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The Baptism of John

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The Scriptures speak about the “baptism of John,” which seems different from Christian baptism. After baptizing Jesus, did John the Baptist continue to baptize, and if so, did he begin to baptize in Jesus’s name?

The Acts of the Apostles speak several times about John baptizing people: the “baptism of John.” This immersion in water appears to be in response to John’s preaching of conversion. When someone came out of the water, they were a new person: spiritually renewed. Christian baptism, as Jesus inaugurated, seems similar but distinctive. Both share the same ritual heritage.

John’s form of baptism has roots in Jewish ceremonial washing. It is surmised that John was a member of the Jewish group called the Essenes. The Essenes practiced strict asceticism and, in seeking spiritual purity, made frequent use of ritual immersion. To be purified, they entered a mikveh, a ceremonial bath. As they descended the steps into the water, they left behind what made them unclean. According to Jewish law, one became unclean, for instance, if he touched a corpse, a woman who was menstruating, or someone who was impure. Yet, such ritual cleaning did not claim to remove sin.

The purpose of John’s baptism was less for ritual purity according to the Mosaic Law, but instead for “repentance” (Acts 19:4), signaling that the people of Israel were unfit to meet the Messiah. John was the forerunner of Jesus’ preaching of repentance. His baptism—which may not have been repeated—was a ritual correspondence to that message, signaling a break with the world and a new spiritual beginning.

We do not know how often John baptized others, but this activity was so characteristic of him that it became inseparable from his very name. John the Baptist, also called John the Baptizer, brought many to baptism—even Jesus Himself (Mt. 3:13-17; Lk. 3:21-22). Jesus did not receive John’s baptism for conversion, but to indicate its importance for us.

Jesus inaugurated Christian baptism after the resurrection. This baptism incorporates a person into Christ: in His life, death and resurrection. Since forgiveness of sins is only possible through Christ, John’s baptism can be seen as a precursor or foreshadowing in emphasizing conversion.

Jesus compares John’s baptism with His own (as does John with the future baptism by Jesus): John baptized with water alone, but Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5; Mk. 1:8). It seems from Scripture that Paul rebaptized those who John previously baptized (Acts 19:3-5). Since Christian baptism is once and for all, the two baptisms were not the same. John did not baptize according to the Trinitarian form that later developed (“… In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit” Mt. 28:19). It seems likely that at this point John’s baptism was no longer practiced; it was elevated through Jesus’ baptism in water and the Spirit.

The baptisms of John and Jesus have the same divine author and use the sign of water, but their purpose evolved after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Christian baptism is not only for spiritual cleansing, as was John’s, but for incorporation into Christ and the Church. John’s baptism was a preparation for Christ’s—just as John’s preaching had been.

John baptized in view of Jesus—who had yet to be fully revealed through His death and resurrection—and the apostles and early Christians baptized in Jesus fully revealed. Both baptisms, though different, convey a similar theology: new life through conversion and remission of sin.

Father David Endres is professor of Church history and historical theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology.

This article appeared in the November 2022 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.

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