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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

The Baptism of John

John T. Christian

From the book, Immersion: The Act of Christian Baptism, 1891

This baptism is graphically described by the Evangelist Mark: "John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. And there went out unto him all the land of Judea, and they of Jeru­salem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins." (Comp. Matt. 3:5, 6)

If we were to leave out of the question the meaning of the word baptizo, which I have demonstrated means to dip, the circumstances of this narrative would beyond all doubt point to immersion. John was baptizing "in the river of Jordan." He was not baptizing at the river but in the river. If the act John was performing was sprinkling or pouring, it will make good sense to substitute those words for baptize.

Let us try it: "And were all sprinkled of him in the river Jordan." "Were all poured of him in the river Jordan." That is nonsense. The people were neither poured nor sprinkled into the river. Let us try once more: "And were all dipped of him in the river Jordan." That reading is perfectly correct, and is the very thing the Evangelist was saying.

The most competent authorities fully admit that the baptism of John was an immersion in water. Hear them. Dr. Isaac Wise, the learned Jewish Rabbi of Cincinnati, in answer to a pamphlet of Mr. Heaton, says in the American Israelite:

"Mr. Heaton confounds baptism with the sprinkling of the ashes of the red heifer, diluted in water, when the person or thing which had come in contact with a dead body…Any child, however, can see that there is also a sanitary clause involved in this law. There is no passage on record that John the Baptist thought of this case.

“The very fact that he went to the Jordan suggests that the case of Naaman with his leprosy, and the command of the prophet Elisha, was in the mind of the Baptist; and Naaman undoubtedly submerged his body seven times in the Jordan. If Mr. Heaton, instead of quibbling on words and consulting dictionaries, would have inquired after facts and would have looked up the matter in the Mishna, and other Jewish authors, he would have discovered that the Jews had no idea of sprinkling—they knew the bath and submersion. Consequently John the Baptist submerged his converts in the Jordan. We know exactly what John did at the Jordan, and all the dictionaries cannot change the fact."

This is unprejudiced testimony.

The scholarly Meyer says, Com. Matt. p. 77: "To this, however, the immersion of the whole of the baptized person, as the metanoia, was to purify the whole man, corresponded with profound significance, and to this the specially Christian view of the symbolical immersion and emersion afterwards connected itself by an ethical necessity."

Adam Clarke, the Methodist Commentator, at the end of his dissertation of Mark's Gospel, says, "The baptism of John was by plunging the body after this same manner as the washing of unclean persons was."

Dr. Bennett says, and his book is an authority in the Methodist Church and has the endorsement of Bishop Hurst:

"The customary mode was used by the apostles in the baptism of the first converts. They were familiar with the baptism of John's disciples and of the Jewish proselytes. This was ordinarily by dipping or immersion. This is indicated not only by the general signification of the words used in describing the rite; but the earliest testimony of the documents which have been preserved gives preference." (Arch. p. 396)

Geikie, an Episcopalian, in his popular Life of Christ, p. 276, says:

"It was, hence, impossible to see a convert go down into a stream, travel-worn, and soiled with dust, and, after disappearing for a moment, emerge pure and fresh, without feeling that the symbol suited and interpreted a strong craving of the human heart. It was no formal rite with John. Bathing in Jordan had been a sacred symbol, at least, since the days of Naaman, but immersion by one like John, with strict and humiliating confession of sin, sacred vows of amendment, and hope of forgiveness, if they proved lasting, and all of this preparation for the Messiah, was something wholly new to Israel."

Dr. Dollinger, the great Catholic historian, says, "At first Christian baptism commonly took place in the Jordan; of course, as the Church spread more widely, also in private houses; like that of St. John, it was by immersion of the whole person, which is the only meaning of the New Testament word. A mere pouring or sprinkling was never thought of." (The First Age of Christ, and of the Church, p. 318)

Archbishop Kenrick, Catholic, says, "As to the mode in which John baptized, many circumstances favor the opinion that it was by some kind of immersion." (Bap. p. 180)

The statement in John 3:23, is to the point,—"And John was also baptizing at Ænon near to Salim, because there was much water there; and they came, and were baptized."

