Ever wondered why God’s Spirit appears as a dove at Jesus’ baptism? In this article, we’ll explore a mysterious, unique and easy to overlook relationship between God’s Spirit and the dove in the Old Testament. A relationship that can be understood to foreshadow and ultimately be fulfilled by Jesus’s baptism in some incredible ways.
By the time we’re done, not only will we have explored the ancient treasure of a compelling answer to this classic Bible mystery, but we’ll also be in a position to experience the profound scriptural meaning it reveals concerning not only Jesus’ baptism, but all Christian baptism.
The Flood and Baptism (Clue #1)
But why a Dove?
It was several years ago now, when I first started pondering this question, and it was something rather unexpected in the Bible that first got me thinking about it. At the time I was reading through the New Testament when I stumbled upon that unexpected something in 1 Peter 3:20-21. There it said that there was a correspondence between how Noah and his family were saved through the floodwaters and how baptism now saved Christians.
My mind started churning… thinking about how the flood prominently featured a dove and how Jesus baptism did too. Could this be the reason for God’s Spirit mysteriously appearing as a dove at Jesus’ baptism? I eagerly looked up the Greek word translated “corresponding” here and read the following definition:
“a thing formed after some pattern” or “a thing resembling another its counterpart.”
– Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, Strong’s NT 499
While I didn’t fully understand why or how at the time, I felt this connection between baptism and the Flood was likely getting at the meaning behind this great mystery. And according to Beale & Carson’s Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, this connection in 1 Peter 3 is indeed one of the main proposed answers from Bible scholars on the matter (see page 280).
Still as time went by, I increasingly felt like this connection between the Flood and baptism could only be part of an answer at best. Sure, a connection between baptism and the Flood could give context to a dove appearing at Jesus’ baptism, with both events involving water and a fresh start for humanity from sin.
But God’s Spirit taking the form of a dove at the baptism? That seemed like a taller order to me. After all, the dove that Noah released from the ark during the Flood didn’t have any clear connection or association with God’s spirit directly. Or so I thought at least… for several years now past. But then finally, I recently came to discover I had been missing something incredible.
The Mystery Calls Again
Jumping forward to just a year ago now, I would once again have something leap off the page at me about this topic. In this case, I was reading a book called The New Moses written by New Testament professor Dale C Allison Jr. There, in the book’s introduction, I came upon a sentence where Dr. Allison mentions Noah as a kind of new Adam figure, noting how Noah received the same charter mission from God after the Flood that Adam had at the completion of Creation (details below).
A new broader possibility set my mind racing again, leading me to dig into the related passages to seek out and ultimately confirmed that the following is true: before the Bible tells us that the Flood corresponds to the form or pattern of baptism in 1 Peter 3, it first shows us that the Flood corresponds to the form or pattern of the original Creation event in Genesis itself.
Seeing the related details up close, a more complete answer to our main question here is revealed that explains both dove and Spirit and unlocks riches of profound meaning for baptism itself.
The Flood and Creation (Clue #2)
Imagine the world at the very beginning of Creation. What does it look like? The first picture we get of the world at the start of Genesis is of pure chaotic waters yet without form or order and totally empty, like a blank canvas awaiting the first stroke of the Artist. And even as God begins implementing His order with light and more in Genesis chapter 1, the world remains in a state of pure water with no land all the way until verse 9, where He first causes it to appear.
And what does the Flood do? Yes! It returns the world to its original state of being all water with no land. And to make the intention of this “return to the beginning” even more clear is how God returns the world to this initial state. In contrast to what He did in chapter 1, to bring order to the primordial waters, first separating them into waters “above” and “below” in Genesis 1:6–7, here He initiates the Flood by reversing this, releasing the waters from the “heavens” above and the “great deep” below in Genesis 7:11–12 to re-submerge the land once again.
Imagine the surviving members of humanity and all the other living things packed into the ark and along for the ride as the world is returned to its original primordial uninhabitable state of chaotic waters! I don’t know about you, but that’s an image far more epic, poetic, and incredible than anything I ever heard in Sunday school about this event.
But not only does the Flood take the world back to the initial state of Creation in this fundamental sense of being all water and no land. It also ends in the same way as the creation event of Genesis 1 with God’s mandate to Adam and Eve restated to Noah and his family: by blessing them, commanding them to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, to have dominion over the earth and all other living things in it and giving them every plant for food or both plants and animals for food in the later case (See Genesis 1:28–29 & Genesis 9:1–3 side by side).
