So where does faith fit into the picture, if at all? Well, to a Jew, faith and repentance were inseparable concepts. How can you love your Father and not obey him? How can you trust God’s promises and refuse to care for the poor or use power to oppress the weak?
But faith, at this time, was in a Messiah yet to be revealed. It was faith in God’s messianic and Kingdom promises — combined with an eager expectation that the Messiah would soon appear and bring the Spirit promised by the prophets — that is, baptism of the Spirit, who would soon be outpoured like water falling from heaven.
So what are the salvific implications? Here’s the best I can make of it —
- Obviously, those who submitted to John’s baptism had their sins forgiven — but Jews were saved by faith, going all the way back to Abraham. It seems improbable that God took away salvation by faith and replaced it with salvation by faith plus John’s baptism. After all, there were Jews living all across the Empire. It was physically impossible for most to be immersed by John, and many likely never heard of John until some time after the crucifixion. It was a big Empire, and communications were very slow.
- The Spirit was not received by John’s baptism — and this is a big distinction from Acts 2:38. But neither was JTB’s baptism a one-time forgiveness. The goal was to get right with God — to restore right relationship, that is, to re-enter God’s chesed or grace.
- To me, John seems to have been launching a national movement of repentance in hopes of obtaining God’s forgiveness for the nation as promised in Deu and Lev. God sent one final prophet cut out of the OT cloth to beg his people to repent in time for the Messiah’s coming. That is, this is more about God’s chosen people being restored as a nation to right relationship than individuals being saved to go to heaven when they die. It’s not that no Jew was saved up to this time, but that the nation as a whole was damned and the nation needed to return to God in repentance — which would prepare the way for the Messiah.
- These are final words of the OT —
(Mal. 4:1-6 ESV) “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2 But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. 3 And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts.
4 “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.
5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
- V. 1 is the source of JTB’s promise of baptism with fire. It’s the wrath of God on an unrepentant nation. But there’s also this promise of restoration and the return of God to Zion —
(Isa. 40:1-5 ESV) Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
- John’s appearing thus portended both forgiveness and damnation — baptism with the Spirit or with fire. Make your choice!
- That doesn’t mean individuals weren’t forgiven but that the goal was for so many individuals to repent that God would bring an end to the Exile, pour out his Spirit, inaugurate the Kingdom, and enthrone the Messiah.
So why not just repent? Why be immersed? Because to the Eastern mind, relationship with God was more about what you do than what you believe. More exactly, “faith” was nothing unless enacted. It was not a mere mental state. It was a choice revealed by actions.
The natural act of repentance would have been a sacrifice at the Temple — but that would have sent the wrong message. After all, God was about to provide the sacrifice! No, a new covenant soon to come required a new marker of repentance — something with deep roots in the Hebrew scriptures but not tied to a system that would soon be swept away.
To complete the story, as Paul teaches in Rom 9 – 11, most of Israel rejected JTB and Jesus. Only a remnant was faithful and so saved. The Exile only ended for the faithful few. But even though the Jews largely rejected their Messiah, God kept his covenant promises to those who believed in Jesus. He saved them by faith, and the early Jewish converts became the means by which God blessed the nations through Abraham’s children.
For the rest, well, Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed a second time by pagans, and a million or more Jews were killed and many more were sold into slavery — all despite warnings by JTB, Jesus, and the apostles. In fact, one could read the early chapters of Acts as the story of God giving yet one more warning to repent and so avoid the calamity promised by the Torah to those who rebel against God.
The baptism of JTB is thus part of the warning and the promises given by God to his people, begging them to return to him in repentance before it’s too late.