Christians have always used symbols to help us understand the faith. We have a long history of beautiful images with significant meanings, and many of us don’t understand them. One of the first articles on our blog was a list of ten classic Christian symbols and their meanings . Each one has a long history and deep meaning for contemporary Christians.
One of the ways the church has passed on the faith is through the stories of the 12 Apostles. Their lives encourage us to live faithfully after Christ’s own example. We imitate them just as they imitated Christ. The church helps us to remember their stories by assigning symbols to each of the disciples, and the symbols remind us about that particular disciple’s life. They are a treasure of the church that helps us learn more about our history. Let’s explore the symbols that the church gave the twelve apostles and see how they help us understand our faith. We’ll cover six apostles in this post, and then another six in the next one.
The Apostle Peter’s symbol is comprised of two keys that are crossed over each other. The keys point us to the Gospel of Matthew. In chapter 16, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They respond with several answers. Jesus finally asks the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responds, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus praises Peter for his confession of faith, and then he says, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” They keys remind us of the confession that Peter made and the forgiveness that Jesus gave to his church in the office of the keys.
The upside down cross reminds how Peter was martyred. Tradition has it that the apostle said that he wasn’t worthy to be crucified like Jesus, so they crucified him upside down instead.
John’s symbol is a snake in a cup. Traditional sources claim that John was the only apostle to live a long life and die of natural causes. That, however, doesn’t mean that he never faced persecution. The same sources claim that the Romans tried to poison John with a cup of wine. When that didn’t work, they threw him into a vat of boiling oil. When he still didn’t die, they exiled him to the island of Patmos where he wrote Revelation.
John wrote more books of the New Testament than anyone except the apostle Paul. His most important work was the Gospel of John, which is the most mystical and symbolic of the gospels. He also wrote Revelation, as mentioned above, and the three letters of John.
History refers to Jude under a couple of different names. He was called Judas, though we tend to shorten it to Jude to distance him from the other Judas, Thaddeus, or Labeus. Jude’s symbol is a ship, because he was known for his missionary voyages. Tradition states that he travelled with Simon the Zealot on his missionary journeys.
Artists also represent Jude with the symbol of an axe. Traditional sources claim that Jude was killed in Beirut by beheading with an axe. After he was killed, his body was delivered to Rome.
Bartholomew is also known as Nathaniel. He is most famous for the dramatic conversation he had with Philip in the Gospel of John. Philip, having seen Jesus, rushes to Nathaniel to tell him about the messiah. Nathaniel asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip says, “Come and see.” When Nathaniel approaches Jesus, the savior miraculously describes Nathaniel, and the apostle cries out, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Tradition suggests that Bartholomew traveled widely to preach the gospel. He is said to have gone as far east as India, but most sources center him around Armenia and Africa. He was martyred after converting the king, Polymius, to Christianity. The king’s brother order Bartholomew to be tortured and executed. Bartholomew’s symbol is a flaying knife to show that he was killed by being skinned alive.
Matthew is the traditional author of the Gospel of Matthew. Also known as Levi, Matthew was a tax collector before Jesus called him to be a disciple and apostle. Matthew’s profession is important part of the church’s story. As you may know, patriotic Jews viewed tax collectors as swindlers and collaborators with the Roman oppressors. When Jesus gives the church the process for church discipline in Matthew 18, he ends the process with these words, “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Matthew’s symbol is three bags of money, which refers to his life as a tax collector. Sometimes the bags of money have an ax behind him to point to the method of his martyrdom. Tradition does not agree on Matthew’s missionary travels. We do typically associate him with a mission to the Jews around Judea. Afterwards, however, we do not have good sources.
James the greater, also known as James the son of Zebedee, was one of Jesus’ inner circle in the gospels. Along with Peter and his brother, John, James was a witness to Jesus’ transfiguration and many other events that Jesus showed only to the three.
Tradition has it that James travelled widely to preach the gospel, going as far as Spain. One of his symbols, the shell, comes from the legend that these shells were numerous on the shore on which James arrived in Spain. He has a couple other common symbols. The sword indicates how he was killed by King Herod, recorded in Acts 12. A travelling stick also points to his extensive journeys.
James the less is also called James the son of Alphaeus in the gospels. Because there are so many Jameses in the Bible, sources argue about their identities, so he may be associated with other people in the book of Acts or the gospels. His name, James the Less, doesn’t mean that James had lower status than James the greater. It just meant that he was younger than the other James.
Tradition has it that James was one of the oldest of the apostles when he was martyred. Some traditions state that he was crucified in Egypt where he preached the gospel. The most common story, the one represented in his symbol, is that he was stoned or beaten and then sawed in half. His symbol, the saw, reflects the method of his death, and artists sometimes depict the saw with a club or stones.
The symbols for these apostles help us to remember their great stories. Each one reminds us of their lives and also their deaths. They faithfully preached the gospel and often died for their savior. The symbols help us consider their lives and their deaths. Christians throughout history have used the stories of the martyrs and apostles to encourage each of us to be faithful like they were. We remember their deaths and follow their example.
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