Like a Dove

Peter Leithart’s book, The Priesthood of the Plebs: A Theology of Baptism, argues that baptism is parallel to and the fulfillment of the old covenant rite of priestly ordination. But this is not something explicitly stated in the New Testament. Why, then, should we believe it? Leithart shows in detail that new covenant baptism does exactly what old covenant ordination did — and more. Attempting to add to Leithart’s insight with the same sort of theological reasoning, I argued in The Baptism of Jesus the Christ that the baptism of Jesus by John the baptizer is the paradigm for Christian baptism, the first new covenant baptism in history. How so? Because a close look at Christian baptism throughout the New Testament shows that the same features present in the baptism of Jesus appear in and define the meaning of Christian baptism.

One of the elements of the baptism of Jesus is the remarkable anointing by the Holy Spirit. He descended like a dove. What does that mean? Why did the Spirit come down like a dove? The answer is at least threefold. First, the dove is one of the five sacrificial animals. For Jesus to be baptized by the Spirit in the form of a dove certainly means that He is being baptized unto the death of the cross. After His baptism, the Spirit immediately “drove” (Mark 1:12) Jesus into the wilderness to begin His long march to Golgotha.

Second, the dove is the symbol of humility because it is the sacrificial animal that is offered by the poorest Israelites who cannot afford a lamb. Mary, for her purification, offered a pair of doves (Luke 2:24; Leviticus 12:8). The Spirit who created the human form for the eternal Son came upon Him in His baptism in the form of the sacrifice that poor Mary offered. This was in order to symbolize the humility of Jesus in His ministry and self-offering. It also corresponds to one part of the word that the Father declared to and about His beloved Son, “in you, I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22), an allusion to Isaiah 42:1. Jesus was anointed to bring judgment to the nations (42:1), but anointed with a dove to manifest Yahweh’s power and glory in gentleness and humility, so, we are told in the next verses that the Servant of Yahweh will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoking flax (42:3).

The third meaning has to do with the significance of the dove in the story of the Noahic deluge. Forty days after the flood waters had abated, Noah sent out a raven, which did not return to the ark, so Noah sent out a dove (Genesis 8:6-8). The dove returned, so Noah waited seven days and sent the dove out again 8:9-10). And again, the dove returned, but this time with an olive leaf in her mouth (8:11). After waiting another seven days, Noah sent out the dove a third time and she did not return (8:12). The dove bore witness that the new world had emerged from the flood, so that Noah and all could leave the ark to re-begin the project that had been assigned to Adam. Therefore, the dove is a symbol of new creation.

Thus, there are at least three aspects for the meaning of the Spirit’s descent as a dove: humility, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and new creation. What does that have to do with our baptism? I suggest two texts which I believe are relevant: 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and Titus 3:3-7. The two texts are parallel in seven particulars. But before I introduce those, one may question whether they are about baptism. It is interesting to note that Calvin has “no doubt that he alludes at least to baptism” in speaking of Titus 3:5, but in 1 Corinthians 6:11, he sees the washing as a metaphor for being cleansed by the blood of Christ.

Depending on how one views the Greek text of Revelation 1:5, Paul is probably the only one in the New Testament that speaks of baptism as a “washing.” Luke quotes Paul quoting Ananias as saying “And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.’” (Acts 22:16). In Luke’s account of Paul’s conversion and Paul’s other testimony, there is no mention Ananias’ words (Acts 9:3-18; 26:12-18). But it is clear from Acts 22:16 that Paul regarded baptism as washing away sins. Peter’s exhortation to the Jews at the very first occasion of Christian baptism is similar: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). For Paul, it appears, baptism is a “washing.”

To return, then, to our two passages (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and Titus 3:3-7): in what respects are they similar? At least these seven.

  1. Both speak of the non-Christian past as one of sinful disobedience. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11a; Titus 3:3).
  2. Both speak of God’s gracious initiative (Titus 3:4; 1Corinthians 6:11).
  3. Both speak of washing by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:11; Titus 3:5).
  4. Both say “through Jesus,” though the exact expressions are different (1 Corinthians. 6:11; Titus 3:6)
  5. Both refer to God the Father (1 Corinthians 6:9, 10, 11; Titus 3:4)
  6. Both speak of justification (1 Corinthians 6:11; Titus 3:7).
  7. Both speak of future hope: Corinthians in negative terms; Titus in positive terms (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Titus 3:7)

The abundance of parallel ideas and expressions argues, I believe, that Paul’s logic in these two passages corresponds closely. With regard to baptism, Paul speaks of it as a washing away of sin because baptism is performed in the powerful name of Jesus and is effectual by the work of the Holy Spirit, based upon the saving grace of the Father. The subtle Trinitarian language of both passages — most appropriate for a baptismal washing — reminds the reader of Matthew’s version of the Great Commission: “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” What this means for the other aspects of these two passages and how it relates to Jesus’ being anointed by the Spirit as a dove will be the topic of my next article.

Ralph Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.