Its difficult for humans to believe in something they cant see. Something inside each of us wants tangible proof before we believe. Things the human mind considers to be real are those things we perceive with our natural senses, which is why its a challenge for most of us to function in the spiritual realm. Were asked to believe in Someone we cant see, listen to a voice we cant hear, and depend on a power thats invisible. And thats a challenge some find too difficult, and most of them handle the problem in one of two ways. Either they deny the spiritual world exists altogether, or they go to the other extreme and focus their worship on physical objects. The first group ignores the spiritual, the second turns it into something they can see and touch.
Yet even those who believe in an invisible God may still struggle, because walking with Him requires us to learn to communicate with a spiritual being through means other than our five natural senses (touch, taste, sight, sound, smell). And yes, I know, there are times when those five senses can be effected by His presence, but thats not the normal way we relate to God. The normal way is through the spiritual capacities He placed within each of us when He created us in His image (Ge 1:27). Like Him, we too are spiritual beings, only unlike Him we dwell in a physical body. This means that in order to relate to Him properly a human must learn to communicate in the spiritual realm. But thats not as difficult as it might sound. Since humans are in His image we are essentially spirits ourselves, so we need only to recognize that we already have spiritual ears and eyes which can hear and see when God communicates with us.
A difficult statement (Jn 6:48-63)
While preaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus confronted the congregation with a very difficult statement. It required them to separate the spiritual from the physical, the symbolic from the literal. Lets hear it again.
The term we often use to describe the spiritual part of us is our heart. People say things like this: I heard God speak to me in my heart, or I felt in my heart God wanted me to do this. Obviously we dont literally mean our physical heart because thats an organ that pumps blood. That cant be the part of us that heard or saw or felt something spiritual. But I think were also aware that such things didnt come from our mind either. It wasnt something we produced by thinking. It came from somewhere else, so for lack of a better term we often call that deep, intuitive place inside us our heart, but its really our spirit. Thats why learning to distinguish between the natural and the spiritual, learning to listen and see with non-physical ears and eyes, becomes an essential skill for anyone who wants to know God, for everyone who wants to please Him. After all:
God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth. (Jn 4:24)
Flesh and blood
During His sermon, Jesus used physical objects as symbols to teach spiritual truth. Apparently Passover was only hours or days away (Jn 6:4), so He chose two elements from the ceremonial meal everyone would soon be eating to illustrate His upcoming death on the cross and give His listeners an opportunity to personally receive the saving power of that sacrifice. In effect He was giving an altar call. He was providing His Jewish audience with a tangible way to say yes to Him. Everywhere He went He was proclaiming certain facts about Himself. Basically He was declaring, I am the Son of Man whom Daniel described in his prophecy (Da 7), and I will be given eternal dominion at the end of the age. But first I must die violently as a guilt offering for your sins as the prophet Isaiah has declared (Isa 53). I will willingly sacrifice My body and shed My blood for you. My life will be violently taken from Me as your substitute.
Now, in Capernaum, hours or days before Passover, He gave people an opportunity to choose to believe that message when they sat down in their homes to observe that ceremonial meal. Thats why it was so important to Him that day to show them how the lambs flesh and blood spoke of Him. In effect He was saying to them: Do you believe this? Because if you do, when you take Passover you can receive My promise by faith. As you eat the lambs flesh or the bread that represents it you can confess that I will give My flesh in death for you. As you drink the cup of wine that reminds you of the lambs blood that was sprinkled on the doorways of each home that night, you can drink it by faith believing that My blood will be shed to rescue you from the wrath of God. Dont eat that meal simply as a ceremony that remembers a past deliverance, use its symbols as an opportunity to place your faith in Me. When you eat and drink those symbols, think of Me. Thats what Im going to do for you so that you can rise from the dead and enter into My glorious future kingdom. Then later, after the service dismissed, He said to some doubting disciples: If you dont believe in Me now, you will when you watch Me ascend back into heaven (paraphrase) (v62).
Everything the Lord said that day was meant spiritually. He took symbols from the approaching Passover and used them to call people to reach out by faith and claim the benefit of the sacrifice He would soon provide. Never, not for a second, did He mean that eating or drinking anything would save them. Why can we be so sure of this? Because He said, The Spirit is that which makes alive, the flesh profits (increase, gain) nothing
(literal) (Jn 6:63). In other words, there is no substance, no physical material, no religious ritual which is able to replace the human spirit reaching out to God in faith.
