Question: What was the meaning of Jesus’ baptism? In Matthew 3:16, we read that when John baptized Jesus, the Holy Spirit descended "like a dove" and rested on Him. Is this when the human Jesus Christ first received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit?
Answer: This misunderstanding of Jesus’ baptism is very common, and is frequently expressed by those who believe in the false doctrine of "adoptionism" and assume that Jesus was not the Son of God before His baptism, and who want to deny or diminish Jesus Christ’s pre-existing eternal presence in the Godhead.
Jesus Christ existed as the Logos—the "Word"—from the very beginning (John 1:1). Yet this very same divine being came to the earth "in the flesh"—and Scripture labels as "Antichrist" the idea that Jesus was not fully human (1 John 4:3; 1 Timothy 3:16). Yet Scripture also makes it plain that Jesus Christ would come to the earth as "God with us" (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23).
How could Jesus be a human being coming forward for baptism, yet also be "God with us"? Reconciling these facts will not only help us understand how and when and why Jesus Christ received the Holy Spirit; it will even help us understand something about His nature—a subject much misunderstood by "mainstream Christianity."
We know from Scripture that Jesus was born of a virgin, and that He was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:20). Yet—although the Logos was God—in what is known as His kenosis (Greek for "emptying") He voluntarily gave up His Godhood, emptying Himself of divinity to become a human being (Philippians 2:5–7, NRSV). Yes, when Jesus Christ was a man, He was really a man, and when He died, He spent three days and three nights in the grave before His Father raised Him to eternal life.
Notice that, throughout His ministry, Jesus again and again made clear that His Father was greater than He (John 14:28). Christ did not claim to do miracles, or to offer His teachings, on His own authority; rather, He clearly pointed to His Father as the source: "The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works" (John 14:10). Of Himself, Scripture shows, there were sometimes limits to what the human Jesus Christ could accomplish when faced with unbelievers who knew Him simply as Mary’s son, the carpenter. Notice this account of His visit to Nazareth: "Now He could do no mighty work there, except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them" (Mark 6:5).
For some time before Jesus’ ministry began, another powerful ministry had been underway in Judea, led by John "the Baptizer." Scripture reveals that, six months before Mary learned she was pregnant with Jesus, the angel Gabriel had appeared to John’s father Zacharias, and had prophesied that John—Jesus’ cousin—would be "filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb" (Luke 1:15). John’s mission would be to prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry.
As an aside, we see from this that, even before Jesus’ birth, God gave the Holy Spirit to a very few individuals with whom He was working in a special way to bring about His plan on the Earth. Ancient King David is another such example; he prayed to his Lord, "Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me" (Psalm 51:11).
Unlike today’s Christians, who are begotten by the Holy Spirit after repentance and water baptism, Jesus Christ—who had no sins of which to repent—received the indwelling Holy Spirit from the moment of His conception. He was Immanuel—God with us, God in the flesh. Filled without measure with the Holy Spirit (John 3:34), He lived a perfect, holy and righteous life even before beginning His ministry. John had baptized only with water, but at Jesus’ baptism, which set the example for all who would follow, God gave a sign—the Spirit descending "like a dove"—indicating that Jesus’ followers would be baptized not only with water, but with the Holy Spirit. This is the meaning of Jesus’ baptism by John.