For the first part of this essay, see here. In the next three (or possibly four) installments, we'll be looking at baptism in the NT, beginning with John's baptism. And so, without further ado...
In this second part of the essay [i.e. the part dealing with baptism, which I'm serialising here], I intend to briefly overview the New Testament texts that deal with baptism. Because the references are rather more numerous than those for circumcision, I will group them into three broad groups: the baptism of John, baptism in the gospels and Acts, and baptism in the New Testament epistles. This method should allow for a sketch of the New Testament teaching on baptism to be made without exhaustively citing each text. As with the article on circumcision, I will offer minimal theological comment on the overview, with the intention of drawing some theological conclusions at the end. Because baptism, unlike circumcision, is a New Testament ordinance, I will also try to draw some practical conclusions. As previously, the point of the exercise is to learn, and I hope that people will graciously contradict me where they think that I am wrong.
The Baptism of John
The majority of the references to John’s baptism are found, as might be expected, toward the beginning of the gospel accounts. The synoptics all cite Isaiah 40, showing that they understand the ministry of John to be preparatory for the coming of Christ. His particular ministry is described in two ways: firstly, he was “preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt 3:1-2), and examples of his preaching are preserved in Matthew 3:7-12, Mark 1:7-8 and Luke 3:7-17. His message bears out his function as the one preparing the way: he urges repentance from sin, and encourages the people to look forward to one who is coming who will be greater than he is. Whereas John baptizes only with water, this coming person will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit.
This leads into the second part of John’s ministry, and the part which has earned him the epithet “the Baptist”: “they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matt 3:6). The other synoptics make the baptism itself the subject of John’s preaching: “John appeared…proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4, cf Luke 3:3). John’s baptism is accompanied by the confession of sins, and symbolises both the repentance of the person being baptised and the washing away of sins. This is essentially linked to John’s role as the forerunner, as is made particularly clear in John 1:31. He sees the imminent coming of the Christ as connected with the judgement of God coming on Israel (“who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” [Matt 3:7]), and calls those who will acknowledge their sinfulness to confess their sins and accept God’s forgiveness before that wrath falls. There are also overtones of ritual cleanness: those who are baptised are clean and therefore able to stand in the presence of God when he comes. (It is noteworthy in this connection that the Pharisees and scribes did not accept John’s baptism [Luke 7:30] – presumably because they considered themselves to already be pure). In this way, John prepares a people for the coming of Christ.
John’s baptism is important because it provides the immediate backdrop for the practise of baptism carried out by Christ and by the early church. However, it is clearly a temporary ordinance pointing forward, a fact underlined by Acts 19:1-5. Here Paul comes across some disciples who have no knowledge of the Holy Spirit, and after questioning them establishes that they have been baptised “into John’s baptism” (Acts 19:3). John, Paul points out, “baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is Jesus” (Acts 19:4). As a result, these disciples are “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5) and subsequently receive the Holy Spirit. This episode is important not only because it highlights the temporary and preparatory nature of John’s baptism, but also because it makes it clear that John’s baptism and Christian baptism are two different things. Otherwise, Paul would hardly have rebaptized this group!
Probably we are to understand the baptism of Christ as the climax of John’s ministry; certainly this fits with his testimony in John 1:31 that the purpose of his baptism was that the Christ be revealed to Israel. The continuation of John’s ministry beyond this point is marked by a decline, symbolised in John’s gospel by the disciples of John the Baptist leaving him (at his own instigation) to become the disciples of Christ (John 1:35-37). John’s gospel is also the only one to record that Jesus’ disciples baptized during his ministry (in 3:22, 4:2), and this baptism was apparently even more popular than John’s (3:26, 4:1). This is to be interpreted as a “handover” period – in John the Baptist’s words, from this point on Christ will increase and he himself will decrease. Given the scant references, it is difficult to pin down the theological significance of this baptism by Christ’s disciples. John’s aside that Jesus himself did not baptise may be significant: it seems likely that we should understand this not as full Christian baptism, but as a continuation of the preparatory ministry of John. Examining the nature and significance of Christian baptism will reinforce this conclusion.