Was “John’s baptism” relevant to Christian baptism?

by May Tam
The Baptism of the Lord

Isaiah 40:1-5,9-11

Titus 2:11-14;3:4-7

Luke 3:15-16,21-22

Last year, my reflection on the Baptism of Jesus focused on the Son’s humility and His submission to the Father(click here to read). Today, I would like to reflect on the kind of baptism that John ministered. As Christ’s precursor, John’s preaching and baptizing were an integral part of his ministry, setting him apart from the other prophets in the past.

A loan word from the Greek word baptizo which means to “dip, immerse”, the word “baptism” is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament. But when John cried out in the desert, “the crowds went out to be baptized by him” (Lk 3:7), showing that people in his time might have already familiarized with some “baptismal” practices. [Note: Gentiles who wished to become “proselytes of the covenant” (Judaized) must undergo similar ritual cleansing. Jews practiced regularly water ceremonies for ritual impurities (mikvah) required by the Mosaic Law (Lev 15:5; 22:6-7, Mark 7:4)].

Though “John’s baptism” (cf Acts 1:22; 19:3-4) was similar to the existing rituals outwardly, it was used by John in an entirely new way. It was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk 3:3). Mirroring his preaching (Lk 3:7-14), this “baptism of repentance” was a sign of spiritual redirection, a conversion that required the penitent to renounce the corrupted past and turn back to God. In doing so, the penitent was delivered or freed from the bondage of sin. Hence this baptism was also a “baptism of hope”, a symbol of a new future, a new life in allegiance to God. Yet this baptism was merely a preparatory and anticipatory rite, not an end in itself.

It was preparatory because John’s mission was to prepare the way for the Lord. By calling the people to repent, he was getting them ready for God’s approaching salvation. The washing aspect of his baptism was a symbol of cleansing and purifying the heart. It was anticipatory because he declared that “one who is more powerful than I is coming…….He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Lk 3:16). If John considered Jesus superior to himself, then “Jesus’ baptism” would surely be more effectual since the actual agent of purification and empowerment was the Holy Spirit. The outward physical sign signified the inward spiritual reality. As Christians, we now know that “Jesus’ baptism” is closely linked to His death and resurrection, a rebirth which brings about grace and redemption (Gal 3:27, Rom 6:3, 1Cor 12:13). Through it, we are given a new identity (Gal 4:7, Rom 8:17) in sharing His Sonship with the Father.

So was “John’s baptism” relevant to Christian baptism? As a precursor, John had gone before Christ by birth and his preaching echoed that of His (Mt 4:17; Mk 1:15). His baptism was also meant to be a foreshadowing of the new birth (Jn 3:5-7) brought about by the actual Sacrament which Jesus later established. Though “John’s baptism” was imperfect and incomplete, together with the many other typologies in the Old Testament, it awaited its fulfillment and completion upon the arrival of the Messiah.