The rite of water baptism performed by John the Baptist is closely linked to the sacrament of baptism instituted by Jesus as the sign of the new covenant. Though there is a continuity between the two baptisms, they must not be seen as identical.
John’s baptism, properly considered, belongs to the Old Testament. Although we read of it in the New Testament, the New Covenant did not begin until after John’s ministry. It was a requirement God gave to His people, Israel. It was a baptism of preparation. John preached that the kingdom of God was at hand. He was the herald of the Messiah. The nearness of the coming kingdom of God was seen in the imminent appearance of Christ. The Messiah King was about to be made known, but the people of Israel were not ready for Him. They were unprepared. They were unclean.
John’s baptism was a radical innovation. Prior to John, Gentiles converting to Judaism were required to undergo a purification rite of cleansing. With the appearance of John the Baptist, God commanded the Jews also to repent and be washed. The Jewish clergy regarded John’s requirement as heretical and insulting. It meant that John was treating Jews as if they were as unclean as Gentiles.
Jesus willingly submitted to John’s baptism, even insisting upon it (against John’s protests) because in His role as Messiah it was necessary for Jesus to submit to every requirement of God’s law for Israel. In His identification with His people, Jesus was baptized to fulfill all righteousness.
When Jesus entered the Jordan River to be baptized by John, this event marked the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Here He not only identified Himself with the sin of His people, He was also anointed by the Holy Spirit for ministry. In a sense this was Jesus’ ordination. Here He began His vocation as the Christ.
The term Christ means “anointed one.” Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit at His baptism and began to fulfill the role of Messiah as described by Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor” (Isaiah 61:1).
- John’s baptism was preparation for the coming of the Messiah.
- John’s baptism was insulting to the Jewish officials because it meant they were “unclean.”
- Jesus was baptized not for His own sins but to identify with the sinners He came to save.
- Jesus was ordained or anointed at His baptism.