Swimming with the Elephants

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Leon Morris begins his commentary on John with the statement, “I like the comparison of John’s Gospel to a pool in which a child may wade and an elephant can swim. It is both simple and profound” (NICNT, p. 3).

Similar quotations introduce many commentaries and sermon series on John’s gospel. The illustration draws a wonderful word picture and has been used for over fourteen hundred years.

The quotation dates back to Gregory the Great (AD 540-604) and his commentary on Job. Gregory writes, “Scripture is like a river again, broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim” (Moralia 4). It is sometimes mistakenly attributed to John Owen, who uses the quotation in his commentary on Hebrews (Works 20:165). Augustine is also sometimes cited as the source of this quotation, apparently due to an editorial footnote in Hutchings’ translation of Augustine’s Confessions (1883, p. 136). Some claim the quotation goes back as far as Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215), but I have never seen this documented. More often than not, the elephants swimming quote is cited as being anonymous, but we can be pretty sure that Gregory the Great is where it first originated.

If you are ever looking for a good illustration to begin a sermon series, I would suggest you consider talking about children wading where elephants swim. The illustration is most often used to introduce John’s gospel for some reason, but it would be applicable to any exegetical book study. It helps to start a difficult study off on a encouraging note.

Here’s a video of elephants swimming.

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