By Drew Larson

The Common Language of Cups: Imagery in the Bible

There’s always one scene in the Indiana Jones movies that nobody can watch.

You know what I’m talking about. Everybody loves Indiana Jones movies. They’re the perfect blend of action, suspense, humor, and Harrison Ford using a whip. Think about it—this is how awesome Indiana Jones is: He doesn’t have superpowers or a vast fortune to aid his heroism. He has an archaeology degree, a fear of snakes, and a tool with a degree of difficulty just this side of apple farming in the Sahara. I can’t even talk about it.   

My point is, the one flaw in the movies is that there’s always a scene you just have to look away from. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s the ending where the Ark of the Covenant melts the Nazis’ faces off. In The Temple of Doom, it’s the part where the voodoo doctor pulls a guy’s beating heart clean out of his chest. In whatever the fourth one is called, it’s the whole movie.

It’s the third one, however—Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade—that has the best “can’t-watch” scene. It’s so good, I’ve been not watching it for almost 20 years now. The villain of the movie dies by aging 200 years in 11 seconds after drinking water from a fake Holy Grail. This is real: I’ve never been slapped by another person, but I know what it feels like, because every time that scene comes, I immediately plaster my hands over my face at something like Mach 18.

Picture This

I mention all this mostly because I want to talk about cups for a second. Cups and other images in the Bible, actually. Scripture is full of images. Water. Stones. Blood. Clay. Bread. Wind. Sheep and shepherds. Fruit. Seeds. And cups. Motifs like these are woven through both Old and New Testament, recurring across multiple authors, genres, and time periods.

Which leads me to an idea: biblical images are a critical component of the worldwide unity of believers.

Taken together, biblical images form a shared pool of vocabulary around which Christian language can draw from, no matter the denomination or culture. As Christians, we get so much more caught up in what divides us than in what unites us. Roman Catholics divide from Protestants over doctrinal issues. The Syriac Church differs from the Coptic Church over which texts belong in the biblical canon. And, on the surface, the Russian Orthodox liturgy has nothing in common with an African Pentecostal service.

Biblical images are what bring us back together. The best scriptural example of this is found in the New Testament. In Ephesians 2, Paul compares God’s church to a temple, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone." The implication is that each individual believer is a stone in the construction of God’s house. In 1 Peter 2, this very same picture appears, with Peter writing: “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood.”

Peter and Paul, if you didn’t know, weren’t always unified. For example, Paul once chastised Peter publicly for not eating with Gentile believers (Galatians 2:11). And Peter admitted that sometimes Paul’s teachings were difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:16). They even differed in who they preached the gospel to: Peter focused mostly on the Jews, Paul on the Gentiles. Yet here they are, writing separate letters but sharing the metaphor of stones between them, a metaphor that Christ gave to Peter as Peter's new name (petra means “rock”; see Matthew 16:18) and claimed for himself as a title (Luke 20:17).

Peter and Paul were separated by education, achievement, ministry emphasis, even temperament. But unity was created between them because of a shared, symbolic way of talking.

The Cups-Language of Unity

We draw our way of talking about the world from an exclusive source—our language. But we draw our way of talking about God from a shared source: the Bible, which provides symbols that unify our spiritual communication. This vocabulary transcends the straitjacket of linguistic sounds and pushes into the realm of ideas and imagination. We can say “cup” in any number of ways (cup, copa, cawan, tasse, Кубок, to name a few), but we all know what a cup is.

This knowing is the cups-language of unity. A roomful of 10 people can disagree deeply about the efficacy, methodology, and practice of the Lord’s Supper. But ask that same roomful of people to meditate on a cup, and something amazing happens. Scripture-steeped imaginations take over: Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. The four cups of Passover. The psalmist’s praise: “I will lift high the cup of salvation,” and “My cup runneth over.” Jesus’ words: “For as long as you drink of this cup, think of me.” Divisions are obliterated as the Holy Spirit creates shared worship centered around the biblical image of a cup. Community is born.

Maybe this is why the angels, when they appear in the Bible, invariably seem to speak in unison—they’ve seen the full picture. And perhaps this is why Steven Spielberg chose to have Indiana Jones and his estranged father search for the Holy Grail in The Last Crusade. Maybe he couldn’t help but notice how God has ordained things like cups to bring family together.

Drew Larson serves on the editorial and development team at InterVarsity.

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I think the fourth one's called "Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Kingdom of God." (or maybe that's the next one.) :)

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