and whose heart turns away from the Lord . . . Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him. (Ps. 118:8; Jer. 17:5, 7 NIV)

Indeed, God’s friendship (agape) is on a different plane altogether than the world’s friendship (James 4:4; John 15:19). When Adam and Eve lost their relationship with God, death entered to become our final enemy (Gen. 3:8; 1 Cor. 15:26). Ever since our separation from God in the Garden, He has been calling us back into relationship with Him (Isa. 45:22; Matt. 11:28). Consider His overtures of friendship when, early on, He interrupted the cycle of death by taking Cain’s son Enoch (who “walked” or fellowshipped with Him) alive to Heaven, as He did again later with Elijah (Gen. 5:22-24; 2 Kings 2:11). Consider His agape love when He chose Israel and called Abraham His friend (philos) because of his faith, or when He spoke intimately with Moses—forging covenants of great friendship with His people (Isa. 41:8; James 2:23; Exod. 33:11), for,

The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear Him, and He makes known to him His covenant. (Ps. 25:14)

God’s ultimate act of friendship was sending His gift of Jesus Christ to the world as a unique friend we could relate to in a physical, visceral sense—deity in flesh, God we could touch (Heb. 1:1-2; Phil. 2:6-8; 1 John 1:1).

For God so loved [agapao] the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

With the coming of Jesus, friendship took on a whole new significance. Of course, He had “friends” in the sense of human companions (Matt. 11:19; John 15:14-15). He wept together with Mary in philia-type friendship over Lazarus’ death, and He considered His disciples to be dear (philos) friends (John 11:32-36; Luke 12:4). At the Last Supper, He even addressed Judas as friend, but note that He used a different word here; hetaire would be better translated as “friendly opportunist” or “imposter,” for Jesus knew the dark heart of his betrayer (Matt. 26:48-50; John 2:23-25).

In a further differentiation of Jesus’ human relationships, John the Apostle was known as the disciple He loved (agapao) (John 13:23; 19:26). It is only on the basis of God’s friendship with us in Christ that we can know agape, for Jesus came to reconcile us to Himself, to change our status of enmity and bring us close to God again (Rom. 5:10; Col. 1:19-20; Eph. 2:12-13).

Greater love [agape] has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends [philos]. (John 15:13)

This in turn allows us to truly love others as siblings within the Body of Christ (Heb. 13:1). We now greet each other with agape, break bread together, season our speech with the bite of salt, and speak the truth in love—not just in word but also in deed (1 Pet. 5:14; Acts 2:46; Col. 4:6; Eph. 4:15; 1 John 3:18). We are no longer enemies of one another but, like Jesus, become kind, compassionate, and forgiving—as God has forgiven our enmity towards Him (Titus 3:3-7; Eph. 4:32; Matt. 5:43-44). We then offer the Good News of Christ’s friendship to the world, who will know us by our love—seeing us as united as partners, affectionate, sympathetic, comforting, and selfless (Matt. 28:19; John 13:35; Phil. 1:3-5; Phil. 2:1-5).

This is true friendship, indeed!


To comment on this reading, or to subscribe or unsubscribe to a monthly email reminder of new postings, please write me:

These short literary articles tied to the Bible explore what God might have been saying in His pattern of usage for each symbol. English rendition of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek varies with translations (e.g., “scroll” is sometimes interchangeable with “book”); however, the quality and underlying meaning of the selected emblem remain consistent across versions. Sketches are by Lorenda Harder. I recommend the website of Dr. Grant C. Richison for thorough expository Bible study:

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17. CUP          CUP         

All friends shall taste the wages of their virtue, and all foes the cup of their deservings.                                                     – Shakespeare, King Lear, 5.3

William Shakespeare wrote the tragedy King Lear sometime between 1603 and 1606, just as the Church of England was translating the King James Bible (published 1611) to replace earlier versions. The declaration above, by the fictitious Duke of Albany, is itself almost biblical, reminding us of that famous verse concerning the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23). Literary theorists have established the influence of the Bible upon Shakespeare’s work, and with this fictive quote we can see as well how the Bard employed the motif of the cup previously established in Scripture.

