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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at one of the “3:16” verses of the Bible, spotlighting some of the significant theological statements that happen to fall on the 16th verse of the third chapter of a number of Old and New Testament books.
“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” (Matthew 3:16)
March Madness is upon us.
That means college basketball fans will once again have the opportunity to savor the remarkable bandwidth of creative school nicknames and their accompanying goofy mascots.
It’s not a surprise that a number of schools identify with intimidating animals. Over the next few days we’ll see the Razorbacks, Bulldogs, Longhorns, Bison, Rams, Bruins, Bears, and Wolfpack. Colleges also have a thing for ferocious felines: Tigers, Panthers, Bobcats, Wildcats, Catamounts, and Nittany Lions.
Then there are the animals that, frankly, seem more cute than threatening: Terrapins, Horned Frogs, Antelopes, Owls, and Blue Jays.
Some of this week’s competitors are named for conditions that might make you want to take cover (Cyclones, Hurricanes, and Crimson Tide), while others identify with characters you wouldn’t want to meet in a back alley after midnight: Musketeers, Raiders, Norse, Spartans, Trojans, Blue Devils, Jayhawks, Boilermakers, and Ragin’ Cajuns.
And of course there’s always a handful of names that defy easy categorization: Paladins, Gauchos, Aggies, Gaels, Golden Flashes, and Hoosiers.
What you won’t see in this year’s March Madness – or any other year, for that matter – are doves. There will be no Fighting Doves or Pugnacious Pigeons taking the court this week.
That’s because doves are among the gentlest of creatures. They don’t threaten, intimidate, or “make things happen.” Instead, things tend to happen to them.
Christ-followers have associated the descending dove with Jesus’ baptism for so long that we rarely stop to wonder why this humble creature represents God’s Spirit. After all, it’s possible to imagine a different choice. The Holy Spirit might have descended upon Jesus in the form of an eagle. There is a rich treasury of eagle verses in the Old Testament. Note Exodus 19:4, where God says to Israel concerning their escape from Egypt, “I carried you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself.” And there’s Isaiah 40:31, where those who hope in the Lord “will soar on wings like eagles.”
Or the Spirit could have emerged from the bullrushes of the Jordan River and come alongside Jesus in the form of a lion. No one in the crowd would ever have forgotten that. They would remember that Proverbs 28:1 tells us that “the godly are as bold as lions.” And one day Jesus the Messiah will be described as the Lion of Judah (Revelation 5:5).
But Matthew 3:16 tells us that the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus “like a dove.”
The dove is powerfully evocative, too. In Genesis 1:2 we’re told that the Spirit is “hovering over the face of the waters” of creation. A few chapters later, as the deep waters of Noah’s Flood recede, a dove flies away from the ark, then returns with the sprig of an olive tree in its beak. Thus, in the minds of those familiar with God’s Word, the dove represents new beginnings. Peace. Hope.
All those things are on display at Jesus’ baptism.
His ministry is just beginning. And it’s going to be what we might call a Dove Ministry. He’s not going to spearhead a military or political revolution, but will launch a kingdom that targets the interior of human hearts – winning people by persuasion, not coercion.
Historically, when Jesus’ followers have become excited about the possibility of establishing an Eagle Ministry or a Lion Ministry – calling God’s people to rule the cultural skies or roar like the King of the Jungle – things do not go well. We look back in sorrow on the legacies of the Crusades and the religious wars of the 17th century.
A number of American congregations at the end of the 20th century began to imagine that a militaristic spirit might be the only way to win the culture wars.
Jerry Falwell, the dynamic Baptist preacher who founded the Moral Majority in 1979, exhorted his flock to engage in a spiritual version of the battle of Iwo Jima. “The local church is an organized army, equipped for battle, ready to charge the enemy. The Sunday School is the attacking squad. The church should be a disciplined, charging army… I’m speaking of ‘Marines’ who have been called by God to move in past the shelling and encounter the enemy face-to-face, one-on-one, and bring them under submission to the gospel of Christ, move them into the household of God, put up the flag and call it secured.”
It may be exhilarating to hear such sermons. But we never hear such counsel from the lips of Jesus.
Instead, as we look at the course of his ministry, Jesus doesn’t treat others as “the enemy” – even those who fiercely oppose him. He habitually identifies with messed-up people. The man who will wind up crucified between two thieves begins his public life in the river, surrounded by sinners.
Perhaps the greatest application we can make from this “3:16” verse is to ask God to help us, by means of his Spirit, to win the hearts of our neighbors through patience and grace – not to “win the culture wars” by assaulting and overcoming our perceived enemies.
Before we leave this scene, it’s worth noting that all three members of the Trinity are present.
God the Father speaks from the skies in the very next verse: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). God the Spirit descends like a dove. And God the Son comes up out of the water, ready to pursue the purposes for which he has come into the world.
At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus entrusts to his disciples the so-called Great Commission. They are to make more disciples, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:18-20).
Notice that Jesus says “the name” – instead of the plural “names” – suggesting that these three Persons have a connection with each other that is like no other.
That’s a verse worth remembering the next time you hear someone say, “I sure wish there was a simple text in the Bible that points us to the reality of the Trinity.”
Now it’s time for us to turn to Jesus’ recruitment of his dozen apprentices, which is where we’ll go tomorrow.
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