“Look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him!”
— John 3:26b —
In John 3 a dispute about baptism arose between the disciples of John the Baptist and a Jew. While unnamed, this Jew caused an existential crisis for the followers of John. So great is their concern about purification, baptism, and the rise of Jesus, they run to their teacher and point to his baptism. Verse 26 captures their concern: “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”
In this question about baptism, prompted by a dispute about purification, we find an analogue to modern debates about this biblical ordinance. Today, there are questions related to the mode, the subject, and the place. That is: Does sprinkling or pouring count as baptism? What about sprinkling a believer? Or immersing an infant? (See video below). Does a private baptism between friends qualify? And how should we understand the difference (or similarities) between the initiating rite of the old covenant (circumcision) and the initiating rite of the new covenant (water baptism)? All these questions and more need biblical answers.
[The Greek Orthodox remind us that baptizō means immersion, plunging, dipping].
Over the last few years, I have written multiple articles on baptism in the Bible and its pre-requisite for membership in the church. As an unashamed Baptist, who affirms the historical confessions of London, Philadelphia, New Hampshire, and Nashville, I will continue to write on the subject. Why? Because baptism continues to come up in conversation with visitors and others who are thinking about membership at our church.
With that in mind, I offer another exegetical take on baptism—one that comes from John’s Gospel and the dispute about baptism found therein. Following the imperative to “Look!” we will look at what John says about John’s baptism, Jesus’s baptism, and the conversation in John 3 about the new birth, baptism in the Spirit, and the practice of baptizing repentant believers. So, with this visual approach to John 3, I offer seven things we see about baptism. Here’s the list; explanations will follow.
- Baptism is performed in public with a group of witnesses.
- Baptism requires biblical discernment.
- Baptism is handled by Jesus’s disciples, not Jesus.
- Baptism is always by immersion.
- Baptism requires people to seek water.
- Baptism leads to disputations.
- Baptism requires humility.
What do we see?
First, baptism is performed in public with a group of witnesses.
If we obey the command to “look” at the baptism described in John 3, the first thing we see is that baptism occurs with a group of witnesses. In verse 22, Jesus is accompanied by this disciples. He is not alone in his baptizing; he is joined by witnesses. This matches the approach of John, who in verse 23 is baptizing and “people were coming and being baptized.”
In short, baptism is not a private matter; it is a public display of one’s repentance for sin (in John’s case) or faith in Christ (in Jesus’s case). We will say more about these two different baptisms below, but for starters, we must see that baptism requires witnesses. And any baptism that is conducted without such authorized witnesses does not match the biblical pattern.
Second, baptism requires biblical discernment.
In John 3:22–25, we find two baptisms taking place—John’s and Jesus’s. In the other Gospels, John’s ministry always precedes that of Jesus, but in John 3, we find a short time of overlap. And this overlap represents a transition from the old covenant to the new. As R. H. Lightfoot (St. John’s Gospel: A Commentary) notes, both John and Jesus “baptized simultaneously in the south.” He continues, “Since in 3:22–30 the whole emphasis is on the contrast between the Baptist’s work and that of the Lord, and of the supersession of the former by the latter, we seem to be invited to contrast the two baptisms in question” (119).
Indeed, this is part of the dispute. While we do not know what the disciples of John heard from the Jew, or who this Jew was (v. 25), their immediate question to John (v. 26), combined with this Christ-exalting answer, tell us that John and his ministry of baptism must decrease and Jesus and his ministry of baptism must increase (v. 30). In fact, John’s entire ministry of baptism was predicated on this point—he baptized in water, but the one to whom he bore witness would baptize in the Spirit (John 1:26–27; cf. Mark 1:7–8).
Now, do we see Jesus baptizing in the Spirit in John 3? No and Yes. In the waters of Jesus’s baptism, we do not see Spirit baptism. At least, we do not see Spirit baptism except in the case of Jesus himself, when the Spirit came upon like a dove (see Mark 1:10). Therefore, as we are looking at the people being baptized by Jesus in John 3:22, we cannot see the Spirit. Water baptism does not produce regeneration or Spirit baptism.
Yet, we should not deny the idea of the Spirit’s work with respect there. Why? Because in John 3:34–36, the Evangelist identifies the Spirit with Jesus.
