“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.”
The Holy Spirit comes in the form of a dove. Where else have we seen the dove in Scripture? In the story of Noah, the dove is the sign that God’s judgment – the destruction of the world – is past. In Genesis, Chapter 1, the Spirit hovers – like a dove – over the waters, before God creates the world.
We tend to think of the dove as a peaceful, beautiful bird. In this baptism of Jesus, the Spirit circles down, and gently rests on Jesus. The Spirit is dovelike in shape and behavior, at Jesus’ baptism. But the symbol of the dove should also remind us of those two mighty acts of God – the creation and the destruction of the world.
The dove-like appearance of the Spirit, in Jesus’ baptism, is the baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire that John prophesied about just a few verses earlier: “…after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11)
The Spirit of God in Jesus comes to burn away the old world, and create the new world: It’s Noah and Genesis all over again.
The dove should also remind us of Jesus’ words, later in Matthew: “Be wise as serpents, and gentle as doves…” (Matthew 10:16) This gentleness that Jesus speaks of, is both a sign and the way:
It is a sign that we have received his Spirit and cooperate with Him: We are firm, but gentle in our presence and convictions. And our way in the world joins Jesus in this gentle work of the Spirit, as He leads us to be with people who cannot be changed by force. The way of Jesus’ baptism by the Spirit, is God’s gracious, gentle presence working in and through us.
Jesus apprenticed with John and his prophets, out in the wilderness, and in agreement with John’s judgments: “Who warned those vipers to flee the wrath to come?” But notice that Jesus does not remain in the wilderness – he goes to the synagogues, and there he teaches, preaches, and engages.
Here, too, Jesus, like the dove that signals the end of destruction during the time of Noah, and the beginning of God’s new creation – Jesus is full of forgiveness and mercy. He goes to the people of God – he goes down to where they are and leads them up, into the light of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ whole ministry is a baptism by Word and Spirit, and it follows the pattern that we’ve seen throughout Scripture.
These are the words I read before I baptize a child or an adult, and they show us the pattern of Jesus’ ministry of redemption through the Word and the Holy Spirit:
“In the beginning of time,
your Spirit moved over the watery chaos,
calling forth order and life.
In the time of Noah, you destroyed evil
by the waters of the flood,
giving righteousness a new beginning.
You led Israel out of slavery,
through the waters of the sea,
into the freedom of the promised land.
In the waters of the Jordan River
Jesus was baptized by John
and anointed with your Spirit.
By the baptism of his own death and resurrection,
Christ set us free from sin and death…”
If you have not heard it before; or if you need to be reminded of it, hear me say it, today: You are free. For freedom Christ has set you free (Galatians 5:1).