The cup (also translated from Hebrew as bowl, goblet, basin, or chalice) makes its first appearance in the full-orbed story of Joseph, a young man sold into Egyptian slavery by his brothers. While in prison, Joseph correctly interpreted the dream of his cellmate, the disgraced royal cupbearer, who fulfilled the dream-prophecy by once again taking up his duties; two years later Joseph himself was released by Pharaoh (Gen. 40:1-4, Gen. 40: 21-23; Gen. 41:14). Joseph rose in stature as a powerful government official overseeing Egypt’s crop production and distribution in a time of widespread famine. When his family arrived from neighbouring Canaan pleading for aid, he ensured their return to Egypt by planting his own silver cup in their belongings (Gen. 44:1-17).

A cup design was integrated into sacred articles used for worship in the Tabernacle and in Solomon’s Temple, including the golden lampstand and the huge basin holding thousands of gallons of water for use in the courtyard (Exod. 37:17-20; 1 Kings 7:48-50; 2 Chron. 4:4-5). King Solomon’s world-renowned wisdom and wealth left the visiting Queen of Sheba breathless as she noted the excellence even of his cupbearers (2 Chron. 9:1-4). This esteemed position of “poison taster” for the king next comes up in the account of Nehemiah: Solomon (who began his reign so well) fell into pagan worship, which eventually resulted in God’s judgment of Israel and the seventy-year Babylonian captivity of the Jews. During this oppression, the slave Nehemiah (later the rebuilder of Jerusalem’s walls) served as the personal cupbearer of the king of Persia (Neh. 1:11). We can see an interesting progression of the cup’s use—from its sanctity as a vessel of worship to its chastisement as an instrument of humiliation.

The Psalmist further carried this juxtaposition between the cup of joy and the cup of judgment:

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot . . . You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows . . . Let [God] rain coals on the wicked; fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup . . . but it is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another. For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs. (Ps. 16:5; Ps. 23:5; Ps. 11:6; Ps. 75:7-8 ESV)

The remaining Old Testament references to the cup all speak of God’s judgment regarding Israel’s cycle of idolatry and repentance, the nation forced to drink God’s “cup of wrath and staggering” or delivered from drinking it by His grace (Isa. 65:11; Isa. 51:17-22). God used the metaphor of the cup through His prophet Jeremiah as an object lesson: His divine punishment was meted out to His people through military conquests by His enemy, who came to be typified as “Babylon”—a golden cup of drunken madness in the Lord’s hand from which the whole earth would someday be forced to drink (Jer. 25:15-17; Jer. 25:28; Jer. 51:7). After the siege of Jerusalem (588-586 B.C.), the author of Lamentations mourned the city’s fate and called for vindication against her enemy (Babylon)—God’s enemy, who will one day drink of the bitter cup of His judgment (Lam. 4:21). Ezekiel, Habakkuk, and Zechariah all spoke of the horror, shame, and desolation of this judgment (Ezek. 23:31-33; Hab. 2:16; Zech. 12:2). Their language is echoed again in Revelation, a future time in which the “wine of God’s wrath” will be “poured into the cup of His anger” against Babylon—that is, against all false religion in the world (Rev. 14:10; Rev. 16:19; Rev. 17:4; Rev. 18:6).

But judgment is mitigated by grace, and in the New Testament Jesus used the image of the cup to teach about His mercy and substitutionary suffering on our behalf. He spoke of the reward due those who give just a cup of cold water to His children—that is, to the lowliest of His disciples (Matt. 10:42; Mark 9:41). He described the religious leaders of the day as hypocrites, cups clean on the outside but filthy within (Matt. 23:25-26). When James and John wanted spiritual favours in His kingdom, Jesus reminded them of the cup of suffering and death they would face, but only after He Himself faced a much greater, unique passion—the cup of God’s wrath He voluntarily drank on our behalf (Matt. 20:22-23; Matt. 26:39; John 18:11).

