Were the disciples of Christ baptizing in the same manner as John the Baptist and his disciples ? If so, wasn’t that baptism just an outward expression of a repentance, changing of their ways ? Seems so. How else could baptism for salvation be augmented into the Old Law when Jesus said not one thing would be altered ? And, was this salvation only to those that were fortunate enough to hear this new teaching ?
The scriptures leave a lot of questions about John the Baptist (JTB) unanswered. And we usually come at JTB asking how it impacts the Plan of Salvation. We see baptism solely in terms of its effect on our individual salvation. This is, of course, a hugely important question, but it’s not the only question or the only point of John’s baptism — as I understand it.
I think there are several meanings of John’s baptism.
- We know from Acts 19 as well as the Gospel passages that John’s baptism was “for repentance.” But repentance from what? To accomplish what? We’d like to say, “Repent of your sins,” but what sins were so severe in 30 AD or so that God needed to send a prophet to offer a path for forgiveness?
- Two Gospels record that John’s baptism was “for the forgiveness of sins,” which is letter-for-letter the same as we read in Acts 2:38. “For” translates eis, most naturally meaning “into.”
(Mk. 1:4 ESV) John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
(Lk. 3:3 ESV) And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
The text speaks of “repentance for [into] the forgiveness of sins.” I think this refers not to some proto-Christian plan of salvation or a separate, new, brief dispensation, but to God’s promises made in Deu 30 relating to the end of Exile.
(Deut. 30:1-6 ESV) “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, 2 and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. 4 If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. 5 And the LORD your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. 6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”
Also Leviticus —
(Lev. 26:40-45 NAS) 40 ‘If they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their forefathers, in their unfaithfulness which they committed against Me, and also in their acting with hostility against Me — 41 I also was acting with hostility against them, to bring them into the land of their enemies — or if their uncircumcised heart becomes humbled so that they then make amends for their iniquity, 42 then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and My covenant with Abraham as well, and I will remember the land. 43 ‘For the land shall be abandoned by them, and shall make up for its sabbaths while it is made desolate without them. They, meanwhile, shall be making amends for their iniquity, because they rejected My ordinances and their soul abhorred My statutes. 44 ‘Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, nor will I so abhor them as to destroy them, breaking My covenant with them; for I am the LORD their God. 45 ‘But I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God. I am the LORD.'”
The Greek word translated “repent” is used in the OT (LXX) almost always of God. It didn’t become used of humans repenting of sin until intertestamental times. So it’s no surprise that the Torah doesn’t say “repent.” But the idea is plainly there.
JTB taught “repentance” in these terms —
(Lk. 3:9-14 ESV) “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
These are not new commands. John is teaching the ethical side of Torah, and so his emphasis is on concern for the poor and the oppressed. He teaches care for the poor and a refusal to abuse power — righteousness and justice — going back to God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen 18:19).
Since JTB was preaching the coming of the Kingdom and Messiah, any Jew of that time and place would have thought of the end of Exile and God’s Torah promises. How do I enter the Kingdom? By returning to God in humility, confessing my iniquity, and seeking God’s favor.
The Jews saw “salvation” in terms of history and narrative. The great question for them was not “How do I go to heaven when I die?” but “How does Israel restore its relationship with God so that the nation will no longer be under the curse of Exile — and so the Kingdom will come?”
In other words, John’s ministry, while requiring individual repentance and baptism, spoke to the great national need to get right with God — and he would have been seen as preaching to the nation of Israel that the Kingdom is about to arrive and so it’s time for the nation to repent, as Moses taught.
Therefore, “forgiveness of sins” would be seen as a necessary step, not to go to heaven, but to bring about and to enter the Kingdom, as Exile was the punishment for their sins.
- John baptized in the Jordan. This has deep symbolic meaning, including at least —
— John was clearly re-enacting the ministry of Elijah, and this is one of the places where we know Elijah was active. Elijah prophesied at the time of Ahab and Jezebel, a time when only a remnant of Israelites remained faithful to God. To emulate Elijah not only fulfills the Elijah prophecies but also declares the Jews to be in the same sinful state as they were in when Elijah preached — which ultimately led to the Assyrian conquest and the permanent end of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. JTB appearing as Elijah was a warning that the Jews were in dire need of repentance.
— The Jordan River was the path from the wilderness into the Promised Land. To be baptized in the Jordan was to re-enact the renewal of God’s covenant as recorded in Deu and the entry into Canaan led by Joshua (which is the same Hebrew name as “Jesus”!) John’s baptism therefore was an act of re-covenanting — a national deed with individual implications.
- Scholars are beginning to conclude the proselyte baptism predates JTB, and so John’s baptism would have been a very humbling act by a Jew. As JTB said, it’s not enough to be a descendant of Abraham. You must enter by repentance, not birthright. You have to re-enter rather than assuming you’re already there. In other words, you’re no better than a Gentile proselyte — and must accept that fact to truly repent.
- John did not preach that the Kingdom had arrived but that it was imminent. Therefore, baptism and repentance weren’t for entry but to be ready to enter when the Messiah is revealed. It was an act of preparation.
- The Jews engaged in ritual washings to remove ceremonial impurity. This had become much more important by the time of Jesus than pre-Babylonian Captivity. Most mikvehs (mikvehim) found by archaeologists post-date Nehemiah and Ezra. To be immersed would be to admit of ceremonial impurity and a resulting separation from God. For example, Jews had to be immersed before entering the Temple, although the Torah has no such command. The risk of accidental contamination was enough for the rabbis insist on an immersion. Thus, the Kingdom is pictured by John as being like the Temple — making it the place where heaven and earth meet, where God truly dwells, and where God is worshiped.
- The Essenes rejected the Temple as not complying with Torah, and so they substituted immersion for the sacrificial system. It was a means of gaining God’s forgiveness among that group — likely based on the OT Spirit and water passages, mixed with the mikveh practices of mainstream Judaism.
[to be continued]