The Cross wasn’t always the predominant sign of Christianity. For centuries the cross was a pagan symbol of pain and torture. Rome used the cross to strike fear into the hearts of the world and discourage any troublemakers or rabble-rousers, (like Jesus). The cross did not start becoming a positive, publically accepted, symbol of Christianity until after the 4th century.
One of the earliest, well-known, symbols used by Christians was the “Ichthus.” A word created from the first letters of the Greek words “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” which means “fish.” However, there is another symbol, not so well-known, early Christians used—the phoenix.
The phoenix was a legendary bird that would die by bursting into flames and then rise to new life from the ashes. The origin of the mythological creature has often been attributed to Herodotus (484-425 BC) but many believe the myth is much older. The “firebird” is found in many ancient cultures. In ancient Egypt, the phoenix, or bennu, was associated with the daily cycle of the sun. The Romans put the phoenix on currency to represent rebirth and the immortality of the Roman Empire. We even have a reference to the phoenix in the Old Testament. “I shall die in my nest, and I shall multiply my days like the phoenix;” (Job 29:18). By the way, Job is also commonly believed to be the oldest book in the Bible. There is even an ancient Jewish tradition that states Eve offered all the animals the forbidden fruit, but the phoenix was the only one to refuse. For the phoenix’s fidelity, God granted it an unusually long life.
Saint Clement of Rome, during the first century, wrote of the phoenix comparing it to Christianity. “Let us consider that wonderful sign [of the resurrection] which takes place in Eastern lands, that is, in Arabia and the countries roundabout. There is a certain bird which is called a phœnix. This is the only one of its kind and lives 500 years. And when the time of its dissolution draws near that it must die, it builds itself a nest of frankincense, and myrrh, and other spices, into which, when the time is fulfilled, it enters and dies [then later rises again]… Do we then deem it any great and wonderful thing for the Maker of all things to raise up again those that have piously served Him in the assurance of good faith, when even by a bird He shows us the mightiness of His power to fulfill His promise?” (Tertullian (De Resurr., §13).
Many early Christians were Greeks so they would have been very familiar with the legend of the phoenix. It would have been easy for them to see the similarities between the mythological bird and the Resurrection of their Lord Jesus Christ. No wonder it became one of the favorite symbols in early Christianity and has been found near/on many ancient Christian graves.
Here are a few of the parallels with Jesus:
- The phoenix died and was reborn in the flames of burning frankincense and myrrh. Jesus was both born and buried with frankincense and myrrh, (Matthew 2:11, John 19:39).
- The only way the phoenix was able to reproduce was by dying. In John 12:24 Jesus said “very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
- Christianity was born from the ashes of Christ’s crucifixion and early persecution!
- According to several versions of the legend it was three days from when the phoenix died in flames to when it was resurrected from the ashes. “The Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”(Luke 24:7).
- The Son of God went through the ultimate fiery trial on calvary and was killed. Because of His Resurrection three days later, we have assurance—in our own fiery trials—even if we’re reduced to ash—resurrection is coming. Not from the sunrise, but the Sonrise.
The phoenix legend was but an echo, an imprint, of the true and better story of the Gospel. Because of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ, we’re promised New Life. Because Jesus came out of the grave on Sunday morning, Christians will come out of their grave at the great resurrection when Jesus Returns. Death and decay may have reduced our flesh to ash, but when the Lord Himself descends from heaven with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the Trumpet of God, we will be reborn from the ash, (1 Thess. 4:16). The hope we have in Christ is that no matter what happens to us, or the ones we love, we’re promised rebirth—not only in the future, but right now! We can rise from the ashes of our deepest darkness and pain as a New Creation in Christ.
Job 14:14 Job asked: “If a man dies, shall he live again?” the answer for Christians is YES! Because of Jesus, we can say as Job did: “All the days of my service I would wait, till my renewal should come. For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 14:14, 25-26 ).