16. John’s Baptism
The ideas associated with the baptism which was the central
feature of John’s ministry are often vague or quite mistaken, so perhaps
it may be worth-while to re-examine the gospels’ teaching about
Statements can be found in many of the commentaries to the
effect that John was merely making use of a familiar existing rite or
institution in order to emphasize that his converts were converted; e.g. Carr in
Cambridge Greek Testament: “In baptizing John introduced no new custom,
for ceremonial ablution or baptism was practised in all ancient
religions... Among the Jews proselytes were baptized on admission to the Mosaic
covenant. John’s baptism was the outward sign of the purification and
life-giving change, and contained the promise of forgiveness of
Most of this is either incorrect or misleading. Other
religions may have had ceremonial washings, but these were not baptisms, nor is
it conceivable that there was any sort of connection between John’s
baptism and any of them. Neither is there any evidence that at this time
the Jews administered a form of baptism to converts to their faith. So far as is
known, this came in as a Jewish practice after the first century. True, a
mikveh has been excavated at Masada, but it is certain that the meaning
and purpose of such washings had no resemblance to the baptism John
If indeed the Jews were already familiar with baptism as a
religious observance it is difficult to see why Josephus should give John the
distinctive title of “Baptist” (Jos. Ant.18.5.2).
Something New: Christian Baptism
That John’s baptism was altogether new is strongly
implied by the reaction of the Jewish leaders. “The Jews sent priests and
Levites from Jerusalem... and they asked him, Why baptizest thou then, if thou
be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet?” (Jn. 1:19,25). The
words imply the introduction of something completely new. If baptism of
proselytes was already known, John’s baptism was no innovation and there
was no ground at all for either indignation or mystification.
All the available evidence points to a different
conclusion-that it was a completely new ordinance, and that it was
essentially Christian baptism, pointing forward to the death
of Christ, just as baptism now looks back to that crucial event.
A Rite of Forgiveness
The first and clearest point to be made in support of this
interpretation is that this baptism was “for the remission of sins”
(Mk. 1:4). This, by itself, should be regarded as decisive, for there is no
forgiveness of sins apart from Christ (Mt. 26:28; Acts 2:38; 5:31; 22:16). So
this must have been essentially a Christian baptism. Clearly John proclaimed not
only a royal Messiah but also a suffering Messiah. It has been suggested that
against the background of this teaching he baptized his converts into “the
Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29,36 definitely
implies that he had instructed his disciples about “the Lamb of
God’). In any case, this “baptism for the remission of sins”
is evidently something more efficacious than the Mosaic sacrificial
It is noteworthy that the introduction to Mark’s gospel
announces “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ” and then for
the next nine verses talks about John and his mission, with four explicit
references to baptism. And Jesus himself declared that “the law and the
prophets were until John: from that time the kingdom of God is preached”
Making Messiah manifest
John’s own declaration of the purpose and aim of the
baptism he administered was this: “I knew him not; but that he should be
made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water” (Jn.
1:31). These words will carry more than one interpretation. Either John meant
that the Messiah could only be manifest to a nation showing repentance (as will
assuredly be the case when he comes again). Or, the rite of baptism was a means
of manifesting Messiah to the people; it had no meaning apart from Him.
Four other passages for the discerning:
The Lord’s own baptism
- John’s role was clearly enunciated by his father’s inspired
prophecy: “Thou, child... shalt go before the face of the Lord... to give
knowledge of salvation unto his people in the remission of sins”
- “Now (before the death of Christ) ye are clean
through the word I have spoken unto you” (Jn. 15:3). How could they be
“clean” except through a baptism (based on the Lord’s
teaching) already experienced before the death of Christ?
- “He that is
bathed (RV) needeth not save to wash his feet” (Jn. 13:10). Here
are the correlated blessings of Baptism and the Breaking of
- “Then are the children (Jesus and Peter) free”
(Mt. 17:26). What difference between the status of Peter and his fellow-Jews
except that he had become a child of God through
Christ’s own baptism at the hands of John is difficult
to make sense of if this new sacrament was simply intended to be an expression
of repentance, the turning over of a new leaf. The commentaries mostly dodge the
question. But Jesus said: “Thus it becometh us (himself and all others
receiving baptism) to fulfil all righteousness” (Mt. 3:15). He
needed this baptism. As one of fallen Adam’s race he needed to be
associated with the regeneration, which only his own death and resurrection
Then, too, there is the problem of the baptism which Jesus
himself required of his disciples during his ministry. It is mentioned alongside
that of his fore-runner (Jn. 3:22,23) in a way, which makes it impossible to
believe that there was any essential difference between the two. If both
expressed a sharing of the blessings of forgiveness of sins that God would
provide through the Messiah, there is no difficulty. And, no doubt, what was
only dimly comprehended at first became much more intelligible in later days.
But if this is not the idea, then what was the intention and purpose behind the
baptism, which Jesus administered (through his apostles)? After Pentecost was
its meaning changed?
Apollos and the men at Ephesus
The description of the work of Apollos years later is
strangely incongruous apart from the interpretation argued for here. “This
man was instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in the spirit, he
spake and taught diligently the things concerning Jesus, knowing only the
baptism of John” (Acts 18:25). Here was one whose knowledge of saving
truth had evidently branched off from the main stream of available instruction
before the Baptist’s tragic end, or he would have known more than the
baptism of John. Yet he knew “the way of the Lord” and “taught
diligently the things concerning Jesus” (see any modern version on
this). If John’s baptism associated a man with the saving work of Jesus,
no difficulty remains.
Lastly, there is the problem of the disciples of John at
Ephesus who apparently accepted a second baptism-Christian baptism-at the hands
of Paul (Acts 19:1-7). The narrative needs to be read with care. “We have
not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Spirit”, they declared. But
John had given this a prominent place in his teaching: “He shall baptize
you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Lk. 3:16). So it would seem that
there were marked defects in the instruction of these men so as to seriously
invalidate the baptism they had received, for is not baptism an “obeying
from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you” (Rom. 6:17)?
So Paul’s insistence on fuller instruction and an ensuing true baptism
appears to have been altogether necessary. In the Companion Bible Bullinger
handles this problem rather differently. He repunctuates, concluding
Paul’s words at the end of verse 5. The nett result is the same.
The accumulation of evidence brought together here points
fairly strongly to the conclusion that there is no essential difference between
John’s baptism and that which the convert to the faith of Christ receives
today. Just as Christian baptism is retrospective, looking back to the death and
resurrection of Christ, so the rite administered by John looked forward, with
exactly the same meaning.
It is useful to note the various “First
Principles” of the gospel which are traceable in the teaching of
So the baptism men accepted from John was no baptism of
ignorance. The next study will show that, like any true Christian baptism, it
was preceded by personal interrogation.
- “All flesh is grass “(Is.
40:6-8)-the mortality of man and his need of
- “Behold the Lamb of God”
(Jn. 1-29,36) -Jesus the sacrifice for men’s sins.
- Jesus the judge of all (Lk.
- The Holy Spirit
- Repentance (3:3; Mt. 3:2) and baptism for
remission of sins (Mk. 1:4).
- The life of faith
and self-denial (Lk.3: 10-14).
resurrection of the Redeemer; “the Word of our God shall rise up for
ever” (Is. 40:8); Matthew 14:2 also implies that John had taught a
doctrine of resurrection.
- The kingdom of God (Mt.
3:2; 4:17 are identical).