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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
John Armitage, D.D., LL.D.
Taken from the book, History of the Baptists, 1886
The Evangelist says that Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be immersed by him, “But John sought to hinder him, saying, I have need to be immersed of thee, and dost thou come to me? And Jesus answering said to him, Suffer it now; for thus it becomes us to fulfill all righteousness. Then he suffered him.” In approaching this august event, the forcible words of Godet attract our attention. He says:
“John and Jesus resemble two stars following each other at a short distance, and both passing through a series of similar circumstances. The announcement of the appearing of the one follows close upon that of the appearing of the other. It is the same with their twin births.
“This relation repeats itself in the commencement of their respective ministries, and lastly in the catastrophes which terminate their lives. And yet, in the whole course of the career of these two men, there was but one personal meeting—at the baptism of Jesus. After this moment, when one of these stars rapidly crossed the orbit of the other, they separated, each to follow the path that was marked out for him. It is this moment of their actual contact that the Evangelist is about to describe.”
Jesus’ journey from Galilee to the Jordan, after the touch of parting with his loved ones, stirred heaven with a deeper interest than the footsteps of man had ever excited, for then he recorded the hallowed resolution, “Lo, I come to do thy will, O God.” Many a hard-fought battle had soaked the plain which he crossed, with blood; but that day he went forth single-handed to the hardest war that had ever been waged upon this globe. After he had swept the foot of Tabor, at every step he trod on holy ground.
And when he reached the western slope of the Jordan, like Jacob, his great ancestor, he crossed the ford that he might lead many pilgrim bands over a darker stream 'to glory' All the people had been baptized, and he presented himself as the last arrival of that day because he was not one of the common repenting throng. He had done no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth; hence, remorse never broke his heart. Yet, he numbered himself with the transgressors. At the close of his ministry he was to sleep in a sepulcher wherein never man had laid; and it was meet that in opening his ministry he should be buried in the liquid grave alone, and separate from sinners.
Baptism was the door by which he entered upon his work of saving mediation. The Baptist says, that up to this time he knew him not, as if he had not met him before, and yet, he also says, “I have need to be baptized of thee,” as if he knew him well. This apparent discrepancy has led to large discussion, with this general result; that while John knew him in person as Jesus, he did not know him in Messiahship until Jehovah who sent him to baptize in water said to him; before the baptism of Jesus: Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and abiding on him, the same is he who baptizes in the Holy Spirit. But do John's words necessarily imply that he was ignorant, either of the person or Messiahship of Jesus, before his baptism?
One great prerogative of the Christ was that he should baptize men in the Holy Spirit. This fact had not come to John's knowledge till Jehovah gave him the special revelation that One should come to him for baptism, on whom he should see the Spirit descending and abiding,' and that he should be the pre-eminent Baptizer, who should baptize in the Holy Spirit. This thought seems to have struck John with deep awe, for he carefully draws a contrast between his own baptism, which was 'in water' only, and that of Christ which should be in the Holy Spirit himself. If John did not know him, in the sense of the Baptizer in the Holy Spirit till Jehovah had announced to him the impending token and its signification, then we can well understand why he said, “I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” The revelation that Jesus should be the Baptizer in the Spirit was special to John.
With godlike serenity and dignity the Prince of Peace presented himself for baptism. The words of his mouth, the repose of his body, the purity of his face, the soul of his eye, overpowered John with a sense of reverend princeliness. When the stern herald stood face to face with the Son of the Highest his soul was submerged under a rare humility, which extorted the cry, “I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?”
Captivated by the dignity of the Candidate, and abashed by his own inferiority, he was helpless as a child before this incarnate God—this shrine of the Holy Spirit. He who had walked rough-shod over all pride, and had leveled all distinctions of human glory, was seized with the conviction of a worthless menial, and as a holy man, was thoroughly daunted when the Lord sought a favor of his own servant.
The reasons are apparent. He found the Promised of all promises, the Antitype of all types, the Expected of all ages, standing before him in flesh and blood, and he was startled at the thought of inducting him into the new faith by the new ordinance; for his baptism was administered to the penitent, but the Nazarene was guiltless. “Suffer it now, for thus it becomes us to fulfill all righteousness.” He defers to John's scruple, and asks for the new baptism, not of right, but on sufferance. What did Jesus mean by these words?