The reason given for choosing Ænon is that there was sufficient water for baptismal purposes. He was baptizing in Ænon because there was much water there. It is objected that polla hudata, much water, may be translated "many waters." I might grant the "many streams" desired and yet there is sufficient water for baptizing. I read in Ps. 93:4, "The Lord on high is mightier than many waters, yea than the mighty waves of the sea." Ps. 77:19, "Thy way is in the sea, and thy paths in the great waters." The same phrase is applied to the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The translation makes no difference as to the act of baptism. Stuart says any small stream would furnish water for immersion. (On Bap. p. 94)

This is freely admitted by scholars:

Olshausen, Com. vol. 2, p. 365, says, "John was also baptizing in the neighborhood, because the water there, being deep, afforded convenience for immersion."

Lightfoot, Presbyterian, Works vol. 2, p. 121, says: "That the baptism of John was by plunging the body seems to appear from those things related of him, namely, that he baptized in Jordan, that he baptized in Anon, because there was much water there; and that Christ being baptized came up out of the water; to which that seems to be parallel, Acts 8:38."

Dr. Doddridge says, Epis. vol. 1, p. 158: "But nothing can be more evident than that polla hudata, many waters, signifies a large quantity of water, it being sometimes used for the Euphrates."

But does not the record read, Math. 3:11, "I indeed baptize you with water," but "he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire "? The original Greek has, they shall be baptized "in water," "in the Holy Ghost," and "in fire."

The preposition “with” here, however, was not one of instrument. It represents the element into which the persons were to be dipped. They were to be baptized "with water," and not "with milk"; "with the Holy Spirit," and not "with honey"; "with fire," and not "with wine." Meyer takes this position. He says, p. 81, "It is, agreeably to the connection of baptizo, not to be taken in an instrumental, but as in the meaning of the element in which baptism takes place."

The literal meaning of the passage is in water and not with water. It is so translated by Dr. Bennett, Arch. p. 389: "So that while the baptism of John was complete in water, en hudati, the baptism instituted by Christ was not only in water, but in the Holy Spirit and in fire, pneumati hagio kai puri."

Bishop Henry C. Potter, Episcopal Bishop of New York, says:

"Now what was the drift of all of this, but at once to interpret and illustrate the meaning of his own baptizings. The outward act —that plunging in the Jordan—meant simply, get your bodies clean, and so it stood for that other call which rings through all of John the Baptist's preaching, "make your lives, so far as you can make them, white and clean." (Met. Pul., April, 1877.)

Prof. Plumptre, in Ellicott's Com., vol. 1, p. 12, says, "As heard and understood at the time, the baptism of the Holy Ghost would imply that the souls baptized would be plunged, as it were, in that creative and informing Spirit which was the source of hope and holiness and wisdom."

And in the parallel passage, Acts 1:5, vol. 1, p. 2, Prof. Plumptre also says, "Now they were told that their spirits were to be as fully baptized, i.e., plunged into the power of the divine Spirit, as their bodies had been plunged into the waters of the Jordan."

Neander, Life of Christ, p. 53, says: "He it was who should baptize them with the Holy Ghost and with fire; that is to say, that as his, John's, followers were evidently immersed in the water, so the Messiah would immerse the souls of believers in the Holy Ghost imparted by himself; so that it should entirely penetrate their being, and form within them a principle of life."

And the Greek father Cyril of Jerusalem, who lived upon the very spot where the baptism of the Holy Spirit occurred, understood it as an immersion. He remarks, "For the Lord saith, ye shall be immersed in the Holy Spirit not many days after this. Not impart the grace, but all-sufficing the power. For as he who sinks down into the waters and is immersed is surrounded on all sides by the waters, so also they were completely immersed by the Spirit." (Instruc. VIII)