Why Did John the Baptist Baptise People?

Segment of "San giovanni che indica il Cristo a Sant'Andrea" by Ottavio Vannini (17th century).

The Bible’s Answer

St John the Baptist was given a divine mandate by God to proclaim a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mk 1:4). He was prophesied to do so by the prophets Malachi (Mal 3:1) and Isaiah (Is 40:3), who said, according to the way St Mark quoted them:

“Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” (Mark 1:2–3)

According to these prophecies, John baptised people in order to prepare the way of the Lord. When one examines the Hebrew of the text in Isaiah, one will notice that the word for “Lord” in Isaiah is actually “Yahweh”, God’s personal name. In other words, John is preparing the way for God almighty himself. This is one of the passages which teaches the deity or divinity of Jesus, because the Gospels identify the Lord as Jesus himself, which means that he fulfils a prophecy that was made for God. In the Bible, no human is ever attributed to fulfilling a prophecy that was made for God himself; only Jesus is, because as the Bible teaches, he is God (cf Jn 1:1, 14).

John Baptised to Reveal Jesus

So, what does it mean that John baptised to prepare the way of the Lord? First, John explains, in the book of John chapter 1, that he came baptising in order that Jesus—the one who ranks before him—might be revealed to Israel:

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:29–34)

The time when Jesus was most clearly revealed to Israel by John was when John baptised Jesus. During the baptism of Jesus, Heaven itself was revealed in the sky, the Holy Spirit visibly descended upon him like a dove, and God the Father publicly declared Jesus to be his Son:

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9–11)

This was why John could say to his disciples, “I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God”—because John had heard the Father himself declare it in Jesus’ baptism. Jesus’ position as the Son of God refers to his unique special relationship with the Father, a relationship which the Bible teaches Jesus has had for all eternity (Jn 1:1–18). Aside from the fact that it clearly means he is not the Father, it points to his full equality with the Father (Jn 5:18–23). So, John baptised to publicly reveal Jesus for who he really is: the Son of God.

John Baptised to Prepare People for Jesus

Second, John also baptised to prepare people for the coming of Jesus. As specified earlier, Mark says that his baptism was a baptism of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, which means that the people who came to John were people who wanted to repent of their sins. They expressed their repentance in confessing their sins before him at his baptism:

4 John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Mark 1:4–5)

Repentance is more than just feeling sorrow or contrition over one’s sins, although that’s part of it. It’s when one turns their entire person or being to God—when we depend on God and trust him above all else. Repentance results in two ways of living. First, forsaking the things that displease God, which is sin (Isaiah 59:2, 15; Col 3:5–10). And second, pursuing, seeking, and loving the things of God (Lk 3:8; Jn 14:15; Col 3:1–4, 12–14). When the people went to be baptised by John, they did so because they wanted to receive forgiveness from God and to live for him, not themselves. By bringing people to repentance, John was preparing the way for Jesus, because a person who truly repents is a person who actively seeks and desires the truth of God, and so they will recognise Jesus as their Lord, the Son of God. This is what Jesus taught, when he said:

16 My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. 17 If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. (John 7:16–17)

So, we see from the Bible that John the Baptist came to prepare the way of the Lord by baptising people in the Jordan River. And his purpose for baptising people was to reveal God, as the man Jesus Christ, to Israel, and to prepare the people for Jesus’ coming by bringing them to repentance.

John’s Baptism Points to Jesus as Baptiser

Finally, John’s baptism pointed to a greater baptism. John said, “I have baptized you with water, but he [Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8). We saw a similar teaching in the reading above from John’s Gospel. John’s baptism points towards the ultimate baptism: Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit. Jesus first baptised his disciples with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and manifested himself visibly as tongues of fire (Ac 2:1–13). Today, Jesus baptises us with the Holy Spirit when we receive the sacrament of Baptism. Jesus links the outpouring of the Holy Spirit with Christian Baptism, when he declared:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:5)

While Jesus can certainly baptise a Christian with the Holy Spirit prior to Christian Baptism (Ac 10:44–48), especially if they died before they could get baptised, the blessing of Baptism is that it assures us that our union with Christ’s saving death and resurrection is as real as the water that we were washed with (Rm 6:3–5). Jesus baptises us with the Holy Spirit so that we can be temples of the Holy Spirit, precious to God (1Cor 3:16–17). He also does so to remind us that just as we have been baptised into God’s holy name (Mt 28:19), God calls us to live a holy life (1Pt 1:15–16). We cannot do this perfectly. But when we turn our entire being to God, seeking not only our salvation from him alone, but also help from him in our sanctification, we know that we will have the requests that we ask for (1Jn 5:14–15), and that he will help us be prepared for his Son’s second coming.

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