Why did John the Baptist describe the Holy Spirit as a dove? The description “like a dove” is a simile for female beauty. Therefore, God is not a dove, but the Spirit of God is beautiful like a dove.
“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven which said, ‘You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.’” (Lk. 3:21-22)
- John the Baptist actually saw the Spirit in bodily form and described her as “like a dove.”
- The phrase “like a dove” does not mean an actual dove was seen—it is a simile for female beauty and tenderness.
- What John saw was what Jeremiah prophesied about long ago: “For the Lord has created a new thing in the land [of Israel]: a female shall encompass (surround on all sides, shield and lead) a man. –Jer. 31:22
- When something or someone is described as “spirit” it does not necessarily mean “invisible;” therefore, it is possible to actually see the Spirit just as John saw her.
- Scripture tells us that God is Spirit, but God is not only Spirit. God is also body and soul.
The Holy Spirit is NOT a bird
In Luke 3:21 above, we have Luke describing what John the Baptist saw on the day of Jesus’ water baptism, “heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form.” John saw a “bodily form.” The Greek words used here are (bodily) “sōmatikŏs” which means “a whole body” and (form) “ĕidŏs” which means “appearance of shape.” So John literally saw a “body image” come down from heaven and he described this image as “like a dove.” You will notice the phrase “like a dove” does not mean an actual dove was seen—it is a simile.
A simile is a figure of speech comparing two relatively dissimilar things. In other words, a dove and God’s Holy Spirit are very different from each other (one is an animal and the other is God)—but similarities can still be drawn.
It is unfortunate so many Christians believe (and teach) that an actual dove was seen coming down from heaven. After all, there is nothing in the Bible that tells us God exists as an animal–Adam and Eve are the image and likeness of God. God also does not operate by illusion, manifesting Himself/Herself in a cloak of misrepresentation—God is all about revealing truth. He/She is a revelatory God. So despite the church’s longtime use of the dove as a symbol for the Spirit, we must leave behind the picture of a dove flying down from heaven and landing on Jesus’ shoulder. We must see the Holy Spirit as John saw her.
What exactly did John See during Jesus’ Baptism? — He Saw a Woman
John did not see a dove, but he did see something, or rather someone. John is Jewish and the expression “like a dove” was a favorite and often used Jewish simile for female beauty and tenderness (see the Jewish Encyclopedia). This is why the term “dove” is used often throughout the Bible (including the Old Testament Apocrypha) to describe females:
It is decreed that the city be exiled, its slave women led away, moaning like doves and beating their breasts. –Nahum. 2:7, NRSV
The Lord gives the command; great is the company of those [women] who bore the tidings: And she who remains at home divides the spoil. Though you lie down among the sheepfolds, you will be like the wings of a dove covered with silver, and her feathers with yellow gold. –Ps. 68:11-13, NRSV
You have dove’s eyes behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats, going down from Mount Gilead. –Song of Solomon 4:1, NRSV
Mother, embrace your children; bring them up with gladness, as does a dove; strengthen their feet, because I have chosen you, says the Lord. –2 Esdras 2:15, NRSV
What John saw was not an actual dove. John saw a beautiful woman, the Spirit, the Helper, come down from heaven, superimpose over Christ and remain with him. What John saw was what Jeremiah prophesied about long ago:
How long will you waver and hesitate [to return], O you backsliding daughter? For the Lord has created a new thing in the land [of Israel]: a female shall compass (woo, win, and protect) a man. –Jer. 31:22, Amplified Bible
And the most natural way for John to describe this amazing vision of the very feminine Holy Spirit encompassing (surround on every side–shield and lead) Jesus at his baptism was to say “the Holy Spirit descended like a dove.” The first thing the Spirit did was to lead Jesus into the desert. And Jesus submitted to the Spirit’s rather intense leading:
And the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan. –Mk 1:12–13, NRSV
If Something is Described as “Spirit” Doesn’t that Mean It’s Invisible? — NO
There are many places in the Bible where the spirit world invades the natural, and at first glance the spiritual can’t be seen. However, it seems in order to “see” what exists in the spiritual realm one must first have their eyes healed (opened) by God:
You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. –Rev. 3:17–18, NRSV, bold added
God gave them a sluggish spirit,
eyes that would not see
and ears that would not hear,
down to this very day.” –Rom. 11:8, NRSV
Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face. –Num. 22:31, NRSV
Then Elisha prayed: “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the LORD opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. –2 Kings 6:17, NRSV
Therefore, just because something is “spiritual” it does not mean it is invisible. And the same goes for the Holy Spirit. If you want to see the Spirit, read Revelation 12 and you will see her as the apostle John saw her.
God is Not Only Spirit — God is Body, Soul, and Spirit
You may have read this verse before, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn. 4:24). But this verse doesn’t mean that God is only Spirit (nor does it mean God is completely invisible).
We are told in scripture that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15, NRSV, bold added). Because of this we can understand that Jesus actually existed before Adam, since he was firstborn of all creation. We are also told that God “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16). But despite this, “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (Jn. 1:18, NRSV). Therefore, God is invisible and unapproachable, but at the same time (because of Jesus) God is also visible and highly approachable. So God is both invisible and visible, unapproachable and approachable — that’s a paradox.
Paradox involves contradictory — yet — interrelated elements that exist simultaneously.
Both man and woman have been created in the image and likeness of our paradoxical God. This means that a God who is invisible — through the creation of humankind — suddenly becomes visible:
Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. –Rom. 1:20
But man and woman are not the only ones who reveal the “invisible” God. Jesus and the Spirit also reveal the invisible God — and unlike us — they reveal God in perfection and complete unity. Humankind is modeled after these two integrated images of God: Jesus (male) and Spirit (female). Therefore, humankind is like God in that — like Jesus and the Spirit — they are made up of body/soul, and spirit.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. –1 Thes. 5:23, NRSV
Here is my servant [the body, Jesus], whom I [God] have chosen,
my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him. –Mt. 12:18, NRSV
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” –Lk 1:46–47
Man and women are a unity of the physical and the spiritual. Our bodily form belongs to the earth and because of this — in order to redeem us — Jesus had to become like us “physically.” But one day we will become as Jesus is — at the resurrection. Because of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, we will always have a bodily expression: “If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:44). And because of the Holy Spirit — we will always have a spirit expression. We are body/soul and spirit, just as Jesus is body/soul and Spirit.
[Jesus] will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory. –Php. 3:21
For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?” –1 Co 15:53–55, NRSV
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. –1 Co 15:12–16, NRSV
We are, therefore, both male and female, the image and likeness of God(s). The female represents the Spirit of God who dwells inside Jesus (Jesus loves the Spirit like his own body) and the male represents the body of God — Jesus. Jesus and the Spirit do their works together. Together, they gave us life in the garden and together they will completely restore us: body, soul and spirit.