The Holy Spirit is often pictured as a hovering or descending bird, particularly a dove. At creation, the Holy Spirit hovers over the waters like a protective bird. The Hebrew term for
hovering is rachaph, which means to move, flutter, or shake. This same word is used when Moses recounts Godís care and deliverance for the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
Like an eagle protecting its nest, hovering over its young, God spread out his wings, took hold of Israel, carried him on his back
(Deuteronomy 32:11 CEB). The term is used again by the prophet Isaiah concerning Godís protection over Israel,
Like birds hovering, so the Lord of hosts will protect Jerusalem; he will protect and deliver it; he will spare and rescue it
(Isaiah 31:5 NIV).
The Holy Spirit is also pictured or associated with light and fireórepresenting Godís glory, power, holiness, and justice. God first appeared to Moses in the burning bush and told him to take off his sandals because he was standing on holy ground
(Exodus 3:2-5). God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt as a pillar of fire and cloud. When Moses went to the top of Mount Sinai to receive Godís laws, the Israelites thought the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire
(Exodus 24:17). And later the glory cloud filled the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle tent and later the stone temple.
Over 1300 years later John the Baptist predicted that Jesus would baptize his followers with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matthew 3:11).
Then, at Jesusí baptism the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form. The Greek term for
descended, katabaino, means to come down. The Holy Spirit came down on Jesus like a descending dove and remained on him
(Luke 3:22, John 1:32). It is not clear whether the Holy Spirit came down on Jesus in the actual shape of a dove, or if he swooped down like a dove swoops down and hovered over him. Yet this event marked the beginning of Jesusí ministry to bring order to our chaos of sin and separation from God. And this isnít the first time that a dove descended to announce a new beginning following chaos. After the great flood, a dove descended to Noah carrying an olive branch in its beak, marking a new beginning for Godís creation. The dove was a sign to Noah and his family that God had provided a suitable place for them to live. (Today that image of a dove with an olive branch in its mouth is a sign of peace.)
At Pentecost, following the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension to heaven, the Holy Spirit was seen hovering like tongues of fire over the people of God (Acts 2:3). This too marked a new beginning. The Holy Spirit was poured out to empower believers, and Godís promise to write his laws on their hearts had begun to be fulfilled (Jeremiah 31:33).
These dove and fire images tell us about the character of the Holy Spirit of God.
The dove images reminds us that he is a loving God who hovers over his children, providing, protecting, caring, and making peace with God for us. On the other hand, the fire images remind us that God is powerful, holy, and just. He is without sin, and perfect in every way. The Bible tells us that God is a consuming fire
(Deuteronomy 4:24, Hebrews 12:29). Sin must be punished, because God will not tolerate sin or look the other way. He will not allow the guilty to go free
Yet, because the Lord is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and rich in love, he sent his Son, Jesus, to the cross to be punished for our sins. He stood in our place. Before Jesus was crucified, he assured his followers that he wouldnít leave them alone. He said,
All who love me will do what I say. My Father will love them, and we will come and make our home with each of them. . . I am telling you these things now while I am still with you. But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representativeóthat is, the Holy Spiritóhe will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you. I am leaving you with a giftópeace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So donít be troubled or afraid. Remember what I told you: I am going away, but I will come back to you again. . . I have told you these things before they happen so that when they do happen, you will believe (John 14:23-29
The term advocate
in Greek is parakletos. It
also means intercessor,
consoler, and comforter.
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