A True Fish Story
The Ichthus is a confession in picture form, a visual sermon of the gospel of Christ crucified.
If I asked you to draw a picture of what you believe as a Christian, what would you draw? What image would you use to confess your faith if you had only pictures?
I imagine the image that came to mind for many of us is the image of the cross or a crucifix, arguably the most well-known, identifiable image of the Christian faith, and for good reason. The image of the cross communicates the central teaching of Christianity. We preach Christ crucified for you.
Now, imagine what would happen if you could hop in Doc’s Delorean or the Doctor’s blue police box from and travel back in time and ask a brother or sister in Christ in the first or second century the same question. What picture might they use to confess their Christian faith?
There’s a good chance the picture they would draw for you would look something like the familiar “Jesus fish,” or the Ichthus symbol (you may also see it spelled Ichthys). The word ichthus itself comes from the Greek word for “fish.” So, what does a fish have to do with Jesus and the Christian faith? Think back to the Scriptures. What narratives and events come to mind that have to do with fish?
If you trawl the Scriptures, you quickly discover that God’s word is teeming with fish stories and not the kind your uncle or grandpa told you. But true and joyful stories of God’s gracious, saving work in Christ. Think of the fifth day of creation where God created the sea creatures and said, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas and let birds multiply on the earth.” Think of Jonah in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights and Jesus’ own prediction of his death and resurrection with the sign of Jonah. Think of Jesus calling his disciples, many of whom were fishermen, saying, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” Think of Jesus’ parable of a multitude of fish caught in the nets of his grace and mercy. Think of Jesus feeding the five thousand plus many more with five loaves of bread and two fish. Think of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples along the sea of Galilee after his death and resurrection, where he repeated his miraculous catch of fish miracle and ate roasted fish with them along the seashore.
All of these stories lead us, like a salmon, back upstream to the spawning grounds of this great symbol, to Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our Savior. Like a fisherman using a net to haul in a school of fish, early Christians gathered this biblical background into the meaning of the ichthus symbol. Long before the Ichthus could be found on car bumpers, tattooed on biceps, or dangling from jewelry, the early Christian church used this beloved symbol to confess Christ and their Christian faith. The Ichthus symbol was also an acronym confessing the divinity of Christ and his saving work on our behalf.
In English, the Greek is typically transliterated as ICHTHUS. Each Greek letter stood for the following.
Ἰησοῦς Χρῑστός Θεοῦ Υἱός Σωτήρ"
Iēsoûs Khrīstós, Theoû Huiós, Sōtḗr
Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior
The Ichthus is a confession in picture form, a visual sermon of the gospel of Christ crucified. Christians used it to identify one another in times of grave persecution and martyrdom, and to catechize the faithful in the words and ways of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the Savior. The history of the Ichthus symbol is the story of God’s baptized people confessing the person and work of Christ our savior, even in the darkest days of Christian persecution.
One of the earliest references to the fish as a symbol of the Christian faith comes from Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215). In his work Pedagogus, book three, chapter 11, he gives the following advice to Christians on the use of symbols or images to be used on a signet ring.
“And let our seals be either a dove, or a fish, or a ship scudding before the wind, or a musical lyre, which Polycrates used, or a ship's anchor, which Seleucus got engraved as a device; and if there be one fishing, he will remember the apostle, and the children drawn out of the water.”
The matter-of-fact way Clement includes the fish as a symbol strongly suggests that by the time he wrote these words the Ichthus symbol was so widely used and well known among Christians that it needed no explanation. Christians would have easily recognized and known its significance. Some have even suggested that the Ichthus symbol originated in Alexandria, Egypt due to its importance in the early Christian church and its status as a well-known seaport in the ancient world.
Clement’s words “Drawn out of water,” also point us to a deeper theological meaning of the Ichthus symbol. The Ichthus was certainly a confession of Christ and his saving work, but it also became a baptismal symbol, identifying Jesus as the Big Fish and Christians as his little fish. Just as fish were drawn into the nets and out into the boat, so too, Christians are drawn out of water through Holy Baptism into Christ’s body, the Church.
The early church father Tertullian (c. 160-220) rigs Baptism and the Ichthus symbol together as well. In his treatise De Baptismos, he writes,
“Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life! …But we, little fishes, after the example of our ΙΧΘΥΣ Jesus Christ are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water.”
Tertullian’s words are a beautiful witness to the reality that in Christ, our Big Fish, we, his little fish, are born from above in the waters of Holy Baptism, and our life as Christians is found in the promise that comes to us in the word and water of Baptism.
When you see the Ichthus, you see what Christians have seen for thousands of years, a picture that confesses, communicates, and teaches us the love of God in Christ Jesus his Son, our Savior.
Later on, in the fourth century, St. Augustine (354-430) references the Ichthus in his famous tome The City of God. “Of these five Greek words (Iesous, Christos, Theou, Uios, Soter), should you group together the letters, you would form the word ichthus, fish, the mystical name of Jesus the Christ who, in the abyss of our mortality, as though in the depths of the sea, was able to remain alive, that is, free from sin.” (The City of God 23)
From Genesis to the Gospels; from Clement of Alexandria to Augustine of Hippo; from the first century to the twenty-first century, a simple, ordinary fish has been used by God’s people to illustrate his extraordinary mercy to us in Jesus Christ our savior. When you see the Ichthus, you see what Christians have seen for thousands of years, a picture that confesses, communicates, and teaches us the love of God in Christ Jesus his Son, our Savior. It is an image that anchors believers across the centuries to Christ, our Big Fish, who unites us little fish with him in the living waters of our Baptism.
It’s rather amazing if you think about it and points to the wonders of God’s gift of the imagination, a symbol used by Christians in the first century and throughout history, continues to confess Christ’s person and work for us in the twenty-first century. The Ichthus, like many popular Christian symbols, adorns our lives, homes, and churches; it catechizes our imaginations with the gospel and points us to Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our Savior.