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An Old Symbol of Christmas Truth

Selected Scriptures

Well on December 9th of this year, Colorado’s 9 News, had a little report about a billboard that attracted some attention in Colorado Springs, you may have heard about it.  9 News fanned the flames of controversy as they tend to do, as news reporters do, in an article that was on the 9 News website.  The article’s opening sentence said this, quote “Church goers in Colorado Springs are outraged over a sign with a controversial message.”   

The billboard pictured a classic looking Santa Claus in all his Santa Claus gear, but he was, had his right index finger up to his smiling lips, as if to say, “Let’s keep a secret, shall we?”  And in large font it reads on the front of that sign, the billboard, “Go ahead skip church.  Just be good for goodness’ sake.  Happy Holidays!”  Courtesy of American atheists. 

The growing atheist minority in America’s becoming more outspoke in its opposition to Christianity, but curiously, they don’t mind people celebrating Christmas.  In fact, a number of them claim atheism is totally compatible with celebrating Christmas in America.  A recent article posted at CNN.com asks the question, I’d like to ask same question: How do atheists celebrate Christmas?  Good question, right? 

The author Todd Leopold posed that question to a number of atheists and reported some of their answers. One man, Hement Meta, replied.  Here’s his quote, “Christians don’t own December.  Even if Christmas is a Christian holiday, a, as a Christian holiday didn’t exist right now, I think there would be plenty of reason that it makes sense to take a couple weeks off at the end of the year when the weather isn’t great, when everyone kind of needs a break from work, this is a nice way just to relax and spend time with your family.  If it coincides the majority’s religious holiday, great.” 

Okay, fair enough.  For Mr. Meta, taking time off to relax and spend time with family is just good common sense.  The alignment with the Christmas holiday is merely a, a convenient accident, just merely a coincidence.  And if we’re honest, for many church goers, more than we’d like to admit, there are many who treat the Christmas holiday with exactly the same attitude.  It’s about taking time off work to relax with family. 

There’s not much Christ left in Christmas for them either.  In fact, I’d argue that’s one of the reasons for the serge in atheism and secularism in this country, Christians failing to be distinctly Christian.  Christians who are ashamed of the Gospel.  By failing to emphasize Christ and distinctively the truth claims of Christianity, as author Stephen Prothero said, “Christians have largely lost control of the holiday.  The forces of modernism, materialism, secularism, pluralism, commercialism, all of those influences in the modernistic world, they’ve shaped Christmas traditions, celebrations in America in a distinctly American way.” 

Prothero continues arguing ironically the maintaining of balance between sacred and secular versions of Christmas keeps the holiday front and center.  He says quote, “More conservative Christians want to have more Jesus, but they also understand that if Christmas becomes overly Jesus-y [that’s his word] it can’t make it into the public space, and they want it in the public space.  I think there’s an ambivalence there.  It becomes bigger in a way if it becomes secularized a bit.”  End quote. 

That’s true, isn’t it?  Christmas, as a national holiday, as a public celebration, it’ll be bigger if it’s embraced by more.  If it’s embraced by all, celebrated by all, observed nationally, nationwide.  And to accomplish that, people need to make sure that it appeals to all.  So cartoonish images of Santa Claus and his elves, Rudolph and his reindeer friends, winter images of Frosty the Snowman and sleighbells and all the rest, those traditions have created the broadest appeal, uniting the nation at the lowest common denominator.   

For many, it’s a tradition of sentiment and not much more.  In fact, getting too specific about the true meaning of Christmas, about the real reason for the season, you very quickly threaten the superficial unity and its festive holiday cheer, as well.  If you press for clarity, you press for the truth behind the tradition, you threaten what brings everyone home for the holidays.  You create some uncomfortable conversations around the Christmas table, don’t you?   

So let’s see if we can’t ruffle a few feathers this Christmas, shall we?  Let’s not look at Christmas through the lowest common denominator.  Instead, let’s reassert the distinctiveness of Christmas and the Christ who’s at the very center of the holiday.  To do that, I’d like to go back, I’d like to go way back to one of the oldest symbols of the Christian faith.  It’s a symbol that came back into general circulation in the 1970’s during the so-called Jesus Movement.  But it’s since been set aside. 

