A dove is often used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit, but why? Two major events in the Bible involve a dove as a sign of God's Spirit that have led to this historical connection.
Why is a dove used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit?
First, following the Flood during Noah's time, Noah sent out a dove. The first time, the dove returned to him. On the second occasion, the dove returned with a freshly-plucked olive leaf in its mouth: "And the dove came back to him in the evening, and behold, in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth" (Genesis 8:11). The third time Noah sent out a dove, it did not return, revealing the dove had found a new home on the land of the earth. The dove became a symbol of God's peace following judgment.
Second, a dove was mentioned at the baptism of Jesus. All four Gospels include the account of the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus in bodily form like a dove (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32). This dove affirmed Jesus as the Messiah. Along with the voice of God the Father from the sky, this account provides a clear picture of the Triune God—Father, Son, and Spirit—all taking part in an event at the same time while mentioned as unique Persons.
In addition to these events, doves were known in the New Testament as innocent animals. For example, Matthew 10:16 records Jesus saying, "Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." Doves were also used as sacrifices at the tabernacle and temple in biblical times. Joseph and Mary likely brought a dove as a sacrifice following the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:22-24).
The dove, however, is only one of many symbols used for the Holy Spirit. Other popular symbols include a flame (as in Acts 2), wind, a lamp, cloud, water, and oil. The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Triune God and is both eternal and present at all places at all times. Though no symbol can completely represent the Spirit, the dove and other earthly images are often used to represent aspects of God's Spirit instructive for our lives.
For example, the dove can be a symbol of peace. Both wind and fire can be symbols of power. Each of these is representative of the Holy Spirit, but even together cannot fully express who He is or His power. God's Spirit was involved in creation (Genesis 1:2), sustains all things, and empowers believers for Christian service.
Who is the Holy Spirit?
What names and titles does the Bible use for the Holy Spirit?
What is the role of the Holy Spirit? How is the Holy Spirit active in our lives today?
In what ways is the Holy Spirit like a fire?
What does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit?
Truth about the Holy Spirit