Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Baptism in the Gospel of John

Even though there is no specific command in John’s Gospel concerning the need for baptism, it is significant that John’s Gospel is the only gospel which records that baptism was an important part of Jesus’ public ministry. In John 3:22, the author records that Jesus “baptized” a large number of people, so much so that his ministry of baptism began to eclipse the widely popular ministry of John the Baptist. Even though this verse records that Jesus “baptized,” John 4:2 records that Jesus did not actually baptize anyone himself; rather he authorized his disciples to perform baptism on his behalf. But even though Jesus did not personally conduct baptisms, it is clear from the Gospel of John that baptism in water was important in the ministry of Jesus. This aspect of Jesus’ ministry is something that we do not see in the Synoptics.

The meaning given to baptism in John’s Gospel is also worthy of consideration. Baptism is linked to discipleship in the sense that submission to Jesus’ baptism was the initial formal step by which a person became a disciple of Jesus. This is clear from the wording of John 4:1, which says that “Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples and John.” This link between baptism and discipleship is echoed in the theology of the Great Commission in Matt 28:19, where it is taught that disciples are formally “made” through baptism. Having been baptized, the disciple is then obligated to learn from his or her master, to follow his example (John 13:14–15), by keeping the master’s teaching (John 17:6), and obeying his commandments (Matt 28:20; John 15:10). By keeping the master’s commandments, the disciple remains in the master’s love (John 15:10).

There has been a great deal of debate over whether or not Jesus’ teaching concerning rebirth “by water and spirit” in John 3:5 is a reference to Christian baptism. It is best to take these words spoken by Jesus in his dialogue with Nicodemus as teaching about the need for conversion by the Holy Spirit, with water (as is usual in John’s Gospel) being a metaphor for the Holy Spirit. At the same time, however, this metaphor lends itself to seeing a close connection between physical water and the Holy Spirit. The practice of Gentile proselyte baptism, in which Gentile converts to Judaism were considered to become like newborn children makes it quite likely that the word water would have conveyed the idea of baptism, or at least some kind of ceremonial washing, to a Jewish audience. Ezekiel 36:24–27 also connects the future work of the Spirit with the image of water sprinkled upon Israel in order to cleanse her from her uncleanness.

Since conversion or baptism by the Holy Spirit is paralleled in John 3:15–16, 18 with believing in Jesus, the obvious conclusion that must be drawn is that the new birth (i.e., baptism in the Holy Spirit) begins (for the adult convert) when one confesses faith in Jesus Christ. For the early church, the Christian confession of faith consisted of a public confession of belief in Jesus as Messiah using the formula (in a Jewish context) I believe that Jesus is the Christ (John 20:31), or I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God (Acts 8:37), which became in a Gentile context the confession that Jesus is Lord (Rom 10:9). The practice of the early church was that a person’s confession of faith in Jesus would be formally sealed in the act of baptism, which was performed immediately upon confession of faith. The book of Acts records no less than nine instances of converts being baptized immediately (or “at once” according to Acts 16:33) upon confession of faith. These are: the 3,000 converted at Pentecost (Acts 2:38,41); the Samaritans (8:12); the Ethiopian eunuch (8:37–38); the Apostle Paul (9:18; 22:16); the first Gentile converts (10:47–48); Lydia (16:14–15); the Philippian jailer (16:31–33); the Corinthians (18:8); and the twelve disciples of John the Baptist (19:3–5). This indicates that the early church thought of baptism as an integral part of conversion (hence, Peter could teach in 1 Pet 3:21 that “baptism … saves you”). Furthermore, it was the belief of the early church that the eschatological gift of the Holy Spirit was ordinarily received through Christian baptism (Acts 2:38, 41; 5:32; 19:2; 1 Cor 12:13; Tit 3:5), following the model of Jesus’ baptism, in which there was a conjunction of water and the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:21–22). Exceptions to the rule of the conjunction of water and the Holy Spirit in baptism only happened at special stages in God’s plan of salvation, such as at Pentecost (Acts 2:1–4) and upon the conversion of the Samaritans (Acts 8:14–17) and the first Gentiles (Acts 10:44–48).

Because this concept of the conjunction of water and the Holy Spirit in baptism was prevalent in the early church, it is most likely that John’s Christian audience, and non-Christians acquainted with Christian religious practices, would have understood the phrase of water and spirit as having some kind of link with Christian baptism. Thus, Jesus’ teaching in John 3:5 can be understood as an implied call for non-believers to convert to Christianity, i.e., to be baptized and to become disciples of Jesus Christ, similar to the teaching of the early church that is recorded in Mark 16:16: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.”

In sum, it is best to take the primary reference of the words of water and spirit on the lips of Jesus as referring to conversion by the Spirit, but at the same time this implies the necessity of Christian baptism, because baptism in water and the Spirit were ordinarily viewed in the early church as happening together as part of the process of conversion.


Joseph Park said...

Hi Steve.
It's joseph Park.

