In approaching Bible Study I have come to realize that nothing Jesus is recorded as having done in the Gospels is without meaning or symbolism.
As you read the narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John you will often come across words saying that Jesus did something “so that scripture might be fulfilled”. This tells us two things, that Jesus knew the scriptures that needed to be fulfilled and that his observers would also be aware of the symbolism.
We today use symbols all the time to convey meaning. If I type the symbol “$”, my readers world-wide know that I am talking about “money”. That one-character symbol is just a convenient way to make the connection with cash, price, bargain, value, and a host of other monetary related concepts. My grandchildren are adept at using emojis (emotional symbols) to convey feelings - my favorite is when they send me hearts ( <3 or ❤️) to signify love.
The scriptures of The Old Testament with which Jesus was intimately familiar are filled with similar symbols that God uses as a shorthand for deeper meaning. For example, when you see a rainbow you should remember one of God’s promises to humankind is that He will not flood us all out of existence. Good to know!
Let’s look at a familiar symbol of peace and love — the dove.
Prior to Jesus’ baptism, the dove was seen sporadically throughout the Old Testament. Each reference to the dove in Scripture had symbolic meaning even then, and would be eventually fulfilled in the greater context of Jesus’s life and ministry, beginning with His baptism and continuing through the movement of the Holy Spirit, which lives on today.
The earliest reference to a dove occurs in the story of Noah and his floating zoo:
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. Genesis 8:6-12 NLT
And so the image of a dove and an olive branch passed into our vocabulary as symbols of hope, peace, new life and goodwill.
A second piece of symbolism that would eventually find fulfillment in the life of Jesus can be seen in the sacrificial system of the Mosaic law, where doves and turtledoves were the only birds that could be offered as acceptable sacrifices because of their perceived purity. (Genesis 15:9, Leviticus 12:6, Luke 2:24)
It is also worth mentioning that doves and turtledoves were often purchased and used by those who could not afford one of the more expensive offerings, such as a spotless lamb. Interestingly those were the sacrifices purchased by Joseph and Mary when they brought Jesus to the Temple as a baby.
God made provisions for everyone, regardless of their wealth or status, to bring their best offerings before the Lord (Leviticus 5:7).
Old Testament writers also used the dove poetically as a symbol of purity, gentleness, and grace.
“How beautiful you are, my darling, How beautiful you are! Your eyes are like doves” Song of Solomon 1:15
“When you lie down among the sheepfolds, You are like the wings of a dove covered with silver, And its pinions with glistening gold” Psalm 68:13.
“Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest” Psalm 55:6.
Taking these and other numerous examples into consideration, the Jewish people certainly would have known and understood the symbolism of the dove from Old Testament stories and teachings. For the Spirit to descend upon Jesus in the form of a dove at His baptism was a public display of Christ’s divinity, a confirmation of His anointing, and a connection between His ministry and previous symbols of the dove (Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22, John 1:32).
Not only that, but in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s gospel, we read that immediately following Jesus’s emergence from the water and the descent of the Holy Spirit, the voice of God the Father came from the heavens saying,
“You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased” Luke 3:22.
Jesus would fulfill much of the symbolism of the dove in early Scripture.
He was: • the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). • the promise of new life (2 Corinthians 5:17). • the pure and perfect sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 10:14-24). • the way for all to come before God (Ephesians 1:17, 2:18; Hebrews 10:19-22).
In John’s gospel, John the Baptist proclaimed the coming of the Messiah.
“He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’ I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God” John 1:33-34.
With the coming of the Holy Spirit, which had been promised and prophesied in the book of Joel, we also have access to that same spiritual covering that had descended upon Jesus at His baptism and moved through Him throughout His earthly ministry.
The Holy Spirit descending on Jesus was both a symbolic fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and a preface to the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and empowered them with the gifts of the Spirit (Acts 2), just as promised by Jesus at His ascension (John 14:15-17).
There is much spiritual truth to be had by studying the symbols in scripture. May I suggest you start by looking at all the places Jesus said He was fulfilling scripture, and trace back the reasons for them to be fulfilled.
For my Salvationist readers, how about the symbols of Blood and Fire?
Blessings on you and yours, Jim Black
P.S. if you’d like to read previous ruminations of mine they can be found at https://www.salvationarmyconcordca.org/chronicle/?category=Bible%20Study