Jordan River


What is the importance of John's baptism to me in the twenty-first century?   Was "John the Baptist" the first "Baptist"?   Should I imitate John or Jesus in being baptized?   Why does the Bible mention "one" baptism when there are several mentioned?


Was John "the Baptist" the founder of a Baptist Church?


In his book A History of the Baptists Robert G. Torbet traces "roots" back to the "first Baptist baptizing in the Jordan River."   Mr. Torbet finds a comparison of the Baptists' practice of immersion into their church to John's immersing repentant Jews before and at the beginning of Jesus' ministry.   If there be a comparison,  it begins and ends with the act of submersion. 


(1) John was called "the Baptist" (the Immerser) because he did the baptizing and not because he was baptized.   The author Joan E. Taylor underscores this purposely or otherwise in her book title "The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism (Studying the Historical Jesus)".   A current day "Baptist" is proud to be called by this name for his having been baptized into a denomination that practices a submersion type of baptism.   When Alexander Campbell was associated with a Baptist association, he made the translation of the Bible "The Living Oracles" and translated baptism as "immersion".  His friends in the Baptist community liked the translation until they realized that their identifying name had been done away with.   No one apparently wants to be called an "immerser".   But that was what John was.  He was unique until Jesus came because he was the Immerser.


(2) John baptized only Jews.  This baptism was "a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins" (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3).   There is no church that practices baptism of  Jews only nor does any denomination by the name of Baptist baptize for (Gr. eis, "towards") the remission of sins.  If any uses the expression "for the remission" they will explain that they mean "because of sins [already] forgiven".    If this is the original meaning then John was requiring people to be baptized because they were already forgiven.    And Jesus would shed His blood on the cross because people were already forgiven of their sins (same word eis is used by our Lord Jesus in Matthew 26:28).


(3) John did not baptize anyone into any church.   John did not establish any church nor was his purpose to start a church.   He was a "Voice crying in the wilderness, prepare ye that way of the Lord" (Isaiah 40:1; John 1:23).  The word "church" is not mentioned in the New Testament until after John was beheaded (Matthew 14:2).


(4) No disciple of John is ever mentioned as baptizing a soul.  Hence, they were never referred to as "Baptists".  On the other hand, disciples of Jesus did baptize (John 4:1,2).  However, they are not identified as "Baptists".   Only John is so identified.


The first time the word "church" is used in the New Testament is in Matthew 16:18 (after John's death) and (1) there it is mentioned in the future ("will build") and (2) Jesus (the preferred one) asserts that He will be the builder (not John).


Who Was John? 


When the Pharisees' messengers were sent to John, they asked him who he was.  He promptly confessed that he was not the Christ, the anticipated Messiah promised to the Jews.   They asked him if he were Elijah; he answered that he was not.   Then they asked if he were "the prophet" (probably referring to the one promised in Deuteronomy 18:18).  John said, "No."   John was "a prophet" from God but not the prophet they were referring to (Luke 1:41).  


The messengers wanted to know who John claimed to be.  John quoted Isaiah 40:3 and applied it to himself.   He was the harbinger for the Messiah.  He was preparing the way for the coming Christ.   Thereupon the messengers challenged John as to why he was baptizing.    John just replied that although he baptized with water, the one that he was preparing the road for was "preferred (in rank) before" him (John 1:30) and that He would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8).


Cousin to Jesus?


  Jesus was of the tribe of Judah according to the flesh (Luke 1:36).    On the other hand, John was the son of a priest Zacharias and Elisabeth, both of the tribe of Levi (Luke 1:5).  But the Bible says they were kin (Luke 1:36).


