What’s the difference between John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism?
John’s baptism is a traditional reading for Advent, so we covered that a few weeks ago: “He [John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…” (Luke 3:3). In short, repent and be forgiven.
Then there’s Jesus’ baptism. It’s recounted for us later in Luke 3, but many of us have a personal experience with it through a baptism in Jesus’ name – either our own or ones we’ve seen. At a baptism in a Methodist church, we hear words like this from the pastor:
“Pour out your Holy Spirit
to bless this gift of water and those who receive it,
to wash away their sin
and clothe them in righteousness
throughout their lives,
that, dying and being raised with Christ,
they may share in his final victory” (UMH 36).
There’s that same forgiveness of sin. Baptism in John’s name sounds a good bit like baptism in Jesus’ name – and vice versa.
So maybe there isn’t a difference. Maybe John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism are the same. You probably know that’s not the case because it’s far too early for this sermon to be done, but let’s pause and consider it hypothetically. And when we do, we’ll find some clues that tell us that there is a difference to look for, both in Jesus’ baptism by John and in our baptisms in Jesus’ name.
First, John was sent to “prepare the way,” as Luke’s quote of Isaiah 40 tells us. John’s purpose was to get the people ready for someone else.
Then we have some clues that tell us that reinforce this, telling us that John’s ministry has come to completion and a new thing is about to begin. The first of these is Luke’s abrupt turn to tell us how Herod threw John the Baptist in jail, right before telling us how John the Baptist baptized “all the people” and eventually Jesus. This doesn’t make sense in the narrative; how could the Baptist do that baptizing if he was in jail? Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring have a possible explanation for this, and it’s not that Luke is a poor storyteller. It’s that Luke is purposefully wrapping up the story of John’s ministry before Jesus’ baptism takes place to show that one phase of God’s work is ending and another is beginning.
Craddock and Boring also notice that “all the people” get baptized. This is the kind of exaggerated hyperbole that some of my friends like to use, something like, “It was the BIGGEST FISH EVER!” But Luke isn’t telling us a fisherman’s tale, he’s communicating that John’s ministry is drawing to completion. All the people have been baptized by John; now, a new thing is starting in Jesus.
So here’s what happens when that new thing starts: the heavens open, the Holy Spirit comes down as a dove, and God himself speaks and declares Jesus his beloved Son.
That right there is the difference we should pay attention to: The Holy Spirit.
John prepped us for this: “I baptize you with water… he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). Then Jesus confirmed it: “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5). And, not many days from then, the disciples were all gathered in one room and then there was wind and fire and “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4).
Now look back to the words said at baptisms today (at least in the UMC), we’ll find, right there at the beginning, “Pour out your Holy Spirit.”
So now I can finish my sermon because we’ve answered my question. The difference between John and Jesus’ baptisms is the Holy Spirit!
Except… that answer leads to some more important questions. What does that really mean? What difference does it make that one includes the Holy Spirit and one does not?
Flipping through the pages between baptism stories, it seems like the difference is in the difference.
After Jesus was baptized he was so “full of the Holy Spirit” that he was led straight into the wilderness for forty harrowing days of temptation and preparation for ministry (Luke 4:1). He was different.
After the disciples received the Holy Spirit they began speaking in tongues so that all people from all kinds of nations could understand the gospel message. They were different.
After Paul received the Holy Spirit and was baptized (opposite order there) he stopped tormenting and killing Christ followers and instead became their most successful missionary (Acts 9:17-19). He was different. (He could also see again, too. There was that.)
The kind of different seems to vary, but every one of those who are baptized with the Holy Spirit are changed by the experience. They are led to do something new for the Jesus they now follow. They aren’t just forgiven so they can sleep easier at night; they are changed.
So if the difference is in the difference, our question should be, “How am I different?” How are we different because we were baptized and received the Holy Spirit?
If you came to Christ later in life, the answer to this question might come easily. “Before I was like this… and now I am like this.” “Before I did these things… and now I do these things.”
But for some of us it might be difficult to tell the difference. In the Methodist church we baptize infants; I’m one of those. And I have no regrets – I’m grateful my denomination affirms God’s grace for me that exists before I even asked for it. I’m glad my parents had water dipped over my bald baby head as in invitation for the Holy Spirit to work in my life. That does, however, pose some problems in perceiving any difference between “before” and “after.”
I can’t tell you how I was different before I was baptized because I don’t even remember a before I was baptized. But I can tell you how I am different now.
I am kinder than I would be otherwise. I forgive more often and I judge people less. I give at least ten percent of my money to God. I spend a lot of time reading my Bible and praying instead of doing other things. And all these things are becoming more significant with each passing year. Every day, it seems, the Holy Spirit is working on me, changing me, making me more like Christ.
I’m different than I would have been. And the difference is in the difference.
Today, I invite you to remember your baptism, a baptism not just of water and repentance and forgiveness, but a baptism also of the Holy Spirit. I invite you to remember how you are different because of being baptized.
And if you see no difference, if your life seems much the same, then I invite you to open yourself up and let the Holy Spirit in…
…and be made different.