Jack Cottrell

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Posted on by Jack Cottrell

by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Monday, May 2, 2011 at 6:48pm

QUESTION: Mark 1:4 says that John’s baptism was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Now, if those baptized by John had their sins forgiven there, how can John’s baptism be any different from the Christian baptism that began on the Day of Pentecost? Also, if people could receive forgiveness through John’s baptism, then why did Jesus have to die on the cross?

ANSWER: There are two questions here; we will take the second one first. Let’s grant for the moment that John’s “converts” received forgiveness in connection with his baptism. Does that mean that they actually received forgiveness “through John’s baptism”—as if John’s baptism were the source or basis of that forgiveness, thus making the cross superfluous? No. The baptism itself would be only the occasion for the forgiveness of sins; the basis for that forgiveness would still be the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ.

Some have falsely concluded and taught that no sins were literally and fully forgiven until Jesus’ sacrifice was completed on the cross. Only from that time on could sins be actually forgiven; before then a repentant sinner’s forgiveness was “put on hold,” and all sinners were kept in a kind of “holding pen” (called the limbus patrem, or “limbo of the fathers”), awaiting the great historical event that would make their forgiveness possible. Following Jesus’ crucifixion they were finally forgiven and allowed to enter Paradise with Jesus.

This is simply not true. OT saints were fully forgiven at the time when they met the conditions specified for that forgiveness. If faith was the specified condition, as with Abraham, then Abraham was forgiven (justified, counted righteous) when he believed (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3). If John’s baptism was such a condition, then those thus baptized were fully forgiven. The only way God could dispense forgiveness prior to the cross was on the basis of what He in his “predetermined plan and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23) knew was going to happen on the cross. Those who may have wondered how a righteous God could be forgiving sins in the OT era had their doubts and misunderstanding removed by the cross itself. There on Calvary God displayed Jesus publicly as a propitiation, and thus demonstrated HOW He was able to “pass over the sins previous committed” (Rom. 3:25), i.e., before the cross. Any gift of divine forgiveness, whenever bestowed and upon whatever occasion bestowed, absolutely requires the death of Jesus on the cross for its possibility.

But this takes us to the second question worded above, namely, if those baptized by John had their sins forgiven in that act, then how is John’s baptism any different from Christian baptism? First, I don’t think it is splitting hairs to note that the Bible does NOT make a direct connection between John’s baptism and forgiveness of sins. In Mark 1:4 it is described as “a baptism of repentance,” and the repentance is “for the forgiveness of sins.” The baptism of Acts 2:38, on the other hand, is directly connected with forgiveness: “be baptized for the forgiveness of sins.” In each case the word “for” translates the Greek eis, which in this case means “unto” in the sense of “for the purpose of.” Thus in John’s case the repentance is for the purpose of forgiveness; in Acts 2:38 the baptism is for the purpose of forgiveness. Thus I conclude that while Christian baptism is for forgiveness, John’s baptism was not.

What, then, is the purpose of John’s baptism? Everything about John’s ministry, including his baptism, must be understood in the light of his role as forerunner, as the one who was to prepare the way for the Messiah. Thus his baptism must be seen as in some way preparing for Christ—the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (See Mal.3:1; Matt. 11:10; Luke 1:17; Acts 19:4.) John’s mission and baptism were preparatory, thus temporary.

Just how did John’s baptism function thus? It marked out a community of people who were alerted to the coming of the Messiah and ready for his appearing. Those baptized by John were the REMNANT of that day (Isa. 10:20-22; Zeph. 3:11-13; Rom. 9:27-28; 11:4-5), the “Israel within Israel” (Rom. 9:6), a true pre-Messianic community. These are the ones who looked for their Messiah in hope, free from fear of any judgment he would bring. Those joining this remnant community thus entered into a state of eschatological self-consciousness. I.e., they knew themselves to be poised on the threshold of the new age, the Messianic age. This means that John’s baptism itself had an eschatological significance. John’s baptism functioned as a kind of initiatory rite, marking one’s entrance into this community—an informed, spiritual community.

Preparation for entrance into such a community involved real moral change in the form of repentance, and not just ritual cleansing. This made John’s baptism different both from the OT rituals and from circumcision. It was very similar to the prophets’ exhortation to “cleanse or circumcise your hearts.” John’s baptism had an intrinsic, intentional symbolic relation to this inner moral cleansing, and thus to forgiveness of sins. It was a baptism “unto [eis] repentance” (Matt. 3:11) or “of repentance” (Acts 19:4); a “baptism of repentance unto [eis] the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3). See Luke 1:76-77.