But before Jesus died, at the celebration of the Last Supper He gave deeper meaning to the cup by identifying it with the New Covenant, salvation through His blood:

And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:17-20).

The Passover celebration being held at that same moment in homes throughout Jerusalem featured a meal full of symbolism, each element of food and drink representing a different aspect of God’s salvation of His people. Four cups of wine would be passed among family members at different junctures in the meal to commemorate God’s promises—the first cup of sanctification (He would deliver Israel from the burdens of Egypt), the second cup of plagues (deliverance from bondage), the third cup of redemption (by God’s outstretched arm), and the fourth cup of consummation (God’s promise to take a people for Himself; Exod. 6:6-7). With His disciples in the upper room, Jesus (according to some commentators) drank the third cup of redemption, followed by His promise that He would not drink again until He drank with them (and us!) in Heaven, likely referring to the fourth cup of consummation still awaiting fulfillment.

Meanwhile, as we await the return of the One who holds the eternal cup of salvation, we believers drink from the cup of blessing rather than of demons—we serve only one Master (1 Cor. 10:16; 1 Cor. 10:21). We celebrate our own “Passover”—the memory of Christ’s death and resurrection and future return—with the chalice of Communion (1 Cor. 11:25-28).

The biblical motif of the cup runs through Scripture and symbolizes both judgment and grace, both punishment and forgiveness. Shakespeare’s declaration is mitigated for us; in fact, we do not sip from the “cup of our deservings” but rather from the grace-filled cup of Christ’s propitiation.

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16. SALT         SALT

A year ago I toured the Roman ruins beneath the city of Barcelona, with its 4,000 square metres of tumbledown stone walls delineating homes and businesses—the laundry, the winery, the garum factory. Ancient Romans loved their garum, a sauce made by fermenting fish guts in brine. Salt itself was a crucial trade item to the Romans, and early soldiers were given a ration known as salarium argentum, the Latin basis of the English word “salary.”

But of course the history and literature of salt goes back further than two millennia. In Bible lands, salt was connected with hospitality; the ancient practice of offering salt and bread to a guest was emblematic of a promise of loyalty and protection, and to “eat the salt of the palace” meant one was in the service of the king (Ezra 4:14). Salt was one of the first international commodities, with trade routes connecting Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The Bible early on records military maneuvers and political boundaries in reference to the Salt Sea (known to us as the Dead Sea; Gen. 14:3; Num. 34:3; Deut. 3:17). Edible salt was likely mined from the Mediterranean Sea.

The first memorable Bible story concerns Lot’s wife who, fleeing the sulphur-and-fire rainstorm of judgment from Heaven on Sodom and Gomorrah, gazed back longingly upon her home and became a “pillar of salt” as a monument to her unwillingness in following God (Gen. 19:24-26; Luke 17:28-30; Luke 17:32-33). Soon salt was associated symbolically with preservation, purification, and seasoning.

Preservation: Salt was used in Tabernacle worship; it was added to incense to produce white smoke and enhance fragrance, and added to grain offerings to signify the holy durability of the covenantal relationship between God and His people (Exod. 30:35; Lev. 2:13; Num. 18:19; 2 Chron. 13:5; Ezra 6:9; Ezek. 43:24). The Israelites ate salted locusts preserved in bottles—wings, feet, and intestines removed (Lev. 11:22; Matt. 3:4).

Purification or separation: God sometimes “cleansed” idolatrous nations by sowing them in salt so that farmland was left unproductive (Deut. 29:23; Judg. 9:45; Ps. 107:34; Zeph. 2:9). But in Jericho, where the well had turned sour and brackish water was killing crops, the prophet Elisha likened the ecological disaster to the spiritual pollution of Baal worship; he threw salt into the bad well to make it sweet, a miracle teaching that the Lord—not the god of fertility—could permanently heal their barrenness (2 Kings 2:19-22). The one whose heart turns away from God will wither like a malnourished plant:

He is like a shrub in the desert,
 and shall not see any good come. 
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
 in an uninhabited salt land (Jer. 17:6 ESV).

