A Brief and Critical Sacrament

The baptism of John was a sacrament of the Old Covenant introduced near the end of its administration.  John’s baptism was a call for national repentance instituted to prepare Israel for the advent of her Messiah; to “…give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:77).  Soon afterward the Old Covenant came to fruition through the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth and His divine establishment of the New Covenant.  The baptism of Jesus is a sacrament of the New Covenant to be administered until His return.  In contrast to the Old yet foreshadowed by transitional events during the life of Christ, His baptism reaches beyond an exclusive priesthood and national lineage to all within the church regardless of tribe, language, people, and nation.

The final verses of Malachi’s oracle promise the advent of Elijah as a precursor to “…the great and awesome day of the LORD…” (Mal. 4:5).  Jesus explained to His disciples that John the Baptist was the Elijah to come (Matt 11:14).  Earlier in Malachi – as an apparent echo of Isaiah 40:3 – it is said that this messenger’s ministry was designed to prepare the way of the LORD (Mal. 3:1) “…lest He come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Mal. 4:6).  Among those born of woman there was none greater than John (Matt. 11:11) and he entered the drama of Israel’s history to break a prophetic silence spanning hundreds of years.  Dressed and dining as an impoverished prophet, he cried, “Repent,” and baptized the Jewish masses in preparation for the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God.

A major feature of John’s ministry was a baptism for all of Israel – applying to everyone what had previously been limited to a ritual for Levitical service and the cleansing of lepers (Ex. 29; Lev. 8, 14).  Indeed, never had Israel been required to undergo a collective baptism as a component of the Old Covenant system of worship.  The broad application of this sacrament to all those within the Jewish nation would have been quite shocking, yet this new application of religious washing was confirmed by Jesus Himself (a non-Levite) as He submitted to the command “…to fulfil all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).  As the Old Covenant was reaching its purpose and fulfilment all were called to be cleansed, and in obedience nearly all of Israel came to John and were baptized.

Once John introduced this final Old Testament sacrament – which also rightly marks the beginning of Jesus Christ’s ministry by declaration of the Father’s pleasure in His Son and the descent of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:16, 17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21, 22) – we begin to see “He who comes from heaven…” overtaking “…he who belongs to the earth” (John 3:31).  As Christ increases and John decreases (John 3:30) the application of the Jesus’s baptism overtakes John’s, for Jesus was “…making and baptizing more disciples than John” (John 4:1b).  Indeed, within a few decades of its institution the baptism of John was subsumed by the baptism of Christ as the Old Covenant was “…becoming obsolete and growing old…ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13).

The drama of differing baptismal sacraments is portrayed in an interaction between Paul and some disciples at Ephesus.  Luke writes, “And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. 2 And 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.’ 3 And he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They said, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ 4 And 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.’ 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:1-5).  In this brief interaction we see that the baptism of John stood as a brief and critical sacrament of the Old Covenant signifying prepatory repentance, whereas the baptism of Jesus serves as an ongoing sign of union with Christ.

Beyond marking the end of the Old Covenant, the baptism of John also acts as the transitional episode par excellence among several events which occurred during the ministry of Christ.  Some examples of these events are the interaction between Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4:7-42), His teaching concerning what truly defiles a person (Mark 7:14-23), the cleansing of the temple (Matt. 21:12-16; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45, 46), and the tearing of the curtain (Matt. 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45).  Each of these events – including the baptism of John – provided momentum to a change in Covenant as the old ways established at Sinai began to give way to the new ways introduced by Christ and accomplished through His ministry.  In the first we witness Jesus evangelizing a non-Jewish serial adulteress – about which she and the disciples are naturally shocked but from which flows a harvest of righteousness (John 4:39-42) – indicating that the era of Gentile inclusion was beginning (see Isa. 11:10; 52:15; cf. Rom. 15).  In the second event Jesus abrogates Jewish dietary laws established through Moses – laws that were intended to teach that God distinguishes between the spiritually clean and unclean but welcomes any who will come in repentance.  In the third He (a non-Levite) enters the temple and cleanses it of robbers, exclaiming that, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa. 56:7).  And in the fourth God provides a visual indication that the way to intimate fellowship with Him is now open to all who would seek Him, without the intermediaries of earthly priesthood and repeated sacrifice, culminating in the destruction of the earthly temple a few decades later.

The baptism of John portrays the broad outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all those fearing the Lord instead of prophet and king alone.  The Lord promised this through Joel when he wrote, “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit” (2:28, 29).  Furthermore, since Gentiles were among those who received John’s baptism – during the early ministry of Apollos, for example (Acts 18:24-26) – his sacrament anticipated an anointed priesthood in which “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28).

As mentioned previously, Jesus said that there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet He went on to say, “…the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (Matt. 11:11b).  In what way would others be greater than John?  The Prophets and the Law prophesied until John (Matt. 11:13) and for him was the blessed role of preparing the way of the Lord.  Prior to John were many prophets and kings who longed to see and hear what the followers of Jesus witnessed (Matt. 13:17; Luke 10:24).  Like aged Simeon to whom God revealed would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Christ (Luke 2:26), John the Baptist witnessed He about Whom he prophesied and – straddling the boundary of the Covenants – applied to Him the last of the Old Covenant sacraments.  From that time on the Lord baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire, as pictured in His visible sign.  What greatness can compare with being among those to whom is preached the good news by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven (I Pet. 1:12)?  Is anything greater than being set apart as a home for God’s Holy Spirit (John 14:15-17, 23; I Cor. 3:16; 6:19), and together being built up as a spiritual tabernacle for the true and living God (I Pet. 2:4)?  Throughout the duration of His New Covenant God is depositing priceless treasure in jars of clay and placing each in His refining fire (Mal. 3:2) in preparation for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (II Cor. 4:17).

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