All four Gospel accounts refer to the baptism of Jesus by John at the Jordan River (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32). Luke says, “And the Holy Spirit came down in a bodily shape, like a dove on Him.” Because the Holy Spirit is just that—spirit—He is not visible to us. On this occasion, however, the Spirit took on a visible appearance and was doubtless seen by the people. The dove is an emblem of purity and harmlessness (Matthew 10:16), and the form of the dove at Jesus’ baptism signified that the Spirit with which Jesus was endowed was one of holiness and innocence.
Another symbol involving the dove comes from the account of the Flood and Noah’s ark in Genesis 6-8. When the earth had been covered with water for some time, Noah wanted to check to see if there was dry land anywhere, so he sent out a dove from the ark; the dove came back with an olive branch in her beak (Genesis 8:11). Since that time, the olive branch has been a symbol of peace. Symbolically, the story of Noah’s dove tells us that God declared peace with mankind after the Flood had purged the earth of its wickedness. The dove represented His Spirit bringing the good news of the reconciliation of God and man. Of course, this was only a temporal reconciliation, because lasting, spiritual reconciliation with God only comes through Jesus Christ. But it is significant that the Holy Spirit was pictured as a dove at Jesus’ baptism, thereby once again symbolizing peace with God.
At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit assumed the form of “tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3) to signify the miraculous power of the apostles’ message and their radically changed lives. The Spirit’s appearance as the dove at Jesus’ baptism symbolizes the gentle Savior bringing peace to mankind through His sacrifice.
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