Five Christian Symbols the Lord has given to the Christians
by. J. van Dijk
In the Old Testament, we find many symbolic expressions of spiritual things. We are all familiar with the tabernacle and its sacrifices. The chapters describing these are full of symbolic, spiritual significance. When God introduced these symbols, He warned His people not to be negligent in observing them. The whole creation is a symbolic expression of spiritual things God purposed by Himself. We see this in particular in the creation of man and woman in their interdependent relationship as husband and wife which speaks of Christ and the Assembly (Eph. 5:25)
We are quite certain that the Old Testament saints did not understand much if anything of the symbolism that was surrounding them. Did they understand why God prescribed the particular details that accompanied the sacrifices? Why was the blood of some brought into the Holy of Holiest? Why was leaven to be removed during the days of unleavened bread which accompanied the Passover? Did they know as Paul later explains, that leaven was the symbol of evil? We doubt it very much.
In short, the Old Testament people of God were surrounded by symbols of which they understood very little. To them, they all were simply legal requirements, which, if neglected, brought the displeasure of God over them. The judgment of God over Nadab and Abihu shows this. Their ignorance gave them no excuse to disregard the God-given details of their symbolic acts. Another great example is Moses beating the rock for the second time in Numbers 20:11. God takes such things most seriously.
God still does so in the day of grace. Ignorance of the significance of the symbols given to us gives us no title to discard them. Because of the work of Christ, and the abundance of grace flowing forth from His sacrifice, God does not treat us with similar severity today. From this, however, we ought not to assume that God has become indifferent to what we do, or fail to do. God is still grieved when our symbolic actions display other things than that which God had intended.
We learn from the Old Testament that God loves symbols and that He uses them for His own pleasure, so that He can look at them and be reminded of the truths they stand for. The symbols spoke of Christ and of the relationship of man through Christ with God. Seeing the symbols, God could endure the times of ignorance and give the time of grace, until the great eternal day breaks on God’s creation. In the symbols, too, angels see the beauty of God’s ways (1 Cor. 11:10).
We, Christians, too have been given symbols. But Just as the people of Israel did appreciate them but little, so the majority of Christians do little value them.
Five Christian symbols
I believe there are five symbols the Lord has given to the Christians. The first one is Baptism. Baptism is still regarded as an essential and significant symbolic act by most Christians. As a matter of fact, superstition causes many who otherwise never attend a religious service, and even many who have no faith at all, to have their children baptized.
The second symbol is the Lord’s supper, which is enjoyed at the Lord’s table. Although most Christians do value this symbolic expression of the Lord’s death, there are many Christians who do not partake of it, and many also who have a completely wrong idea of its significance.
Then comes Marriage, the relationship between husband and wife. This relationship which until recently was regarded as sacred, is today considered an unnecessary inconvenience by many non-Christians. Under the influence of these worldly trends, even many who call themselves Christians begin to ask whether or not it is really all that important.
Now we come to two symbols that may well surprise many of our readers, for generally they have long been neglected in the Christian community. The first of these is the hairstyle of men and women. The second, described in 1 Corinthians 11 in conjunction with the previous one, is the head covering of the woman who prays or prophesies. In that chapter, the Lord clearly speaks of these last two symbols.
Bible-believing Christians do not consider God’s Word to contain non-essentials. So whether we understand these last two symbols or not, we should of course out of love to God, and simple childlike obedience, be ready to do what His Word tells us to do. Yet, we may well help each other by seeking to give a greater understanding of the spiritual language spoken by these symbols. We will now consider these five symbols in the order we have mentioned them.
Why is a Christian baptized? Many say that it is so that they may go to heaven. But the Bible teaches that only faith in the blood of the Lord Jesus, and that no act, not even a religious act, on our part can bring us there. Salvation is not of works, not of anything done by us. If it were, we would only boast (Eph. 2:9).
Some verses seem to indicate that baptism saves the soul. But symbols are often spoken of as if the symbol itself is the thing it stands for. For instance, the Lord, speaking of bread, says, “This is My body.” Yet, the bread is no more His literal body than a door is the Lord Jesus because He said: “I am the door.” The bread symbolizes the Lord’s body, and the door symbolizes the Lord. So baptism symbolizes the washing away of sins (Acts 9). This washing itself is done by the blood of Christ (Rev.1:5). God sees all who believe in the Lord Jesus as having died with Christ and risen with Him, and having a new, God-given life. Believers in the Lord Jesus show these things symbolically in baptism (Rom. 6:1-5). Baptism is not in the first place a testimony to others, but a symbolic acknowledgement in this world of things that otherwise remain hidden in the heart.
An example from daily life may help. A man who joins the army needs a uniform to be recognized by others as such. Even before receiving the uniform, the man was accepted as a private, but when he received his uniform others said, Now you are really a soldier. So it is with baptism, the faith in the heart saves one’s soul for eternity; in baptism, one takes that place publicly on the earth.
