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History of Baptism: John's Baptism
Sacraments, Lesson 3
Last week, we discussed some historical background for baptism from the Old Testament. This week, we’ll look at the historical background for baptism in the New Testament. In particular, we’ll look at John’s baptism.
Who Is John?
John the Baptist was a relative of Jesus. You can read about his birth in Luke 1. His mother, Elizabeth, was related to Jesus’s mother, Mary. John was a special baby, born to Elizabeth and Zechariah after many years of not being able to conceive. Zechariah was a priest who served in the temple, and the angel Gabriel visited him to tell him the good news that his wife would become pregnant and have a son. He was to name this son John, and this son would prepare the people for Jesus. John would be the messenger referred to in these prophecies:
Mark 1:2b-3: “I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”— [from Malachi 3:1]
3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’” [from Isaiah 40:3]
When John grew up, he began his ministry to prepare people for the coming of the Messiah. John was considered a prophet, and he preached mainly in the wilderness of Judea. He was described in this way in Matthew 3:4:
John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.
John had two main themes to his ministry:
Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins
Mark 1:4: And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Point toward Jesus
Mark 1:7-8: 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Let’s look at each of these themes in turn.
Baptism of Repentance for the Forgiveness of Sins
First, let’s define some of the terms in the phrase “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Baptism: In John’s day, baptism involved being immersed in water, as we saw in our first lesson on “What Is Baptism?”
Forgiveness: Forgiveness is God’s ultimate gift to us—he remembers our sins no more, as we saw in our lessons on I John 1 and God is Forgiving. Because he does not remember our sins, he sees us through Christ’s righteousness and accepts us into fellowship with him.
Sins: Sins are all the things we’ve done that are not aligned with God’s will. We see the introduction of sin into human lives in Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve disobey God’s command.
As John preached his message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, people who heard him confessed their sins and were baptized.
Matthew 3:5-6: 5 People went out to him [John] from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
At this point, did the people understand their need for Jesus? Probably not—although they may have been looking forward to the promised Messiah. But through John’s message, they did understand the essential message that they were sinners, they needed to repent, and they needed forgiveness from someone greater than themselves. This is the starting point to belief in Jesus.
Point Toward Jesus
Whenever John spoke to the people, he always pointed toward Jesus. He always talked about someone greater coming after him. But because of John’s popularity and the success of his message, many people thought that he might be the Messiah. Over and over again, John denied this claim. He was very clear throughout his whole ministry that he was not the Messiah and that he was only preparing the way for the Messiah. He always faithfully pointed people toward Jesus. This is especially evident in John 1:19-28:
19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”
21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”
He said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
He answered, “No.”
22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”
24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
As Jesus’s ministry began to take form, Jesus and his disciples also began to baptize, and John’s follower’s became distraught that Jesus was taking away John’s followers. John answered this concern with great humility:
John 3:27-30: 27 To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. 28 You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ 29 The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. 30 He must become greater; I must become less.”
John knew his place in history. His place was not to become the Savior of the world. His place was to point people toward Jesus and start them on the path toward salvation in Christ.
John Baptizes Jesus
In an interesting turn of events, one day while John is baptizing people, Jesus approaches and asks to be baptized. We looked at this interaction in more detail in our Bible Essentials lesson on Matthew 3. Let’s ready this short story again:
Matthew 3:13-17: 13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
John immediately recognized who Jesus was and stated that he needed Jesus to baptize him, not the other way around! But Jesus insists on being baptized. Why? It’s not because Jesus needed to repent of his sins and be forgiven. Hebrews 4:14-15 tells us that Jesus was without sin:
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.
Instead, Jesus needed to be baptized to “fulfill all righteousness.” This was a turning point in Jesus’s life and ministry. This was when Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, joined forces with the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, to preach, teach, perform miracles, and ultimately sacrifice his life for the forgiveness of sins. Not for his own sins, but for the sins of the whole world. Jesus’s baptism started him down the path that would bring righteousness to all people.
John’s Baptism Is Insufficient
As we continue reading in the New Testament, especially in Acts, where we read about the beginning of the early church after Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension, we find that even though John’s practice of baptism continues, it doesn’t seem to be enough. Even John himself indicated that his baptism wasn’t enough:
Matthew 3:11: “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
After the Holy Spirit is given to believers in Acts 2, where the Holy Spirit appears on the people like tongues of fire, many believers have not yet heard of this gift of the Holy Spirit. The only baptism they know is John’s baptism. But when they hear about the Holy Spirit, they were once again baptized into Jesus’s name and received the Holy Spirit.
Acts 19:1-7: 1 While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
3 So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”
“John’s baptism,” they replied.
4 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. 7 There were about twelve men in all.
Throughout Acts, once the people heard about the Holy Spirit, they recognized that there is more to baptism than John’s baptism of repentance. They needed to be baptized into Jesus Christ, and they needed to receive the Holy Spirit.
Where are you on your path to baptism? Have you been baptized as an infant? Have you recognized your need to repent of your sins, but haven’t yet recognized your need for Jesus? Or have you been baptized into Jesus and received the Holy Spirit in your life? If you have not yet taken the step to be baptized into Jesus, I encourage you to consider doing so.