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Appendix 1 - Is John’s Baptism Valid?

Appendix 1

Is John’s Baptism Valid?

The following is taken from Becoming a New Person by Eric H.H. Chang, and is included here (in edited form) for its relevance to the topic of baptism.

Rebaptism is hardly ever mentioned in the New Testament, but where it is mentioned (in Acts 19), it increases our understanding not only of baptism but also of John’s baptism. The following is a case of rebaptism that took place in Ephesus, where Paul rebaptized around 12 men even though they had already received John’s baptism:

1 And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. 2 And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. 7 There were about twelve men in all. (Acts 19:1-7, ESV)

How do we understand this remarkable account? Christians, especially those who don’t know that “Christian” baptism has its origins in John’s baptism, may think that the 12 men were rebap­tized because there was something incomplete about John’s baptism that necessitated rebaptism.

But let us look at the matter carefully. Where did John’s baptism come from? Was it from heaven, that is, from God? Or was it from men? This was the question that Jesus asked the Pharisees when they were challeng­ing his authority (Mk.11:30; Lk.20:4). It is said else­where (in Luke 7:30) that the Pharisees, by refusing to be baptized by John, were rejecting God’s purpose for them.

But if John’s baptism is from God, why were the 12 men in Ephesus rebaptized with another baptism, the so-called “Christian” baptism? It is remarkable that the rebaptism even took place at all, because these two baptisms—John’s baptism and Christian baptism —are the same in substance, with both expressing repentance and faith in Jesus.

Contrary to what we may think, both these elements—repent­ance and faith in Jesus—are integral to John’s baptism, as seen in Paul’s statement to the 12 men: “John baptized with the baptism of repent­ance, telling the people to believe in him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus” (Acts 19:4).

Likewise both these elements, repentance and faith, are integral to Christian baptism, as we see in Acts 2:38 (“repent and be baptized”) and Col.2:12 (“baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith”).

It is urgent for us to resolve the status of John’s baptism because the pre­ceding passage, Acts 18:24-28, speaks of Apollos, a believer who had an outstanding church ministry, and who even coworked with Paul and Peter (1Cor.3:6,22). But against our expectations, verse 25 explicitly says that Apollos had received “only the baptism of John”. The Bible never says that Apollos was subsequently rebaptized by Paul or anyone else.

Moreover, a few of the apostles—almost certainly Peter—had earlier been followers of John the Baptizer (John 1:35-42), also known as John the Baptist, and for that reason they must have been baptized by John. Yet there is no record that these apostles were ever rebaptized after they had come to know and follow Jesus.

And we must not forget that Jesus himself was baptized by John. Or that vast multitudes came to John to be baptized by him (Luke 3:7,10), with no subsequent record of mass rebaptism.

Moreover, the 12 men in Acts 19 were called disciples” (v.1) despite having received only John’s baptism. “Disciple” is the usual term for a Christian (Acts 11:26). This would indicate, at the very least, that the 12 men had associated with the wider group of dis­ciples in Ephesus, and were regarded as being part of that fellowship by the fact that they had received baptism, albeit John’s bap­tism. The 12 men must have, in addition, believed in Jesus in some sense, or they wouldn’t have been regarded as disciples. Indeed Paul spoke of them as having “believed” (v.2). Hence they were not total unbeliev­ers, otherwise Paul would not have asked them whether they have received the Holy Spirit (v.2).

All this shows that the problem in regard to the 12 men in Ephesus does not lie in John’s baptism. John’s baptism was certainly from God, being appointed and approved by God. There must have been some other factor that rendered the first baptism of the 12 men invalid, such that they needed to be rebaptized.

The problem cannot be that their baptism was not done “in the name of Jesus,” for the same was true of the first apostles and of Apollos. The answer to this is found in Acts 19:2 which tells us that the real problem was that the men had not received the Holy Spirit: They said “no” when Paul asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

But if that is the case, why was it necessary for them to be rebaptized? Couldn’t they simply have received the laying on hands for the gift of the Holy Spirit? This was exactly what was done in the case of the people in Samaria who had not received the Spirit when they were baptized in the name of Jesus. So the apostles laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:16-17).

The problem was not only that the 12 men in Ephesus hadn’t received the Holy Spirit, but that they hadn’t even heard of the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:2). They must have been Gentiles who were unfamil­iar with the Old Testa­ment, for no Jew could have failed to know of the Holy Spirit (cf. Psalm 51:11, “Cast me not away from Your presence, and take not Your Holy Spirit from me”). Since the 12 men had not even heard of the Holy Spirit, their contact with the disciples at Ephesus must have been recent.

The best evidence therefore indicates that the men in Ephesus were earlier baptized by Gentile fol­lowers or proselytes of John the Baptizer who were poorly taught in the things of God. As a result, these 12 men were so ignorant of the things of God (apart from repentance) that they could scarcely have made a mean­ingful com­mitment to God at their baptism. But the matter becomes clearer when we look at Acts 19:4-5:

Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 19:4-5, NIV)

What is “this” new information that they had just heard from Paul and which led to their rebaptism? It was certainly not the teaching of repent­ance, for without repentance they wouldn’t even have received John’s baptism. What is evidently new to the 12 men is the other vital element of baptism, namely: John the Baptizer him­self had preached faith in the Lord Jesus. These 12 men evidently did not know that John preached faith in Jesus, or that he had pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (Jn.1:29,36).

Since these 12 men did not know the full meaning of John’s bap­tism including that part about faith in Jesus, they could not have made any commitment of faith in Jesus at their first baptism, rendering their bap­tism invalid. The problem does not lie in John’s baptism itself but in how it was administered and explained. But as soon as the whole mean­ing of John’s baptism was explained to the 12 men, they immediately put their faith in Jesus, and were rebap­tized by Paul “into the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5).

In summary, John’s baptism, if it includes the dual elements of faith and repent­ance, is valid, and does not need to be followed by rebaptism.

(c) 2021 Christian Disciples Church