Viewed in any light it seems strange that Christ should have sought baptism as a high privilege which he could not forego, for what could it confer upon him? He clearly intended to render obedience to some law of his Father. What law? He had honored every requisition of the Old Covenant by circumcision, obedience to parents, hallowing the Sabbath, temple worship, observance of the feasts, all except in bringing the sin-offerings. For a full generation he had submitted to every claim of Jehovah's law upon him, in every institution and ordinance. But now his Father had established the last test of obedience in the baptism of John, and Jesus, born under God's law, must honor the new divine precept. Jesus himself gave this reason when he accused the Pharisees and lawyers with rejecting “The counsel of God toward themselves” in not having been baptized by John. The will of God was his only reason for obeying any law; he held it an act of obedience to keep all the Divine appointments.
Although not a sinner himself, Jesus impleaded to be treated as a sinner; therefore he humbled himself to receive a sinner's baptism, as well as to submit to a sinner's death. This deep mark of mediatorial sympathy and mystery must have entered largely into his plea, “Suffer it now.” With great clearness Geikie puts this point - Baptism was an ordinance of God required by his prophet as the introduction of the new dispensation. It was a part of "righteousness," that is, it was a part of God's commandments which Jesus came into the world to show us the example of fulfilling, both in the letter and in the spirit." His baptism was the channel through which the Divine attestation could best be given to his Messianic dignity; and when we consider that he had reached the full maturity of all his human powers of mind and body, this manner of entering upon his public work gave a mutual and public sanction to the mission both of John and Jesus.
Yet, with our Lord's interpretation of his own words before their eyes, men will insist upon it that he was initiated into his sacrificial work by baptism, in imitation of the mere ceremonial ablutions of the Aaronical priesthood. Jesus was not even of Aaron's line as was John, much less of his office, but sprang of the tribe of Judah, of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood.
Did Jesus receive the vestments, the consecrating oil, or any other priestly insignia? Even when he made his sin-offering, and assumed the Christian High-priesthood, three years after his baptism, he neither assumed the vesture nor breastplate, the censer nor miter of Aaron - because he was not made a High-priest after the order of Aaron, but after the order of Melchizedec, who knew nothing of sacred oils, ablutions, or vestments. How much better is it than a solemn caricature to set forth the baptism of Jesus as an idle, empty, ritualistic pageant? He came to abolish and cast aside forever the Aaronical priesthood with the economy that it served, and how could he do this by submission to any ceremonial act which they observed? John felt the binding force of Christ's words, when he appealed to the obligations of spotless holiness, and he threw aside his objections in a moment.
With gratitude and grace he yielded and obeyed. He found that his Master was under the same law of obedience as himself, and with holy promptitude he honored the sacred trust which God had put into his own hands, but which no other man had ever yet held. “Then he suffered him.” O, sublime grandeur — awful honor! And when the great Baptist bowed the immaculate soul and body of Jesus beneath the parting wave, all the useless ceremonies of past ages sank together like lead, to find a grave in the opening waters of the Jordan, and no place has since been found for them.
This traditional spot is fixed in human memory as are points on the Tiber, the Thames, and the Delaware, where great armies have crossed. It is a little east of Jericho, near by the conquest of Joshua, also where David crossed in his flight. The place so fascinates and subdues the spirit that the visitors of every land and creed, reverently descend into the stream once a year.
Having been baptized, Jesus went up immediately out of the water; and lo, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending, as a dove, and coming upon him. And lo, a voice out of heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” To this account taken from Matthew, Luke adds: That the heavens were opened while Jesus was ‘praying,’ that the Spirit took ‘the bodily shape’ of a dove, and the Baptist says, that he saw the Spirit “abiding on him.”
