And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. — Matthew 3:16
The Holy Spirit’s descent upon Jesus as he’s coming up out of water demonstrates that Jesus’s resurrection would launch the new creation (Mk 1:10). This moment in Jesus’s baptism foreshadows that Jesus would put to death the old age of the flesh that is characterized by slavery to sin and usher in a new age of the Spirit characterized by righteous, God-honoring living. Jesus is the new Adam in this version of the creation story.
We know this because the Holy Spirit shows up in the form of a dove. As Sandra Richter writes,
Here the last prophet of the Mosaic order baptizes the newly identified king (a sign of the new covenant) while the heavens open, and the reality of which the oil of the old covenant was merely a symbol (the Holy Spirit) visibly descends upon the Chosen One, and the voice of God himself (as opposed to merely the voice of the prophet) announces in the words of the coronation psalm of David and his sons (Ps 2:7) that this is the One (Richter, 2008, p. 214).
Noah, the Flood, the Dove, and the New Creation
The dove in the story of Jesus’s baptism echoes back to the story of Noah’s Ark and the flood (Gen. 6–10). In order to understand the role of the Holy Spirit as dove, we must have a strong grasp on the various elements of the story of the flood. So, what is the flood account in Genesis all about?
The story of the flood is about recreation; it’s about God judging the creation for its sin by destroying it and then creating it all over again. A lot of people miss this re-creation element of the flood story. We know, however, that the recreation aspect of this story is present because of the way in which God pours out His wrath: through a flood.
As the story begins in Genesis 6, the author of Genesis says this,
The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
What’s clear from the text is that God isn’t happy because sin has pervaded His good creation. From top to bottom, sin and death have taken over what God made to be good. The creation, and people in particular, are thoroughly evil. As Isaiah 1:5b–6 says,
The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faith. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and raw wounds; they are not pressed out or bound up or softened with oil.
Because of God’s holiness, his wrath is kindled against anything that is destructive of his good creation. God refuses to allow evil to take over the creation. He responds to evil, even if it is painful. This is true in our spiritual pilgrimage with Jesus as well. God always deals with sin, even if it’s painful. There are consequences when we rebel against a God who cares. God values justice, love, mercy, and grace—and when the world that He created to be good and to reflect his very nature and glory does the opposite by promoting injustice, greed, arrogance, and perversion, he acts. This is why God judged the earth.
But why did God choose to judge the earth through a flood? Why was water the means of wrath? Why not meteors from heaven, or a cataclysmic earthquake, or tsunami? What about plagues? The answer is because he was returning things to the state they were in before the creation in Genesis 1–2: watery chaos and darkness. Genesis 1:2 says that before God created light on the first day, “[t]he earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.” In other words, before God began to create there was watery chaos and darkness. In the story of Noah and the flood, God is simply returning things back to the way they were before He spoke light and life into the creation.
This means that the story of the flood is not just about judgment, it’s also about re-creation. In the flood, God is rebooting the creation project, and Noah will be the new Adam.
Genesis 8:1 further attest to this with, “But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided.” This is creation language borrowed from Genesis 1:1–2 where the Spirit of God hovers over the deep. Furthermore, once the flood waters reside God gives Noah and his family the same command that God gave Adam and Eve in the garden:
God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered (Gen 9:1–2).
It’s important to point out here that there is a close association between the symbols of dove and water. Both are associated with cleansing and judgment as is evidenced both in baptism, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the crossing of the Jordan river. All of these events symbolize the rebirth in coming up out of the water the same way that the mountains come up out of the waters as the floods receded in the story of Noah (Gen 8:4).Here’s the connection between water and the dove: the dove symbolizes the innocence that is the result of the cleansing of the water.
The story also details that the flood waters do not go down overnight. Rather, the water recedes gradually. In fact, the text says that it was after two and a half months that the mountain peaks emerged from the depths. The text says this:
But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and livestock with him in the boat. He sent a wind to blow across the earth, and the floodwaters began to recede.The underground waters stopped flowing, and the torrential rains from the sky were stopped. So the floodwaters gradually receded from the earth. After 150 days, exactly five months from the time the flood began, the boat came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. Two and a half months later, as the waters continued to go down, other mountain peaks became visible.
After another forty days, Noah opened the window he had made in the boat and released a raven. The bird flew back and forth until the floodwaters on the earth had dried up. He also released a dove to see if the water had receded and it could find dry ground. But the dove could find no place to land because the water still covered the ground. So it returned to the boat, and Noah held out his hand and drew the dove back inside. After waiting another seven days, Noah released the dove again. This time the dove returned to him in the evening with a fresh olive leaf in its beak. Then Noah knew that the floodwaters were almost gone. He waited another seven days and then released the dove again. This time it did not come back (Gen 8:1–12; italics added).
The fact that the dove did not come back means that it found a place within the new creation to reside. The space that God had formed was ready to be filled.
This image speaks directly to the way the Holy Spirit works in salvation. The cross prepares the new creation in which God, in the form of the Holy Spirit, can take up residence. The forming and filling motif from the very beginning of the Bible is at work right here. The goal of the forgiveness of sins is God’s perennial indwelling. Jesus’s blood provides an internal cleansing specifically to prepare a place for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This is what the story of Noah is all about. The earth before the flood, like the hearts of every person, is evil and unclean. God then sends judgment in the form of cleansing, just like his sending Jesus to the cross. This cleansing results in a new creation that is innocent from sin-guilt thereby creating a holy place for God to reside. The dove is the Holy Spirit that takes up residence in the newly created heart of the believer.
In Psalm 51:10, David says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” This is a perfect illustration of what we’re talking about. We first receive a newly created heart that is purified by the blood of Jesus. Subsequently, the Spirit of God, which is likened to the dove in the story of Noah, takes up residence. David goes on to says, “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me” (Ps. 51:11). With this verse David highlights the fact that the indwelling of the Spirit is nothing less than the perennial presence of God.
The dove is the second symbol for the Holy Spirit in the Bible. The primary point of comparison between the work of the Holy Spirit and the dove is new creation. A secondary point of comparison is innocence. The dove is linked to new creation and holiness through its connection to water and judgment in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament we see the dove in the flood account, which is all about God purging the world of evil thereby returning it to its innocence. By flooding the earth God takes the creation back to the state of watery chaos that it was in Genesis 1 before the creation. In the New Testament we see the dove at Jesus’s baptism. Jesus’s baptism is a foreshadowing of his death, burial, and resurrection; a scene pervaded with images of judgment, return to innocence, and the new creation. The dove descends on Jesus as a sign of the indwelling of God that comes as the result of the new creation symbolized the new creation/glorified body as representing in the resurrection movement in the baptism ritual.
 One could argue that God merely accelerated the process that had already begun with sin.