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"Dove Power"

Updated: Jan 18, 2023

Mathew sees Jesus for who he is. He sees it because of this baptismal scene. That’s why he puts it where he does. To highlight something unexpected about the nature of God.

“Baptism of Christ” by Jorge Cocco
“Baptism of Christ” by Jorge Cocco

Matthew 3:13-17

January 15, 2023

Dr. Todd R. Wright

In Matthew, the account of Jesus’ baptism, just five verses long, is sandwiched in between John the Baptist’s thundering in the wilderness and Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness.

Like a middle child, it is genetically related to what goes before and comes after:

Before the Lord’s baptism, John shouts, “Repent!”, and baptizes those who respond with water.

He also predicts one will come who will baptize with fire and burn away chaff!

After the whole scene on the river bank, Jesus is led into the wildness for nearly six weeks.

He fasts and is tempted by the devil.

And stuck in the middle of all that drama is the baptism of our Lord.


Scott Hoezee shakes his head and says, “Poor John! It didn’t look right. This was not the public appearance of Jesus that [he] had [predicted]. Where was the fire, the axe, the razzle-dazzle John had been hopping up and down screaming about for so long now?”[ii] It’s like he had promised them Rambo and Mr. Rogers showed up!

Hoezee imagines “John the Baptist carrying on with the rest of that day’s baptisms with a blank, vacant look on his face. He said all the familiar liturgical words and kept dunking people in the river and all, but his mind was not on his work.” He had questions.

Like an older brother he wondered why Jesus wasn’t more dramatic, more confrontational, more (let’s be honest) like him. He was convinced that God wanted people to repent. He was convinced that he was preparing the way for a Messiah who would deliver Israel from all their misery. He was convinced this would take fire.

He didn’t know what to make of his cousin standing in line with everybody else.

He couldn’t figure Jesus, who he thought was the more the powerful one, being baptized.

By him. He was just the water boy, the warm-up act.

How was Jesus going to oust the Romans if he wouldn’t even cut in line and take over?


Like the baby brother who is used to getting his way, the devil has his own questions. The one who has willingly knelt in the waters seems like a pushover. He cannot be the Son of God, can he? So the devil asks, “If you are the Son of God, command these stone to become loaves of bread!”

Then like an annoying little brother, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down …”

And again, “I will give you everything if you will fall down and worship me.”

He is not sure Jesus is up to the job of being Messiah. He thinks he is like the others who have tried out for the role and disappointed. He thinks he can be bullied. Or at least manipulated.


Both miss the truth. They cannot see it. Maybe because they are too close. Maybe because they are blinded by expectations. Maybe because they do not see what the gospel writer does.

Mathew sees Jesus for who he is. He sees it because of this baptismal scene. That’s why he puts it where he does. To highlight something unexpected about the nature of God.

You see it though. Right?

You see that he is humble, not weak.

You see that he knows his task and will not waver.

You see that he is the reflection, the embodiment of the God we need, not the one we want.

It is all there, by the river, plain to see, for the people of Jerusalem and Judea and even us.


When God appears at Jesus’ baptism through a split in the heavens, the Spirit of God is

described like a dove.

In his commentary on Matthew, Dale Bruner writes of the Holy Spirit Dove:

“She does not come in a form that might have been suggested by John [the Baptist’s] just proceeding portraiture (fire, axe, shovel) — like an eagle, lion, or tiger. The remarkable office of the Spirit is to nuance strength, to modulate power, and to deliver what is deeply needed in common and public life — the way of gentleness.”[iii]

So Jesus, at his baptism, in his first act of public ministry, reveals that the Son of God will not be like an eagle or a lion. He will not win the day through might or violence.

The one who will part the curtains so we can see the mystery of God, will be more like a dove.

You remember the story of Noah? How God looked down and saw the wickedness of the people and sent a flood to purify things? How God brought faithful Noah and his family (and all those animals) through the waters? Of course you do! But do you remember that it was a dove that marked the end of the judgment of the flood? Noah tried a raven and it never returned – self-absorbed or careless. Then he sent a dove. It focused on the task and when it returned with an olive branch, it was a sign that there was dry land, capable of sustaining life, and peace with God was restored!

So it was poetic that centuries later, as people were again coming through the waters to be purified, Jesus appeared, along with a dove.

The people may have wanted a lion to frighten the Romans away. But that was not Jesus’ mission. He would not bring fire like John hoped. He would not grasp for power and glory like the devil figured, based on every leader he had ever known. No, his baptism would remind everyone of dove power – humility, focus, gentleness.

And we who have been baptized in his name

[i] “Baptism of Christ” by Jorge Cocco
[ii] Here and following, from his commentary on the text for, 1/12/20
[iii] From The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, page 110
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