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by Pamela Perry Blaine
We have been in the midst of a pandemic for several months and it has been difficult for everyone and some more than others with loss of work, the stress for medical workers, and the hardship for businesses. Some have been working from home and using the internet to communicate during this time. Churches have also been using the internet to post sermons and Bible studies. We are going through difficult times but we don’t have to look far to see that there are others who are dealing with more difficult things than we are. When we look back in history we see that our struggle is not nearly as great as it was for others in the past. Sometimes we complain that we haven’t been able to meet in the same way for church services or that we need to follow certain guidelines.
Imagine for a moment that you live in ancient Rome. It is now a crime to worship God and is punishable by torture or death (perhaps being fed to lions). All scrolls and religious items that are found by the government have been confiscated and leaders imprisoned. You can no longer worship openly because the places of worship have been taken over, or burned. You can only meet secretly in secluded places. Meetings are held at odd times with only a few people meeting at once and people coming separately so attention won’t be drawn to them gathering. Now you are out walking, looking for the place that was whispered to you in the marketplace by a Christian friend. Finally, you see the sign of the fish drawn in the gravel near a doorway and you know this is the right place.
The main language at that time was Greek. They spoke and wrote the phrase “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior” in an acrostic, using the first letter of the Greek alphabet, it looked like this:
I Iota Jesus
CH Chi Christ
TH Theta God
U Upsilon Son
S Sigma Savior
The acrostic forms the word ICHTHUS, which is Greek for FISH. The English translation is IXOYE. The five Greek letters stand for the words: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. The persecuted Christians needed to know where to gather for worship, so they would look for a fish often pointing in the direction of the meeting place.
The sign of the fish was probably used because the Bible relates many instances where fish were significant in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus miraculously served several thousand families with a meal that began with only five loaves and two fish. Also, Jesus called Peter and Andrew, saying, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”
In the early church, when a Christian met someone new he might draw a single arc on the ground. If the other person was a Christian, he would complete the drawing of that fish with a second arc, forming the fish. If the second person was not a Christian, he wouldn’t draw and complete the fish so it wouldn’t disclose the first person as a Christian and perhaps put him in danger. The fish symbol became a code of communication that meant Jesus Christ was accepted as their Lord and Savior. By this faith decision, they had entered into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and knew God’s forgiveness and salvation. (“If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 10:9)
We might ask ourselves how committed we are today? Would we take the chance to follow the sign of the fish and gather to worship? If caught, a man could leave his wife a widow and his family destitute, yet this was how it was for the early Christians. They had no freedom to worship and to gather was extremely dangerous for them.
Fortunately, we live in a country where we are free to worship as we please. This is not the case in many countries and we should not take our freedom for granted. It is a privilege we should support and protect and if we don’t, we may lose that freedom. Have we grown complacent in our liberty, not realizing how much this freedom means to us? Are we joyfully gathering together in our churches when we are free to do so or are we complaining about guidelines we have to follow or are we unconcerned and spending our Sundays doing our own things instead of worshiping God? I’m sure the early Christians would have thought it a wonderful thing to be able to openly meet together without fear of imprisonment or death. If we don’t guard our freedoms and attend our churches, one day we may have to “Look for the sign.”
“Some people have given up the habit of meeting for worship, but we must not do that. We should keep on encouraging each other, especially since you know that the day of the Lord’s coming is getting closer” Hebrews 10:25