Around Thanksgiving time we often refer to turkey as “the bird.” In African American churches, the “first lady” (the pastor’s wife) often serves fried chicken, “the Gospel bird,” for Sunday dinner.
Yet there is a bird that carries sacred overtones, namely a type of pigeon we refer to as a “dove.” God the Holy Spirit has chosen the dove as the symbol for His presence. This figure is first implied in the creation accounts when the Holy Spirit “hovered” over the waters (Gen. 1:2).
A few weeks ago, we were blessed by a baptismal service. While baptizing, I followed the command of Jesus and baptized our candidates “in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” We call this truth of one God in three persons the Trinity. Just as the word “Bible” is not found in the Bible but refers to a collection of all the inspired Scriptures, so the word “Trinity” is a composite of the Bible’s teachings about the nature of God.
As we look at the Holy Spirit in His dove-like representations, we need to remember that the Holy Spirit is a “He,” not an “It.” Like the Father and Son, He is an uncreated person (has always existed and is self-derived). He is God, and He is equal in attributes and glory to the Father and Son.
The idea of the word “holy” is “set apart, pure, distinct from creation.” Both the Old Testament word (ruach) and the New Testament word (pneuma) are sometimes translated as “spirit” or “wind” or “breath.” The translation depends on the context.
In several instances, a dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit. By why? As we examine the biblical background, we can see that the symbolic dove reminds us of the Holy Spirit’s qualities.
The Holy Spirit empowers.
And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (ESV, Matt. 3:16-17)
Notice all three persons of the Godhead are involved in this episode: the Father’s voice from heaven, the Savior Who is God the Son incarnate, and the Holy Spirit, represented by the dove.
Many Jews believed that the era of the prophets ended during the time of Ezra (with Zechariah and Habakkuk). The Rabbis said that God no longer spoke audibly through the prophets, but only through dove-like cooing heard by men of God:
The Talmud states that a Bat Kol (heavenly voice) was heard (on two separate occasions) declaring that Hillel and Samuel were worthy of the Shekinah (Divine Presence). (Jesus the Pharisee by Harvey Falk, p. 43; referring to Rabbi “Samuel the Little”).
And I said to him, ‘I heard a Bat Kol [a Divine voice], cooing like a dove, and saying, “Woe to the children, that because of their sins I destroyed My house and burnt My Temple and exiled them among the nations of the world.’” (The Talmud, Berachot 3a)
In contrast to a quiet whisper or dove-like cooing, the Father spoke clearly; the dove did not just “coo,” but appeared.
But why did Jesus need the Holy Spirit’s power and the approval of the Father if He was God the Son? The answer lies in understanding the kenosis (emptying) of Christ explained in Philippians 2:5-11. Jesus worked no miracles until the Spirit came upon Him, and He accomplished these works with the Father’s permission.
The Holy Spirit brings dove-like qualities to the believer.
In Matthew 10:16 we read, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
Doves are gentle and do not bite. Part of the fruit of the Spirit is gentleness. A dove is perhaps the gentlest of birds. As the Holy Spirit controls us and leads us to spiritual maturity, we grow in becoming gentle.
A dove is also straightforward and innocent. There is nothing arrogant, proud, or insidious about a dove. The symbol of the dove is used universally to represent the idea of peace for good reason.
The Holy Spirit creates.
In Genesis 1:2 we read of the Spirit hovering. The Jewish Rabbis rightly understood the Holy Spirit to hover “like a dove.”
Just as the Holy Spirit was active in the physical creation of the earth, and just as God “breathed” into Adam the “breath of life,” so the Holy Spirit brings the lost person to life and creates faith in him. We call this regeneration or the “new birth,” a concept elaborated upon by Jesus in John chapter 3. In that chapter, Jesus compares the Spirit (pneuma) to the wind (also pneuma), unpredictably coming upon whom He wills.
Ephesians 2 paints a picture of regeneration, the idea of being brought to spiritual life. The text tells us that we were spiritually dead before we came to faith (vs. 1), but that God supernaturally brought us to life (vs. 5); thus we are “born of the Spirit” (John 3:6).
The Holy Spirit provides a new beginning.
In Genesis 8:6-12, we read about Noah’s sending out of the dove to determine when to exit from the ark so that humans could have a fresh start on the earth. So the Holy Spirit closes eras (Gen. 6:3) and initiates eras.
The Spirit was active during those spiritually monumental times. He was active in Creation, the Flood, the Exodus and the during the giving of the Law (which was given on Pentecost, by Jewish reckoning) and the ministry of Jesus. He came mightily to initiate the Age of the Spirit at Pentecost, and He will be active during the Tribulation and the Millennium (Joel 2 has implications both for Pentecost, the Tribulation, and Millennium).
When we come to Christ through repentance and faith (as a result of regeneration), we are a new creation. Our old lives have given way to our new lives (see 2 Cor. 5:17).
The Holy Spirit is an agent of purification.
I have previously written an article on the fire-like cleansing of the Spirit hinted at in Isaiah 4:4-5. This relates to the baptism by the Spirit predicted by John the Baptist (Luke 3:16) and experienced in Acts 2. This baptism by the Spirit is characteristic of all believers (1 Cor. 12:13), contrary to teachings made popular by Pentecostal groups.
In Leviticus 12:8, the dove was among the sacrificial animals that could be offered to ritually cleanse the children of Israel. When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple, they offered a pair of doves (Luke 2:24).
It is possible (but uncertain) that three categories of animals used in Old Testament sacrifice in some ways reflect the persons of the Trinity. The Father is perhaps represented by the strength of the bull, the Son by the lamb or goat (often used interchangeably, per Exod. 12:5), and the Spirit by the dove.
Associating the dove with a sacrificial animal could be understood to reflect the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Because we have the Holy Spirit indwelling us, we are free to look directly into the face of God and to be slowly but amazingly conformed to His holy image (2 Cor. 3:16-17).
Just as a dove comes from above to dwell on the ground, so the Holy Spirit comes down to the believer from above to help us in our earthly pilgrimage. The more we learn to listen to His voice, seek His leading, and feed our souls in His Word, the more powerfully He works in our lives (Rom. 8:5). Are you a Spirit-led Christian? Does your life demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit?