Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The longest section of Matthew’s Gospel is his “proclamation” (Matthew 4:17–16:20), in which he issues a number of declarations about the kingdom of heaven. Matthew likens God’s kingdom to a small mustard seed, which has in it the potential to grow into a “tree so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches,” something startlingly different in size and appearance from its humble beginnings. Matthew’s proclamations about the kingdom of God symbolize the tantalizing fruits yielded by a life lived in obedience to the commandments of Christ. His use of the phrase “kingdom of heaven” also discloses Matthew’s Jewish roots, as in Jewish custom one could not utter God’s name.
In one of the New Testament’s most well known parables, Luke tells us that Jesus used this story as the answer to a man’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus describes a man lying on the road, dying. Neither a passing priest nor a Levite helps him, because touching a dead body was considered utterly impure. The Samaritan, however, rescues the man, thereby breaking two social conventions—associating with what could be a corpse, and crossing the border between the rival communities of Jews and Samaritans. The Samaritan can be understood to symbolize both Christ’s message that the poor and outcast are blessed, and that Christ’s message is for Gentiles as well as Jews.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus is symbolized by the life-giving matter of everyday existence: water, bread, light, and words. Water and bread, in particular, are used repeatedly. While speaking with a Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus tells her, “water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” She says in reply, “[S]ir, give me this water so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” John uses this symbol of water to illustrate that Jesus’s gift is abundant and life-giving.
In Romans 11:17–24, the olive tree symbolizes the salvation of the Gentiles and of Israel. The tree, including the root and branches, is Israel. The branches broken off are the Jews who do not believe in Jesus Christ, while the branches grafted on are Gentiles who believe in Christ. Having been made part of the tree only because of faith—rather than birth, obedience to the law, or works—the Gentile believers have no reason for pride, since the God who has grafted them on has the power to cut them off.
In 1 Corinthians 12:12, Paul writes about the variety of spiritual gifts that exist using the image of the human body to convey that each of these different gifts is needed, just as every part of the body is needed. The church is Christ’s body. Paul writes, “For just as the body is one and has many members, all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” Paul uses this symbol as a way to deal with the difficult issue of balancing unity and diversity in his early churches, saying that though we are all uniquely gifted individuals, we are also all parts of the one united body of Christ.