The Gospel of John, part 10, The Descent of the Dove
Sep 20, 2019
After John baptized Jesus at the Jordan, the Spirit of God descended upon Him in the form of a dove. John 1:32-34 says,
32 John testified, saying, “I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. 33 I did not recognize Him, but 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.’ 34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
God had told John ahead of time that He would recognize the Messiah by the sign of a dove descending upon Him and not flying away, as doves usually do. Matthew 3:16, 17 gives us added details:
16 After being baptized, Jesus went up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and coming upon Him, 17 and behold, a voice out of the heavens, said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”
The same account appears in Mark 1:9-11, ending with verse 12,
12 And immediately the Spirit impelled Him to go out into the wilderness.
The first question we may ask is this: Which dove “impelled Him to go out into the wilderness”? By that, I refer to Leviticus 14: 4, where we find that there were two doves at a leper’s baptism. The first was killed, and the second one was released into the open field. Did the first dove descend upon Jesus, or the second?
The dove did not descend until after Jesus came out of the water, Matthew says. It seems to me that if this dove had represented the first dove (being killed), it would have descended just prior to Jesus’ baptism, rather than afterward. Further, this dove’s job was to urge Jesus to go into the wilderness. Because the dove remained upon or with Jesus, it appears this was the second dove that was to be released alive.
By understanding the prophetic meaning of the two doves and the two goats in the law, we see how the two were intertwined when Jesus was baptized. The doves were part of the law of baptism (Leviticus 14:7), for the cleansed leper was to be sprinkled seven times with water. This ceremony was to be fulfilled in the story of Naaman the Syrian who was cleansed of leprosy, for the prophet instructed him to “go and wash in the Jordan seven times” (2 Kings 5:10).
The Hebrew word translated “wash” is rachats, which was how people purified themselves in the law, usually by sprinkling or pouring from above (Leviticus 14:7; Hebrews 9:13), to signify its heavenly origin. Thus also Elisha “used to pour water on the hands of Elijah” (2 Kings 3:11) to cleanse his hands before each meal. It was a ceremonial cleansing, not a bath nor a sink full of water in which to wash one’s hands as is done today.
This ceremonial cleansing was called “baptism” in Mark 7:2-4, where the Pharisees and scribes criticized Jesus’ disciples for neglecting to “wash their hands” before eating. Mark’s explanation to his Roman audience is given in Mark 7:4, where he says that the Jews “do not eat unless they cleanse [baptizo] themselves, and there are many other things… such as the washing [baptismos] of cups and pitches and copper pots.”
The prophet told Naaman to wash (rachats) in the Jordan seven times, according the command in the law. He objected at first but ultimately went and “dipped” (tavats) in the Jordan. Was he “sprinkled seven times” as the law commanded in Leviticus 14:7? Or did he immerse himself, as the translators imply? The wording is obscure, so we cannot say for sure. All we know is that God looked at his heart. His obedience proved his faith, and God counted it to him for righteousness.
The point is that baptism as a ceremonial rite did not begin with John the Baptist but was commanded in the law, including the law that commanded cleansed (healed) lepers to be sprinkled seven times with water. Baptism is about passing from death to life, and hence, the first dove itself was to be killed “over running water,” that is, over living water, as the Hebrew word reads literally in Leviticus 14:5.
The real focus of baptism is not so much on death as on resurrection life. Death itself is a state of pollution, requiring a week of purification until fully cleansed on the eighth day. It speaks prophetically of the eighth “day” (millennium), when all of the dead are raised at the general resurrection (Revelation 20:12, 13). On a personal level, of course, baptism is a time when the minister announces to the public that he has examined the person and found that his faith is genuine. Thus, the minister bears witness of what God has already done in “healing” the person’s spiritual leprosy, even as the Old Testament priest did in the case of lepers that God had healed.
Overlaying the Prophecies
Jesus came to John for baptism on the Day of Atonement, ten days after His 30th birthday. Thus, His baptism was timed to coincide with the activities in the temple, where the two goats were fulfilling their roles as per Leviticus 16. Jesus was baptized as the first prophetic goat to signify the killing of the first goat for the cleansing of the sanctuary to “atone” for the sin of the people.
