Baptism: in whose name and why?

The baptism of John or the baptism of Jesus? Is there a difference? Yes, a big one and once upon a time this difference played an important role. The one baptised with a baptism of repentance, the other one with a baptism of salvation.

The baptism performed by John the Baptist at the Jordan is referred to as a baptism of repentance by Paul in his conversation with the disciples of John the Baptist. “And he said to them, ‘Into what then were you baptised?’” So they said, “Into John’s baptism.” Then Paul said, “John indeed baptised 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” (Acts 19: 3–4).

The baptism of John was therefore not the sacrament that churches celebrate today as the starting sacrament in Christianity, it was rather an expression of human repentance. Paul is right when he writes that John was aware of his position, namely that he was only the forerunner of the Messiah. His testimony was so convincing that more and more people had themselves baptised (Matthew 3: 5). He managed to win a large crowd – for Jesus. His agenda is summed up in one sentence: “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3: 30). Yet he was not just any ascetic or hermit living in the desert; he certainly had influence and a name.

Repentance as an expression of one’s inner attitude

His claim to preach unto repentance first of all applied to himself: he practised what he preached! His sermons were anything but edifying. They were characterised by warnings against excess and decadence. He himself lived an ascetic life and did not indulge in luxuries. At least this is what Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian of the second half of the first century, wrote.

This may have been one reason why he had such a large following. And such consistency between what one says and what one does still captivates people to this day.

Even after John’s violent death he continued to have followers, and probably not only in Palestine but also in Ephesus, that is, in Asia Minor. The Mandaeans, an ancient monotheistic Middle Eastern religion, still exists in southern Iraq and in neighbouring Iran. Today the Mandaeans are scattered with large communities in Australia and Sweden. What unites them are complex purification rituals and an ascetic lifestyle.

Baptism as a sacrament of salvation

Jesus knew about John the Baptist. He went to John right at the beginning of His activity and was baptised by him in the Jordan River. This was both proof of the binding nature of a ritual act of purification as well as respect for the emerging mission of the Messiah. Anyone who intends to do great things first needs some kind of an indication. And this came directly from heaven: “This is my beloved Son. Hear Him!”

Baptism with water and in the triune name of God did not become a Christian sacrament until later. By then several centuries had passed. Today, baptism is the fundamental connection with God. Through the washing away of original sin, the baptised are led out of their original state of remoteness from God: they enter the proximity of God. They become Christians. Through their faith and profession of Christ, the baptised now belong to the church of Christ.

This is fundamental. In CNAC 8.1.3, Holy Baptism is declared as being necessary for salvation: “Holy Baptism with water is indispensable for partaking in salvation. It is the first step on the way to complete redemption. Hence, Holy Baptism with water opens the way to eternal fellowship with the triune God.” So while the baptism of John is understood as a baptism of repentance, the baptism of Jesus Christ is an act of salvation. Christian baptism is a gift of God and not the work of man. In it, the triune God guarantees human beings His nearness.

The beginning of the last things

Even though baptism marks the starting-point on our path to salvation, the goal is already firmly anchored in it. This is the central subject developed in Romans 6. Those who are baptised into Christ are “dead indeed to the power of sin”. For if we have become like Him in His death, then we will also be united with Him in His resurrection so that we may also “walk in newness of life”.

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Peter Johanning
Bible Study, Bible , Holy Baptism