Years ago, I enrolled in a graduate program in Semitic languages at Catholic University. I don’t know what I was thinking. My first class was a two-credit course where we translated the entire book of Jeremiah in 15 weeks.  And while it was only a two-credit class, our professor told us he was treating it like a three-credit course in order to separate the wannabes from the real students. In every class, we were expected to be able to answer any and all questions regarding any grammatical, exegetical or lexical feature of the passage; and if you didn’t know your stuff, you were in trouble. To make things worse, there were only seven of us in the class. No one could hide. Now, to get to CUA, I would take the red line down from Silver Spring. It sounds like a delightful ride, but do not be deceived. Every moment I was on that train, I was stressing about class. I used every second of that ride to study, to cram, to reread the Hebrew text and to pray for the rapture. None of it worked. To this day, I can’t ride the red line without my blood pressure rising dramatically. But that has nothing to do with why I prefer the New York Subway over the metro. Yes, there is no stress when I am taking the 7 train down to Times Square, but what makes the New York Subway the best is the reminder. At the end of every ride, a nice voice warns you to watch your step so that when you are departing, you do not fall between the train and the platform. The voice says: “Please mind the gap.” Here’s my advice to you: Please mind the gap. 

Here’s the problem, most of us, unfortunately, don’t even realize there is a gap. But there is: it is huge, and we ignore it to our own Bible peril. Let me explain. Let’s begin today’s discussion by examining all the times “baptism” is mentioned in the Old Testament. This will take a few minutes. We will start with all the references in Genesis and work our way to Malachi.  Let’s begin. . . .

Well, that didn’t take as long as I thought. That’s because baptism is never mentioned in the Old Testament. That’s right, it is not mentioned once. The first time we see a baptism in the Bible is in Matthew 3 where John is baptizing people in the Jordan River. Interestingly, no one comes to John and asks, “What are you doing? What is this strange thing you are doing with people and water?” Now, that is remarkable because if we turn the page back a time or two, we will find ourselves in a baptism-ignorant Old Testament. Malachi hasn’t a clue as to why anyone would dunk someone in water unless it was as a prank. But here the people are in John’s day, waiting in line to be baptized. They clearly knew what he was doing and what it all meant. But how?  If it was not mentioned in the Old Testament, how could they possibly know about it?  I am belaboring the point. Between the books of Malachi and Matthew, between the Old Testament and the New, there is a gap of 400 years where all sorts of spiritual developments happened. Someone called this period, the four-hundred silent years; but that person must have been deaf because these years scream activity and thought and writing and innovations. And in this gap, we find a most curious new addition: baptism.  So, if we want to understand John’s baptism, we will have to mind the gap.  

But why is this even important? Many people believe that John ought to be our model for how we think about and do baptism. If John practiced immersion, so should we. If John required a profession of faith, so should we. If John limited his baptism to adults only, so should we. In short, as John goes, so go we! And these people understand that baptism as the sign of entry into faith begins with John.  Now, as you already know, I would disagree with these people. And even though John is the only person in the Bible to have “the Baptizer” attached to his name, I don’t believe that he is our model for how we do baptisms nor do I believe baptism started with John (or even with the apostles). I think baptism started in the gap. So, let me raise the previous question: What was John doing when he baptized people in the Jordan?

We get a hint of an answer in Acts 19. Paul is talking to some disciples who were baptized by John. Now, Paul is shocked to hear that they had not received the Holy Spirit when they were baptized. He was even more shocked to hear that they didn’t even know there was a Spirit! This allows Paul to put all of the pieces together, and he says to these men (Acts 19:4): John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” And when these men heard that, they believed and were baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Underline those words: John’s baptism was a “baptism of repentance.” What does that mean?