In fact today, it’s mocked.  It’s scorned and I’ve noticed it’s really been steadily fading.  And I think we need to bring it back, especially so at Christmas time.  I’m talking about the symbol of the fish.  Have you ever seen that symbol?  Know what I’m talking about?  I thought about title this message, “Fish for Christmas,” but it just doesn’t quite communicate what I’m trying to say here.  So, scrap that title. 

“This symbol of the fish representing the central truth of Christianity, it is very old.” 

Travis Allen

Usually you see a stylized version of the fish symbol.  You can see the two intersecting arcs, the left starting point of the two arcs is joined together at the point that creates the nose of the fish.  The right ends of the two arcs extend beyond the point of intersection to resemble the tail of the fish.  Simple, elegant, but also deeply meaningful.  You probably seen it on car bumpers, you’ve seen it embroidered or on Bible covers.  You may even have one on your own Bible cover. 

It’s even used as jewelry.  Sometimes I’ve seen women wearing them as earrings and things like that on necklaces.  Often, you’ll see written inside the arcs, across the fish’s body, the words “Jesus” or ”Savior.”  Sometimes there are five capitalized Greek letters.  The symbol represents Christianity.  And as I said, the symbol has been mocked in our time.  Some have replaced the word “Jesus” or “Savior,” write in the word “Darwin” instead.  Some even have added little legs on the fish to represent the dominance of Darwinian evolution and philosophical materialism over Christianity in our secular age. 

Culturally speaking, they’re right.  It has had a dominance over Christianity in our secular age.  But theologically speaking, it couldn’t be more tragically wrong.  As Proverbs 21:30 says, “There is no wisdom and no understanding and on counsel against the Lord.”  They should be careful who they’re mocking.   

This symbol of the fish representing the central truth of Christianity, it is very old.  It goes way back to the earliest centuries of the Christian faith.  And although it’s a fitting symbol deep with meaning, not all Christians know what it represents or why we use it.  There’s even a some amount of disagreement about the origin of the fish as a symbol of Christianity.   

So why don’t we take a quick multiple choice exam right here in your seats.  You don’t need to get up and go anywhere.  You don’t need anything but what you came in here with to take this exam, all right?  Here’s the question and I’ll give you a few options here.  You don’t have to raise your hands or anything.  You don’t even need to reveal anything, okay.  Just keep it to yourself, between you and the Lord. 

But here is the question: Why a fish?  Does it have to do with A, something about the nature of a fish swimming in the sea surrounded by water?  Does is have to do with B, something about the word “fish,” the letters indicating something significant?  Does it have to do with the fish as a theme in Jesus’ ministry?  So maybe letter C, Jesus’ miracle of multiplying the loaves and the fishes to feed the 5000.  Or, letter D, Jesus’s calling of his disciples, some of whom were fisherman, calling them to leave fishing for fish to become fishers of men.   

Or letter E, does it refer to Jesus’ post resurrection appearance to his disciples?  You remember they were out catching fish again and they were unable to catch any fish one day.  So Jesus called from the shore, called for them to throw their nets on the other side of the boat.  They caught an overwhelming number of fish and then he brought them in, fed them a breakfast of fish over a charcoal fire on the beach.  We could really include this with option D because this was a reminder to them of his commission, that they fish for men.   

So does the symbol involve all the above?  None of the above?  Again, you don’t need to reveal your answers.  But I’ve got some bad news and some good news for you.  First the bad news, truth is the origin of the fish as a symbol, the reason it was chosen, it’s a bit of a mystery.  And that means the good news is that whatever you voted for, you’re right.  Good job.  You can go out of here feeling charged up.   

But there was no committee deciding this.  There was no papal bowl, there was no authoritative statement which points to the symbol of the fish or rising from the Christian populous really.   It was something that, that started to rise up at the grassroots level, where Christians, just common people like you and me, sort of in an organic way, started to look to the fish as the true good symbol of Christian faith.  Originated from probably a number of sources. 

So the more time passes, the farther we are from the reality and the harder it is to figure out where it actually started from.  Saint Augustine, in his Magnum Opus, the City of God, what he wrote encompassed two of the options I mentioned, option A and option B.  Both of those options, one involving the word “fish,” and the other involving the nature of the fish, both of those options he mentions in a single sentence.   