What act performed by John is called baptism? John was his proper name, and the term Baptist' added by the inspired writers, is a title of office, as Bloomfield thinks, to distinguish him from John the Evangelist. By this name he was known pre-eminently as the administrator of the religious rite called baptism. That is, according to Liddell and Scott, one that dips; or Donegan, one who immerses or submerges. Dean Stanley says, “On philological grounds, it is quite correct to translate John the Baptist, by John the Immerser.” (Nineteenth Century)
Baptism is a fundamental practice in Christianity, which has run through all its ages. Of baptism, in association with John, Edward Irving says, “This is the first baptismal service upon record. The new rite of baptism was unknown under the Mosaic dispensation."
Much has been said on the subject of Proselyte Baptism, whereby heathen converts were inducted into the Jewish faith, and so, many have depreciated John's baptism as a mere imitation of an existing rite. But modern scholarship has shown conclusively that the reverse of this is true, and that Proselyte Baptism is, in fact, an imitation of the Christian rite, incorporated into Judaism after the Destruction of Jerusalem, A. D. 70.
It is true, that the Jews from early times used various symbolical lustrations as well as the Gentiles, but these were always purely ceremonial, and were never used as a rite by which others were inducted into their faith. Josephus says that many of these washings amongst the Jews were purely of their own will, without direction from the Lord, and Von Rohden denies that they were 'performed by immersion.' He also points out these fundamental differences:
“The washings enjoined by the Law had for their object purification from ceremonial defilement; but the baptism of John did not: the one rite was performed by the candidates themselves upon their own persons: the other was administered to its recipient by the Baptist himself, or by one of his disciples properly authorized: the former was repeated upon every occasion of renewed defilement; the latter was performed upon the candidate only once for all. The two ceremonies, therefore, were essentially different in their nature and object.”
The first witness in favor of Proselyte Baptism is found in the Commentary of the Talmud, which was composed in the fifth century after Christ, and it represents the rite as existing in the first century. But this Commentary is not valid history; it is mere tradition at the most, and does not carry the ceremony back so far as John; nor could it have been known at that time, for had it been, the Jews would have scouted John's baptism, instead of submitting to it, because it would have placed them on a level with the heathen as converts to the new faith.
Proselytes to Judaism were divided into proselytes of the gate, and proselytes of righteousness. The first class had renounced idolatry, and bound themselves to keep the seven Noachic precepts, against idolatry, profanity, incest, murder, theft, eating blood and things strangled, and permitting a murderer to live. The second class not only renounced heathenism, but became Israelites in every respect excepting birth. Males were admitted into Judaism by circumcision, females by a free-will offering. After Christ, the Jews added baptism for both sexes admitted into their faith.
Dr. Lightfoot thus describes this baptism, as the Jews practiced it in after Christian times:
“As soon as he grew whole of the wound of circumcision, they bring him to baptism, and being placed in the water, they again instruct him in some weightier and in some lighter commands of the law”—then, “he plunges himself, and comes up, and behold, he is an Israelite in all things. The women place a woman in the waters up to the neck, and two disciples of the wise men standing without, instruct her about some lighter precepts of the law, and some weightier, while she, in the meantime, stands in the waters. And then she plungeth, and they, turning away their faces, go out while she comes up out of the water.”
Maimonides gives this circumstantial account also:
“Every person baptized (or dipped, whether he were washed from pollution, or baptized into proselytism) must dip his whole body, now stripped and made naked, at one dipping. And wheresoever in the Law, washing of the body or garments is mentioned, it means nothing else than the washing of the whole body. For if any wash himself all over, except the very tip of his little finger, he is still in his uncleanness.”
On the same subject, Geikie well says, “Bathing in Jordan had been a sacred symbol, at least, since the days of Naaman, but immersion by one like John, with strict and humbling confession of sin, sacred vows of amendment, and hope of forgiveness, if they proved lasting, and all this in preparation for the Messiah, was something wholly new in Israel.”
In this case, circumcision availed nothing, nor did uncircumcision, but a new creature. Jew and heathen must alike be immersed into the new faith, or they could not be numbered amongst its votaries. This view is presented also by Godet. He says:
“The rite of baptism, which consisted in the plunging of the body more or less completely into water, was not at this period in use among the Jews, neither for the Jews themselves, for whom the law only prescribed lustrations, nor for proselytes from paganism, to whom, according to the testimony of history, baptism was not applied until after the fall of Jerusalem. The very title, Baptist, given to John, sufficiently proves that it was he who introduced this rite.