The Lord’s supper and the Lord’s table
The Lord’s supper and the Lord’s table have also been often misinterpreted. From the Lord’s own words it is clear that it was meant to be a simple symbolic act of remembering HIm: “Do this in remembrance of Me.” To the disciples it was a known loving act of memorial (Jer. 16:7). The Bible never presents it as a means whereby we receive grace. We partake of the bread and wine, symbolizing the body and blood of the Lord Jesus, in thankful memory of Him. This requires that each individual taking part truly belongs to HIm.
The one loaf, however, also symbolizes the oneness of all believers, the body of Christ. We cannot properly partake of the Lord’s supper when either of these two aspects are lacking: all who partake must belong to HIm, and all who belong to Him, who are not hindered by defilement, must be able to partake.
Partaking of the Lord’s supper is a symbolic act taking place at a symbolic location, the Lord’s table. In the Old Testament, this term was used for the altar of burnt offerings. The sacrifices offered there, the Lord called: His food (Mal.1:12). At the Lord’s table all that takes place should be in harmony with the thoughts of the Lord. just as your table at home is connected with all that you approve of in your home. It is the place of fellowship, expressed by communal eating, for the entire family of God. Wherever one partakes, all characteristics of the Lord’s table must be present. The Lord attaches great value to these symbolic acts and places, and so should we.
From eternity God had in mind to have a companion for Christ, and made that promise to Him (Tit. 1:2). It was the joy of the Father and the Son to look forward to the “time” when this would be consummated. Joyfully God created and laid in the creation the symbol that would be to HIm the constant reminder of what He would accomplish through creation. He made man and woman, whom He brought together as husband and wife. He set them in a mutual relationship that expressed symbolically what God had purposed in His heart. This symbolic creation of God was to foreshadow Christ and the Assembly in their eternal harmony.
God had a very special purpose with creation. He knew the days of grace would come, the days of the Christian era. It was especially during that time that on this earth, in God’s creation, the all-various wisdom of God would be shown to the unseen spirit world (Eph 3:10). Today, in a good Christian marriage, husband and wife relate to each other in symbolic fashion, just as Christ relates to the Church. Love is the banner, but love brings with it the relative position by each. The man takes the position as head, the woman takes the subordinate place, voluntarily, and joyfully. She thereby displays how the Church relates to Christ. The authorities in the heavenlies look down and see this, and in it they see God’s wisdom, and they marvel. The marvel when they see on earth a relationship that in its character and actions far exceeds things connected with a fallen creation.
The next symbol relates to the previous one. The Lord wants to see the headship relation between husband and wife expressed symbolically in hair of men and women. One of the most beautiful passages speaking of the Lord Jesus is found in Philippians 2. How beautiful is His voluntary taking a place of submission to God. Being equal to God, He made Himself of no reputation. We are all to emulate Him in our hearts, but then sisters are also asked to show what is hidden in their heart, by means of their long hair, for long hair symbolizes submission. Again angels look down and observe this. They know God’s will and see hearts that are so knitted to their Saviour that they willingly display this symbol. Since Adam’s fall, they have seen rebellion as the norm. Full of admiration they see sisters wearing the symbol of submission, not out of a reluctant bending to a legal rule, but as an outflow of loving hearts desirous to show the all-various wisdom of God (Eph.3:18; 1 Cor. 11:10, 14-15).
How serious it must be in God’s eye when Christian men, who represent Christ, display a symbol that speaks of submission rather than headship. They fail to show by their long hair the position that God has assigned to them. They are like army captains not wearing their insignias. How serious too, when Christain women symbolically display themselves as if they refuse to take their God-given submissive place. We know that is often not what is in their hearts, but God gave these symbols to display, they are significant for HIm and the angels.
In defence, some point to Paul’s remark, “Does not even nature itself teach you, that man, if he have long hair it is a dishonour to him?” They say nature does not teach us this, for a man’s hair can be as long as a woman’s. Obviously, it is not in the ability of growing long hair that nature teaches us this. If I do not understand this declaration of God, I must be dull of understanding. This should cause me to be extra careful not to set my thoughts over against God’s expressed will.
Is this portion of Scripture still applicable today? Regarding the law, the Bible clearly teaches that today’s believers are no longer under it. But as to these things, God never said that they have no longer significance. Was this perhaps only Paul’s view? That cannot be for God’s Word is inspired. Could there be things in the Epistles that were only for that time? We would not write an instruction book containing things that only apply to some of the readers without making that clear in the text. Is God not wiser than we? In Colossians, we read of a letter of Paul to the Assembly at Laodicea which we don’t have. Obviously, it did not contain things that God meant for us, but only things important for the believers in those days. God keeps things of passing significance separate from those that remain valid. And hair will never lose its significance as symbol of headship submission.
