Last time we looked at the Jewish culture and rituals regarding the use of a “mikvah,” a bath or pool of living water, used for spiritual cleansing. This could be considered an early form of baptism, because doesn’t the Greek word ‘baptizō’ simply mean ‘to immerse something in water’?
And so how then was the baptism of John the Baptist different from the old traditions? Wasn’t it just a spiritual cleansing as well? In a way, yes, but where the spiritual cleansing using the mikvah was purely a religious act based upon man-made traditions and laws, the baptism of John the Baptist was ordained by God Himself, and included a real spiritual component. John the Baptist was sent by God to immerse people in the “mikvah” of repentance in order to prepare people for the coming Kingdom of God that would begin when the Messiah appeared. This is recorded in Matthew 3:11, where John the Baptist says: “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“. You may ask yourself the question how man was able to repent without the Holy Spirit (as that only came with Jesus), and my answer would be grace. It’s always the grace of God; it’s only the grace of God. John’s mikvah immersion was an outward sign of a mysterious inward change that would enable repentant individuals, by the grace of God, to be ready to receive the Spirit of God so that they could enter the Kingdom of God.
Yet, there was more to his baptism than an inward change. John’s baptism was revolutionary; it was a statement of enormous proportions! This can be concluded from the fact that Pharisees started meddling. You can always assume that when the Pharisees start mingling in, we are stepping on their toes, and that they jump to the rescue to defend and protect some old Jewish (religious) traditions, and so also here. The Pharisees sent priests and Levites to question John as to whether he was the Messiah, the Prophet (spoken of by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15 “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him.“), or Elijah. You can read about this in John 1:19-26. John’s answer to these questions was that he was neither the Messiah, nor the Prophet, nor Elijah, but that he was “a voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the LORD, as Isaiah the prophet said” (John 1:23). The answer of the priests and Levites was: “Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” The reason for these questions was concerning the fact that John the Baptist was baptizing people in the Jordan. The Israelites had a tradition that no one could perform immersion in the Jordan except the Messiah, the Prophet or Elijah. This was because immersion in the Jordan, to the Jews, was a sign of the coming of the Messiah. The Israelites had crossed over into the Promised Land on dry ground when God parted the waters of the Jordan for Joshua. We read about this in Joshua 3:17, which says: “And the priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood firm on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan while all Israel crossed on dry ground, until all the nation had finished crossing the Jordan.” This led to the belief that precursor to the Messiah’s arrival would be immersion in the Jordan “mikvah” by either the Prophet, Elijah, or the Messiah Himself.
With regards to Elijah, we read in Luke 1:5-25 the birth of John the Baptist foretold. When the angel of the Lord appeared before Zacharias, John’s father, we read: “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb. 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 1:13-17). And so we see that John the Baptist was first of all of the priestly line and that he was a child of special promise of God, as the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah after the manner of Elijah. The angel of the Lord said that John would come in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17), and Jesus Himself said about John: “And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come” (Matthew 11:14), and “that Elijah has indeed come” (Mark 9:13). Furthermore, John’s “garment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle around his waist” (Matthew 3:4) was similar to the dress of Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). Although John himself denied this identification (John 1:21-25), admitting only to being Isaiah’s “voice in the wilderness” (John 1:23), it may be that he was disclaiming the popular hope for the literal resurrection of Elijah, accepting only the fulfillment of his spirit and power, as indeed this was the explicit promise of the angel.
So, John the Baptist was sent with special authorization from God. He was the final representative of the law and the prophets, “for all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John” (Matthew 11:13). He was the only one authorized to announce the coming Messiah (Mark 1:2-3). He was the only one authorized to announce the coming Gospel (Matthew 3:7-12). He was the only one authorized to immerse those who had repented of their sins and by faith looked to the coming Messiah (Luke 1:17), and he was the only one authorized to baptize Jesus Christ (Matthew 3:13-15).
John’s baptism was very specific. It rectified the old Jewish traditions, turning religion into redemption. It enabled repentant individuals, by the grace of God, to be ready to receive the Spirit of God so that they could enter the Kingdom of God. And it provided a platform for Jesus to start His earthly public ministry. It is also clear that John the Baptist’s baptism was constraint by time and is not in effect anymore, as he mentioned in Matthew 3:11, and that his baptism with water for repentance will be superseded by the baptism of Jesus Christ who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. This came into effect after the resurrection of Jesus Christ and His subsequent ascension back into heaven (Acts 1:9), which was followed by the day of Pentecost, when everyone was baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5, 2:2).
In closing, let me quote John Piper, who said: “It tells us that John’s baptism is not simple continuation of circumcision. Circumcision was the sign of belonging to the Old Covenant people of God. So at least some of the Pharisees and Sadducees came to see circumcision as the sign of God’s favor and of their security as the covenant people. But John’s baptism was a radical attack on this false security. He infuriated the Pharisees by calling the people to renounce reliance on the sign of the covenant that they got when they were infants, and to receive another sign to show that they were not relying on Jewish birth, but on the mercy of God received by repentance and faith. A new people within Israel were being formed, and a new sign of a new covenant was being instituted. It was not a simple continuation of circumcision. It was an indictment of a misuse of circumcision as a guarantee of salvation. Circumcision was a sign of ethnic continuity; baptism was a sign of spiritual reality. John’s baptism was a sign of personal, individual repentance, not a sign of birth into a covenant family. It is hard to overstate how radical this was in John’s day. The Jews already had a sign of the covenant, circumcision. John came calling for repentance and offering a new sign, baptism. This was incredibly offensive.”