When our daughter Bonnie celebrated her first birthday we threw her a huge birthday party. We put on silly hats, blew on little horns, waved bright streamers, brought out the cake with ice cream, lit the candles and blew them out, sang "Happy Birthday," and then after we ate everyone ran around on the grass and started dancing. One of our friends, a tall and regal Tanzanian man named Festus Babalola, was watching his first ever American-style birthday party. So at each little symbol or gesture or action, Festus would interrupt and say in his broken English, "Oh, good for Bonnie, but why do you do that now?" And we would pause and think, "Hum, why do we do that?" And then we'd try to explain to Festus why we used candles, wore silly hats, blew on little horns, sang a song, and danced on the grass. As we began to think about it and talk about it, all the symbols and gestures made sense. It was a party so we made noise and blew into silly horns and lit candles. We were glad that Bonnie was born so we sang a song in her honor.
In every age and culture people have developed ways of saying things by doing things. Could you imagine a world without gestures and symbols, no handshakes, hugs, kisses, wedding rings, special songs, flags, dances, salutes, or flowers on Valentine's Day? Symbols, both symbolic objects and symbolic gestures, open up a level of reality for which non-symbolic speaking is inadequate. For instance, a woman's wedding ring says, "I love my husband and I'm committed to him until death do us part," but the symbol explains all of that in a single glance.
The Bible's World of Symbols
Now you might say, "Well, I don't need symbols, especially in my relationship with God. I'll get by with the Word of God ...
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Matt Woodley serves as the Editor for PreachingToday.com and the Pastor of Compassion Ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. He is also the author of God With Us: The Gospel of Matthew (IVP).