Why did John baptize?

One of the best explanations of water baptism is found in Romans 6:1–7. It teaches us that we must die to sin, be buried in water, and then be raised to walk a new life, just as Christ died, was buried, and was raised. This baptism places someone “into Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27)1. With the opportunity for “newness of life” (Romans 6:4) through submitting to Christ in baptism, there is no wonder why Paul claims that if someone “is in Christ, he is a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17). We’re also told, “if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection” (Romans 6:5). What wonderful assurance from God’s word!

When considering this point in the context of the entire New Testament, one question that naturally arises is, “Why did John the Baptist baptize?” If baptism is to unite someone with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, how is it that John could baptize people before Jesus had even died? A further puzzling question arises when we see that John “appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). Jesus’ death had not occurred at this point; therefore, all who wanted to live godly lives were to submit to the Law of Moses (Hebrews 8–9). Didn’t the Law of Moses enforce animal sacrifices as part of God’s plan for the forgiveness of sins? Indeed, it did (see Leviticus 4). Then, why did John teach baptism?

The identity of John the Baptist

John the Baptist is a very key person in the gospel of Jesus Christ. First, it must be established that John the Baptist was not a member of the Baptist denomination, nor did he start the Baptist Church. He lived and died as a Jew under the Law of Moses 1,600 years before the Baptist Church was started by men. The very first time that the word church is used in the English Bible is found after John the Baptist had already been executed (see Matthew 16:18). In that context, Jesus explains that when the church came, the kingdom would also arrive, and, also according to Jesus, John the Baptist never saw the kingdom on earth (Matthew 11:11). The Bible never mentions a Baptist Church. John is the only one in the Bible who is called a Baptist. The reason why he was given that title is because he appeared on the scene preaching and administering baptism. To call John a Baptist is to call him a baptizer.

It’s also helpful to understand that John the Baptist is not the same as John the apostle. John the Baptist came before Jesus, and John the apostle was chosen by Jesus. John the Baptist was executed in the middle of Christ’s earthly ministry. As far as we know, John the apostle was the last of Jesus’ apostles living, surviving about sixty years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. During the apostle’s Great Commission, John the apostle authored five New Testament books (the gospel of John, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Revelation). However, the only words of John the Baptist we have recorded are found in books written by men other than him. John the Baptist was Jesus’ older relative in the flesh. John the apostle was not related to Christ in the flesh (as far as we know), but was known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”

The Old Testament prophets, Isaiah and Malachi, prophesied of John the Baptist’s coming, and reading these texts will help us understand why John baptized.

A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up, And every mountain and hill be made low; And let the rough ground become a plain, And the rugged terrain a broad valley; Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, And all flesh will see it together; For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Isaiah 40:3–5

Like many prophesies, this one had a double fulfillment. Its first fulfillment had to do with the Hebrews’ return to Israel from Babylonian exile. Of course, the second fulfillment was made through John the Baptist (Mark 1:2–3). God promised through Malachi:

Behold, I am going to send My messenger [John], and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord [Christ], whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming.

Malachi 3:1

John would come “in the spirit of Elijah” (Luke 1:17) “before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5). Since both Isaiah and Malachi prophesied that he would come before Christ to prepare the way for him, the ministry of John the Baptist can be summed up with the word forerunner or preparer. He was preparing a nation of hard-hearted people under the self-righteous leadership of the legalistic Pharisees and misinformed Sadducees, whom John calls a “brood of vipers” in Matthew 3:7. God, in all His wisdom, sent John to prepare the way of the Most High (Luke 1:76). He came preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2), which was the same thing Jesus came preaching (Matthew 4:17), which was also the same thing Christ sent His apostles to do on their first mission (Matthew 10:7). John, in the spirit of Elijah, prepared the world for Jesus. Jesus, in His authoritative teaching, prepared the world for the kingdom, which would not be based on location or race (John 4:21–24; 18:36; Romans 1:16; Galatians 3:28). Without John’s preparations, the gospel may have been rejected by even more people.

