Christian Ministry

Bible teaching
Symbolism used in the Bible
Word of God

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March 1999
A symbol is a token or sign. While the word symbol does not appear in the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments are rich in symbolism and symbolic language whether it be through colors, numbers, actions, or objects. The universal and supreme symbol of the Christian faith is the cross - an instrument of execution. For Christians, this hideous object has come to be a sign of God's love for human beings.

This teaching will highlight symbolism as seen in the Bible and its interpretation which comes from the following: divine revelation, dreams, and visions.

Symbolism in the Word of God

While the cross, water, bread, and wine are symbols at the center of the Christian faith and practice, they are not the only symbols mentioned in the Bible. The Word of God is loaded with symbolism; in fact, many of the events of the Old Testament often foreshadow events which occur in the New Testament. For example, the sacrificial lamb in the Old Testament points to the sacrificial death of Christ (see Passover).

Jesus even used symbolic language in talking about Himself and His relationship to persons. He referred to himself as the source of Living Water, the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, the Good Shepherd, and the Door. When Christ sets up His millennial kingdom here on earth (Revelation 20:4-9), He will replace the symbolic precursors of the Old Covenant: the bronze laver, the table of shewbread, and the golden lampstand, for He is the New Testament fulfillment of the Old Covenant. Jesus is the source of Living Water, the Bread of Life, and the Light of the World; He is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. We no longer have to sacrifice lambs and rams to atone for our sins, for Christ became our Passover Lamb. It is by His flesh (the veil of the temple) that we are able to enter into the Holy of Holies and commune with our High Priest - Jesus Christ (Hebrews 10:20-21). Hallelujah!

Jesus also used symbolism when He spoke in parables. A parable is a brief tale illustrating a moral principle. His 39 recorded parables (stories) connected with the real world of agriculture (sowing, harvesting, growing), the food industry (baking, fishing), real estate (land purchasing, home ownership), and retailing (the sale of pearls). His images and language helped bring His message alive to the common people. It showed clearly that God takes an interest in the workplace and desires people to serve Him in the secular arena. The advantage of stories like these is that they impress the listener with a vivid, imaginative picture of the truth. That doesn't mean, however, that they are always easy to understand. Even Jesus' disciples were often confused as to the meaning of His parables (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). This is where divine revelation comes in to play. By studying to show yourself approved unto God (II Timothy 2:15), and by obeying His commandments, the Lord will begin to reveal more and more of His hidden truths which are concealed in the Bible just waiting to be discovered.

Symbolism in Dreams

The Book of Daniel is rich in symbolic language; the majority of this apocalyptic writing was recorded as a result of God-given dreams. Daniel, recently taken captive in the Babylonian Exile, was called upon by King Nebuchadnezzar to interpret his troubling dreams.
    "Daniel, answered in the presence of the king, and said, 'The secret which the king hath demanded cannot the wise men, the astrologers, the magicians, the soothsayers, shew unto the king; But there is a God in heaven that revealeth secrets, and maketh known to the king Nebuchadnezzar what shall be in the latter days'." (Daniel 2:27-28).
We learn two things from this passage: First of all, like in parables, God confounds the wise with the simple, and secondly, God reveals His plans to His children through "similitudes" which are images or puzzling revelations which take time to become clear. Daniel was able to interpret this dream because of his innocence (Daniel 6:22) and faithfulness. If you want God to give you dreams and make them clear to you (as if He was speaking to you face to face), you must be faithful to Him even if it means you'll be fed to the lions.

Dreams are extremely significant in a Christian's walk. Originally God communicated with man face-to-face. He walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day (Genesis 3). After sin separated man from this intimate fellowship with His creator, God began to use other means of communication. Most of the time, God speaks to us through His written Word, but He also speaks through prophets, visions, and yes "dreams."

The Bible tells us that God uses dreams to speak to us and reveal His plans (Genesis 15:1-22), Dreams enable Spirit-directed communication (Genesis 20:1-7; I Kings 3:5-10), warn of impending trouble (Job 33:12-22), establish prophetic revelation (Job 33:14; Genesis 41:1-8,32), provide guidance (Numbers 12:6), provide battle strategies (Judges 7:9-15), and cause us to prosper (Job 36:5-12).

It is important to note that not all dreams come from God and are significant. Some could simply be wishful thinking (Psalm 126:1; Isaiah 29:7-8). However, in times of need and especially when a person sought a word from God (often accompanied by prayer and fasting), dreams could be significant.

