I was talking about John’s baptism with a friend recently. I asked, what was the nature of the metanoia (repentance)–the change of thought and attitude of the ancient Jews. He expressed the understanding that John was able to baptize people because they turned away from their sins. I am confused. I looked into John’s baptism and found that John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sin. Was John able to forgive sin? Or, alternatively, was John able to give recognition to a forgiven state? Luke 3:3 says of John’s baptism; it was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This seems to say that these Jews’ sins were forgiven when John baptized them, and he was able to baptize them because they changed their thoughts and attitudes. Our metanoia, our change of thought and attitude, is to turn from the world to God in response to the sacrifice and love of Christ. These Jews that John baptized predate Jesus ministry and his sacrifice; so, what was their metanoia, what was their change of thought and attitude, that was sufficient for John to recognize forgiveness in them? What motivated their change of thought and attitude? I would deeply appreciate your thoughts on this verse.
I have answered this question at my web site a time or two.
I think we should take the statement about John’s baptism at face value. Those who truly repented and were baptized by John received forgiveness of sins. We can assume the nature of their repentance was essentially the same of our repentance today. It is a fundamental change of mind which leads to a fundamental change of life. The thing which motivated them is the thing which motivates us: A love for God and a recognition of their own utter sinfulness. I fail to see a big difference between the cause of or the nature of repentance before and after the ministry of Jesus. Perhaps we can say that after Christ we have a more clear picture of the effects of our sin on Christ, but repentance is repentance. John did not give them forgiveness, obviously, it was God doing the forgiving. I believe that the thief on the cross received forgiveness of sins. Also, the paralytic received forgiveness of sins (Matthew 9:1f).
These cases represent the situation for anyone before the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The Bible makes it clear that Jesus was a lamb “slain from the creation of the world.” The death of Jesus has the ability to reach into the past and create the possibility of forgiveness of sins even for those who had faith and repented before the ministry of Jesus. Exactly how this worked is not something we need to work out in detail. That is for God to decide.
What none of these people received was the promise of salvation and of receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. This was and is reserved for those who repent and are baptized into Christ after his death, resurrection and ascension. Please remember that some of the disciples of John (who had received the baptism of John) needed to be baptized into Christ to receive the Holy Spirit. I believe that Acts 19:1-7 is very helpful in this regard.
A question remains. Did those who were forgiven of their sins through being baptized by John after repentance make it to heaven? Did the thief on the cross or the paralytic make it to heaven? Would the disciples of John in Ephesus (Acts 19) have made it to heaven if they had not been “rebaptized” into Christ? My answer is that I think so, but the Bible does not say, so I will admit that I am not sure.
To some extent this is really just an academic question. As far as I know, there is no one alive today who falls into this category. We will probably gain nothing of importance by settling the question of exactly what it meant to be baptized by John. This is an interesting question and it is worth the effort of a few minutes time to try to answer it, but it has no impact on us today that I know of.
What I know for sure is that we who have been baptized into Christ have much more reason for confidence. We have something much better than these other people had. We have the Holy Spirit living in us. That is enough for me.