Symbols of the Holy Spirit 1: Dove

Symbols of the Holy Spirit 1:


And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. – Mark 1:10 ESV

The Holy Spirit is vital in the life of a Christian. The problem is how do you talk about a spirit that cannot be seen? The answer is to use symbols of things that can be seen and felt. Over the next nine weeks, I shall be giving a brief overview of the most used symbols of the Holy Spirit.

Even here, it isn’t so simple. The word ‘like’  crops up a lot when the Bible talks about the Holy Spirit: The Spirit came on the early church with a sound like a mighty wind and tongues like fire settled on them. The Spirit descended on him like a dove. Not a wind, not a fire, not a dove, but something like a wind, a fire or a dove. The Bible writers were struggling for ways to describe God’s Spirit, they could describe the effects the Holy Spirit has on people, which makes up most of what the Bible says about the Spirit, but to describe what the Spirit is they are left struggling to describe her. (Her because the Aramaic and Hebrew words for Spirit, rucha, ruach, are feminine.)


The Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove. This can be understood in two ways. Either the Spirit descended and looked like a dove, or we know nothing of the Spirit’s appearance, but she descended in a dove-like way. I prefer the latter, but that is not to say that I think that art depicting the Holy Spirit as a white dove is wrong, they give a symbolic depiction of the Spirit landing on Jesus. We are talking about symbolism here, so neither interpretation is invalid.

The reason I like the second interpretation that ties the word like to descend is that it ties the Spirit coming on Jesus to the Spirit of God that brooded over the waters before the creation of the world.

“And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Genesis 1:2 ESVUK.

The word translated here hovering, (rachaph) is used in Deuteronomy 32:11 for a bird hovering over her nest. Matthew, in writing his Gospel is keen to refer back to the Old Testament, he, like Mark, point back to the bird-like way the Spirit hovered over the waters in creation to the bird-like way the Spirit came down upon Jesus over the waters. Jesus is symbolically shown as possessing the creative power of God.

The power of God, creator of the universe resides in Jesus Christ his son.


Symbols of the Holy Spirit — next >

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