In 2022’s Advent season, I’m giving a midweek sermon series sharing the origins and meanings of various Christian symbols with applications to Christians as we look forward to the return of Christ and prepare ourselves for the celebration of his birth at Christmas. Before this sermon, Genesis 22, John 3:16-21, and Matthew 4:18-21 were read.
Before we speak about the Jesus fish symbol tonight, I want to share how the most well-known symbol of Christianity is being used in Egypt by Christians.
I had a student from Egypt – he visited family in Egypt and told me that the Christians in Egypt, who are almost always Coptic Christians, a branch of the Orthodox Church, are always at risk of losing their physical safety, and especially when going to Church. The student said they have guards at their churches and to get into the Church, the Egyptian Christians would have to show their wrists to the guard to get in… on the wrist was a cross tattoo! It proves they are Christian and that the mean no harm. He told me that the Christians would have to check their cars for bombs before starting their cars to leave church!
Being a Christian is serious business in Egypt, there are no cultural Christians, a country which is about 90 percent Islamic population. The constitution specifies Islam as the state religion and the principles of sharia as the main source of legislation.
I met a Georgia Gwinnett College student this year who was a Coptic Christian and I asked him about these reports I had heard, and he pulled down his sleeve and he had the tattoo… it’s very small, but it was clearly a cross. He confirmed the reports I heard from the student who had visited family in Egypt.
It is said that the Jesus Fish has a similar origin. It was a marking to signify that you were Christian, but it was done in secrecy – it was a symbol that was only known among the Christians. The concept is that under Roman persecution in the first centuries of the Church, Christians would make the top half of the swoop of the fish with their foot in the dirt and the person they were speaking to if Christian would make the other swoop – proving they were a safe person to speak to about Jesus. This is a popular account of the origin of the fish, but it’s not based in any evidence. It’s pure speculation. The earliest preserved markings of the fish come on tombstones that don’t have more clear markings that say, “This person was a believer” but with the invocation of Jesus’ name no where to be found, so it is assumed that it was a secret mark to show the dead were Christians. But there is evidence of these marking also as use in markets and entry ways to homes to proclaim the person is a Christian. And there is nothing to verify that they would half draw a fish to check if who they were talking to was a fellow Christian. Personally, it doesn’t seem to fit with what we see concerning their boldness in the Bible and in the centuries following to boldly proclaim the Gospel under persecution.
The Egyptian cross emerged in a different way too… It emerged in 640 AD when Egypt was conquered by Muslims, and Christians who refused to convert were forced to receive a tattoo of a cross on their wrist and pay a religious tax for not being Muslims (something that still occurs today for some Christians in Egypt – the tax that is). The Christians in Egypt today choose to mark themselves as Christians. What was once a mark of persecution is now embraced as a mark of boldness and perseverance. People of all ages are persecuted and killed over this cross, and yet the tradition lives on. During protests and funeral chants, this phrase is often repeated: “With our souls and our blood, we will protect the cross.”
The symbol of the fish was certainly used among Christians in times in which there was persecution against the Church – was it a sign only known among Christians, maybe or maybe not, but it’s a sign that was used and displayed. It’s a sign that we call the Jesus Fish today because we know the fish is to represent Christianity, but in every way the fish was created to represent Jesus and in fact to tell a confessional creed about who Jesus was and is! It’s a symbol that points us to Christmas and the birth of the Son of God, our Savior.
Let me demonstrate this for you. Many today might think the fish is a symbol that was chosen to fit the call that Jesus gave to his disciples to be fishers of men, or a reminder of Jesus’ miracles of multiplying fish for food, or his first disciples being fishermen by trade.
There is so much more to this that we miss as English speakers.
ιχθύς is the 1st century koine Greek word for fish. The early Church used this word as an acrostic.
ι – Ἰησοῦς – Jesus
χ – Χριστός – Christ (the anointed of the Lord)
θ – Θεοῦ – The genitive case of Θεóς, meaning “of God”
ύ – υἱός – Son
ς – σωτήρ (ς is at the end of words) – Savior
Together ιχθύς represents the confession of faith – “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”
And is this not the message of Christmas? Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, our Savior!
This message was proclaimed by the early church with another symbol that likely predates the fish. It is the Christian Wheel symbol.
Tertullian (c. 160-220) in his treatise on baptism, De Baptismo 1, reasons that as water sustains fish, “we, little fishes, after the image of our ichthus, Jesus Christ, are born in the water (of baptism) nor are we safe but by remaining in it.”
Jesus is our Fish!!! Have you ever heard that one before? I hadn’t until preparing for this Advent message. From what I have read thus far on this subject, Tertullian wrote these words in Latin, but when he got to calling Jesus our fish, he wrote Icthus in Greek. This shows that it was certainly well known that ICTHUS meant more than just fish – this acrostic had spread far and wide for him to drop a Greek word in the midst of Latin with no explanation or translation following it.
Jesus Christ Son of God Savior! That is the central creed of Christianity. That is the good news of Christmas.
Jesus is the Son of God came into the world – not to condemn the world but to save the world. Just as we read from Genesis 22 and John 3… What was asked of Abraham, God actually did… He provided his son to be the sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. God gave his one and only son for your salvation, for you to have eternal life. He gave this provision for everyone and for all who hear and believe they are saved.
May we, this Christmas, be so bold as to make sure we display and make prominent this message – that Christmas is not just Santa and presents and hard eggnog and naughty elves parties – this is the day of peace and favor from God to all men because on this day in the City of David your savior – the Christ – has been born.
To quote an old hippie saying about having long-hair in the 60s – “Let your freak flag fly” – Let people see Jesus and know Jesus in your life this Advent as we lead up to Christmas. Amen.
 https://egyptianstreets.com/2022/02/28/the-story-behind-the-coptic-cross-tattoo/ They choose to mark themselves today unless the parents mark their young children to help ensure they cannot so easily convert to Islam under pressure.