John was known as ho baptistēs (the “baptist” or “baptizer”) (Matt. 3:1).1 The English word “baptism” is a transliteration of the Greek noun baptisma (verb baptizō), which biblically means to plunge, submerge, or immerse in water (cf. Mark 1:5, 8-10; John 3:23). All candidates of John’s baptism already had faith in God and were then called upon to believe on Christ Jesus for whom John was preparing the way (John 1:15, 23; Acts 19:4).
Those immersed by John came “confessing their sins” (Matt. 3:6), and the baptism he preached was “a baptism of repentance” (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; cf. Matt. 3:2, 11). Biblically defined, repentance involves (a) godly sorrow, (b) turning from sin, (c) turning to God, and (d) an observable reformation of life (Matt. 3:8; Luke 1:17; 3:8; cf. Acts 3:19, 26; 26:18-20; 2 Cor. 7:9-10). While multitudes submitted to the baptism John preached, many did not (Matt. 3:7; 21:25, 32; Luke 7:30b). To reject John’s message and the baptism it included was to reject “the will of God” (Luke 7:30a; cf. 20:4).
John’s baptism was “a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Mark 1:4; cf. Luke 1:77; 3:3).2 So how did this work, seeing that there is no remission without the shedding of blood (Heb. 9:22), the blood of animals could not take away sins (Heb. 10:4), and Jesus’ blood had not yet been shed? When the Lord was crucified, forgiveness was made available to everyone through his blood (Matt. 26:28; Heb. 9:28; 10:12), including all who were faithful to God before Christ’s death (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 9:15; Gal. 4:4-5). John’s disciples, as penitent baptized believers, were thus forgiven in view of the Lord’s atoning sacrifice.
This “baptism of repentance for the remission of sins,” administered by John and then by Jesus and his disciples (John 3:5, 22-26; 4:1-2), laid the groundwork for the establishment of Christ’s church. Note that John’s ministry was intended “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17). On the Day of Pentecost after the Lord’s resurrection and ascension, penitent believers whose sins were remitted at baptism “were added to them” (Acts 2:41). To whom were they added? They would have been added to the faithful disciples of Jesus who had already undergone a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins (cf. Acts 1:13-15).3
Following the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, John’s baptism gave way to baptism in the likeness of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-5; cf. Eph. 2:1-6; 4:5). John the baptizer had fulfilled his purpose of preparing the way for the Lord (cf. Luke 1:16-17, 76), and Jesus had completed his work of atonement. Now it was time for the next phase of God’s scheme of redemption to be initiated through the Spirit-guided apostles (John 15:25-26; 16:12-13). Baptizing penitent believers for the remission of sins was now an essential step in the disciple-making process (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:37-38).
Over two decades after the Pentecost event, an Alexandrian Jew named Apollos was still teaching the baptism of John in the Asian city of Ephesus until he was shown the way of God more accurately (Acts 18:24-26). When Paul arrived on the scene, he found twelve disciples who had been immersed “into John’s baptism,” and he immersed them again (Acts 19:1-7), apparently because they had received the limited instruction of John’s baptism (by Apollos?) when it was no longer in effect.
The baptisms before the cross were preparatory for God’s approaching kingdom (Matt. 3:1-6; John 3:1–4:2), and Christ’s death on the cross was the transitional point between the old covenant of the Jews and his own new covenant system (Col. 2:14; Heb. 9:15-17). Because John effectively prepared the way for the Lord in “all the region around the Jordan” (Luke 3:3; cf. John 1:28; 3:23, 26),4 the teaching and influence of Jesus readily extended further into Galilee, as far north as Syria, as far south as Idumea, and eastward beyond the Jordan in Decapolis and Perea (Matt. 4:23-25; Mark 3:7-8). From here the gospel of the kingdom would then be taken “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:3, 8). “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matt. 11:11).
--Kevin L. Moore
1 See also Matt. 11:11, 12; 14:2, 8; 16:14; 17:13; Mark 6:24, 25; 8:28; Luke 7:20, 28, 33; 9:19; cf. F. Josephus, Antiquities 18.5.2.
2 Why did Jesus undergo John’s baptism (Mark 1:9-11)? Jesus was not baptized for the remission of sins, since he had no sin (Heb. 4:15). Jesus was baptized “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15), i.e. it was the right thing for him to do. He set an example for his followers, none of whom could legitimately say, “I reject baptism because Jesus wasn’t baptized.” Jesus’ baptism was not necessarily for his own benefit but apparently for the benefit of those around him.
3 Baptism as a requisite of entering God’s kingdom was observed prior to the Day of Pentecost (Matt. 21:31-32; Luke 3:3; 16:16; John 3:5, 22-23) and continued thereafter (Acts 8:12).
4 “Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:4; cf. Matt. 3:5-6). This statement appears to be hyperbolic, seeing that not everyone in the region submitted to John’s baptism (cf. Luke 7:30), but his influence was widespread among a variety of people, including tax collectors and soldiers (Luke 3:12, 14; 7:29).
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