34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. 35 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
In providing an inspired summary of John the Baptist’s words in John 3:27–33, John the Apostle explains that Jesus had received the Spirit in order to give the Spirit. And everyone who believed on Christ for salvation had received from Christ a baptism in the Spirit. (This might also be called regeneration; more on that below).
So, going back to the baptism of Jesus in the Judean countryside, we cannot forget the role of the Spirit. Those whom Jesus baptized in water were those whom had believed in him. And how did they believe? By means of the Spirit.
And this is where discernment is needed. The baptism of Jesus is not the same as the baptism of John. And their simultaneity exposes a distinction between them, and hence a dispute. John’s baptism was a baptism of anticipation; its recipients confessed their sins and prepared their hearts for the messiah. Jesus’s baptism by contrast, was a baptism of fulfillment. It also invited recipients to confess their sins, but it called them to confess their faith in Christ. And so, John 3 calls us to understand that John’s baptism, associated with old covenant as it was, was insufficient and typological. It pointed to Christ, it prepared the way for Christ, but it was only the baptism offered by a friend of the bridegroom (John 3:28–29).
This means that when Christ came, John’s baptism would go away. In fact, John himself would go away. John 3:24 indicates the forthcoming imprisonment of John. And with that imprisonment would come his death. Yet, instead of clinging to his ministry, his baptism, or the old order, John rejoiced in knowing that the Christ had come (John 3:27–30). In this way, John stands in direct contrast to Nicodemus (John 3:1–15), whose ministry also stood for the old order, the old temple, and the old sacrificial system. Jesus came to replace him too, and earlier in John 3, Nicodemus refused. John the Baptist, however, received Jesus call to die with him, in hopes of eternal life to come.
So again, baptism in John 3 requires biblical discernment. And the same is true today. Does your baptism match the new covenant of Christ, where every child of God is born from above? Or does it reflect the old order, and administration of an old covenant where not everyone is born again? That is the difference between John’s baptism and Jesus’s, and it is one that still applies today between those who affirm infant baptism and believer’s baptism.
Third, baptism is handled by Jesus’s disciples, not Jesus.
Reflecting the way in which Jesus’s baptism is in the Spirit, it is necessary to observe that Jesus did not baptize in water. While John 3:22–23 speak of Jesus’s baptism, John 4:1–2 adds a crucial clarification:
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John 2 (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples).
Notice how this works. The baptism assigned to Jesus was always carried out by his disciples, not Jesus. Thus, when summoned to look at Jesus’s baptizing (3:26), here is what we would see: Jesus walking in the midst of his disciples, would be watching them baptize those who came to identify themselves with Christ. John 4:1 says that Jesus was making disciples and baptizing these disciples. The pattern recalls Matthew 28:19, where Jesus instructed his followers to make disciples and baptize them in his name.
Accordingly, we discover that in Jesus’s ministry, we have Jesus’s disciples baptizing other disciples. Recognizing how someone is made a disciple—by means of faith, granted by the new birth—we see how water baptism relates to Spirit baptism. Jesus did not baptize in water, but he did baptize his sheep into the Spirit, such that they would believe and follow him. And when that happened they would identify themselves publicly with Jesus. Then, in turn, they would identify other born again believers and baptize them.
Importantly, the way all disciples identified themselves with Jesus was not left to chance. Spirit baptized saints, if they were taught from the words of Jesus, as they were instructed to be (see again Matthew 28:19-20), would be baptized in water.
And who baptizes them in water? Not Jesus, but the baptized disciples of Jesus.
Thus, in John 3:22 we see a foreshadowing of the church. Jesus, walking in the midst of his people, is present to oversee his disciples who are baptizing believers that demonstrate faith and repentance, which in turn is the evidence of Jesus’s Spirit baptism, which qualifies them for water baptism.
Fourth, baptism is by immersion.
If we keep our eyes fixed on the events of John 3:22–24, we will see baptism by immersion and only baptism by immersion. How do we know? As I count it, there are three evidences of baptism by immersion in John 3.
- The word baptism has the idea of immersion.
In all standard Greek lexicons, the word for baptism (baptizō the verb, baptisma the noun) carries the idea of plunging or dipping under water. This is why the Greek Orthodox Church plunges infants under water for baptism (see above), and this is why Baptists have historically required baptism by immersion.
