The Baptism Of John: From Heaven Or From Men?

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It is written:

Matthew 21:25-27-The baptism of John—where was it from? From heaven or from men?” And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26  But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the multitude, for all count John as a prophet.” 27  So they answered Jesus and said, “We do not know.” And He said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.

One of the great questions that people have asked through the years deals with the authority of John the Baptist to baptize people. Was his baptism authorized by God, or by man?

Let’s study.

The first thing that we need to realize is that baptism is not a New Testament invention. Instead, it was practiced often in the Old Testament among the Jewish people. So the writer of Hebrews, describing the Old Testament system, tells us:

Hebrews 9:9-10-It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience—10  concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation.

In verse 10, we see the word “washings,” which is in the original Greek “baptismos” (baptisms). This makes it very clear that there were types of baptism in the Old Testament. We can find several examples of baptism in the Old Testament.

The first type of baptism to consider is the ceremonial baptisms required when a person became “unclean.” Ferguson tells us:

“The Law of Moses provided for ceremonial applications of water for purposes of purification and included a degree of detail lacking in Greco-Roman sources. 118 This practice applied to human beings and to inanimate objects: “Whoever touches the carcass of any [unclean animal] shall be unclean until the evening, and whoever carries any part of the carcass of any of them shall wash [] 119 his clothes and be unclean until the evening.” 120 Any “article of wood, cloth, skin, or sacking” on which a dead unclean animal falls “shall be dipped into water [εἰς ὕδωρ βαφήσεται], and it shall be unclean until evening.” 121 Uncleanness attached also to a person who touched the dead body of a human being, making that person unclean for seven days. On the third and seventh days a clean person poured running water [] into a vessel containing the ashes of a burnt purification offering, dipped [βἀπτω] hyssop into the water mixed with ashes, and sprinkled it on whoever touched the corpse or the grave: The clean person shall sprinkle [] the unclean ones on the third day and on the seventh day, thus purifying him on the seventh day. Then he shall wash [] his clothes and bathe himself in water [λoύσεται ὕδατι], and at evening he shall be clean. 122 Other occasions of ceremonial defilement required the use of water in purification. A man after a discharge of semen and a woman after the discharge of her monthly period were ceremonially unclean and had to wash their clothes and bathe in water; so did anyone who touched them, their clothing, or their bedding. 123 A distinction was made in the vocabulary employed for washing clothes and bathing, and between dipping an object and pouring and sprinkling various substances. This is illustrated by the account of the cleansing of a person cured of a skin disease: [The priest] shall take the living bird with the cedarwood and the crimson yarn and the hyssop, and dip [βἀψει] them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. He shall sprinkle [] it seven times upon the one who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease; then he shall pronounce him clean. . . . The one who is to be cleansed shall wash [] his clothes, and shave off all his hair, and bathe [λoύσεται] himself in water, and he shall be clean. . . . The priest shall take some of the . . . oil and pour [] it into the palm of his own left hand, and dip [βἀψει] his right finger in the oil that is in his left hand and sprinkle [] some oil with his finger seven times before the Lord. 124 These passages are representative of the use of βἀπτω in the Greek Old Testament. For a complete listing see chapter 3. It most often translates the Hebrew , ṭabal, “to dip.” The Hebrew and the Greek maintain different word usage for bathing and washing from dipping or immersing (ṭabal, baptō). The use of “living” (), “running,” water is specified in Numbers 5: 17; 19: 17; Leviticus 14: 5, 50-53.” (Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries, 1709-1736 (Kindle Edition): Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)