It's ironic that you wrote about exactly what I am writing for my thesis. Even the conclusion is similar. But unfortunately I was told about this blog from John Davies who is my supervisor. Hopefully he won't think I took it all from you!!

However, I, like you came to view born of water and spirit to mean baptism in the Spirit based on the exegetical factors, but I still find it hard to see water metaphorically to mean the Spirit. Is it in view of 7:38-39 that water is metaphorical of the Spirit? If so, I would have to agree with that. Are there any other texts that refers the spirit to water in John?

And you're right to point out that confession of faith is necessary for the new birth to begin, but regeneration and conversion seems to be a different category. Regeneration is work of the Spirit John 3-8, but conversion which is turning to God is our response to God once the regenerating work has begun. It's just my thought.

But the more important thing I noticed from your article, which is very helpful for me as you can see, is what is implied in the passage is not necessarily what must be understood it to mean. If we push the implied meaning too far in saying water for john's audience meant baptism, then we would be confining assurance of salvation to the sign. What do you think?

The thing I am wondering is the correlation between the sign and the reality that this sign signifies. What is that and how do we understand the efficacy of baptism like those divines at the Westminster?

Your thought will be much appreciated.

Kind regard.


Steven Coxhead said...

Hi Joseph,

Good to hear that you have been working on your thesis. Yes, I believe that the idea of being born by water and spirit in John 3:5 is talking about the need for people to receive the eschatological outpouring of the Holy Spirit that the Old Testament prophets were looking forward to. John 3:5 explicates John 3:3, and the idea of being born again in John 3:3 needs to be understood in the light of John 1:12–13, so the concept of birth in John 3 is definitely about becoming children of God through faith in Christ. The connection is that submitting to Jesus as Messiah (faith) means that one receives the gift of the Spirit from Jesus, and adoption into the family of God.

Water is used as a metaphor for the Spirit a few times in John’s Gospel. In the episode with the Samaritan woman, the living water that Jesus has on offer is definitely to be understood as being a metaphorical reference to the Holy Spirit (see John 4:10, 14), although it is only John 7:38–39 that specifies the referent of the metaphor. I would also argue that the significance of the water used to create the wine in John 2 is also symbolic of the Holy Spirit. The key to all this, I think, is not so much what we find in John’s Gospel itself, but in understanding that John is picking up on an Old Testament metaphor for the Spirit. The key verse for this is Isa 44:3: “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.”

You are also correct to note that I understand that confession of faith is a condition for the new birth (or baptism in the Spirit) in John’s Gospel. To be more accurate, the custom in the early church of formally confessing one’s faith in Christ in the context of water baptism means that there was a conjunction of confession and the reception of the eschatological gift of the Spirit in the minds of the early Christians. In fact, this is exactly what is symbolized in baptism. The action of the body of the person being baptized receiving the baptismal water onto its skin is a picture of the reception of the gift of the Spirit into the heart. In other words, the concept of new birth in John’s Gospel should not be confused with the initial regenerative work of the Spirit (which leads to confession of faith), even though there is obviously a necessary relationship between the two. The broader argument of John’s Gospel goes something like this: in order to experience eternal life, we need to have the Spirit; and in order to have the Spirit, we need to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah, because the Messiah has been given the right to pour out the Spirit (upon those who have come into submission to him).

Regarding the issue of the correlation of the sign and the reality that it signifies, my view is that we get into problems once we depart from the apostolic pratice of baptismal conversion. We Protestants are used to divorcing conversion from baptism—I think that most Protestants probably link conversion with praying a prayer to receive Jesus into one’s heart rather than to confession of faith at baptism—but the apostolic practice of converting to Christianity through a public and formal confession of faith in the context of a ceremony of baptism means that there was a temporal conjunction of the sign and its reality for them. This conjunction then allowed them to speak of the saving efficacy of baptism, that “baptism now saves you” (1 Pet 3:21), or (in the later text) that “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). But the saving power of baptism is not automatic. We should not forget that, for them, confession of faith also took place as part of the ceremony of baptism. Without a genuine confession of faith and/or continuation in such faith, baptism actually brings condemnation rather than salvation.

Steven Coxhead said...

Hey Joseph,

If you haven't found it already, the post entitled The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John may also be relevant.

All the best with your thesis!

Steven Coxhead said...

I should also say that the use of water as a metaphor for the Holy Spirit is based primarily on the life-giving power of water. This is what creates the analogy that allows the use of water as an appropriate metaphor for the Spirit. This is made clear in Isa 44:3. Just as water brings life to a desert, so too the eschatological outpouring of the Spirit will give life to Israel. See also Ezek 47. In addition, the action of water being poured out subsequently functions a metaphor for the way in which the Spirit is delivered from God in heaven to people on earth.

junkka said...

All your points are well noted and made me think more about the metaphorical use of water in John. Also I am looking at the apostolic practice of baptismal conversion as a norm for christian baptismal practice that needs to be rediscovered today. Your feedback was much appreciated. Thanks.