Christians have always used symbols to tell people about the faith. Sometimes it helps them remember a story from Jesus’ life. Other times it teaches us about who God is and what he does for us. For many contemporary Christians, the ancient symbols are a mystery. Check out our ten classic Christian symbols and their meanings.
The Globus Cruciger , or cross and orb, comes from fifth century Christians in the Roman Empire. The orb stands for the world, and the cross is for Jesus Christ. When you put them together, you have Jesus Christ over the world. It symbolizes both Jesus’ grace to save the world and his judgment over the world as its king.
Jesus, our king, is in control of all of creation and saves all of his people. He promises that his rule on earth will be fully realized when he returns to destroy sin and death forever. This symbol reminds us of Christ’s reign.
When Christians began to copy the handwritten pages of the New Testament, they developed a set of abbreviations for the most important words like, “God” or “Lord.” Chi Rho is one of these.
Χριστος ( Christos ) is the Greek word for Christ. The Chi Rho combines the first two letters of the word into a symbol for Christ. Christians moved it from the pages of the New Testament to windows, clothes, and Christian jewelry. It reminds us that Jesus is the Father’s chosen one, anointed to save the world.
The staurogram, like Chi Rho , developed from an abbreviation in the manuscripts of the New Testament. Scribes wrote the staurogram in place of the word σταυρος ( stauros ), the Greek word for Cross. It combines the letters tau (τ) and rho (ρ) to form an image that looks like a man on a cross.
You can find the staurogram on stained glass windows, religious clothing, and jewelry. Through it, we see Jesus on the cross and remember his atoning sacrifice for us.
No one knows exactly how the fish became a symbol for Christians. Tradition has it that Christians drew the symbol on the ground to identify meeting places or individual Christians without tipping off the authorities. One such tradition describes a meeting between two christians who were strangers. One Christian would draw one side of the ichthys. If the other person finished it, he could be trusted.
The letters of the fish symbol stand for Ιησους Χριστος θεου Υιoς Σωτηρ or Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.
Alpha and Omega
The greek letters Alpha (Α) and Omega (Ω) recall several passages from the book of Revelation where Jesus says that he is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet and Omega is the last letter.
The Old and New Testaments use this image of the first and the last to show God’s eternity, see Isaiah 44:6 and 48:12 . When applied to Jesus, it emphasizes that he is truly God, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. He is eternal, almighty, and all powerful God.
The Lamb Triumphant
Revelation describes the struggle between Satan and God. Jesus is the lamb that was slain, but he is also victorious over Satan, sin, death, and hell. We see the holy lamb, with a military banner over his shoulder.
This image shows Jesus as a conqueror, who leads the forces of heaven against our enemy, Satan, to defeat him forever. The cross shows us that the victory does not come from military power, but by sacrifice. Jesus did not defeat Satan and death with weapons or lightning bolts from heaven. He won by dying on the cross and rising from the dead.
The triquetra is latin word, meaning three cornered shape or triangle. Originally, it referred to any triangular shape, but now it is a specific design: three interlocking leaf-like shapes.
The three leaves symbolize the individual persons in the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The interlocking design reminds us that the three persons are still one God, three in one.
Neopagan groups claim that this symbol comes from Norse religion, but don’t believe them. Their claims that holidays like Easter, Halloween, and Christmas and symbols like the triquetra come from fabricated fakelore . This symbol has a long Christian history.
Since Noah stepped off the Ark, ships have been symbols of God’s salvation. It was how he saved Noah and his family from the flood that destroyed sinful mankind. 1st Peter applies the story of the flood to us Christians and to Christ’s promise to us.
Many Christian churches design their worship space to look like a ship. Decorative ribs run across the ceiling so it looks like the hull of an old sailing ship. It describes the church as the people where his salvation rests. It emphasizes community and unity in Christ.
The shepherd is a regular image in Old and New Testaments describing the goodness of God. Everyone can quote the opening to Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Jesus calls himself the good shepherd who protects, guides, and sacrifices himself for the sheep.
Jesus protects his people like a shepherd protects his sheep. With his rod, he fights off the enemy who would steal us away from him. With his staff, he guides us away from danger and rescues us when we need it.
The dove appears in the story of Jesus’ baptism in. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke show the dove descending on Jesus after he was baptized by John the Baptist. Immediately afterward, the Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to face the devil.
Christians use the dove when we celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit. Many churches use the symbol of the dove during baptisms or when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to the church on Pentecost. It reminds us that the same Spirit that empowered Jesus through his ministry is in us, too.
The pelican is an obscure symbol from the middle ages. Legend has it that Pelicans would cut themselves in times of hunger so their babies could drink their blood to stay alive. The mother would sacrifice herself to save her chicks. While the legend is false, it inspired a symbol that survives to this day.
The pelican symbolizes Christ, who shed his blood so we could live. The gospel of John shows this when he describes blood and water pouring from Jesus’ side, the fountain of life for us.
These ten symbols are just the beginning of the many ways Christians use images to teach about the promises God gives us through Jesus Christ. We put them in stained glass window, embroider them into clothing, or etch them on to jewelry to remind us that Jesus saves us.
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