Now we come to the last symbol, that of the head covering here too, there is much confusion and little understanding. It is very clear from 1 Corinthians 11 that it finds its basis in the question of headship. A man who covers his head while praying or prophesying puts his head to shame. On the other hand, a woman who fails to cover her head while praying or prophesying puts her head to shame. God says that it is equal to a woman who is shaved. I have known two sisters who were bald through treatment for cancer. They were very reluctant to show their baldness; they were ashamed of it. God says that a woman may as well cut off her hair if she prophesies or prays uncovered to God; in God’s eye, it is just the same. It is clearly a matter of a symbol that is meaningful to God.
In verse 7 God gives us a reason for the head-covering. Man should cover his head since he is God’s glory. A woman, however, is man’s glory. Then God refers to the creation and says that since the woman is created for the sake of man (just as the Church has been formed for the sake of Christ), the woman has to be covered. This is God’s reason. Even if we fail to fully understand it, we are not to set this symbol aside as insignificant.
Still, I believe that we can understand this symbol a little better. Galatians 3:28 says, “There is no male and female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” On the spiritual level, both male and female are equal before God. So when men and women together approach God in prayer, they stand there as equals before Him. Yet, man and woman together display things to God which can only be seen by means of a symbol. The man is God’s glory, and should therefore not be covered. The woman is the man’s glory, which ought to fall away in God’s presence. God loves to see this expressed in the symbol of the woman’s head covering.
At this point, I like to ask a question, particularly of each of my sisters. What is your reaction when you read an article of this nature? Some become irritated and resort to scoffing remarks; do you? If you do, you are obviously contentious about these things. Now contentiousness does not belong to the Church of God (1 Cor. 11:16). Don’t go and speak with others about your irritation, but speak to God. He will take it from your heart. He will help you to understand His mind about it, and give you peace. Even if you do not agree with what you read, you should certainly be free from irritation.
Now I direct the remaining remarks to my brothers in Christ, for I believe that as brothers we have often failed to handle these matters in a godly way.
We tend to forget that the beauty of these symbols is in their voluntary character, without which their inner beauty is completely lost. If sisters fail to see the beauty of these symbols, it is often because brothers have failed to teach their beauty and value. To patch up this failure by making the legal requirements for sisters to have long hair and wear headcovering will, first, not bring out the beauty of the symbols, which rests in the willing heart. Secondly, it will introduce the law, something fully contrary to the character of Christianity, which is liberty (not to do as one likes, but) to do the will of God from the heart. Those who stand in Christian liberty will not have difficulty doing the will of God also in this respect.
In the last century, C H Mackintosh wrote the following significant lines on John 7:2 which also apply here:
“The feast referred to in this lovely Scripture was the Feast of Tabernacles, called at the opening of the chapter, “The feast of the Jews. ‘This stamped its character. It could no longer be called as in Leviticus 23, ‘A feast of Jehovah. ‘The Lord could not own it. It had become an empty formality–a powerless ordinance–a piece of barren routine– something in which man could boast of himself while God was entirely shut out. “
This is what would happen to the symbols we have been given if we resort to legislating the long hair and the head-covering. Brother Mackintosh continues:
“This is nothing uncommon. There has ever been a strong tendency in the human mind to perpetuate forms when the power is gone. No doubt power may clothe itself in a certain form; and, so long as the form is the expression of the power, it is all right and good. But the danger lies in going on with the mere outward form without a single particle of inward power. Thus it was with Isreal of old, and thus it is with the professing Church now.”
But so it will be with us if we legislate things which should be voluntary expressions of devoted hearts. All we gain by legislating is an outward appearance that all is well, while inwardly the heart has become lukewarm for the beauties the Lord has given us, Our brother continues to warn:
“We have all to watch against this snare of the devil. He will use a positive ordinance of God as a means of deceiving the soul and shutting out God altogether. But where faith is in lively exercise, the soul has to do with God in the ordinance, whatever it is, and thus the power and freshness are duly maintained.”
If we demand the continuance of the symbol, nothing more will be accomplished than an empty form in which there is nothing found for God–no heart that relates to Him regarding the adopted form. I believe it is spiritually healthier to display the mistaken idea that we can disregard a God-given symbol without suffering loss, that to un-christianly legislate a display that lacks the prompting heart behind it. Let not one person’s error produce a responding error of others. It would only serve to show that neither have understood the heart of God.
Does this mean that we should become indifferent towards these things? Far from it! We dare not fail to speak out and present what God has given us as beautiful displays of inward things. Forever we need boldness and grace to address the consciences of those who, through negligence or wilful ignorance, fail to do what God has asked them to do. We know that those who fail to observe these things dishonour themselves. We should ever be out to seek the blessing of all, and blessing is missed where God’s desires are ignored.
May God give us, both brothers and sisters, such an appreciation for things that are beautiful to Him that we may see a recovering of those symbols that today are largely lost in the Christian community.
Courtesy Nathaneal Publication. Used by permission.
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