Symbols are not just images. Instead, they offer real meaning to a person’s Life and nourishment for their soul. Early Christians used images representing God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, including a fish, dove, ship, anchor, and lyre. As time passed, an assortment of crosses, a crown of thorns, red wine, and bread were added to the artistic representation of faith in the Holy Triune (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).
According to Lignoma Magazine, “Traditional symbols are extremely diverse in Christianity. They can be divided into two groups: on the one hand, purely Christian symbols, and on the other symbols that come from other religions or have other meanings that have been reinterpreted by the new faith.”
Jesus Christ’s monogram XP (first letters of Chi and Rho of Greek orthography ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ “Christ”), also called the Constantinian Cross, was first used by second-century Christians.
Fish and Anchor Symbols
After Christ’s resurrection, Christians, fearful of being killed, would scratch an ichthys (a fish) on the ground to identify themselves to fellow believers. It was the most common representation of Jesus from the second through the fourth centuries.
It makes sense that they chose a fish rather than other symbols to communicate with other Christians since Jesus fed a multitude when teaching God’s desire for humanity and invited two of His disciples to fish for Christ-followers.
Matthew 4:18-20 NIV: “As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and his brother Andrew.”
“They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’ At once, they left their nets and followed him.”
In a separate instance, Jesus miraculously fed 5,000 men and their families with only five loaves of bread and two fish (Mathew 14:13-21).
Another of the many symbols is the anchor. Christians say Jesus is their hope: They can trust Him to provide stability and steadfastness during Life’s struggles. He helps Christians remain grounded in faith when they encounter difficulty. Hebrews 6:19 (NIV): “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”
For Christians, the cross became their faith’s central symbol in the fifth century. Today, crosses remain the most important representation of Jesus. It is used to commemorate both His sacrificial death and resurrection.
Earlier instances of Christians using a cross came from the third century when adherents made a cross using their fingers. However, the reverence of the cross as a symbol started with Emperor Constantine the Great’s reign in the fourth century. Additionally, the crucifix or cross with Jesus’ dead body first appears as a part of Christian iconography and symbols in the sixth century.
The cross has an important meaning for every Christ-follower. This symbol of God’s love is seen on Mountain Tops, adorning homes, and town halls. In addition, many Christians wear a cross as a reminder of the greatness of Jesus Christ; it can be worn suspended from a chain or attached to a person’s clothing.
Symbols vs. Icons and Idolatry
The words icon and symbol are often used as synonyms, but there is a subtle difference between the two. An icon is a literal, visual expression of the thing it represents. However, symbols are more abstract. For example, a crucifix would be an icon, whereas a cross would be a symbol.
Another factor can further define the dissimilarity between the terms — idolatry. In Judaism and Christianity, idolatry is worshiping someone or something other than God as though it were. The first of the 10 Commandments prohibits having other gods before the One and Only True God.
Unfortunately, Christians are fallible humans, and while they have the promise of Eternal Life, they still fall short of God’s glory. To most Christ-followers, symbols show the world they serve the True God. Nonetheless, having a sinful nature could result in worshiping things other than God.
Written by Cathy Milne-Ware
Bible Gateway: Searchable Online Bible Hosting More Than 200 Versions of the Bible in over 70 languages.
HuffPost: Why We Need To Work With Symbols, by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee
Christianity Today: What is the origin of the anchor as a Christian symbol, and why do we no longer use it?
Got Questions: What is the significance of the anchor in the Bible?
Lignoma Magazine: The Cross – symbol of Christianity
Lignoma Magazine: Christian symbols and their meanings
Featured and Top Image by Ehrendreich Courtesy of Pixabay – Creative Commons License
First Inset Image by Geralt Courtesy of Pixabay – Creative Commons License
Second Inset Image by Amoruso Courtesy of Wikimedia – Creative Commons License