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Pentecostal ordination

The newness of Christian baptism

by Tim Gallant

In the early part of the first century, a strange man in a hairy garment came preaching repentance, calling Israel to be baptized in the Jordan. John was the last great emissary of the old covenant period, sent to prepare the way for the Messiah.

In the context of his preaching and baptism, John said, "I indeed baptize you with water, but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire" (Lk. 3.16). John contrasts himself to Jesus in terms of their respective baptisms: John baptizes with water; Jesus with the Holy Spirit.

A common assumption is that John is simply acknowledging his human limitations: all he can do is baptize with mere water, whereas the One coming is divine and is He who has the power to really baptize - He gives the Spirit. Thus there is an opposition between water as ineffectual, and the Holy Spirit as effectual. Water baptism is merely a symbol pointing to something else; Spirit baptism is the reality.

Is this, however, what John means? I suggest that careful attention to the redemptive-historical issues will demonstrate that this reading, while common, is highly inaccurate. This will become clear by noticing, correspondingly, the movement of the New Testament narrative.

John's baptism was effectual

The first myth we need to dispel is the notion that when John said that he baptized (merely) with water, he meant that his baptism essentially accomplished nothing (except perhaps an appeal to the intellect). That may be the connotation we hear nearly twenty-one centuries later, but it is highly doubtful that John's own hearers would have heard that.

Israel lived according to the Mosaic law. That law was centered around a complex system of ritual purity and atonement. God promised that He would provide "covering" (the word usually translated "atonement") and cleansing through this system. Not that the water rituals or the sacrifices worked magically; but that God had promised to work through and in connection with them.

Those water rituals are identified in Hebrews 9.10 as baptisms (at least, the Greek is baptismois, although English versions generally muddy this by translating the word as washings). Israel expected cleansing to occur via water baptism.

The arrival of John as an eschatological (last days) prophet performing baptisms indicated that Israel needed a special cleansing to meet her Messiah who was about to arrive. John was a latter-day Elijah, going before the Lord, calling for repentance lest Yahweh's coming would overpower and destroy Israel with a curse (see Mal. 3.5-6 in context). What was needed was real repentance and real remission.

Which is exactly what we find in the description of John's ministry: he came "preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins" (Mk. 1.4). His baptism is not ineffectual; it is a means of forgiveness. That is the meaning of the water rite, built squarely upon concepts established in the law, but now placed into an eschatological (climactic, last day) setting.

Thus when John says he baptizes (merely) with water, he is not saying his baptism does not effect anything. To the contrary, his baptism exists precisely because it must effect something.

What John could not give

Where then is the contrast between the water by which John baptizes, and the Spirit by which the coming One baptizes?

The difference is between semi-eschatological forgiveness of sins, and the eschatological promise of the Spirit. We obviously must put this more simply and clearly.

God had promised long before that a new covenant was coming, in which He would write His laws upon the minds and hearts of His people (Jer. 31.31-34). This would come about when God would place His own Spirit within them. Ezekiel's prophecy sequences things this way:

Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. (Ezek. 36.25-27)

John was aware of the impending new covenant, and indeed he proclaimed it from the threshold. That is what is meant by his message, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (Mt. 3.2). The "kingdom of heaven" refers to the new covenant, and John stands in relation to it as one who sees it impending. Jesus will later say that John is the greatest among all those born of women up to that point, but that the least in the kingdom of heaven would be greater than he (Mt. 11.11). He is the final voice of the law and the prophets (Mt. 11.13), who must give way to the One who fulfills the law and the prophets (Mt. 5.17).

John, of course, was aware of his own limitations; he knew his role. As the one on the threshold of the new covenant, he was not the means by which the Spirit would be applied to Israel. The Spirit was not to be given yet (see Jn. 7.39).

In noting the sequence of Ezek. 36, however, it would appear that John perceives himself as God's instrument of sprinkling clean water upon Israel, cleansing her from her filthiness (Ezek. 36.35), preparing her to be a fit vessel of the Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36.36-37) - the Spirit which John could not convey.

The baptism of Jesus

John, then, baptized many unto repentance and forgiveness of sins, carrying out that special threshold mission.

And then Jesus stood before him. John did not wish to baptize Him. He recognized his Lord, and knew that this was not someone who needed to be cleansed from filthiness. He was already clean; He was indeed the One destined to baptize with the Holy Spirit.

But Jesus insisted this baptism be carried out; only in this way could "all righteousness" be fulfilled (Mt. 3.15). Whether John understood what Jesus meant, we do not know.

At any rate, Jesus' baptism became something different from all the others. When John had baptized Him, immediately the Spirit of God descended in the form of a dove, alighting upon Him; and the divine voice from heaven proclaimed, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Mt. 3.16).

What had happened? Why did the Spirit descend, precisely at this point?

What had in fact happened was a mysterious, divinely appointed ordination. It will be noted that the order of ordination for priesthood under the law was first baptism (Lev. 8.6), followed by anointing (Lev. 8.12, 30). (Prophets and kings were also anointed, although apparently not baptized as a specific component of their ordination.) Water was the sign of God's cleansing consecration; oil was the sign of God's Spirit-empowerment for the fulfilment of the office.

