From BiblePortal Wikipedia

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible [1]

Symbol . The prevalence of figurative language in the Bible is due partly to the antiquity and Oriental origin of the book and to the fact that its subject, religion, deals with the most difficult problems of life and the deepest emotions of the soul. The English word ‘type,’ as the equivalent of ‘symbol’ or ‘emblem,’ is sometimes confusing, as it has been used both for the fulfilment of the prototype and as that which points forward to the antitype. Like the proverb and parable, the symbol implies a connexion between two things of which one is concrete and physical, the other abstract and referring to intellectual, moral, and spiritual matters. The former, of course, is the symbol.

1. Symbols of similarity. Here the connecting principle is one of recognized likeness between the material object and its counterpart. Thus ‘a watered garden’ is made the emblem of a satisfied soul (  Jeremiah 31:12 ). The similarity is that of supplied wants. In the same way the white garments of the priests and of the redeemed were emblematic of holiness (  Exodus 39:27-29 ,   Revelation 19:8 ). Marriage, as an Oriental relationship of purchased possession, was an emblem of Palestine in covenant with God, and of the Church as the bride of Christ. Thus also the Christian life was a race (  Hebrews 12:1 ) and a warfare (  Ephesians 6:11-17 ). An element of similarity entered into the dream-visions recorded in the Bible and into the symbolism of prophetic warnings (  Isaiah 5:1-7 ,   Jeremiah 13:1-12 ,   Ezekiel 37:1-11 ). In the Epistles we meet with a rich variety of emblems created by the desire to interpret the Person and mission of Christ, and the relationship of the Christian believer to Him. The writers, being of Jewish origin and addressing communities which usually contained a number of Jewish Christians, naturally turned to the biographies, national history, and sacred institutions of the OT. Whatever was drawn from such a source would not only be familiar, but would seem to be part of an organic whole, and to possess a value of Divine preparation. Examples of these are the Second Adam, the Firstborn, the Chief Shepherd, the Chief Corner-stone. The journey to Canaan supplied Passover, manna, rock, redemption, better country, rest. From the Tabernacle and Temple were taken high priest, altar, sacrifice, veil, peace-offering, lamb, atonement.

2. Symbols of representative selection or Synecdoche . The symbol is in this case the agent or implement, or some conspicuous accompaniment selected from a group of concrete particulars, so that the part represents the whole. Thus the insignia of office and authority are crown, sword, sceptre, seal, coin, robe, rod, staff. Various actions and relationships are symbolically indicated, such as the giving of the hand (compact), foot on the neck (conquest), bored ear (perpetual servitude), washing of the hands (innocence), bared or outstretched arm (energy), gnashing of teeth (disappointment and remorse), shaking the head (contempt and disapproval), averted face (angry repudiation), bread (hospitality), cross (suffering of Christ, and suffering for Him).

3. Memorial and mystical symbols . These might belong to either of the above forms or be artificially selected, but the purpose was not so much to instruct and emphasize as to recall and perpetuate circumstances and feelings, or to suggest a meaning that must remain concealed. Such were the rainbow at the Flood, the stone Ebenezer, the symbolical names often given to children, as Moses, Ichabod , and the names in Jacob’s family, the Urim and Thummim, the white stone, and the number of the beast, etc. Of this class were the sculptured emblems of the early Christians in the catacombs of Rome, such as the palm, dove, anchor, ship, fish, Alpha and Omega. Water, bread and wine, as the material elements in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are the symbols of those Sacraments. The name ‘symbol’ is applied to the selection of generally accepted truths forming the Christian creed, or canon of belief. Certain characters in the Bible, such as Jonah, Mary Magdalene, Herod, Judas, have come to be identified with special types of character and conduct, and are said to be symbolical of those classes.

4. Dangers of symbolism . (1) The act of transmitting spiritual and eternal truth through material and perishable media always involves limitation and loss . (2) The injudicious carrying out of symbolism into inferences not originally intended, leads into the opposite error of irrelevant addition . (3) The scrupulous avoidance of symbolism may itself become a symbol. (4) The external form which illuminates, emphasizes, and recalls is no guarantee of inward reality . The ceremony of purification is not purity. Sheep’s clothing may not be a robe of innocence or rent garments indicate distress of soul. The cry ‘Lord, Lord!’ is not always raised by true discipleship. Hence Christ’s message to the Samaritan woman concerning true worship, and His frequent protests against the ceremonial insincerities of the Pharisees. The condemnation of image-worship turned upon the total inadequacy of symbol to represent God. It might Indicate man’s thought of God, but it left untouched the constituent element of true religion, God’s thought of man. ‘Eyes have they, but they see not.’

