Peter, born bondman to his fellow bondmen and bondwomen, had something to tell his beloved readers, a prophecy as well as encouragement and strengthening for what lay ahead. They would need to access all that God had already given them—wisdom, discernment, and faith—and live it out with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength out of their love for God and their zeal for God’s glory.
They could trust what Peter wrote, for his testimony was founded upon all that he had experienced with Jesus the Messiah, including being one of only three people who had witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration. Peter’s vision, teaching, and prophetic oracles all came from the same source, even more fully authenticating what he had to say—for all flowed from God the Holy Spirit.
Code Words and Images
My daughter was telling me about dog whistles the other day—not those high-pitched whistles designed for actual dogs. But rather, these are code words designed for a very particular audience. “Dog whistles” can be used in the presence of many with the relative assurance that the intended audience will be instantly alerted while everyone else remains largely ignorant of what has just been said.
Christians had a number of code words and images they used when speaking to each other, the natural outgrowth of being a part of movement (every group has their lingo). But even more so, Christianity was a movement that was having to migrate underground. Being a Christian was becoming incrementally more dangerous. To navigate that narrow public isthmus between the dangers of arrest, beatings, imprisonment, and death on the one side, and the joy of fellowship on the other, Christians began to blow on Jesus whistles.
Most people know of the fish symbol. A fish had several familiar connotations in the gospels.
- The first disciples were all fishermen living and working in the coastal town of Bethsaida.
- One of Jesus’ most famous miracles had involved the feeding of thousands of people from a few small loaves of bread and dried fish.
- Jesus had initiated his call to discipleship with the promise of making his students fishers of human beings.
- Jesus sent Peter to retrieve a coin from the mouth of a fish to pay for his and for Jesus’ temple tax, though Jesus was both Lord of the Sabbath and as God the Son the temple was his own sacred house.
And then someone realized the word “fish” in Greek created an anagram for Jesus, Messiah.
The word in Greek, when spelled with all capital letters, looks like this: ΙΧΘΥΣ
Transliterated into English letters, it spells: IXOYE, and sounded out, it becomes ichthus, which means (in Greek) fish.
In anagrams, each letter represents a word, like so:
|Iesous – Jesus||Christos – Christ||Theos – God||Yious – Son||Soter – Savior|
|Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, which means “The Lord Saves”||Christ is the Greek form of the Hebrew word Messiah, or Mashiach, which means “The One Anointed With Oil” and refers to the promised deliverer of Israel||We understand Jesus to be one of the three persons in triune God||Jesus is the Son of God, or also God the Son||“For God so loved the world…” Jesus is the Savior of the world|
|Matthew 1:20-21||Matthew 16:13-20||John 1:1-4||John 1:32-34||Romans 10:9-10|
The earliest known depictions of this code word and image have been dated to the second century, so within the first one hundred years—and I would guess, most likely, by the end of the first century. Christians would casually draw an arc as they spoke with someone they had met, and if the other person completed the image, then they would quietly know they were brethren.
Early in the development of Christian imagery, another code word, Morning Star, came into use to signify Jesus.
You will do well to be attentive to this [Peter’s letter, his teaching, and his prophetic message] as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.2 Peter 1:19 (NRSV)
What is fascinating about this particular code word is that it originally cued Satan, as depicted by the prophet Isaiah.
How you are fallen from heaven,Isaiah 14:12 (NRSV)
O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!
Isaiah was an important prophet to all of the Christian testament writers, and was quoted more than any other book from the Hebrew scriptures, so they were all very familiar with this saying. Yet, in John’s Revelation, the morning star is transformed,
“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”Revelation 22:16 (NRSV)
Think about the movement of these stars, and the foundation stories that go with both of them.
Satan was the brightest of all the angelic beings, as described by the Prophet Ezekiel,
You were in Eden, the garden of God;Ezekiel 28:12-15 (NRSV)
every precious stone was your covering,
carnelian, chrysolite, and moonstone,
beryl, onyx, and jasper,
sapphire, turquoise, and emerald;
and worked in gold were your settings
and your engravings.
On the day that you were created
they were prepared.
With an anointed cherub as guardian I placed you;
you were on the holy mountain of God;
you walked among the stones of fire.
You were blameless in your ways
from the day that you were created,
until iniquity was found in you.
And iniquity was found in Satan, a craving as all-consuming as Cain’s, a lust to usurp God’s place in the cosmos. Therefore, according to the scriptures, God cast Satan out. That brightest of all angels had darkness growing within him, an inky evil that overwhelmed him until his star plunged into the abyss of darkness itself.
Jesus, instead, humbled himself all the way into death, but even that darkness could not contain the origin and source of Light and Life itself, so Jesus rose up from the grave, and then from the earth, to his rightful place in the cosmos.
Now, the writer of Hebrews’ whole first chapter on Jesus makes so much more sense, does it not? The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the representation of God’s essence.
Satan is the counterfeit, Jesus is the Truth.
Peter, John, and James were forever changed by their witnessing of Jesus’ shekinah emanating from within him, the true light, the true dawn, the true morning star.
For to which of the angels did God ever say,
“You are my Son;
today I have begotten you”?
“I will be his Father,
and he will be my Son”?
And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,
“Let all God’s angels worship him.”
Of the angels he says,
“He makes his angels winds,
and his servants flames of fire.”
But of the Son he says,
“Your throne, O God, isforever and ever,Hebrews 1:5-9 (NRSV)
and the righteous scepter is the scepter of yourkingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”
“A Lamp Unto My Feet”
Light was a well-known motif for scripture, as well as for God’s wisdom. In essence, Peter was saying his teaching, written in this letter, and his prophecy which would come at the end, were indeed God’s word, a lamp lit for them in the dark world, and they would do well to heed that light until the light of Jesus filled them with the same wisdom and insight, spiritual guidance and attunement and the kingdom of God was fully established in the world.
And that day is still in the future.
[Funerary stele with the inscription ΙΧΘΥϹ ΖΩΝΤΩΝ (“fish of the living”), early 3rd century, National Roman Museum | By Marie-Lan Nguyen – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1818272