“But to understand what “baptizein” means here one needs the Jewish background. According to the Torah one had to be ritually pure before entering the Tabernacle or Temple. Ritual purity could be lost in many ways; the preeminent means of restoring it was through washing. A quick review of Leviticus shows how frequently the matter is mentioned, and one of the six major divisions of the Talmud (Taharot, “Cleansings”) is devoted to it. Even though there is no longer a Temple, observant Jewish women immerse themselves in a mikveh (ritual bath) after each menstrual period, in obedience to Leviticus 15; see MJ 13: 4N. A person who immerses himself participates in an obvious yet living metaphor of purification, with the water, as it were, washing away the impurity. Here Yochanan the Immerser proclaims for the old practice of immersion a new context, cleansing from a life pattern of sin (see vv. 2& N, 6, 11).” (David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary: A Companion Volume to the Jewish New Testament, 851-858 (Kindle Edition): Clarksville, Maryland; JEWISH NEW TESTAMENT PUBLICATIONS, INC.)

Another type of baptism practiced in the Old Testament dealt specifically with the priests. When a priest first began his ministry, he was required to be baptized.

Exodus 29:1-4-And this is what you shall do to them to hallow them for ministering to Me as priests: Take one young bull and two rams without blemish, 2  and unleavened bread, unleavened cakes mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers anointed with oil (you shall make them of wheat flour). 3  You shall put them in one basket and bring them in the basket, with the bull and the two rams. 4  “And Aaron and his sons you shall bring to the door of the tabernacle of meeting, and you shall wash them with water.

Commenting on this, one author notes:

“The key here is verse 4 (cf. Ex 40: 12). In the middle of the ceremony, Aaron and his sons are to be brought before the entrance of the tabernacle and washed (rachats) with water. The Hebrew word rachats is the same word used of Bathsheba when she “bathed” on the roof in front of David (2 Sam 11: 2), and of the leprous Naaman who was commanded by Elisha to bathe (LXX has “baptize”) in the Jordan seven times (2 Kings 5: 10). Elmer Martens explains, The vb. is frequent in priestly legislation with instructions for the ceremonial washing of priests, and sometimes the washing of parts of the sacrifice (Num 19: 7, 8; Lev 1: 9, 13; 9: 14). At their investiture and also on the Day of Atonement priests were to wash their bodies (Ex 29: 4; Lev 8: 6; 16: 4, 24, 26). Before stepping to the altar or into the tent of meeting, priests were to wash hands and feet on penalty of death (Ex 30: 19-21). Lavers for the tabernacle (30: 18) and a brass “Sea” in Solomon’s temple (2 Chron 4: 6) facilitated the ritual. (Martens, ‘rachats,’ NIDOTTE 3: 1098-99) Rachats is therefore a full body (or part of the body) bathing or washing. It often times includes full body immersion as one would undergo in a bath.[”. (Douglas Van Dorn, Waters of Creation: A Biblical-Theological Study of Baptism, 6 (Kindle Edition): Erie, CO: Waters of Creation Publishing)

A third reason for baptism in the Old Testament involved what is called “proselyte baptism.” This was baptism that a non-Jew (i.e. Gentile) was to undergo in order to convert to Judaism and become a follower of Yahweh. The idea of proselyte baptism traces back to the account of Naaman.

2 Kings 5:1-14-Now Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great and honorable man in the eyes of his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Syria. He was also a mighty man of valor, but a leper. 2  And the Syrians had gone out on raids, and had brought back captive a young girl from the land of Israel. She waited on Naaman’s wife. 3  Then she said to her mistress, “If only my master were with the prophet who is in Samaria! For he would heal him of his leprosy.” 4  And Naaman went in and told his master, saying, “Thus and thus said the girl who is from the land of Israel.” 5  Then the king of Syria said, “Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So he departed and took with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. 6  Then he brought the letter to the king of Israel, which said, Now be advised, when this letter comes to you, that I have sent Naaman my servant to you, that you may heal him of his leprosy. 7  And it happened, when the king of Israel read the letter, that he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and make alive, that this man sends a man to me to heal him of his leprosy? Therefore please consider, and see how he seeks a quarrel with me.” 8  So it was, when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, that he sent to the king, saying, “Why have you torn your clothes? Please let him come to me, and he shall know that there is a prophet in Israel.” 9  Then Naaman went with his horses and chariot, and he stood at the door of Elisha’s house. 10  And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored to you, and you shall be clean.” 11  But Naaman became furious, and went away and said, “Indeed, I said to myself, ‘He will surely come out to me, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place, and heal the leprosy.’ 12  Are not the Abanah and the Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage. 13  And his servants came near and spoke to him, and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do something great, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 14  So he went down and dipped seven times in the Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.

