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How was John able to offer a baptism of repentance?

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How was John able to offer a baptism of repentance?
Posted on November 30, 2021  - By Dr. Scott Shiffer

How was John able to offer a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins? Was this the baptism that Jesus received? If so, why did He need it—or any baptism at all?

Collating the facts

In Matthew 3:1-17, we read the story of John the Baptist. The disciple introduced John as one calling people to repent because the “kingdom of heaven is at hand” (vs. 2). Matthew then quotes Isaiah 40:3—a verse that describes a person, in the wilderness, preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah. 

In Matthew 3:6, we see that people were confessing their sins as they were being baptised. In verse 11, John clarified that he baptised people with water for repentance, but the One who came after him—namely the Messiah—would baptise with the Holy Spirit. 

By the time we get to verse 13, Jesus has come to John to be baptised. John recognized Jesus as the Messiah and insisted that Jesus baptise him instead (vs. 14). But Jesus replied that He must be baptised “to fulfill all righteousness” (vs. 15). And just as Jesus came out of the water, the Father declared that Jesus is His Son, in whom He is well pleased.

The only explicit reason the Bible gives for Jesus’ baptism is that it was “to fulfill all righteousness”

The event is also narrated in John 1:19-34. In this telling, John refers to Jesus as the Lamb “who takes away the sins of the world” (vs. 29). It also states that John baptised with water so that the Messiah would be revealed to Israel (vs. 31). In Luke’s record (Luke 3:1-21), more emphasis is placed on the other teachings of John, while Mark only made a brief mention of the event (Mark 1:9-11).

Baptism of association

Most scholars believe that John primarily baptised people as a symbol of their public desire to be associated with the coming Messiah. John’s baptism included the confession of sin and a commitment to repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3).

The writers of the Gospel accounts clearly identified Jesus as the One who provides salvation, not John the Baptist. John offered a baptism for people to associate with the coming Messiah. Those baptised were committed to putting aside sinful practices to submit to the authority of God.

John’s disciples placed their faith in God the Father—and the Messiah who was to come. Since Jesus’ death and resurrection, people place their faith in Him as the One who has already come. In both cases, the object of their faith was the same Person. Even John attested that Jesus was the One who was to come.

Offer of forgiveness

John was able to offer forgiveness of sins because he preached about placing faith in the coming Messiah. 

It is also worth noting that John was a Levite. Both his parents were from that tribe—the priestly tribe of Israel. In the Old Testament, it was the priests who offered sacrifices for the temporary forgiveness of sins. Here, John suggested that Jesus—as the Lamb—would become the final permanent sacrifice. But I am not sure whether John understood that Jesus would die to cover our sins.

Understanding Jesus’ baptism

The question regarding the need for Jesus to be baptised has received some attention. And there are several theories. Some have postulated that Jesus was baptised to be ceremonially cleansed before receiving the Holy Spirit. But this is incorrect, to say the least. While it is true that the Spirit descended on Him at His baptism, Jesus did not receive the Spirit in the same way that we do.

Some argue that receiving John’s baptism was a way of presenting Jesus as a sacrifice. This seems unlikely since John was hesitant to baptise Jesus in the first place. Some state that Jesus was baptised to reveal that He embodied the triune God—i.e., in Christ, we see all that God wants us to see of God. Some believe that Jesus’ baptism inaugurated His public ministry. Others argue that His baptism was a display of His obedience to the Father’s will.

We are to be baptised—and baptise others—today in the name of the Father, Son, and the Spirit

We know Jesus did not need to repent or receive forgiveness—or John’s baptism. Instead, His sacrifice on the cross would provide forgiveness to all who repented.

In reality, the only explicit reason the Bible gives for Jesus’ baptism is that it was “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). This phrase, however, is not elaborated any further. It could have been a mark to inaugurate Jesus’ public ministry, a glimpse that He would be a sacrifice, and proof that He had the favour of God.

Water immersion represented death to the ancient world. Coming out of water represented life. Perhaps Jesus’ baptism symbolised His coming death and resurrection—which would find favour with God. Regardless, right after His baptism, He began his public ministry—teaching, healing, and making disciples. This all culminated in His death and resurrection.

As our example in every way of life, we are to be baptised—and baptise others—today in the name of the Father, Son, and the Spirit (Matthew 28:19).

Dr. Scott Shiffer

About Dr. Scott Shiffer

Dr. Scott Shiffer has a Ph.D. in Christian Theology from the B.H. Carroll Theological Institute and has been teaching religion classes since 2006. He leads Faith and Culture Now, an organization to help believers think biblically about culture in America. Scott has given numerous presentations, including one at Oxford. He has spoken at church retreats, youth retreats, conferences, and has taught discipleship classes for many years. Scott is married and has four children. He has a heart for helping believers draw closer to God and for aiding them as they are faced with new challenges every day.



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