The Baptism of John: Purpose, Participants, and Differences from New Covenant Baptism

“Saint John the Baptist Preaching” by Mattia Preti, circa 1665

This is the first in a series of essays on the topic of baptism as outlined in scripture.

Hello friends and thank you for taking the time to visit and read this first article addressing the subject of baptism. In my introductory letter, I hinted that there are at least three and possibly four different forms of baptism described in scripture. Today, I would like to start by examining the first such form: the baptism of John. I will first give some background on who John was and the significance of the baptisms that he administered, then I will differentiate this form of baptism from those that occur under the New Covenant.

Who was John the Baptist?

John, commonly known as “John the Baptist”, is often described as the last prophet to come before Christ, yet he had a unique role in history that is not exactly like any of the other prophets we read about in scripture. In fact, there was an Old Testament prophecy about his ministry in Isaiah 40:3. “A voice is calling, ‘Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.’” John is not mentioned by name in this passage and it is likely that the initial fulfillment came in Judah’s return from the Babylonian Exile, but the prediction is still cited in the New Testament as a reference to John the Baptist. (Matthew 3:2)

We learn from the Gospel of Luke that John was the son of the priest Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth, the latter being a relative of Mary the mother of Jesus. His miraculous birth was prophesied by the angel Gabriel who said, “And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 2:16-17) When John was born, his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit and made a prophecy about the boy.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

For you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways;

To give to His people the knowledge of salvation

By the forgiveness of their sins,

Because of the tender mercy of our God,

With which the Sunrise from on high will visit us,

To shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,

To guide our feet into the way of peace.

Luke 2:76-79

In these prophecies, we see the type of ministry to which John was called. It was not totally unlike that of previous prophets, but it certainly had some unique aspects. His job would be to draw the hearts of the people back to the Lord in anticipation of the arrival of the long-awaited savior. Certainly, the Old Testament prophets had called on Israel and Judah to repent and spoken about the Messiah, but what set John apart was the immediacy of the Messiah’s coming. The people to whom John ministered would actually see the Christ within their own lifetimes, or at the very least they would hear about him. No other prophet’s ministry was so specifically described as a supporting role to the Messiah.

“St. John the Baptist” by Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1513-16

There were other ways in which John the Baptist was set apart. Gabriel seemed to predict that John would by a lifelong Nazirite (see Numbers chapter 16) when he said “he will drink no wine or liquor”. (Luke 1:15a) In addition, while all of the true prophets received the Word of God through the Holy Spirit, Gabriel also prophesied that John would be “filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb”. (Luke 1:15b) The very fact that the angel stated this shows that it was not a normal thing. The Holy Spirit is clearly seen coming on certain Old Testament saints, but not indwelling them in a permanent way as occurred after Pentecost. There may be some who wish to quibble about the prophet Jeremiah, (Jeremiah 1:5) but I am not aware of any other passage that so explicitly states that a person would be filled with the Spirit while still in the womb. This was presumably on account of the particular ministry that was assigned to John.

The next thing we read about John is that at some point in his adulthood or young adulthood, he went out into the Judean wilderness and began preaching to the people. His common refrain was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2) Once again, we see the immediacy of what was occurring. The coming of the Messiah was no longer a distant promise, but was right around the corner. The hope of the ages was about to be fulfilled. Therefore, John called on the people to confess their sins and return to the Lord. He also called on them to be baptized.

Whom did John baptize?

The first thing that we must consider is who exactly John was baptizing. Matthew 3:5 tells us, “Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan…” This alone suggests to me that those who were baptized by John were Jews rather than Gentiles. However, there are two other references that point to the fact that John’s ministry was to his own people and not the world as a whole. In John 1:31, John says of Jesus Christ, “I did not recognize Him, but so that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing with water.” Furthermore, the Apostle Paul mentioned in one of his sermons that “John had proclaimed before His coming a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel”. (Acts 13:24)

In addition to these verses that seem to suggest that John’s ministry was to Israel and that it was the Jews who came out to see him, we also have a kind of argument from absence: had Gentiles been present and baptized, it likely would have caused a scandal and been worthy of mention. No, there is no evidence that John baptized anyone who was not Jewish. The significance is that all those whom John baptized were already part of the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants – that is, they were bound by the covenant of circumcision and the Mosaic Law. The baptism they were receiving from John was therefore not part of their entrance into those covenants. Rather, it was just what he said: a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

A mikveh (ritual purification bath) at the ancient Jewish site of Masada – photograph by Kat Sniffen

It is important to note that a concept of ritual purification with water certainly existed in Judaism long before John the Baptist. New converts would immerse themselves in a mikveh or ritual bath in a process known as tevilah. (A good resource on this practice as understood by Jews can be found here.) The Torah outlined bathing processes that must be used as part of ritual purification, as in Leviticus chapter 15. Mikvehs can still be seen at ancient Jewish sites like Masada. The idea that immersing one’s self in water was part of purification or even conversion was certainly a familiar one to those who heard John preach. However, rather than focusing on physical purification, John called on his listeners to cleanse their souls of sin. In this case, the cleansing with water was a metaphor for the cleansing within the heart.

