Mr. Van Overloop is a teacher in Covenant Christian High School and a member of Faith Protestant Reformed Church, Jenison, Michigan.
The metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly is one of those natural events that fascinate people. Its appeal stems from the marvel of the dramatic change and also from the mysterious processes occurring within the enclosed capsule from which it emerges.
The Lord in His infinite wisdom surely created the butterfly to undergo just such a mysterious change with the intent of causing man to marvel at the “natural” world, and to leave him without excuse. However, for the Christian, there is additional fascination in watching the transformation, because he is aware that the creation is part of God’s revelation. Although he looks through a glass darkly and has lost the acumen of father Adam, he is still able to see and appreciate the spiritual realities that God manifests in earthly processes. In this article we will explore how God specifically created the “natural” metamorphosis of the butterfly to help us comprehend the spiritual truths of our own transformation, as we grow in grace throughout our lives.
Butterflies begin life as eggs that are often laid on the undersides of leaves. They quickly outgrow the small confines of the eggshells and emerge as small caterpillars with voracious appetites. In a few short weeks they will grow to be about 3,000 times their original weight. Once grown to this extent, the caterpillar is large enough to undergo metamorphosis and will do so once the environmental conditions are just right.
The caterpillar does not have the biological knowledge to decipher the best time and place for metamorphic activity, but the Creator has designed its body to respond automatically to several environmental triggers, including day length. Once a sufficient number of environmental triggers have occurred and the caterpillar body is sufficiently matured, the caterpillar will begin to metamorphose. These environmental triggers specifically affect the hormonal balances in the caterpillar.
One hormone of particular importance in metamorphosis is called juvenile hormone, the presence of which keeps the caterpillar from metamorphosing. When the level of juvenile hormone decreases, the caterpillar changes its behavior. First it gives up eating and wanders around until it finds a suitable spot in which to form a chrysalis (the outer shell of a pupa). After the chrysalis is formed, the same juices that in the past were used to dissolve the caterpillar’s meals now dissolve nearly the whole organism. Its antenna, head, stomach, intestine, and all of its internal organs liquefy in the presence of these digestive enzymes. The notable exceptions to this include the tracheal system (for gas exchange), the blood system, and some tiny but incredibly important structures known as imaginal disks.
These imaginal disks are the important groups of cells that God uses to give rise to the whole new adult body. Gaining an understanding of metamorphosis requires a grasp of the significance of imaginal disks.
Each imaginal disk is a group of cells that is genetically programmed to produce just one adult organ or body structure. There are therefore many imaginal discs inside each caterpillar, one for each part. For example, there are four imaginal disks for the four wings of the butterfly and six imaginal disks for its six legs. Instead of dissolving like the rest of the body, the cells of these disks begin to multiply and become organized.
The imaginal disks now operate like many young embryos in a mother’s womb. Each is taking in the precise molecules that it specifically needs for the cell division and the growth of the body structure for which it is responsible. Yet, the disks are not growing independently, but instead they are also communicating with neighboring disks. Each imaginal disk must know where the others are so that it can line up in such a way that the resulting body structures are in the appropriate spots on the finished organism. Their growth is thus coordinated, so that each disk fuses with the others to complete the body plan. In the end, by God’s sovereign direction, a winged adult butterfly is formed, with each part in its proper location. The whole process clearly requires a lot of energy. The fact is, the emerging adult is only about half the weight of the caterpillar from which it was formed.
The result of metamorphosis for the butterfly is an organism that God has totally changed. Although it had before crawled on the ground, now it takes flight. It had biting mouth-parts, but now it has sucking, straw-like mouth parts. It used to smell with its tiny antennae by its mouth, but now it smells in many places, including through its feet. As a caterpillar it was able to digest all kinds of molecules and had a whole spectrum of digestive enzymes, now its only digestive enzyme is one type of carbohydrase, known as sucrase. Sucrase is a very specific enzyme that is able to break down the sucrose that it typically finds in the nectar of flowers. It used to be a creature of the night and of shadows, but now it has become a creature of the day that enjoys the light. It used to blend in with the surroundings, but now it is beautiful and stands out in its environment. Nearly every organ has been dissolved, and all brand-new organs have been formed. It truly is a new creature when the process is finished.
