John's Baptism

John suddenly bursts on the scene, a prophet sent by God after a period of silence. His message was one of repentance. Matthew records that he said, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 3:2) John is in Judea and he is preaching to the Jews - God's people. The populace were hungry for God's word, expectant, and they rushed out to meet him.

John Piper commenting on John's ministry says this: "He called for the Jews to admit that they were sinners and needed to get right with God, and to admit that being a Jew was no guarantee of being saved. In other words, baptism was a sign that they were renouncing their old dependency on ethnic Jewishness and were relying wholly on the mercy of God to forgive those who confess their sins and repent". This is evidenced in Matthews account of John, where he confronts the Pharisees. (Matthew 3:7-10) Baptism is John's new sign of belonging of the true people of God, based on repentance and faith.

I want to start by saying a few things about baptism in general, this is by no means a full discourse on the subject. The first thing to say is that baptism isn't something invented by the church. It started with John, and was continued by Jesus and his disciples (John 4:1-2) After the resurrection, Jesus gave specific instructions to the disciples to "go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28:19) So baptism isn't invented by man or the church as an add on. It is an ongoing command of the Lord Jesus Christ. The book of the Acts of the Apostles records their ongoing ministry, and wherever you read of those believing and coming to Christ, you also read of baptism, the two go hand in hand.

Notice that John's baptism went hand in hand with repentance over sins. Repentance can be simply defined as a turning away from sin and self, and instead, looking to God for forgiveness and salvation. Repentance is the conviction of guilt before God and the awareness that we are stained and in need of cleansing. Baptism symbolised this cleansing on the outside. It was a visible statement of their heart's condition. In this John prepared the people for the coming of the promised Messiah, he says "After me comes he who is mightier than I.... I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit." (Mark 1:7-8) John's baptism could not cleanse a person of their sin. It pointed forward to Christ. Jesus' baptism is greater, in that it washes on the inside, and cleanses us from all guilt and the consequences of sin. Believers are also gifted the person of the Holy Spirit who takes up residence in the heart.

The River Jordan

The next thing we can see is that John's baptism took place in the river Jordan. It wasn't at the synagogue, nor the temple. Being made "clean" by washing was not a new concept. However, John called for the whole body to be washed, or immersed in water. There was ample water available at the synagogues and the temple, but that was mainly for the washing of hands. John was showing them that the whole person needed to be washed. He didn't just stand on the shore and sprinkle a few drops of water on them! It was necessary to be fully immersed. Jesus too was baptised by John, and we read "when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descend upon him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased." (Mark 1:10) This clearly demonstrates that Jesus went under the water and that he came up out of the water! It also shows the importance of baptism, as it was approved by the Spirit and the Father. In being baptised, Jesus was identifying with us, showing us its importance, and the need of every confessing Christain to be baptised. It has to be said too, that John baptised only those old enough to realise their sin, and dependence upon God for being saved. Only confessing adults were baptised by John.

John's baptism fits in with all of the rest of the New Testament. Baptism is the outward sign of belonging to the new people of God who are constituted not by birth or ethnic identity, but by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

Jesus shows us that the way of salvation rests solely upon repentance and faith in him, and not ethnic identity, or birth to Christian parents. God calls you today, as individuals, no matter who your parents are, and no matter what ritual you received as an infant. God calls everyone today to repent and believe on Christ alone for salvation and to receive the new sign of the new covenant of the people of God: the sign of repentance and faith - baptism.

After all, baptism is a command of Jesus. Don't you wish to follow him? I remember being baptised aged 21 with an old man who could hardly walk! He had been a Christian for many years but had never realised the importance of believers baptism. He couldn't wait to follow and obey his master, he was so eager he went into the pool with his slipper on before we could do anything about it!

I hope this is an encouragement and a challenge. I call on every one of you who has not followed Christ in this way to "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins." (Acts 2:38) This is the call and will of God for every believer. 

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