Numbers in Christian Symbolism
Numbers are used frequently in the Bible (especially in prophetic and apocalyptic works) and in Christian pictorial symbols to signify various theological concepts. Following are the most commonly accepted interpretations of numerical symbols.
One signifies unity; both the unity of God and the unity of members of the Church.
The number two represents duality. Specifically, it can symbolize the divine and human natures of Christ or the material and the spiritual.
The number three represents the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.)
Four can represent the Four Evangelists (authors of the Gospels), the four corners of the earth, or the four seasons. Its association with the latter sometimes make it the number of earth.
Five symbolizes the five wounds Christ suffered on the cross (hands, feet, and side), and by extension represents sacrifice.
Six represents creation, because God created in six days, or imperfection, because it falls short of the perfect number seven.
Seven is the number of perfection. God rested on the seventh day, Paul lists seven gifts of the Spirit and Jesus spoke seven utterances from the cross. The number seven is especially prominent in the apocalyptic Book of Revelation, in which there are seven seals, seven churches and many other things numbering seven.
Eight represents regeneration or resurrection. Thus many baptismal fonts are eight-sided, as is the baptismal cross.
Nine is the number of mystery or angels, since there are nine choirs of angels.
Ten symbolizes completion, since there are Ten Commandments, Ten Plagues, etc.
Twelve is often used to signify the whole church, since there were 12 tribes of Israel and 12 apostles.
Thirteen represents betrayal since there were 13 people at the Last Supper.
Forty symbolizes trial or testing, since Noah's flood, Israel's wandering in the wilderness, Moses' stay on Mt. Sinai, and Jesus' temptation in the wilderness all lasted forty days. The Lenten Season is forty days in duration for this reason.
One hundred usually denotes completeness or plenitude, since it is ten times ten.
One thousand represents a very large number, infinity or eternity.
- - Carolle E. Whittenmore, ed., Symbols of the Church.
- W.E. Post, Saints, Signs, and Symbols.
- George Wells Ferguson, Signs & Symbols in Christian Art.
- Frederick Rest, Our Christian Symbols.