Why Did the Holy Spirit Descend in the Form of a Dove?

John Piper

The way the Spirit comes gives a direction for how its power is to be used. The word dove occurs on Jesus' lips one time in the gospels, namely, Matthew 10:16: "Behold I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." The dove suggests to Jesus purity, meekness, innocence. It was not majestic like the eagle or fierce like the hawk or flamboyant like the cardinal. It was simple, common, innocent, the kind of bird poor people could offer for a sacrifice (Luke 2:24; Leviticus 12:8). This was a directive to Jesus from the Father: the Spirit with which I anoint you is not for ostentation or for earthly battle. What is it for?

An answer comes from Isaiah 42:1-4. This text is relevant because this is where the words of God the Father come from which follow the giving of the Spirit: "Behold my servant whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law." The beauty of this picture is that he has the power to bring forth justice to the nations, but he will not use it to "break a bruised reed or quench a dimly burning wick." That is, he will be tender with the weak and failing. He will be dove-like not hawk-like. So when God anoints Jesus with the Spirit in the form of a dove, he directs him to use his power in meekness and tenderness and love. Which Jesus does: "Come to me all you who labor and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest . . . for I am meek and lowly"—I have the Spirit of a dove not a hawk. He says in Luke 4:18, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor"—the bruised reeds of the world and the smoldering wicks. To these he comes with his dove-like Spirit and heals and fans into flame.

Excerpted from "The Baptism and the Genealogy of Jesus Christ," © Desiring God (used by permission). Website: www.desiringGod.org.

Originally published June 08, 2010.

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