If a fellow doesn’t know the difference between a symbol and the reality it represents, he could find himself in a lot of trouble.
He might, for example, consume a photograph of a steak and expect to work a full shift on its nourishment.
He could pay fifty thousand dollars for the emblem of a Mercedes and still have no way to get to work the next morning.
He could pay a lot of money to a degree mill and announce to the world that he has advanced degrees and still be functionally illiterate.
He could spend all his money on an expensive wedding ring, forcing him to take extra work to pay it off, and end up neglecting his wife and losing his marriage.
She might go to heroic lengths to improve the appearance of her face and body, but without the slightest thought to the content of her character or the quality of her life.
A school could pour all its money into its sports teams and abandon the purpose for which it exists in the first place.
A church could spend a small fortune on its appearance and public image under the mistaken impression that what the community thinks of them has much to do with anything.
A community could let the homeless fill their parks and the poor rot in their projects while pouring needed millions into new stadiums to keep team owners from relocating to cities even more foolish than they.
Preachers could rally their members to boycot businesses where the employees wish customers “Happy holidays,” instead of the more spiritually correct, “Merry Christmas.”
Churches could support political candidates that belong to their race, visit their services, or honor their pastors, while overlooking voting records in favor of killing unborn babies and promoting immorality.
Christians could go to court and fight over keeping displays of the Ten Commandments in the lobbies of government buildings or expressions of “In God We Trust” on coins, while failing to show up on election day or to stay in touch with their legislators on current issues.
God’s children could hear a rumor that Madalyn Murray O’Hare’s organization has a petition before the FCC to remove religious programming from the airwaves, and rally their forces to bombard Washington with letters of protest without ever checking to see if there is such an active petition (there isn’t) and fail to use the airwaves themselves in creative, responsible ways for the cause of righteousness and justice.
If you cannot tell the difference in a symbol of something and the reality it represents, you might be like the North Carolina preacher who picketed a new western-style steakhouse in his town, to force the owners to remove “saloon” from the name, and this in a dry, non-alcoholic county. You might make a spectacle of yourself.
If you confuse the symbol and the substance, you will find yourself fighting unnecessary battles. You may split a church over the color of a carpet. You might destroy the fellowship in a congregation over the placing of a drum set near the piano. You could divide a body of believers over choruses in a worship service, a changed worship schedule, or an insignificant item in the budget.
People who look at the symbol and see it as the reality fight over the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, the color of vestments worn by the priest on a given Sunday, or the selection of hymns in the order of service.
In the early years of Christianity, a running battle emerged between those who wanted to keep all the trappings of Judaism–the sacrificial system, the law, the priests, the special days, and the tabernacle with its altars and lavers and candles–and those who had found their new reality in Jesus Christ and no longer needed these symbols of their earlier faith. The New Testament book called “Hebrews” was written to settle this dispute. Whoever the unnamed writer was, he or she declares repeatedly over 13 chapters that the sacrifices were symbols of a reality, Jesus Christ, the perfect Sacrifice. The priests were symbols of our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ. The sabbaths were symbols of the rest we find in Christ. The tabernacle was a symbol of the true Sanctuary in Heaven where the risen, transcended Lord Jesus entered with His own blood to atone for our sins once and for all.
Chapter 10 of Hebrews begins, “Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come, and not the actual form of those realities, it can never perfect the worshipers by the same sacrifices they continually offer year after year.” In this single chapter, the writer establishes that Jesus is our one and only offering, our only priest, who served in the True sanctuary, and who wrought a work that stands for all time and never needs repeating.
The reality is Jesus. The building down the street with its pews and curtains, baptistry and pulpit, is just a symbol. It’s an important one, but let the Lord’s people never confuse the two. The hymnal, the piano, the language of the creed–all are symbols. Christ is the substance.
In the final chapter of Hebrews, the writer nails down what is truly important in this struggle to get religion right. “Jesus Christ–the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)
Everything else is secondary to Him. Jesus is Lord.