Why John baptized

In his preparations for the Messiah, John “came baptizing in water” (John 1:30–31). He is the first person in the Bible to teach about or to administer water baptism. Those who received John’s baptism confessed their sins (Matthew 3:6), repented of their sins (Mark 1:4), and believed the gospel (Mark 1:15), which means they believed in Jesus, who was to come after John (Acts 19:4). They did all of this “for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4) in an attempt to “flee from the wrath to come” (Matthew 3:7–12). Although a person under the Law of Moses was still bound by the laws found therein, being baptized by John also prepared a person for the Lord and His kingdom and a change of covenant (Luke 1:17).

The authority of John’s baptism

At about the same time as John, the Jews had a cleansing ritual called mikvah, where they would immerse themselves for various purposes and at different occasions. Although this tradition is not instructed in the Old Testament Scriptures, it was a widely-accepted tradition among the Jewish community that the New Testament says nothing about. The first time God sent someone to immerse others was when He sent John to “the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4).

Jesus showed His approval of John’s baptism by having his disciples administer it (John 4:1–2), and He inferred that John’s baptism was given by God in his conversation with the Pharisees in Matthew 21:23–27. By inspiration, Luke informs us that those who received John’s baptism accepted God’s justice, but those who rejected John’s baptism “rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (Luke 7:29–30). Two questions:

  1. If John’s baptism was so authoritative, should we observe it today?
  2. If rejecting John’s baptism was to reject God’s purpose for life, then what of those who reject the baptism Jesus teaches?

Eight different baptisms are referred to in the New Testament. Some of them are metaphorical, and some of them are physical. They are:

  • Water baptism administered by John for repentance (Matthew 3:5–6)
  • Water baptism Jesus received (Matt. 3:13–17)
  • Baptism with fire (Matthew 3:11)
  • Baptism of suffering (Matthew 20:22)
  • Baptism with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4–5)
  • Baptism of Moses (1 Corinthians 10:2)
  • Baptism in regard for the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29)
  • Water baptism for all nations (Matthew 28:19)

Although eight different baptisms are mentioned in the New Testament, by the time the letter to the Ephesians was written, which was about AD 63, Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, claimed that there was “one baptism” (Ephesians 4:4–6). In fact, when Paul was in Ephesus, he found about twelve men referred to as disciples who had been baptized with John’s baptism. When discussing the Holy Spirit with them, Paul told them that John’s baptism was already outdated, saying:

“John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Acts 19:4–5

The baptism that is by Jesus’ authority is that “one baptism” mentioned in Ephesians 4:4–6. That point is further emphasized when Jesus commands it of “all nations” (Matthew 28:18–20) and “every creature” (Mark 16:15–16). In fact, out of all eight baptisms, water baptism into Jesus is the only baptism commanded of the audience of the gospel. When Peter commanded people to be baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” he told them, “For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself” (Acts 2:38–39). Returning to our questions, then:

  1. Since John’s baptism was to prepare people for the coming of Jesus and His kingdom, John’s baptism is no longer valid and must not—in fact, cannot—be observed.
  2. To reject the baptism Jesus commands today is to be denied life with Jesus.

The folks in Acts 19 learned that their original baptism was not what Jesus had commanded them to do. Because of that, they had not received the promises of the gospel. How about you? Have you truly compared your experience with that of Scripture? What will you do if you find out your experience is not what is commanded by Christ?

When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Acts 19:5

The death of Jesus was clearly a historical marker. When He taught people about eternal life and salvation before His death, He included John’s baptism, as well as teachings found in the Law of Moses, like He did with the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16–22. However, after His death, He included the teachings of the new covenant, which involve water baptism “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 28:18–20; Mark 16:15–16; Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21). Jesus could not have preached this baptism until after His death, since it corresponds with His death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:1–7).

John the Baptist was a key character before and during the ministry of Christ. It was his job to point to “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Without John the Baptist, the nation of Israel would have not been prepared for the authoritative teaching of Christ and His kingdom. He came baptizing in order to fulfill his preparation duties, since Jesus’ teachings also include water baptism. Although John’s baptism was for “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4), it was only authoritative for a few years. After the death of Christ, and the ushering in of the new covenant (Hebrews 9:15-17), the water baptism of the great commission took the place of John’s baptism. The baptism that Jesus commands of all nations is the “one baptism” commanded of all nations, which one must fulfill in order to obey the gospel of Jesus Christ today.

  1. Scripture quotations taken from the (NASB®) New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ↩︎
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