In the gospel of John, Jesus taught 13 physical realities that illustrated spiritual truths: light, the Jerusalem temple, physical birth, wind, water, food, bread, flesh and blood, door, shepherd, vine, cup, and breath.
These tangible metaphors helped enlighten believers with the spiritual realities of the Judeo-Christian worldview. Thus, the goal of this article is to expound upon these analogies in order to have a more holistic idea of God’s message for the world. Let’s begin!
1. The first tangible metaphor that teaches spiritual truth is light.
Light is a physical reality. The main source of our light comes from the sun, but this electromagnetic radiation can also be emitted from fire, lightning, and even animals and plants such as fireflies and mushrooms. Without light, there would be no photosynthesis from plants to give off oxygen necessary for humanity’s survival. Therefore, light is necessary for life.
In the same way, the light from God is necessary for spiritual life. In John 1, Scripture states, “In God was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (Jn. 1:4-5).” True knowledge, moral purity, and the presence of God are the primary sources of light. Unfortunately, people who reject God refuse to accept the light because their works are evil (Jn. 3:19).
2. The second tangible metaphor that teaches spiritual truth is the Jerusalem temple.
In John 2:19-22, Jesus said: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you will raise it up in three days? But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”
The Jews initially thought Jesus was talking about the Jerusalem temple where they worshiped Yahweh. This temple, which was constructed during the time of Herod the Great, began around 18 BCE (Before Common Era) and lasted until 20 AD. However, the largest part of the temple was not completed until AD 66. We know this because shortly thereafter, in 70 AD, the physical temple was destroyed by Titus’s army.
Nevertheless, Jesus was talking about his physical body being crucified and raised three days later (Matt. 26:61; Mk. 14:58; Jn. 2:19). No longer do Jews or Gentiles have to worship God in a temple made by human hands. Instead, they can worship God in Spirit and Truth (Jn. 4:24).
For Jesus told his disciples after He ascended to the Father that He will send the Holy Spirit to indwell in them and be with them always, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). Therefore, the physical temple has been replaced with the chief cornerstone, Jesus of Nazareth, and the bride of Christ—the Church.
3. The third tangible metaphor that teaches spiritual truth is physical birth.
In the gospel of John, Jesus was speaking to a devout Pharisee by the name of Nicodemus. Jesus told Nicodemus that unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus was confused and asked the following question: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born (Jn. 3:3-5)?”
As you can see, the Pharisees focused so much on the physical reality that they often failed to associate these ideas with spiritual truths. The disciples also had the same difficulty and I am sure we would have as well. Let’s not be boastful in our thinking!
But what Jesus was trying to say is that being born again is like a spiritual birth. Just like when we are physically born we come into the natural world. Similarly, when we are spiritually born, we enter into the kingdom of God. Therefore, in order to become partakers in God’s realm, we must repent and be baptized into the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Acts 2:38).
4. The fourth tangible metaphor that teaches spiritual truth is wind.
Did you know that the same Greek word for wind also means spirit? Therefore, the idea of wind, though a physical aspect of nature, often alludes to how the spirit of God moves. Thus, wind is referring to the Holy Spirit.
Jesus said in John 3:8, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” There seems to be a divine mystery concerning the role of the Holy Spirit and how it’s autonomous nature is hard to comprehend. These are the moments when we behold the mystery of God and simply trust in the Spirit to conform us into the image of our Creator.
5. The fifth tangible metaphor that teaches spiritual truth is water.
Water is another element that is impossible to live without. If a human doesn’t drink water for three days, they will not survive. It carries nutrients to all our cells in the body and provides the brain with oxygen. Water helps regulate body temperature and helps absorb important nutrients such as minerals, vitamins, amino acids, and glucose. I think all of us agree water is essential.
Similarly, water represents the essential Holy Spirit within believers. For instance, during the Feast of Booths, Jesus stood up and said: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water. Now this he had said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive (Jn. 7:37-38).”
The Holy Spirit is just like water in that it provides the nutrients needed for us to mature in Christ. Without the Holy Spirit, we wouldn’t be able to spiritually survive because it is God who causes the growth. Therefore, let’s continue to go to the Lord in prayer and ask that He quench our thirst by the power of the Spirit indwelling within us.
6. The sixth tangible metaphor that teaches spiritual truth is food.
When Jesus was eating with his disciples, they kept urging him to eat. However, the Lord responded by saying, “I have food to eat that you do not know about. So the disciples said to one another, Has anyone brought him something to eat? Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work (Jn. 4:31-34).”
Once again, the disciples had a hard time wrapping their brain around the spiritual concepts Jesus was referring to. He was not physically hungry or in need of other food. Rather, his ultimate sustenance came with doing the will of God and accomplishing his work.
In the same way, when we are physically hungry, let that be a reminder how much hungrier we should be for the kingdom of God to expand. For Jesus told us to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. Are we eager to fulfill the will of God just like we are eager to eat our next meal? I hope so.
7. The seventh tangible metaphor that teaches spiritual truth is bread.
Bread is a physical substance that many cultures throughout the world eat. This element is important because it provides people with energy for daily living. For example, bread offers a high source of carbohydrates, vitamin B, including thiamin and niacin—essential nutrients for the body. Without bread, people would become malnourished and deprived of energy.
Once again, Jesus makes the connection with this element to a spiritual reality. He says in John 6:58: “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” This may have been difficult for the disciples to understand at first, but Jesus was referring to his body and blood that was broken for them on the cross.
