Humans seem to enjoy using symbols for everything in life. Notice the emoticons and emojis used in electronic communication. It is interesting that the use of symbols to convey meaning is an attribute of humans that is not seen in any other form of life. Animals may use sounds or chemicals to alert others of their kind to danger, territory, or sexual availability, but these are not symbols. Sometimes symbols have different meanings to different cultures or even different generations. In my hippie days, holding up two fingers in a “V” meant “peace.” When I was first inducted into military service, the same symbol meant “victory” and indicated an intention to conquer. Symbols convey information, and as the deaf can demonstrate to us, they can even form the basis of complex communication.
Our use of symbols is a reflection of our spiritual makeup. We can create art, express ourselves in music, and worship God because we possess a soul which allows these unique forms of expression. The most mentally challenged among us can use symbols and rejoice in being able to do so.
Sometimes symbols and their use are unique to a particular time in human history. A classic example of this is the use of the cross. In today’s world, the cross is universally accepted as a symbol of Christianity. People wear crosses to express their personal faith. The cross is put on many buildings, Bibles, and along our roadsides. Steven Lemley in an article in Power for Today (January 2, 2017) points out that in the first century the cross was only a sign of the execution of guilty criminals. He reminds us that wearing a cross or having it adorn a place of worship in the first century, would be like us today wearing the image of a hypodermic needle used in executions. Many saw the cross as a stumbling block (1 Corinthians 1:23) or a sign of God’s weakness. Paul used the cross as a symbol of separating ourselves from the world (Galatians 6:14) as well as crucifying our sinful nature (Romans 6:6).
For the first century Christians, the outline of a fish was used as a symbol. The Greek word “fish” spelled out an acronym for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” Archaeological discoveries of ancient Christian symbols display the fish and sometimes a young man holding a lamb. Today we see people with fish symbols on their cars. We also see the cross used as a symbol to remind us of the terrible suffering that Jesus endured, and the ultimate victory of Christ over sin. All symbols, even emojis, can remind us that we have an eternal spiritual nature that we can express in many ways. The use of symbols, worship, and prayer are uniquely human features reminding us that we were created in the image of God.
–John N. Clayton and Roland Earnst © 2017