Have you ever seen the sign of the fish? Perhaps you’ve seen it worn as jewelry or on a bumper sticker. Have you ever wondered what it means? The fish is the earliest of Christian symbols & was the most common representation of Jesus Christ from the 2nd through 4th centuries, but is still used today to indicate a Christ follower.
How did the fish become a symbol of Christianity? Jesus’ first & closest disciples were fishermen. He called them by appealing to their profession: “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19). So the fish became a symbol of evangelism & discipleship. Jesus also worked two miracles with fish & bread when he multiplied a few to feed massive crowds. After His resurrection, He served a morning meal of fish & bread to His disciples. I’m not sure I’d go for big-mouth bass breakfast burritos, but how awesome to have Jesus be the grill master for a cookout!
But the meaning of the fish symbol runs deeper. When opposition & persecution broke out, Christians were frequently forced to gather secretly. It became a covert symbol to mark Christian meeting places. Apparently, when a Christian met a stranger in the road, the Christian sometimes drew one arc of the outline in the dirt. If the stranger drew the other arc, both knew the other was a believer.
When many Christians began being martyred for their faith, many others fled into the underground caverns outside Rome. Ten generations of Christians were buried in the catacombs during approximately 300 years of suppression. No one knows the exact number, but archaeologists estimate up to possibly 4,000,0000 were buried in the dark tunnels. One of the most frequent inscriptions on the catacomb walls was the sign of the fish. Why? Because it expressed the essence of their faith, what they lived & died for, & what their hope for eternal life rested on.
How so? Christians began to attach meaning to the word “fish” itself. The language of the New Testament is Greek, & the word “fish” is spelled *ΙΧΘΥΣ (pronounced “ichthus”), which forms an acrostic:
*Ἰησοῦς (pronounced “ee-ay-soos”). The letter “iota” is the first letter of the name “Jesus.”
*Χριστός (pronounced “christos”). The letter “chi” is the first letter of the title “Christ,” which means “Messiah.”
*Θεοῦ (pronounced “thay-oo). The letter “theta” is the first letter of “God.”
*Υἱός (pronounced “oo-ee-os”). The letter “upsilon” is the first letter of “Son.”
*Σωτήρ (pronounced “so-ter”). The letter “sigma” is the first letter of “Savior.”
So the acrostic forms this: “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.”
While the cross is the most iconic symbol of our faith, it’s the fish symbol that explains its meaning. These titles give the proper response to the question: “Who is Jesus?” When Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). This is our confession because it is the substance of our faith, declaring who Jesus is (His person) & what He’s done (His work). “Jesus” is His human name (which means “The LORD saves”), while “Son of God” tells us He’s also divine. “Christ” & “Savior” refers to His work as Messianic Redeemer.
This is why we’re compelled to share the message of Christ & continue to be fishers of men—because unless people believe this, they cannot be made right with God. “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). So let’s make sure the fish isn’t just a symbol we wear on apparel or as a tattoo…let’s explain the meaning!