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The Dove-Like Spirit at Christ's Baptism


The Dove-Like Spirit at Christ’s Baptism

Some six weeks or so after baptizing the Lord Jesus Christ at the River Jordan, John the Baptist’s testimony regarding that highly significant event included the following: "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him" (John 1:32). All four evangelists speak of the Holy Spirit descending upon the Messiah at His baptism "like a dove" (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32). Why a dove?

First, a dove is a bird. God chose as the sign of the Spirit at Christ’s baptism not an animal which moves on the land or a fish which swims in the sea but a bird which flies in the air (Gen. 1:20). The point is a simple one to grasp. The Spirit is God who dwells in heaven; birds fly above us in the heavens. The Spirit of God, represented by a bird of heaven, issued a heavenly call to office and equipped the Lord Jesus with divine gifts in His human nature for His public work as Messiah. John the Baptist, in his testimony concerning Christ at His baptism, declared that the Spirit, like a dove, a bird, "descended" (John 1:32, 33) from "heaven" (32).

Second, God chose a dove as the sign of the Spirit at the Lord Jesus’ baptism because doves are harmless and innocent (unlike, say, a magpie). In a phrase that has since become proverbial, Christ told His disciples that they must be "harmless as doves" (Matt. 10:16), for He was "holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners" (Heb. 7:26). By the power of the dove-like Spirit, the Lord Jesus was harmless, innocent, pure and holy in His human nature and in His office as our Saviour. Here we see the unity of the dove symbolism and the voice from heaven at Christ’s baptism: "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). God is well pleased with His Son for He is as harmless and innocent as a dove.

Third, God chose a dove as the sign of the Spirit at Christ’s baptism because doves are lovely, loving and beloved (unlike, say, an old, mangy vulture). Here one thinks especially of the dove imagery in the Song of Solomon which presents them as soft, with beautiful feathers and eyes, and affectionate and faithful to their mates (e.g., 1:15; 2:14; 4:1; 5:2, 12; 6:9). The lovely, loving and beloved dove from heaven and the voice of God from heaven say essentially the same thing: "This is my beloved Son."

Fourth, the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, not only descended from heaven upon Christ at His baptism but also remained upon Him. This struck John the Baptist, who announced that the dove-like Spirit "abode upon him" (John 1:32) and remained on Him (33). The idea is that the Spirit calls and equips the Messiah for His public ministry permanently, bestowing upon His human nature divine gifts and graces as the harmless and lovely Son of God. With the abiding Spirit resting upon Him, Christ began both to preach and to perform miracles, neither of which He did prior to His baptism, His installation as God’s great prophet, priest and king.

Remember, too, the frequency and significance of "remaining" and "abiding" in the Gospel According to John. It speaks of inward, enduring and personal communion. The Triune God, by His dove-like Spirit, abides in inward, enduring, personal, covenant communion with His harmless and beloved Son. Isn’t this beautiful!

Fifth, God chose a dove as the sign of the Spirit at the Lord’s baptism because, in the Bible, doves are, above all, birds for sacrifice (Gen. 15:9; Lev. 1:14-17; 5:7-10; 12:6-8; 14:22, 30-31; 15:14-15, 29-30; Luke 2:24; John 2:14, 16). It is easy to see why harmless and innocent doves were chosen by God as sacrifices prefiguring the removal of sin.

In connection with His testimony that the Spirit descended from heaven like a dove upon Christ (John 1:32), John the Baptist proclaimed, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (29). The Spirit, in the form of a sacrificial dove, called and equipped the beloved and harmless Messiah to be the sacrificial lamb who bore the punishment due to us for our transgressions.

Sixth, God chose a dove as the sign of the Spirit at Christ’s baptism because a dove, better than any other bird, symbolizes the new world. At the first creation, "the Spirit of God moved [or hovered, as a bird] upon the face of the waters" (Gen. 1:2). At the flood, a harmless and lovely dove was sent out of the ark three times and did not return the third time (Gen. 8:8-12)! The message is clear: God’s wrath is now past; the new world awaits! This is the biblical association between the dove and the new creation.

The "world" (John 1:29) for which the Lamb of God died is the "world" of believers whose sins Christ propitiated and for whom He intercedes as advocate (John 3:16; I John 2:1-2). It is not the "world" which God judged at the cross and for which the Lord Jesus does not pray (John 12:31; 17:9).

Since the Lamb of God died for "the sin of the world" (John 1:29), redeeming His people "out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation" (Rev. 5:9), the brute creation will also be "delivered from the bondage of corruption" (Rom. 8:21). Because man is the head of the creation, when man fell, the creation fell with him. With man’s redemption and renewal in Christ, the world has been redeemed and will be renewed as the new heavens and the new earth. The Spirit, in the form of a lovely and harmless dove, descended and abode on the Lord Jesus at His baptism so that, through the Lamb of God’s sacrifice, the new creation will come—a gloriously beautiful and perfectly safe world in which the lion will lie down with the lamb (Isa. 11:6-8; 65:25). Rev. Angus Stewart

John the Baptist, who baptized the Lord Jesus Christ, is the subject of three box sets of CDs or DVDs by Rev. Stewart available from the CPRC (all prices include P&P): “John the Baptist’s Birth and Preparation” (6 sermons for £8), “John the Baptist’s Public Ministry (Vol. I)” (6 sermons for £8) and “John the Baptist’s Public Ministry (Vol. II)” (12 sermons for £12). Special offer! Buy all three box sets for just £20!

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Additional Info

  • Volume: 14
  • Issue: 19
Stewart, Angus

Rev. Angust Stewart (Wife: Mary)

Ordained - 2001

Pastorates: Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Ballymena, Northern Ireland - 2001


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