Before entering into a consideration of the issues surrounding baptism, it is important to note that the word itself has the meaning of "making whelmed (i.e. fully wet)".1 Although the act of Christian baptism involves total immersion in water, the word "baptism" is also correctly used in the Scriptures to define a number of other truths and experiences. We shall seek, with Gods help, to set out simply and briefly the significant differences in the forms of baptism that are mentioned in Gods Word.
Baptism of Repentance
The people went out to John "and were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins" (Mt 3.6). The River Jordan in Scripture always speaks of death. John was saying to the people, "Change your mind, change your way of life, change your objectives and bring forth fruit worthy of repentance and so prepare yourselves to meet your Messiah". By being baptised and confessing their sins - which was tantamount to repentance - they were committing themselves to a new life of faithfulness to God. Genuine repentance is the work of the Spirit of a merciful God in the soul, and will occasion a radical, moral change Godward in the outlook and conduct of ones life. Psalm 51 gives us a precious example of such a change.
The Apostle Paul wrote that it is the goodness of God that leads to repentance (Rom 2.4). It was surely Gods goodness that afforded the Jews the opportunity to repent of their sins by being baptised by John. Repentance is a moral process in the soul, and should in fact be an on-going exercise with us day by day. All who were genuine in their response to Johns call to be baptised, repenting and confessing their sins, would have been morally suited to enjoy the blessings of the "kingdom of the heavens" (Mt 3.2, JND), which was at hand.
The kingdom of the heavens has reference to an environment on earth where everything accords with the mind of heaven. This fact was implicit in the words the Lord Jesus used when instructing His disciples in the matter of prayer: "Let thy kingdom come, let thy will be done as in heaven so upon the earth" (Mt 6.10, JND). The call to repent was an integral part of Johns message in his preaching of the gospel of the kingdom. The same message was taken up by the Lord Jesus and His disciples, but such preaching ceased on the day of Pentecost because the nation had rejected and crucified their Messiah and King. Accordingly, the kingdom of the heavens will not be known on earth until the coming in of the millennial age under the benevolent reign of Christ.
Following Pentecost, the gospel of the grace of God, salvation through "repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 20.21), was first preached by Peter (Acts 2), and has continued to the present day. When the church is raptured to glory (1 Thess 4.14-17), and Gods day of grace ends, the gospel of the kingdom will again be preached and will continue unto the coming in of the Millennium, i.e. the kingdom of the heavens. The nation of Israel will at long last repent, will enter into their rest; and, as Micah puts it, "they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken it" (Micah 4.4).
I refer now to the baptism of the Lord Jesus by John the Baptist. The Lord Jesus came to John in the spirit of "Son of Man", and as such was ready to identify with all in Israel who sought to testify to a change in their way of life through the baptism of repentance, confessing their sins. Because the Lord Jesus had nothing to repent of, His baptism was not a baptism of repentance, but the fulfilment of all righteousness. Nevertheless, He was pleased to align Himself with all who were ready to ensure they were morally fit to enjoy the blessings of the kingdom of the heavens. Furthermore, by His baptism, the Lord Jesus was confirming His readiness to lead His people by example. The lovely words of the Lord Jesus, "Follow me" (Mt 4.19), were pregnant with deep affection, and a yearning for the hearts of the people who were, and still are, "the apple of his eye" (Deut 32.10).
The Lord Jesus in His words, "it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness" (Mt 3.15) had in mind the time when on the cross He would satisfy the righteous demands of a holy God against sin. Undoubtedly the Lord Jesus would have been conscious of the prophetic words that would be uttered by Caiaphas over 3 years later, "that it was expedient that one man should die for the people" (Jn 18.14). As He went into the waters of death at His baptism, so He would go into death on the cross and make Himself answerable to God for the sin of the world, thereby exhausting Gods judgment of sin and fulfilling all righteousness (Heb 10.18). The eye of God was focused on the unique event of His Sons baptism in Jordan, for He was ready to give expression to the pleasure that filled His heart, pleasure occasioned by the Man who had perfectly represented Him on earth during the previous 30 years.
The Spirit of God descending upon the Lord Jesus in the form of a dove was a sign of the nature and character of the Lord Jesus as the Son of Man on earth - peaceful, gentle, loving and kind. That the Spirit of God rested upon the Lord Jesus confirmed that for the first time since creation when the Spirit of God brooded over the dark waters Gods Spirit could now rest complacent and undisturbed on a man after His own heart, in whom He had found all His delight. Such delight merited the heavens being opened for the world to hear Gods estimate of His beloved Son "in whom I am well pleased" (Mt 3.17; Mk 1.11).
Father, how precious unto Thee
Is Thy beloved Son;
In whom Thou dost perfection see,
Thy holy, blessed One.
He glorified Thee on the earth,
Thy work by Him was done;
And Thou who knewest all His worth,
Didst glorify Thy Son.
Now crowned and seated on Thy throne,
He is Thy joy and rest;
And we who are through grace Thine own,
In Him are fully blest.
To be continued.
1 Strongs Exaustive Concordance.