Who is John the Baptist and what was the purpose of his baptism?
When introduced to John the Baptist in the beginning of the gospels, the role he plays is essential to defining both what baptism is and who Jesus is. In the beginning of the Matthew (Chapter 3) and John’s (Chapter 2) gospel accounts it is revealed that the Pharisees send messengers to inquire about John the Baptist to discern who he claims to be and why he is baptizing. They are curious as to whether he is the Christ, Elijah or the (faithful) Prophet (John 1:19-22). He denies each of these titles and answers by simply quoting Isaiah 40:3 saying that he is a “voice crying out in the wilderness…” and points them to the one that will come after him whose “sandals he is unworthy to untie.” The Jews were used to their many forms of purification as we studied earlier, so while the act of purification was not foreign to them, the language used along with the massive number of recipients was. This was the basis for the Pharisees questioning. So what’s the difference between the baptism of John the Baptist and the baptism commissioned by Jesus in Matthew 28:19? Several times in scripture, John’s baptism is called a “baptism of repentance” (Luke 3:3, Mark 1:4, Acts 19:4) and this title is specific to John.
What does this mean?
Is it different than Jesus’ baptismal commission in Matthew 28:19?
To understand this, the person of John the Baptist, his purpose and work, must be understood. Scripture lays this out in detail. Isaiah 40:3 is where this study begins.
“A voice cries: Prepare ye the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
Traditionally, before the New Testament period, Isaiah 40:3 was viewed as fulfilled when the remnant of Judah returned from Babylonian captivity. The desert highway was the route of grace for those who remained faithful. Barry G. Webb, in his commentary on Isaiah, has a more astute observation when he says…
“Although there was a partial return from exile in the years following 539 B.C., spiritually the exile continued until the Messiah came. Only he could solve the deep, underlying problem.”
This is actually at the heart of the often misquoted Jeremiah chapter 29. Jeremiah has prophesied that Babylon will conquer Jerusalem but God will save for himself a remnant that will be exiled to Babylon. Chapter 29 is a letter of comfort to these exiles outlining the promises, hope and blessings they have and will be given for staying faithful. The promises include both spiritual and temporal blessings. The temporal blessings were fulfilled when the remnant returned from exile, but the spiritual blessings of hope and a future were still yet to be fulfilled. These blessings would be met in the person and work of the coming Messiah.
Malachi 3:1 says…
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.
This is the same verse that is quoted in Matthew 11:10, Mark 1:2 and Luke 7:27. Notice there is a distinction between the “messenger” who prepares the way (John) and the “messenger of the covenant” (Jesus). Therefore, looking through these lenses, John’s ministry is fully preparatory for the entrance of Christ. This means that in all things John is preparing, which includes baptism. John’s baptism of repentance, in light of Isaiah 40:3, is a call for Israel to return from their spiritual exile. Thus John’s baptism of repentance is for Israel alone and fully efficacious for the remission of their sins. Therefore, the Pharisees were looking for Elijah to return in the flesh as a fulfillment of the prophecy in Malachi 4:5 and thus sent messengers to ask if this was who John claimed to be. Malachi 4:5 says…
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the Prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord.”
John denies this claim which was true. He was not Elijah in the flesh but John who was naturally born of Zechariah and Elizabeth. That being said, how does this work in light of Matthew 17:10-13 where Jesus refers to John the Baptist as Elijah? Jesus was simply stating that John was a type of Elijah as he was the last prophet before Jesus Christ. All previous prophets pointed forward to Christ and the same is true for John, only in addition to pointing to his coming, he was also Jesus’ contemporary and thus prepares the way for him. The idea of preparing the way for Jesus’ ministry begins with Johns baptism of repentance. John’s preparatory baptism merges into Jesus’ ministry in John 3:26 and 4:1-2 when Jesus’ disciples begin to baptize alongside John. John’s view of this accompaniment is that he must decrease and Jesus must increase. R.C.H. Lenski puts it this way in his commentary on Matthew…
“In essence and efficacy both were the same. The Baptist’s was on the level of the revelation given at that time; that of Jesus on the level of his completed work. That of the Baptist made followers of the Christ about to come; That of Jesus followers of the Christ who had come. Both bestowed forgiveness; the one the forgiveness about to be wrought; the other the forgiveness that had been wrought. Thus the baptism of John was preparatory for Israel alone, Christ’s permanent for all nations. And only in this way that one made ready for and then gave way to the other.”
Therefore the only real difference between John’s preparatory baptism and Jesus’ is whom it is directed toward. John’s is for Israel and Jesus’ is for everyone. I would also like to address some confusion concerning John’s baptism as seen in Acts 19. When Paul arrives in Ephesus, he discovers some disciples who knew nothing of the Holy Spirit. Paul subsequently asks in whom they were baptized? They reply into John’s baptism. This appears to contradictory. The apostles and Apollos were also baptized into John’s baptism and it was fully efficacious not warranting a “re-baptism.” Paul makes sure to point out why their baptism wasn’t real; lack of knowledge of the work of Jesus or the Holy Spirit. These disciples were not familiar with Jesus nor had they heard of, let alone received the Holy Spirit in their baptism. This means that no baptism really took place. Paul lays hands on them and baptizes them in the triune name of God (in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit); which is how the Lord Jesus commanded in Matthew 28:19. The New Bible Commentary has a solid explanation…
“These people had received a baptism of repentance, which was in itself a good thing, but unlike Apollos (Acts 18:25), they did not seem to know anything about Jesus. We are not told that Apollos needed to be rebaptized (Priscilla and Aquila certainly would have been able to baptize them, if Ananias could baptize Paul, Acts 9:17-19). The probable difference was that Apollos knew about and trusted in the Messiah (having accurate, if incomplete knowledge about him, Acts 18:25-26) and saw his baptism in connection with that faith, whereas for these disciples, the baptism was merely a pledge of good behavior. They still needed to be baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.”
