Question: What is the difference between the baptism of John and Christian baptism?
Answer: To all of us who are Gentiles, real baptism signifies our consecration, our becoming dead to self and the world and our becoming alive unto God; and our symbolic baptism is water immersion, which follows our consecration.
The Jews, on the other hand, were “baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10: 1-4). Moses was the mediator for the whole nation; he stood between God and the people. God had entered into a covenant with the Jews, and they with God. They had solemnly declared that they would keep all His commandments. Some of the Jews, such as the Apostles, kept these commandments to the best of their ability, whereas others of those who came to Jesus were such as realized that they had been sinners, more or less out of harmony with the Law, but who had repented of their sins.
The heralding of the Messiah was the very object of God’s plan in sending John the Baptist. John told the Jews that Messiah was about to come; and that if any of them desired to be in harmony with the Messianic Kingdom they should see to it that they were living in harmony with the Mosaic Law. Many of these were baptized in water, symbolically washing away the sins they had committed. By washing away their sins symbolically in water, the people declared that they intended to live thenceforth in harmony with God’s Law.
Gentiles not under Moses’ Law
The Gentiles could not repent of sins against the Law and get back into harmony with it; for they had never been under the Law. Moses was a type of Christ. As the Jews were all baptized into Moses, so when Jesus, the great antitype, took the place of Moses, their baptism into Moses, to all the Jews who accepted the Messiah, was counted as a baptism into Christ. Those “Israelites indeed” who were in Moses were upon the exercise of faith properly transferred into Christ. His baptism into Moses was then counted as his baptism into the antitype of Moses.
St. Paul explains (Romans 11: 7-31) that while the Jews had been the natural branches in the olive tree, of which the promise to Abraham was the root and the Lord Jesus Christ was the trunk, nevertheless the time came when all the fruitless branches were broken off. A broken off branch could not be of the olive tree any more than a wild one that had never been grafted into the tree. Therefore no Jew from the time of the breaking off could have any precedence over a Gentile.
John’s baptism was for Jews only, and that for those who were living more or less openly in conflict with the Law Covenant. It was intended to symbolize their cleansing from sin as necessary for them, if they were to be transferred from Moses to Christ. Hence this baptism preceded the Jewish Christians’ receiving the holy spirit (Acts 2: 38), while Gentile Christians’ received the holy spirit before symbolic baptism (Acts 10: 44-48), which in their case was not John’s baptism, but the symbol of the one Christian baptism. Jesus’ baptism by John was not John’s baptism, for He was sinless, but was the symbol of the one baptism (Ephesians 4: 5) that He personally made, and that He carried out from Jordan to the tomb, and which He symbolized at John’s hands (Matthew 3: 15).
John’s Baptism for Remission of Sins
“John’s baptism” was called such, not merely because of its being the Jewish baptism, but because John the Baptist, as the forerunner of Christ, was the first who practiced such baptism for the particular purpose of washing away sins. Not only John and his disciples, but also Jesus and His disciples, used this baptism. All the Jews who were baptized on and after Pentecost were likewise baptized with this same baptism – the baptism for the remission of sins – even though they were baptized into the name of Christ. It was very proper that the name of Jesus be used then; for although this baptism was to bring the Jews that heard the Gospel back into accord with Moses and their Law Covenant, nevertheless at the same time it transferred them from Moses into Christ.