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After John baptized Jesus at the Jordan, the Spirit of God descended upon Him in the form of a dove. John 1:32-34 says,
32 John testified, saying, “I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. 33 I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
God had told John ahead of time that He would recognize the Messiah by the sign of a dove descending upon Him and not flying away, as doves usually do. Matt. 3:16, 17 gives us added details:
16 After being baptized, Jesus went up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and coming upon Him, 17 and behold, a voice out of the heavens, said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”
The same account appears in Mark 1:9-11, ending with verse 12,
12 And immediately the Spirit impelled Him to go out into the wilderness.
The first question we may ask is this: Which dove “impelled Him to go out into the wilderness”? By that, I refer to Lev. 14: 4, where we find that there were two doves at a leper’s baptism. The first was killed, and the second one was released into the open field. So did the first dove descend upon Jesus, or the second?
The dove did not descend until after Jesus came out of the water, Matthew says. It seems to me that if this dove had represented the first dove (being killed), it would have descended just prior to Jesus’ baptism, rather than afterward. Further, this dove’s job was to urge Jesus to go into the wilderness.
The dove that descended upon Jesus did not die, but “remained.” Because the dove remained upon Jesus, it is clear that this was the second dove that was to be released into the open field (Lev. 14:7).
By understanding the prophetic meaning of the two doves and the two goats in the law, we see how the two were intertwined when Jesus was baptized. The doves were part of the law of baptism (Lev. 14:7), for the cleansed leper was to be sprinkled seven times with water. This ceremony was to be fulfilled in the story of Naaman the Syrian who was cleansed of leprosy, for the prophet instructed him to “go and wash in the Jordan seven times” (2 Kings 5:10).
The Hebrew word translated “wash” is rachats, which was how people purified themselves in the law, usually by sprinkling or pouring from above (Lev. 14:7; Heb. 9:13), to signify its heavenly origin. Thus also Elisha “used to pour water on the hands of Elijah” (2 Kings 3:11) to cleanse his hands before each meal. It was a ceremonial cleansing, not a bath nor a sink full of water in which to wash one’s hands.
This ceremonial cleansing was called “baptism” in Mark 7:2-4, when the Pharisees and scribes criticized Jesus’ disciples for neglecting to “wash their hands” before eating. Mark’s explanation to his Roman audience is given in Mark 7:4, where he says that the Jews “do not eat unless they cleanse [baptizo] themselves, and there are many other things… such as the washing [baptismos] of cups and pitches and copper pots.”
The prophet Elisha told Naaman to wash (rachats) in the Jordan seven times, according the command in the law. He objected at first but ultimately went and “dipped” (tavats) in the Jordan. Was he “sprinkled seven times” as the law commanded in Lev. 14:7? Or did he immerse himself, as the translators imply? The wording is obscure, so we cannot say for sure. All we know is that God looked at his heart. His obedience proved his faith, and God counted it to him for righteousness.
The point is that baptism as a ceremonial rite did not begin with John the Baptist but was commanded in the law, including the law that commanded cleansed (healed) lepers to be sprinkled seven times with water. Baptism is about passing from death to life, and hence, the first dove itself was to be killed “over running water,” that is, over living water, as the Hebrew word reads literally in Lev. 14:5.
The real focus of baptism is not so much on death as on resurrection life. Death itself is a state of pollution, requiring a week of purification until fully cleansed on the eighth day. It speaks prophetically of the eighth “day” (millennium), when all of the dead are raised at the general resurrection (Rev. 20:12, 13).
On a personal level, of course, baptism is a time when the minister announces to the public that he has examined the person and found that his faith is genuine. Thus, the minister bears witness of what God has already done in “healing” the person’s spiritual leprosy, even as the Old Testament priest did in the case of lepers that God had healed.
Jesus came to John for baptism on the Day of Atonement, ten days after His 30th birthday. Thus, His baptism was timed to coincide with the activities in the temple, where two goats had been brought, as prescribed in Leviticus 16.
Jesus was baptized as the first prophetic goat to signify the killing of the first goat for the cleansing of the sanctuary to “atone” for the sin of the people. The second goat was then sent into the wilderness “by the hand of a man who stands in readiness” (Lev. 16:21). The Holy Spirit was the prophesied “man” who led Jesus into the wilderness (Luke 4:1) to fulfill this prophetic law.
The two doves are to be overlaid upon the prophecy of the two goats, for a dove descended upon Jesus on the Day of Atonement when the goats were being prepared in the temple. The law of cleansing lepers laid down the way into immortality, because leprosy served as a type of mortality. Leprosy is a slow death. On the other hand, the law of the goats on the Day of Atonement showed how Christ was to deal with sin. Christ’s death fulfilled both the first dove and the first goat, both of which were to be killed, in order to bring life and sinlessness.
The second dove and the second goat were both released alive to depict the work of Christ at His second coming. When He comes again, He will bring the overcomers immortality and incorruption (1 Cor. 15:53). In terms of the feast days, the first dove and goat depicted Christ’s Passover work, while the second dove and goat depicted Christ’s Tabernacles work.
Jesus’ baptism foreshadowed His future death and resurrection. The second dove then descended to prophesy His second coming. However, His second coming could not begin without first spending time in the wilderness. After all, the second goat was to be led into the wilderness and the dove was to be released into the open field.
Mark 1:12 says the dove “impelled Him to go out into the wilderness.” Perhaps this was because the dove in Leviticus 14 was brought forcibly by the priest into the open field to be released.
But Matt. 4:1 says that “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness.” The wording is different because it points to the goat rather than to the dove. The goat was “led,” while the dove was “impelled.” Jesus was both the goat and the dove, and so both terms are used in the New Testament by different writers.
John the Baptist himself did not seem to know when the Messiah would come to him for baptism. It appears that he had received no revelation about the Messiah’s connection to the goats on the Day of Atonement. However, he did receive revelation about the dove descending upon the Messiah. The dove was sufficient to confirm the identity of the Messiah.
So we may conclude that the prophecy of the two goats reveal timing, while the doves reveal identity. Hence, Jesus timed His baptism to coincide with the activity in the temple as they were preparing the two goats, but His identity was revealed to John by the dove.
God likes to overlay prophecies to provide contrast and completeness in our understanding. As with the start of Jesus’ ministry, when He was baptized, so also did God overlay prophecy at the end when He was crucified.
Hence, the Passover Lamb prophesied the timing of Christ’s death. The true Lamb of God had to die when the lambs were being killed for Passover. But the location of His crucifixion and death was determined by the place where the red heifer’s ashes were stored (Num. 19:2-5).
Further, the Passover lambs were male (Exodus 12:5); the red heifer was female. The blood of the lamb cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7); the red heifer cleanses us from death (i.e., touching a dead body, namely, our own mortal bodies).
The depth of spiritual truth inherent in the law is amazing. Without understanding the law, how could we ever understand what Jesus did to fulfill the law? Those who do not read the law can enjoy only a superficial understanding of the Gospel of John and, indeed, the entire New Testament.
But as Paul said, “I would not have you ignorant, brethren” (Rom. 1:13, KJV). Neither do we proclaim or worship “an unknown God,” (Acts 17:23), whom men worshiped “in ignorance.” Let us get to know the God we worship, so that we may, with knowledge, “praise the Lord for His goodness and for His wonderful works to the children of men” (Psalm 107:15, KJV).