What is baptism? That is an easy question to answer, but there is more to it than a simple religious explanation. We would do well to specify that we are interested in understanding Christian baptism, baptism in the context of the church of Jesus Christ.

We trace the origins of baptism back to the ministry of John the Baptist, who suddenly appeared in Palestine around the mid 20’s of the first century. His appearance caused quite a stir because of his apparent eccentricity. John dressed in a camel hair garment with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts dipped in wild honey (Mark 1:6). There was something about John that resembled the description of how the ancient Old Testament prophet Elijah was dressed, and the novelty was enough to cause people to be curious enough about him to go out to see and hear him (Mark 1:5; cf. 2 Kings 1:8). Jesus eventually commented on the significance of John’s demeanor, when he was asked about the prophecy concerning Elijah coming prior to the Messiah, saying that to all intents and purposes John is Elijah (Mal. 4:5; cf. Matt. 11:14; Mark 9:11-13; Luke 1:17)! As time went on John garnered quite a following that keeps resurfacing in the book of Acts, and that accurately portrays Jesus, but in only a precursory way, and not as the Messiah who had actually come (Acts 18:25; 19:1-6). Paul notes that John’s encounter came at the end of his ministry, which fits with John’s assertion that Jesus must increase as he decreased (in importance) (John 3:30). Not everyone who had been baptized by John got the memo! An notable example is Apollos (cf. Acts 18).

In the course of his ministry John baptized even Jesus, who went on through his disciples to baptize others (John 4:1). Jesus incorporated baptism into his ministry to some degree, and later made it a significant part of the initiation into the the kingdom of God. he told his disciples, at his ascension that they should go into the world and baptizing people in connection with their faith in him for salvation (Matt. 28:19). The early church held firmly to the preaching of baptism as consistent with faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38), while at the same time retaining the original connection of baptism with repentance (Acts 2:38; 41; 8:12-13, 16, 36, 8:38; 9:18; 10:47-48; 16:15, 33; 18:8; 19:5; 22:16; cf.Acts 13:24). Baptism was uniquely symbolic of repentance, and provided an outward witness of true inward repentance, with the result that it leads to the forgiveness of sins by God (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; Acts 2:38). John came preaching a baptism connected to repentance leading to forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). John’s baptism was the architypical model of baptism for the church after Pentecost.

The first thing to realize then is that baptism has to do with repentance and the forgiveness of sins. It is not primarily a religious rite, initiation or right of passage. This brought John’s disciples into conflict with the religious authorities of Jesus day, who disputed with them over ceremonial cleansings (John 3:25). We do not know the exact nature of the dispute, but we do know that Jesus had similar opposition from the Pharisees who rebuked he and his disciples for not washing their hands before they ate. This was not a dispute over hygiene, but over ceremonial cleansings and religious rules (Matt. 15:2; Mark 7:1-4; Luke 11:38). Similarly it may have been that the Jews who disputed with John’s disciples were arguing over the significance of baptism, or ritual cleansings as an initiation. For the Jewish religious zealots and evangelists, ceremonial cleansings were an initiatory rite into Judaism for proselytes (Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964- (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans). The background for ceremonial cleansings goes back to the Old Testament and the system of offerings and priesthood, but in the first century found itself co-opted into initiatory rites for proselytes into Judaism and for moral cleansing in the Qumran community, often called the Essenes (Achtemeier, P. J., Harper & Row, & Society of Biblical Literature. (1985). Harper’s Bible dictionary (1st ed.). San Francisco: Harper & Row). Some say John had a connection with that community, but that is merely conjecture. For John initiation was not what was at stake, it was forgiveness of sins and repentance. In that way John could call upon those who were baptized to produce fruit out of the change of heart, in terms of their conduct (Luke 3:7-14).

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