Theologians have often observed the paucity of details about the Holy Spirit in the Bible, as compared to revelation of the Father and the Son. This holding back by the Spirit who inspired Scripture seems typical of his humility, and the trait of divine love “that does not seek its own.” Sets of details that we can add to the several statements about the Spirit are connected with eight metaphors used throughout the Bible. Several of these metaphors pull together and give concrete expression to the declarative statements of pneumatology, such as “the Spirit sanctifies, indwells, teaches, assures, and convicts people.”
Metaphors are tricky because they seem easy to grasp, tempting us to continue right past them as merely poetic flourish. Instead of stripping out the propositional idea of the metaphor and moving on, I suggest that the purpose of these metaphors is to draw us into meditation about the Spirit’s presence and action in our lives. Metaphors are used instead of abstract statements because they can draw us aside to consider and sit with transcendent truth revealed in terms of the world of our temporal experiences. Similarly, much of Jesus’ teaching is presented to us in parables, working in the realm of the “known” to take us along to the transcendent reality that we don’t yet know. If we are to get the analogy, we must avoid being hasty with metaphors. Metaphors are intended to bring us to the unknown by means of the known.
In this blog series, I will present eight biblical metaphors revealing the Holy Spirit. For each, we need to discern what the metaphor is, and what its meanings are within the biblical and ANE framework. I will be drawing some details from Ryken’s Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. My goal is to recognize patterns of meaning that may be intended to expand our understanding of the Holy Spirit’s presence and action in subtle ways hinted at through metaphors. The order I will present them follows what I do in class.
The metaphor of a Dove
In one of the rare accounts that made it into all four Gospels, Jesus’ baptism by John is accompanied by John’s testimony that he saw “the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him” (John 1:32 NASB). Unique to Luke’s account is that the Spirit was “in bodily form” (somatikos) but the event seems very visionary (I’m doubtful that there was an actual, molecularly constructed theophany with a dove’s body). Clearly the main importance in the event is a sign to John that Jesus was the Messiah whom John was sent to give advance notice about. But why a dove? Why only in this passage is the Spirit referred to as a dove? I also find it curious that Christians commonly pick this image of the Spirit over the others despite this being a single event to identify the Spirit’s self-presentation “as a dove.”
The selection of a dove seems appropriate to manifest the presence of the third person of the triune God (as compared, for example to other creatures or objects), since the dove comes from above to below, suggests purity in its whiteness, and suggests spirituality as a graceful flying creature.
More meaning seems built in to the dove idea when we recall Genesis 1:2, where the Spirit of God is “moving over the surface of the waters.” NASB has a marginal translation of “hovering” instead of “moving,” as in the action of a bird or other flying creature. I’m not saying that Genesis 1:2 tells that the Spirit is a dove; I’m noticing a pattern of the Spirit’s presentation in the Bible in birdly ways. We can guess that John’s account of the Spirit-as-a-dove should recall Genesis 1:2, since John has already alerted us to think of Jesus in terms of the original creation (John 1:1) on the way to the new creation that begins with the new birth (John 3:1-8), the giving of the Spirit (John 14-16; 20:22), and is completed in the resurrection from the dead. If right, the connection between the dove at the Jordan baptism and the Spirit’s presence in original creation has another link since both events have the Spirit of God “over the waters.” I take water to be part of the picture in both contexts to indicate creation and new creation. Still, why a dove instead of some other sort of bird?
Doves were stipulated as sacrifices for the poor in Israel. As a context of worship, the continuity of doves in sacrifice and the Spirit-as-a-dove matches what Scripture elsewhere tells that we “worship in Spirit and truth” and “pray in the Spirit” since that is the Spirit’s role to facilitate our ongoing encounter with God. As an approved animal for sacrifices, the whiteness of doves indicates the purity and innocence that befits the Holy Spirit. A dove is certainly easier to use at the Jordan baptism than other sacrificial animals, such as a goat, a lamb, or an ox.
The dove is also prominent in the post-wrath account of Noah emerging from the flood. In Genesis 8:8-12, the dove was Noah’s scout sent out twice to confirm that the world was safe after watery wrath. When the dove returned with “a freshly picked olive leaf,” Western cultures received this once-common image for peace (which is being supplanted by the poorly conceived “peace symbol” that originally indicated nuclear disarmament). God was no longer wrathful against wicked humanity, and the dove’s presence is a visual image of that. Similarly, God’s selection of a dove to image the Spirit at the Jordan baptism may indicate the peace with God that is possible through the Messiah. As with the original creation and the new creation, Noah’s dove appears at a re-start of the creation after wrath.
Pulling several ideas together, the dove as a metaphor of the Spirit of God has obvious ideas of purity and mediation in our relationship with God. The Spirit also enacts our entrance to the new creation, causing us to be born again (in terms of the promised indwelling of the Spirit for the New Covenant) and that we develop in readiness for membership in a resurrected cosmos. The dove is a visible sign to John of the Spirit’s presence and action with Jesus—he is the Messiah. This sign fits with the Spirit’s various roles among the Father and the Son to work most closely as present in creation. While the Son of God became God-with-us by incarnation, since Pentecost the Spirit has come closer to be God-in-us, remaining with us as when Jesus was initially presented to John, and the Spirit of God “remained on Him.”