Search the Scriptures: As Innocent as a Dove
When Jesus was baptized by John, coming out of the water, he saw the heavens open and the Spirit of God descending like a dove (Matthew 3:16-17). John testified to all of this, telling others, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained upon 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 this particular form at this particular time? Why didn’t he come down like a majestic eagle? Why not manifest as a roaring lion, a majestic wolf or a hulking bear? Or, leaving the animal world, why not even come down from heaven in a fiery form of strength and power? Why settle for appearing in the likeness of a sweet little dove? What is the meaning and purpose of such a sign?
Doves and pigeons are common birds all over the world, and in the Bible they are mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. Two of these Old Testament mentions of the animal are perhaps particularly relevant to understanding dove symbolism.
In the book of Genesis, in the story of Noah, as the waters of the flood receded, Noah sent a crow through the window of the ark to test whether or not it was safe to leave the ark. When this bird failed to return to the window, Noah chose to send a dove instead. It is the dove which returned, during its second journey, 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 established the Levitical priesthood, with all its ceremonies and sacrifices, God recognized that not everyone would be able to buy bullocks, lambs or goats when they would come to adore him. Although these were the preferred animals for sacrifice, for those with smaller incomes, God permitted the use of pigeons and doves in His worship (cf. Leviticus 5:7, 12:8, 14 :22). The dove was therefore representative of those birds that God considered pure, in addition to being emblematic of God’s mercy and grace, because God did not want to put insurmountable obstacles in the way of the spiritual life of His people, but rather wanted all men to come to Him for salvation.
When we consider the mission of Jesus, the descent of the Spirit in a form that spoke to students of the Word regarding the connotations of hope, justice, and grace seems very appropriate. Jesus did not come to show the wrath of God, because the world was already condemned and object of this wrath; Instead, he came in a spirit of meekness and peace, a gesture of God’s love and desire to save his people (cf. Jn 3:16-21).
As Jesus’ ministry began to draw to a close, a certain Samaritan village refused to receive Jesus, as they understood that he was going to Jerusalem. Offended, two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, asked Jesus if he wanted them to call fire from heaven to destroy the village. Such an attitude drew a rebuke from Jesus (cf. Luke 9:51-55). Some manuscripts record that Jesus said, “You do not know what spirit you are; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy people’s lives, but to save them.
Elsewhere, Jesus, advising his apostles as to the proper attitude they should adopt toward the world in which he was sending them to preach, said to them: “Behold, I am sending you as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise. like serpents and innocent like doves (Matthew 10:26; ESV). Jesus wanted his disciples to have no illusions about the reality of the world around them. It was filled with wicked men who sought to destroy both the message and the messenger. But rather than respond with anger, violence, or wrath, Jesus commands his followers to respond with meekness, 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 to commemorate the beginning of Christ’s ministry, then who are we to disagree? If God, in all his power and majesty, could deign to visit men with the gentleness of a dove, the servants of Jesus should strive to do the same, proclaiming a message of hope, grace, love and peace to the whole world, showing the same in all our conduct.
Jonathan McAnulty is a minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. The views expressed in the article are the work of the author.