Does that mean its wrong to use symbols or take part in religious ceremonies? Not at all. But it does mean we need to use them for the purposes for which they were originally intended. They were meant to encourage faith, not replace it. They were meant to point us toward spiritual life, but they have no life in themselves. They can coach us on how to say something to God, but they cant say it for us. We must say those things to Him for ourselves.
A year later, in an upper room in Jerusalem, Jesus took a wafer of unleavened bread from the Passover meal they were taking that night, gave thanks, broke it, and then handed it to His disciples and said, This is My body, which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me (Lk 22:19). Then He picked up a cup of wine, called the cup of redemption, and said, This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this in remembrance of Me (1Co 11:25). He was inviting them to believe in Him by using symbols from a religious ceremony, and then He told them to keep on using those symbols that way. So, symbols themselves arent the problem. The problem is in us. Its that human tendency to focus on objects rather than the spiritual realities to which they point. Its always easier for us to rely on our five senses than to meet God in the spirit.
So does that make the use of religious symbols dangerous? Well for some of us they probably are, because some of us may have a hard time seeing beyond the physical world. We may tend to fixate on objects, ceremonies or even people. We may tend to look for help from sources we can see rather than the God we cant see. In that case, we may need to avoid those activities which tend to pull our attention away from the presence of God. In a sense, we might be like those in Corinth (1Co 8) or Rome (Ro 14) who couldnt eat meat that had been sacrificed in pagan temples because they werent able to separate it in their minds from the demons to which it had been offered. Others, those who are not inclined to fixate on objects, dont need to avoid symbols or ceremonies. They may use them freely as they choose. It all depends on the individual. Some can; some cant yet; and some may not be able to this side of heaven. But that doesnt matter. What matters is that we learn to reach out to God and find life.
Heres an example of the danger of symbols. When Israel was passing through the hot, dry desert southeast of Edom, they encountered a swarm of poisonous snakes. To rescue them from death God told Moses to make a symbol. Listen:
Then the Lord said to Moses, Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he shall live. And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a standard; and it came about that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked on the bronze serpent, he lived. (Nu 21:8-9)
That was a beautiful example of a symbol being used as a focal point for faith. By doing nothing more than lifting up their eyes and gazing on the bronze snake, Gods grace flowed to each one and He healed them. But later in Israels history we read a startling statement. At least 700 years later, under a king named Hezekiah, this happened:
[Hezekiah] removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah. He also broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it, and it was called Nehustan. (2Ki 18:4)
That symbol was meant to be a focal point for faith in God, and it was also meant to be a prophetic illustration of Jesus bearing our sin on the cross. Listen:
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life. (literal) (Jn 3:14)
God gave them something beautiful, but they turned it into something ugly. He gave them something symbolic, but they made it magical. Does that mean He was wrong to use a symbol? No! Did He give them that symbol to help them reach out to Him in faith? Yes! Did the power to heal reside in the symbol itself? No! The power came directly from God. The bronze serpent, the manna, the Passover lamb, along with all the symbols and ceremonies found in the Bible, were gifts from God meant to lead us to Himself. He designed them to awaken faith and ignite hope. But all of them can be reduced to superstitious objects or lifeless rituals the moment we forget that, It is the Spirit that makes alive, the flesh does not profit anything.
Jesus finished that statement this way. He said,
the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life (literal). By spirit, He meant His words were pointing to spiritual realities not physical objects. And by life He meant His words were teaching people how to have a genuine relationship with God, they were leading them to experience the Holy Spirit in the same unlimited way they would someday enjoy Him in the age to come.
So heres the question each of us must answer: Are you and I able to use religious symbols and ceremonies in a way that draws us to God Himself, or is there any area in which we have allowed them to become to us an idol? Because were human, we all need to guard our hearts closely.
1) Heres a list of some of the symbols and ceremonies we use in our church. Which ones help you draw closer to God? How do they do that? (water baptism, communion, child dedication, weddings, memorial services, and then certain physical actions like: raising hands, kneeling, bowing, standing, laying on of hands, anointing with oil and fasting).
2) Have any of these ever become more than just a symbol to you? Dont feel you have to share this with others if you dont want to.