“9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Mark 1:9-11
I talked to a Christian guy recently who was nervous that God might be mad at him. It’s an understandable enough sentiment, but from a rational perspective, it’s odd. It’s like fearing you might fail a math test after you’ve already received your diploma, or fearing you might be burned by a fire that has already been extinguished. Christians have little reason to fear the thing from which they’ve already been saved. It reminded me of something that happens at Jesus’ baptism.
At the baptism of Jesus, a dove descends and lands on Jesus as he arises out of the waters. I’m wondering if we’re talking about something that was visually bird-like or if it was like a dove in its peaceful nature? Regardless, Matthew and Mark say that Jesus saw something like a dove. Luke states, from a narrator’s third-person perspective, that it was a dove in bodily form. John records it from the mouth of John the Baptist, who says he saw something like a dove.
The first place a dove appears in the Bible is in the story of Noah. God sends floodwaters to eradicate a corrupt and violent human species, saving only Noah, his family, and a boat-load of animals. After 40 days of floating, Noah sends out a dove. Eventually, it returns with an olive branch, signifying that it had found solid ground.
I don’t think it’s coincidence that in both stories a dove goes out and finds solid ground amidst waters sent to wash away sinfulness.
The baptismal waters of the River Jordan, like the floodwaters of the ancient flood epic, were there to wash away sins. The floodwaters were sent to destroy the evil of humankind. The baptismal waters captured symbolically the washing away of sin.
We, as a species and as individuals, deserve the punishment of the flood. We have lived corrupt lives, or conspired to do so, and we cannot by our own merit survive. Only when God provided solid ground could Noah endure the flood. At the baptism of Jesus, the dove again settles on the solid ground, which is Jesus Christ. He is the only thing on which we can stand in the midst of the waters that have been sent for the sinful. If we try to stand on our own goodness, we are standing on sinking sand.
When the dove, the Holy Spirit, comes to us today, it is to call us to return to the only solid ground on which we can stand – to Jesus. When we believe he died for us, we are spared the punishment of the flood. There is no longer anything for which we can be held accountable, because his death consumed our sin. We ourselves arise out of baptismal waters to stand on him.
Without solid ground, we have every reason to fear we will be rowing forever. But once you believe in him, there’s nothing left of which to be afraid.