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  • Writer's pictureLogan Hagoort

Did John baptise by immersion?

john the baptist by a river

My dear sheep. On Sunday, (as you will see in the Sabbath preparation post later) we are going to be considering the preparation of Jesus Christ for his redemptive mission. Part of this is his baptism. We are not going to be able to explore in depth the baptism of John, so I wanted to write something to you about it here.

Often our baptist brethren argue that John baptised by immersion and that is why John the Baptist was at the Jordan River. While reading through a commentary by Joseph Alexander, he addresses this exact issue in a way that is excellent. It is quite possibly one of the best responses I have read. I will summarise his point below and then provide you with the full text if you would like to read it.

Joseph Alexander's Argument

  1. Washings in the Old Testament are about ceremonial cleansing.

  2. Ceremonial cleansing by washing was almost exclusively done by sprinkling and pouring in the OT.

  3. The baptism of John was applied in response to the repentance of God's people in preparation for the coming Messiah.

  4. The people were baptised in order to wash them of their ceremonial impurity, which they had confessed.

  5. Therefore, the safest conclusion is that John the Baptist ceremonially cleansed the people through the application of water by sprinkling or pouring and not by immersion.

J. A. Alexander's commentary on Matthew 3:6

"Baptism is neither washing nor immersion simply, but symbolical or ceremonial washing, such as the Mosaic law prescribed, as a sign of moral renovation, and connected with the sacrificial rites of expiation, to denote the intimate connection between atonement and sanctification. It was from these familiar and significant ablutions that John's baptism was derived, and not from the practice of baptizing proselytes, the antiquity of which, as a distinct rite, is disputed, since it is not mentioned by Philo or Josephus, and first appears in the Gemara or later portion of the Babylonish Talmud. If really as ancient as the time of Christ, it was no doubt one of the traditional additions to the law made by the Pharisees, like the tithing of garden-herbs and the baptism of beds and (See below, on 23, 23, and compare Mark 7, 4.) The extravagant importance afterwards attached to this rite in the case of proselytes, so as even to make it more essential than circumcision itself, and necessary to the validity and value of that ordinance, confirms the view just taken of its origin. The stress laid by the same traditional authorities on total immersion as essential to this baptism savours also of the oral law, and may, perhaps, have some connection with a similar confusion of the essence and the mode in Christian baptisms. In the written law of Moses, on the other hand, as in the primitive or apostolic practice of the Christian church, the essence of symbolical or ceremonial washing was the application of the purifying element. Some modern writers have carried this perversion so far as to deny the reference to cleansing altogether, and to make the dipping or immersion every thing, as symbolizing burying, death, depravity, or condemnation. There is far more truth, though not unmixed with fancy, in another modern notion, that John first excommunicated the whole people as unclean before God, and then on their profession of repentance purified them by his baptism. We may at least be certain that this rite was recognized by those who underwent it as a new form or modification of the purifying rites with which they were familiar, as appointed symbols of repentance and regeneration. As to the mode, the very doubt which overhangs it shows it to be unessential, and the doubt itself does not admit of an etymological solution. Even admitting that the word baptize originally means to dip or plunge, and that the first converts were in fact immersed - both which are doubtful and disputed points - it no more follows that this mode of washing was essential to the rite, than that every elder must be an old man, or that the Lord's supper can be lawfully administered only in the evening. The river Jordan is the only considerable stream of Palestine, rising near the base of Mount Hermon, flowing southward in a double bed or valley with a deep and rapid current, through the lakes of Merom and Tiberias, into the Dead Sea. Recent surveys and measurements have shown that the valley of the Jordan, with its lakes, is much below the level of the Mediterranean. This famous river formed the eastern limit of the province of Judea, and was probably the nearest water to the desert tract where John had made his first appearance. It was on account of this contiguity, and for the accommodation of the crowds attending him (John 3, 23), that John baptized there, and not for the convenience of immersion."

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