Explaining Biblical Themes :
Signs and Symbols (part 1)
Signs And Symbols
Having recently been an observer of the important rite of passage of First
Communion in the lives of young Roman Catholic boys and girls in a small
historical Spanish hill town, the place of signs and symbols in religion began
to exercise my mind.
Signs are primarily shorthand in pictures but they can lead on to ideas.
Symbols express ideas through pictures, objects, actions and stories; ideas
which cannot be explained in just a few words. Because they suggest an idea
rather than just standing for facts and figures they leave room for people to
add their own understanding.
Symbols can be private - something eg a cuddly toy or a ring, which means a
lot to its owner and can be a symbol of comfort or love. Symbols can also be
public. A flag can express ideas of loyalty to a country or cause; clothes can
represent a particular job - policeman, fireman, member of the armed forces and
so on; academic robes indicate learning, legal robes justice.
Natural elements are symbolic in most world religions. Water is used as a
symbol of life, of peace and tranquillity, of cleansing, of new beginnings. In
Baptism water is used to show that faith in God washes away wrong intention and
action and makes a new start possible. It also marks the beginning of a
person's life as a Christian and is a sign of belonging to the family of
Christ. At the Baptism of a baby parents or Godparents promise to help the
child grow up as a Christian until they are old enough to confirm promises made
on their behalf.
Light has come to be a symbol of knowledge, truth, understanding and
goodness. It is a powerful religious symbol. Light is used to express God's
power, knowledge and love. We speak of Jesus as the Light of the World who
dispels the world's dark influences.
The prophets of the Old Testament used symbolic stories, objects, actions
and pictures when delivering what they believed was God's message to
individuals and the whole people of Israel.
Nathan told David a story to reveal how he knew David had Uriah put in the
forefront of a battle so that he could have Uriah's wife Bathsheba for
2 Samuel chapter 12, verses 1 - 7 The
LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, "There were two
men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very
large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one
little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his
children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It
was like a daughter to him. "Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the
rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal
for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that
belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him."
David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, "As surely as
the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb
four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity." Then Nathan
said to David, "You are the man! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel,
says: `I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of
Elijah cast his mantle over Elisha to indicate that he would be his
1 Kings chapter 19, verse19 So Elijah
went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing with twelve
yoke of oxen, and he himself was driving the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to
him and threw his cloak around him.
Amos used the picture of a plumb-line to indicate that God was measuring and
judging his people and finding them wanting in social justice
Amos chapter 7, verse 7 This is what
he showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to
plumb, with a plumb line in his hand
Jeremiah broke an earthenware jug to warn that God would deal likewise with
his wayward nation if they did not return to keeping his law in deed as well as
Jeremiah chapter 19, verses 1 - 11
This is what the LORD says: "Go and buy a clay jar from a potter. Take
along some of the elders of the people and of the priests and go out to the
Valley of Ben Hinnom, near the entrance of the Potsherd Gate. There proclaim
the words I tell you, and say, `Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and
people of Jerusalem. This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says:
Listen! I am going to bring a disaster on this place that will make the ears of
everyone who hears of it tingle. For they have forsaken me and made this a
place of foreign gods; they have burned sacrifices in it to gods that neither
they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah ever knew, and they have filled
this place with the blood of the innocent. They have built the high places of
Baal to burn their sons in the fire as offerings to Baal--something I did not
command or mention, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming,
declares the LORD, when people will no longer call this place Topheth or the
Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter. `In this place I will ruin n
the plans of Judah and Jerusalem. I will make them fall by the sword before
their enemies, at the hands of those who seek their lives, and I will give
their carcasses as food to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth. I
will devastate this city and make it an object of scorn; all who pass by will
be appalled and will scoff because of all its wounds. I will make them eat the
flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another's flesh during
the stress of the siege imposed on them by the enemies who seek their lives.'
Then break the jar while those who go with you are watching, and say to them,
`This is what the LORD Almighty says: I will smash this nation and this city
just as this potter's jar is smashed and cannot be repaired.'
Jesus was the master of symbolic story when he taught in parables.
Symbols are to be seen in our churches and play an important part in our
worship. Fuller consideration will be given to these in - Signs and Symbols (Part
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