Last Saturday about noon, we beheld a brief but inspiring sight in the sky: The Navy Blue Angels and Air Force Thunderbirds blew past our neighborhood in tight formation.
The flyover was part of a nationwide tribute to workers on the front lines of the pandemic – doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians, elderly care workers, et al., who face high-risk exposure to the coronavirus as they care for the sick. That six-second burst of power, speed and color brought a range of emotions, from patriotism to gratitude, from awe to admiration. I’m glad those guys are on our side.
Symbols are important to us. Just glancing around my office, I see my father’s Coast Guard coffee cup; a piece of the Berlin wall; my hole-in-one golf ball; a decorative British teapot; a laser-etched map of my Florida hometown; an Obi-Wan Kenobi stein given by a friend long ago; family photos; and, most significantly, my wedding ring. Symbols are physical mementos or keepsakes of something that carries deeper meaning. They represent milestones of life, memories of special times, people and events that we don’t want to forget.
Physical symbols were common in the Mosaic system (the tabernacle/temple; the Ark of the Covenant and its contents – pot of manna, Aaron’s rod, Ten Commandments; incense; showbread; lampstand; priestly robes/accessories; various piles of memorial stones; etc.). But under the new covenant, such religious objects are missing.
The New Testament clearly distinguishes the two covenants as antetype/shadow versus type/substance; fleshly ordinances versus heavenly things (cf. Hebrews 9). It appears that under the covenant of Christ, God expects a more mature response from us, a faith that exceeds and does not depend on external objects to make it real. After all, humans tend to value objects more highly than the things they represent.
But Christianity is not completely devoid of symbolism. The most obvious use of objects to remind us of vital principles is the memorial supper of the Lord. Jesus Himself instituted this weekly observance, incorporating the unleavened bread and fruit of the vine from the Passover meal that He was observing with His apostles. So Jesus’ memorial is not carved in granite or erected as a pilgrimage destination. Rather, it is consumable, a symbolic “meal” that is designed to regularly remind, proclaim and unify.
But there is also verbal symbolism in the new covenant, the prime example of which is the term “cross.” While there is no instruction to decorate our bodies or walls with physical likenesses of the cross, it is clear that inspired writers use the term to express the full range of redemptive meaning:
- “But God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14).
- “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (I Cor. 1:18).
- “For many walk, of whom I have told you often ... that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philip. 3:18).
Only God could take an object of disgrace, torture and criminality and transform it into symbolism for love, grace, forgiveness and hope.