“Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, and said to him, “Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them saying, “I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know. It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” These things took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.” (John 1:24–28, NASB95)
This is the second half of the questioning of John the Baptist by the priests and Levites, which we read here, were sent by the Pharisees. Having established that John was not professing to be the Christ, Elijah, or the awaited Prophet, but a “mere voice” they now were pressing him for under what authority or for what purpose he was baptizing people. The first half of John’s response was that the baptizing he was doing was with water. Matthew added that John said, “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11, NASB95) John was sent to call people to repentance and to recognize that repentance by people aligning themselves with God and His forgiveness through water baptism. It was not the baptism that cleansed anyone from their sins, but it was their faith, and John was baptizing people in recognition of their heed to the call for repentance and turning to God.
These encounters with his questioners were recorded in all four of the gospels and each of them helps to paint a full picture of his response. This is especially so when we look to the second half of John’s response. We read in Luke’s account, “John answered and said to them all, “As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”” (Luke 3:16–17, NASB95)
John was sent to proclaim the One who was coming who was mightier, and as we read was even around at that time walking among them. John saw himself as very unworthy in comparison to this One, such that he was even unfit to untie the thong on His sandals. John knew that he was given an important task to point people to the coming Christ, and that when He came it was Him who had the power to baptize, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and fire. The One coming was truly the Son of God sent by the Father with the power of the Spirit. He was the One who had the power to forgive sins and to give life and even to take life. He was the One who was going to separate those who believed, drawing them to Himself, and those who did not, judging them to eternal separation through unquenchable fire.
John was not claiming to be anyone special, but on the contrary saw himself as one sent to proclaim the One who is. And in so doing he was sent to call people to repentance such that they would hear of the coming Christ and turn by faith to await Him.
Even today, as believers, we are commanded to mark our turning away from sin and to Christ by water baptism. Just as with John, this baptism did not save anyone, but was an outward statement of something that had changed on the inside. But it is also a baptism that believers are directed by Christ Himself to observe as we read in what we refer to as the “Great Commission” in Matthew 28. “And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”” (Matthew 28:18–20, NASB95) After having heard, and believed, and placed their trust in Jesus Christ for salvation we read the charge to make disciples who are baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and who are then taught about following according to what Jesus taught. This is an enduring directive that extends past the life of the disciples, as we read “even to the end of the age.”
So, having been instructed to baptize what do we know about the process of baptism? There are a variety of forms which have been used by various denominations and in various settings, but the model of Scripture appears to be by immersion. When Jesus was baptized by John we read in Matthew 3:16 that Jesus came up out of the water. When the eunuch was baptized by Philip we read that they came up out of the water (Acts 8:36-39). And in Romans we have from Paul a description of the baptism of the Holy Spirit which John spoke of. “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3–4, NASB95)
Putting both the description of the baptism that occurs at the time of salvation by the Holy Spirit and the baptism of water which follows by obedience, we get the picture of the latter being a public demonstration of what has already happened on the inside. In this we are put under water to symbolize having had our sins buried with Christ, and we are then raised back up again symbolizing newness of life and that we are committed to walking with Christ. In being baptized we are making a public proclamation that we intend to walk with Christ for the rest of our days, and this is all done according in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (our triune God).
John baptized with water to proclaim repentance in advance of the coming of Christ. We baptize with water today in obedience as we declare that we indeed have received the salvation which John said was there in their midst. In between, we have the coming of our Lord who came to seek and to save that which was lost.
Water baptism does not save anyone. But we are left with it, along with communion, as ordinances or commands from our Lord which we are to follow. Communion is done regularly, just as it marks our regular fellowship with each other in anticipation of our Lord’s return. Baptism is done once, just as we are we are saved just once and at that time made new creations in Christ.