This is what he wrote.  He said, “If you join the initial letters of these five Greek words, Iesous, Christos, Theos, Huios, and Sotor, which mean Jesus, Christ, the Son of God, the Savior, they will make the word ‘Ichthus.’  That is fish, in which word, and here’s the mystical meaning, in which Christ is mystically understood because he was able to live, that is exist, without sin in the abyss of this mortality as in the depth of waters.”   

Wow, that’s profound, huh? Again, both options A and B are in that sentence.  And he mentions the meaning of the acronym, Ichthus, also the mystical meaning.  But we don’t want to necessarily want to take the word of Augustine as final on this.  He wrote in the fifth century.  He wrote that in 426 AD.  The fish symbol, though, had already been in use as early as the second century.   

Clement of Alexandria was born around 150 AD, died around 215 AD.  He was an early church bishop, and he wrote a book of Christian order called the Paedagogus, which is the instructor.  And it was a book of Christian order, gave practical instruction on living a distinctively Christian life.  And for him, and for Christians at that time, in a totally saturated pagan world.  In one section he wrote about seals, like seals on a signet ring.  Which people used to secure a document or a letter in hot wax.   

And clement wrote, quote “Let our seals be either a dove or a fish or ship scuttling before the wind, or musical lyre or a ship’s anchor.” End quote.  So even there, he’s, it’s fascinating how he’s encouraging Christians there, when using their signet rings to imprint their seal on wax when sealing documents, he’s encouraging them to make a distinctively Christian mark.  One of those marks: the fish.  This fish symbol, it’s very old.   

Hard to tell whether the Christians of the primitive church were thinking of Augustine’s complex, mystical interpretation, or a simpler one.  If I had to guess, I’d say the symbol arose from one of the simpler options.  That it was a reminder of Christ’s miraculous power.  Or of our own evangelistic call, our mission on earth.  Then, the more complex ideas were developed from there.   

The capitalized Greek letters that a, Augustine mentioned, sometimes you’ll see those Greek letters printed in between the intersecting arcs of today’s fish symbol.  They spelled the Greek word for “fish,” which is Ichthus, Iota, Chi, Theta, Opsilon, and Sigma.  Those are the letters.  And as he pointed out, as Augustine pointed out, those letters spell the word “fish” in Greek.  And they form in an acronym that point to the significance of the person and work of Jesus Christ.   

So Ichthus, the Iota, stands for Iesous, which is Jesus.  The Chi stands for Christ, Christos.  Theta, that stands for Theos, which is God. Op-silon, that stands for Huios, which is son. And Sigma, that stands for Sotor, which is savior.  Now, those could refer to either the five distinct designations, or probably more likely, three designations.  Three aspects of the person and work of Christ. 

Whichever it is, I’m not gonna argue that point, but let’s treat it in three points. Three aspects of Christ’s person and work.  The symbol represents Jesus’ unique humanity, joined together with his absolute divinity on his mission of merciful redemption.  So I’m gonna give you three points here, three distinctives, humanity, divinity and we’ll call the third one vitality, just to make it line up with the other two points 

All right, first distinctive, humanity.  We can say Christmas is about Jesus Christ.  Christmas is about Jesus Christ.  Jesus and Christ, Iesous and Christos, the first two letters of the fish acronym.  They refer to his absolute unique humanity.  His unique role as the perfect representative head of all humanity.  The Apostle John wrote, “No one has ever seen God, but the only God who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” He became known first as a man.   

As we heard this morning, he was born in real flesh and blood, entering into time, occupying space in living color.  The color of a flesh born baby.  It’s just what we heard earlier reading out of Luke’s Gospel, Luke chapter 2, verse 7.  “Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him swaddling cloths, laid him in a manger.”  It’s through this unique humanity that God introduced himself to the world.  And that was the humble condescension of God, who reached down and reached out to embrace sinful mankind in his tender mercy.   

God sent a man named Jesus and when he sent him, he sent him to be the Christ.  Jesus is the Hellenized form of the word Yehoshua, which is Joshua, we commonly know the name Joshua.  It’s a Hebrew name, common in the Old Testament.  It means Yahweh saves, or salvation is from Yahweh.  So when God reached out and introduced himself to mankind, he introduced himself through this man, whom he named Jesus, whom he named Yahweh saves.  It’s a clear indication of his desire to save us.   

