'He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon Him.' MATT. iii.16.
This Gospel of Matthew is emphatically the gospel of the Kingdom. It sets forth Jesus as the long-promised Messiah, the Son of David. And this conception of Him and of His work, whilst it runs through the whole of the Gospel, is more obviously influential in shaping the selection of incidents and colouring the cast of the language, in the early portion. Hence the genealogy with which the Gospel begins dwells with emphasis on His royal descent from David. Hence the story of the wise men of the East is given, who came to do their homage to the new-born King of the Jews, whose innocent poverty and infancy are set in contrast with the court and character of the cruel Herod who had for an hour usurped the title. Hence, also, the mission of John the Baptist is all summed up in his proclamation: 'The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.' He is the herald that runs before the chariot of the advancing Monarch, and shouts to a slumbering nation, 'The King! the King!'
Preserving the same reference to the royal dignity of Jesus, we may look at His baptism as being His public assumption of His Messianic office, and at this descent of the Holy Spirit as the anointing or coronation of the King. As His meek head rose, glistening from the waters of the baptism, there fluttered down upon Him the gentle token of the manifest designation from the Heavens, which solemnly declared Him to be the Son of God, anointed Messias, King of Israel and of the world.
So in looking at this incident, I take simply two points of view, and consider its bearing on Jesus, and on us.
I. As to the former, we have here the Coronation of the King.
We need not spend time upon the question which we have no materials for answering, viz. -- What was the 'objective material reality' here? We do not know enough about what constitutes 'objective material reality,' nor about what are the laws of prophetic ecstasy and vision, to discuss such a question as that. Nor is there any need to moot it. It does not matter one rush whether bystanders would have seen anything or not. It does not matter in the least whether there was any actual excitation of auditory or visual nerves. It does not matter whether there was anything which people are contented to call material -- a word which covers a depth of ignorance. Enough for us that this was no fancy, born in a man's brain, but an actual manifestation, whether through sense or apart from sense, to consciousness, of a divine outpouring and communication. Enough for us that the voice which spoke was God's, and that that which descended was the Spirit of God. As to all other questions, they may be amusing and interesting, but they are insoluble, and therefore unimportant.
Well, then, taking that point of view, the next question that arises is as to the purpose of this descent of the Spirit. Plainly, as I have said, it was the coronation and anointing of the Monarch. But a man is king before he is crowned. Coronation is the consequence and not the cause of his royalty. It is but the official and solemn announcement of a previous fact. No additional power, no fresh authority, comes of the crowning. And so the first purpose of this great fact is distinctly stated, in John's Gospel, as having been the solemn, divine pointing out of Messiah to the Baptist primarily, but in order that he might bear witness of Him to others. The words which follow are a commentary on, and part of the explanation of, the descent of the Holy Spirit. They are God's finger, pointing to Jesus and saying, 'Arise, anoint Him, for this is He.'
But it must be remembered always that this was neither the beginning of that divine Spirit's operation upon Jesus, nor the beginning of His Messianic nature and consciousness; nor the beginning of His Sonship. That day was not in deepest truth the 'day' on which the Son was 'begotten.' Before the baptism there was the consciousness of Messiahship witnessed in these words, so singularly compacted of humility and authority: 'Suffer it to be so now, for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness'; and before His baptism, and even before His birth, that divine Spirit wrought His manhood, and ere the heavens opened, or the dove fluttered down upon His head, He from everlasting was the Son in the bosom of the Father.
So we see here, I think, if we follow the lead of the Scriptural teaching, not the beginning of powers or communications, but an advance in these. Christ's baptism was an epoch in His human development, inasmuch as it was the public official assumption of His Messianic office. He came from out of the sheltering obscurity of the Galilean village nestling among its hills. He had now put His foot upon the path, set with knives and hot ploughshares, along which He had to walk to the Cross. Inasmuch as it was an epoch in His development (for His manhood was capable of growth and maturing), and inasmuch as new tasks needed increase of gifts, and inasmuch as His man's nature was subject to the conditions of time, and capable of expansion and increase of capacity, therefore, I believe that when Christ rose from the waters of baptism, no new gift indeed was His, but such an advance in the communication to His manhood of the sustaining Spirit, as fully equipped Him for the new calls of His Messianic work.
His manhood needed, as ours does, the continual communication of the divine Spirit, and His manhood, because it was sinless, was capable of a complete reception of that Spirit. Sinless though He knew Himself to be, as His own words declare, He yet bowed His head to the baptism of repentance, which He needed not for Himself, just as He afterwards bowed His head to a darker, a sadder baptism, which He had to be baptized with, though it likewise He needed not for Himself, because in both the one and the other He would make Himself one with His brethren. The Spirit of God had shaped His manhood ere His birth. The Spirit of God had been abiding in His holy infancy and growing youth, but now it came in larger measure for new needs and His Messiah's work.
