HOW RIGIDLY SHOULD SYMBOLS BE USED? A woman may choose to wear a wedding ring without being married. She would be using a social symbol without living the implied reality. Some cultures adhere strongly to their symbols; other cultures treat their symbols as optional or even as fashion. When God gives a symbol, He does not expect it to be used independently from the reality it represents. Reality is always more important than its symbol. Let’s look at some biblical examples to illustrate this. Sacrifices At a number of times in their history, the Israelites thought that God would accept their sacrifices in any shape or form. The Lord God did ask for animal sacrifices, but He would reject them if they were given mechanically, grudgingly, without sincerity, or without feeling (Hos. 6:6; Mal. 1:13-14). The message was clear: “To obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam. 15:22).
It was God Himself who designed these Jewish national feasts, but He would also reject them if they did not reflect an inner reality, or if they were accompanied by iniquity (Isa. 1:13-14).
Christ taught that every Christian should be baptized (Mt. 28:19-20). But baptism in itself doesn’t change anybody. Philip baptized Simon, and afterwards Peter said to Simon: “Your heart is not right before God … you are full of bitterness and captive to sin” (Acts 8:13-23). When a non-Christian is baptized, he participates in a symbolic act without the living reality. We shall explore this in more detail later on.
Most symbols have a purpose. When a person doesn’t understand this purpose, the symbol is meaningless to him. Even worse, he may attach his own mistaken meaning to the symbol. When a symbol is separated from the reality it represents, it loses its value. The symbol’s worth is in the thing it represents.
The Bronze Serpent
In the middle of a plague of serpents, God gave Moses instructions to lift up a bronze serpent on a pole. When an Israelite was bitten by a snake, he could look at the bronze serpent and he would not die (Num. 21:4-9). When the plague was over, the Israelites kept the bronze snake, gave it a special name, and began to offer incense to it. They turned it into another idol. As part of the reforms King Hezekiah made to return to the true worship of God, he “broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made” (2 Ki. 18:4).
A symbol is and always will be only a symbol. Even when a symbol is given by God, even if a symbol is a picture of Christ, it is possible for us to give it too much attention (Jn. 3:14-15). We can corrupt the symbol by attributing to it powers and special benefits. We can become superstitious. We, like the Israelites, can also go astray and turn God-given symbols into idols!
GOD EXPECTS OBEDIENCE
In the Bible we find some special incidents when God reacted in a very strong way against those who for personal reasons ignored, disrespected or did not take His symbols seriously.
The Altar Of Incense
The Lord wanted the priests to offer Him burnt incense. But they could only offer God a certain type of incense which He prescribed. Furthermore, where the fire came from was also important. We read that Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, “offered unauthorized fire before the Lord contrary to his command.” The Lord punished this deviation, “and they died before the Lord” (Ex. 30:9; Lev. 10:1-2).
God ordained that all the male descendants of Abraham should be circumcised on their eighth day. This was a sign that the boy belonged to the nation of Israel. Moses, probably due to some differences with his wife, did not circumcise his eldest son. Because of this, “the Lord met (Moses) and was about to kill him” (Gen. 17:11-12; Ex. 4:24-26).
The Ark Of The Covenant
This was a very special ark which represented the Lord’s presence among His people. One day, some curious Israelites decided to look inside. After all, it was only a gold-covered wooden box. Because of that act of irreverence, the Lord killed a large number of them (1 Sam. 6:19).
The Lord’s Supper
Some Christians at Corinth took part in the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, not discerning the reality behind the symbols, not recognizing the Lord’s body. The Lord was not pleased. Because of this, some died and others were weak and sick (1 Cor. 11:28-30).
Of course, these are special cases. Thankfully, the Lord in His mercy does not commonly act in such severe ways. But we cannot escape the fact that God did so in the past. One clear lesson from these special cases is that when the Lord gives a symbol, He does expect His people to take them into account.
DOES GOD ALLOW EXCEPTIONS?
The Christian faith is in essence a daily living relationship with Jesus Christ. This relationship radically affects the way we live. Christianity, therefore, although it has symbols, is not based on symbols. Symbols are not the reality. For our God, reality is always more important than its symbols. With this in mind, situations will arise where it will be evident that, before God, a symbol must be temporarily modified or even set aside. Consider these two examples.
