32.I saw the Spirit, descending like a dove. This is not a literal but a figurative mode of expression; for with what eyes could he see the Spirit ? But as the dove was a certain and infallible sign of the presence of the Spirit, it is called the Spirit, by a figure of speech in which one name is substituted for another; not that he is in reality the Spirit, but that he points him out, as far as human capacity can admit. And this metaphorical language is frequently employed in the sacraments; for why does Christ call the bread his body, but because the name of the thing is properly transferred to the sign? especially when the sign is, at the same time, a true and efficacious pledge, by which we are made certain that the thing itself which is signified is bestowed on us. Yet it must not be understood that the dove contained the Spirit who fills heaven and earth, (Jer_23:24,) but that he was present by his power, so that John knew that such an exhibition was not presented to his eyes in vain. In like manner, we know that the body of Christ is not connected with the bread, and yet we are partakers of his body.
A question now arises, why didthe Spirit at that time appear in the form of a dove ? We must always hold that there is a correspondence between the sign and the reality. When the Spirit was given to the apostles, they saw cloven tongues of fire, (Act_2:3,) because the preaching of the gospel was to be spread through all tongues, and was to possess the power of fire. But in this passage God intended to make a public representation of that mildness of Christ of which Isaiah speaks in lofty terms,
The smoking flax he will not quench, and the bruised reed he will not break, (Isa_42:3.)
It was then, for the first time, that the Spirit was seen descending on him; not that he had formerly been destitute of him, but because he might be said to be then consecrated by a solemn rite. For we know that he remained in concealment, during thirty years, like a private individual, because the time for his manifestation was not yet come; but when he intended to make himself known to the world, he began with his baptism. At that time, therefore, he received the Spirit not only for himself, but for his people; and on that account his descent was visible, that we may know that there dwells in him an abundance of all gifts of which we are empty and destitute. This may easily be inferred from the words of the Baptist; for when he says, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, it is he who baptizeth with the Spirit, his meaning is, that the reason why the Spirit was beheld in a visible form, and remained on Christ, was, that he might water all his people with his fullness. What it is to baptize with the Spirit I have already noticed in a few words; namely, that he imparts its efficacy to baptism, that it may not be vain or useless, and this he accomplishes by the power of his Spirit.