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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Weekly Trivia Files: More Christianese

For the past few weeks, I've been trying to explain terms that tend to get tossed around in a religious discussion, but often aren't well-defined.  Last week I decided to touch upon a few terms that are often called "Christianisms" or "Christianese," because they mean something deep and important to those who are familiar with them (especially those who grew up in church) but they sound awfully strange to those who are new to Christianity.  If you are one of the confused ones, don't worry.  Keep reading.  Maybe these next three will help.

  • The cross and the fish symbols--Most people have probably heard that Jesus was crucified on a wooden cross, which looks like the lowercase "t" symbol in the Greek alphabet.  The cross was a form of tortuous death that the ancient Roman Empire dealt out to criminals and those who opposed its rule.   Victims of crucifixion didn't usually die of the wounds to the hands or arms and the feet (a long nail was driven through their limbs into the wooden cross), but they did die of suffocation, because they had to pull themselves upright in order to breathe (the position stretched their chest muscles and restricted breathing).   Jesus was not the first to die of crucifixion, and He certainly wasn't the last.  Suffice it to say, early Christians would have been no more likely to wear a cross on their jewelry than we would now be willing to wear a hangman's noose or a guillotine pendant.  Instead, they often used the fish symbol as their emblem, in part because Jesus said, "I will make you fishers of men," (Matthew 4: 19), and partly because of an early Greek acrostic.  The word Icthus, that is, fish, was also an acrostic for "Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter," which translates, "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior," where each word begins with a letter from the Greek word Icthus.  The fish symbol predates the cross as a Christian symbol.
  • Redemption--When Christians speak of "redemption," they aren't talking about coupons.  They are really referring to an ancient Hebrew practice, in which a person "stood in" for a lost kinsman, keeping the land that belonged to him in the family, providing for his widow, and in general keeping his memory alive.  Any children he had with the dead man's widow in effect restored the dead man's name and all of his property to the census rolls of the nation of Israel.  A "kinsman-redeemer" redeemed a man's memory or legacy from death.  In the Bible, Boaz is the most famous "kinsman-redeemer," because he married the destitute widow of one of his tribesmen, and their son was the grandfather of David, the future king of Israel.  This symbolic redemption from death was picked up again and used to describe Christ's mission on earth, because His death redeemed those of us who were dead in our sins, restoring us to full fellowship with God.
  • "The Lamb" and "the sheep"--Many old Christian songs, as well as some newer ones, discuss "the Lamb" or "the Lamb of God."  Does God have His own special breed of sheep?  Well, not exactly.  Historically, the followers of God sacrificed young sheep to atone for their sins, because God set death as the price for sin; therefore, something has to die to take away the offense of sin.  Jesus paid the ultimate price so that He could be "the ultimate sacrificial lamb" on behalf of all of those who wish to repent.  He is the last redeeming sacrifice.  When Christians talk about "the Lamb" they are speaking symbolically of Christ.   Now, when Christians talk about "the sheep" or "the flock," they are talking about followers of Christ.  Jesus once said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10: 11 NIV).  In fact, the Bible is full of symbolic depictions of God's followers as sheep (Numbers 27: 16-18; 1 Kings 22: 17; Psalm 100: 3; Psalm 23). 
That's it for another week. Have a good weekend, and if you have any "Christianese" you would like to see explained, be sure to tell me about it in the comments section.