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Ichthus - Otherwise Known as the Jesus Fish

Ichthus? I thought it was a fish?

Before I became a Christian, I always called it “the fish thing”. Usually, I noticed it while driving behind a car, whose owner displayed it to let me know that there was a “Christian On Board”. It usually just made me wonder if Jesus really wanted to be advertised on the back of a Buick.

But today, standing in faith, I feel that Jesus wants us to proclaim His name and openly acknowledge our belief in Him. Our life, and how we live it, needs to be the loudest testimony of that belief but at times small symbols such as an emblem on our car, or a cross around our neck can be a subtle expression of our faith.

The Meaning of the Ichthus Symbol

Today, I now know that “the fish thing” has a name: Ichthus. Ichthus (ikh-thoos) or ichthys is the Greek word simply meaning fish. The use of the Ichthus as a Christian religious symbol appears towards the end of the 1st century AD. The Greek spelling of Ichthus (lota Chi Theta Upsilon Sigma) is an acronym, which is a word formed from the initial letters of the several words in the name. One popular English translation of the Ichthus acronym appears as “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”.

· Iota is the first letter of Iesous, Greek for Jesus
· Chi is the first letter of Christos, Greek for “anointed”
· Theta is the first letter of Theous, genitive case of “God”
· Upsilon is the first letter of Huios, Greek for Son
· Sigma is the first letter of Soter, Greek for Savior

The correct placement of the Ichthus symbol is with the head on the left and the tail on the right. The Ichthus symbol them resembles the first letter of the Greek alphabet, alpha, which is also is similar in shape. This is a reference to the saying that Jesus is the “Alpha and the Omega”:

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty” Revelation 1:8 (NIV)

Early Christian Use of the Ichthus Symbol

In the first century the church grew rapidly. But with this growth, Christians soon found themselves subject of persecution by both the Romans and the Jews. Beginning with the reign of Emperor Nero (54 A.D. – 68 A.D.) Christians were persecuted, tortured and many times put to death because of their faith in Jesus Christ. It is believed that the Ichthus symbol was used as a means of identifying a fellow believer in Jesus Christ. When two strangers met, one couldn’t simply ask if the other was a believer for fear of being turned over to the authorities. Instead, upon meeting, a Christian would draw on the ground or on a wall, the upper half of the Ichthus (fish) symbol. If the second, as a Christian, recognized the symbol, they would add the second curved line and complete the drawing of the Ichthus.

Today’s Christian Use of the Ichthus Symbol

The “Ichthus”, the “Fish”, the “Jesus Fish”, whatever the name, has become an icon of modern Christianity, second only to the cross. Fortunately, today, we no longer use the Ichthus symbol as protection against persecution. Instead Christians of today proudly display the Ichthus, not only to fellow Christian such as our spiritual ancestors had, but to the world as a small expression of our faith in Jesus Christ. So smile the next time you see a Ichthus on the back of a Buick….there’s a fellow Christian on board!

“Come, follow me,” Jesus said “and I will make you fishers of men” Mark 1:17

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