Jesus, in the arms of John the Baptist, emerges from the Jordan river. John had gravely warned the crowds of this Messiah. Now is the time for repentance, for “the axe is already laid at the root of the trees…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire (NASB).” Indeed, this fearfully powerful one has come. Jesus was baptized, “and behold, the heavens were opened.” Surely, following John’s depictions, this would be a terrifying display of Divine power and judgement! The earth will quake, the nations will tremble, the waters will boil from the flame! An axe, a pillar of fire, a winnowing fork!
What shall we make of this? The symbol of divine descendance is one of gentleness and peace. It is often the glory of God to surprise. John’s warnings were not falsified by the light, white wings of God the Spirit; Jesus repeats them shortly after. Yet, there is a more primary character of God to behold, it seems. His Spirit appeared as a dove.
From the earliest stories in the Bible, doves are associated with peace, new creation, and reconciliation with God. In Genesis 1:2, the Spirit of God is portrayed as “hovering” over the dark and formless deep. As one commentator noted, “Rabbis likened the Spirit’s brooding over the waters in Gen 1:2 to a bird nestling her young, the dove [at Jesus’ baptism] signals the beginning of a new creation.” A few chapters later, God purges the earth of wickedness with a great flood. A dove informed Noah that the waters had subsided, effectively marking the end of judgement. The earth was, in a sense, baptized: the old washed away, emerging as new creation. Early Church figure, Tertullian, thus declared the dove “a herald of peace.” Jesus, Himself, identified doves with gentleness. The theological implications of the Holy Spirit’s avian appearance, included in all four Gospels, are clear and significant. Christ’s anointing in the Jordan river reveals the nature of His mission: peace with God and newness of life.
Of course, ‘gentle’ is not always the adjective that comes to mind when the Lord is beheld in the Scriptures. Without a doubt, there is a severity to God. Disturbingly, Jesus says, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Yet, Jesus is called the Prince of Peace! Upon His arrival, the heavenly host declared, “peace on earth.” How can this tension be resolved? I am no biblical scholar, and this is not an exegetical project, but apart from rashly rejecting the Scriptures as contradictory, readers are forced (joyfully) to conclude that counterexamples to the Peace of God are not as they seem. Perhaps we can conclude that peace lies at the end of a treacherous road. Perhaps, though peace is the mission, friction is the means. Perhaps confrontation is required, in the face of chaos and calamity, to accomplish peace. After all, did Jesus not rebuke the raging sea in order to still it? The quiet result, not the harsh word itself, was the reason for Jesus’ action. So too must be God’s actions, though severe at times. As it is written in Isaiah 32:17, “And the work of righteousness will be peace, and the service of righteousness, quietness and confidence forever.”
The relevance of Isaiah 32:17 to our present discussion is multiplied with the inclusion of verses 15 and 16: “Until the Spirit is poured out upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fertile field, and the fertile field is considered as a forest. Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness will remain in the fertile field. And the work of righteousness will be peace, and the service of righteousness, quietness and confidence forever.” The same dove-like Spirit that descended upon Christ in the Jordan River descends upon His people! To what end? Peace, righteousness, quietness, and confidence forever! The Christian heart should be notoriously peaceable and gentle. Such is the kingdom of God. Such is the fruit of the Spirit at work within us.
Therefore, we must carefully consider our behavior in our homes, churches, internet communities, and our world. Is our attitude toward enemies defined by gentleness and respect, or hostility and pride? Are we engaging difficulty with peace that surpasses understanding? When nonviolent confrontation is required (as it sometimes is—blessed are the peacemakers, not the separatists), is peace, rather than dominance, the end in mind? Peace, for the Spirit-filled believer, is a paradigm to be applied universally. Indeed, the Spirit of God sanctifies, convicts, and empowers us. But we are not given destructive, vengeful power. Rather, as one commentator put it, we are given “dove power.”