I Baptize with Water

Photo by Katherine Hanlon on Unsplash

Gospel of John 1:19-28

19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” NIV  

Notice that John the Baptizer gives us his testimony—as in court; he is a witness in the box. John the Author places him very near the beginning of the story because of his importance. We should never treat the Baptizer as a bit player. Until Pentecost, he is the second most important character in the drama of God coming to earth.

We do not know how long the Baptizer preached before Jesus began his ministry. We do know from Luke 1:26 that John was six months older than Jesus and that he likely lived the Nazarite life for the time of his ministry.

Numbers 6.The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the Lord as a Nazirite, they must abstain from wine and other fermented drink and must not drink vinegar made from wine or other fermented drink. They must not drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins. As long as they remain under their Nazirite vow, they must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, not even the seeds or skins. “‘During the entire period of their Nazirite vow, no razor may be used on their head. They must be holy until the period of their dedication to the Lord is over; they must let their hair grow long. “‘Throughout the period of their dedication to the Lord, the Nazirite must not go near a dead bodyNIV This description goes on through verse 21.

How long John spent in preparation for his mission, we cannot say. He may have studied with a rabbi to become a priest like his father. Since the discovery of the Qumran community—revealed to us through the Dead Sea scrolls—some scholars have speculated that John might have lived there for a time. Qumran was the most conservative of all Jewish groups of the day.

Do not be surprised that people asked John if he was the Messiah. Others had claimed the title, and some created enough of a following to cause the Roman army to stamp them out. John flatly denied he was the Messiah. [This is the first use of the word in the Gospel.]

John’s answer that he was not the Messiah gave the questioners only a little relief because John did claim to baptize people in preparation for the coming Messiah. What the Temple leaders really wanted to know was, ‘are you going to cause another Roman attack on the people.’

‘Are you Elijah?’ Everyone expected that Elijah would return as the Messiah or as the messenger to prepare the way for the Messiah. ‘No’ and ‘no.’

We give up, who are you? In answer, the Baptizer paraphrased Isaiah 40:3-5.

A voice rings out: “Clear in the desert a road for the Lord! Level in the wilderness a highway for our God! Let every valley be raised, every hill and mount made low. Let the rugged ground become level and the ridges become a plain. The Presence of the Lord shall appear, and all flesh, as one, shall behold—for the Lord Himself has spokenJSB

This is the first quotation of Scripture in the Gospel, if we don’t count, ‘in the beginning.’ More importantly, jumping ahead, in John 12:38-41, the Gospel ends the ministry of Jesus with two quotations from Isaiah. After that, Jesus prepares for the crucifixion and resurrection.

Isaiah 53:1. “Who can believe what we have heard? Upon whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

Isaiah 6:10. Dull that people’s mind, stop its ears, and seal its eyes—lest, seeing with its eyes and hearing with its ears, it also grasp with its mind, and repent and save itselfJSB

the Baptizer tried to make clear that he was just a worker, not the boss.

24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” 28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing. NIV

Matthew 3:11. “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Mark 1:7-8. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Luke 3:16. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

No idea why John is the only Gospel writer to leave out the Pentecostal Baptism, even as all four mention the sandals.

Baptizo is the Greek word that best fits the Hebrew tevilah, the ritual immersion. Tevilah called for moving water, such as the river. The mikveh was, and still is, used indoors for ritual cleansing, but they must have water flowing through the trough or pool. The Greek baptizo is a more general term for being submerged in water.

GJohn does not describe the Baptizer as preaching repentance, and the word repent does not appear anywhere in GJohn. The Synoptics all include it as a part of the Baptizer’s ministry, GJohn was intent on witnessing to the love and grace of Jesus. When we see the Light, we will want to turn away from the darkness, that is, repent.

The Bethany mentioned here was a village on the east side of the Jordan, not the Bethany outside Jerusalem. GJohn often gives us details that give the impression of personal knowledge, suggesting that John may have been in the crowd when the questioning occurred. When the fishing boat was full of fish, the fishermen would make for the nearest town to sell their catch. If they had to cross the lake to find the fish, it would make sense to sell them there as well.

Baptism, like nearly every other sacrament and element of church services, has changed through the ages. What was it like on day one of the Church—The Way, the earliest name for the Church?

In Acts 2, the sermon of Peter is recorded by Luke. He concluded with, 36 Therefore let all the house of Israel know beyond a doubt that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ. 37 Now when they heard this, they were acutely distressed and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “What should we do, brothers?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Skipping on to verse 41, we read, So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about 3,000 people were addedNET

In Acts 16 we read, 14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded usNIV

We are not told any detail about the 3,000 of chapter 2, but in the chapter 16 account and others in the NT, we find the whole household baptized. That means everyone living and working within the house, including slaves, servants, children, and infants. Yes, Protestants, infant baptism goes back to the beginning. It is based on a believer’s baptism, the faith of the head of the house. I doubt that every slave had the faith of the man of the house, probably some wives did not either; but they accepted the master’s wish.

Having the whole household baptized was not just a Christian thing. In that time, the head of the house decided what god or gods to worship, and everyone else had to toe the line; or live a lie.

Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:13-14, 13And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. NIV Note that the infants and children are only clean because of the ‘clean’ parent. Baptizing an infant who is not part of a believing family does no good. It is the faith of the family that allows the Holy Spirit to work.

So, does that mean that when the infant is an adult, he/she does not need to be baptized? The NT is completely silent on the question.

Whether a child is baptized or not, most Protestants believe that an adult must make his/her decision. The exact age for this decision is up for discussion. Also, is there a time when the person is not covered? Say, if the top childhood age is 16 and he/she is not baptized at age 18 and dies; Hell?

Neither infant baptism nor believer’s baptism has all the answers. That leaves plenty of room for Grace.

Returning to Acts 2, we should mention that the Twelve, the Seventy-two, and the other followers who were together when the Holy Spirit filled them with special powers—they were baptized with the Spirit promised by Jesus. It was with this power that Peter gave the best sermon of his life. [Luke alone—10:1—describes Jesus selecting the Seventy-two from his regular followers for a mission].

The NT says little about the Spirit in the act of baptism, outside of Jesus’ baptism and the events in Acts 2. In his book, Baptism, Warren Carr writes, Christian theology is generally agreed that the Spirit is the gift of the Risen Lord. There is no significant division on this point. How, when, and where the Spirit is manifestly given is another question. It has given rise to vigorous and prolonged debate.

In Acts, we see the Spirit given before baptism sometimes and other times with baptism. You might begin to think that we are not able to control God. No matter what we do to force Him to give us the Spirit, He does it His way.

Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence

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