On the contrary, God provides for those who worship Him with pure hearts. Ezekiel compared Jerusalem to a cast-off newborn, an unwanted child whom no one pitied enough to wash and rub with salt and wrap in blankets until God noticed her kicking in her blood and rescued her for Himself (Ezek. 16:4-7). In this same Jerusalem during the Millennium, a river of life-giving water will flow from the Temple into the Dead (Salt) Sea, making it fresh so that its trees will produce fruit for food and leaves for healing (Ezek. 47:11-12; Rev. 22:1-3).

Seasoning: Salt in the New Testament refers first of all to taste: Jesus called believers the “salt of the earth” and admonished us not to lose our tangy witness, our distinctiveness from the world (Matt. 5:13; Mark 9:50; Luke 14:34). Jesus might have been alluding to a popular belief of the time that salt could lose its virtue, probably arising from the use of Dead Sea mixed-mineral deposits from which sodium chloride would dissolve away to leave just a tasteless or bitter reside. Pure salt is good and has value as a condiment and preservative as long as it retains its essential properties, Paul wrote, and so our speech is always to be “seasoned with salt”—pure and full of truth (Col. 4:6). In a reverse application of this metaphor, James warned that one’s heart shows its true source by the quality of one’s works:

Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water (James 3:11-12 ESV).

The nature of salt is expressed in both negative and positive imagery throughout Scripture: salt is polluting as well as preserving, purifying, and seasoning.

As a sort of postscript, I note that sweat—the salt of the body—is mentioned only three times in the Bible, a triad making a piquant point of its own regarding the concept of “work”:

  • In the Garden after the Fall, the Creator cursed the ground with thorns and thistles, condemning humans to struggle and sweat for daily bread until we return to the salty dust from which we were made (Gen. 3:19).
  • Then, in His rules of sanctification for Levitical priests as they served in the sanctuary, God showed His holiness by prescribing linen undergarments that were not to bind in such a way as to cause the defilement of human perspiration (Ezek. 44:15; Ezek. 44:18-19).
  • Finally, in the cleansing and sanctifying action of Christ’s suffering, His sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood (Luke 22:44).

God’s Word uses even this homely image of sweat to show how sin and the insufficiency of our own efforts are overcome through the creative, saving work of Jesus Christ, our great High Priest.

* * *

To comment on this reading, or to subscribe or unsubscribe to a monthly email reminder of new postings, please write me:

These short literary articles tied to the Bible explore what God might have been saying in His pattern of usage for each symbol. English rendition of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek varies with translations (e.g., “scroll” is sometimes interchangeable with “book”); however, the quality and underlying meaning of the selected emblem remain consistent across versions. Sketches are by Lorenda Harder. I recommend the website of Dr. Grant C. Richison for thorough expository Bible study:

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15. LIGHT          LIGHT

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God . . .

Thus begins the Nicene Creed, a historical statement of Christian orthodoxy hammered out a mere three hundred years after Jesus walked the earth. Its motif of light runs through Scripture, beginning with the first words of the Creation story, where out of dark chaos God brought forth light:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light . . . (Gen. 1:1-3 ESV)

But the concept of God’s creating light is far removed from His being light. Let’s watch the Bible progressively unfold the metaphor of light in a sampling of its over two hundred appearances.

Physical light is mentioned in conjunction with God’s leading Israel out of bondage and through the desert by means of a plague and a pillar (Exod. 10:21-23; 13:21). Yahweh’s gloriously shining shekinah descended upon Mount Sinai, making Moses’ face glow before filling the Tabernacle (Exod. 24:15-18; 34:29; 40:34-38; 2 Chron. 5:13-14). Many Bible stories occurred at sunrise: Consider Abraham’s departure to sacrifice Isaac, Joshua’s march around Jericho as the walls fell, and Elisha’s miraculous protection by angelic chariots of fire (Gen. 22:3; Josh. 6:15-16ff; 2 Kings 6:15-17).