There are three types of dreams:
  • A "simple message dream" apparently did not need interpretation. For example, Joseph understood the dreams concerning Mary and Herod even though no mention is made of interpretation (Matthew 1 and 2).
  • The "simple symbolic dream" used symbols, but the symbolism was clear enough that the dreamer and others could understand it. The Old Testament Joseph had this kind of dream in Genesis 37.
  • The "complex symbolic dream" needs the interpretive skill of someone with the experience or ability in interpretation. The dreams of Nebuchadnezzar (mentioned briefly above) described in Daniel 2 and 4 are good examples of this kind of dream. Even Daniel had dreams which the symbolism was so complex that he had to seek divine interpretation (Daniel 8).
Years back, God spoke to me through a dream and told me that I would help backslidden Christians to get back on track. You might ask me how I know that this dream came from God? Well, to answer this question, let me first reveal how you when a dream is not from God. Ecclesiastes 5:7 tells us that natural dreams come from your mind, resulting from "a multitude of business." When you awake from such a dream, your soul is empty.
    "It shall even be as an hungry man dreameth, and, behold, he eateth; but he awaketh, and his soul is empty: or as when a thirsty man dreameth, and, behold, he drinketh; but he awaketh, and, behold, he is faint, and his sould hath appetite..." (Isaiah 29:8).
Therefore, you can always tell when a dream is from God, because it will always leave a tremendous lasting impression on you. It will be clear and not hazy, and it will affect the destiny of your life. A good example of this can be found in Genesis 40 with the dreams of the baker and the butler which were interpreted by Joseph. Both dreams came to pass, for all dreams that come from God will surely come to pass. Anyway, back to my dream.
    The dream started when I was enjoying a bright and sunny day at the beach. People were going about their daily routines: the children were busy building sand castles, the guys were playing frisbee and swimming, and the ladies were enjoying a good book while bathing in the sun. But suddenly, all of this would change, for out over the water emerged a large, ominous funnel cloud. This funnel cloud quickly enveloped the sun and changed into a waterspout (a tornado over water). Everyone around me started to panic; they screamed as the sky quickly became dark and ominous. I just stood there at peace, totally unaware of what the problem was. You see I was not shaken by this storm, for scripture tells us in Isaiah 26:3 that "Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee." "And the rains descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock (Jesus Christ)." Matthew 7:25.

    Continuing the dream, the waterspout headed toward the beach; however, I just stood there in awe and amazement at this weather phenomenon. The resulting storm surge thrusted thousands upon thousands of fish on shore and then the waterspout instantly dissipated. Then I saw myself frantically picking up the fish and shoveling them back into the ocean, in hopes of reviving them.
As you might imagine, this dream definitely left a lasting impression upon me as I awoke from my sleep. As I briefly meditated upon it, the Lord gave me the interpretation. The fish symbolize Christians who accepted the Lord into their hearts but were no longer living for Him; Jesus was their Savior but not their Lord. So when I threw them back into the ocean which is water, they began to live a full life. The water of the ocean symbolizes the Word of God; when we adhere to its words and apply them to our life, we live a life full of joy, peace, and contentment.

If I would have been awakened from this dream due to a phone call or a loud noise, God would most likely have repeated this important dream to me for emphasis (Job 33:14), just as he did to Pharaoh in Genesis 41:1-8. He does this to establish it, especially in the area of prophetic dreams:

    "And for that the dream was doubled unto Pharaoh twice; it is because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass." (Genesis 41:32)
Symbolism in Visions

Finally, God uses visions to reveal Himself, His glory, and to make Himself known. The apocalyptic writings of Ezekiel and Revelation are rich in symbolic language; they were recorded as a result of God-given visions.

Like dreams, God-given visions are a result of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
    "And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams" (Acts 2:17).
A vision reveals God's glory (Isaiah 6:1-4; Habakkuk 2:1), reveals one's own frailty (Isaiah 6:5), leaves one astonished and numb for days (Ezekiel 1-3), and will always be followed by an interpretation (Daniel 7:1,28).


Five steps for making dreams and visions a reality can be found in Habakkuk 2:1-4:
  • Pray (verse 1). The first thing you need to do in order to make a God-given dream or vision a reality is to cover it in prayer. Prayer is the key to unlock dreams, visions, interpretation, and knowledge. Pray to God and ask Him to reveal their meaning to you.
  • Write the vision down and make it plain (verse 2). You must clearly understand a vision in order that it may be fulfilled in your life; therefore it is a good idea to write them down.
  • Act upon it (verse 2). You must step out in faith and act upon what God has shown you. God gave me a vision to start the Christ-Centered Mall. If I would have waited for everything to be perfect like having the finances at startup and the leisure time, it would not have been started; for this undertaking had to be birthed by faith.
  • Wait for it (verse 3). While you wait for a God-given vision or dream to come to pass, cooperate with God in every possible way; but wait for patiently for His perfect timing to fulfill it.
  • Don't lose faith (verse 3 and 4). Don't ever give up, even if there is a delay. "Though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come.." because "the just shall live by faith." (Habakkuk 2:4).
The best strategy on knowing the will of God in one's life is to take a wholistic approach: don't rely solely on dreams and visions to know God's will for your life. Make sure you are grounded in the Word of God which is the final authority for all believers in Jesus.

In closing, by studying the meaning of these colors, numbers, objects, and actions, you will be able to better interpret what God is showing you through dreams, visions, and His Word.

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This teaching was written by David Holt Boshart, Jr.
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