-Exploring Christian Symbols

Exploring Christian Symbols Part 1 In one of David’s psalms, we read, “Pour out your hearts to Him, for God is our refuge” (Ps. 62:8 NIV). If our prayers have any sense of earnestness, we immediately understand what the psalm is urging us to do. Yet notice the interesting figurative use of words. David does not mean a literal “heart”; neither can anyone “pour out” this useful solid organ. This study is not about symbolic and figurative language. Neither is it about non-verbal religious language. These are interesting yet very extensive subjects. In this study we define a symbol as a tangible thing or a physical procedure that has been chosen to represent something else. With symbols, the visible is used to express something abstract, absent or invisible. By Christian symbol we refer to the symbols or symbolic acts we find in the Bible which were practiced by the early church and those which could or should be used by Christians today, privately or collectively.

As some become Christians, and other believers join our Christian congregation, sooner or later questions arise about symbols. Do I need to be baptized again? When can I break bread? Do you use bread with yeast? In this study we shall consider two symbols: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. How do these two symbols differ from other Christian symbols? They carry the weight of being instructions given directly by our Lord Jesus while incarnate on earth.

Do all Christian symbols have the same importance? When the Lord reveals His will in Scripture, how do we determine what is important? We are saved without baptism, and we can worship without the Lord’s Supper. Christian symbols should be studied, understood and used not because a relationship with God is impossible without them, but out of obedience and submission to divine revelation. When this revelation allows for a degree of diversity, we must humbly recognize this and resist the temptation to impose our own tradition.

Secular Symbols
Symbols are not outdated and old-fashioned things. They are quite common even in today’s modern society. Countries use flags and pictures to identify themselves. Their colors and images usually have some meaning. Large companies and organizations also use graphic symbols to represent themselves, such as Pepsi and the Red Cross. Along many roads we find traffic signs. Symbols are there to communicate something; they help us visualize concepts and remember them.

Religious Symbols
Spiritual and religious people also use a number of symbols and ceremonies. The Muslims use a crescent moon, pray on their knees and bow down expressing their reverence to Allah. The Jews use the Star of David in their synagogues. Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs all have their sets of symbols and symbolic rituals.

Our Lord God Likes To Use Symbols
Our Lord God chose many different ways and forms to communicate His mind to us humans. In the Bible we find real life stories and parables, dramas and songs, doctrine and poetry. The inspired authors have expressed themselves using a variety of literary forms: hyperbole, metaphor, comparison, simile, allegory, irony, paradox, etc. Some things such as oil, gold and fire have some special meanings. Animals, such as lions, serpents and doves are used as figures of speech to denote qualities such as strength, cleverness or gentleness. Some places like Egypt, Babylon and Jerusalem also have their symbolic meaning, as do a few numbers.

An interesting collection of objects, people and events before Christ have prophetic significance, and many of them point towards Christ. These objects, people and events are normally called figures or types. For example, the water from the rock and Jonah in the huge fish are types of Christ (1 Cor. 10:4; Mt. 12:40). But we also find some special symbolic objects and ceremonies which have been purposefully designed by God to teach us spiritual realities. Some of these are referred to as shadows (Col. 2:16-17; Heb. 8:5; 10:1-2).

Old Testament Symbols
After the flood, God told Noah that He would never again flood the world. Together with this covenant, God provided a sign or symbol – the rainbow (Gen. 9:12-13). Even today, the rainbow stands as a reminder of God’s promise. The sacrifices of animals were essentially symbolic acts. From the sacrifices offered by Cain and Abel to the more detailed sacrifices described by Moses, we find God preparing the human mind through symbols to understand and receive the supreme sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The construction of the tabernacle and its variety of ceremonies were designed to represent spiritual concepts. Blood, circumcision, the ark of the covenant, the clothing of the priest are all symbols given by God to help visualize, understand or remember spiritual realities.

New Testament Symbols
With the arrival of the Christian church, many things changed. The purpose of many Old Testament symbols and symbolic acts found their fulfillment in Christ.

Jesus was very graphic in the way He taught. He used a rich variety of didactic stories and parables. He often expressed ideas in pictures. For example, He tells Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 16:19). He used the term “keys” as a figure of speech, referring to a special role Peter would play in God’s purposes.

The term “door” (or “gate”), for example, is used figuratively in interesting ways. Jesus said “I am the door of the sheep” (Jn. 10:7 kjv). He taught about a wide door and a narrow door (Mt. 7:13). In Revelation 3:20 He is knocking at a door. In prison, Paul prayed “that God may open a door for our message” (Col. 4:3). In Acts 14:27 Paul and Barnabas reported how God had “opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.” In a graphic way, Paul explained why he chose to remain in Ephesus: “Because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me” (1 Cor. 16:9).

In many countries the cross has become a symbol of the Christian faith. When Paul said that he would only “boast … in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14), was he proposing a new physical symbol for the Christian era? Surely he used the term “cross” figuratively. In the previous chapter (Gal. 5:11) he used the expression “the offense of the cross.” It was not a physical cross that upset those brothers who promoted circumcision; it was the gospel of grace which Paul preached. For him the term “cross” meant “gospel.” In 1 Corinthians 1:17 Paul referred to the “power” of the cross. This was not a reference to some mystical, superstitious power invested in a physical cross. His meaning is clarified in the following verse: “The message of the cross … is the power of God.” God’s power is displayed through the gospel.

In the New Testament we also find some very graphic ways of teaching. In John 13 Jesus washed the feet of His disciples. On finishing He added: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example” (Jn. 13:15-16). Is this a symbolic act that we Christians should practice literally? Unlikely. There was a need to wash their feet, because they were dirty. There was a custom: servants washed the feet of guests. There was pride: they had an interest in being “the greatest.” Jesus observed an opportunity to teach a practical lesson on humble service. Would the disciples ever forget that lesson? The Lord’s conclusion also applies to us: “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (13:17).

But the Lord also had another lesson in mind. In 13:10-11 He used the word “clean” in a figurative way to denote the state of the heart. He knew Peter would understand this second lesson sometime later (13:7). It takes time to understand some spiritual lessons. Jesus didn’t pressure Peter. We should also be patient with one another.

Among these teaching styles and figurative expressions, the New Testament does contain a number of physical symbols and symbolic acts. Some, like baptism, are given to Christians with instructions that we should use them. Others, like fasting, are suggested, their use being optional. Others, like the holy kiss, are cultural applications of a timeless principle.

By Philip Nunn

With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website:


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