So, dear friends, we see in Christ, baptized with the Spirit of God, the realised ideal of manhood, ever dependent, ever needing for its purity that holy influence, and receiving at every pore that divine gift. What a contrast to our limited partial reception, broken and interrupted so often! All the doors that are barred in our hearts by sin, all the windows that are darkened in our souls by vice and self, in Him stood open to the day, and brilliantly receptive of the illumination. And so 'the Father giveth not the Spirit by measure unto Him.'
Notice, too, the meaning of the symbol. Think of what John, with his incomplete though not inaccurate conceptions, expected in the Messiah whom he proclaimed. To him the coming of the King was first and chiefly a coming to judgment. There is nothing more remarkable than the aspect of terror which drapes the old hope of Israel as it comes from John's lips. He believes that the King is coming, that His coming is to be an awful thing. Judgment is to go before Him, He bears 'His fan in His hand,' and kindles 'unquenchable fire,' into which the leafy trees that have no fruit upon them are to be flung, there to shrivel and crackle and disappear. This is what he expects at the worst, and at the best a baptism in the Holy Ghost, from Messiah's hands, which, however, is likewise to be fiery even whilst it quickens, and searching and destructive even whilst it gladdens. When, then, his carpenter cousin is designated as Messiah, John sees two wonders: that this is the Christ, and that the Spirit which he had thought of as searching and consuming, should come fluttering down upon His head in the likeness of a dove. Old Testament symbols and natural poetry unite in giving felicity to that emblem. 'The Spirit of God brooded on the face of the deep,' says Genesis; and the word employed describes accurately the action of the mother-bird, with her soft breast and outstretched wings quickening the life that lies beneath. The dove was pure and allowed for sacrifice. All nations have made it the symbol of meekness, gentleness, faithfulness. All these associations determined the form which the descending Benediction took.
What then does it proclaim as to the character of the King? Purity is the very foundation of His royalty. Meekness and gentleness are the very weapons of His conquest and the sceptre of His rule. The dove will outfly all Rome's eagles and all rapacious, unclean feeders, with their strong wings, and curved talons, and sharp beaks. The lesson as to the true nature of the true Kingdom, which was taught of old when the prophet said 'Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, riding on an ass,' and not upon the warhorse of secular force; the lesson which was taught unwittingly, as to the true nature of the true Kingdom, when the scoffers, speaking a deeper truth than they understood, put upon His brow the crown of thorns, and forced into His hand the sceptre of reed, was taught here -- the lesson that meekness conquers, and that His kingdom is founded in suffering, and wielded in gentleness. The lesson of the ancient psalm, which in rapture of prophetic vision beheld the coming of the Bridegroom, and said with strange blending of images of war and of peace: 'Thine arrows are sharp in the heart of the King's enemies; in Thy majesty ride prosperously, because of meekness; and Thy right hand shall teach Thee terrible things'; -- that same lesson was taught when the King was crowned, and in the day of His coronation, that which fell upon His bowed, glistening head, was the Dove from Heaven, the proclamation that meekness and gentleness are the garment of Omnipotence.
II. Consider this incident as showing us the gifts of the King to His subjects.
Christ has nothing which He keeps to Himself. Christ received the Spirit that He might diffuse it through the whole world. Whatsoever He has received of the Father He gives unto us. This conception of the gift that Christ has to bestow upon men, as being the very life-spirit that dwelt in His manhood, and made and kept it pure, is the highest thought that we can have of what the gospel does for us. You do not understand its meaning if you content yourself with thinking of it as simply the means of escape from wrath. You do not understand its meaning -- though, blessed be God! that is the first part of its mercy to us -- if you think of Christ's gift as only pardon by means of His sacrifice on the Cross. We must rise higher than that; we must feel, if we would understand the 'unspeakable gift,' that it is the gift of Himself to dwell within us by His Spirit as the very spirit of our lives. Assimilation by reception of a supernatural life from Him, is the teaching of Pentecost. Christ is our life; 'the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made us free from the law of sin and death.'
Therefore, all Christian men are spoken of in the New Testament in the same language which is used in reference to their Master. Is He the Son of God? They are sons through Him. Is He the High Priest? They are priests unto God. Is He the Light of the World? They are, in their places, kindled and derived lights. Is He the Christ, the Messias, the Anointed? 'Ye have an unction from the Holy One,' and He hath anointed us in Him. So that it is no arrogance, though it may be a questionably wise form of expression, when we say that the object of Christ's coming is to make us all Christs, God's anointed, and to make us so because He Himself in His Spirit dwells in us.
