Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

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 it.

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 sins.”

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 administered.

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 system.

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” (Lk. 16:16).

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. Which?

Four other passages for the discerning:

The Lord’s own baptism

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 could bring.

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.

Instruction first

It is useful to note the various “First Principles” of the gospel which are traceable in the teaching of John:

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.

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