By Whitney Hopler, Crosswalk.com
Christian symbols have been illustrating important aspects of our faith since biblical times. While symbols themselves are simple, they represent profound spiritual concepts with deep layers of meaning. Many different symbols exist in Christianity. Let’s explore 5 especially well-known Christian symbols together, and discover how they can inspire us with awe.
What Is Christian Symbolism?
Christian symbolism includes any symbols that represent parts of Christianity. During the first few centuries of the church, Christians often used symbols that weren’t widely known, in order to prevent unnecessary persecution. After the Roman Empire legalized Christianity in the 4th century, Christian symbols became more well known. Christian symbolism now features both symbols that are original to our faith (such as the cross) and symbols that have been adopted from other uses to represent Christian concepts (like the candle).
Symbols communicate significant spiritual concepts in simple ways. That helps us focus on the core meaning of those concepts. Using symbols, we can quickly direct our attention an aspect of our faith that has many layers of meaning. Symbols can inspire us to learn more about what they represent. In my book Wake Up to Wonder, I describe how we can encounter God’s wonder through symbols – especially symbols in our dreams – and how that can inspire us to become lifelong learners.
By learning about 5 of the most well-known Christian symbols, we can find inspiration from the profound spiritual truths they represent.
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Symbol #1: The Cross
This symbol shows the t-shaped structure of the biblical cross, where Jesus gave his life to make humanity’s salvation possible. Crosses made be made of any type of material, but they are usually either wooden (like the cross where Jesus died) or metal (which is more durable). Crosses that also feature a figure representing Jesus are called crucifixes. Churches often feature large crosses inside and outside their buildings. People sometimes display small crosses inside their homes, wear crosses as jewelry, or even display crosses on their cars to communicate their faith. During their devotional prayer times at home, many Christians have a cross with them for inspiration.
The cross has become the primary Christian symbol. It represents the core of Christianity: Jesus’ sacrificial death on a cross for humanity’s sin, to save the world by reconnecting us with God. As John 3:16-17 proclaims: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” The cross reminds us of the ultimate gift Jesus gave us through the Crucifixion, by making a way for sinful humans to have relationships with a holy God.
Jesus references how the cross symbolizes sacrifice with a purpose in Matthew 16:24, when he says “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Symbol #2: The Dove
Doves are small, elegant birds that are closely related to pigeons. While doves come in many beautiful colors and patterns, the solid white doves are depicted in Christian symbolism because white traditionally represents purity.
In Luke 3:21-22, the Bible describes the Holy Spirit showing up like a dove at Jesus’ baptism: “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’” Matthew 3:16-17 also describes that event: “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’” So, the dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit in Christianity.
The dove also serves as a symbol of peace in our faith. That’s because the Bible story of the worldwide flood features a dove that represents peace. God flooded the Earth because sin had corrupted everyone and everything living here. But since God found a few faithful people – including the prophet Noah – he saved them and two of every creature from the land and air (so they could reproduce after the flood) on Noah’s ark (a gigantic boat). After the flood, Noah sends a dove out from the ark, and Genesis 8:8-11 says: “Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. But the dove could find nowhere to perch because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark. He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth.” In that story, the olive branch represents the peace of God’s new promise to humanity – to avoid total destruction because of sin, and to give us grace instead.
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Symbol #3: The Fish
In the early church Christians used a fish symbol called an Ichthys to identify each other’s faith in secret circles, because many Christians were persecuted during that time. Ichthys is the ancient Greek word for fish, and it forms the acronym “Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior.” The Christian fish symbol features the outline of a fish shown with two intersecting arcs.
Jesus uses the symbolism of fish when he first calls his disciples to join him. While they’re fishing in a lake, Jesus calls out to them. Mark 1:17 records: “‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’” The Bible often mentions fish, which were a staple food for people during biblical times. When Jesus miraculously multiplied food to feed thousands of people who were listening to him teach, he turned only a few fish and loaves of bread into enough food to fulfill everyone in the large crowds. The Bible describes those two separate miracles, known collectively as feeding the multitude and separately as feeding the 5,000 and feeding the 4,000, in Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 9, John 6, Matthew 15, and Mark 8. After Jesus’ resurrection, John 21:1-14 describes how Jesus appears to his disciples by the shore of the Sea of Galilee and gives them miraculous power to catch an extraordinarily large amount of fish. Then Jesus cooks some of the fish along with some bread and invites the disciples to join him to eat breakfast.
Symbol #4: The Candle
Candles have served as symbols of hope and spiritual enlightenment since ancient times. In many religions – including Christianity – light represents God’s presence, which brings hope and the enlightenment of wisdom. The Bible tells us in 1 John 1:5 that God is light, and 1 John 1:5-7 encourages us to walk in the light of relationships with God: “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”
Christians adopted the candle as a symbol of Jesus’ work giving hope and enlightenment to the world. Jesus serves as the ultimate light in our world, and he calls us to join him shining light into the darkness of our fallen world. In John 8:12, Jesus says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” During his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urges us all to shine our God-given lights into the world through good deeds, saying in Matthew 5:14-16: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
The candle symbol reminds us that God is with us, so we can choose faith rather than fear in any circumstances. As Psalm 27:1 says: “The LORD is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?”
Symbol #5: The Rainbow
Rainbows are stunningly beautiful. They reveal the different colors of visible light and often stretch in large arcs across the sky. Seeing a rainbow can be awe-inspiring, reminding us of the wonder of God’s work in nature and in our lives. In Christianity, rainbows remind us of God’s beautiful faithfulness and grace.
The Bible explains in Genesis 9 that the rainbow serves as a sign of God’s promise to never again destroy creation through a flood, as he did in Noah’s time in judgment for sin. In Genesis 9:11-16 “‘I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ And God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.’”
God’s glory also shows up in the form of rainbows in the Bible. The prophet Ezekiel describes a vision in Ezekiel 1:28: “Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking.” In Revelation 4:3, the apostle John mentions that a rainbow surrounds God’s throne in heaven: “A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne.”
Christian symbols are simple signs that represent significant concepts in Christianity. Every Christian symbol can help us focus on something wonderful about God and his inspiring work in our lives!
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