What is Repentance?
Now that the similarities and differences between John’s and Jesus’ disciples baptism have been established, it is important to look at and understand repentance as defined by scripture. These days, it seems common thought amongst Christians that repentance is something that the individual does in and of themselves. In this modern definition, I do the initial work and God takes care of the rest (by forgiving my sin). This is 180 degrees backwards from what scripture presents. Repentance is a gift that we cannot come to apart from God’s work. In Luke 15:3-7, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep.
So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
This is where we go to truly understand repentance. The shepherd in the parable is Jesus and we are the sheep. A sheep is lost, representing us, and the shepherd does all the work to find the sheep, then puts the sheep on his shoulders, rejoices and carries him back home. Notice that Jesus doesn’t make the sheep walk back on his own. This is purposeful. This shows that we do absolutely none of the work as we are only receptive of the life saving gift. In verse 7, Jesus concludes by saying that this parable is a picture of repentance. Repentance is Jesus finding us and carrying us home, therefore, it is not something we do. The only role we play in the story is that of getting ourselves lost, and when found, agreeing with Christ that we are indeed lost thus we cooperate by returning with him. Repentance is gifted agreeance with Christ. Repentance acknowledges that our sin is indeed sin and is in opposition to the will of God and thus receives forgiveness of sins as a gift given from Christ’s atoning work on the cross.
Summary thus far
In effect, John’s baptism is one of repentance, specifically for Israel and Christ’s baptism is one of repentance for all nations. John’s baptism calls the Jews from their spiritual exile while Jesus’ baptism expands the call to all nations. Both baptisms are fully efficacious and do precisely what scripture says they do; forgive sin. Neither baptism requires any work of our own because they both are 100% Christ’s work. In Mark 2, when the paralytic is lowered through the roof, Jesus first forgives the mans sin. The Pharisees respond in verse 7 by saying…
“Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
The Pharisees were right in saying that only God can forgive sin. By doing this Jesus claims His divinity and then proves it by healing the man’s temporal ailment allowing him to walk. Baptism, as described in scripture is no different. There are many passages that connect baptism to the forgiveness of sins. These verses will be investigated in the upcoming installments of this study on baptism. Before moving on, let’s look back to what was learned in week 1 of this study to begin to connect the Old Testament with the New Testament. In week 1 of this study, several examples of “means and promise” were studied. For the priest, washing feet and hands in the bronze basin before entering the tent of meeting was efficacious as it saved him from certain death. For the person in contact with the deceased, washing on the 3rd and 7th day was efficacious in allowing him to return to the community. This same “means and promise” purifies the leper as well as the scapegoat handler. In like manner, the New/Old Testament allegories (The flood narrative and the crossing of the Red Sea) point to baptism as accomplishing salvation. The Ezekiel prophecy in Chapter 36:24-27 says…
“I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanliness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
This prophecy also speaks of “means and promise.” The means is sprinkling with water and the promise is cleanliness, a new heart of flesh and gifting of the Holy Spirit. This prophecy points forward to both John’s baptism of repentance and Jesus’ baptism for the forgiveness of sins (and gifting of the Holy Spirit) as Jesus’ baptism engulfs John’s and expands it to all. There is no racial restriction. There is no cultural restriction. There is no gender restriction. There is no positional restriction.
There is no age restriction.
This statement of inclusion has been a topic of much debate in “modern” times. I am well aware of there being no verse that clearly states “baptism is for infants.” However, using this same poor hermeneutical principle, a case could be made that communion isn’t for women as there is no place in the Bible that records a woman taking communion, or where it says that women can take communion. We know this to be hogwash, but it goes a long way in making the point as I am equally aware of zero verses that restrict baptism from infants. Simply, the arguments used to validate women taking the Lord’s Supper are the same arguments historically used for affirming infant baptism. We cannot say this argument can be used for women and communion but not for baptism and infants. Matthew 28:19 says that we are to baptize all nations; children and infants are included in all nations. They are part of the census. They are counted. Galatians 3:28-29 states…
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
These verses are solely salvivic. They clearly state there is no division or distinction in Christ’s salvation plan. I understand that it does not specifically say “elderly or infant”, nor does it have to. Any of the distinctions made in the verse could be infant or elderly. The purpose of the list is the complete inclusiveness of Christ. If Paul had added a disclaimer excluding “infants” it would not be inclusive, but exclusive. Remember in Ephesians 1:4, Paul says that…
“even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.”
This statement is as inclusive as Galatians 3:28-29. If God chooses us, what does age have to do with anything? It is as irrelevant as our color, gender or social status. In addition, infants are in need of what baptism offers. Job 15:14, Psalm 51:5, John 3:6, Ephesians 2:3 and Romans 5:12 show that all are born under the curse of sin. No one is born good or innocent. In addition to believing what scripture says about this, there is also temporal proof. The proof is that infants die. Romans 6:23 says that the wages of sin is death. Therefore, with ample proof that all are born under the verdict of guilty, including infants, the reality of the necessity for baptism of all ages is presented. This will be revisited and expanded upon in Parts 5 and 6 of this study. In the meantime, stay tuned for next weeks installment “Part 4 – Why was Jesus baptized?”
Click here for “Christian Baptism Series – Part 4 – Why was Jesus Baptized”
Click here for “Christian Baptism Series – Part 2 – Jewish Rites of Purification & Pharisaical Law”