A second designation here is Christos, Christ.  It’s not a name, but a title.  Christ means the anointed one.  It means, it indicates the ordaining approval of God for him to be the prophesied king.  As Gabriel told Mary before her virgin conception, he said, “The Lord God will give to him [that is your child] the throne of his father, David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom, there will be no end.”   

Though Jesus came to us as a man, he was, he is, no ordinary man.  He’s absolutely unique.  One of a kind.  He came fulfilling a promise that God made to David a thousand years earlier.  One who was anointed by God to be a king.  In 2 Samuel 7:12, God promised David, “I will raise up your offspring after you who shall come from your body and I will establish his kingdom, he shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.”  That promise is fulfilled in none other than Jesus, who is the Christ.   

When Jesus entered into his public ministry, when he revealed his Messianic mission, God voiced his own personal approval from heaven.  “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”  Then at the end of his public ministry, when Jesus was transfigured to reveal his glory to his closest disciples, again, God said from heaven, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”  Divine approval of Jesus Christ was sealed forever when God raised him from the dead. 

This is the man, Acts 17:31, whom God “has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”  So Jesus entered into the world approved by God.  And he left the world in the same way.  He fulfilled all righteousness.  He did everything that Adam failed to do and thus became the perfect representative head over all humanity.  Able to represent all who come to him in faith.  That’s the significance of the first title, the Christ.  Divine approval.  Ordained from long ago.  Sent for a saving, ruling purpose.  Jesus and Christ.  That’s his unique humanity. 

Second distinctive: divinity.  Divinity. Christmas is about the Son of God.  Christmas is about the Son of God.  We cannot miss the significance of the Father’s approval, which thundered down from heaven.  “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”  Those words indicate divinity.   They indicate an eternal Sonship, which is the very essence of deity.  God and Son, those are the third and the fourth letters of the fish acronym.  And they refer to his divinity.  Unique humanity is wed together with full deity. 

That’s the mystery of the incarnation.  A divine nature, a human nature joined together in one perfect person.  It wasn’t until Jesus came that we saw in full the triune nature of God in its clarity.  But by the very fact of his existence, we learned that there was one God who exists eternally in three distinct persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And that’s the significance of what Gabriel told Mary, “He will be great.  He will be the Son of the Most High.”   

“The purpose of the incarnation, it’s redemption.”

Travis Allen

This is the reality emphasized by the writer to the Hebrews.  The writer to the Hebrews makes much of this.  He contrasts Jesus with everything in the Old Testament.  He contrasts Jesus with all who came before him, staring in the very first verse.  “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.  He’s the radiance of the glory of God, the exact imprint of his nature, he upholds the universe by the word of his power.  After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high.” 

So you’ve got the Son of the Most High now sitting at the right hand of the majesty on high.  The writer goes further, emphasizing his divinity by contrasting him with the holy angels.  “He has become as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.  For to which of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’?   

“Or again, ‘I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son’?  And again, when he brings his firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’  Of the angels he says, ‘He makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flame of fire.’  But of the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.’”   

The divine nature of Jesus Christ, that’s what the Apostle John wanted to convey right form the very opening of his epistle, or his Gospel, I should say.  “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.  In him was life, the life was the light of men.”   

In Jesus Christ, we have the incarnate Son of God, which provides the full revelation of God’s triune nature, three in one.  Jesus is the very essence of the divine nature.  For in him the whole fulness of the deity dwells bodily.  Listen, if you’ve seen Jesus, you’ve seen the Father.  If you study Jesus, you’re studying God.  if you worship Jesus, you’re worshiping God.  There’s salvation in no other name.  Two persons, one God.  All of that is symbolized here in the fish.   

And all of that is the subject of Christmas, as well.  Christmas is about the unique humanity of Jesus Christ.  It’s about the unqualified divinity of the Son of God.  One more distinctive, a third distinctive.  That connects this person to us for our benefit.  That’s that word vitality.  Christmas is about the Savior.  It’s about the Savior.  The final letter of the fish acronym, the Sigma, it stands for Sotor, Savior.   