In other words, with Noah being a counterpart to Adam in the re-creation event of the Flood. But of course, in the context of these two related events, it’s a different counterpart we are most interested in considering here.
The Spirit and the Dove (Clue #3)
You see, in the original creation event, there’s only one thing we’re told about happening above the waters while the world’s in its pure water and no land state before God has implemented his order upon Creation. And that’s the Spirit of God hovering above the waters in Genesis 1:2.
Similarly, there’s only one thing we’re told about happening above the floodwaters while the world is once again in its pure water and no land state and before God re-implements His life-facilitating order upon Creation. And that is Noah releasing the raven and the dove to fly above said flood waters in Genesis 8:6-12.
The Dove and the Raven (Clue #4)
And here it seems, we have encountered a final challenge with the raven’s presence. Does its appearance threaten a unique association between God’s Spirit and the dove here, with an answer nearly within our grasp? Well, no actually, not on closer examination: two reasons.
First, if we read Genesis in the context of the rest of the books of Moses as its original audience would have heard it, we know that the raven is on the list of ritually unclean birds (Leviticus 11:13-19) making one unsuitable for God’s presence. Whereas the dove in contrast is not only not on the list of unclean birds, but is on the list of just two kinds of ritually clean birds considered suitable for offerings at the tabernacle (see Leviticus 1:14 and elsewhere), the central place of God’s presence before Solomon’s temple.
Now we could perhaps stop right there but there’s one more key thing to notice. And that’s the “unclean” raven’s behavior of leaving the ark once and never returning – or in other words, his behavior of general comfort with the world in its chaotic disorderly state which we’ll recall its in as a judgment against unclean/disorderly/sinful humanity.
Then contrast that with the dove’s behavior, who leaves but then returns to the ark for shelter. The dove is clearly not at home with the world’s state until the chaotic waters fully subside, signified by the dove returning with an olive branch retrieved on its second outing. And only doesn’t return at all on its third, once God’s order for his living creations has been fully put back in place.
Hence showing by both the immediate and broader scriptural contexts that the dove stands alone as a suitable counterpart to God’s spirit in Genesis 1:2 in this re-Creation event. And by this, we have found a direct and unique association between God’s Spirit and the dove in the Old Testament.
Baptism and New Creation (Solving the Mystery?)
Now let’s talk about what this all means in relation to baptism. First, we can summarize how the Flood’s correspondence with the Creation – and the correspondence therein between the dove and God’s Spirit – works as a backdrop for God’s Spirit at Jesus’ baptism as follows:
- God’s Spirit above the Creation waters: the original beginning.
- The dove above the Flood re-Creation waters: the physical new beginning.
- God’s Spirit as a dove above the baptismal waters: the spiritual new beginning.
Second, let’s consider how baptism as a fulfillment of the Creation and the Flood re-Creation event might work in each case individually.
For Creation, we’ve got God’s Spirit hovering above the waters just before the original creative act in Genesis 1:2 being fulfilled in baptism where God’s spirit is above the waters to anoint the baptized into becoming a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Further, Jesus himself says in John 3:5 that one must be born again by “water” and “the Spirit” alluding to baptism as a rebirth/re-creation event involving the same two elements seen at the start of Creation in Genesis 1:2 itself.
For the Flood, we’ve got the dove flying above the floodwaters just before God reimplements His order for Creation so that a righteous humanity might begin life anew after the flood waters have washed away sinful humanity.
Does not baptism signify being reborn as the righteous humanity of God to begin life anew after first having one’s sinful humanity or “flesh” baptized into Christ death? (See Romans 6:1–4) And as we’ve already discussed, baptism’s connection to the Flood is also directly affirmed in the New Testament by 1 Peter 3:20-21.
Third and finally, I like to sum up in a single sentence what Jesus’ baptism fulfilling both these events together as the definitive and prototypical example for all Christian baptism might be understood to mean for it:
Baptism is God restarting the world one person at a time.
To the Mysteries to Come
So what do you think?
Was the scriptural background covered here effective at giving context to this rare and special physical appearance of God’s Spirit as a dove at Jesus’ baptism? And did you find the answer provided here to be convincing and/or satisfying?
What legitimate scriptural meaning regarding the baptism of Jesus and baptism for all believers in general, do you think might be drawn from this Old Testament background?
I welcome your thoughts in the comments below (or elsewhere) and until next time, please keep digging for hidden gems regarding the life of Jesus’s full deep and rich scriptural meaning (the ultimate Epic Bible Mystery) and take care.