Take for example the actions of Ahimelech the priest. In a moment of crisis, when David and his companions were very hungry, Ahimelech gave them the consecrated or holy bread (shew-loaves) to eat. These were very special loaves, described as “most holy,” which only Aaron and his sons should eat (1 Sam. 21:4-6; Lev. 24:5-9; Lk. 6:2-4).
In 2 Chronicles 30 we read how King Hezekiah celebrated the “Passover to the Lord” (30:5). He had a good reason why he did not celebrate it on the appointed month (30:2-4). Then, “Most of the many people who came … had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written.” Would you have joined them? Would you have criticized Hezekiah? Would you have found an excuse to abstain to be safe? But how did God react? The Lord forgave them, healed them, and gave them “unity of mind” to carry out the Passover in this abnormal way. Why? The Lord understood the special situation and knew that these people had set their heart “on seeking God – the Lord” (30:12,18-20). Evidently the Lord prefers a sincere heart that truly seeks Him to a set of technically correct procedures.
So far we conclude that symbols were given by God to represent spiritual realities. These symbols were never given to mechanically bind and enslave. The symbol should accompany or follow a spiritual reality, and should be practiced with the right condition of heart. It is clear that our Lord God prefers holy passion to holy procedures, but it is also clear that unless there is a good reason, He expects His people to value and use the symbols He gives.
MOTIVATION, REALISM AND CONTROVERSY
The topics that follow divide serious Christians. Heated discussions about Christian Baptism and the Lord’s Supper have raged for centuries. Perhaps I could ask why are you reading this? Are you a lover of doctrinal controversy? Controversy by itself imprisons Christianity in your head. Real Christianity involves much more than your head. It brings joy, freedom and abundant life. Are you looking for ammunition to judge or to fight back? Relax! No one is trying to prove you wrong!
I invite you to allow yourself to take a fresh look at some of these topics.
As we open our minds to Scripture and the guiding light of the Holy Spirit, God’s word comes to life, and our comfortable patterns and customs are frequently challenged. This is sometimes painful, but always healthy. This study is no final word. It desires to be a help to biblical thinking.
Our common hunger is to return to simple historic Christianity. As we dig deeper into Acts and the epistles, we slowly begin to notice that not everything in historic Christianity was so simple. Early Christians grappled with some deep controversies. The path to salvation is so beautifully simple, even a young child may trust Christ and be assured of eternal life. Yet within the primitive Church, saints were forced to address complex issues. The transition between the God-given Jewish faith and Christianity was not smooth. Religious and regional traditions had their impact on Church harmony. Pagan and ungodly customs sought blessing within the Church. Every assembly had its share of carnal and complicated saints. False teachers and prophets circulated. No wonder Paul and others were so busy and suffered so much!
When you think about it, our current setting is not so different from that of historic Christianity. Christ is the only Perfect One. All servants and all churches have been and are deficient. Early Christians did not live up to their high personal and collective calling. Like they were, we too are invited to set our hearts and minds on this high personal and collective calling – and press forward, with faith, passion and realism. In doing so we walk in their footsteps.
By design, our Christianity should be a life of relationship with Christ and one another. But the intellectual West became doctrine centered, and this was the style of Christianity commonly exported to the mission field in the 1800s. They wanted pagans to agree to a set of true doctrines and behave more like “us.” But doctrine alone, however true, eventually turns us into emotionless robots, driven by fear and/or duty. The practice of Christian symbols also has this hidden danger. In apostolic language: “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). And what about our generation? Modern Christianity has become self centered. There is a mad rush to keep “me” happy, to find my fulfillment, my experience, my spiritual reality. The new leadership is doing its best to keep these complicated new Christian customers happy. How much will Christianity have to divert from its high calling to continue to attract and satisfy this rapidly changing secular and religious market?
The two symbols we will study next, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are part of Scripture and have been practiced for many centuries. Some Christians mystify them, some over-complicate them and some nearly worship them, while others undervalue them or simply ignore them. Next month we will highlight God’s love for symbols and encourage their proper use in a biblical yet non-rigid way.
Look for Part 3 of our Series on Christian Symbols next month.
By Philip Nunn
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org