What was the purpose of John the Baptist's baptism? Why was John baptizing Jews who lived under the Law of Moses?

In this post, we'll answer these questions.

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Welcome to part 4 of my series on baptism. These posts build on each other. If you need to catch up, here are links to the previous posts:

  1. Introduction
  2. Is Scripture Descriptive or Prescriptive?
  3. Defining 'baptism'

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In order to understand John the Baptist's baptism, it is helpful to remind ourselves of his mission.

When the angel first appeared to Zechariah, John's father, he said:

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
(Luke 1:13b-17 NIV)

Here, the angel quoted Mal. 4:6. Malachi's prophecy was a judgment against GOD's people, Israel, because of their wickedness. Here's the statement quoted by the angel:

5 “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”
(Mal. 4:5-6 NIV)

John the Baptist had an important and unique mission. Most people misunderstand John's role. Read this important post if you want to better understand John's mission and why people overlook key facts about him.

When John was born, his father Zechariah prophesied concerning him, saying:

76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
(Luke 1:76-79 NIV)

About 30 years later, when the time came, GOD gave a message to John while he was in the desert:

1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
5 Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
(Luke 3:1-6 NIV)

Whatever message John received from GOD, it must have included instructions to baptize Jews for repentance and forgiveness of sins.

John told the Jews to repent because the kingdom of GOD was near (see Matt. 3:2).

This message was new revelation from GOD, but its coming had been long foretold by the prophets.

As the crowds came to be baptized by John, he warned them to bear fruit worthy of repentance (see Matt. 3:8).

He warned them of the very near judgment against the remnant of Israel, saying:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
(Matt. 3:7b-12 NIV)

Hearing this warning, the people asked what they should do, and John warned them to stop sinning (Luke 3:10-14).

John's message and his baptism were for the purpose of preparing the Jews to be ready to receive the message of the coming of the kingdom of heaven which Jesus would soon preach.

Whatever cultural significance water baptism may have had to the Jews at this time, the Scriptures are clear that GOD's expectation was for the Jews to believe John's message, to repent of their sins and to be baptized by him.

Later, during a conflict with the Jewish religious leaders toward the end of His ministry, Jesus discussed the origin of John's baptism:

27 They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. 28 “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?”

29 Jesus replied, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 30 John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin? Tell me!”

31 They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 32 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’ …” (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.)

33 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
(Mark 11:27-33 NIV)

In fact, Luke 7:30 says that the religious leaders "rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John."

No, friends, the baptism of John was no mere cultural trend.

Its origin was from GOD Himself.

And—don't miss this—no where does Scripture state that John's baptism was for a public declaration.

This notion is a myth!

Mark 1:5 shows us that the baptized person was confessing their sins.

The primary benefit of John's baptism wasn't for the onlookers—it was for the baptized person themselves.

(After all, if the primary purpose had been public demonstration of these baptisms, why then did John baptize in the Jordan River in the wilderness and not in the city of Jerusalem where all the people could have witnessed it?)

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Read Part 5 here:

Continue to part 5 entitled "Why Was Jesus Baptized?"

Tim Harris
Author: Tim Harris

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