Symbols of the Holy Spirit

But the Comforter, which is the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send
in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things
to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. – John 14:26

And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened,
 and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him.--Mark 1:10

Carl Hagensick

Various symbols are used in the Bible to represent the holy spirit. The dove is one. Others include wind, light, oil, and fire. When one object has several symbols by which it is represented, each symbol emphasizes a different aspect of the object. Some of these differences are obvious, while others are less so. In the case of the holy spirit, some of the symbols connected with it do not describe what it is so much as what it does. Here are some of these distinctions.

The Dove

Mark 1:10 directly connects the image of a dove with the holy spirit. Although closely related, there is a marked difference between a pigeon and a dove. Pigeons are wild and migratory while doves do not migrate. Their return was a joyful sign of spring and the start of new life (Song of Solomon 2:12). In Jeremiah 8:7 a “turtle[dove]” is a harbinger of judgment. The Hebrew word for dove is yohnah and is derived from the word anah, meaning, “to mourn,” showing that the name comes from its characteristic mournful coo. The dove was the preferred bird for sacrifice if only one bird was used, and usually mentioned first when both a dove and a pigeon were required.

Doves has been called “the sheep of the bird world” because of their gentle disposition. They are noted for their devotion to their mates. It is not unusual for two doves nesting together to each take the beak of the other into their own, much like a lover’s kiss. Because of their docility when caged and their use in sacrifice, they were allowed to roam freely and often appeared in vast numbers, so much so that Isaiah 60:8 refers to them as coming in clouds. When flying in the sunlight, their wings looked like silver and their plumage like gold (Psalm 68:13).

There are various species of doves, each with different nesting habits. The turtledove prefers garden foliage while the palm turtledove seeks the height of the palm tree. The rock dove makes its nest in mountain crevices (Song of Solomon 2:14) while other species prefer green valleys (Jeremiah 48:28; Ezekiel 7:16).

The dove is used as a representation of the holy spirit apparently because of its sympathetic nature. The ministry Jesus was beginning stressed compassion for the human race. Not only did he demonstrate this compassion by healings and miraculous feedings of the multitudes, but by his willingness to give the ultimate sacrifice of his own life for mankind’s salvation.

In one appearance of the dove in the Bible, there is another aspect to this symbol. The Darby translation of Isaiah 60:8 speaks of the dove, when domesticated, willingly returning to its master’s home, called a dovecote: “Who are these that come flying as a cloud, and as doves to their dove-cotes?”

It is this habit of the dove that plays such an important role in the biblical account of the flood in the days of Noah. Genesis 8:6-12 tells us that after the ark had settled on Mount Ararat for forty days, Noah sent forth a raven to scour the earth. Not being a homing bird, it did not return to Noah. Then Noah sent forth a dove. It found no resting place and returned to its mate. Seven days later Noah sent it forth a second time and it returned with an olive leaf, perhaps motivated by its instinct to feed its mate. Seven days later it was again sent forth and did not return. Perhaps it was building a nest for its family.

An article in Reprints 5328 suggests that these progressive probes by Noah were indicative of the investigation through the spirit for signs of the Kingdom’s operation. The first excursion by the dove brought no evidence of the Kingdom; the second brought evidence of some fruitage; the third indicated that the time had come to leave the ark. While not directly stated, the implication is that the first of these events may correspond to the Lord’s return in 1874, the second to the ending of the Gentile Times in 1914, while the third is still future.

What was the significance of the sending forth of the raven? It may illustrate the searching for evidence of the new dispensation by the Millerite movement of the nineteenth century. This search proved unproductive because it was premature.


Jesus applies part of Jonah’s experience to himself: “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the heart of the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). It is noteworthy that just as Jesus was literally dead for portions of three days, so will his body, the church, go into the grave during a period of three thousand-year “days.”

While that fits well, the analogy loses its force when Jonah flees his responsibility. Thus we are left with the question as to whether it is only the time spent in the fish that pictures Jesus or whether there is a consistent interpretation of the whole that harmonizes seeming discrepancies.

Because the name Jonah means dove and a dove is a symbol of the holy spirit, there may well be a consistent interpretation. Perhaps the book of Jonah is really a prophecy acted out to demonstrate the role of the holy spirit in God’s plan. When viewed from that perspective, the following drama emerges.