  Were Jesus and John cousins?  The traditional Greek word anepsios ("cousin") is not used in the passage;  e.g., Paul uses anepsios to show that Mark was Barnabas' cousin  in Colossians 4:10.  The relationship between Mary, mother of Jesus, and Elizabeth is sungenis, i.e., "related by blood" (Strong and Thayer).   Luke also uses the word to refer to some people in Jesus' caravan from Nazareth in Luke 2:44.  Jesus uses the word (along with "country" and "family") to describe a relationship of Nazareth to Himself (Mark 6:4).   Vine's Expository Dictionary says that sungenis "literally signifies 'born with,' i.e., of the same stock, or descent; hence 'kinsman, kindred.'"   Paul uses the word genis without the prefix sun to indicate just a fellow "countryman" type of kin (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 2:14).  


   John said that he knew Jesus as a person but not that He was the Son of God.    "Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.  And John tried to prevent Him, saying, 'I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?'" (Matthew 3:13,14  NKJV).   John knew Jesus well enough to know that Jesus was superior to himself spiritually.  But John confessed that he did not know that Jesus was the one that he was preparing the people for.    The people did not know or identify Jesus as the promised Messiah (John 1:26) and John did not until he saw the sign that God promised; i.e., the Spirit descending on Jesus (John 1:33) and remaining.


  Since Merriam Webster defines the English word "cousin" as  "b : a relative descended from one's grandparent or more remote ancestor by two or more steps", one could very well say that Jesus was John's cousin.  Adam Clarke Commentary on the Whole Bible comments that they could have been related by their mothers.  John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible states that "The Persic version calls her 'aunt by the mother's side': intermarriages between the two tribes of Levi and Judah were frequent."  We can conclude then that it is correct to say that Jesus was a cousin to John.


Not and yet was, "Elijah"?


       According to Mark 8:29 Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Christ.  Then Mark 9 records the transfiguration and that the disciples were aware that the prophet Elijah had appeared with Jesus along with Moses (v.4).  Elijah was not identified as John who the apostles had known.  So they were confused and asked Jesus "Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" (verse 11).   Jesus explained that Elijah "is" coming first; and Jesus affirms that Elijah had come and "they did to him whatever they wished" (verse 13).    


       Since the real "Elijah" in heaven had not appeared before Jesus' ministry, Jesus was speaking of someone else.   The one that actually came before Jesus was the "voice in the wilderness"; i.e., John the Baptist.   Luke 1:17 explains the sense in which John was the "Elijah" of Malachi 4:  "[John] will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, 'to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,' and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."    Jesus clearly stated "And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come" (Matthew 11:14).  John was not that Elijah that was received alive in the chariot of fire and taken up by a whirlwind into heaven (2 Kings 2:11) and then appeared to Jesus in the transfiguration.   But he fulfilled the prophecy figuratively.


A "prophet" with a twofold mission


       John was filled with the Holy Spirit from conception (Luke 1:41).  By inspiration his father said that John would be the "prophet of the Highest" (Luke 1:76).  As prophet, John identified God as sending him to baptize with water (John 1:31) with the purpose of presenting (manifesting; revealing) Jesus to the Jews as the "Son of God" (verse 33).   


       The first part of the mission was to introduce the Messiah, the Son of God, to the Jews (Israel) by baptizing.  Although he would have known Jesus through Elizabeth his mother, and he knew Jesus by reputation (Matthew 3:14), he nevertheless did not know that Jesus was the one he was sent to reveal.  "I knew him not, but He who sent me...[said] upon whom you see the Spirit descending, the same is He" (John 1:33).   John had been told by God that one of the reasons for his baptizing was to reveal Jesus to Israel (to the erring children of God).  "I did not know Him; but that He should be revealed to Israel, therefore I came baptizing with water" (John 1: 31).   After John baptized Jesus, he witnessed the sign that was to identify the Messiah to him (of the descending Spirit and His remaining).  Hence, the next day John declared publicly "Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world" (John 1: 29).   Jesus was to identified by John the prophet as the suffering Messiah of Isaiah 53.


