The Meaning of John’s Baptism
“BIGGEST Mass Baptism of Modern Times.” Thus read the headlines of the Associated Press dispatch that reported on the immersion of 4,640 witnesses of Jehovah at the Riverside Cascade Pool on July 22, 1953, in connection with their international New World Society Assembly held at Yankee Stadium, New York city.
Reporting on a similar baptism, held two years before at London’s Lido Beach as part of the international Clean Worship Assembly, under the heading “Galilee Comes to the Lido,” the London Daily Herald told of 1,123 witnesses’ being immersed. Among other things its reporter was impressed by the “frightening earnestness” of the witnesses who had come to the Lido to be baptized, and, after commenting on the baptism of the men, went on to say: “Then came the women. Some women were old, many middle-aged and many young. And some of the swim-suits were as attractive as their wearers. But don’t doubt the sincerity of these people, disagree with them as you may. One crippled man with a walking stick was helped down and immersed. There was a grey-haired great-grandmother of 76, [and] an 86-year-older—a thin little wispy-haired woman.”
They manifested a “frightening earnestness,” says the reporter for the London Daily Herald; and “don’t doubt the sincerity of these people.” Yes, Jehovah’s witnesses take baptism seriously. Can it be that they take it too seriously? The reporter for another London newspaper, the Sunday Chronicle, seemed to think so, for he just could not understand why Jehovah’s witnesses insisted on total immersion, and spoke of it as a “trivial detail of a ceremony” that had become “an idée fixe in a multitude of fanatical minds.”
True, most religious organizations practice baptism of infants and that by sprinkling. Thus the New York Herald Tribune, on November 8, 1953, published a picture of a chaplain at the Bellevue Hospital, baptizing an incubator baby through the portholes of its incubator.
What is the truth about baptism? What do the Scriptures have to say about it? Is total immersion a mere “trivial detail”? Who may or should be baptized and when and how?
In view of the fact that many religions teach that John the Baptist set the formal pattern for baptism of Christians, let us first consider why John preached and what his baptism meant.
The angel Gabriel, who appeared to the priest Zechariah as he was performing his priestly duties and informed him that he and his wife Elizabeth, although childless until now, would have a son in their old age, gave specific instructions as to the rearing of this son, whose name was to be John, and foretold the work he would do: “He must drink no wine and strong drink at all, and he will be filled with holy spirit right from his mother’s womb, and many of the sons of Israel will he turn back to Jehovah their God. Also he will go before him with Elijah’s spirit and power, to turn back the hearts of fathers to children and the disobedient ones to the practical wisdom of righteous ones, to get ready for Jehovah a prepared people.”—Luke 1:15-17, NW.
In due time the promised son was born and “the young child went on growing and getting strong in spirit, and he continued in the deserts until” the spring of A.D. 29, when he began his public ministry with the electrifying announcement, “Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.”—Luke 1:80; Matt. 3:2, NW.
Why was it necessary for John the Baptist to serve as a messenger to prepare the way before Jehovah’s coming in the person of Jesus Christ? Did not the nation of Israel have the law of Moses, the very purpose of which was to serve as a tutor to lead them to Christ, by protecting them from pagan worship, by impressing upon them their need of a ransomer to take away their sins, and by making prophetic patterns of the work their Messiah was to do?—Gal. 3:24; Deut. 7:16; Heb. 10:1.
True indeed, but the Israelites had not been faithfully adhering to that law or Jehovah would not have let them go into captivity to Babylon. And even that chastisement had only a temporary salutary effect upon them as a people, for after the deaths of Ezra, Nehemiah and Malachi, and particularly with the rise of Greece to the position of the fifth world power, their worship became a formalistic, nationalistic Judaism that, while holding to the external features of the Law, became contaminated with pagan Grecian philosophy and more and more steeped in oral traditions that made God’s Word of no effect.
