The Baptism of John and Christian Baptism

I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8 ESV)

Advent 2B – Mark 1:1-8

The Baptism of John and Christian Baptism are significantly different. They look similar in that they both use water, and that water is applied by another person (neither is “self-service”). Sociologically and theologically, however, they are distinct.

The social function of John’s baptism was to publicly identify one as a penitent in expectation of the imminent in-breaking of God. The social function of Christian baptism is to initiate one into the Christian community. Christian baptism is a rite of initiation; communion is a rite of participation. Symbolically, Christian baptism represents birth; communion represents nurture.

The two differ theologically as well. There are two actors in John’s baptism: the prophetic baptizer and the penitent baptized. In Christian baptism, there are three. The action of the Holy Spirit is is present throughout the canon wherever Christian baptism is discussed.

Mark hints at this difference in 1:8: “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Matthew and Luke have what is arguably the more original text: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11-12 ESV) The Baptizer’s metaphor is drawn from the ancient practice of separating wheat from chaff with wind and fire. (pneuma can be translated both “wind” and “spirit.”) In John’s usage, the metaphor is unquestionably one of judgment. The early church, however, saw its experience of the Holy Spirit in John’s prophetic words.

That’s not to say that the Baptizer’s own proclamation lacked grace. The sending of the prophet with his call to repent was a gracious act of God (prevenient grace). In this sense, the John the Baptizer followed in the line of prophets that stretched back into the Old Testament. The Christian experience, however, transcended all that came before. God’s grace not only called men and women to repentance; as a down-payment on the age to come, it empowered their lives for righteousness and enabled them to experience occasional “sneak previews” (to borrow Joni Tada’s phrase) of God’s kingdom.

During the season of Advent, we remember John the Baptizer’s call to a baptism of repentance and ask, “How can we order our lives so that we can receive what God is going to give?” But we also remember that those baptized in Christ have already received the Holy Spirit. Our hope is not a blind, uninformed hope based solely on a wish. We have already received more than a taste of both what we want and what we need.

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