       The second part of his mission was to make a "prepared people" for the coming Messiah (providing a ready school of followers) (Luke 1:17).  "While Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.   And he went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, saying: 'The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the LORD; Make His paths straight'" (Luke 3:2,3).   As the "Voice crying in the wilderness",  John's mission was to prepare the people so that Jesus' work ("highway", fulfilling Isaiah 40;3) would be "straight" (level - Strong's).   The preparation of the road was for the benefit of the Lord.  As McGarvey points out in the Fourfold Gospel "By inducing repentance, John was to prepare the people to receive Jesus and his apostles, and to hearken to their preaching".  


       It may not be obvious but John was to baptize Israel who were members of the kingdom of God under the Mosaic dispensation.  "And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God" (Luke 1:16). The Jews were born into that kingdom and hence were already children of God (Isaiah 30:1).   They were "rebellious" and "erring" children indeed but children of God nevertheless unlike the Gentiles who are called "aliens" by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:12). 


The duration of John's mission.


       Since John was of Aaron and Jesus was of David, we can find at least three significant points in John's declaration that Jesus was "preferred before him, for he was before him."   (1) John was a harbinger of Jesus and of lower rank to the importance assigned to Jesus.  John testified of his role, "You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, 'I am not the Christ,' but, 'I have been sent before Him'"  (John 3:28).   (2) Jesus was the Son of God and hence was in existence "before" John (although John was older by months in the flesh).   John testified of Jesus as  "He who comes from above is above all" (John 3:31).    (3)  John as representation of the Aaronic priesthood of the Old Covenant was acknowledging the "preferred" rank of the Messianic Priesthood of the New Covenant (Hebrews 7:11; 8:1-6).


       John's work was temporary and would cease.   John explained his role as being friend to the bridegroom, declaring, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30).   After Jesus had been introduced to the Jewish nation, John's role as harbinger to Jesus was ending.   He would be beheaded shortly. 


       Jesus preached the same message as John, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (John- Matthew 3:2; Jesus- Matthew 4:17).  Jesus' disciples also baptized (John 4:1,2); Jesus did not personally baptize anyone in water.   John had specified that Jesus in contrast to him would be the one to baptize with the Holy Spirit (John 1:33).


       Prior to His ascension into heaven and on the threshold of the establishment of the kingdom (Acts 1:6-8), Jesus commissioned a different baptism than John's baptism and the baptism of His personal ministry (Matthew 28:18-20).   John's baptism became invalid thereafter.  [It never was valid for Gentile aliens.]     In Corinth, years after Jesus ascended, Paul said to disciples who had been baptized into John's baptism, "'John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.'  When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 19:4,5), 


Should we follow Jesus' example in being baptized?


       People sometimes ask "Should we not be baptized in order to imitate Jesus and His being baptized."  My explanation for years was that no one today could ever be baptized like Jesus.  On the one hand, the uniqueness of Jesus Himself and His baptism preempted that.   The purpose of Jesus being baptized is not and cannot be our purpose.  He was revealed to Israel as the Son of God by His baptism by John.  On the other hand, the preparedness purpose of John's baptism also cannot be imitated.   Authorized baptism today cannot prepare one for "Him (Jesus) that is to come".   No one, Jew or Gentile, is a child of God today. However, there is a principle that Jesus proclaimed to John at His baptism that applies to us all.  This principle can and must be imitated.


'Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?" But Jesus answered and said to him, "Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he allowed Him'  (Matthew 3:13-15 NKJV).


            Jesus states to John and no doubt for our benefit that "thus it is fitting".   "Thus", that is, "in this way (referring to what precedes or follows)" (Strong's).    "It is fitting", "to tower up (be conspicuous), that is, (by implication) to be suitable or proper (third person singular present indicative, often used impersonally, it is fit or right)" (Strong's).   Jesus said His being baptized was "right".     What was He saying was right?  Being immersed in water?   No.   Jesus specifically says it is right to "fulfil all righteousness."   "Fulfil" is to "replete; figuratively, accomplish, (be) complete" (Strong; Thayer).    "All righteousness", according to Thayer, is "in a broad sense: state of him who is as he ought to be, righteousness, the condition acceptable to God."     In summary, Jesus affirms that He (and we) must do all that is right and acceptable in the sight of God.


