Posted by: Standing Solus Christus | November 10, 2007

Was John’s Baptism the same as ours? (Lesson 4: Question 5 Answer)

5.  Was John’s Baptism the same as ours?

In this question we will be considering the differences and similarities between John’s baptism and ours. During this consideration we will continue to examine the following verses: 

26John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing. 

In preparing to answer this question, second thoughts began to enter into our mind as the challenges of this response proved to be very difficult.  Nonetheless, as those who seek to understand the Scripture we know that these types of formidable challenges arise periodically.  Sometimes the challenge may be beyond our level of knowledge and this may be one of those questions that we are not fully qualified to answer.  However, being serious students of the Scriptures and unwilling to concede to the limits of our knowledge as an excuse to punt, we will endeavor to provide a reasonable, biblical, yet humble response. As we embark on our journey to respond to this question it would be prudent if we defined what mean by our baptism.  In order to do this we will quote the following statement from the Westminster Larger Catechism (LC):            

Q 165: What is baptism?

A: Baptism is a sacrament of the new testament, wherein Christ hath ordained the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, to be a sign and seal of ingrafting into himself, of remission of sins by his blood, and regeneration by his Spirit; of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life; and whereby the parties baptized are solemnly admitted into the visible church, and enter into an open and professed engagement to be wholly and only the Lord’s. 

In considering this definition from the LC one will notice that there is a very important element included in our baptism that was missing in John’s.  That important element is the Trinitarian formula, which is the name pronounced during all baptismal administrations.  Moreover, when one is illumined to the fact that in the old covenant there was a practice of proselyte-baptism prior to circumcision for all converts to Judaism that may have influenced John’s use of the rite, it seems as if the response to our question is very simple and we can conclude the answer now.  However, explanations to these objections can be provided to further manifest the complications associated with this question. First, the objection that John’s baptism is different than ours fails to take into account the historical context of his ministry.  Moreover, one cannot simply ignore the numerous similarities that our definition has with the biblical data known about John’s baptism.  In fact, there are proof texts provided for the definition above and statements within the Confession on baptism that reference John’s baptism for support.  We must take into account that our Lord’s commandment to baptize in the Trinitarian name was given after John had already been martyred for the faith.  All subsequent administrations of this sacrament included this formula, however the addition of this formula did not invalidate all of those that had been previously administered.  (Including those administered by the apostles, which we will see in John 4).  This we believe is the strongest biblical support for the continuity between John’s baptism and ours.  That is, all of those converts who underwent John’s baptism including the apostles and the 120 disciples on the day of Pentecost were not re-baptized with the inclusion of the Trinitarian formula.  We will come back to this after addressing the proselyte-baptism view. 

Second, the objection that the characteristics of John’s baptism were more conducive to being classified as the old covenant proselyte-baptism than ours, rely too much on extra-biblical support.  Geerhardus Vos points out that the intent of this ceremony employed by the Levitical priests on proselytes was to perform a symbolic cleansing of the unclean Gentile after they underwent the sacrament of circumcision.  He goes onto argue that John the Baptist did not appeal to unclean pagans, but to the nation of Israel.71 We should mention that RC Sproul actually would see this as strength to supporting the relationship between two.  He would argue that John’s use of this rite upon the Jews emphasized that they were just as “unclean” in God’s sight as the surrounding Gentiles.  Although, we would concede that this view is appealing, the lack of Scriptural support should preclude it as a formidable argument to deny the continuity between John’s baptism and ours.  This question needs to be settled within the realm of the Scriptures.

We have already pointed out a very formidable argument from Scripture above, however this view is seriously challenged by another passage.  We will dedicate the rest of our response to an examination of it. 

1And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. 2And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” 5On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.  (Acts 19:1-6) 

Certainly it appears that this passage provides formidable support to those who seek to distinguish John’s baptism from ours.  When we arrive at verse five it seems to be a clear cut case that the Ephesian’s were re-baptised. There are difficulties in utilizing this text, however to support this conclusion.  First, this is a narrative passage that is speaking of an event that occurred in history.  There is no explicit instruction provide to guide our understanding that was repeated anywhere else.  Second, in the previous section of chapter 18 Apollos is noted to be a follower of John and there was no indication that he underwent a “re-baptism” when he gained a fuller knowledge of the truth.  Third, Paul tells the believers that John’s was a baptism of repentance, which sounds strangely familiar to Peter’s admonition to the 3000 to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38).  Fourth, we do have clear didactic passages in Scripture that indicate we are to have one baptism (Eph 4:5).  Finally, we would refer back to our earlier appeal to the fact that none of the early disciples or apostles are said to have been re-baptized after already undergoing John’s baptism.  Thus, we would advocate that there is strong biblical evidence that appears to be in conflict with this passage. 

This then begs the question, what is this passage saying if it is not saying that these Ephesian’s were not re-baptized?  Well, if we recall John indicated that another was coming that would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.  It seems more likely that this passage is not recording an invalidation of the Ephesian’s prior baptism, but a completion of it.  Thus, in order to avoid a contradiction with the aforementioned biblical references it is more appropriate to interpret this text as the Ephesians being baptized into the Holy Spirit and not being given the sign of water baptism again.   It would seem strange that the Apostle would write to these Ephesians years after this event indicating that there was only one baptism (Eph 4:5) if he already re-baptized them.  We must conclude then with Calvin that the only difference between John’s baptism and ours is that he “baptized in him who was to come” and “we are baptized in him who had already been revealed.”72  

Although, this was an interesting discussion that challenged us to work with the biblical data to provide the appropriate response, we should not lose sight of what John was doing in the desert.  To remind us of the context of John’s mission and the reason he administered the sign of baptism we will conclude with the following quote by Michael Horton: 

John baptized in water, preparing a people for the Messiah, but it was the Messiah himself whose baptism would not only anticipate the outpouring of the Spirit but inaugurate that outpouring.  But always this baptism is overshadowed by the baptism that he himself will have to undergo (Matt 20:22; Luke 12:50) in order for the baptism that he gives to be effective, and this is already indicated here, with the Baptist’s announcement, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the work!” The ram caught in the thicket, as a substitute for Isaac, appears now not as shadow but as reality. 73 

Regardless if we underwent pre or post ascension baptismal administration it is only effective in communicating grace due to the baptism that our Lord underwent.  As was stated in the catechism above baptism is “to be a sign and seal of ingrafting into himself, of remission of sins by his blood, and regeneration by his Spirit; of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life…”  In our baptism these promises will be ours by faith in the risen Lord.  

71 Geerhardus Vos (1948) Biblical Theology Old Testament and New Testaments (Banner of Truth Trust, 2000) p 316

72 John Calvin (1509-1564), Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) p 1309

73  Michael S. Horton A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of Christ-Centered Worship  (Grand Rapids, MI; Baker, 2002) 100-101

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Responses

  1. This sort of rambles on and on. I didn’t get the message at all. It would be cool if you could write this so people could actually read it.

  2. Thanks for the feedback. Do you have any recommendations?

    Let me try to summarize the argument:

    1. John the Baptist administered the sign of baptism.

    2. There are differences between this administration and the Christian administration of baptism.

    3. Although, there are differences between the two adminstrations they are essential the same sign pointing to the same thing from different sides.

    4. The primary difference between the sides are time relative Jesus’ ascension.

    5. Although, some do not agree with this we (I) believe that the Biblical view supports the continuity between John’s baptism and Christian baptism.

    Hopefully, this helps to clarify the issue.


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