Q. John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit even before he was born. Why did Jesus only receive the Holy Spirit at his baptism? (Was the Holy Spirit transferred to him by John the Baptist laying hands on him, the way “the Spirit was given by the laying on of the apostles’ hands” in the book of Acts?)
First, it is true that John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit even before he was born. The angel Gabriel promised this to his father Zechariah when he told him that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son. And we get a very interesting indication of it from when John was still in his mother’s womb: Mary came to visit Elizabeth while she was expecting Jesus herself, and Elizabeth reported, “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” John knew, by the power of the Holy Spirit, that the Messiah, still unborn, and his mother had come to visit!
However, I’m not so sure that Jesus himself only received the Holy Spirit when he was baptized. When Isaiah announces the birth of the Messiah—”A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit”—he immediately adds, “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him.” This does not suggest a delay between the Messiah being born and the Spirit coming upon him. The report that Luke gives of Jesus’ early years suggests that God was present in his life in a special way right from the start: “The child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.” One part of the manuscript tradition even says, “The child grew and became strong in spirit.” While this is not considered the most reliable reading, it does reflect the sense of the passage, which conveys that Jesus was filled with special qualities indicating God’s presence from the time he was born.
Indeed, if Jesus did not have the manifest presence of God in his life, it’s hard to see how John the Baptist, Simeon, and Anna would have recognized him as an unborn child and as a baby. They were all godly and Spirit-filled, but they “had to have something to work with,” so to speak—their spiritual discernment needed something spiritual to discern! I believe that this was the presence of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ life.
So then what was going on at Jesus’ baptism, if it wasn’t the first time the Holy Spirit came upon him and filled him? I think the visible descent of the Spirit from heaven to alight on Jesus was mean to be a sign that showed he was the Messiah. As John the Baptist said, as he bore witness to Jesus’ identity, “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”
The visible descent of the Spirit, along with the voice from heaven, also provided confirmation to Jesus of his own identity as the Messiah. In one of the churches I served as a pastor there was a man who liked to ask, “What did Jesus know, and when did he know it?” What he meant was that unless Jesus was born knowing everything—in which case he wouldn’t have had a normal human brain and he wouldn’t have shared our human condition—there had to have been a time when he came to know that he was the Messiah. Most interpreters of the gospels agree that Jesus understood definitively at his baptism that this was his role. So it wasn’t so much that Jesus received the Spirit at his baptism as that he received his vocation then, through the Spirit’s manifestation.
As for the connection between receiving the Spirit and the laying on of hands, typically in the book of Acts an apostle or other person commissioned by God will specifically say that they are conveying the Spirit when they lay on hands. For example, Ananias said to the man who would become known as the apostle Paul, as he laid hands on him, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” There’s no record in the gospels of John the Baptist saying any such thing to Jesus at his baptism, so I don’t think we should conclude that this is what happened then.
By the way, I also don’t believe that the laying on of hands is necessary for a person to receive the Holy Spirit. Rather, in the early years of the church it provided a sign that barriers of hostility were being broken down (because enemies usually won’t even touch each other), and as a result of the unity and peace that was created, the Holy Spirit came and made his home in a new extension of the community of Jesus’ followers. Significantly, we see the laying on of hands as the community expands to include Samaritans and Gentiles and when it welcomes its former enemy Saul of Tarsus. Nevertheless, there’s nothing wrong with laying hands on a person as an expression of support and encouragement while praying for them, even when praying with them for a filling of the Holy Spirit.