G. M. Mackie.

Holman Bible Dictionary [2]

Symbols, whether objects, gestures, or rituals convey meaning to the rational, emotional, and intuitive dimensions of human beings. The universal and supreme symbol of Christian faith is the cross, an instrument of execution. For Christians, this hideous object comes to be a sign of God's love for human beings.

The meaning of symbols grows and even changes over time. For the apostle Paul, the meaning conveyed by the cross changed radically as did his view of Jesus of Nazareth. As a rabbi, zealous to keep the Mosaic law and to bring others to do so, Paul believed that anyone hung on a tree was cursed by God ( Deuteronomy 21:23 ). For this reason and others, he strongly resisted the claims that Jesus was Messiah. How could one obviously under a divine curse possibly be Messiah? Only when the risen Lord appeared to Saul did he realize that what appeared to be a curse had been transformed into a source of the greatest blessing. Christ's death seen through the resurrection is at the center of the two major symbolic rituals of Christian faith—baptism and the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist. See Ordinances; Sacrament .

Baptism is a picture of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. In being baptized, a person says to the world that the baptismal candidate is identifying with the saving act being pictured. That means the new believer is dying to sin, and is rising to walk in new life, living now for God and with God as the center of life.

The Lord's Supper employs the ordinary elements of bread and wine to picture Christ's broken body and His blood shed for humanity's sin.

While the cross, the water, the bread, and wine are symbols at the center of Christian faith and practice, they are not the only symbols. Symbols in the Old Testament are related to symbols of the New Testament in important ways. Many of the events of the Old Testament foreshadow events of the New Testament. For example, the sacrificial lamb in the Old Testament points to the sacrificial death of Christ. The parables of Jesus are rich in symbols: grain, weeds, various kinds of soil, a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. Jesus used symbolic language in talking about Himself and His relationship to persons: Bread of life, Light of the world, Good Shepherd, Water of life, and the Door.

The apocalyptic writings of the Bible, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation are rich in symbolic language. A person reading and interpreting these books is required to come to know the symbolic meaning of the terms being used in almost the same way as a person trying to break a code. See Apocalyptic .

Steve Bond

Webster's Dictionary [3]

(1): ( n.) That which is thrown into a common fund; hence, an appointed or accustomed duty.

(2): ( n.) An abstract or compendium of faith or doctrine; a creed, or a summary of the articles of religion.

(3): ( n.) Any character used to represent a quantity, an operation, a relation, or an abbreviation.

(4): ( n.) A visible sign or representation of an idea; anything which suggests an idea or quality, or another thing, as by resemblance or by convention; an emblem; a representation; a type; a figure; as, the lion is the symbol of courage; the lamb is the symbol of meekness or patience.

(5): ( n.) An abbreviation standing for the name of an element and consisting of the initial letter of the Latin or New Latin name, or sometimes of the initial letter with a following one; as, C for carbon, Na for sodium (Natrium), Fe for iron (Ferrum), Sn for tin (Stannum), Sb for antimony (Stibium), etc. See the list of names and symbols under Element.

(6): ( n.) Share; allotment.

(7): ( v. t.) To symbolize.

Charles Buck Theological Dictionary [4]

An abstract or compendium; a sign or representation of something moral by the figures or properties of natural things. Hence symbols are of various kinds; as hieroglyphics, types, enigmas, parables, fables, &c.

See Dr. Lancaster's Dictionary of Scripture Symbols; and Bicheno's Symbolical Vocabulary in his Signs of the Times; Faber on the Prophecies; W. Jones's Works, vol. 4: let. 11.

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature [5]

(from Σύν and Βάλλω , To Throw Together, i.e. by comparison), an abstract or compendium, a sign or representation of something moral, by the figures or-properties of natural things. Heice symbols are of various kinds, as hieroglyphics, types, enigmas, parables, fables, etc. (q.v. severally). See Lancaster, Dict. Of Scripture Symbols; Bicheno, Symbolical Vocabulary, in his Signs Of The Times; Faber, On The Prophecies; Jones [W.], Works, vol. 4; Wemyss, Clavis Symbolica; Mills, Sac. Symbology (Edinb. 1853); Fairbairn, Typol. of Script.; Brit. and For. Evan. Rev. 1843, p. 395. (See Symbolism).