The symbolism of light develops through poetry. Job contrasted the darkness of death and wickedness with the light of God’s favor (Job 10:21-22; 18:5-6; 24:13-17; 29:2-3). The Psalmist referred to God’s joy-giving presence and His Word as light that guides into truth and brings blessing as He searches us out in our dark lostness (Ps. 4:6; 97:11; 19:8; 43:3; 139:11-12).

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
 The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? (Ps. 27:1 ESV)

The Prophets described God as everlasting light, bringer of prosperity (Isa. 60:19-20; Hab. 3:4; Zech. 14:7; Dan. 2:22; Isa. 58:8-10). They said His end-times judgment would produce cosmic cataclysm—with stars, constellations, the sun, and the moon ceasing to shed light, and all again becoming “formless and empty” in a sort of undoing of Creation (Isa. 13:10; Jer. 4:23; see as well Matt. 24:29). But a poignant prophecy from Isaiah about the coming Messiah rang with hope, written seven hundred years before the Nativity and repeated in Matthew (Matt. 4:16) as fulfilled in Christ:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
 on them has light shone. (Isa. 9:2 ESV)

Jesus’ angelic birth announcement was surrounded by light, and a star lit the way of the Magi (Luke 2:9-10; Matt. 2:9-10). The book of John radiates Christ’s light, which banishes sin’s darkness by exposing truth (John 3:19-21; 12:46).

 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4-5 ESV)

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12 ESV)

Jesus caused the blind to see both physically and spiritually (Matt. 6:22-23; 9:27-30). He taught His followers to likewise bring His truth to the world:

 You are the light of the world . . . Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 5:14-16 ESV)

His resurrection from the dead at daybreak on the third day, declared by an angel whose appearance was like lightning, proved Him to be the light He claimed to be (Matt. 28:1-3).

In the early Church, Peter was rescued from prison by an angel who shone a light into his cell, and Paul’s dramatic conversion as well centered around a blinding “light from heaven”  (Acts 12:5-7; 26:12-18). The Epistles warn us not to miss the light—we must wake up and cast off the works of darkness (Rom. 2:17-22; 13:11-13). Satan and his minions are disguised in light as servants of righteousness, Paul taught, but we have been delivered from that domain and now “share in the inheritance of the saints in light” (2 Cor. 11:14-15; Col. 1:12-13). The God who long ago said, “Let there be light!” has shone light into our darkness through Jesus, calling us to “walk as children of light” (2 Cor. 4:6; Eph. 5:8-9; 1 Thess. 5:5).

God will one day disclose the purposes of our hearts, exposing what is now hidden in darkness, for He is the Unchangeable One who “dwells in unapproachable light”  (1 Cor. 4:5; James 1:17; 1 Tim. 6:16). As we walk in His light today, we fellowship in love with one another (1 John 1:7; 2:9-10).

 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light . . . that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life . . . (I Pet. 2:9; Phil. 2:15-16 ESV)

Someday the New Jerusalem will shine with God’s glory, “its radiance like a most rare jewel,” so that the sun and moon will no longer be needed; the Lord God and the Lamb will illuminate eternity (Rev. 21:10-11; 22:3-5).

May Jesus Christ—the “Light of Light” and “very God of very God”—illumine our hearts and minds this Yuletide and New Year.

* * *

To comment on this reading, or to subscribe or unsubscribe to a monthly email reminder of new postings, please write me:

These short literary articles tied to the Bible explore what God might have been saying in His pattern of usage for each symbol. English rendition of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek varies with translations (e.g., “scroll” is sometimes interchangeable with “book”); however, the quality and underlying meaning of the selected emblem remain consistent across versions. Sketches are by Lorenda Harder. I recommend the website of Dr. Grant C. Richison for thorough expository Bible study: 





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 Welcome to my ROLLED SCROLL study, where I follow cultural and literary images found in the Bible in an attempt to unearth God’s meaning in His pattern of usage.


