God deliberately included symbols throughout His Word. Do you know those symbols and what they mean? How can symbols deepen our understanding?
The Bible is full of symbolism. Indeed, how consistently its symbols are used by the different authors of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is supporting evidence that God is the ultimate Author of the Bible.
Symbols are used to illustrate concepts. Some symbols can make a complex subject more understandable by using an image to capture its essence. Other symbols are enigmatic and can be confusing, especially to modern readers.
Jesus Himself used symbols like water, bread, light, wine, sheep, wolves and so on. Symbols can enhance our understanding of biblical concepts, so an awareness of the Bible’s various symbols will help us to better grasp its teachings.
Here are 10 important symbols of the Bible explained by the Bible itself.
1. A lamb
A lamb is a symbol of Jesus Christ as the blood sacrifice required to pay for mankind’s sins (John 1:29). Lambs were killed in accordance with the sacrificial laws God gave to Israel. They were sacrificed annually at the Passover and regularly as burnt offerings (Exodus 12:5-6; Leviticus 1:10).
One essential requirement of the sacrificial lambs was that they be “without blemish” (Exodus 12:5; Leviticus 1:10), which pointed to our perfect and sinless Savior who gave His life to pay the death penalty we deserved. This made forgiveness possible.
When the Passover lamb was slain and its blood painted on the doorposts of each home, it foreshadowed Jesus’ sacrifice and His blood being applied to each of us so we can avoid death (1 Corinthians 5:7).
Lambs are widely recognized as innocent creatures, so this symbol underscores how undeserving Jesus was of death, much less death by shameful crucifixion. Lambs can also be humble, gentle and obedient, characteristics that apply to Jesus Christ.
To learn more about how Jesus is the Lamb of God, see our article “Sacrifice of Jesus.”
Shepherds are used in the Bible to refer to leaders, sometimes political ones, but more often religious leaders. They are those who teach, direct, watch over and guide.
Ephesians 4:11 tells us that Jesus Christ gave members of His Church various responsibilities, some to be “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers” (English Standard Version, emphasis added throughout).
To the elders in the Church—ordained servants of God entrusted to teach—Peter wrote, “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers . . . being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3). In the same thought, Peter referred to Jesus Christ as “the Chief Shepherd,” who is our primary leader and teacher (verse 4).
The Bible also talks about false shepherds. Because of their position of influence, they are severely indicted for the sin of leading people astray. Lost sheep are the result of shepherds who do not teach the truth of the Bible (Jeremiah 50:6; Isaiah 56:11). “Woe to the shepherds,” God said, “who destroy and scatter the sheep of My pasture” (Jeremiah 23:1). Shepherds are responsible for guiding the flock and providing the right spiritual diet. God is the ultimate Shepherd (Ezekiel 34:14).
Leaven—what causes dough to rise—is used often in the Bible as a symbol for sin.
The apostle Paul revealed the connection when he wrote, “Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness” (1 Corinthians 5:8). Paul was reminding the Church about the spiritual reality represented by an Old Testament festival.
Commanded by God in Exodus 12, the Feast of Unleavened Bread was to be observed annually for the seven days that followed the Passover (verses 15-17). As the name suggests, the Israelites were required to remain unleavened for the duration of the feast—to avoid eating anything with leavening. In the context of the Passover and the spiritual symbolism there, the Feast of Unleavened Bread is kept as a reminder of our need to remove sin from our lives after we have been forgiven through Christ’s shed blood.
For more information about the significance of this festival, see our article “The Feast of Unleavened Bread: Pursuing a Life of Righteousness.”
Leaven also symbolizes false teachings. Jesus warned His disciples to be on guard against the “leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees,” which was their “doctrine” (Matthew 16:6, 12). Their teachings were not from God’s Word, but were based upon their own traditions. They clung to false doctrines rooted in their own traditions and this became their stumbling block, keeping them from understanding that the Messiah would first come to die for mankind’s sins and then return to rule (1 Corinthians 1:23).
Paul warned God’s Church that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump,” referring to the pervasiveness and devastating effect that false doctrines and sins can have (Galatians 5:9).
While leaven is generally used negatively, note that Jesus also used it to describe the dynamic growth of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 13:33; Luke 13:20-21).
Stars in the Bible often refer to angels, as in Job 38:7, where God says the “stars [angels] sang together” and “shouted for joy” when the earth was created. Likewise, in Revelation 12:3-4, we are told that “a great, fiery red dragon [Satan] . . . drew a third of the stars [angels] of heaven and threw them to the earth,” alluding to the fact that Satan led many angels to become demons during his rebellion against God (Isaiah 14:12-14; Ezekiel 28:14-16).
The resurrected Jesus Christ also told the apostle John that “the seven stars” in His right hand were “the angels of the seven churches” (Revelation 1:20).
Stars can also symbolize the glory that resurrected saints will have. Scripture tells us that when true Christians are resurrected, they will be given a spiritual body that will shine like the stars (1 Corinthians 15:44; Daniel 12:3; Matthew 13:43). John also was inspired to write, “We know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him,” and he also wrote that Jesus Christ’s face “shines like the sun,” which is a star (1 John 3:2; Revelation 1:16).
Fire is used in different ways in the Bible, but it often symbolizes God’s indignation and righteous judgment.
