And thus the sons of Israel did, as Joshua commanded, and took up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, just as the Lord spoke to Joshua, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Israel; and they carried them over with them to the lodging place, and put them down there. Then Joshua set up twelve stones in the middle of the Jordan at the place where the feet of the priests who carried the ark of the covenant were standing, and they are there to this day (Joshua 4:8-9).
“The common stuff of our mortal life is girded with symbols: wedding rings, diplomas, medals, badges, handshakes, flags, uniforms, birthday candles, Christmas wrappings, bridal gowns, school colors, roses, lilies, kisses, even table settings. All of these gestures, clothes, and artifacts say something. They convey meaning to us.” (Thomas Howard) This truth about symbols originates in the Bible. Holy Scripture speaks of all kinds of symbols that reinforce the relationship between God and man. They are not to be worshiped, but they do serve a couple of important purposes.
First, symbols visually teach important truths in the Bible. In the Scripture above, a pillar of stones was built to symbolize how God had delivered his people. It was made of stones from the riverbed to remind God’s people that he had raised them up out of the waters of judgment, reminiscent of the Flood and the Red Sea parting. This symbol was an addition to other symbols among God’s people, such as circumcision and Passover, not to mention all the symbols used in the Tabernacle, the central place of worship. It supported a Biblical reality and even supported truths taught in other symbols; in this case it touched on a concept related to circumcision.
Second, symbols in the central place of worship not only pointed to important spiritual lessons, but they created a glorious atmosphere for worship. Remember, if the people of God draw into the Lord’s throne room during worship, it is appropriate to decorate the room to reflect this reality. Some churches have candle stands to symbolize the light and presence of the Lord. Some churches may have great vaulted ceilings or even golden domes to convey the vastness of the heavens of the Lord. The use of symbols to convey special messages and to establish a beautiful environment is commended, although not commanded, in the Bible.
Probably the most common symbol in the Church is a cross. The members do not worship the symbol itself. Rather, they are reminded of the most central event in history, the Death and Resurrection of Christ, by seeing the cross in the center. The cross is a tree pointing all the way back to the tree of life in the garden, only this tree is even more the symbol of the cross in the garden on Golgotha where Christ died for the sins of the world. It reminds us that Christ has brought man back to his garden in the presence of God. The cross is one of the fundamental Biblical symbols, holding always before the Church her victory over the world, which is why we carry a cross in the processional.
Symbols are a part of life. They are not forbidden by God. If they are, then “we would have to go through our own houses and throw out all the stuffed animals from the children’s beds, and all the pictures from the walls, and all of the Hummel figures and wood carvings from the bric-a-brac shelves. We would never have paid homage at the Lincoln or Jefferson Memorials, since these shrines were dominated by huge graven images.” (Thomas Howard) Perhaps some Christians would have no problem throwing out these things, but if they do, it is not because Scripture commands them. Symbols have a definite Biblical place in worship and life!