And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off . . . In about ten minutes she reached it and found it was a lamp-post.                     — C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Anyone caught under the spell of Lewis’s fiction knows that the lamppost marks the beginning of the magical kingdom of Narnia, where it was “always winter and never Christmas” until Aslan saved his kingdom from the curse of the White Witch. In profound Christian allegory, Lewis invested his motif of the lamp with some of the great meaning previously developed in biblical literature.

The household lamp of ancient domestic life was a clay dish full of olive oil with a flax wick; we see one in Elisha’s bedroom and another kept lit by the godly homemaker of Proverbs (2 Kings 4:9-11; Prov. 31:18). Alternatively the lamp might be a torch fueled by oil—but never a candle feeding on itself to provide light, for “oil” in Bible parlance denotes the Holy Spirit, as in the parable of the ten virgins (Matt. 25:1-12). In fact, most scriptural references to the lamp pertain to its religious or symbolic use and are associated with the presence of God, worship and guidance, the life of the soul, witness or prophetic proclamation, and illumination by the written Word.

The lampstand, with seven flames signifying God’s holy perfection, appears almost a hundred times in Exodus alone. Its light perpetually shone in the Tabernacle and subsequent Temple; the hammered gold menorah with its stems, leaves, and blossoms resembled the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden (Exod. 25:31-37; Lev. 24:1-4). The lamp connotes God’s presence not only in the Sanctuary (1 Sam. 3:3) but also within the hearts of His people:

For you are my lamp, O Lord, and my God lightens my darkness . . . For it is you who light my lamp. (2 Sam. 22:29; Ps. 18:28 ESV)

Even during the reign of wicked rulers, God remembered His covenant and, unwilling to destroy the lineage of the coming Savior, He kept the lamp of David’s line burning (2 Chron. 21:7; Ps. 132:17). A lamp shows what’s in the darkness, and so the Lord searches our “innermost parts” (Prov. 20:27; Ps. 139:11-13; Ps. 139:23-24). Haughty eyes and proud heart are the lamp of the wicked, but blessing shines above those walking in the light of God’s ways (Prov. 21:4; Job 21:17; Job 29:1-6).

God’s commandments, too, are pictured as a lamp (Prov. 6:23). The Psalmist, ridiculed for his faith, strengthened himself by meditating on the Scriptures, and so delighted in them that he wrote a 176-verse acrostic poem to celebrate God’s body of teaching able to direct one’s life:

How blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord . . . I have restrained my feet from every evil way, that I may keep Your word . . . Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.  (Ps. 119: 1,101,105 ESV)

God used the image through the Prophets to warn Israel of her coming captivity, when she would be left “lampless” and far from home; soon thereafter Jerusalem fell to Babylon and the Temple was ransacked of holy vessels, including lampstand (Jer. 25:10; Jer. 52:18-19). It was at that time God searched Jerusalem with lamps and punished her stagnancy of spirit (Zeph. 1:12). When the golden vessels of Nebuchadnezzar’s pillage were desecrated, God judged the sacrilege through supernatural handwriting on the wall, read in the light of the royal lampstand: “Your kingdom will end” (Dan. 5:1-31). Zechariah’s apocalyptic vision pertaining to Israel’s future included seven small lamps fed continually with oil from two olive trees portraying two Spirit-filled leaders, signifying Israel would become the light of all the world (Zech. 4:11-14). The last of the OT prophets, John the Baptist was a burning lamp of testimony shining until Jesus—the True Light—came in the glory of the Father (John 5:33-35).

