NSP-interacting kinase (NIK1) is a receptor-like kinase identified as a virulence target of the begomovirus nuclear shuttle protein (NSP). We found that NIK1 undergoes a stepwise pattern of phosphorylation within its activation-loop domain (A-loop) with distinct roles for different threonine residues. Mutations at Thr-474 or Thr-468 impaired autophosphorylation and were defective for kinase activation. In contrast, a mutation at Thr-469 did not impact autophosphorylation and increased substrate phosphorylation, suggesting an inhibitory role for Thr-469 in kinase function. To dissect the functional significance of these results, we used NSP-expressing virus infection as a mechanism to interfere with wild type and mutant NIK1 action in plants. The NIK1 knockout mutant shows enhanced susceptibility to virus infections, a phenotype that could be complemented with ectopic expression of a 35S-NIK1 or 35S-T469A NIK1 transgenes. However, ectopic expression of an inactive kinase or the 35S-T474A NIK1 mutant did not reverse the enhanced susceptibility phenotype of knockout lines, demonstrating that Thr-474 autophosphorylation was needed to transduce a defense response to geminiviruses. Furthermore, mutations at Thr-474 and Thr-469 residues antagonistically affected NIK-mediated nuclear relocation of the downstream effector rpL10. These results establish that NIK1 functions as an authentic defense receptor as it requires activation to elicit a defense response. Our data also suggest a model whereby phosphorylation-dependent activation of a plant receptor-like kinase enables the A-loop to control differentially auto- and substrate phosphorylation.