It is interesting to note that Scripture speaks in several places of another metamorphosis, one that is even more dramatic than that of the butterfly. This transformation is mentioned in II Corinthians 3:18. Here we read that: “We all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” The word “changed” in the text is actually the word “metamorphosed” in the Greek. So the text could read: “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, aremetamorphosed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.”
The glass that the text refers to is actually the glass of a mirror, and more specifically, it is referring to the mirror of God’s Word. The text says that when we look into Scripture we get changed so that we gain some of the very glory that we are looking at. That is, we gain some of the glory and attributes of the Lord, Jesus Christ. Is not this much more glorious than the change that a butterfly undergoes? And this increase in glory continues all our life long. That is the significance of the words, “from glory to glory.” Although God has already made us somewhat glorious at the moment of regeneration, we continue to grow in glory as we read His Word. The more we become devoted to the Word, the more we grow in glorious grace, by the work of the Spirit.
The original word metamorphosed is significant because it suggests something of the magnitude and nature of the change. That which is metamorphosed is greatly changed, not just altered a bit. We have seen the drastic changes that metamorphosis has in the life of the butterfly. It is changed from the inside out, so that the end result is a whole new body. The same is true of Christians.
The transformation of Christians begins with regeneration, as a child of God is reborn by the power of Christ. It continues in his conversion, as he daily turns from what is sinful and does what is right. This transformation is manifested in his sanctification as he finds pleasure in living a life of godliness. When our earthly life is complete, then our transformation will advance greatly as we enter heaven and are no longer beset by our sins. Our souls at that time will experience fellowship with the saints, and especially with Christ, in a way that is impossible as long as we are yet on the earth. And then, on that great and final day when Christ ushers in the new heavens and the new earth, our transformation will be complete. We will enjoy heavenly glory with our souls reunited to their perfect bodies. Of all of this the metamorphosis of the butterfly is a picture. What a dramatic change we also undergo! How appropriate that the Scriptures also call our change “metamorphosis.” Or, should we say, how appropriate that God also named the change of caterpillars into butterflies “metamorphosis.”
Romans 12:2 is a second text that uses the Greek word “metamorphosed” when it speaks of the Christian’s conversion. The text reads, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God.” This time it’s the word “transformed” that is actually the word “metamorphosed.” The renewing of our minds requires a dramatic transformation, the result of which is that we are made to think differently. Before God’s work within us, we lived only for ourselves. We quickly and thoughtlessly lived day by day without any regard for the King, for His name, or His demands. The Holy Spirit changes that mindset. Through His work, not only are we able to do what is good and acceptable and in accordance with the perfect will of God, but we also enjoy being occupied with these things. Through our metamorphosis we lose conformity to the world and have a renewed mind that makes us behave very differently. What a great change we as Christians also experience as a result of our own spiritual metamorphoses!
The fact that God creates the desire within Christians to turn away from sin and toward God so that they grow in glory is wonderful. For this reason alone we should give Him all the praise. That God makes this process known to His people through the Scriptures is of additional benefit because it makes us realize and appreciate how important this change is for us and causes us to give Him thanks. But it is striking that God has decided to go still further in His revelation of this truth to us. Additionally, He chose to use His creation as a visual aid, the better to imprint the wonder of this transformation in the Christian’s mind. Every summer we see the butterflies emerge from their chrysalises with bodies that have changed from one that was often drab, to one that is far more beautiful. Although creation’s revelation is limited when compared with the perspicuity of Scripture, this “natural” transformation is definitely a clear and powerful reminder of the radical change that Christians receive. Through the butterfly’s metamorphosis we are better able to understand the great change that He works in our hearts.
But there is more. From the beginning of creation God not only designed this insect to undergo metamorphosis, but also caused it to change so that its life after metamorphosis very closely resembles the life of a Christian after his transformation. Lord willing, next time we will conclude this article by detailing the ways in which the changes that occur in the adult butterfly are beautiful pictures of the changes that occur in the life of transformed Christians.