Prophetic meaning of fish in the Bible
There you have it again! That fish! You will also find it everywhere! Well, everywhere. Especially on cars. On the back of vehicles, to be precise. On the road – there you see that fish symbol. What does it represent, that fish? Can anyone tell me what that thing means?
What are you telling me? Is that fish a Christian sign? Not a donkey would consider that to be true! Christians and fish, what do they have to do with each other? Or will the flood soon return; the whole lot will be blank. No? What then? Do Christians sometimes say blub-blub-blub?
Oh no! You don’t want to tell me that you don’t know exactly yourself either. Is it true? Don’t most Christians know what that fish means? Then it’s time someone explained that!
The meaning of the fish
Well then, here is my explanation. Just sit in front of it.
The fish sign dated from the beginning of our era and was invented by the first Christians. At that time, the Romans ruled in much of the world. Because believing in one God and recognizing one Lord, Jesus Christ, was forbidden (it posed a threat to the worship of the emperor), Christians in the Roman empire had to be careful with their statements. They searched for everyday symbols that would not immediately stand out, but that had enough to say to encourage each other. The fish was such a sign. It is a symbol of Jesus Christ.
The fish is, therefore, one of the oldest Christian symbols. It was already used by Christians around the year 70, when only a few Christian communities had emerged, growing against the oppression. Christians were occasionally persecuted, sometimes locally, but also throughout the Roman Empire. Various descriptions of torture have been preserved, including crucifixions and executions that ended between wild animals in arenas. The fish was a safe identifier for Christians in this turbulent time. It was a symbol that appealed to the imagination.
Not that a fish in itself said much. It was about the meaning of the letters of the word “fish.” Greek was the world language at that time. In politics, the Roman (Latin) way of thinking prevailed, in culture, the Greek form of thinking.
The Greek word for fish is ‘ichthus.’ In this word, the initial letters of some names and titles of Jesus are hidden: Iesous Christos THeou Uios Soter (Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior). That was what it was about! The fish was like a password. A signed password. Whoever drew the fish indicated without words that he or she was a Christian: you acknowledged the statement of faith to which the individual letters of the word ichthus referred.
The fish symbol thus functioned as a (hidden) confession of their faith for Greek-speaking Christians. But what do the words that have made ichthus fish such an important Christian symbol mean? Ichthus stands for this:
I Iesous Jesus
CH Christos Christ
TH THou God’s
U Uios Son
S Soter Savior
Jesus lived in Israel two thousand years ago, which was then no more than a corner of the Roman Empire. Although the Batavians and Kanines Faten were still living in our country, there was a flourishing writing culture in Israel for centuries. Contemporaries therefore recorded Jesus’ life history. Their books can be found in the Bible.
We read that Joseph, a carpenter from northern Israel, was instructed by God to call the child who would beget God’s Spirit in Mary (his young bride-to-be) Jesus. The name Jesus means “God saves.” It is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua (Hebrew was the original language of Israel). With this name, Jesus’ life’s task was sealed: he would save people on behalf of God from the power of sin and sickness. And indeed, during his performance in Israel, he performed remarkable miracles, freeing people from all kinds of diseases and demonic forces. He also said: “Only when the Son makes you free will you be truly free.” After three years, however, he was taken prisoner and sentenced to death on the cross, a Roman instrument of torture. His opponents shouted:
The promise made in his name and the expectation he had awakened in his life seemed to have been canceled. Until three days later, it appeared that he had risen from the grave. The Bible gives a detailed account of his death and resurrection and talks about five hundred eyewitnesses who saw him back. Jesus did honor his name. He had overcome the last enemy, death – could he not save people, then? That is why his followers concluded: “His name is the only one on earth that can save man.”
The books in the Bible in which the life of Jesus was recorded (the four “gospels”) are written in Greek. That is why Jesus is referred to as Christ with his Greek title. That word means “anointed one.”
What does it mean to be an anointed one? In Israel, priests, prophets, and kings were anointed with oil for their duties: that was a special tribute and confirmation from God. Jesus was also anointed (God anointed him with the Holy Spirit) to act as a priest, prophet, and king. According to the Bible, there was only one person who could perform these three tasks at the same time. It was the Messiah (the Hebrew word for Christ or Anointed One) who was promised by God.
