What are Christianity’s Primary Symbols?
Since the early days of the Church, Christianity has had certain symbols that have been used to identify other Christians and help represent the movement. One of the earliest of these symbols was the sign of the fish. Because of sporadic persecution, Christians had to be very cautious in how they connected with other believers.
The early Christians formed an acrostic based on the Greek letters of the word “fish.” The acrostic spelled out "Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior." The fish had other symbolic meaning as well. On two occasions, Jesus fed large groups of people by multiplying small amounts of fish and bread. Jesus also called some of His disciples from the ranks of those who fished for a living. He told Peter, “Follow me and I will make you a fisher of men.”
The fish symbol was used by Christians to identify a fellow believer. If a believer met someone who he was not sure about, the Christian could draw half of the fish symbol in the sand or on a parchment. If the stranger drew the other half, it was understood that they were a believer also. During times of persecution, the fish symbol could also be used to mark meeting places for the church.
Another key symbol for Christianity is the cross. From the very beginning of the Church, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the message of the cross and what it symbolized was very important for Christ’s followers. The symbol of the cross, however, did not gain lasting and widespread popularity in Christianity until around 400 years after the birth of the church. Of course, today, most church buildings have a cross on them somewhere and many people wear cross jewelry.
For the first several hundred years after Christ’s crucifixion, the cross was understood as being the instrument that He was sacrificed on for the sins of mankind. The good news, though, was the fact that Christ was raised from the dead. For the early Christians, and for Christians of every generation, the resurrection of Jesus is the central tenant of the Christian faith.
While the early Christians embraced the message of the cross, it was not until much later that it came to be used as a symbol. It is easy to forget that the cross was one of the main methods that the Romans used to keep the conquered peoples of the Empire under control. When people attempted to rebel or refused to pay taxes, the Roman military would violently put down the revolt and then crucify any prisoners taken alive. The victims would be executed in a public place and their bodies were often left on the cross for the vultures to prey on.
The brutality of crucifixion and the terrible images associated with a cross were the main reasons that it took the church so long before its use as a symbol became widespread. Methods of execution are not normally used as religious symbols. The Apostle Paul, however, understood the importance of what Jesus had accomplished by dying on the cross. “As for me, God forbid that I should boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of that cross, my interest in this world died long ago, and the world's interest in me is also long dead.” (Galatians 6:14)
While there are other lesser know symbols of Christianity, the fish and the cross are the two that have endured through the centuries. The two primary ceremonies that Christians still celebrate on a regular basis are also full of symbolism. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, or Communion, have been passed down since the time of Christ. While not symbols themselves, they both carry tremendous significance and meaning for Christians today.
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