Christ can do that. He can give this Spirit. That is the very thing that all other teachers cannot do. They can teach tricks of imitation, they can galvanise men, for a little while, into some kind of copy of their characteristics. They can give them the principles which they themselves have been living on, but to repeat and to continue the spirit of the Teacher is the very thing that cannot be done. 'Let a double portion fall upon me,' said Elisha; and Elijah, knowing the limits of the human relationship between master and disciple, could only shake his head in doubt and say, 'Thou askest a hard thing; perhaps thou wilt get it, perhaps thou wilt not, but it will not be I that will give it you.' But Christ says: 'I give My Spirit to you all.'
And let us remember, too, how full of blessed teaching, of rebuke, and of instruction that symbol is, in reference to ourselves. To all of us there is offered, if we like to have it, this dove-like Spirit. What does that mean? Let us for a moment dwell upon the various uses of the emblem, for they all carry important lessons. Our hearts are like that wild chaos which preceded the present ordered state of things. And over the seething darkness, full of all formless horrors and half-discerned dead monstrosities, over all the chaos of disordered wills, rebellious appetites, stinging conscience, darkened perceptions, there will come, if we will (and we may will by His help, which is never far away from us), gently, but quickening us into life and reducing confusion into order, and flooding our cloudy night with light, that divine Spirit. The dove that brooded over Chaos and made it Cosmos, will brood over your nature, and re-create the whole. 'If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation.' 'The old things are passed away.' Creator Spirit! create a clean heart in me.
And then again let me remind you that this emblem brings to us another cognate and yet distinct hope, inasmuch as the dove was the emblem of purity and clean for sacrifice. This is the characteristic of the scriptural doctrine of inspiration, by which it is distinguished from all heathen and secular conceptions of a similar sort, viz., that it puts the moral in the foreground, and that the Spirit, which is the Spirit of truth, and of wisdom and of power, is first and foremost the Spirit of holiness. So that if a man is not clean, no matter what his gifts, no matter what his wisdom, no matter what his intellectual force, no matter what his supernatural and miraculous power, he has not the Spirit of God in him. The Dove comes, and where it comes there is peace, there is purity, there is sacrifice. If any man have not the Spirit of holiness he is none of Christ's.
So, brethren, remember that not in shining faculty, not in piercing vision into mystery, not in the eloquence of honeyed tongue, nor the power of a swift hand, not in any of the lesser and subordinate gifts which the world exclusively honours as inspiration, is the power of the indwelling Spirit to be manifested. If the Spirit of God is in you, it is making you clean.
Still further, remember how, as for the King so for His subjects, the Dove that crowns Him and that dwells in them is the Spirit of meekness and of gentleness. That is the true force. Light, which is silent, is mightier than all lightnings. The Spirit, which is the 'Spirit of love,' is therefore 'the Spirit of power.' The true type of Christian character, which the gospel has brought into being, looks modest, inconspicuous and humdrum, by the side of the more brilliant and vulgar beauties of the world's ideals. Just as the iridescent hues on a dove's neck, and the quiet blue of its plumage, look modest and Quaker-like beside gaudy parroquets and other bedizened birds, so the Christian type of character, patient, meek, gentle, not self-asserting, seems pale and sober-tinted beside the world's heroes. But gentleness is the mightiest and will conquer at last. For Christ and Christ's followers go forth, through universal love to universal power.
And the last suggestion that I offer to you about the significance of this symbol is one that I freely admit to be fanciful, and yet it strikes me as being very beautiful. Noah's dove came back to the ark with one leaf in his beak. That was the prophecy and the foretaste of a whole world of beauty and of verdure. The dove that comes to us, bearing with it some leaf plucked from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God, is the earnest of our inheritance until the day of redemption. All the gifts of that divine Spirit, gifts of holiness, of gentleness, of wisdom, of truth -- all these are forecasts and anticipations of the perfectness of the heavens. To us, sailing over a dismal sea, the Spirit comes bearing with it a message that tells us of the far-off land and the fair garden of God in which the blessed shall walk.
Dear friends, remember the one condition on which is suspended our possession of the Spirit of God. It is that we shall have Christ for our very own by our humble faith. If we are trusting in Him, He will come and put His Spirit within our hearts. Without Him these hearts are cages of unclean and hateful birds. But the meek presence of the dove of God will drive out the obscene, twilight-loving creatures that build and scream there, and will fill our hearts with the tranquillity, the purity, the gentleness, the hope, which are 'the fruit of the Spirit.'