Signs, symbols and sacraments are all important
In our post-modern age there is a new spiritual awareness and a sense of mystery. The challenge for Christians in these days is to communicate the unchanging realities of God in ways that speak today.
In the Jesus Fellowship, we have found that signs and symbols are important in this. So, for instance, we often wear red crosses which speak of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the power of His blood. We have given away literally thousands of them! People's imaginations are caught and their spiritual hunger is stirred -- for some, wearing a red cross is the first step on the road of faith in Jesus.
Going deeper -- Sacraments
Of course, there is nothing specific in the New Testament about wearing crosses, although we know from history that the early church used symbols -- such as the sign of the "Ichthus" fish. Now, the fact that God speaks through symbols touches on a deeper issue -- sacraments.
We find in the New Testament that God uses visible signs to communicate the invisible workings of his grace. Often we are inclined to separate the "spiritual" from the "physical"; in God's view the two are inseparable and affect each other. The whole of our faith is based on the fact that the (spiritual) Word became (physical) flesh. [John 1:14] And Jesus died a literal death on a physical cross -- yet it had profound spiritual results! [Col 1:20]
So it is not surprising that we find Jesus teaching that certain physical acts -- such as dipping people under water -- will, when mixed with faith in God, bring spiritual results. [Mark 16:16] These physical acts are called sacraments. (The actual word "sacrament" -- like the word "Trinity" -- is not found in the Bible, but the description of them is!)
The word "sacrament" comes from "sacramentum" which was the pledge of allegiance made by a Roman soldier in New Testament days. It literally means "an act of pledge" or a "solemn covenant". The early Christians "borrowed" the word because it so well described the acts that they used to pledge themselves together in the New Covenant between God and His people, as established by Jesus. [Matt 26:28] (see Hot Topics 12)
These are some of the sacraments that are found in the New Testament (the first two are generally seen as the most important):
Baptism in water
Jesus commanded that all His disciples should be baptised (or "immersed") under water. [Matt 28:19] This is a powerful act in which a believer is joined spiritually to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus; [Rom 6:4] their old sinful nature is symbolically cut away and buried; [Col 2:11,12] they enter the Covenant reality of the Body of Christ, the church. [1 Cor 12:13] (see Hot Topics 3)
Bread and wine
Shortly before His death, Jesus broke bread and drank wine with His disciples. He taught that we should do this in remembrance of Him, identifying the bread with His body and the wine with His blood. [1 Cor 11:23-26] When we share the bread and wine together, spiritually eating His "flesh and blood", [John 6:53-56] we are expressing the powerful covenant union that we have with Christ and with one another in the Body of Christ. [1 Cor 10:17]
Anointing with oil
Jesus taught His disciples to anoint people with oil. [Mark 6:7,13] Oil speaks of the Holy Spirit, poured out through the New Covenant, forming the Body of Christ (Christ actually means "anointed"). [Acts 2:17,33] We are powerfully united and blessed in this anointing; [Acts 4:32,33] [Ps 133] anointing with oil conveys healing and grace to one another in the church. [James 5:14,15]
Jesus taught us to wash one another's feet. [John 13:14] This act expresses how we humbly serve one another because of our mutual Covenant commitment: Jesus laid down His life for us and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. [1 John 3:16] It also expresses the ongoing forgiveness and cleansing that we can bring to one another in Jesus' name. [John 13:10]
The power of the sacramental
There are many other sacramental acts, such as laying on hands to bring the Spirit's power and healing, blessing and commissioning; [Acts 8:17] [Acts 13:3] [Mark 10:16] [Mark 16:18] gripping hands as a sign of fellowship; [Gal 2:9] even lifting up hands in worship is a kind of sacrament! [Luke 24:50] [1 Tim 2:8] [Heb 12:12]
Signs and symbols can be sacramental too. In the Jesus Fellowship we have experimented with the sacramental: anointed cloths to carry healing power; wearing nails which speak of sacrifice; lighting candles as a sign of the Light of God; carrying stones dipped in water as a symbolic renewal of our baptismal pledge... God meets us powerfully in them -- we receive spiritual life through things we see, hear, feel, taste! So let signs, symbols and sacraments speak of the great works of God in our lives!