HARMLESS AS DOVES
BY PASTOR GLENN PEASE
A small boy sat by the side of a pool fishing. "What are you fishing for," asked a man who passed by. "Sharks," replied the boy. "But there are no sharks in that pool my little man," said the stranger. "There ain't any fish in this pool at all," answered the boy. "So I might as well fish for sharks as anything else."
Children have a vivid imagination, and this is certainly one of the characteristics Jesus had in mind when He said men must become as little children before they can enter the kingdom of heaven. Imagination is the eye of the soul. Without it we are, as Beecher once said, "And observatory without a telescope." You cannot enter into the world of great literature and poetry without imagination. Robert Louis Stevenson discussed every sentence of Treasure Island with his schoolboy step-son before giving it its final form. He knew that if his story was to be great he had to appeal to the imagination of youth. Einstein said that even in science, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Imagination is the key to great discoveries in every realm of life, including the spiritual. John Davidson wrote,
That minister of ministers, Imagination, gathers up--
The undiscovered Universe, Like Jewels in a jasper cup.
No one can begin to understand the teaching of Christ without imagination. Jesus constantly spoke in parables, and used imagery that would leave a man in the dark who did not have the illumination of a childlike imagination. The common people heard Jesus gladly because he did not speak in abstract theological terms, but in common pictures that appealed to the imagination. The kingdom of heaven, he said, was like a man sowing seed, like a woman putting leven in bread, like a merchant in search of fine pearls. Or else he would say, it is like a mustard seed, or treasure buried in a field, or like a net thrown into the sea gathering fish of every kind.
Jesus took His illustrations from life, and from nature, and appealed to the imagination. He did so because God made nature the greatest resource for material for visual aids in religious education. Jesus also knew what modern psychology has discovered-that the imagination is more powerful than the will. Win a man's imagination and he is your captive. Great leaders must appeal to the imagination of their followers to hold their allegiance. Napoleon said the human race is governed by its imagination.
On an individual level you can demonstrate this easily. Take a ten inch plank and put it on the ground and walk from one end to the other. It is simple. But put the same plank across two buildings ten stories up and you could no longer do that simple act. Your imagination would fill your head with visions of falling and it would leave you powerless. Modern psychology says that whenever the will and the imagination come into conflict the imagination always wins. This means that a mind filled with visions of tragedy and evil around the corner cannot be set at rest by good news and positive signs. The imagination reigns and makes them pessimistic in spite of all evidence to the contrary. On the other hand, fill the imagination with pictures of glory and victory, and all the storms of hell will not be able to blow you off the pleasant path of optimistic assurance. That is why the book of Revelation is so precious to Christian in persecution. Its vivid scenes of glory around the throne of God, and the victory songs of Christ and all His saints wins the imagination over and makes it a friend rather than an enemy in the battle of life.
This means that a Christian generally lives on a level that corresponds with his imagination. If it is weak, he will be like the man of whom Macaulay said, "His imagination resembled the wings of an ostrich. It enabled him to run, though not to soar." The Christian, however, is never to be content with wings that do not lift him aloft. We are meant to mount up with wings like an eagle. We are to have aspirations like David who wrote in Psalm 55:6, "O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest." These wings of the dove, that David longed for, are available to all believers who have the imagination to appropriate them. Ever since the Holy Spirit came down in the form of a dove, theology has been linked to the wings of the dove. Spurgeon pointed out that many astounding sermons have been preached on the dove. All history has been ransacked for facts and fables about doves, and they have been used to teach lessons of Christian truth.
As far back as the second century Tatian began to speak of the fall of man as the loss of his spirit wings. These wings are restored to man when he is filled with the heavenly dove--the Holy Spirit. The wings of the dove came to mean detachment from the world, and from the weight of flesh. To be sanctified and separated from the world was to rise with the wings of the dove. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa developed a whole system of Christian mysticism based on the idea of the wings of the dove. We cannot begin to cover all the references to doves in Christian theology and hymnology, but we want to look at some of the most important Biblical references.
If we use our imagination we can see many parallels between literal birds and the work of the Holy Spirit. As the Holy Spirit hovered over the dark world before it burst into life and light, so He hovers over every life in darkness eager to mother it out of the shell of sin into the world of light, and give it wings to soar. Charles Wesley put it in poetry--
Expand Thy wings celestial Dove,
Brood o'er our nature's night;
On our disordered spirits move,
And let there now be light.
After we have been hatched by the Heavenly Dove, which is another way of saying after we have been born again by the spirit of God, we are not through with the concept of the dove in the Christian life. There is more to the dove than wings. It has character also, and it is the dove's character that Jesus is interested in, in our text. Jesus is preparing His disciples for the greatest mission of their lives. It is literally a matter of life or death, for they will face opposition and in tense hatred like they never saw before. It is no time for light entertainment and small talk. They need to be given some deep impressions and profound assurances. It is in a context like this that Jesus twice uses birds to get His message across, and into their imagination. Birds have lessons of value for the Christian, not just in the hour of gaiety, but in the most crucial hours of life.
Jesus said to them, "Behold," --that is, pay attention to this; get the full and realistic picture of what you are heading into. "I send you out as sheep in the mist of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent (or harmless) as doves." The disciples had to have knowledge of four different kinds of creatures to be able to understand an obey Jesus. He paints a word picture with animals, serpents, and birds--the crawlers, the walkers, and the flyers, all in one little verse. With imaginative interpretation we could describe how the wolves devoured the sheep in the early centuries. We could show how many were wise as serpents in obedience to Christ. We could consider the fascinating fact of how Jesus selected a quality of the serpent for us to imitate even though the serpent, all through Scripture, is a symbol of Satan.
