In our exposition of the idea of the sacraments we emphasized the fact that a certain rite or ceremony in order to partake of the character of a sacrament must be divinely instituted. Bread, wine, and water are in their very nature symbols of nourishment and of purification; but this does not constitute them as sacraments. Sacraments must be divinely appointed or ordained and instituted in the Church. Also the latter element, namely, that they are instituted in the Church as a whole and must be observed by the Church, is undoubtedly essential to sacraments. The washings and purifications among Israel were certainly instituted by divine law; and in a sense the washings that were thus ordained may be said to be foreshadowing the sacrament of baptism. At least it may be said that when the sacrament of baptism was instituted the idea that washing with water symbolized a spiritual purification was not strange to Israel. But all these purifications and washings had no sacramental value for the simple reason that they were not instituted to be observed by the whole Church but regulated special cases, such as a woman after child-birth, contact with a corpse or carcass, or eating that which died of itself. The same may be said of the baptism of proselytes. Proselytes were baptized as a sign together with circumcision of their incorporation into the Jewish nation. And also this Indicates that baptism as such was by no means an unknown rite or ceremony. But in order to raise it to the level of a sacrament it must be instituted by Christ to be observed by the whole Church.
The importance of this is realized also by the Heidelberg Catechism. Hence it devotes an entire question and answer to the institution of baptism, as follows: “Where has Christ promised us, that he will as certainly wash us by his blood and Spirit, as we are washed with the water of baptism? In the institution of baptism, which is thus expressed: ‘Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,’ ‘he that believeth, and is baptized, shall be saved; but he that believeth not, shall be damned.’ This promise is also repeated, where the scripture calls baptism the washing of regeneration, and the washing away of sins.”
Indeed, that baptism is an institution of God through Christ must be emphasized; and it is important that this is clearly shown. Many in our day attach no significance to baptism as a sacrament. To them It is a mere formality: the baby must be christened. At best it means that the child is marked as a member of some church and that it is not a mere heathen. Others deliberately reject baptism altogether and contemptuously speak of “water baptism”; and water baptism, according to them, has no significance whatsoever: one must simply be baptized with the Holy Spirit. It is, therefore, very important that attention be called to the institution of baptism as of divine appointment and ordination.
And then we may first of all call attention to the baptism of John which also was a divine institution.
The Romish Church rejects the idea that the baptism of John is essentially the same as the Christian baptism. In the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, Session 7, On Baptism, Canon I we read: “If anyone saith, that the baptism of John had the same force as the baptism of Christ: let him be anathema.”
Others also, even among Reformed theologians, deny the identity of the two baptisms. They point out, for instance, thatclearly speaks of a case of some that were baptized by John and were rebaptized by Paul. But it is, to say the least, very questionable whether this view does not rest on a mistaken interpretation of the passage.
In the passage referred to we read: “And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus: and finding certain disciples, He said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost. And he said unto them, Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John’s baptism. Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Jesus Christ. When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied.” Now the question is: where in the passage must be found the extent of the address of Paul to these men? If the end of that address is found in verse 4, then the twelve men addressed were indeed rebaptized by Paul. But if verse 5 is included in the words of Paul, the apostle simply teaches that the baptism of John was identical with the baptism of Jesus. And the latter interpretation seems to be the most probable. The clause in verse 5, “when they heard this,” may indeed, although not necessarily, leave the impression that when these men heard the words of Paul they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. But in the original we have only the simple participle (akcmsantes), so that we have the perfect right to translate instead of, “when they heard this,” “and hearing” or “having heard him”, And in that case the speech of Paul to the men addressed reaches unto the end of verse 5, so that we may translate: “Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is on Christ Jesus; and those that heard John were indeed baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” In that case the text does not refer to any rebaptism by Paul, but rather tells us that Paul instructs those twelve men that the baptism of John had the same significance as the baptism of Jesus and that therefore when they were baptized by John they were at the same time baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. In favor of this interpretation is also the fact that Paul is not presented as taking any action until the sixth verse, which informs us that when Paul had laid hands upon them the Holy Ghost came upon them and they spake with tongues and prophesied. If the text had meant to teach that Paul rebaptized those men, it would undoubtedly have read as follows: “And when Paul had thus spoken to them, he baptized them in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when he laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came upon them, and they spake with tongues and prophesied.”
Now as to the identity of the baptism of John and the baptism of Jesus we must remark in the first place that it must be admitted that baptism was not formally instituted until the glorification of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Only then we read definitely that the disciples are commanded: “Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”. Besides, at the time when John was baptizing circumcision was still the sign and seal of the righteousness which is by faith; and that sign was not yet replaced by baptism, as in the days of the new dispensation. John indeed, as the greatest of all the prophets, stood on the threshold of the kingdom of heaven; but he belonged nevertheless still to the old dispensation. For the same reason John baptized only Israelites and that evidently only adult Jews: children were not yet baptized by the baptism of John. Yet, the fact remains that the baptism of John had essentially the same significance as the baptism of Jesus. It was the baptism of the remission of sins, for we read in : “Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan, and were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.” And in we read: “John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” Besides, the baptism of John was certainly divinely ordained. Of this we read in : “And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.” And the same is implied in the question which Jesus put to the chief priests and elders of the people when they question him about the authority upon which He did those things, that is especially, cleansing the temple: “And when he was come into the temple, the chief priests and elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority? And Jesus answered and said unto them, I also will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men? And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say unto us, Why did ye not then believe him? But if we shall say, Of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet. And they answered Jesus, and said, We cannot tell. And he said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things.” . Besides, we read that Jesus and John baptized for a time simultaneously: “After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized. And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized.” Also this shows very clearly that the baptism of .John at the time was the same as the baptism of Jesus Himself.