Jewish Age

Through Israel, fleeing God’s commission to bless


Gospel Age

Through Christ and Church, suffering persecution and dying


Millennial Age

Through Christ and Church, converting and blessing the world


Moral Lesson

Compassion for even enemies required to bless the world


“And Moses took the anointing oil and anointed the tabernacle and all that was therein, and sanctified them. . . . And he poured of the anointing oil upon Aaron’s head, and anointed him to sanctify him.” − Leviticus 8:10,12

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek . . . ” − Isaiah 61:1

These two texts show a close connection between the holy anointing oil and the work of the holy spirit. The olive tree was a staple of ancient Israel’s agricultural economy. Olive oil was one of the main commodities used in the services of ancient Israel’s tabernacle in the wilderness. It was used for anointing and as fuel for the golden candlesticks. It was baked into certain wafers used in sacrifice and poured upon other sacrifices. In fact the word oil appears some ninety times in the books of Exodus and Leviticus alone.

Here are some of the places where there seems to be a parallel in the operation of the holy spirit:

Anointing. The act of anointing indicated the bestowal of authorization through the spirit to act in certain capacities.

Kings were anointed. Not only were kings of Israel anointed (1 Samuel 10:1; 16:13) but even the wicked king Hazael of Syria was spoken of as being anointed (1 Kings 19:16). Cyrus of Persia is spoken of as anointed (Isaiah 45:1). The custom of anointing kings was not unique to Israel; the el-Amarna letters of Egypt record some 37 instances of the practice.

Priests were anointed. In establishing a priesthood for Israel, not only was Aaron anointed (Leviticus 8:12), his sons were too (Numbers 3:3). The unity of the priesthood’s anointing with the high priest is nicely expressed in Psalm 133:1,2.

A Prophet was anointed. The only biblical example was when Elijah was told to anoint Elisha as his successor (1 Kings 19:16).

Jesus was anointed. The anointing of Isaiah 61:1 is applied by Jesus to himself in Luke 4:18,19. The same anointing authorizes the church as his body to spread the good tidings in his name.

This was the formula for the oil used for anointing: “Take unto thee principal spices, of pure myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even two hundred and fifty shekels, and of sweet calamus two hundred and fifty shekels, and of cassia five hundred shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, and of olive oil an hin: and thou shalt make it a holy ointment, an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary: it shall be an holy anointing oil” (Exodus 30:23-25). These four spices might correspond to the four attributes of the holy spirit given in Isaiah 11:2, “The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, 1) the spirit of wisdom and understanding, 2) the spirit of counsel and might, 3) the spirit of knowledge and 4) of the fear of the LORD.” (See also Exodus 31:3.)

Medicinal properties. “Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14). The word here traanslated sickness in the next verse is astheneo, and literally means “without strength” and may refer to spiritual depression as well as physical sickness. In verse 15 the word sick is the Greek kamnos and is translated “be wearied” in Hebrews 12:3.

The prophet wrote of medical treatment using oil: “From the sole of the foot even to the head there is no soundness in it, but wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment” (Isaiah 1:6). The Good Samaritan “bound his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.” When the Master sent out the twelve two by two, among other acts they “cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them” (Mark 6:13).

It was for a similar purpose that the familiar twenty-third psalm says, “Thou anointest my head with oil.” Here is a detailed description of this act:

“At the sheepfold there is a large bowl of olive oil mingled with spices, and a large jar of water. As the sheep pass through the gate, the shepherd examines each head and body for wounds. These are carefully cleaned as the shepherd dips his hand into the oil to anoint the injury. A cup is dipped into the water and comes out overflowing and the sheep drinks until refreshed.” {Footnote: The Herald, July/August 1999, p. xx.}

Soap and toiletries. Processed oil has the texture of lotion and is used as a moisturizer. It was with this balm that a woman ministered unto Jesus in the Pharisee’s house. Jesus said, “My head with oil thou didst not anoint; but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment” (Luke 7:46). Likewise the prophet writes, “Then washed I thee with water; yea, I thoroughly washed away thy blood from thee, and I anointed thee with oil” (Ezekiel 16:9).


