The fish has a religious meaning: it is synonymous with abundance in the Gospel (Jesus brings bread and fish, stories of miraculous fishing), and by extension, the fish will symbolize the Christians themselves that must be caught. Then the fish even becomes the symbolic figure of Jesus, for the fathers of the Church.
In the Old Testament, the Torah, the fish already plays an important symbolic role: in Genesis, the fish are created on the fifth day, at the same time as the birds and before the rest of the fauna and already there, the fish is a sign of abundance and life. Just like in the books of Ezekiel, or Tobit.
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What do fish symbolize in the bible
The fish is mute
There are other elements in the life of the fish that tell us something about the life of the Christian. For example, the fish is mute. “Silent as a carp,” the expression goes.
The life of the Christian is not a life of advocacy. Faith is not the claim of Christian values. It is the encounter with Someone, Jesus, with whom we can have a heart-to-heart love every day.
The fish swims against the current
Most fish swim against the current. The Christian does not follow the law of Talion (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth). While it seems normal today to seek to justify oneself, even to seek justice, the Christian, following Christ, seeks to love.
To love without measure, and to forgive. To love even those who hate or persecute us. To love and to give our lives as followers of Christ. The witness of the Christian is therefore a witness in action; a witness of charity.
The fish does not close its eyes
The fish has no eyelids, it never stops watching. This also says something about the Christian attitude. Christ has risen, and now Christians are waiting for his return in glory.
This is what they profess just after the consecration; after the priest’s acclamation “Great is the mystery of faith”, the Church answers: “We proclaim your death Lord Jesus, we celebrate your Resurrection, and we await your coming in Glory”. This waiting is not a passive waiting, but a loving waiting, like the bride who waits for the arrival of her fiancé.
The fish cannot live outside its environment
For the Christian, this environment is the Church. In the context of the New Testament, the sea, the waters, represent death and the power of darkness. In the Genesis account, the first animal to be created is the fish; and it is the only one blessed by God.
In the tradition of the Church, the reason the fish is blessed is that it must have the grace of the Creator to live in a dark environment. Jesus speaks of our world as a world given over to the power of darkness. It is a world of death.
The only way to live is by the grace of Christ and therefore in an ordinary way, in the Church, by receiving the Grace of Christ through the sacraments, prayer, and meditation of the Word of God, the Living Word that acts in the hearts of the faithful.
Why a fish and not just the image of Christ for these Christians?
Because we don’t represent God! It is necessary to wait several centuries before one can have religious images among the Christians. The symbols will allow to express a religious sense, because precisely, the figurative images are forbidden.
Why did this happen? First, the influence of Judaism, which banned any representation of God. And then, the Christians were reluctant because images, at the time, were good for the pagans: the Roman emperor had based his cult on his own representation. So it was necessary to avoid falling into this idolatry! Finally, there is the conviction that Christ radically escapes any sensible image. Moreover, it is necessary to note the total silence of the Gospels on the physiognomy of Christ: nobody knows if he had a beard and blue eyes…
But in reality, the believers of the base will quickly feel the need to draw, to express their faith (a little like in love, we need to express our feelings, and we will make graffiti on the walls of the school!) The use of symbols, which have a religious meaning, will develop progressively: it is thus that one takes the practice to put fish on the tombs, at the door of the houses. But not only fish: peacocks, doves (purity), lambs. The symbol can be more simply made up of letters, like the chrism (formed by the two Greek letters Χ (chi) and Ρ (rhô).
What is interesting is that these signs are developed under pressure “from the grassroots” and not the religious hierarchy, which was suspicious of them. But the believers had this simple need to represent what they believed in. It was not until the third century that instructions were given on which pagan symbols were formally excluded and which others could be Christianized (the dove, the fish, the anchor, etc.).
What do the fish mean today?
The fish is a rallying sign for Christians, regardless of denominational affiliation.
Whoever adopts the sign of the fish thus testifies that he has discovered Jesus Christ, that he believes in him. He affirms his belonging to Jesus Christ. He recognizes Christ as his Savior, prays, follows his teachings and the example of his life as recorded in the Bible.
For Christ’s sake, he abandons behaviors that his Savior disapproves of and leads his life on a new basis.