Actually we cannot be dogmatic as to whether it was only a public expression of this required inner change, or a required occasion for receiving the necessary forgiveness. In my judgment, however, it was the former, in which case it would be similar to a modern “rededication.” In either case receiving John’s baptism marked one as a “true believer,” as part of the “Israel within Israel” (Rom. 9:6). It took a person as far as he could go in the Old Covenant era, thus placing him in the “starting gate” for the New Covenant and gospel preaching.

John’s baptism may be considered a true antecedent or forerunner of Christian baptism, but it must not be equated with Christian baptism as if it had the same meaning as the latter. In Acts 19:1-7, those baptized with John’s baptism had to be rebaptized. One of the main reasons why this was so was that the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit was given only from Pentecost on, and was given in Christian baptism (John 7:37-39; Acts 2:38). Another reason is that John’s baptism, unlike Christian baptism, could not be related to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, since these events had not happened yet. This latter point is probably why John’s baptism, unlike Christian baptism, was not directly related to forgiveness; only the latter is a baptism into His death (Rom. 6:3-4) and thus into contact with His forgiving blood.

(Those being baptized by Jesus’ disciples (John 3:22, 26; 4:1-2) were in the same status as those baptized by John.)

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  1. Greetings Brother Cottrell!
    i have read this and think i understand it. But to be more sure of it, would it be possible that you could put together a test of it?


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John’s Baptism of Repentance

R. Steven Notley Articles 1 Comment

All of the Gospels open with a description of John the Baptist’s proclamation of a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). In this brief study we want to consider both the form of John’s baptism and his distinctive call to accompanying repentance.

During a season of the Jewish calendar each person is expected to reflect upon his or her actions during the past year. Commencing with the Jewish New Year there are ten days in which one is to reconcile relationships in anticipation of the Day of Atonement. This season of repentance and reconciliation echoes the voice of one whose prophetic message was permeated with a call to repentance. All of the Gospels open with a description of John the Baptist’s proclamation of a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). In this brief study we want to consider both the form of John’s baptism and his distinctive call to accompanying repentance.

Immersion and Ritual Impurity

Many Christians are surprised to discover that John’s invitation to ritual immersion was nothing new for his Jewish hearers. Although scant mention is made of the practice in the Hebrew Scriptures, by John’s day the custom was already well developed. According to Jewish faith one undergoes immersion if there is any question of ritual impurity. This can result from a number of causes, many in the natural course of life—for example, after childbirth.

Luke’s Gospel speaks concerning the period of Mary’s “purification” (Luke 2:22). This was the forty days following the birth of Jesus (cf. Lev. 12:2-4). It was only after this period that she was permitted to enter the Temple. Before entering the Temple precincts Mary would have been required to submit to ritual immersion, perhaps even in one of the ritual immersion baths archeologists have uncovered along the southern wall of the Temple Mount.

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Comments 1

  1. JP

    One reader asks:

    One thing which puzzles me about “John’s Baptism of Repentance” and which I am seeking clarification is his assertion that the Jewish ritual baptism was a thrice baptism. I had always assumed that the Trinitarian formula in the Didache was a later redaction, because in the section on the Eucharist, it says that only those baptised in the name of the Lord could participate.

    I have always thought that “baptised in the name of the Lord” was the original formula for baptism in early Christian communities. If the Jewish baptism was indeed a thrice immersion, that would easily translate into the Christian Trinitarian formula. Does anyone know Mr. Notley’s sources for that information? Can anyone suggest any further reading?”

    Dr. Notley replies:

    A quick response regarding Jewish thrice immersion. I gave no reference to it because it grew out of discussions over the years with Flusser. He is the only one that I have heard make a connection between Jewish thrice immersion and the trinitarian formula in Matthew 28:19-20. He spoke of the practice as common knowledge–like so many other aspects of Jewish practice of which Christians are unaware. There is a nice brief discussion by Posner in his article “Ablution” in the Encyclopedia Judaica cols. 81-86. In the article he states, “According to law one such immersion is sufficient, but three have become customary” (82). I know of no discussion of the origins of thrice immersion in the primary sources.

    Nevertheless, we may see influence from this pre-existing Jewish practice on the “thrice pouring” of Didache 7:3. This may indicate the antiquity of the tradition (i.e. at least first century CE). It was Flusser’s contention that the practice gave rise to the trinitarian formula not the reverse, as is often assumed in scholarship. His contention makes sense–one can hardly explain thrice immersion in Judaism for trinitarian reasons!

    For further reading you might look at The Didache, Huub van de Sandt and David Flusser (Fortress Press, 2002) 273-291.

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