I am wondering – why did John bother baptizing people if they were not receiving the Holy Spirit?…
Interesting that we just studied this topic in the Bible group at my house this evening. According to Mark 1:4 the baptism of John was a baptism “of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” It might be confusing for a Christian who has not thought about this much, but apparently it is possible for us to be forgiven of our sins withoug being “saved.” There are a few examples of this in the New Testament. Jesus forgave the sins of the man dropped through the roof in Mark 2:5. Was this man saved? It does not appear so. Another example is the thief on the cross. Jesus said to him, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
Here is how I think about this. Without the blood of Jesus shed on the cross, there is no salvation. Until Jesus had been killed and raised from the dead, salvation was offered to no one. Jesus said that we will do “even greater things than these” (John 14:12). The “greater things”, I believe, is helping people to be saved. John the Baptist was not able to save people because Jesus had not yet died.
Let me give you my own personal definition of “saved,” which, I believe, is consistent with biblical teaching. A saved person is one who has repented and been baptized into Christ and has therefore been forgiven of his/her sins and received the promised gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:36-38), which is a guarantee of our salvation until the coming of Jesus (Ephesians 1:14). Short of this, a person is not saved. Jesus was able to forgive sins. The baptism of John, similarly, was for forgiveness of sins. I assume that those who were baptized with John’s baptism will most likely be in heaven. This was the absolute best available to people at the time of John the Baptist’s ministry. It was a good thing at the time, but now we have something better–salvation. What we have in Christ today is far greater than what God offered through John the Baptist. We have biblical salvation which is a kind of guarantee that the blood of Christ continually washes away our sins and that we have the Holy Spirit living in us as a deposit assuring our salvation at the end of time.