We get another hint of an answer in the Old Testament. We’ve already said there are no baptisms in the Old Testament. However, there is a lot of water. Water was used frequently as a means for ritual cleansings. When Moses set apart Aaron and his sons as priests, he first washed them with water. A person who is defiled must wash with water before being readmitted to the community. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest must enter the sanctuary area and be washed with clean water before he can make any sacrifice. Read Leviticus. It is soaked with water from the first to last chapter. Now, clearly these were not baptisms, but they were significant and meaningful washings. And they weren’t limited to the law. Ezekiel understood that water will have a huge part to play in the New Covenant. God says in Ezekiel 36:25: I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.”  Bottom line: water rites played a huge role in Israel’s worship. It made people clean and washed away their sin. To steal Paul’s phrase, Israel’s washings were rites of repentance. 

But that’s all we see in the Old Testament. All water, but no baptism.  And yet the point is clear: Water washes people clean and restores them to full standing in the covenant community. But then in the “400-year gap,” something unexpected happened. As Israel became more international, more and more Gentiles started coming to faith in Israel’s God. These Gentile believers were called God-fearers. And although they weren’t literal children of Abraham, they were allowed to participate in the privileges of the covenant people. How much they were allowed to participate depended upon them. They could offer sacrifices and remain on the fringe or they could go all in and be circumcised. Neither option was great. The first option required too little, and the other option required too much. And that is when someone came up with a solid half-way option. True converts to Israel’s God could be baptized. Now, this would not give them full participation in Israel’s community (only circumcision would do that), but it was a significant indication that this person was a true God-fearer.  Baptism then, was an outward sign of repentance. It washed the person clean of their sin and made them a participant in the covenant community (even though it would not grant full participation). This is what baptism meant throughout these gap years. It was an entry-rite for those outside of Israel to come into the worship of Israel’s God. 

And then, John comes along and starts baptizing people; and that is strange. First note who he was baptizing. It was not Gentile God-fearers. It was Jews! Men and women who were already part of the covenant community. And this baptism was not like the baptisms found in the “gap.” This was something brand new. John was accusing his own people of being more like the Gentiles in their relationship with God, than being Jewish (not a good thing). So much so, he felt that they needed to be readmitted into faith by a rite that had been reserved only for Gentiles up to that point. He was calling them to wash away their Gentile tendencies and to repent. Who knew? Jews also needed to be washed clean. And this was especially true because the Messiah was coming.  And as a result of John’s rather blunt and brutal approach, many Jews saw their sin and came to him to be baptized in the Jordan. Again, why would they agree with John’s harsh assessment of them (that they were no better than Gentiles?)? Paul tells us in Acts 19. They saw all of this as preparation for the coming of the Messiah. Their faith was so cold that they needed to repent just as if they were Gentiles. Bottom line: John’s baptism was unique in many ways. It was a call for people already in the covenant community to repent in light of the coming of the Messiah. It was part accusation, part call to obedience, and part cleansing. But most of all, it was unique.

So now, we can ask the big question: Should John the Baptizer’s baptism be our model?  I think it is obvious that it cannot be. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for people already in the covenant in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. Our baptism is an initiation rite that welcomes people into the visible church and marks them as members of the covenant community. To compare the two is to mix apples and oranges. Yes, they are both fruit, but they are very different and serve very different purposes (plus, apples are better). 

Nothing brings out those differences better than a good definition of baptism. Here’s how the Larger Catechism (Q 165) puts it:

Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, wherein Christ has ordained the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, to be a sign and seal of ingrafting into himself, of remission of sins by his blood, and regeneration by his Spirit; of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life; and whereby the parties baptized are solemnly admitted into the visible church and enter into an open and professed engagement to be wholly and only the Lord’s.”  

So, if John is not our model, who is? Who else in the Bible practiced a sign that initiated people into the covenant, a sign that set them apart and made them clean.  There is only one person that fits that bill – Abraham. And the sign? Circumcision. Abraham is our model. And if Abraham is our model, then we need to welcome infant children to be baptized. 

How did we reach this conclusion? It was simple. We just minded the gap.