As Naaman was cleansed of his leprosy, we see that he became a follower of the LORD. This is made clear in the following account from 2 Kings:

2 Kings 5:15-19-And he returned to the man of God, he and all his aides, and came and stood before him; and he said, “Indeed, now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel; now therefore, please take a gift from your servant.” 16  But he said, “As the LORD lives, before whom I stand, I will receive nothing.” And he urged him to take it, but he refused. 17  So Naaman said, “Then, if not, please let your servant be given two mule-loads of earth; for your servant will no longer offer either burnt offering or sacrifice to other gods, but to the LORD. 18  Yet in this thing may the LORD pardon your servant: when my master goes into the temple of Rimmon to worship there, and he leans on my hand, and I bow down in the temple of Rimmon—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the LORD please pardon your servant in this thing.” 19  Then he said to him, “Go in peace.” So he departed from him a short distance.

The request for Naaman to take dirt from Israel back home with him always intrigued me. What was the reasoning behind such an odd request?

Heiser provides the answer.

“The brief trip into Israel and the encounter with Yahweh’s prophet have taught Naaman some good theology. He affirms that “there is no God in all of the world except in Israel” (v. 15 ). From henceforth he will sacrifice only to Yahweh. But how can he keep that vow after returning to Syria? Simple—he pleads for dirt to take home . Naaman views the land of Israel as holy ground—it is Yahweh’s territory. Naaman takes as much dirt as his mules can carry so he can worship Yahweh on Yahweh’s own territory, even though Naaman lives in the domain of the god Rimmon. We aren’t told if Naaman went home and spread dirt on the floor of a room in his home. We don’t know how he handled his duty to accompany his aged king into Rimmon’s temple. Perhaps he carried dirt with him as a pledge of his believing loyalty to Yahweh. What we do know is that the dirt was a theological statement. Dirt from Israel was the means by which Naaman showed his faith and kept his vow to the true God, Yahweh.” (Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible, 2229-2233 (Kindle Edition); Bellingham, WA; Lexham Press)

The Jews found in this the means of proselyte baptism.

“Though it is not derived from the NT, it is found in the LXX. The Greek verb for baptism is used only one time in the LXX–in 2 Kings 5: 14.[ 40] It is the story of Naaman the leper who is told to “wash” in the Jordan River seven times. The verse in question says, “So he went down and dipped (baptizō) himself seven times in the Jordan.” As this rite is called a baptism in the Greek and is so very much like the baptism of Christ (especially the fact that both are in the Jordan River), it is certainly fair to identify it as yet another type of Christian baptism. As far back as Irenaeus (177 A.D.), the Church has understood Naaman’s washing to be a baptism. “[ Naaman] dipped himself, (says the Scripture,) seven times in the Jordan. It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized” (Irenaeus, Frag. 34).[ 41] Marianne Micks rightly points out, When [Naaman] reemerges, his flesh is restored; the Bible says his flesh is like that of a child’s, suggesting not only healing and cleansing, but rebirth… the story [of baptism] achieve[ s] a remarkably powerful illustration of the role of the river in Christian tradition. The river brings freedom, yet the journey to the Promised Land is inextricably linked to death and resurrection. We go under the water in death. We rise to newness of life. (Micks 1996: 8, 5) In this way the faithless words of Joram (“ Am I God, to kill and to make alive;” 2 Kgs 5: 7) are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death[.] Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6: 3-4). Comparing the baptism of Naaman the leper with the law of cleansing lepers in Leviticus 14: 6-8 (where it says to dip[ 42] a sacrifice in the blood of a bird killed over running water and then bathe[ 43] in water) is important in light of the fact that Moses required baptisms for the lepers after they were cleansed (like Naaman) from their disease.[ 44] In other words, we may ask why Elisha commanded this of Naaman? (Naaman thought Elisha would just wave his hand over him, but instead the prophet tells him he must be baptized, and that only in the Jordan River; cf. 2 Kings 5: 10, 11, 12, 14). Because, Elisha was going back to the Law. Thus, if Naaman’s washing is called a baptism, then we must infer that the cleansing rite of the leper was also a baptism. This is one of many baptisms found in the Law, and it is an example of why Hebrews says there are diverse baptisms in the OT Law.” (Douglas Van Dorn, Waters of Creation: A Biblical-Theological Study of Baptism, 21-22 (Kindle Edition): Erie, CO: Waters of Creation Publishing)

