Matthew 3:16-17 says, “When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’” Here we see the man, Jesus, standing in the baptismal waters of the Jordan river, the Spirit of God descending “like a dove,” and a voice speaking from heaven. Is this a portrait of the trinity, three distinct divine persons in one God? If it is not, then how are we to understand this scene?
To understand it correctly, we must remember that Jesus did not cease being the omnipresent God when He took on flesh. The entire time He walked the earth as man, He simultaneously ruled the universe as God. Even though the fulness of God’s character and moral attributes dwelled bodily in Christ, the fulness of His Spirit was not so confined. God was in Christ; yet God was also everywhere else!
Understanding this, it is easy to see that the omnipresent Spirit of God spoke from heaven and sent a manifestation of Himself in the form of a dove, even as His human body stood in the muddy waters of the Jordan river.
What then was the purpose of these manifestations? In John 1:31, John the Baptist said that he came baptizing to “reveal the Messiah to Israel.” In other words, the purpose of the baptism of Jesus was to serve as the starting point of His ministry and the public declaration of His Messiahship to the people of Israel. John 1:32-34 states that the dove was to be a sign to John. Since Isaiah 40:3 said that John would be the forerunner of Jehovah (the LORD), John needed to know that Jesus was indeed Jehovah come in the flesh.
John knew it would be the one the Spirit descended upon, but you can’t see a Spirit; therefore, God sent this special manifestation in the likeness of a dove. Furthermore, the descent of the Spirit was a type of anointing. Jesus had come to fulfill the roles of prophet, priest, and king, so He had to be anointed into those roles. But since Jesus was a sinless man and was God Himself, being anointed by a sinful man with symbolic oil was not enough. Instead, Jesus was anointed directly by the Spirit of God.
The voice from heaven was for the benefit of the people. A similar incident took place in John 12:28-30. This manifestation of a voice served as a divine introduction of Jesus to Israel as the Son of God and their Messiah. Since there were many people present at the baptismal site, the Spirit singled out the man Jesus and identified Him by the voice. This was certainly much more effective that if Jesus had simply announced Himself as a man.