I love stories, allegory, metaphor, parables, similes, types, shadows and word pictures. I love seeing unexpected revelations of God in unexpected places, truth wrapped in mystery and the revelation of light in dark places.
I also enjoy, from time to time, fantasy literature and films – ‘Lord of the Rings’ being amongst my favourites. My heart leaps when I hear Frodo saying – ‘I will bear the ring’ – for in that moment I see a picture of Jesus as he said to his Father – ‘Not my will but yours’. Others go further and see Frodo, who experienced suffering and sacrifice on his journey to take the One Ring back to Middle-earth, as a representation of Christ’s sacrifice in dying for the sin of man. However, I would never in my wildest dreams think of referring to Jesus as Frodo.
Interestingly J. R. R. Tolkien denied that his writings had any deeper spiritual meaning, stating – ‘As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical .. ‘
C.S. Lewis on the other hand wrote his ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ with the express intention of revealing a deeper story and truth, stating at one point – ‘The whole Narnia story is about Christ.’ As we know Lewis chose a lion he called Aslan to represent Christ, his reason being – ‘Christ is called ‘The Lion of Judah’ in the Bible.’ We will come back to that in a moment – but suffice to say at this point, once again, I struggle personally to call Christ Aslan – a term which appears to be used freely of Christ in some Christian circles.
One of the current catch phrases I have heard used is – ‘Aslan is rising’ – meaning, I take it, that God, seen as Aslan the Lion, is on the move in some big, powerful, majestic way. We also see, in this regard, the image of a lion used in many places today as a representation of God or his Kingdom.
However, part of the problem for me is that nowhere in the Gospels or Epistles of the New testament is Jesus likened to or seen as a lion or lion like. On the contrary he is seen predominantly as The Lamb or The Good Shepherd – the polar opposite to a lion in metaphor! Today, shepherds, lambs and lions do not normally mix – although one day they will!
As we indicated, Lewis chose a lion as being symbolic of Christ because – ‘Christ is called ‘The Lion of Judah’. However this term is, in and of itself, somewhat mysterious and very often, it appears to me, taken out of context. As we know, the only time this term is used is in the book of Revelation, a book replete with imagery and pictures over which theologians and scholars have debated and argued for centuries. Indeed some do not believe it should be included in the canon of scripture at all! However, the reference in question is made when an ‘Elder’, in John’s vision, asked him to look at ‘The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the heir to David’s throne.’ Very significantly, John appears not to have seen the lion referred to, as when he looks what he saw was – ‘A Lamb that looked as if it had been slaughtered.’
How then do we account for this lone reference, by the Elder in John’s vision, to ‘the Lion of the tribe of Judah’? The only time, as far as I know, that scripture connects clearly with this statement is in Genesis 49 (NIV quoted), and, I have no doubt, is what the Elder of Revelation is referencing. The event occurs at the time when Jacob, in his old age, gathered his sons together in order to prophesy over them. Addressing Judah first he says –
‘Judah, your brothers will praise you.
You will grasp your enemies by the neck.
All your relatives will bow before you.
Judah, my son, is a young lion
that has finished eating its prey.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down;
like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
The sceptre will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants,
until the coming of the one to whom it belongs,
the one whom all nations will honour.
He ties his foal to a grapevine,
the colt of his donkey to a choice vine.
He washes his clothes in wine,
his robes in the blood of grapes.’
First of all we need to recognise that the language used here – as in the book of Revelation is metaphoric. Again, of course, there is much within this statement which could be discussed – but for our purposes we will be brief. As a result of the prophetic proclamation made by Jacob in relation to his son Judah being like a lion (a father knows his son!) – the symbol of the tribe of Judah became a lion. However, there is more here – because Jacob speaks also of the coming of the One, through this tribe, who will rightly claim the ‘sceptre’ or ‘ruler’s staff’ of Judah – ‘the one whom all nations will honour’. This mysterious individual is also one who will, metaphorically speaking, ‘wash his clothes in wine, his robes in the blood of grapes.’
Fast forward to the Elder in Revelation 15. The scene depicted at this point in John’s vision relates to the issue of ‘Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll’. We need not concern ourselves here with the details – but please note it has to do with ‘worthiness’ – and no one could be found to meet the requirement. It is at that point that ‘the Lion of the tribe of Judah’ is introduced –
‘The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and it’s seven seals.’
I don’t necessarily even think the text requires that we attribute any lionlike features to Christ from this statement as it is, I would suggest, a term of identification rather than description. However, clearly, as we have already said, John did not see a lion but ‘a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain’. Or, perhaps we could say, in the words of Jacob, the One who has – ‘washed his clothes in wine – his robes in the blood of grapes’. And it is The Lamb, not the lion, who comes forward to receive the scroll! I believe this adds weight to the possibility that the term – ‘The Lion of the tribe of Judah’ is one of identification rather than a description of the one introduced. However, we cannot miss what happens next, for I believe it is the ultimate fulfilment of Jacob’s prophecy –
‘And when he had taken it (the scroll), the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:
‘You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”
Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they were saying:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honour and glory and praise!”
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honour and glory and power,
for ever and ever!’