In Deuteronomy 4:24 He is called “a consuming fire,” a reference to His great and dreadful power to destroy those who willfully oppose Him. A display of this power can be seen in God’s condemnation of Sodom and Gomorrah, where He “rained brimstone and fire” on those ancient cities and “overthrew” them because of their gross sins (Genesis 19:24-25).
The book of Isaiah also prophesies God’s destruction of Babylon this way: “Behold, they shall be as stubble, the fire shall burn them; they shall not deliver themselves from the power of the flame” (Isaiah 47:14).
These examples foreshadow God’s ultimate destruction of unrepentant sinners at the end of the age: “He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12).
Fire is also used to describe the trials and adversities that come upon God’s faithful servants (1 Peter 4:12). Like raw metals, Christians require a refining process. Thus, the “furnace of affliction,” or the heat of life’s circumstances, purges our spiritual impurities and brings us to the level of refinement necessary for eternal life (Isaiah 48:10).
6. A woman
The symbol of a woman is used to describe both the true Church of God and the false religious system referred to as Babylon. The context shows which is being discussed.
God’s Church is described as a woman preparing to be the Bride of Jesus Christ. It’s a metaphor that once applied to ancient Israel, a people God selected for Himself, before being transferred to the spiritual nation of Israel (Ezekiel 16:8; 1 Peter 2:9).
Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:2). He used this metaphor again in Ephesians 5:27: “That He might present her [the Church] to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.”
The future fulfillment of this long-awaited marriage ceremony is recorded in Revelation 19, where John wrote, “Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife [the Church] has made herself ready” (verse 7).
But John also recorded seeing another woman in Revelation 17: “And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast . . . And on her forehead a name was written: MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS” (verses 3, 5). She is the antithesis of God’s true Church. She is a corrupt religious system (“that great city,” verse 18) that outwardly may appear to be like the real Christian Church, but in fact is satanic (Revelation 13:11).
7. White robes
White robes symbolize God’s righteousness and are often associated with the apparel of Jesus Christ and the resurrected saints.
John saw a vision of these resurrected saints, standing before the throne of God, “clothed with white robes” (Revelation 7:9). When asked about their identity, an angel said, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (verse 14). So, the whiteness of their robes comes from having Jesus’ sacrifice and righteousness applied to them because of their faith (Galatians 3:6). White robes indicate they have been justified—made righteous in God’s eyes through Jesus’ shed blood.
In Mark’s Gospel we read that Peter, James and John saw a vision of the glorified Jesus Christ, the epitome of righteousness. In this transfiguration His clothes were “shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (Mark 9:3).
The majority of references to fruit in the Bible symbolically mean the visible results or product of something.
Let the Bible interpret the Bible. Don’t try to force an explanation for a symbol based on an isolated verse. Instead, let all of Scripture be your guide.Jesus said, “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:17). This is another way of saying that genuine Christians will act in a way that reflects their righteous character, just as liars and hypocrites will show the results of their nature. This truth led Jesus to warn His disciples about false teachers and believers: “You will know them by their fruits” (verses 15-16).
Jesus’ point is clear: Our lifestyle shows whether we are genuine Christians or just professing Christians. The kind of fruit a person bears is always going to give away what kind of tree he or she is. Fruit is what a person does and defines who a person really is.
The Bible also talks about the “fruit of the Spirit”—the characteristics or results of having God’s indwelling Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit includes love, joy and peace (Galatians 5:22). Again, these visible fruits serve as a litmus test for determining if someone genuinely possesses God’s Spirit or is simply making claims about it.
The work God is doing here on earth is likened to a harvest, not of literal grain and fruit, but of human beings. Jesus told His disciples, “Lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!” (John 4:35).
Grain is symbolic of the firstfruits of God’s spiritual harvest (Exodus 23:16, 19)—the first batch of mature Christians to be resurrected and given eternal life. Jesus said in a parable, “Let both [wheat and tares] grow until the harvest, and at the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn’” (Matthew 13:30).
The image of wheat being harvested by reapers matches Jesus’ description of the angels’ work to “gather together His elect from the four winds” at the sound of the seventh trumpet, which signals the resurrection (Matthew 24:31; 1 Corinthians 15:52).
Darkness symbolizes spiritual blindness. After Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden, humanity was effectively cut off from the Creator (Genesis 3:23; Isaiah 59:2). The result was a thick spiritual darkness—massive deception—that fell on man’s eyes and left him helpless to find his way around, through or out of it.
Isaiah affirmed mankind’s condition: “We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if we had no eyes; we stumble at noonday as at twilight” (Isaiah 59:10). The result of people living under this deception—some willfully and others ignorantly—is more sin, misery and despair for mankind.
The solution to this global condition of darkness will come when “the day dawns” (2 Peter 1:19)—at the return of Jesus Christ, when He will make Himself known to all mankind and put an end to all deception and error.
God has allowed true Christians now to overcome the darkness of deception by giving the light of true knowledge to them, made possible by God’s calling and selection (John 6:44; Ephesians 5:8). Notice 2 Corinthians 4:6: “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Something to keep in mind about symbols in the Bible
The above list only scratches the surface of the symbols in the Bible. Dozens more could be discussed.
When working with biblical symbolism, we must remember to follow one fundamental rule: Let the Bible interpret the Bible. Don’t try to force an explanation for a symbol based on an isolated verse. Instead, let all of Scripture be your guide. Use every related verse to help you understand the meaning that is there.
Over time, your knowledge of these symbols will deepen and your understanding of God’s Word will grow.