Many Christians don’t realize the Bible has a lot to say about politics. This is partly because we have separated the fields of religion and politics. However, these were not separate in Jesus’ time.
There are many passages where we overlook the political dimension because we forget about the historical setting. As one scholar put it, the Roman Empire is not one of the backgrounds for reading the New Testament; it is the foreground.
In terms of world history, the Jewish people and this prophet from Nazareth was background noise for Rome. Rome was the major player during the time of Jesus, not the Jewish nation.
In many of the stories about Jesus we can see he is teaching us about the nature of his kingdom and therefore how to engage with politics. The baptism and the descent of the Spirit as a dove is one of those scenes.
The importance of birds
In America and England, birds are symbols of authority and power. Look at the back of the American Quarter. There, an eagle stands with its wings spread proudly. The eagle’s presence is also noticeable in England’s royal consecration. The Dean of Westminster pours consecrated oil from an eagle-shaped vessel into a spoon, which the Archbishop of Canterbury uses to anoint the sovereign. But why eagles?
Both traditions hail from earlier times. The Romans practiced augury (where we get the term inauguration). Augury refers to what will happen in the future, usually in observation of the birds. Birds were understood as signs sent by the gods as an indication of their will. They were messengers from heaven to the earth. Through birds, the god Jupiter (Zeus) communicated to Rome.
The flight of the birds was the surest of all omens, and the eagle was the strongest and most reliable of all augural signs. Eagles symbolized power and authority, establishing a candidate’s claim to the throne. Because the eagle had a distinctive relationship with Jupiter, it became the emblem of the Roman Empire.
Roman tradition tells the story of Romulus who founded the city in obedience to the auspices. His brother Remus was the first to receive an augury, the flight of six vultures. However, Romulus saw twice the number of birds. At this sign Romulus was declared king.
This continued in the traditions of the Roman Emperors. Octavian was named Augustus because of the augural rites. Tiberius (14-36 CE), Augustus’ adopted son, was also elected because omens preceded his succession. Years before becoming an emperor, Tiberius returned home, and an eagle appeared on the roof of his house. Before Claudius (41-54) became emperor, when he entered the Forum, an eagle came and landed on his shoulder. An augural omen in the last year of Nero’s life signaled the end of his dynasty. Vespasian, the first in the Flavian Dynasty had an augural confirmation.
The Spirit as a dove
In light of this practice, the Spirit descending like a dove on Jesus at his baptism becomes a more potent symbol. The descent of the dove not only reveals Christ’s royal anointing, it also shows his royal crowning was antithetical to Rome’s domineering power; a different kingdom had arrived. Rather than an eagle, a dove descends on Jesus. Eagles are symbols for war and strength. Doves symbolize peace, purity, serenity, and gentleness.
The dove confirms the political nature of Jesus’ message and ministry, yet it also indicates Jesus’ political program was radically different from Rome’s. He was establishing a different kind of kingdom.
Jesus would not conquer by the sword, but by sacrifice. Though his message challenges the rulers, he would not take up arms against them. Though his message demands what is good from rulers, he would submit to them.
A baptismal dove conquers the imperial eagle. The dove shows Jesus’ kingdom was one of peace. Jesus was not after Caesar’s throne. He was constructing a different kind of kingdom, so much so that when Caesar saw it, he wouldn’t even recognize Jesus as a King of a kingdom. Jesus proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom, but it came by the flight of a dove.
We need to follow Jesus in being bold about declaring the King we serve, but we also must help people see through our actions that his kingdom will come not by force but by the flight of a dove.
Excerpted with permission from Political Gospel by Patrick Schreiner Copyright 2022, B&H Publishing.