Perhaps the most noted use of olive oil is as fuel for the golden lampstand in the holy of the tabernacle (Exodus 35:14). The operation of these lampstands can be seen by comparing Zechariah 4:1-14 with Revelation 11:1,2. In Zechariah the oil for the lampstand’s seven lamps comes from two olive trees, which are identified in Revelation as God’s “two witnesses” (the Old and New Testaments). The seven pipes carrying the oil represent the means of conveying this oil to the lamps, i.e., the seven messengers of Revelation 2 and 3.

The concept of the oil of the holy spirit being used for light is also shown in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). There the supply of oil distinguishes the one group from the other. This illustrates how some Christians with a sufficiency of the holy spirit become a part of the wedding party, while those having little or none do not.


The Greek and Hebrew words translated “spirit” (pneuma and ruach) are also translated either “wind” or “breath.2” Both the words wind and breath are also used in close conjunction with the holy spirit, as can be seen from these texts:

“And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a mighty rushing wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting . . . and they were all filled with the holy spirit.” – Acts 2:1,2,4

“And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the holy spirit.” – John 20:22

Wind is perhaps the first representation of God’s spirit found in the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1,2). What this “spirit” was in practical terms is indeterminate; some applying it to a form of energy and others to a sweeping wind.

In this instance we see the beginning of the use of creative power in preparing earth for future habitation. It found its causative action in the words of God: “God said … and there was … ” On the day of Pentecost we see the beginning of another creation, a new creation. “Therefore,” the apostle Paul wrote, “if any man be in Christ he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

We find, in the original creative process, that the breath of God was the activating force in giving life to Adam: “The LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). Likewise it is the spirit that gives life to the true Christian and it is the same spirit that will eventually raise all mankind from the grave and endow them with new life.

Tongues of Fire

On Pentecost we meet yet another representation of the holy spirit. Along with the sound of a mighty rushing wind “there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them” (Acts 2:3). Fire generally signifies either destruction or purging as in the refining of metals. The term “tongues of fire” appears only here and in the American Standard Version translation of Isaiah 5:24 (“the tongue of fire devoureth the stubble”).

“Tongues of fire” in the Acts account conveys the double significance of enlightenment and the giving of utterance to this enlightenment. The Greek word glossa, here translated “tongues,” is frequently used for language and is the same word used when referring to the speaking in tongues in verse 4. (However, the word translated “language” in verses 6 and 8 is a different word and corresponds to “dialect.”) The thought is that the various “tongues” split off a central luminary source, somewhat analogous to the lampstand picture of Zechariah, where the oil to light the lamps came from the two olive trees. The holy spirit enlightened the minds of the waiting disciples and then authorized and enabled them to speak (or at least be understood) by the Jews who had traveled to Jerusalem from many parts of the Roman empire.

Different Symbols for Different Aspects

Thus the distinct aspects of the holy spirit are shown by these symbols which picture the functions the holy spirit is to play in each of our lives:




Compassion, Sympathy


Authorization, Healing Power, Cleansing and Refreshment




Life-Giving, Creative Functions

Tongues of Fire

Empowerment to Witness, Enlightened Truth


On the Other Hand

What did Jesus mean when he told Nicodemus in John 3:8 that the pneuma does something, one sees what happens yet one does not know anything about the process, and that this is like those who are "born of the pneuma"?

Many translators render the Greek word pneuma by two different English words. They would have us believe the "wind" does something which is an illustration of those who are born of the "spirit." But how can this be? The Greek word pneuma occurs 385 times in the New Testament and is never translated "wind" except in the King James translation of this text. Surely if Jesus wanted to make blowing air a picture of the spirit he would have used the Greek word anemos which occurs 31 times and is always translated "wind."

This is the correct rendering of the Greek text: "The spirit breathes where it will, and thou hearest its voice, but thou knowest not whence it comes, or where it goes; thus it is with every one who has been born of the spirit" (John 3:8, Diaglott).

Perhaps translators were uncomfortable saying the spirit would "blow" or "breathe" on someone, yet John 20:22 uses the verb breathed to describe what Jesus did when he said to the disciples, "Receive ye the holy spirit." To equate the action of wind with the operation of the holy spirit because of John 3:8 is not correct.

None of us understands the process whereby the holy spirit touches one here and not one there, why some "hear" its voice and others do not. It is simply a miracle of God's grace.

--Michael Nekora