In the first couple of centuries of Christian history, it wasn’t always safe to publicly identify oneself as a follower of Jesus. Though not mentioned in the New Testament, there is archeological and literary evidence for the use of a rough outline of a fish as a way of identifying one’s allegiance to Christ.
Conveniently, the Greek word for fish— ἰχθύς in Greek letters, transliterated as ichthus in English letters—contains letters that create a meaningful Christian acrostic. That is, the letters i-ch-th-u-s form the first letter(s) in a significant word regarding Christ:
i = Iēsous, Jesus
ch = Christos, Christ or Anointed One
th = Theou, the grammatical form of God (theos) that means God’s
u = Huios, Son (the “h” was pronounced, but not written, in Greek)
s = Sōtēr, Savior
Acrostics were often used in Jewish literature of the day So it would not be surprising for the acrostic form to have made its way into Christianity via ichthus: Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior. In those five simple words are contained the mystery of the Incarnation and saving work of Jesus Christ on earth—fundamental doctrines of faithful Christian communities for nearly two thousand years.
So, entering a new town, a visiting Christian might first walk about in the marketplace looking for the telltale “fish” symbol—two opposing semicircles joined on one end crossing on the other end for the tail. Seeing that symbol scratched on a wall or into a paving stone gave one hope that other Christian believers lived in the town. Often only half the fish symbol would be drawn—just a meaningless looking semicircle—in hopes that a Christian would come along and draw in the other half, thereby completing the fish symbol.
Even with that level of clandestine carefulness, it still took boldness to publicly identify with the fish symbol. A Jewish or Roman guard could easily draw half the fish symbol and wait for a real Christian to come along and complete it—identifying, if not arresting on the spot, a follower of Jesus.
Birds of a Feather
It’s human nature for “birds of a feather” to want to flock together, to find and be with others of like kind. Whether it is international travelers in an airport looking for someone who dresses like them in order to ask directions in their native tongue or status-conscious folks looking to be seen with the latest designer accessory—people enjoy being part of a “group” and have created no end of ways to find one another.
Except for symbols and images like the scarlet “A” worn by Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic, The Scarlet Letter, symbols used by groups to identify themselves are usually worn proudly. And the most recognizable symbol in the entire world ought to be embraced the same way.
Crossed Up: One Symbol’s Difficult Road
Some symbols have gained near-instant-recognition status in our world: There is one that has become, after two thousand years, the most identifiable symbol in the world: the Christian cross.
But we need to remember that the cross is not another iconic symbol or marketing tool to be worn or displayed carelessly—it is the symbol of Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection, and should be viewed with awe and wonder at the sacrifice that was made there for us.
The Living Cross
As I survey the spiritual landscape of Christendom, I am reminded of the world’s greatest need—a need that aroused concern in the apostle Paul: the fear that “the cross of Christ should be made of no effect” amid the hubbub of “religion” (1 Corinthians 1:17). Rather than being overwhelmed by the prominence of the cross, the world needs to be overwhelmed by the people of the cross. In other words, when the world sees a Christian cross displayed, they should think of the One who died on that cross, Jesus Christ.
The message we bring must be the simple message of the world’s most profound and permanent image: The cross is where God’s love and justice were poured out so that all who believe in Christ may experience forgiveness of sins and inherit eternal life. The best way for the two-thousand-year-old cross of Christ to cut through the ecclesiastical and secular clutter of our culture is for believers in the Christ of the cross to be people of the cross in all we say and do.
Dr. Jeremiah is the founder and host of Turning Point for God and senior pastor of
Shadow Mountain Community Church in El Cajon, California.
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