Jesus can find some good for illustration in every creature He has made. This would be an interesting study, but for now we are limiting our attention to the last of these creatures--the dove.
How many Christians face a crisis, and an encounter with the world, with their minds on doves? A Christian who talked about birds at such a serious point in life would probably be looked upon as being crazy as a loon. In reality, he would be seeking to take his Lord seriously. Jesus says the dove has something a Christian needs. It has a character that is harmless, innocent, blameless, and gentle.
The dove is the most Christlike of all the birds. The dove is the first bird to play a role in the life of Christ. When Jesus was just a baby, Mary and Joseph brought Him to Jerusalem, and according to the law of Moses, it says in Luke 2:24, they offered a sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. Doves and pigeons are of the same family. The law in the Lev. 12:8 says that for those who cannot afford a lamb for atonement and offering of two turtledoves or two pigeons can be a substitute. This means that Mary and Joseph could not afford a lamb, and so birds were their substitute. What this means is that Jesus the Lamb of God is also the Dove of God, for both were offered in atonement for sin.
The dove became a symbol, not only of the Holy Spirit, but of Christ also. In the middle ages the vessels in which waffers were kept for the Lord's Supper were sometimes made in the form of doves. The dove was the bird of good news from the beginning. It brought back the evidence to Noah that the water had departed and land was uncovered. The ancients carried doves on their ships, for they were often literal saviors of lost men. When a storm would blow a ship off course, they would release their doves and the direction in which they flew would indicate the way to the nearest land. Columbus used doves on his ship. The dove is symbolic of the Savior in that it is a sacrifice for atonement, and it is a guide to safety.
Someone might object that I am taking birds too seriously, and that I have let my imagination run beyond what the Scripture would authorize. Let us deviate from doves for a few moments, therefore, and see just how seriously God takes the birds. In Gen. 9 God takes birds so seriously that He includes them in His covenant with Noah never to destroy the world again with a flood. In verses 8-11 we read, "Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: 'I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you--the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those who came out of the ark with you--every living creature on earth. I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth."
Samuel Cox, the great Bible expositor once said, "To care for birds, we may even say, is to worship God." That sounds like a radical statement, and you might wonder if Cox is getting close to idolatry, for God clearly forbids the making of an idol of any winged creature. On the other hand, if obeying God's commands is a part of the worship of God, then bird care is clearly included. In Deut. 22:6-7 we read, "If you come across a bird's nest beside the road, either in a tree or on the ground, and the mother is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young. You may take the young, but be sure to let the mother go, so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life." God takes birds so seriously that He makes the same promise and warning in connection with them as He does with the command to honor one's father and mother. To disobey God's concern for mother birds can lead to the same judgment as disrespect for your own mother. Motherhood is sacred in bird life as well as human life.
The idea of conservation and animal sanctuaries, and game laws, as well as human societies are all based on God's love for His own creation. It is God's will that man be wise and humane in his dominion over nature. If his greed leads him to exploit nature, and drain the land of resources, and wipe out certain spieces of birds and animals, he is not just disobeying a government law, but he is defying the law of God as well. God expects His people to respect game laws. Some birds are no doubt flying in Israel today only because of God's laws to protect them.
God even went further than this law for the birds. He provided a sanctuary where no bird could be molested in any way. God made His temple in Jerusalem a bird sanctuary. In Psalm 84:3-4 we read, "Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young--a place near your altar, O Lord Almighty, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you." Birds and believers together in the house of the Lord praising their Maker, Redeemer and Protector.
Now all of this has been relevant to our study of the dove and what Jesus wanted us to understand about being harmless as the dove. If God expects us to be gentle and kind to birds, how much more should we have this attitude toward all people, even to those who approach us like vicious wolves to devour us. They are still men with a worth infinately greater than that of birds, and we are to like our Lord meet their force with love and gentleness. The Christian has a responsibility to suffer wrong rather than to inflict it. The best is to be like a wise serpent and be able to avoid conflict, but if no amount of wisdom can help you escape your oppressor, you are to face him as a dove. In a showdown where you must either do wrong or suffer wrong, the Christian who obeys Christ will suffer wrong and be innocent of evil. Jesus is a perfect example of being wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove. He outwitted His foes time and time again, but when he could no longer escape the cross without forsaking all men to their fate, He let His enemies kill Him. He went like a lamb, or like a dove, quiet and gentle, though He could have fought and destroyed them all.
It is not easy to combine the wisdom of the serpent and the innocent gentleness of the dove, but Jesus did not say it would be easy to follow Him. He said it would cost plenty. You have to die to self to face a hostile world with the character of a dove. You can only obey Christ, and be harmless as a dove, by the help of the Divine Dove-the Holy Spirit. Our desire must be that of David who cried out, "O that I had the wings of a dove." We should long even more to have the character of the dove, for the dove is the bird of love. The dove has been the emblem of love all through history. In the Song of Soloman the dove is used 6 times as an affectionate word for a lover. Love, perfection, gentleness, innocence, and purity are just some of virtues connected with the dove. The study of the natural dove can teach us these virtues, but only the Heavenly Dove can provide us with the wings necessary to rise to these ideals. Therefore, let us sing the song prayer of George Herbert, the great Christian poet who wrote--
Listen, sweet Dove, unto my song,
And spread Thy golden wings in me;
Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wings and fly away with Thee.
I trust that you have an imagination that is alive, and one that can be motivated by the sight of any bird to realize that God is calling you to fly; to mount up with wings like eagles, and to live on a higher level. Of course, if you do not know the Lord of birds, you can be a lover of birds and still be lost. If you do not have any desire to obey Christ and please Him by your life, you have no reason to believe He is your Lord. If He is not your Lord you can love all the birds, but you will never get off the ground and soar spiritually. The only way to get wings for time and eternity is to receive Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.