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Holman Bible Dictionary


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A token or sign. While the word symbol does not appear in the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments are rich in symbolism and symbolic language.

Symbols, whether objects, gestures, or rituals convey meaning to the rational, emotional, and intuitive dimensions of human beings. The universal and supreme symbol of Christian faith is the cross, an instrument of execution. For Christians, this hideous object comes to be a sign of God's love for human beings.

The meaning of symbols grows and even changes over time. For the apostle Paul, the meaning conveyed by the cross changed radically as did his view of Jesus of Nazareth. As a rabbi, zealous to keep the Mosaic law and to bring others to do so, Paul believed that anyone hung on a tree was cursed by God (Deuteronomy 21:23 ). For this reason and others, he strongly resisted the claims that Jesus was Messiah. How could one obviously under a divine curse possibly be Messiah? Only when the risen Lord appeared to Saul did he realize that what appeared to be a curse had been transformed into a source of the greatest blessing. Christ's death seen through the resurrection is at the center of the two major symbolic rituals of Christian faith—baptism and the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist. See Ordinances ; Sacrament .

Baptism is a picture of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. In being baptized, a person says to the world that the baptismal candidate is identifying with the saving act being pictured. That means the new believer is dying to sin, and is rising to walk in new life, living now for God and with God as the center of life.

The Lord's Supper employs the ordinary elements of bread and wine to picture Christ's broken body and His blood shed for humanity's sin.

While the cross, the water, the bread, and wine are symbols at the center of Christian faith and practice, they are not the only symbols. Symbols in the Old Testament are related to symbols of the New Testament in important ways. Many of the events of the Old Testament foreshadow events of the New Testament. For example, the sacrificial lamb in the Old Testament points to the sacrificial death of Christ. The parables of Jesus are rich in symbols: grain, weeds, various kinds of soil, a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. Jesus used symbolic language in talking about Himself and His relationship to persons: Bread of life, Light of the world, Good Shepherd, Water of life, and the Door.

The apocalyptic writings of the Bible, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation are rich in symbolic language. A person reading and interpreting these books is required to come to know the symbolic meaning of the terms being used in almost the same way as a person trying to break a code. See Apocalyptic .

Steve Bond

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Symbol'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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Tuesday, June 2nd, 2020
the Week of Proper 4 / Ordinary 9
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