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Religion Library: Baptist

Symbolism

Written by: David Buschart

Generally speaking, symbolism per se is not a prominent category in Baptist thought and worship, and there are not as many self-consciously or intentionally symbolic objects and acts as there are in many other traditions of Christianity. Nonetheless, there are at least four instances of symbolism that are common within and important for the Baptist tradition: representations of the cross of Jesus Christ, the rites of baptism and the Lord's Supper, and copies of the Bible.

Many, if not most, Baptist churches will have at least one cross mounted prominently on the exterior of the church building and one mounted prominently in the front of the sanctuary. (Sometimes, there will be three crosses, alluding to Jesus' crucifixion between two other men who were crucified at the same time. See Matthew 23:32-33.) These will not be crucifixes, which portray Christ's lifeless body hanging on the cross, but what are often referred to as "empty" crosses, that is, without Christ's body depicted. The symbolism here is, first, one of centrality. The death of Jesus Christ is central to the Gospel (or "good news"), the message of God's offer of salvation in Christ. The preaching and teaching of this gospel message of salvation only through the work of Christ, centering on his death and resurrection, is at the very heart--one could say it is the very heart--of Baptist belief. The most simple and prominent material symbol of this is a cross.

Second, an "empty" cross represents belief that, after his death by crucifixion, Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and that his atoning work is "finished," complete. Thus, the empty cross does not depict emptiness, but quite the opposite. It proclaims Christ's victory over death, for which the cross was the instrument. It proclaims hope and assurance, for Christ is risen and lives today.

A second instance of highly intentional symbolism in the Baptist tradition is the rite of baptism. Baptism by immersion is universal within the Baptist tradition, and it symbolizes the Christian's identification with Christ in his death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-4; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11). It is an expression, by means of symbolic ritual, of an individual Christian's commitment to Jesus Christ. Furthermore, it is symbolic of the fact that through union with Christ, testified to in baptism, the person baptized is washed clean of sin--an outward washing symbolic of an inner washing.

A third instance of symbolism is the ordinance of the Lord's Supper. The celebration of the Lord's Table is a symbolic rite that directs a celebrant's attention to the past, present, and future life and work of Jesus Christ. This meal is derived from the meal Christ shared with his disciples shortly before he was crucified. The broken bread and the wine (or grape juice) point to the broken body and shed blood of Christ in his suffering and death. Today, Christians gather together at the Lord's Table testifying to the fact that this same Christ is alive and at work today. And, this backward remembrance and present testimony are engaged with a confident hope for the future, when Christ will return and share a meal, a feast, with his people.

 

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