The religious leaders became very self-righteous, exalted themselves instead of Jehovah’s name and Word and viewed with contempt the common people, most lowly of whom were the tax collectors and harlots. A preparatory work was certainly sadly needed if they were to be ready to recognize and accept their Messiah when he arrived!
In preaching the much-needed message of repentance John the Baptist spared no one. Not only did he instruct the tax collectors not to overcharge or extort, a common practice in those days, and tell the military not to harass or falsely accuse anybody and to be content with their provisions, etc., but he even publicly, and repeatedly at that, rebuked the king, Herod Antipas, for his adulterous marriage to Herodias, telling him: “It is not lawful for you to be having the wife of your brother.” And especially did he lash out against the religious leaders of his day, in language similar to that which Jesus was later to use against them: “You offspring of vipers, who has shown you how to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore produce fruits that befit repentance. And do not start saying within yourselves, ‘As a father we have Abraham.’ . . . Indeed, the ax is already in position at the root of the trees; every tree, therefore, not producing fine fruit is to be cut down and thrown into the fire.”—Mark 6:18; Luke 3:7-14, NW.
SIGNIFICANCE OF JOHN’S BAPTISM
With his preaching John also baptized. Why? Did it in either a literal or figurative way take away the sins of the Israelites who were baptized? This is the thought of Christendom in general, as most religions teach that baptism is for the purpose of washing away the sin inherited from Adam. The Scriptures, however, do not support any such conclusion.
In the first place let it be noted that John was sent only to the nation of Israel, to prepare them for their Messiah. (Acts 13:24) Further note that John’s baptism was separate and distinct from that which was performed in the name of Jesus, or Paul would not have rebaptized certain disciples at Ephesus in the name of Christ Jesus but would have been content with their having been baptized with John’s baptism. (Acts 19:1-6) The purpose of John’s preaching being to bring about a change of heart, a repentance so as to prepare the Israelites for their Messiah, those who did thus repent and confess their sins were baptized by John in public acknowledgment of that fact. The repentance brought about the “remission of sins,” the baptism itself was because of their repentance, or conditioned on it, a token or a picture of it, the repentance.
Particularly do the modern versions of the Christian Greek Scriptures make this clear. According to them John the Baptist stated, as recorded by Matthew at Mt 3:11, “I, on the one hand, baptize you with water because of your repentance.” (NW) “I am baptizing you in water in token of your repentance.” (AT) “I am baptizing you in water to picture your repentance.” (C. B. Williams) According to modern versions Luke tells, at Lu 3:3, that John the Baptist came or went all over “preaching baptism of those repenting for forgiveness of sins” (NW); “preaching a baptism conditioned on repentance” (Williams); “announcing a baptism whereby men repented, to have their sins forgiven.”—Knox.
The same meaning is apparent from the way these render Paul’s words to the Ephesians regarding John’s baptism as recorded at Acts 19:4: “John baptized with the baptism of those repenting [mar., baptism of repentance].” (NW) “John’s baptism was a baptism in token of repentance.” (AT) “John baptized with a baptism that was an expression of repentance.” (Williams) Clearly the foregoing indicate that it was the sinner’s act of repentance, not God’s act of forgiveness, that was pictured by the baptism.
That this was the understanding of the early Christians appears from a footnote in Williams’ translation in explanation of rendering Acts 2:38 as follows: “You must repent—and, as an expression of it, let everyone of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ—that you may have your sins forgiven.” The footnote states that the explanatory phrase, “as an expression of it,” is “implied from context and usage in the early church.”
Since John baptized with the “baptism of repentance,” he could not understand why Jesus came to him to be baptized: “I am the one needing to be baptized by you, and are you coming to me?” Jesus did not take time to explain, but simply said: “Let it be, this time, for in that way it is suitable for us to carry out all that is righteous.”—Matt. 3:13-15, NW.
Why did Jesus insist on being baptized although having no sins to repent of? What meaning do the Scriptures attach to his baptism? For answers to these and similar questions regarding baptism we refer the reader to the following article.