The second goat was then sent into the wilderness “by the hand of a man who stands in readiness” (Leviticus 16:21). The Holy Spirit was the prophesied “man” who led Jesus into the wilderness (Luke 4:1) to fulfill the prophecy.
The two doves are to be overlaid upon the prophecy of the two goats, for it was a dove that descended upon Jesus after his baptism. It was actually the second dove that descended to lead Him into the wilderness. Mark 1:12 says the dove “impelled Him.” Perhaps this was because the dove in Leviticus 14 was brought forcibly by the priest into the open field to be released. Hence, the goat was “led,” while the dove was “impelled.” Jesus was both the goat and the dove, and so both terms are used in the New Testament by different writers. Jesus was both led and impelled to go into the wilderness.
John the Baptist himself did not seem to know when the Messiah would come to him for baptism. It appears that he had received no revelation about the Messiah’s connection to the goats on the Day of Atonement. However, he did receive revelation about the dove descending upon the Messiah. Insofar as he was concerned, the dove confirmed the identity of the Messiah.
Furthermore, it was the second dove that appeared over Him, which, in the law, was the dove dipped in the blood of the first dove (Leviticus 14:6). At the second coming of Christ, we read in Revelation 19:13,
13 And He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood; and His name is called The Word [logos] of God.
Christ’s robe was to be dipped in blood, not only to identify Him in His Joseph calling but also to identify Him as the second dove. Hence, the dove was used to identify the Messiah, not only to John at His first coming but also in His second coming. The apostle also further identifies the Messiah as the Logos (Memra) of God.
So we may conclude that the prophecy of the two goats reveal timing, while the doves reveal identity.
God likes to overlay prophecies to provide contrast and completeness in our understanding. As with the start of Jesus’ ministry, when He was baptized, so also did God overlay prophecy at the end when He was crucified.
Jesus was killed as the Passover Lamb, even as John the Baptist prophesied in John 1:29, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” The timing of Christ’s death on the cross was thus set to occur on Passover of some year. He died at the moment when all the lambs were being killed at the ninth hour of the day (Mark 15:34, 37).
The people were to kill the lambs between noon and sundown, that is, “between the two evenings” (Exodus 12:6, literal rendering). They were not allowed to kill the lambs after dark. However, while Jesus remained on the cross, it was dark (Mark 15:33), so none of the people could kill the lambs until the darkness ended at the ninth hour. When the sun shined again, the people then killed the lambs, and Jesus died.
Hence, the Passover Lamb prophesied the timing of Christ’s death—not only the day itself but also the very hour of the day.
On the other hand, the location of His crucifixion was prophesied by the red heifer in Numbers 19:2-5. The red heifer was a burnt offering, and its ashes were used to purify those who had touched a dead body. The ashes were stored “outside the camp,” defined as 2,000 cubits from the Most Holy Place in the temple. They were stored on the Mount of Olives along the road leading into the outer court of the temple. This was also the divine court where the priests at Bethphage ministered.
It was here that Jesus was finally condemned and then crucified—near the ashes of the red heifer. Crucifixion was never done within the city itself, for that would have defiled it. Neither were there any tombs within the city walls. Jesus was both the Passover Lamb and the Red Heifer, for He fulfilled all of the Old Testament sacrifices, both male and female.
The Passover lambs were male (Exodus 12:5); the red heifer was female. The blood of the lamb cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7); the red heifer cleanses us from death (i.e., touching a dead body, namely, our own mortal bodies).
The depth of spiritual truth inherent in the law is amazing. Without understanding the law, how could we ever understand what Jesus did in fulfilling that law? Those who do not read the law can enjoy only a superficial understanding of the Gospel of John and, indeed, the entire New Testament.
But as Paul said, “I would not have you ignorant, brethren” (Romans 1:13 KJV). Neither do we proclaim or worship “an unknown God,” (Acts 17:23), whom men worshiped “in ignorance.” Let us get to know the God we worship, so that we may, with knowledge, “praise the Lord for His goodness and for His wonderful works to the children of men” (Psalm 107:15 KJV).
This is part 10 of a series titled "The Gospel of John" To view all parts, click the link below.