John was a priest (both his parents were from the line of Aaron; see Lk. 1.5). Jesus, of course, as an adopted son of Joseph, was technically of the tribe of Judah, and certainly not eligible for the Levitical priesthood. (Note, however, that His mother Mary was a cousin of John's mother, meaning that Jesus' actual bloodlines were probably Levite. Nonetheless, this would not meet Levitical qualifications; hence the assessment of Heb. 7.14) But since the Spirit Himself had descended in lieu of the anointing oil, God had transcended the Levitical system. His Messiah has been ordained to service, precisely at the point when, in baptism, He has identified Himself as Israel's representative by taking her sins upon Himself. (This is the meaning of Jesus' baptism. John's baptism was for repentance for remission of sins; by submitting Himself to it, Jesus has identified with Israel's sins.) Because this is the precise moment in which Jesus officially becomes Israel's representative, this is also the precise moment when He officially becomes Israel's Messiah. Thus the baptism and the anointing belong together. Jesus is the precedent.

This then is the time in which Jesus becomes the Christ, receiving the Spirit for His own representative work. It is not yet, however, the time of which John spoke. It is not the time when Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

The promise fulfilled

We have seen that John's baptism was effectual for the remission of sins. Christian baptism, however, will be something more.

We learn this in the words of the institution of baptism in the Great Commission: the Church is to disciple the nations, "baptizing them in [lit. into] the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt. 28.19).

This must be understood within the context of Jesus' own baptism, at which the Spirit descended. John's baptism was not according to this Trinitarian formula, but the threefold divine presence at Jesus' baptism signals a new kind of baptism. Paul will later write that those who are baptized are united to Christ (see e.g. Gal. 3.27); thus there is a conceptual unity between Jesus' baptism and the baptism of the Church.

This unity is reflected in the formula Jesus provides. The disciple is baptized into the name of the Father - that is, union with the Father who appoints to office. The disciple is baptized into the name of the Son - that is, union with the anointed Prophet, Priest, and King. The disciple is baptized into the name of the Holy Spirit - that is, union with the One who anoints. Baptism is construed here as more than cleansing; it is construed as ordination. The Trinity in the baptismal formula is the Godhead as defined by the Messianic office: God the Father, who appoints ordination; God the Son, who receives ordination; God the Holy Spirit, who is the agent of ordination.

The Church, however, does not rush out immediately and begin the task of baptizing the nations. There is a very good reason for that: the moment has not yet come. Luke's version of the Great Commission (Lk. 24.46-48) is immediately followed by Jesus' instructions to wait in Jerusalem until Jesus sends "the Promise of the Father" upon the disciples, which will be "power from on high" (Lk. 24.49). Jesus reminds them that John baptized with water, but now the Spirit will be poured out (Acts 1.4-5).

That, of course, is the story of Pentecost. In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit descends upon the gathered Church, demonstrating His presence through unmistakable signs such as the sound of wind, visible tongues like fire, and the miraculous ability to speak foreign languages never learned (2.1-11).

Peter's sermon interprets this event for the crowd: the long-awaited event, when God's people would be an ordained people (here the office most in view, by way of the quotation of Joel 2, is prophet), has arrived.

It is a sermon centered squarely upon Christ, and the event is drawn back to its source: the Messiah, having been vindicated in resurrection, has ascended to the right hand of the Father, has received the promised Spirit for His people, and thus has now poured out that promise upon them (Acts 2.33). Pentecost is manifest participation in Christ's anointing, and thus in turn bears witness that this Jesus is indeed the Christ, the promised Messiah (2.36).

This prompts the stricken hearers with conviction, and they cry out: "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" (2.37).

Peter's response: "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (2.38).

We see here the merging of the two themes which John was forced to separate. Whereas he baptized merely with water, and thus his baptism was effectual only in terms of forgiveness, the Church can now make the accompanying promise: "and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."

What this means is that the frequent reading of John's words is too ahistorical, too insensitive to the redemptive-historical factors. The normal promise attached to Christian baptism is not: here is the water; it's a sign of something else which may well be quite absent. The message Peter gives is that baptism has become the locus of forgiveness of sins in Christ, and the granting of the Holy Spirit. Jesus' baptism has established the paradigm in this regard. Even as in baptism He received water (forgiveness) and Spirit together as the representative of His people, so too His people may expect to receive forgiveness and anointing together in baptism.

While it is true that we can point to episodes which Acts presents as exceptions to this general rule (Acts 8 and 10, both at times of key geographical and ethnic movements in mission, corresponding to the structure provided in Acts 1.8), we must not miss the fact that they are indeed presented as exceptions. They draw attention to themselves precisely as oddities.

In contrast, however, new covenant preaching is encapsulated in Peter's exhortation: "Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."

That is the biblical norm, which should come as no surprise to us: Jesus Himself told Nicodemus, "unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (Jn. 3.5). In Christian baptism, the forgiveness of sins and the conferral of the Spirit are proclaimed and enacted. The baptized one is united to Christ, and thus not only forgiven, but made a participant in His Spirit-empowered ordination: he becomes prophet, priest, king (1 Pet. 2.9)

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