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New Testament | Symbols

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Baptism

The gospels and the Acts of the Apostles use baptism as a multivalent symbol, representing purification or cleansing and conversion to a way of life. John the Baptist was "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4), focusing on cleansing.

By the end of the gospels the meaning of this symbol has shifted somewhat. The resurrected Jesus commands his apostles to use baptism as a ritual for bringing more followers into the community of Christ-believers, and so baptism has become a sign representing not only forgiveness but also participation in a new kind of life; this is also true for figures such as the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8.

In the Pauline Letters baptism is not just a ritual practice that cleanses one's sins and joins one to the community, but it becomes a symbol of a person's participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. By figuratively dying in the water as Christ died on the cross, a person rises from baptism to a new life, imitating Christ's resurrection from the dead. Therefore, baptism is a symbol of death and resurrection for early Christ-believers who follow Paul's teaching.

Body

In the letters of Paul, the body becomes an important symbol that represents the Christian community and its members. Paul explains that individual Christ-believers are like hands, feet, eyes, or ears of the human body: they have different functions, but all of them are necessary for the health and wholeness of the community (1 Corinthians 12). In this metaphor, Christ is the head, the symbolic leader of the body. As members of this body, people in Christ-believing communities are encouraged to cooperate with each other, to share their gifts to build one another up, and to follow the lead and model of Christ.

At the time the New Testament was written, sickness was understood as both spiritual and physical. In the four canonical gospels, bodily healing is often a symbol for the healing of spiritual ailments. For example, in John 9 Jesus heals a man born blind and uses this physical miracle to comment on the spiritual blindness of the Pharisees who are portrayed as his opponents in the text.

Cross

As evidence of the brutality and offensive behavior of the Roman Empire toward its subjects, the cross becomes an important symbol for suffering and self-sacrifice in the gospels and other New Testament texts. It is associated with these concepts because of Jesus's death by crucifixion. In the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus tells his disciples that following him means "taking up [their] cross" and enduring suffering and persecution (Mark 8:34).

The Pauline Letters also emphasize the importance of the cross, which is a "stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles" (1 Corinthians 1:21), because of the unthinkable idea that God's Son and Messiah could be crucified. The cross, therefore, becomes shorthand for referring to Christ's humility and willingness to suffer on behalf of God's people (Philippians 2:5–11).

Fruit and Fruitfulness

The New Testament deploys this agricultural symbol to talk about behavior and ethics. In the gospels Jesus tells the Jewish authorities who question him about his failure to participate in Jewish ritual practices; "the tree is known by its fruit" (Matthew 12:33). This saying ties a good or virtuous nature to good fruit (= good outcomes) and bad fruit (= bad or vicious characters). These figurative fruits of a person's internal disposition are considered a more accurate way to judge whether someone is righteous than his or her ritual purity.

The letters of Paul also deploy the image of fruit to talk about the positive outcomes when a person believes Jesus is the Christ and the savior of human beings. Paul points out that in a community of Christ-believers, one is likely to see the "fruit of the spirit," such as "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Galatians 5:22–23).

Fruitfulness in the New Testament symbolizes general flourishing and well-being, and the authors of the New Testament argue that fruitfulness cannot occur apart from God and Christ. In the farewell discourse at John 13–17, Jesus identifies himself as the true vine and God as the vine-grower, telling his apostles they are the branches, and only by remaining close to Jesus will they be able to bear fruit.

In his letter to the Romans Paul uses the image of a gentile branch grafted onto a deeply rooted tree that represents the Jewish people of God. He promises that this hybrid plant, symbolizing the combined community of Jewish and gentile Christ-believers, can flourish and be fruitful.

Sheep and Shepherd

The powerful image of sheep and their shepherd is used to symbolize the Christ-believing community throughout the New Testament. In John 10 Jesus identifies himself as the "good shepherd" who guides and protects the sheep of his flock and sheep from other flocks, a reference to both Jews and gentiles who will receive the Christian message.

The symbol can also illustrate the depth of God's care. In Luke 15 Jesus tells a parable about a shepherd searching for one lost sheep out of a flock of 100 to explain that God will rejoice over the return of one sinner to the community, just as a shepherd rejoices to find a lost sheep. This image of a God who cares for the people like a shepherd cares for the flock would have been familiar to Jewish Christ-believers from Jewish scriptures such as Psalm 23, which identifies God as the shepherd.

In some New Testament passages Jesus is not the shepherd but the sheep, when he is symbolically represented as the Lamb of God from the Passover sacrifice (Exodus 12). John's Gospel and the book of Revelation (Revelation 5) identify Jesus with this lamb, whose sacrificial death atones for sins.

Questions for Symbols

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