Was John the Baptist a Baptist? Pt.1
The argument that the New Testament church was established by John the Baptist is put forward by many of the Landmark and “perpetuity” advocates. The logic for this claim seems somewhat circular. They claim:
- God has always had His people
- The New Testament Christians are the people of God
- Christians are the church
- The church has always been “pure”
- The Baptist Church is the only pure/Biblical church
- John the Baptist was the founder of the New Testament church
It is important that we define church from a Biblical perspective. In the simplest terms, the church is composed of regenerate, baptized believers. I do not think we could find one Baptist who would disagree with this statement. Certainly, much more could be said but this is the core issue. Secondly, it is of equal importance that we note that “church” is a New Testament entity. This is not to say that there were no believers prior to the New Testament. On the contrary, through the centuries there has been many. But “the Church” was established by Christ. Again, no Baptist would disagree with this statement.
During the times of the Old Testament, God was dealing exclusively with the nation of Israel. While there were non-Israelites who were God worshippers, they were mostly united to the nation of Israel. Consider please Ruth and Rahab. Both were Gentile women of other nations who submitted to YHWH worship and joined themselves to the Jewish nation. One became an Israelite and a YHWH worshiper by assimilation into the nation. For men, this was by circumcision. For women, it was most commonly by marriage.
We need to also note that not every Israelite was accepted by God. We can see numerous examples where God judged and condemned some individuals in the nation. The sons of Korah, Nadab and Abihu, those slaughtered at the foot of Mount Sinai and those killed by the fiery serpents were judged by God. By this we can see that being a Jew was not sufficient to guarantee salvation. What the Old Testament saint required was exactly what the New Testament saint must have today. That is namely, faith (see Hebrews 11, for example).
Who was John the Baptist
Of course, we know the parents of John and we know he was a relative of Jesus. But when we ask who he was, we are wanting to know his purpose. For what reason was John sent? He was sent to announce the coming Savoir. There were Israelites anticipating the appearance of the Messiah on the basis of the promises of God recorded in the Old Testament. The Old Testament promised that the Messiah would come and the sign of His coming would be a prophet (Isiah 40:3; Malahi 3:1, etc.). John was that prophet.
“Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight!’” Matthew 3:1-3
John himself tells us his purpose.
"He said, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” John 1:23
Jesus refers to John as that prophet.
"But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and one who is more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send My messenger ahead of You, Who will prepare Your way before You.’" Luke7: 26-27
There is a sense in which John the Baptist is the last Old Testament prophet in that he brings the last message before the Messiah comes. With the coming Messiah, there is a new covenant established. The old covenant was administered through the nation of Israel and was exclusive to them and those Gentiles who united with them. The New Covenant would fulfill the promise that God made to Abraham that his seed would be a blessing to the nations. The seed of Abraham is ultimately Christ (Galatians 3:16).
God would extend His message beyond the nation of Israel to redeem men of “every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues” (Revelation 7:9). The message of God would be to repent and believe in His Son, Jesus the Christ. Again, there is no controversy in what I have said. The issue is when did the New Covenant economy begin. Was John the Baptist in the New Covenant and the first messenger of the New Covenant?
The Baptism of John
Looking back at the passage from Matthew 3, we can see the message and ministry of John the Baptist.
“Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.' For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet when he said, 'The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight!’"
“As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance..." Verse 11
Baptism, in and of itself, would not have been completely foreign to the Israelites of Jesus’ day. There are numerous examples of ceremonial and ritual cleansing in the Old Testament. We could see this in passages such as Lev 17:15; Lev 13:6,34; Lev 15:16-18,21-23; Nu 19:10, 19, etc. God commands such practices. We can also see the figurative use of washing and cleansing the Old Testament.
"Wash yourselves, Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil," Isaiah 1:16
"Wash your heart from evil, O Jerusalem, that you may be saved," Jeremiah 4:14
The scandal of John’s preaching was that his audience were Jews. He was speaking to the “chosen people of God.” Of what did they need to repent? This is why the Pharisees and Sadducees questioned him. He was not a high priest. And it had been centuries since the Israelites had a prophet. Who was he to tell them to repent? Why was he not directing his message to the Roman foreigners who were ruling over them?
"John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." Mark 1:4
The scandal of John’s preaching was that he called Israelites to repent of sin. No one would deny that John’s baptism was in connection with repentance. And, at least as far as Baptists see it, John’s baptism could arguable be by emersion. These two facts are unanimous with the necessary elements that we see in the New Testament. The issue now is, are there other elements necessary for New Testament baptism? Did John initiate New Testament Baptism and therefore the New Testament Church, or was this a proto-type? Are there other elements besides baptism by emersion for repentance found in the ordinance that we see in the New Testament Church? Is John functioning in a church office or role when he baptizes? Let us narrow our considerations and consider the Landmark claim that John the Baptist establishes the New Testament church. For the sake of simplicity, we will consider three points.
1) Was John the Baptist in the New Covenant and therefore in the New Testament Church?
2) Was the baptism of John the same as the Apostles and the New Testament Church?
3) To argue for succession, we need to also ask, were the Apostles disciples of John and baptized by John?