Already in the first books of the Bible (which were written hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus), this Messiah was announced by the prophets. Now he was there! Jesus’ followers brought Jesus in as the Messiah who would free them from the Roman occupation army and give Israel an essential place on the world map. But Jesus had another kingdom in mind that could not be founded until he had gone the bottom road and conquered death. Then he would go to heaven and give the Holy Spirit to the people who wanted to recognize his kingship in their lives. In the Bible book “Acts,” the sequel to the four gospels, we can read that this indeed happened.
In the culture of Israel, the eldest Son was the most important heir. The father handed over his name and possessions to him. Jesus is called the Son of God in the Bible. God confirms him as his beloved Son at his baptism. He then receives the Holy Spirit and thereby gets the honor that is due to him as God’s Son.
In the life of Jesus, you see great love between God, the Father and Jesus the Son. As a twelve-year-old boy, he says to Joseph and Mary, “I must be busy with my Father’s things.” Later, he will say, “I only do what I see the Father doing.” if Father is. He says that thanks to him, we can be adopted as children of God, so that we too may call God our Father.
The Bible emphasizes that Jesus was fully human and not an exceptional Divine being. Yet he was also God’s Son, over whom the power of sin had no hold. He was God in human form, humbling himself and becoming human to save people.
The Bible is a realistic book. Didn’t you think so? In all possible ways, it is made clear how things are with people. We are unable to live the way God wants us to live on our own. We are slaves to our bad habits and, therefore, always in conflict with ourselves and each other. God cannot condone the evil that we are guilty of. The injustice we do to him, and our environment is so great that every punishment is too small.
We are lost. But God loves us. There is only one way to get out of this dilemma: He must deliver. We must be given from the spiral of sin that is maintained by the adversary, Satan. Jesus came into the world with that commission. He went into battle with Satan and resisted the power of sin. And he did more. He represented our sins as the representative of all people and suffered the consequences, death. He died in our place. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, he also rose again from the dead, allowing him to free us from sin to come to terms with God.
Jesus is our savior so that we do not have to succumb to judgment, but may be saved thanks to God’s grace. That salvation affects people in their actions. Everyone who lives with Jesus is changed from the inside by the Holy Spirit to learn to live as God wills. That makes life as a Christian meaningful and exciting, with the prospect of a hopeful future.
Jesus has won the victory, although the world is still suffering the consequences of sin. We can already share in his victory and live in an open relationship with God, even though the influence of sin still applies. Someday everything will be new. When Jesus returns, his victory is transferred to all of creation. Then the redemption that God has in mind is complete.
Hopefully, this brief study has given you a little more insight into the meaning of the fish sign. One thing becomes clear. The statement “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior” has a charged content that was undoubtedly expressed by the first Christians with wonder, awe, and gratitude when they articulated the meaning of the ichthus sign. But there is more to say about it. The statement of faith hiding behind the fish sign is still moving millions of people. Hence, even today, ichthus fish are dear to many Christians as a sign of their faith. I want to say a few more things about that.
The fish sign now
We can say three things about the meaning of the fish sign today.
First, Christians are still being persecuted on a large scale for their beliefs. Torture reports rarely make the news. Still, specialized organizations report Christian persecution in practically all countries in North Africa and the Middle East (including Israel), in India, Indonesia, China, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, and other countries.
Secondly, it appears that the Christian church – even as in the first centuries of our era – often grows against oppression. You can even say that Christianity worldwide never grew as fast as the last fifty years. The gospel of Jesus Christ has lost none of its power of expression, although you might think otherwise in our secularized country.
That brings me to the third point. Our society has thrown many Christian principles overboard. Yet there are always people who discover the life-renewing power of the gospel. Also, managers realize that Christianity can provide guidelines on norms and values to answer the complex questions that live in our society.
There is a growing awareness among Christians that they have been silent for too long. Churches and religious communities are currently creating small groups to bring faith closer to those who are interested. Various people open their houses to discover, through the Bible, who Jesus is and what the influence of his Spirit can mean in someone’s personal life and his or her environment during informal meetings. The gospel is alive and well.
So: why the fish? The use of the ichthus sign makes it clear that even today, many people attach great importance to its meaning. Whoever carries that fish says: “Jesus Christ is God’s Son, the Savior!”