(John 3:22-24 ESV) 22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized 24 (for John had not yet been put in prison).
Now, we see Jesus unambiguously adopting water baptism as a practice. Why?
To save them, right? But the Kingdom had not yet come. They were Jews. Why not tell them to go to Jerusalem and offer a sacrifice? Had the rules changed so that sacrifice no longer worked? Nothing says that.
Did God create a new method of salvation, contrary to the Mosaic covenant? Well, consider these verses —
(Mar 1:4 KJV) 4 John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
(Luk 3:3 KJV) 3 And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins;
I quote from the KJV to emphasize the similarity of these verses with Acts 2:38. In the Greek, “for the remission of sins” is identical in all three verses. Sins were remitted — forgiven — at the point of baptism by John, years before the crucifixion.
And yet baptism was by no means the exclusive means of obtaining forgiveness. After all, Jesus forgave with a word in response to those with faith. The Temple sacrifices still worked. But God was breaking out of the mold and forgiving based, not on ritual, but according to Psalm 51 —
(Psa 51:16-17 ESV) 16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Long before John the Baptist, God was forgiving sins based on repentance, without regard to the terms of the covenant then in effect. The Law of Moses plainly requires sacrifice, and yet for one of the darkest sin in human history, God required no sacrifice other than brokenness.
What does this tell us about the character of God? What sort of being forgives without even being asked, as Jesus so often did, based on faith?
You see, during this time, God’s forgiveness was freely given, not based on ritual or ceremony but on faith — based on the heart. Repentance was required, of course, and that’s why John’s baptism worked remission — it was also a baptism of repentance.
There’s another angle here. The prophets had long promised the Kingdom. The idea that one would enter the Kingdom through confession and repentance was ancient.
(Jer 7:2-7 ESV) 2 “Stand in the gate of the LORD’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the LORD. 3 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’
5 “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.”
It was expected that entry into the Kingdom would require repentance, and John the Baptist could hardly have prepared the nation for the coming of the Messiah any other way.
Baptism by John was a baptism of repentance, which resulted in forgiveness. It carried great symbolic meaning, even before Pentecost and the church. It spoke of the need to have sins cleansed by God through repentance. It spoke of the God washing his people clean, in the language of the prophets.
And it is no coincidence that John and Jesus baptized in the Jordan River. Israel had to cross through that river to enter the Promised Land. It was an act of faith — of reliance on God — that the first generation who left Egypt was unwilling to take. To cross the Jordan is not only to enter the Promised Land but to trust God for salvation.
Of course, the Jordan was also symbolically the line between the Promised Land the wilderness. It’s to leave the desert and enter the land of milk and honey. And the Jews would not have missed this in a culture that often comminicated by symbol.
By baptizing in the Jordan, Jesus not only symbolically approved John’s work, he ratified John’s message — the Kingdom is dawning and so it’s time to repent! God will forgive and permit entry into this Kingdom for those who repent and trust God. Salvation is not based on birthrite or heritage but on choosing to turn toward God.
Implicitly, it was also a condemnation of the status quo. Why repent if everything is great? If God is pleased? The message is that the religious leaders weren’t teaching the right message — indeed, even the Pharisees needed to repent despite their scrupulous obedience of the Law.
It’s no wonder that the religious leaders didn’t much care for John the Baptist. The people considered him a prophet, but his entire ministry condemned them! And Jesus joined in that condemnation by baptizing as well.
Now, of course, it’s also true that baptism was a precursor to Christian baptism. But the message wasn’t: “Get ready for a new ritual for being saved.” It was: “Repent! The Kingdom is coming!”
(John 3:25-26 ESV) 25 Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. 26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness — look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”
John’s disciples, however, saw Jesus as a competitor. Doubtlessly, they enjoyed the big crowds and being associated with a great prophet.
(John 3:27-30 ESV) 27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”
John, however, was humble, essentially saying, “It’s not about me.” His job was to prepare the way for Jesus. Jesus’ success and John’s diminishing role were inevitable if he did his job well.
(John 3:31-32 ESV) 31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony.
At this point, it appears that the author is speaking for himself. Jesus is supreme: “above all,” and, as John has said before, Jesus speaks of heavenly things with first-hand authority. And yet he was largely rejected by his own people.
(John 3:33-34 ESV) 33 Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. 34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure.
To accept Jesus is to accept God. Implicitly, to reject Jesus is to call God a liar. This is one reason that you cannot reject Jesus and yet claim to have faith in God! It’s a central point of the New Testament.
Regarding v. 34, the NET Bible translators comment,
Grk “for not by measure does he give the Spirit” (an idiom). Leviticus Rabbah 15:2 states: “The Holy Spirit rested on the prophets by measure.” Jesus is contrasted to this. The Spirit rests upon him without measure.
Why does that matter? Because to a First Century Jew, the presence of the Spirit marked a prophet, making his words reliable, as though from God himself. If Jesus had the Spirit “without measure,” then his words are even more inspired, more reliable, than those of the prophets.