John had one further requirement for those that received this baptism: they must be truly repentant. It was not enough for them to simply be a Jew in good standing. We see this very clearly when a group of Pharisees and Sadducees, likely hoping to piggy back on John’s popularity with the people, showed up and requested baptism. They did not get the welcome they were expecting.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father”; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’

Matthew 3:7-10

It is not enough, John says, to be a child of Abraham physically. He illustrates this vividly by stating “from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham”. He tells them to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” and warns that “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire”. Why is he using the metaphor of trees and fruit? There is a passage in the book of Isaiah where the Lord speaks of the people of Israel as a vineyard, and I think it is useful in understanding John’s words.

Let me sing now for my well-beloved

A song of my beloved concerning His vineyard.

My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill.

He dug it all around, removed its stones,

And planted it with the choicest vine.

And He built a tower in the middle of it

And also hewed out a wine vat in it;

Then He expected it to produce good grapes,

But it produced only worthless ones.

‘And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,

Judge between Me and My vineyard.

What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it?

Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes did it produce worthless ones?

So now let Me tell you what I am going to do to My vineyard:

I will remove its hedge and it will be consumed;

I will break down its wall and it will become trampled ground.

I will lay it waste;

It will not be pruned or hoed,

But briars and thorns will come up.

I will also charge the clouds to rain no rain on it.’

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel

And the men of Judah His delightful plant.

Thus He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed;

For righteousness, but behold, a cry of distress.

Isaiah 5:1-7

Vineyard with a watchtower in modern day Israel – photo by Ian Scott

The meaning is this: the nation of Israel, the children of Abraham, the members of the Mosaic Covenant were like a vineyard. They failed to bear the fruit of righteousness. Not only that but, as we see so often in the Prophets, they were unrepentant. Therefore, the Lord says that He is going to destroy His vineyard. What this meant in terms of the history of Israel and Judah is that they fell under the covenant curse and were exiled from the land. They were cast out of God’s favor. However, the prophets also spoke of a righteous remnant of the people of Israel that would be preserved. As Isaiah also said, “The surviving remnant of the house of Judah will again take root downward and bear fruit upward. For out of Jerusalem will go forth a remnant and out of Mount Zion survivors. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.” (Isaiah 37:31-32)

There is one sense in which the remnant was simply the group of Jews who were able to physically return to the Promised Land. However, there is another sense in which the remnant was that portion of the people of Israel whom God chose for Himself to bear the fruit of repentance and walk after His ways. He says through Zephaniah,

But I will leave among you

A humble and lowly people,

And they will take refuge in the name of the Lord.

The remnant of Israel will do no wrong

And tell no lies,

Nor will a deceitful tongue

Be found in their mouths;

For they will feed and lie down

With no one to make them tremble.

Zephaniah 3:12-13

How can these people be so righteous? Not because they had any righteousness in themselves, but because they repented and placed their faith in the salvation that comes from God alone. These are the people John the Baptist spoke of as being the true descendants of Abraham: those who were his descendants not only by blood, but by faith.

For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: ‘through Isaac your descendants will be named.’ That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.

Romans 9:6b-8

The Apostle Paul here indicates that there are children of Abraham according to the flesh and children of Abraham according to the promise. It is according to this latter sense that Paul also wrote, “Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.” (Galatians 3:7) He furthermore made clear that it was according to God’s election that this remnant of Israel was preserved on the basis of grace working through faith. “In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” (Romans 11:5-6) I could write much more about Paul’s teachings concerning the descendants of Abraham, but perhaps I have already deviated too far from the main point.

To sum up, John the Baptist refused to baptize the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him that day because they were not repentant. He proclaimed to the people, “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance…” (Matthew 3:11a) and he evidently refused to administer baptism to those who so obviously were not repentant in their hearts. However, he also went a step further and made the separation between the physical descendants of Abraham and the spiritual descendants. The former would be subject to divine judgment and reap the covenant curses. The latter were those whom John sought to baptize. I believe he was self-consciously identifying his ministry with the righteous remnant foretold by the Old Testament prophets.

How did he baptize them?

We have a few clues that point to the form that John’s baptism took. Matthew 3:6 says, “And they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins.” We see also in the account of Jesus’ baptism that He “arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John”. (Matthew 3:13a) The Gospel of John mentions another conversation that John the Baptist had with a group of Pharisees and adds, “These things took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.” (John 1:28) The Apostle John also notes at another point, “John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there…” (John 3:23a) From all of these verses, we can establish that John the Baptist performed his baptisms in the Jordan River.

Statue of John the Baptist at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome – author photo

Why is it important to note where the baptisms were taking place? Because it tells us something about the method that John used to baptize. The fact that he was performing baptisms in a river, combined with Matthew’s note that, “After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water,” (3:16a) seems to indicate that John’s baptism was by immersion. If he baptized by sprinkling, there would be no need to use a large body of water. If he baptized by pouring, then the phrase “came up immediately from the water” doesn’t make much sense. I cannot prove that in every case John baptized by immersion and not pouring, but it seems fairly clear that this was the general practice, at least as demonstrated in the baptism of Christ. It would have also been the most in line with Jewish ritual purification practices. However, before anyone accuses me of breaking my initial promise not to conclude how much water should be used in a baptism, I must note that John’s baptism was not one and the same with New Covenant baptism, as I will describe below.