In John 3 the repeated used of baptizō (vv. 22, 23, 26) signifies that disciples of John and the disciples of Jesus both baptized in the same fashion. Set in the context of John 2–4, the debate is not about mode, but about meaning. Already, Jesus had shown the weakness of water jars to purify the flesh (John 2:6), and now as that same word for purification is being used (John 3:25), it becomes clear that the debate relates to the covenant, not the mode. Accordingly, the picture we have of Jesus’s baptism and John’s is always one of baptism by plunging disciples under the water. And this mode is just like every other Old Testament example.
- The word baptism comes from the events of the Old Testament.
The lexical argument for baptism is not the only argument. When Paul describes Israel’s Red Sea crossing as the baptism of Moses (1 Cor. 10:2) and Peter refers to Noah’s baptism as one where Noah brought his family “safely through water” (1 Pet. 3:20–21), we find that the historical events of the Old Testament were understood as baptisms—i.e., types and shadows of Jesus baptism on the cross, as well as precursors to the way Christ’s disciples would identify themselves in the New Testament.
Because I have made the typological case for baptism elsewhere, I won’t repeat everything here. But suffice it to say, from Noah in the flood, to Moses in the Nile, to Israel in the Red Sea, to Joshua in the Jordan River, to Elijah first, then Elisha, then Jesus in the same Jordan River, we have a uniform history—the people of God always pass through the waters of judgment in order to be publicly identified with God.
While baptism signifies the purifying work of the Spirit and his cleansing water on the heart (Ezek. 36:25–27; Heb. 10:19–21), the outward mode of identification of God’s people is always passing through a flood of water. Thus, the word baptism does not simply mean immersion because the dictionary says so. Rather, the word baptism means immersion, because the encyclopedia of the Old Testament always conceives of baptism in terms of going under or through a flood of water.
And lest we miss this point in John’s Gospel, we have one final proof that John’s baptism and Jesus’s were by immersion.
- Baptism requires lots of water.
Adding further proof to what baptism looks like is the ostensibly superfluous comment that John “was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there.” This note is not necessary for the storyline of John 3, but it is necessary, or at least confirmatory, of the fact that the mode of baptism is not left up to chance.
Why did John and Jesus go into the countryside for baptism? There are actually multiple answers for this question, but one of them is this: baptism by immersion requires lots of water. And thus, the people who did not have sufficient supplies of water in one place went to another in order to be baptized in the proper way.
Church history obscures our understanding and commitment to baptism by immersion, but when we return to the Gospels, it becomes apparent that the mode of baptism is found in the word baptism, underscored by redemptive history, and confirmed by statements like John 3:25, “because water was plentiful there.”
Fifth, baptism requires people seek to water.
If baptism in John 3 requires lots of water, it also requires people to seek water. If you have ever been to Israel, you know that there are dry seasons and rainy seasons, arid parts of the land and verdant parts. To put it in terms of water distribution, not every place has equal access. But because humanity depends on water for life, such peoples cannot be far from water either.
Thus, in John 3 we find that people are going to the place where water is. In other words, baptism is not something that can be done at home by one’s self (see #1), nor can it be done without lots of water (see # 5.3). Rather, as a step of obedience to Christ, baptism requires the disciple, made alive by the Spirit, to seek water so that they can be immersed in it, when Christ and his disciples are present to baptize them.
Today, Christians can easily take this for granted. So much so that it might seem odd to require baptism by immersion. Yet, in John 3 we are reminded that people left their homes, went into the wilderness, and at risk to themselves sought the baptism of John and then Jesus. Even more, in those baptisms, John and Jesus set up shop in places where the water was plentiful. They did not collect a portion of water and sprinkle people where they went. Rather, in the only places where baptism is described in the New Testament, John and Jesus found places where they could go down into the water (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10; John 3:25; cf. Acts 8:37–39).
For this reason, Christians seeking to be baptized today will also seek places where water is plentiful so that they can be immersed. And, recognizing the fact that many churches accommodate themselves to little water, those who may have been sprinkled or poured at one time, should seek full immersion later. This is not to invalidate the desire of the heart, but to obey the Lord of their heart, who has stipulated in his Word how his disciples will identify themselves with him.
Sixth, baptism leads to disputation about purification.
On one hand, the disputation in John 3:25 has nothing to do with disputes about baptism today, but on the other hand, it does. At issue in baptismal discussions then and now is how one understands the covenant. Baptism is not disassociated with the covenants of the Bible. In fact, baptism is the means by which eight persons were saved by Noah, the means by which Israel identified itself with Moses, the mediator of the covenant, and the means by which Christians identify themselves with Christ, their covenant head.
