When Jesus was baptized by John, coming up out of the water He beheld the heavens open and the Spirit of God descending as a dove (Matthew 3:16-17). John bore witness to all of this, telling others, “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him (John 1:32).”
When one considers all the various possibilities of the animal world open to the Spirit of God, why did He, in His infinite wisdom, choose that particular form at that particular time? Why did He not descend as a majestic eagle? Why not manifest as a roaring lion, a majestic wolf, or a massive bear? Or, leaving the animal world, why not even descend from heaven in some fiery form of strength and power? Why settle upon manifesting in the likeness of a small, gentle dove? What is the meaning and purpose of such a sign?
Doves and pigeons are common birds worldwide, and in the Bible they are mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. Two such mentions of the animal from the Old Testament are perhaps particularly relevant to understanding the symbolism of the dove.
In the book of Genesis, in the account of Noah, as the flood waters receded, Noah sent forth a raven from the window of the ark to test whether or not it was safe to leave the ark. When that bird failed to return to the window, Noah chose to send forth a dove instead. It was the dove which returned, on its second voyage, with an olive leaf in its beak, signifying that life was returning to the earth. In this way, the dove became a symbol of hope.
Later in the Old Testament, as God was establishing the Levitical priesthood, with all its ceremonies and sacrifices, God recognized that not everyone would be able to afford bulls or lambs or goats when they came to worship Him. Though these were the preferred animals for sacrifices, for those with smaller incomes God allowed the use of pigeons and turtledoves in His worship (cf. Leviticus 5:7, 12:8, 14:22). The dove therefore was representative of those birds which God considered clean, as well as being emblematic of the mercy and grace of God, for God did not want to put insurmountable obstacles in the way of His people’s spiritual life, but rather desired all men to come to Him for salvation.
When we consider the mission of Jesus, the Spirit descending in a form which spoke to students of the Word concerning connotations of hope, righteousness, and grace seems highly appropriate. Jesus did not come in order to showcase the wrath of God, for the world was already condemned and an object of that wrath; He instead came in a spirit of gentleness and peace, a gesture of God’s love and desire to save His people (cf. John 3:16-21).
As the ministry of Jesus began to draw to a close, a certain Samaritan village refused to receive Jesus, because they understood that He was going to Jerusalem. Offended, two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, asked Jesus if He desired for them to call down fire from heaven in order to destroy the village. Such an attitude drew a rebuke from Jesus (cf. Luke 9:51-55). Some manuscripts record Jesus as saying, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man came not to destroy people’s lives but to save them.”
Elsewhere, Jesus in counseling His apostles as to the proper demeanor they needed to develop towards the world into which He was sending them to preach, told them, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matthew 10:26; ESV).” Jesus wanted His followers to be under no illusion as to the reality of the world around them. It was filled with wicked men who would seek to destroy both message and messenger. But rather than responding with anger, violence, or wrath, Jesus commands that His followers respond with gentleness, kindness and patience (cf. 2 Timothy 2:24-25), that they be as innocent and harmless as doves.
If the Spirit thought the dove was the perfect symbol with which to commemorate the beginning of the ministry of Christ, then who are we to disagree? If God, in all His power and majesty could condescend to visit men with the gentleness of a dove, the servants of Jesus should strive to do likewise, holding forth a message of hope, grace, love and peace to all the world, showing the same in all of our conduct.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.