Most of us are familiar with the symbol of the Christian fish. We see it all over the place today on cars (perhaps you have a fish decal) and even in churches. The fish was an ancient symbol of the Christian faith because the Greek word for fish, ἰχθύς(pronounced Icthus), was used as an acrostic that spelled out who Jesus was: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. Since Christians identified with Jesus, the fish became a popular symbol that is still common today.
Did you know that early on there was a symbol that was even more prevalent than the fish, though? Deep in the catacombs—subterranean graveyards where Christians were buried—the most prevalent image used by the faithful was the image of an anchor. One scholar notes that in the ancient cemetery of Priscilla, just north of Rome, when an image appeared on a gravesite, 70% of the time the image was an anchor (in contrast, the fish appeared only 8% of the time).
Before the early catacombs were filled with fish or crosses, nautical tool was used to encourage believers.
The anchor reminded Christians that their hope was secure in something that transcended this world. It pointed them away from themselves to someone strong and stable that they could be confident in. This is supported by the anchor imagery found in one of the earliest sermons we have, the letter to the Hebrews, dating sometime between 50-70AD. In chapter six the author comments on the hope we have as believers, saying, “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf” (Heb. 6:19-20).
According to the author of Hebrews, Christians have a hope that is immovable because it’s weighed down by Jesus’ work on our behalf. Our hope is in heaven with Christ who, as the anchor of our souls, promises to keep us. The big question is are you anchored in Jesus?
Unfortunately, many people who go to church and hear the gospel week-by-week are not anchored in the one who is sure and steadfast.
This was a problem for the recipients of the book of Hebrews, too, for earlier in his exhortation, the pastor who wrote the book of Hebrews said, “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Heb. 2:1). Note that this pastor doesn’t say, “Brothers and sisters, look at all of those sinners outside of the church drifting into spiritually choppy waters!” Instead, he is warning professing believers who have heard the glorious news of Jesus but who haven’t been fully anchored by it yet. In chapter one of Hebrews, the writer hints that these Christians were overly focused on angels and on the Law given at Mount Sinai. They were anchoring their religion in rules and regulations instead of a relationship with Jesus through the gospel. As a result, they were in danger of drifting. People drift because they aren’t properly anchored!
I remember some years ago hearing an older woman share her testimony in the church I was attending. She stood up and explained how, for the first time in her life, she felt like she had a personal relationship with Jesus after coming to understand the good news of the free forgiveness of sins. This woman had been brought up in the Roman Catholic church, but she had never really come to understand the gospel there. Someone asked her after she shared, “Have you known Christ for very long now, then?” Her response elicited a chuckle from the congregation, although she wasn’t intending to be funny at all, “No,” she said, “I haven’t known Christ for long, but I’ve known his mother for a quite a while!” For this woman, devotion to Mary had so eclipsed faith in Christ that she hadn’t come to understand Jesus’ love for her until much later in life.
The Hebrews were anchoring themselves in obedience to the Law and angels; this woman anchored herself in a religious devotion to saints and the Virgin Mary. Often the things we focus on can look very religious, but if they take away glory from Christ, they lead us to spiritual shipwreck. When our religion begins to be about something or someone other than Christ, we’ve been loosed from our moorings, and we need to hear again the exhortation given in Hebrews 2:1, “we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard.”
If you’re feeling spiritually adrift right now, I have good news for you: the gospel doesn’t change. It’s deep enough to ground you and heavy enough to keep you from drifting into utter despair and destruction. Christ and his promises are your anchors, and even if you’ve lost sight of Jesus for a season, he remains sure and steadfast. Your job is to cling to this anchor with all of your might, to pay closer attention to it, lest you should drift from the message. Stop anchoring yourself in yourself or in things that cannot give you ultimate security and fix your eyes on Jesus (Heb. 12:2).
Maybe now we can understand why the anchor so often decorated the early catacombs. It was a statement by the early church, “our hope is secure in Christ.” You need to ask yourself, is mine? Are you anchored in Jesus?