       In 1989 there was a "social message" movie by the name "Do the Right Thing".  A review of the movie described it as "unparalleled. It implies a simple profound question - what is the 'right thing'?  But steadfastly refuses to supply even a hint of an answer - appropriately leaving its central point entirely up to its audience.  Instead, the film points to a different, perhaps more important question 'Whose version of right is right for you?'   Its characters remained confused throughout the movie."  


       What is "right" must be measured by some standard.   What is right to God cannot be determined subjectively by man.  The prophet Jeremiah declared this Truth: "O LORD, I know the way of man is not in himself; It is not in man who walks to direct his own steps" (Jeremiah 10:23).   "My tongue shall speak of Your word, For all Your commandments are righteousness" (Psalms 119:172 ).  God's standard of right for mankind has always been His Word and commandments.


       And what is right to God for one person at a given time may not be right for someone else at a different time.   For example, Moses was told to strike a rock for water at one time (Exodus 17:6).  At another time he was told to speak to the rock for water (Numbers 20:8).  God determined in both cases what was acceptable to Him and hence, what was righteousness.   And Moses knew what God wanted in both cases.  When Moses struck the rock the second time rather than speaking to it as God commanded, he was punished.  His "unrighteousness" kept him out of the promised land.


       When Jesus was baptized, God audibly voiced His approval (Matthew 3:13).  He said of Jesus: "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."   God was "well pleased"; i.e.,  "approved the act" (Strong).    God would approve the act of both the people and Jesus when baptized although their baptisms were for different reasons.   In both cases, the baptisms were acts of righteousness.  To refuse to be baptized was a "rejection of the will of God" (Luke 7:30).  


       "All unrighteousness [Greek, adikia, "wrong"- Strong] is sin" (1 John 5:17).   When we fail to do the right, are we not wrong?   The Pharisees failed to be baptized by John and they were wrong.   They had rejected the will of God.   Some might say, why were they wrong?  They did not do any harm to anyone and perhaps they did some good in their lives.   But the Bible states plainly that in failing to do right and be baptized they had done wrong.  They therefore had sinned before God.


The baptism of Jesus


       Just as God ordered striking the rock at one time and then ordered something else later, so it is that God ordered the prophet John to baptize for repentance unto the remission of sins.   After Pentecost and the baptism of the Holy Spirit by Jesus we are ordered to be baptized in water in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of our sins (Acts 2:38).    This is the gospel message commanded by Jesus: "Make disciples of all nations [Gentiles and Jews] baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:18-20).


       The standard of right is revealed to us in the Truth delivered by the apostles (John 17:17); i.e., in the gospel "wherein is revealed the righteousness of God from Faith to faith" (Romans 1:16,17).


       Not just Jews, but Gentiles are to be baptized by the baptism mentioned.  Consider Cornelius, the Gentile soldier.  Peter: "Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?    And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord" (Acts 10:47,48).    The Gentiles in the passage were not commanded to be baptized in the Holy Spirit, but they were commanded to be baptized in water.    After this event, the Lord Jesus never baptized anyone else in the Holy Spirit.   There is now but one baptism and that is in water (Ephesians 4:5; 1 Peter 3:20,21).


       It is righteousness to be baptized by Jesus' authority.    If right, then would it not be "wrong" to not be baptized by His authority?   If wrong, then wouldn't it be a sin?  If you are the only purest and sinless person on Earth, would you not sin by not being baptized?  If a youth could possibly be "sinless", should he sin just so he can be a likely subject for baptism?  How many sins will keep us out of Heaven?   If you have not been baptized by Jesus' authority, would it not be right for you to do so?   Peter commands that if you believe, then they must "repent" of your sins and "be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins... " (Acts 2:38).