In the Synoptic gospels (Matthew 3:16-17; Mark 1:9:1-11; Luke 3:21-22), the baptism of Jesus marks the beginning of his public ministry. In each account, the Spirit is present descending upon Jesus like a dove (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22). In Luke, “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove (Luke 3:22, NASB).” It is possible that the Spirit came literally in the form of a dove.
While John’s gospel does not explicitly include the story of Jesus’ baptism it does relate John the Baptist testifying to having seen “the Spirit coming down from heaven like a dove”(John 1:32, NASB). In fact, only John describes the dove as continuing to abide over Jesus. Based upon the fourth gospel’s account, commentators as early as Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202) have associated the dove resting upon Jesus with the fulfillment of Isaiah 11:2 (Against the Heresies 3.17.1).
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on Him, The spirit of wisdom and understanding, The spirit of counsel and strength, The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. (Isaiah 11:2, NASB)The simile connecting the Spirit and the dove has long perplexed scholars as this comparison is not found in the Old Testament. Why would the spirit manifest itself as a dove? Do doves descend uniquely? What does choosing to be portrayed as a dove say of the Spirit?
For whose benefit did the Spirit appear? In Matthew and Mark, Jesus recognizes the Spirit in this form, while in John’s gospel, John the Baptist perceived it. In Luke no spectators are discussed. Perhaps the Spirit was present and only the spiritually aware recognized it. John and Jesus possessed “eyes to see” (Matthew 13:16; Mark 8:18; Luke 10:23).
At one of the most critical junctures in Scripture, the Spirit shows its approval by appearing discreetly and unimpressively. How many people missed it?
Has God ever broken into your life through something as commonplace as a dove? Have you ever been reassured by something that seemed trivial to others?