Understanding Figures of Speech in the Bible

We use figures of speech every day in our normal conversation, including:

Metonymy (from the Greek, "change of name") simply means substituting one word for another with which it is closely associated/related. Synecdoche (si'-nek-doh-kee) is a form of metonymy; it is a specific term employed when you use a part of the thing to mean the whole thing itself.

An example of metonymy is the phrase "the Oval Office today reports," where the Oval Office is intended to represent the President of the United States.  Synecdoche (si'-nek-doh-kee), for example, it is used in the phrase "all hands on deck," where “hands” represent the men attached to them.

What is a Figure of Speech? A departure from the normal rules of grammar or word usage. What is the purpose of figures of speech? To give special emphasis. To call attention to the point.

Why are figures of speech in the Bible? Figures of speech are universal to human communication. Every language, including the Biblical languages, has them. God used figures of speech to call attention to a point in the Bible.

Why it is important to understand figures of speech in the Bible? To get to the correct interpretation of Scripture. Serious misinterpretations of Scripture come from not recognizing something as a figure of speech, for example:

Calling something figurative that is literal. The 6 days of Creation in Genesis 1 are literal 24-hour periods. But many who want to believe Creation couldn’t have happened that quickly say they are figurative.

Calling something literal that is figurative. For example, Jesus saying to the disciples “take eat, this is my body.” We are not literally eating His flesh in the Lord’s Supper but the doctrine of transubstantiation teaches that the bread and wine are literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ.

It is not honest biblical interpretation to call something figurative simply because you don’t understand it or don’t want to believe it.

How do we know when the words are literal or figurative? The Bible should be understood literally whenever possible. But when a statement appears to be contrary to our experience, or to known fact, or to the general teaching of truth, then we can expect that a figure of speech is present. If a word or words are truly a figure of speech, then that figure can be named and described. It will have a specific identifiable purpose.

How can we recognize figures of speech?

1. The words don’t make sense literally. 1 Corinthians 11:16-21, Paul calls himself a fool. He isn’t one, but is using the figure “sarcasm.”Isaiah 55:12, “the trees will clap their hands.” Trees don’t have hands and don’t clap. The figure is personification.

2. The words are clear and literal, but are put together in a grammatical or structural way that brings emphasis to the section. This kind of figure may be lost in translation.

Genesis 2:17, “you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” The Hebrew reads, “dying you will die,” using the figure “many inflections,” that is the same word in different forms. 

Ephesians 3:18, “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” The “ands” is the figure “Many ands” and gives separate emphasis to each part, more than a comma would.

Today we’ll focus on synecdoche to help us understand how people who believe in salvation by faith only more effectively. A proper understanding may serve to break down the barrier in the minds of some between faith and baptism.

The Scriptures use the figure of speech "synecdoche" a lot, examples:

 1. Acts 2:41,43 "soul" is used to refer to the whole person. We don't baptize souls, but bodies! Synecdoche! It is evident by these verses that the word "soul" (a part) is used to refer to man's entire being (spirit, soul, and body, 1 Thess. 5:23). Therefore, we can conclude that the word "soul" is sometimes used comprehensively to include the other facets of man's nature, although they are not mentioned explicitly.

2. Baptism "now saves you," 1 Pet. 3:21. No mention is made in the verse about faith, repentance nor confession saving us. Are they excluded? Of course not, synecdoche! Baptism, the last of five steps of the gospel terms of salvation, stands for all of the steps. EXAMPLES IN WHICH BELIEF IS USED TO REPRESENT OBEDIENCE TO ALL OF GOD'S PLAN OF SALVATION:

A. Many people teach that all you have to do is "believe" and God will save you.  They cite:  John 3:16, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have eternal life". John  6:47, "Truly, Truly, I say unto you, He who believes has eternal life".

B. What's the problem?  Their concept of the words "believe" is far too limited. Instead of recognizing the synecdochical use of these words in the Scriptures, every time they see "believe" they're actually thinking "believe ONLY".  But "believe" and "believe only" are two very different concepts.

 1. Unfortunately, we do them a disservice by saying, "Yes, that's right; you do need to believe.  But you ALSO need to be baptized." And then we give them a list of verses which mention baptism.  Although our intentions are good, we may actually be defeating our purpose by leading the person to believe that baptism and belief in those passages are two separate things!  Consequently, we're promoting the false notion that baptism is not even under consideration in those passages that use the word "believe" or "believes" when it actually is mentioned implicitly - synecdoche.

C. In the NT belief is used in synecdochical form to INCLUDE other steps of the plan of salvation which are internally associated with it.  Examples:

1. On the day of Pentecost, Acts 2:44, "And all that believed were together, and had all things in common".  In this example, we see that a part (belief) is used for the whole. What does the Holy Spirit mean when He says that they "believed"?  

a) That they had faith (2:37). 

b) That they had repented (2:38). 

c) That they had been baptized (2:38,41).

d) Baptism and repentance, although not mentioned explicitly in Acts 2:44, are mentioned implicitly (by synecdoche). 

e) We've got to help our "faith only" friend to see that his concept of belief does not have a scriptural foundation! It's far too limited.

2. The Philippian jailer and his whole household, Acts 16:34, "And he brought them up into his house, and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, with all his house, having believed in God". 

a) This verse clearly teaches that baptism (16:33) is internally associated with belief. Since this is the case, we shouldn't try to separate the two!  God includes baptism as a part of true saving belief.  Synechdoche. 

b) Remember: when many people see the words "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and thou shalt be saved, thou and thy house" (Acts 16:31) they're actually thinking that it says "believe ONLY ... and you will be saved". We've got to help them to see that baptism is included in the word believe and not say, "Yes, but they ALSO had to be baptized...."

3. Crispus - Acts 18:8, "And Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his house; and many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized".

a) But somebody says, "You see!  It says that the Corinthians were baptized but it doesn't say anything about Crispus being baptized!" 

b) Actually, it DOES say that he was baptized in Acts 18:8 because the word "believed" IMPLIES AND INCLUDES baptism. Synecdoche,  As proof of this fact, in 1 Cor. 1:14 we see that Crispus had been baptized by the apostle Paul himself.

There are other cases of words used in synecdochical form. It is used all throughout the Bible and we need to teach people this, expand their understanding. 

1. Feet, Rom. 10:15, "How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace" = the messenger who uses his feet to convey him to the spot to preach.

2. Eye, Rev. 1:7, "every eye shall see him," = every person will see the Lord's personal return.

CONCLUSION 1. The Scriptures, like all writings familiar to men, employ figures of speech including synecdoche.  In this figure, the part is put for the whole. Another way of saying the same thing is to say that words are used in a comprehensive way; that is, they include a number of actions. Think, for example, of Comprehensive Insurance, that includes other coverage, in addition to collision. 

2. Keep this in mind in conversations with those who believe in the 'faith only' doctrine. By helping them understand that the word “believe” in the passages we have read and would study on the subject is actually inclusive of the other steps of salvation, we will not be arguing with them or negating what they believe the scriptures teach – we will be helping them see how identifying figures of speech can help us understand the Bible better and correctly interpret it.

So, the next time someone mentions John 3:16 or a similar text, respond by saying “did you know that is an example of synecdoche?” I guarantee their next statement will be “what’s a synecdoche?” And now you have a basis for a different, more constructive conversation.

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