Recently, I’ve been doing Bible classes through the gospel of John. In John 3, Jesus has a conversation with Nicodemus about being born from above (most versions say “again”). I’ve heard several associate Jesus’ comments in John 3 with the baptism of John, a baptism which Jesus seems to preach in John 4:1-3. This association is unlikely for one major reason: John specifically says that his baptism was not concerning the Spirit. A group of believers in Ephesus exemplify this conclusion:
He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.”Acts 19:2–3
This passage raises an interesting question: did the apostles need rebaptism as well?
Since we have no record of their rebaptism, it seems likely that they didn’t, but why? If the “one baptism” of Ephesians 4 is the great commission baptism into Jesus’ name, then why would they not need baptism?
I think I have an answer. I say I think because I’m not finished with my research, but I’m putting this out for your consideration.
Baptism for the Remission of Sins
Let’s begin by taking a look at baptism for the remission of sins:
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.Mark 1:4
John’s baptism was one of repentance and for the forgiveness of sins. The expression “for the forgiveness of sins” is identical to the one in Matthew 26:28.
ἐγένετο Ἰωάννης ⸀ὁ βαπτίζων ἐν τῇ ⸀ἐρήμῳ κηρύσσων βάπτισμα μετανοίας εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν (Mark 1:4).
τοῦτο γάρ ἐστιν τὸ αἷμά ⸀μου ⸀τῆς διαθήκης τὸ περὶ πολλῶν ἐκχυννόμενον εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν (Matthew 26:28)·
It is similar to the language used in Acts 2:38.
Πέτρος δὲ πρὸς αὐτούς· Μετανοήσατε, καὶ βαπτισθήτω ἕκαστος ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ εἰς ἄφεσιν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ὑμῶν, καὶ λήμψεσθε τὴν δωρεὰν τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος· (Acts 2:38).
You’ll notice that the baptism preached by John and the words of Peter say basically the same thing: baptism is for the remission of sins. Both that baptism and the one announced by Peter perform the same function. Peter even commands repentance to the entire crowd (second person plural), as John did.
It appears to me, and maybe it does to you, that Peter didn’t have to be rebaptized because he had already been baptized for the remission of sins after repenting. So, why is there this strong connection between what John preached and what Peter preached? And why would Paul require something different from what was required of Peter and the other 131 present on the day of Pentecost?
First, let’s further explore the connection between Peter and John.
The Gospel of the Kingdom
The phrase “the gospel of the kingdom” is used roughly five times in the Bible: Matthew 4:23, 9:35, 24:14; Mark 1:15 (this is what I meant by roughly); Luke 16:16. We will only look at three of these passages, but I give them all to you so you can evaluate them at your leisure. The three verses below will show three things: (1) John preached the gospel of the kingdom, (2) Jesus preached the gospel of the kingdom, and (3) the apostles would preach the gospel of the kingdom into the end of the age.
The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.Luke 16:16
Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people.Matthew 4:23
This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.Matthew 24:14
But what is the gospel of the kingdom?
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.Matthew 3:2
Isn’t this the same message of Jesus and of Peter? Not only does Peter preach a baptism of repentance for remission of sins on Pentecost, but he gives a similar warning to John: the day of the Lord is near (Acts 2:16-20). He follows his sermon up with an ominous saying which echos Deuteronomy 32:
And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!”Acts 2:40 (cf. Deuteronomy 32:5)
So, the gospel of the kingdom (repent and be baptized, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand) would be taught until the end of the age. So of course Peter stands up and preaches this on the day of Pentecost.
This raises an important question about the identity of the one baptism.
There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.Ephesians 4:4–6
If Peter did not have to be rebaptized and the believers in Ephesus did, then the one baptism of Ephesians must not be either the baptism of John or the water baptism practiced by Paul. The common denominator between Peter and the saints in Ephesus was their reception of the Holy Spirit. Notice that Apollos, who only knew the baptism of John, was not rebaptized like the Gentiles he taught (Acts 18:24-28).
The Baptism of the Holy Spirit
I’ve heard from some Christians that the baptism of the Holy Spirit was for three groups of people: the apostles on the day of Pentecost, the house of Cornelius, and possibly the apostle Paul. This conclusion has been promoted in an attempt to argue against the ongoing presence of miraculous gifts, but this debate comes from a misunderstanding from both sides: the baptism of the Holy Spirit is not the same thing as the gifts provided by the Spirit in the first century. The gifts which testify to the presence of the Spirit are often confused with the Spirit itself.
For example, notice the church at Rome. They had the Spirit, but not all had gifts.
However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.Romans 8:9
The Spirit of God dwelling within an individual is not the same thing as having the power to perform gifts as seen in the following verse:
For I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established;(Romans 1:11; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:4-8)
All at Rome had the Spirit, but not all had the gifts.
The baptism of the Holy Spirit, as Peter pointed out in Acts 2, is the fulfillment of Joel 2. But it isn’t just Joel that speaks of the pouring out of the Spirit; passages such as Ezekiel 37:11-14 envision this event as well. The baptism of the Holy Spirit is the means through which God would revive Israel, and it is the means through which we enter Christ today.
For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.1 Corinthians 12:13; cf. John 4:7-14 and John 7:37-39 for “drink of one Spirit”
It is through the Spirit that both Peter and the disciples in Ephesus entered the same body despite having “different” baptisms.
One might ask why I believe that all believers undergo the baptism of the Spirit. My answer comes from Matthew 3.
“As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.Matthew 3:11
Who would Jesus baptize with Spirit? The same people John baptized, the crowds of people who went into the wilderness to hear his preaching (Matthew 3:5). The promise of the Spirit was for everyone, not a select few. The signs that accompanied the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, the conversion of Cornelius, and the conversion of the Ephesians were for the purpose of showing that the Spirit had come.
The Spirit which baptizes both Jew and Gentile in one body is the one baptism of Ephesians 4. Christian water baptism, like what was administered to the disciples in Ephesus, is the means by which an individual identifies with the covenant community. Since they were not Jews, they were not subject to John’s baptism. John’s baptism, which was a baptism of repentance, was meant for all of Israel, even those who did not sin. It was God’s purpose for them:
But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John.Luke 7:30
Jesus, for example, submitted to John’s baptism because it was about the repentance of Israel which was associated with the ministry of John as Elijah and the voice crying in the wilderness. He was sent to turn the people back to the Law as a whole, as a covenant community. Jesus submitted to this baptism to identify with Israel. Though He had no sins Himself, the entire nation was in need of repentance. Thus, Peter uses the second person plural “all of you repent” in Acts 2:38 as John did in Matthew 3. It was national repentance associated with the restoration of Israel which came about through the ministry of the Spirit (Acts 1:4-8).
In conclusion, John’s baptism was for Jews, Christian baptism (which is a development of John’s) is for those who wish to identify with the covenant community, and Spirit baptism is what unites both groups.