32 And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
In vs. 32 John evokes a powerful image of a dove landing as a sign. It is usual to concentrate on the symbolism of the dove in connection with the Holy Spirit. Without a doubt, such an obvious connection exists. But we will be remiss if we do not also recall one of the greatest stories of the Hebrew Bible. This is the story of the dove that, after having been released by Noah several times, finally came to rest on dry ground. The dove became a symbol of safety, hope, peace and future.
At the time of Jesus’ baptism, the dove rested once again on the ultimate symbol of safety, hope, peace and future in the Christian tradition – Jesus Christ Himself. This is not the only time in this Gospel something of enormous symbolic significance, like the dove in vs. 32, rests on Jesus.
The dove-resting symbolism is also important in the context of Jesus’ role as Israel’s King, its good shepherd. A 17th century Christian collection of questions and answers asks the following question: “How does Christ fulfill the office of a king?” A succinct and clear answer is provided for believer’s instruction: “Christ fulfills the office of a king, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies.” This answer is profoundly accurate when it comes to highlighting one of the most important functions of an Israelite king – to conquer and defend in order to provide safety. The dove-related imagery in the Bible symbolizes safety, hope, peace and future – exactly the kind of things that Israel’s king was meant to provide for his people. It is in connection with this idea that the Gospel tells us that John the Baptist declared Jesus to be the Royal Son of God. (Jn.1:34)
In Jn.1:51 Jesus said to Nathaniel, whom interestingly enough he did not call a true Jew, but a true Israelite. This terminology was perfectly fitting for a Samaritan audience as well as for other Israelite, but non-Judean, movements: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” You will remember of course that in the dream of Jacob’s ladder the angels were ascending and descending upon the location that became known as Bethel, or the House of God (Gen.28:10-19).
Bethel in Samaritan tradition was their ancient center of worship. In fact, they believed that Mt. Gerizim and Bethel were one and the same place. The Samaritans, who were themselves Israelites, believed that Bethel, and not Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, must forever be the spiritual capital of the people of Israel. The fact that they were concerned for the spiritual future of Israel demonstrates that they were Israelites – but not Jews like Jesus and his followers. Their center of worship was in Samaria and not in Judea.
The particular interest in topics that appeal, though not exclusively, to Israelite Samaritans is characteristic of this Gospel (to read more about it click here). This may point to the fact that the Gospel was first meant for various inter-Israelite groups; a major part of which were Israelite Samaritans. It may also explain why the author uses the Greek word Hoi Ioudaioi (translated usually as simply “the Jews”) in the way he does. To Israelite Samaritans, the Jerusalem-centered authorities and their religious subordinates outside of Judea were simply – “the Jews.”
Important Note: Though we cannot be certain, it is likely that the technical term “Holy Spirit” was coined in the Qumran Community; and if so, in its widespread affiliate – the Essene movement. Its use in the Hebrew Bible is infrequent. This term is widely used in Qumran Collections (Dead Sea Scrolls) and assumed in the New Testament.
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