From the Pastor’s Study
From the Pastor’s Study
May 25, 2022
Companies create logos that they want people to recognize immediately. It is debated, but many would say that the yellow M on a red background is the most recognized logo in the world, telling us that there is a McDonald’s nearby. Many people can identify the Nike swoosh as belonging to a sporting goods company. In parts of the world where there are problems, a red cross is recognized as signalling the presence of the largest aid organization in the world, the Red Cross. These symbols are used by companies and organizations to announce their presence and to promote their product.
Another symbol, recognized by many is the symbol of a fish. Most of us would recognize it as the symbol for Christianity, and we can be fairly confident that when we see that symbol on the back of a car, the owner of that car believes in Jesus. The easiest way to draw this symbol is to draw the top half of a circle and then complete the fish by drawing the bottom half of a circle. I suspect that most of us know what this symbol means, but we may not be entirely sure why it became the symbol for Christianity. Was it because the first disciples were fishermen? That sounds like a plausible reason, but it is not the real reason.
In Greek the word for fish is ichthus or sometimes transliterated as ixthus. Sometimes we see the symbol of the fish with Greek letters inside it. These letters, early on in Christianity, became an acronym which described who Jesus is. The first letters of the words, Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour, spelled the Greek word for fish. (Normally we begin with words and make an acronym of them. For example, Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus became known as Scuba, something that even those who use the gear might not know.) Christians took a known word and added letters to it and then made it into a stylized picture of a fish to identify those who followed Jesus Christ.
While McDonald’s wants its symbol to be known throughout the world, the early Christians did not want others to know what the symbol of the fish meant. They wanted it to be a secret symbol, known only to those who were believers. The reason for this was simple: Christians were being persecuted rather severely in the Roman Empire, and for someone to identify publicly as a Christian was to endanger one’s life. Thus, they began to identify themselves by drawing a symbol of a fish, and if anyone asked about it, they could say that they were just doodling.
History records that if two people met and if one suspected that the other was a Christian (we can often suspect so in the course of a conversation), he/she would draw half a circle in the dust with a stick. If the other person was also a Christian, they could complete the symbol of the fish with the other half of a circle. If the other was not a Christian, the symbol would look only like half a circle, which means nothing.
Households where Jesus was recognized would use the symbol of a fish on the outside wall or door to identify that they followed Jesus Christ. A fellow believer would be able to find refuge in that house should his/her life be threatened. I do not know how long it took for outsiders to catch on to what this symbol meant, but using it did protect Christians for some time.
Today we don’t use the symbol of the fish in the same way. We are not persecuted and our lives are never in danger when we declare that we believe in Jesus. Most people who do not follow Jesus know what the symbol means, so it cannot be used to identify ourselves only to insiders. When we display the symbol of a fish on our vehicle, we are professing our faith in Jesus Christ.
I must confess that I don’t have a symbol of a fish on the back of my car. The reason is simple: I sometimes break the law by speeding, and I don’t want someone seeing me and saying, “He calls himself a Christian, and he is breaking the law.” I don’t want my ability to arrive in good time to be hindered by a symbol which speaks of my commitment to Jesus Christ. I am wrong, of course, but, to be honest, that is why I don’t have a fish on the back of my vehicle. I notice that not very many, if any, of the vehicles in our church parking display the symbol of a fish. Perhaps your reasons for not doing so are the same as mine.
I probably won’t display a fish on my vehicle any time soon. Maybe you won’t either. That being said, that should not stop us from professing that we believe that Jesus Christ is God’s Son, our Saviour. Others should know what we believe. Perhaps others don’t know because it has never come up in the conversation, and we don’t feel confident enough to introduce that thread into the conversation. We could learn to do that. I suspect that there might be more times than we care to admit that we don’t declare our faith in Jesus Christ because we know that if we do, that will mean that we have to watch how we live. We are well aware that people might say of us, “He/she calls him/herself a Christian by look at how they live.” We may well want to hide that we believe that Jesus Christ is God’s Son, our Saviour and Lord so that we won’t feel ourselves called to account. If that is the case, perhaps we need to rethink why we don’t want others to know that we belong to Jesus.
Even if we don’t display the symbol of a fish on the back of the vehicle, we would hope that our lifestyles and choices and priorities are like a logo recognized by others. We would hope that as others see how we live, they would see that our lives are shaped by our faith, and they could know that we are Christians, followers of Jesus Christ. But above all, we should be sure that others know we are followers of Jesus Christ by the profession that we make with our mouths (or with the symbol of a fish on the back of the car). We want people to know that we follow Jesus and that because we do, that affects how we live.