With this background in mind, it is likely that the baptism of John was primarily for proselytes. Notice that many of the people that John baptized came from Galilee (even Jesus Himself), and in the Bible, this area is often connected with the Gentiles.

Matthew 3:13-Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.


The population of Galilee was composed of many Gentiles.

“Kedesh, the city of refuge, is described as lying in Galilee, in Mt. Naphtali (Jos 20:7; compare Jos 21:32). The name seems originally to have referred to the territory of Naphtali. Joshua’s victorious campaign in the north (Jos 11), and, subsequently, the triumph of the northern tribes under Deborah and Barak (Jud 4 f) gave Israel supremacy; yet the tribe of Naphtali was not able to drive out all the former inhabitants of the land (Jud 1:33). In the time of Solomon the name applied to a much wider region, including the territory of Asher. In this land lay the cities given by Solomon to Hiram (1Ki 9:11). Cabul here named must be identical with that of Jos 19:27. The Asherites also failed to possess certain cities in their allotted portion, so that the heathen continued to dwell among them. To this state of things, probably, is due the name given in Isa 9:1 to this region, “Galilee of the nations,” i.e. a district occupied by a mixed population of Jews and heathen…The beginning of the end came with the invasion of Tiglath-pileser III, who took the chief cities in Galilee, and sent their inhabitants captive to Assyria (2Ki 14:29). Probably, as in the case of the Southern Kingdom, the poorest of the land were left as husbandmen. At any rate there still remained Israelites in the district (2Ch 30:10 f); but the measures taken by the conqueror must have made for the rapid increase of the heathen element.…Josephus, however, speaks of Kedesh as belonging to the Syrians (BJ, II, xviii, 1), situated “between the land of the Tyrians and Galilee” (Ant., XIII, v, 6)…In the mixed population after the exile the purely Jewish element must have been relatively small…showed, the population of Galilee was composed of strangely mingled elements — Aramaean, Iturean, Phoenician and Greek In the circumstances they could not be expected to prove such sticklers for high orthodoxy as the Judeans. Their mixed origin explains the differences in speech which distinguished them from their brethren in the South, who regarded Galilee and the Galileans with a certain proud contempt (Joh 1:46; 7:52).”. (James Orr, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE), 65990-66032 (OSNOVA)

Certainly, the Bible teaches that people from all Judaea came to John to be baptized, which would include the area of Galilee:

Matthew 3:5-6-Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him. 6  and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.

John 1:28-These things were done in Bethabara beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

John 3:23-Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there. And they came and were baptized.

It seems likely that John was baptizing Jewish people so that they could fulfill their requirements under the Law of Moses, and he was baptizing Gentiles so that they may undergo proselyte baptism. Both were authorized by the Old Testament Scriptures, so we see that John’s baptism was, indeed, from Heaven.

Of course, the Jewish scribes and Pharisees would have known this, but they could not accept the truth, for this pointed to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah!

Isn’t it interesting (and “sad” beyond words) how all so often, “truth” takes a backseat to political popularity and opinion?

Have you been baptized into Christ and had your sins washed away?

Acts 22:16-And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.’

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

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