In the first century AD, there were several different communities living in the desert. Some were hiding from the occupying Roman forces while others fled the mainstream Temple authority to live as sects out by themselves. Some were apocalyptic communities upset with the corruption of the priests and looking for God to usher in the end of the world. Among them all, we find John, who is out in the wilderness—along with many others—protesting what’s going on in the Temple.
In the Prophecy of Malachi, we see a glimpse of that corruption and God calling out the Temple authorities and all of his people on their sin against him. God says that he himself is coming and would send a messenger to prepare his people. Mark begins his Gospel with the prophecy from Malachi 3: Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the prophecy from Isaiah 40: A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. John’s speaking authoritatively as a prophet of God while doing something very specific.
This isn’t the first time that a prophet of God performed some grand gesture to get his point across. In fact, Isaiah 20 says, at that time the Lord spoke by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your waist and take off your sandals from your feet,” and he did so, walking naked and barefoot. Then the Lord said, “As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Cush, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptian captives and the Cushite exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, the nakedness of Egypt. Can you imagine? Isaiah walked around naked for three years just to show the people what would happen.
John’s gesture isn’t quite as disturbing. Mark writes, John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And he continues, 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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.
John isn’t walking around naked and barefoot. He’s washing people. He’s out at the Jordan River washing people clean as they confess their sins to prepare them for God’s coming. John’s washing isn’t anything like other ritual washings from Judaism at the time or anything from ancient Israelite religion. As he’s doing this, he’s telling the people: “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John’s baptism is a gesture. It’s an outward sign of repentance. As I like to say sometimes John really was a Baptist.
This is the difference between the baptism of John and the Baptism of Jesus. In the book of Acts (chapters 18 and 19), we see the difference between theses two baptisms. There’s this Alexandrian man, named Apollos who had been instructed in the way of the Lord. Luke writes, And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.
Later, Paul runs into Apollos and some other believers. Luke writes, and he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord JESUS. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.
When Jesus comes to John to be baptized, a gesture showing Jesus’ own faithfulness to his heavenly Father—mourning the sins of his own people—something else happens. Mark writes, In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 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. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
This prophetic sign of John in the wilderness becomes something more. It’s no longer just a gesture showing one’s repentance, it’s now an act of the Holy Spirit himself. It’s funny, because God’s Spirit is not expected to be out in the wilderness, but rather in the Temple—the scandal of this whole thing. Here Jesus himself becomes the one who bears the Spirit, and he gives the Spirit to us. John prepares the way for all of this. He prepares the way for Jesus to turn our hearts to our Heavenly Father. He prepares the way for Jesus to cleanse our souls.
The baptisms of John and Jesus are different. Both have their place in the history of the church, but the former is only a shadow and precursor of the latter. Don’t settle for the baptism of John—a symbol—when you can have the baptism of Jesus himself—the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. When we’re baptized in the name of Jesus, it’s not just an outward sign. The Holy Spirit is at work as he comes to dwell within us—we are walking temples of God. In our souls we bear heaven itself.