It is important too that a word be said about the baptism of Jesus by John. Of this we read in: “Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized by thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness. Then he suffered him. And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto horn, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo, a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
On the face of it there is a paradox in this baptism of Jesus. We remember that the baptism of John was the baptism of repentance and of the remission of sins. This presupposes, therefore, sin on the part of him that was baptized. And, not only so, but it presupposed consciousness of sin on the part of him that sought to be baptized and the earnest desire for forgiveness and for sanctification and righteousness. All this, it seems, was not applicable to Jesus Christ. He knew no sin; He was the person of the Son of God in human nature. He was holy and undefiled, separate from sinners. He had, therefore, no consciousness of sin whatsoever. How could He then properly receive the sign of forgiveness, He, Who certainly had no need of forgiveness and no consciousness of repentance?
We are not surprised, therefore, that John at first refused to baptize Jesus. He could not understand how it was possible that he should be called to baptize his Lord. And the word used in the original indicates that he was not so easily persuaded to baptize Jesus; in our text we probably have only the gist and the essence of the conversation, and John seemed to have had a very valid reason to refuse. Says he: “I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” John evidently felt, especially in the presence of Jesus, that he himself also was a sinner and that a sinful man certainly could not baptize his sinless Lord.
Yet the paradox in all this was only apparent. In reality it was very proper and necessary that also Jesus should be baptized. True, considered as an individual He was not a subject for baptism, for He was without sin, holy and undefiled, had no need of repentance and forgiveness at all. But it is different as soon as we conceive of Him as the Head of His Church. With that Church He was legally one, representing them before the face of God. The sins of all His people were upon Him. Hence, as being under the law He was circumcised; and as being the end of the law it was necessary that He should be baptized. His baptism was unique in this sense, that it was a sign of baptism in His own blood. This was His real baptism, of which the baptism of John was but a sign. As He said later to the sons of Zebedee when they approached Him with the request that He would grant unto them that they might sit one on His right hand and the other on His left hand in His glory: “Ye know not what ye ask: Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”. Baptism is a sign of submerging into death that the justice of God is fully satisfied. And therefore it is a sign also of rising again unto a new life. And thus Jesus was baptized indeed. He descended into the depths of God’s wrath, into the deepest darkness of death, and tasted death for all His people. And He rose again, justified by the very sentence of God upon Him in His glorious resurrection. And of this baptism into His own blood He received the sign when John baptized Him. He was about to enter upon His public ministry. In that ministry He was to announce the kingdom of heaven. Like John He was to preach that the kingdom of heaven was nigh; but unlike John He was to preach in word and work that He Himself would bring that kingdom of heaven. He is the good Shepherd, the King, the Anointed of God, the life, the bread of life, the water of life, the door, the way into the everlasting tabernacle of God. He was to enter into the sheep-fold and lead out His sheep. But all this was concentrated around His death. If He would not die, He would be none of all this. His death was therefore the essential element of His whole ministry. And therefore it was very proper that He should be baptized by John as a sign of His ultimate baptism into death.
This is emphasized in the answer of Jesus to John: “Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness.” The righteousness of God must be fulfilled, and that, too, that righteousness of God with relation to sin, to the sin of His people. His people must have forgiveness; but if sin is to be forgiven, it must be blotted out. And in order to blot out sin there must be an act of perfect satisfaction, the willing bearing of the wrath of God and of the punishment of sin. That is the fulfillment of all righteousness to which Jesus refers in His answer to John. Hence He says “thus”,—“in this way, by my being baptized of thee, in the way of all that baptism signifies we must fulfill all righteousness.” And notice too that the Lord does not say, “it becometh me”, but “it becometh us” to fulfill all righteousness. Also for John it was necessary that Jesus should be baptized, in order that John might fulfill the righteousness of God. The reason for this is very plain: John had preached the forgiveness of sins and baptized with the baptism of repentance; but that baptism would be a lie if John would not function as the porter that openeth the door and by confessing that his baptism is significant only because of the baptism of the Lamb of God.
Thus we can understand the baptism of Jesus by John. He descended into the Jordan as a pledge that as the obedient servant He will fulfill all righteousness and presently descend into the Jordan of His own death. Small wonder, then, that in the account of this baptism by Luke we read that as Jesus descended into the Jordan He was praying, consecrating Himself, no doubt, as the servant of the Lord, and praying too for the Spirit of God without measure. And again, no wonder that especially at the occasion of this baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ a voice sounded from heaven: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Thus, then, the sacrament of baptism was begun to be instituted by John the Baptist. For God Himself sent John to baptize, and to be baptized by him had the same meaning essentially as to be baptized into Jesus Christ. And the baptism of John was sealed by Christ Himself when He came to John to be baptized of him. And finally, this institution of baptism was sealed for the whole Church of the new dispensation by the specific command of Christ: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Or according to the version in the Gospel according to Mark: “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”