His sacrifice offers eternal life to those who believe in Him. John 3:16 makes this clear: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.” Jesus is that bread coming down from heaven. However, when we nourish on the Lord, we will not be temporarily satisfied. Instead, the life of Jesus will sustain us forever. Amen.
8. The eighth tangible metaphor that teaches spiritual truth is flesh and blood.
In John 6:53-56, Jesus makes a spiritual connection that is hard for his disciples to understand. In fact, it sounds quite upsetting at first that the Incarnate Son of Man would make this claim: “So Jesus said to them, truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”
When Jesus died on the cross, He took on the wrath of God to satisfy the justice of God and was the perfect substitute because He was without sin. Therefore, He who knew no sin became sin for us so that we might receive the righteousness of God—theologians call this the Great Exchange.
Believers throughout the world share in the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is a way to commemorate what Jesus did on the cross for us and to remind ourselves that we need the sacrifice of Christ to be reconciled back to the Father. The bread symbolizes his body and the wine symbolizes his blood. Jesus told us to do this in remembrance of Him. Most congregations partake in the Lord’s Supper during Sunday church services.
9. The ninth tangible metaphor that teaches spiritual truth is a door.
All of us know what a door is. It is an object of entrance, either into a house, commercial building, or another room. Doors are important because they divide the public from the private. They give access to people in order to go from one place to another. They are an important concept throughout all societies.
In the same way, Jesus said He is the doorway to eternal life (Jn. 10:1-9). He is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one can come to the Father except through Jesus. The only access we have to the Father is through Jesus the Son. When we repent of our sins and trust in Jesus, God grants us access to open the door to the spiritual realm. Those who do not hear God’s voice or let Jesus into their lives when he knocks on the door will not be able to enter into heaven. There is no other door or way except through the atoning work of Christ.
10. The tenth tangible metaphor that teaches spiritual truth is a shepherd.
A shepherd is a person who tends and rears sheep. They guide or direct sheep in a particular direction and protect them from wolves and other dangerous animals. Throughout the ancient Near East, it was a common job to be a shepherd. In fact, many biblical characters such as Abraham, Jacob, Moses, King David, and the prophet Amos had this occupation.
Jesus informs his disciples in John 10:11-18 that He is the Good Shepherd. He doesn’t let his sheep wander away or get eaten by wolves. In the spiritual realm, Jesus is our ultimate guide; we are His sheep. It’s easy for us to fall away from the faith and be tempted by the enemy. However, Jesus reiterates that He is our protector and even lays His own life down for us. The analogy Jesus uses here is very fitting, considering that most people were familiar with this occupation.
11. The eleventh tangible metaphor that teaches spiritual truth is a vine.
What exactly is a vine? A vine is a plant that has stems which need mechanical support. It often climbs up trees or stretches out over the ground. Moreover, vines can climb with these grasping appendages called tendrils that help support the vine.
Vines can grow wild and consequently need to be pruned often. Jesus uses this as an analogy for the spiritual realm. He tells his disciples that He is the true vine and His Father is the vinedresser. Whenever we bear fruit, he prunes us, so that we may bear more fruit.
The fruit Jesus is talking about are the virtuous attributes of God from Galatians 5:20:
Therefore, when we abide in Jesus, the true vine, we will bear much fruit. However, if anyone does not abide in Christ, they will be thrown away like a branch and wither away. This is why it’s vital for us to continually rely on the work of the Holy Spirit to keep us a healthy and lifegiving vine.
12. The twelfth tangible metaphor that teaches spiritual truth is a cup.
A physical cup is a helpful tool for many things. For example, a cup can be used to drink fluids. A cup may function to store food or other items of value. Archaeology proves that many ancient civilizations utilized the cup because many ceramic pieces have been excavated over time.
In the Judeo-Christian worldview, cup is often identified with the wrath of God. For instance, Jeremiah had to deliver the “cup of the wine” of God’s wrath to many nations (Jer. 25:15). Revelation 14:10 refers to the final judgment of God, where the cup of His wrath will be poured out on those who are disobedient evildoers. Then, in John 18:11, Jesus tells Peter: “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” He is referring to God’s wrath toward sin that He endured on the cross for the entire world (Isa. 51:22; Matt. 20:22).
13. The thirteenth tangible metaphor that teaches spiritual truth is breath.
Breath is defined as the air taken into or expelled from the lungs. This process called breathing is vital for organisms to survive. Humans need oxygen to breathe in and carbon dioxide to flush out in order for proper homeostasis and cellular respiration to occur.
In John 20:22, after the resurrection, Jesus appears to his disciples in the upper room on the evening of the first day of the week. The first thing the risen Lord says is: “Peace be with you.” Then he showed them his hands and side to prove He was not just a figment of their imagination. Afterward, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
The physical reality of breath is akin to the spiritual truth of the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples. This breath is the life force for Christians. Just like God breathed into Adam and He became a living creature, when God breathes into us the Holy Spirit, we become truly alive.
In this article, 13 Tangible Metaphors That Teach Spiritual Truths In The Gospel of John, the goal was to help believers understand how the physical realities—tangible metaphors, can illuminate spiritual truths. Jesus sought to use light, the temple, birth, wind, water, food, bread, flesh, door, shepherd, vine, cup, and breath to guide us into a deeper spiritual understanding. It is my hope and prayer that you meditate on these truths so you can grow in your Christian walk and confidently share the good news that God saves sinners.
Article written by Chad A. Damitz