“This follows, also, from John 1:25, where the deputation from the Sanhedrin asks him by what right he baptizes, if he is neither the Messiah nor one of the prophets, which implies that this rite was introduced by him; and further, from John 3:26, where the disciples of John make it a charge against Jesus, that he adopted a ceremony of which the institution, and consequently, according to them, the monopoly, belonged to their master.”
It is clear enough, that John did not pick up and use an old, effete institution, and adopt it as the door into the New Age of the great salvation, but that his “baptism was from heaven,” as directly from God as his commission to preach. The preaching, the baptism, and the man, were all newly sent from God to usher in the Gospel Day
Prof. Lindsay, of Glasgow, says:
“The connection between the baptism of John and the Jewish baptism of proselytes, of which a great deal has been made, is all founded on assumptions which cannot be proved. This very plausible theory first assumes that proselytes were baptized from the early time of the Jewish Church, although the Old Testament tells us nothing about it, and then supposes that John simply made use of this ordinary rite for the purpose of declaring symbolically that the whole Jewish nation were disfranchised, and had to be readmitted into the spiritual Israel, by means of the same ceremony which gave entrance to members heathen nations.
“But the subject of the baptism of proselytes is one of the most hopelessly obscure in the whole round of Jewish antiquities, and can never be safely assumed in any argument, and the general results of investigation seem to prove that the baptism of was not one of the Jewish ceremonies until long after the coming of Christ, while there is much to suggest that the Jewish rite owes its origin to Christian baptism.”
And Herzog writes, “The later origin of proselyte baptism is to be accepted.”
The place where he administered the ordinance demands our attention, namely the great river of Palestine, the Jordan. Some of the most interesting associations of sacred story cluster around this stream. Israel first knew it when they crossed its channel dry-shod, in their flight from bondage. The exact spot where John first used this Divine baptistry cannot now be positively identified. Anciently, it was known as Bethabara, supposed to be about three miles from Jericho, and his second baptismal scene was farther north, being known as Ænon, near Salim.
Each eminent writer and traveler now fixes upon some picturesque locality, often selected largely on poetical taste; but all conjecture fails to point it out definitely. Some pitch on a line between Gilgal and Jericho, and some still farther north, at the ford where Gideon threw up fortifications against his foes. But as the whole valley was filled with crowds of candidates, from the Salt Sea to the head-waters, it is most likely that he used various places, especially as John 10:49, speaks of the place where he 'first baptized.' Frequently, reckless writers rush into random statements, and assert that its depth would not allow of immersion, utterly regardless of all topographical exploration, such as that made by Lieutenant Lynch, of the United States Navy. Yet, Jehovah found it necessary to divide the waters for Israel and Elijah, while Pococke and other explorers estimate its daily discharges into the Dead Sea, to be about 6,000,000 tons of water.
Dr. Schaff (Through Bible Lands, 1878) speaks thus:
“At the bathing place of the Pilgrims, the traditional site of Christ's baptism, the river is 80 feet broad and 9 feet deep…After the salt bath in the lake of death it was like a bath of regeneration. I immersed myself ten times, and felt so comfortable, that I almost imagined I was miraculously delivered from rheumatism. I have plunged into many a river and many a lake, and into the waters of the ocean, but of all the baths, that in the Jordan will linger longest in my memory.”
Was John's baptism a burial in water or not? Candid minds can scarcely doubt what this action was, when they weigh the meaning of the Greek word baptizo, the places where lie administered it, and all its attendant circumstances. John, as well as all other sacred speakers used words in their commonly accepted sense, of their times, and this is as true of this word as of any other. Its sense is easily found.
Conant, the great philologist and translator, gives a complete monograph of the root word, in his Baptizein taken from the best known Greek authors, running from B. C. 500 to the eleventh century A. D.; and, in 168 examples from the Greek literature, covers both the literal or physical, and the tropical or figurative, sense of the word. Their whole scope shows that the ground meaning of the word is: “To immerse, immerge, submerge, to dip, to plunge, to imbathe, to whelm.” A few of these examples, taken from objects already in water, will clearly illustrate its sense:
Pinder, born B. C. 522 years, in likening himself to a cork floating on the top of a net, says When the rest of the tackle is toiling deep in the sea, I, as a cork above the net, am unbaptized (undipped) in the brine."