One further clue is given to us. We are told that the people were baptized by John “as they confessed their sins”. (Matthew 3:6b) This is fully in line with the fact that John’s baptism was one of repentance. I suppose we can question if they were publicly confessing and/or professing, or merely stating that they had done so internally. In reality, their very act of submitting to baptism was a testimony that they were repenting. Yet, the fact that John refused baptism to that group of Pharisees and Sadducees suggests that he reserved the right to withhold it from those who were demonstrably unrepentant. As we will see in the next essay, John also questioned whether Jesus needed to be baptized at all, almost certainly on the basis that He had no need to repent. (Matthew 3:14)

What was the theological significance?

We have already touched on this quite a bit, but perhaps it is useful to restate. John’s baptism was connected with repentance of sins. It was meant to prepare the hearts of the people for the ministry of the Messiah. It was a mark of those who were Abraham’s children spiritually as well as physically. We see this even in the way that they responded to the words of Christ after the fact, as revealed in the following passage.

When the messengers of John had left, He began to speak to the crowds about John, ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who are splendidly clothed and live in luxury are found in royal palaces! But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and one who is more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

“Behold, I send My messenger ahead of You,

Who will prepare Your way before You.”

I say to you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’ When all the people and the tax collectors heard this, they acknowledged God’s justice, having been baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John. ‘To what then shall I compare the men of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children who sit in the market place and call to one another, and they say, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.” For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, “He has a demon!” The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children.’

Luke 7:24-35 (emphasis mine)

“John the Baptist (Youth with a Ram)” by Carvaggio, circa 1602 – author photo

Jesus makes a direct link between how the people responded to John and how they responded to Him. Scripture tells us that those who had received John’s baptism accepted the words of Christ. Those who did not receive it could not accept Christ’s words. This is also why Jesus spoke of “the men of this generation” who could not recognize the Messiah, but then said, “Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children.” Now, those who were the children of wisdom were the righteous remnant called out from that generation, who had received the baptism of John and whose hearts were open to the gospel message. They were the ones who truly recognized and accepted their Messiah. This is not to say that only those who received baptism from John ended up believing in Christ, but rather that those who specifically rejected John the Baptist were in essence rejecting God Himself and refusing to repent of their sins.

How was this different from New Covenant baptism?

Here it is important to note that the baptisms performed by John were not one and same with those that have been performed since the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. One reason for this is that they did not serve as an initiation into any covenant, for all who received it were already part of the preexisting Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants. I also believe there is good reason to conclude that it was not an initiation right into the New Covenant: that is, receiving John’s baptism was not the same as being baptized into Christ or joining His Church. Furthermore, while the baptism of John was one of repentance, it lacked the link with baptism of the Holy Spirit that we will see becoming the norm under the New Covenant.

There is one passage in particular that demonstrates these points and proves that the baptism and teachings of John are insufficient for the Christian. The background for this story is that a virtuous Jew named Apollos, who would go on to become one of the primary leaders in the early days of the Church, began his ministry “being acquainted only with the baptism of John”. (Acts 18:25b) He was soon brought to see “the way of God more accurately”, (Acts 18:26b) and it appears that this lack of information was due to no improper motivation on his part, but nevertheless those who accepted Apollo’s early teachings knew only the baptism of John. They were then visited by the Apostle Paul.

It happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus, and found some disciples. He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ And they said to him, ‘No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.’ And he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ And they said, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ Paul said, ‘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. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying.

Acts 19:1-6

Once again here, the problem was not that these people had actively rejected the gospel of Christ, but that they simply did not have all of the necessary information. I will revisit this passage in a later essay, but for now I will simply point out that Paul did not consider it sufficient that they had received John’s baptism. He told them they needed to be baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus”. The real proof of their deficiency was that they had not received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit: indeed, they had never heard of the Holy Spirit! In order for them to receive the benefits of union with Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit, they needed to place their trust in the true Messiah. They needed to be baptized in His name and not John’s, for only in the name of Christ is there salvation. (Acts 4:12)

“St. John the Baptist Preaching in the Wilderness” by Anton Raphael Mengs, circa 18th century

John himself always placed a higher precedence upon the One who was to come and the baptism that He would bring. “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11-12) I will close by presenting one further passage in which John laid out the differences between himself and Christ.

Therefore there arose a discussion on the part of John’s disciples with a Jew about purification. And they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified, behold, He is baptizing and all are coming to Him.’ John answered and said, ‘A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, “I am not the Christ,” but, “I have been sent ahead of Him.” He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made full. He must increase, but I must decrease. He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has set his seal to this, that God is true. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.’

John 3:25-36

In the next essay, I will examine one particular and very unique baptism that John performed: that of Jesus Christ.

All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.