Symbolic Practices in the Local Church

Although stimulation of the senses is essential for normal childhood development, there is obviously much more to human experience than what is simply sensuous. While some try to dismiss humanity’s unique characteristics as merely evolutionary, others recognize that our emotional capacity and ability to think critically, for example, are not by accident but by design. They are evidence that we are creatures of purpose, and the Scriptures explain that the fulfilment of this purpose ultimately lies beyond the physical and temporal. Human beings are uniquely God’s image-bearers and can only find fulfilment in proper relationship with Him.

The rites and ceremonies of Judaism were highly sensory, variously invoking the senses of sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. By contrast, Christian worship is essentially spiritual, as borne out by the writer to the Hebrews, “For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them …. But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb 12:18,19,22).[1]

The wisdom of God’s purposes becomes clear when we understand the progressive nature of His self-revelation. Concerning the Christian’s relationship with Judaism, Paul wrote that “the law was our guardian until Christ came” (Gal 3:24). The Law and the associated sensory aspects of Judaism were not an end in themselves, but were given for our training and development, to prepare us for the advent of Christ. About the otherworldliness of the spiritual realm, Paul wrote, “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ …. Why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings?” (Col 2:17-22).

The Scarcity of the Symbols

Whereas Judaism had a plethora of “shadows,” there are just three symbols uniquely associated with biblical Christianity – baptism by immersion, and the two symbolic “traditions” (“ordinances” KJV) which Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 11. Their fewness emphasizes their importance, so it is regrettable that the significance of these symbols is often undermined in Christendom, even though other redundant aspects of Judaism are often retained.

There are three notable instances in the OT where symbolic language or practices were intended to provoke the Israelites’ children to inquire after their deeper significance. First, the twelve stones from the wilderness buried in the Jordan and their counterparts drawn from the riverbed and erected at Gilgal (Jos 4:21) forever witnessed that God had redeemed His people with power through the waterflood. Second, the service of the Passover (Exo 12:26) was a reminder of His promise to watch and protect His people and to bring them to their eventual inheritance. Third, the statutes and testimonies fixed to their doorposts, gates, and fringes of their garments (whether literally or merely metaphorically) were to be constant reminders of the blessing which flows from submission to God’s authority (Deu 6:20).

The Significance of the Symbols

While stopping short of implying a direct correlation, the similarities between these OT and NT symbols are interesting and suggestive. However, a detailed exposition is well beyond the scope of this article. Let’s focus on one key element of each.

Looking back, Christian baptism is a testimony to God’s power to deliver the believer from hopeless slavery to sin, through destruction of his old self by association with Christ in death and resurrection, to walk in newness of life with Him.

By contrast, just as at the inauguration of the Passover when Moses instructed the people, “And when you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service” (Exo 12:25), so the Lord Jesus anticipated its final fulfilment when He would drink the cup anew with His disciples “in my Father’s kingdom” (Mat 26:29). Accordingly, each Lord’s Day, while commemorating His crucifixion, as we keep the Lord’s Supper we still look forward and affirm our confidence that God will fulfil His covenant promise, even as Paul wrote, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1Co 11:26).

Finally, as Moses prepared the Israelites for their life in the land by instructing them to constantly remember their need to submit to God’s authority, so the symbolic unveiling of God’s glory and corresponding covering of man’s glory with a symbol of authority affirm our collective commitment to glorify God in the present by our willing subjection to His presidency over all things.

The Suitability of the Symbols

These symbols transcend culture and are enduring in their importance and applicability. Not only does he address himself to the saints in every place in the introduction to the letter, but Paul is unmistakable in his commendation of the Corinthian church for their remembrance of him and their faithful preservation of the apostolic traditions “even as I delivered them to you” (1Co 11:2). Traditions are often dismissed as mere customary or habitual behaviour, and rightly so when they are “vain traditions” or the “traditions of men.” However, implicit in Paul’s use of the word is the assertion that these practices have been handed down with apostolic authority, and received as such. They were well-established practices, the validity of which was founded upon apostolic teaching and example, and formally recognized by their acceptance by the entire body of believers.

The Simplicity of the Symbols

In closing, it should be observed that each of the symbolic practices referred to are all essentially uncomplicated. It is our blessed privilege and joy to give expression to these precious truths delivered to us in simple, symbolic form. Let us strive to maintain and not meddle with them – either in disobedience, through neglect or even by over-complication. Remember that the Lord Jesus chided the Pharisees and scribes: “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (Mar 7:7-8).

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.