The Symbols of the Holy Spirit

Scripture records a number of symbols which apply to the Holy Spirit. They are given to teach us important truths, but we must beware falling into idolatry by mistaking the symbolism for the Spirit of God. Types and representations are similar to parables in that we derive valuable teaching from them. They are like famous brand logos that represent the company, but they are not the company themselves. Many have failed to recognise this fact, and have made the symbol an object of worship and adoration. This is especially true amongst those Charismatics who overuse the dove symbol.

The purpose of symbolism is to shed light on, add understanding, and to illustrate the truth. They should never be used in a mystical or obscure way. The ceremonial factions within Christendom have replaced the Word of God with pictures, icons and other images. We too must be very cautious regarding the use of the following symbols that relate to the Holy Spirit.

Most Christians regard oil as a symbol of the Person and ministry of the Holy Spirit. Throughout the Old Testament we see oil being used for holy purposes. The priests were consecrated and ordained unto God as oil was poured upon their heads … “Then shalt thou take the anointing oil, and pour it upon his head, and anoint him” (Exodus 29:7 – see also Leviticus 8). During such ceremonies oil was used abundantly, for it ran down the priest’s beard and clothing … “It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments” (Psalm 133:2). The kings of Israel were also anointed with oil as they took up office.

Oil was used to keep the lamps burning in the Holy Place, and it was vital that they should never run dry … “And thou shalt command the children of Israel, that they bring thee pure oil olive beaten for the light, to cause the lamp to burn always” (Exodus 27:20). Without the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives and churches, spiritual darkness soon overtakes us.

The large quantity of oil used reminds us of the New Testament Baptism in the Spirit. We do not need a volume of oil in order to have the presence and power of the Spirit poured upon and within us.

Oil can be used to anoint the sick also … “Anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them … 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” (Mark 6:13; James 5:14). This reveals to us that the Holy Spirit must be involved in every area of the believer’s life. Just as oil enlightens and lubricates, so the Holy Spirit wants to illuminate and eliminate friction in our lives. We should ask the Good Shepherd to anoint our heads with oil (Psalm 23:5).

The Dove
This symbolism is taken from Luke 3:22 where the Holy Spirit descends upon the Lord Jesus Christ in the form of a dove at His baptism. The dove is used here to reveal the gentle, yet powerful, workings of the Holy Spirit. A dove is a gentle creature that is easily shooed away, so no wonder Paul warns the church against grieving the Spirit of God (Ephesians 4:30). Where there is a rejection of His ministry, the Holy Spirit will not remain for long. Through the gentle workings of the Holy Spirit, God points out our failures and nudges us in the right direction. The dove is used today as a symbol of purity and peace.

Living Water
Jesus compared the presence in the believer’s life as being like “Rivers of living water” (John 7:37-39). The one who is filled with the Holy Spirit has this “living water” flowing from his innermost being. This analogy is found in the Old Testament too … “For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my Spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring … And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: and also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my Spirit” (Isaiah 44:3; Joel 2:28-29). 

Just as water is important for existence, so too is the Holy Spirit if we are to maintain our spiritual life. It washes, purifies and refreshes wherever it goes. This corresponds to the ministry of the Holy Spirit also. 

“And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:2-4). This symbol is not lost on the disciples, since Jesus had spoken of the Holy Spirit in a similar way … “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

If we compare two passages of Scripture we soon realise why fire is symbolic of the Holy Spirit. “He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire” (Matthew 3:11) and “There appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:3-4). Fire refines and can change material from one form to another. Fire purifies, warms and illuminates.

These symbols are helpful in teaching us something of the nature and ministry of the Holy Spirit. The teachings that relate to these symbols will be expounded upon in the studies that follow.