Jesus indicated the type of person entering the Messianic Kingdom would—like a lamp on a stand rather than one hidden beneath a basket—shine forth the light of God’s glory (Matt. 5:14-16). The eye is the lamp of the body; Christ’s followers see through the perspective of God’s viewpoint so that light permeates their whole person, in contrast to the darkened understanding of the spiritually blind (Matt. 6:22; Luke 11:34). We are to keep our lamps of spiritual readiness lit as we await His return (Luke 12:35-37). For we have an enlightening teacher in the written Word, a lamp shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star—the Eternal Light, Jesus—rises in our hearts to shine greater understanding, dispelling the darkness forever (2 Pet. 1:19; Rev. 22:16).

Exiled to Patmos, John the Apostle envisioned Jesus standing in the midst of seven lampstands, representing seven historic churches (now in Muslim territory) that once cast His light onto the world but whose testimony He snuffed out when they no longer shone forth the truth of the Gospel; Jesus is present in churches where His truth holds fast (Rev. 1:9-13; Rev. 2:1-5). Alluding to Zechariah’s vision of lamps fed directly by olive trees, John wrote about the two witnesses in the end times who, full of the Spirit of God, will testify during the reign of the Antichrist regarding the Second Coming (Rev. 11:3-6). Someday all false religion and evil will be extinguished like a cold lamp (Rev. 18:20-24). In eternity, seven lamps of the Holy Spirit will burn before God’s throne, where the Lamb of God will illuminate the New Jerusalem forever (Rev. 4:5; Rev. 5:6; Rev. 21:23).


To comment on this reading, or to subscribe or unsubscribe to a monthly email reminder of new postings, please write me:

These short literary articles tied to the Bible explore what God might have been saying in His pattern of usage for each symbol. English rendition of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek varies with translations (e.g., “scroll” is sometimes interchangeable with “book”); however, the quality and underlying meaning of the selected emblem remain consistent across versions. Sketches are by Lorenda Harder. I recommend the website of Dr. Grant C. Richison for thorough expository Bible study: 


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Welcome to my ROLLED SCROLL study, where I follow cultural and literary images found in the Bible in an attempt to unearth God’s meaning in His pattern of usage.

          CLOTHING (NT) 

The finest clothing made is a person’s skin, but, of course, society demands something more than this. 

—Mark Twain, New York Times, 1906

It’s always the badly dressed people who are the most interesting. 

—Jean Paul Gaultier, Designer


Poets and wags have much to say on the subject of what to wear, but the story of clothing is most fascinating as told through Scripture. In last month’s post we followed OT images of clothing that illustrate God’s character as Creator, Provider, and Judge; they relate to the Fall of mankind into sin, God’s care for Israel physically through daily supply and spiritually through priestly blood sacrifice, and His promises to one day bring His people back to Himself again.

The New Testament carries on the motif of clothing with meaning progressively added, beginning with the Gospels where a sort of salvation history can be traced chronologically in the life of Christ:

  • At His Nativity, Jesus was wrapped in swaddling cloths and (though not specified here) we can imagine the rich outfits of the visiting Magi, the rags of the peasant shepherds, and the shining glory of the angels’ apparel (Luke 2:7-13; Matt. 2:1ff).
  • John the Baptist preached in camel’s hair and leather so distinct from the long robes of the religious leaders, marking him as a prophet and indicating his message of Christ’s very different in-breaking kingdom (Matt. 3:4; Luke 7:24-27; Luke 20:46).
  • The element of clothing was involved in Jesus’ ministry. Those who touched His garments in faith were physically healed (Mark 5:25-34; Mark 6:56). He warned against false teachers as wolves dressed like sheep, and admonished believers to care for the poor and naked (Luke 12:23-28; Matt. 7:15; Matt. 25:36-43). Where the OT Law had disallowed lending or taking of one’s cloak, Jesus’ law of love prescribed turning the cheek and giving more than was demanded (Matt. 5:40; Luke 6:29; see also Exod. 22:26).
  • In Jesus’ parables the prodigal son received his father’s best robe upon returning as believers receive God’s gracious welcome home; the “purple and fine linen” of the rich man did not get him into the Heaven that poor Lazarus entered; and wedding clothes depicted righteousness in Jesus’ economy (Luke 15:22; Luke 16:19-20ff; Matt. 22:11-14).
  • On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus’ clothing became “bright as a flash of lightning” (NIV) as He spoke to Elijah and Moses about His coming departure from this world through which He would bring salvation (Matt. 17:2; Luke 9:28-31).
  • In the Triumphal Entry, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a saddle of His disciples’ cloaks, His donkey treading on the coats that the crowd spread before them (Matt. 21:6-8).
  • During the arrest and trial, He was brought before Caiaphas who, in fury over Jesus’ “blasphemous” statement of His deity, tore his own priestly garb (which, incidentally, the Law forbade; Lev. 21:10; Matt. 26:65). Soldiers stripped the condemned Jesus, dressing Him in the scarlet robes of a king to mock and humiliate Him (Matt. 27:27-31).
  • At the Crucifixion, His garments were divided up into lots in fulfillment of prophecy (Matt. 27:35; John 19:23-24).
  • But at His Resurrection from the dead, He left behind the linen shroud in which His body was wrapped, exchanging it for transcendent, heavenly clothing (Matt. 27:59; John 20:3-7; Rev. 1:13).
  • The angels attending the tomb were dressed resplendently, as were the angels standing beside the disciples at Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven (Matt. 28:3; Luke 24:4; Acts 1:10).

The literary emblem of clothing is sustained past Jesus’ departure from this world, with the rest of the New Testament continuing to teach and interpret God’s message for believers. Acts notes that the early church included Dorcas and Lydia, the first a seamstress who donated dresses to widows and who died and was brought back to life by Peter, the second a tradeswoman who dealt in the highly prized purple cloth from Thyatira (Acts 9:39-40; Acts 16:14). Paul (who before conversion gave his approval to the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, by the act of guarding the garments of the killers) taught that we believers are to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Acts 7: 58-8:1; Acts 22:20; Rom. 13:12). We’re further instructed to dress modestly in worship (for our beauty as women does not come from outward adornment), to be content with God’s provisions of food and clothing, and not to show preferential treatment based on the richness or shabbiness of a worshiper’s attire (1 Tim. 2:8-10; 1 Pet. 3:3-4; 1 Tim. 6:8; James 2:2-3; Luke 12:27-28). For we have “put off” the old self of sinful ways and “put on” the new self like a garment (Col. 3:9-10).

In a future day, when Jesus calls us Heavenward, our bodies will put on imperishability and immortality (1 Cor. 15:53). We will then be dressed as His Bride in the “fine linen” of righteousness that God has declared belongs to those who trust Christ’s payment for sin, and the robes of the Tribulation saints will have been washed in the blood of the Lamb to remove all stains (Rev. 7:14). The church is Christ’s Bride, comprised of saints who work righteous deeds in His power, and by His work on the Cross Jesus has purchased our wedding gown for us:

Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. (Rev. 19:7-8 ESV)

In perhaps the strongest declaration of the glorious Coming of Jesus Christ the Prophet, Priest, and King, we read again of His attire:

He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. (Rev. 19:13-16 ESV)

Clothing is a comprehensive biblical motif expressing God’s judgment against sin demanding blood atonement, His provision of Jesus as the final sacrifice of complete covering, and our marriage to His Son for which we, the church—the Bride of Christ—are dressed in the robe of His righteousness.


To comment on this reading, or to subscribe or unsubscribe to a monthly email reminder of new postings, please write me:


These short literary articles tied to the Bible explore what God might have been saying in His pattern of usage for each symbol. English rendition of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek varies with translations (e.g., “scroll” is sometimes interchangeable with “book”); however, the quality and underlying meaning of the selected emblem remain consistent across versions. Sketches are by Lorenda Harder. I recommend the website of Dr. Grant C. Richison for thorough expository Bible study: 

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