The Lamb is all the glory of Emmanuel’s land indeed! And should he not be ours today? No wonder then that the image and symbol chosen by the early church for Christ was not the lion but that of a shepherd with a lamb or sheep on his shoulders. Some of us will have heard the news, reported internationally in the last few days (1), of a ring carved with the figure of a shepherd boy carrying a sheep on his shoulders, discovered among other artefacts in two shipwrecks near the ancient port of Caesarea. Caesarea was of course, home to one of the first Christian communities and where the apostle Peter baptised the Roman centurion Cornelius.
There is also other historical and archaeological evidence to support the fact that the image of the shepherd and lamb was the most prominent symbol of Christ used by the early church and was so for the first 300 years of its existence – indeed until the time of Constantine (who converted to Christianity about 312 AD). Everything, of course, changed with Constantine – but that’s another story.
Apart from what we have already said, there is good solid and biblical reasoning for the adoption of this symbol by the early church – which, in truth, is a study all on its own. Suffice to say at the moment that the prophet Isaiah foresaw the coming Messiah as ‘The Servant’ and as one who will –
‘ Care for you as a shepherd tends his flock,
gathering the weak lambs and taking them in his arms.
He carries them close to his heart
and gently leads those that have young.’
(Isaiah 40:11) TLV
And when Jesus came he stated –
‘I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.’
(John 10:11) TLV
All of us are aware that the imagery and metaphor of the shepherd and the lamb are used frequently in the new Testament. Once again it is important to emphasise Jesus is never seen as, nor does he personally use, ‘lion’ imagery or metaphors in relation to himself or his ministry and mission.
I believe we also need to take great care about choosing imagery from one part or timeframe in biblical history or eschatology and transferring or using it in another. And that is true for the timeframe in which we find ourselves today – the ‘Day of Grace’.
Consider for a moment the major images used for God in the Psalter – the book of Psalms. The predominant metaphors used are these – Shield, High Tower, Fortress, High Place, Refuge, Rock, Stronghold and Horn of Salvation. Put simply these are metaphors relating to our security in God. Very significantly, none of this kind of language is used anywhere in the New Testament. However, there are other more obscure terms for God found in the Psalmody, which are adopted by Jesus. These are – God as a good shepherd (Psalm 23), God as a good woman (Psalm 131 and also Isaiah 66) and God as a good father (Psalm 103). And when Jesus is challenged by the religious leaders of his day regarding his relationship with ‘sinners’ he takes these obscure metaphors and incorporates them in to a Parable (three stories) – which we refer to as the Parables of The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin and the Lost Son. (2)
So we have to be careful that the metaphors we use to reveal the purposes, character and expression of the Kingdom of God in our day and generation are in harmony with God’s purpose and vision for this moment. What I am saying is this. I struggle to see the lion fitting in here at all. But I am open to be corrected.
I know that C.S. Lewis (for whom I have the highest regard BTW) in the final chapter of the third book of the Chronicles – ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ portrays Aslan as both a lion and a lamb. So please let me say again – I am all for metaphor, parable and story! Jesus himself was the metaphorical theologian par excellence! (3) However the metaphor is not the substance – and we need to remember that in order to avoid misunderstanding and drifting off into dangerous seas. My concern here is simply that the concept of God or Christ seen as lion like is not the revelation of his character as revealed in the New Testament.
So I will leave that last word with A.P. (Dean) Stanley (1815 – 1881) –
‘What was the popular Religion of the first Christians? It was in one word the religion of the Good Shepherd. The kindness, the courage, the grace, the love, the beauty of the Good Shepherd was to them, if we may say so, Prayer Book and Articles, Creeds and Canons, all in one. They looked on that figure and it conveyed to them all that they wanted.’
(2) Personal notes from ‘The Good Shepherd’ – Rev. Dr. Kenneth Bailey
(3) ‘There are two ways to create meaning. In classical western thought we are inheritors of Greco-Roman tradition rooted in the teaching and philosophy of Plato and Aristotle in the 5th century BC – where meaning is created by logic resting on the foundation of a philosophical point of view. In this system reason and logic are the foundation of the creation of meaning.
In the Middle Eastern world this was not the case and such a thought process was alien to the writers and thinkers in the OT and almost unknown in NT times. Middle Eastern thinkers create meaning through simile, parable, metaphor and dramatic action. They are not illustrating an idea the way we so often do when we present an abstraction and then illustrate with example. Middle Eastern people create meaning through simile, parable, metaphor and dramatic action. All of those lend themselves to interpretation and in the interpretation you extract meaning. The primary mode of the creation and communication of language in this culture is, again, the metaphor the simile, the parable and story.’
Personal notes from ‘The Good Shepherd’ – Rev. Dr. Kenneth Bailey
I believe it is because most of our thinking is embedded in our western Greco-Roman tradition that most theologians and teachers today (at least in my tradition), see Paul as the principal theologian of the NT. This is because most, although not all, of Paul’s teaching and thought is presented using abstractions – with very few metaphors. Jesus on the other hand, rooted in his tradition, teaches in simile, parable, metaphor and dramatic action. Consequently many see his teaching as simple stories better suited to the uneducated or those at a Sunday School level of theological understanding. I think of churches and preachers in my tradition who might spend years going verse by verse through some of Paul’s letters – with almost no attention whatsoever to the teaching of Jesus. This, IMHO, is an error of tragic proportions and the church in general is much the poorer for it.