In short, the way to understand baptism requires a full understanding of biblical covenants. When baptism is reduced to a single word (baptizō), and that is the only argument, it fails to consider all that the Bible says on the subject. By contrast, when we compare the way Presbyterians and Reformed Baptists understand the covenants, we realize the difference is not simply a matter of mode or subject, it is a matter of understanding the nature of and participation in the covenant. Does the new covenant include believers and their (unbelieving) children? Or does the new covenant only obtain for those who are born again?
These questions require an entire biblical theology of the covenants. If you are up for that, I would point you to Stephen Wellum’s chapter, “Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants,” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ. If you are not up for that, then consider this: In John 3, what surrounds the events of Jesus’s baptism are instructions about the new birth (John 3:1–15) and the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 3:34–36). Even John the Baptist points to Jesus’s work as greater than his own. As he said earlier in his ministry, Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit.
And what is this baptism of the Spirit? It is nothing but the new birth, the gift of eternal life that enables men and women to believe. With absolute confidence in the power of God to raise the dead to life, Jesus teaches that all who believe in him are those who have been born again because of him. In complementary fashion, all those who have born again, by means of the Spirit, are the ones who should be baptized. In this way, baptism according to the new covenant is for a regenerate people. The children who are baptized are those who have been born by God, not just born of God’s people according to the flesh.
Infant baptism, which purports to bring children into God’s covenant without faith, are the ones who continue to uphold a baptism and understanding of the covenants associated with the old order. This is the issue in John 3 and again it is related to debates between Presbyterians and Baptists today. Without getting any deeper into the weeds, I will simply say that baptism has always led to disputes, because understanding the continuity and discontinuity of the covenants has always led to disputes.
Yet, as I read John 3, I believe it is safe to say, that believer’s baptism, carried out in the church, with the mode of immersion, where churches may even have to seek water at their own expense, is the way of Christ. And this leads to a final thought.
Seventh, baptism requires humility.
When the dispute about baptism landed at John the Baptist’s doorstep, he did not argue for his own baptism, his own ministry, or his own tradition (i.e. Levitical priests consecrating other priests with water for service in the temple). Instead, he recognized the fact that he had come to the end of his ministry and the end of himself. And with joy in his heart, he submitted himself to Jesus, because the goal of his faith had come.
As he said earlier to Jesus, he needed to be baptized by him (Matt. 3:14). And in John 3, this is actually what we see. The Spirit of Christ, at work in John, leads him to receive from heaven whatever God wills to give. Instead of defending himself and his place on earth, John submits to God and surrenders himself to him. In so many ways, this is what stands at the heart of baptism.
When someone is baptized, they are recognizing the judgment of God upon them because of their sins. And instead of justifying themselves by themselves before God, hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ, they seek to die to self and rise with Christ. This cruciform faith is what Christ gives to all those who are born again and baptized into his Spirit. And thus, when this faith manifests itself outwardly, the disciples of Jesus, granted the keys of the kingdom, baptize this believer in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This is why baptism matters. It make public the real-but-invisible work of the Spirit. And when a group of regenerated disciples are baptized in any one location, they make a church. And then, as the Lord gives life to new disciples, they identify them publicly through water baptism. Conversely, individuals who have come to faith in Christ should seek churches who will baptize them according to the Scripture.
In Scripture, public identification with Christ is not left up the individual, it is commanded by Jesus himself. And churches that seek to obey Christ and Christians who seek to be humble before Christ, should look carefully at what Scripture says about baptism. And if the testimony of Scripture looks like a group of Christ-centered disciples baptizing by immersion believers who demonstrate new life by their faith in Christ, then they should seek lots of water and baptize them accordingly.
This, of course, requires great humility. But as John the Baptist models for us, this is the way of Christ. He must increase and we must decrease. Baptism is given to produce this kind of humility in believers and to create churches who are formed by those who confess: Not I, but Christ, and not by my will, but his. This is why baptism by immersion is so important. It not only properly orders the church, but it also properly orders the heart. It demands humility and thus we should not hold back from upholding God’s instructions for baptism.
To that end, may we see what baptism looks like in Scripture and imitate its practices in our local church.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds