For centuries the central symbol of Christianity has been the cross which clearly represents the crucifixion of Jesus. However, this was not the symbol that the first Christians used to define Jesus or themselves.
The first Christians were often persecuted, and some were martyred. Because of this reality, they often had to hide and meet in secret. Since they were targets, they had to come up with a symbol to identify themselves to other believers without fear of persecution. It is believed that this is how the ICHTHUS (fish) symbol was born. It is also believed to have first appeared in the 2nd century and spread rapidly in popularity.
ICHTHUS is the Greek word for ‘fish’ and was used as an acronym for: Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior (See image above).
Whenever a believer wanted to identify themselves to another believer, he or she would draw the upper half of the fish symbol. If the other person was a believer, the ‘secret code’ was that they would draw the bottom half. This is how genuine believers would distinguish one another.
According to history, the cross did not begin to be used as a symbol of Christianity until the 4th century. Knowing this little bit of history helps us as modern believers align our priorities when it comes to symbolism.
Symbol of Death or Life?
With this blog, I would like to suggest that the central symbol of Christianity should not be the instrument of Jesus' death, but rather a symbol of life. Why is that? The cross is a crucial instrument and symbol in Christianity, but the cross doesn’t have the final word. The cross is a "means to an end" but not the end in itself.
I'm certainly not against the cross. The cross is a crucial aspect of the Christian faith and the story of Christianity, but the cross was not the end of Jesus’ story. In fact, as important as the cross is to salvation, the cross is not the most important part of the story.
The most important aspect is the resurrection. If Jesus had been crucified and never resurrected, there would be no supernatural aspect to our faith. Jesus is the Son of God because He alone conquered death and the grave through resurrection. Resurrection is what seperates Christianity from every other religion and why Christians worship Jesus.
Ultimately, the 'end' of Jesus' story is ascension into heaven. Jesus not only rose from the grave, Jesus ascended to heaven and currently sits on the throne at the right hand of God.
Like Jesus, believers must go through the ‘cross’ to experience new birth (resurrection). Humans think that life precedes death, but according to God, death precedes life. Like Jesus, the ‘end’ of the story for every believer is also resurrection to eternal life. Ultimately, the reward that Jesus purchased for us is ascension: eternity in heaven in the presence of God.
Since these truths are scriptural fact, why do modern Christians exalt the symbol of Jesus' death and not a symbol of life? Even during baptism preachers often say, "Buried with Jesus in death, and raised with Him in newness of life."
Fishers of Men
When Jesus called His first disciples, two of them were Peter and Andrew: fishermen. Remember what Jesus said to them? "Follow me and I will make you 'fishers' of men" (Matthew 4:19).
Jesus spent a lot of time on the water in boats and even performed a miracle with His disciples regarding catching fish. He also often taught from a boat while the people would crowd the shore (probably due to acoustics and how sound travels across water). Fish, boats, and the sea played an instrumental role in Jesus' life and the lives of His disciples.
The 'Fish' Symbol
The first Christians' primary symbol was not the cross but the fish. If you recall the story, Jesus also multiplied the fish and bread to sustain the lives of the multitudes. To the first believers, the ICHTHUS symbol literally stood for ‘life.’
Understanding these key truths, maybe we should return to our Christian heritage and follow their example. Maybe we should take down the crosses on the church steeples and install ‘fish.’ Maybe we should also take down the crosses behind the pulpits? We don't worship a dead Savior, we worship a risen Savior. Maybe, just maybe, we should install Christian symbols of life and resurrection instead?
After all Jesus did say, "I am the way, the truth, and the life."