Everything in the acronym, Jesus Christ, Son of God, it’s been directing us, leading us to this great reality of divine mercy.  The purpose of the incarnation, it’s redemption.  It’s the salvation of the world.   The Apostle John wrote, “In this is the love of God made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.”  That’s vitality, life.  Found in redemption through the forgiveness of our sins.   

That’s how the historical reality of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem 2000 years ago becomes personally effective for each and every one of us.  As the angel of the Lord told those shepherds, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.”  This is about salvation.  This is about knowing God.  Through Jesus, we can know God.  And that’s because through Jesus and Jesus alone, we’re forgiven; we’re reconciled to God and reconciled forever.   

Jesus himself said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life, no one come to the Father, except through me.”  John 14:6.  “In him was life and the life was the light of men.”  Jesus came to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.  Peace, it’s the peace of reconciliation.  Peace is the starting point for a new life.   

There’s a subjective element of peace.  We talk about peace on earth, especially here at Christmastime.  Christmastime, when families get together, families that sometimes haven’t reconciled old wounds, haven’t forgiven old sins, still holding onto old bitterness, old anger, not forgiving each other, not reconciling.  Sometimes Christmas is anything but peace in human reality, isn’t it? 

We see that all o, all around us.  There is a subjective element of peace that we might describe for each and every one of us as a mental tranquility, right?  It’s that settled, contented rest of the mind and the heart.  It comes from a clear conscience.  But that subjective peace, it comes from an objective reality.  It comes from an objective removal of guilt before God.   

Objective peace, it’s only possible by reconciling with God, by repenting of our sins, by embracing Jesus Christ by faith.  And if we’ll do that, God will remove all of our guilt.  He’ll take away our shame.  He’ll introduce us to a life of even subjective peace.  He’ll introduce us to a life of reconciliation where we can forgive one another because we’ve been forgiven by God.  True peace can come only by being objectively at peace with God.   

And that’s what God offers in the Savior.  Born into the world, given to the world to die for sins.  It’s this redemptive work of saving sinners that was the focus of Jesus’ entire ministry.  Most well-known of all Bible verses are these words of Jesus where he said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, and whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. 

Listen, any controversy surrounding Christmas, it’s not about winning battles against atheists or convincing secularists.  It’s not about billboards and culture wars.  It’s not even about the revolt of the immoral in our time.  God sent Jesus to deliver us from all those sins.  And those sins, make no mistake, those sins are our sins.  And the sins of all who will believe.  Jesus came to have those sins forgiven.   

Christmas is an opportunity to introduce a lost and dying world to the love of God, our Savior.  And the symbol of the fish is something you can latch onto, something you can hold onto, if you like.  Use as a teaching tool to introduce others to the person at the center of this holiday, the Christ referred to in the very word, Christmas.   

As I said earlier, the fish symbol has been used by Christians as early as the second century, probably even earlier, to remind Christians of Jesus’ miraculous power.  Powerful enough to save us from our sins.  Powerful enough even to raise us up with him from the dead.  The fish symbol also reminds us of our commission from Christ to be fishers of men.  Jesus has commanded us to “go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that he commanded.”   

And as we go, fish symbol reminds us of the subject of our witness, Jesus Christ.  He’s the one we speak of.  He’s the one we talk about.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior.  He’s the one who does all the saving, if we’ll simply proclaim him.  This is his promise.  “Behold I’ll be with you [to what] very end of the age,” right?  That, folks is an old, but worthy symbol of Christmas truth, one I hope you’ll share with others this Christmas season.   

Shall we pray?  Father, we want to give thanks to you once again, this Christmas season, for the truth of Christmas, which is none other than Jesus Christ.  He’s the one that’s come to save us from our sins.  And even as that fish acronym, it starts and ends, starts with Jesus, ends with Savior, everything in between is about his work to save us from our sins.   

Thank you for sending him to die on a cross for us, to make sure we are cleansed before you, we have a clean conscience coming before you to give worship and praise.  Thank you for your kindness and your tender mercy demonstrated in this Christmas truth.  We want to give ourselves to you once again.  Ask that you would use us this Christmas season to introduce others, maybe even for the first time, to this old Christmas truth.  The truth that you are a Savior and that you love saving sinners.  Help us to be faithful to you and help us to rejoice in the truth this Christmas.  In Jesus’ name, amen.