Aristotle, born B. C. 384, speaking of discoveries made beyond the Pillars of Hercules, says, that the Phoenician colonists of Gadira, 'came to certain desert places full of rushes and sea-weed; which, when it is ebb-tide, are not baptized (overflowed), but when it is flood-tide are overflowed.
Polybius, born B. C. 205, speaking of the sea-battle between Philip and Attains, tells of one vessel as pierced, and being baptized (immerged) by a hostile ship."Again, in his account of the naval engagement between the Romans and Carthaginians, he accords the greater skill to the latter. 'Now sailing round and now attacking in flank the more advanced of the pursuers, while turning and embarrassed on account of the weight of the ships and the unskillfulness of the crews, they made continued assaults and "baptized" (sunk) many of the ships."
Strabo, born B. C. 60, says that about Agrigentum, in Sicily, there are Marsh-lakes, having the taste indeed of sea-water, but of a different nature ; for even those who cannot swim are not baptized (immersed), floating like pieces of wood." In the same work he speaks of Alexander's army marching on a narrow, flooded beach of the Pamphilian Sea, in these words: Alexander happening to be there at the stormy season, and, accustomed to trust for the most part to fortune, set forward before the swell subsided; and they marched the whole day in water; baptized (immersed) as far as to the waist."
Diodorus, who wrote about B. C. 60-30, reports the Carthaginian army defeated on the bank of the river Crimissus; and that many of them perished because the stream was swollen: The river rushing down with the current increased in violence, baptized (submerged) many, and destroyed them attempting, to swim through with their armor. He also describes the annual overflow of the Nile thus: “Most of the wild land animals are surrounded by the stream and perish, being baptized (submerged); but some, escaping to the high grounds, are saved.”
These examples bring us down to John's day and fully sustain the learned Deylingius, when he says of him: “He received the name ton Baptiston, from the office of solemn ablution and immersion, in which he officiated by a divine command. For the word baptizesthai, in the usage of Greek authors, signifies immersion and demersion.”
Lucian, born about A. D. 135, in a satire on the love of the marvelous, tells of men that he saw running on the sea. They were like himself except that they had cork-feet. He says, “We wondered, therefore, when we saw them not baptized, (immersed) but standing above the waves and traveling on without fear.”
Dion Cassius, born 155 A. D., says of the defeated forces at Utica who rushed to their ships and overloaded them, and that “some of them were thrown down by the jostling, in getting on board the vessels, and others baptized (submerged) in the vessels themselves, by their own weight.” In the same work he gives an account of the sea-fight between Marc Antony and Augustus, at Actium, when, near the close of the battle, men escaped from the burning ships. He says, “others leaping into the sea were drowned, or struck by the enemy were baptized, (submerged).
These citations from classic Greek writers, covering about 700 years, including the Apostolic Age, unite in describing things on which water was poured, or which were partially immersed, as unbaptized; while others, which were dipped or plunged in water and overwhelmed, they declare to have been baptized; showing, that when the sacred penmen use the same word to describe the act of John in the Jordan, they use it in the same sense as other Greek authors, namely to express the act of dipping or immersion.
Lightfoot states, “That the baptism of John was by the immersion of the body, seems evident from those things which are related concerning it; namely, that he baptized in the Jordan, and in Ænon, because there was much water, and that Christ being baptized went up out of the water.'"
MacKnight says the same thing, “Christ submitted to be baptized, that is, to be buried under the water by John, and to be raised out of it again.”
Olshausen agrees with these interpreters, for he says, “John, also, was baptizing in the neighborhood, because the water there being deep, afforded conveniences for submersion.”
De Wette bears the same, “They were baptized, immersed, submerged. This is the proper meaning of the frequentative form of bapto, to immerse.”
And Alford, on Matt. 3:6, says, “The baptism was administered in the day-time by immersion of the whole person.”
These authorities abundantly show that our Lord, in requiring the first act of obedience on the part of his new disciple, employed a Greek word in common use for expressing the most familiar acts of everyday life.