“John came.” There is a textual variation in this verse concerning whether or not John came baptizing or John the Baptizer came. Some versions read, “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness” (ESV); while others read, “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness,” (NRSV). The difference depends on the addition or deletion of the single letter for the article ho, (#3588 ὁ), meaning “the.” It is most likely, however, that the ho is not original and the preferred reading is “John came baptizing.” The reason for this is that John is frequently elsewhere called John the Baptist, but never John the Baptizer. This leads credence to viewing the participle “Baptizing” as descriptive of John’s action and not a title (Cp. Metzger, Textual Commentary).
“baptizing...baptism.” Although there is a heated debate about it, Scripture is not clear as to whether John, Jesus, and the apostles immersed people in water or poured water onto them. There are four Greek words in the New Testament associated with baptism, one verb and three nouns. Two of them occur here in Mark 1:4: the verb baptizō (Strong’s #907 βαπτίζω), from which the nouns derive, and the noun baptisma (Strong’s #908 βάπτισμα). The verb baptizō is a common word found in many Greek writings and it means to submerge, immerse, dip, dip repeatedly, or soak. It was used for washing things, for cleansing them either by immersion or dipping, and for cleaning the body by bathing, which did not necessarily mean immersion. The word baptizō was also used metaphorically for being overcome or overwhelmed. As the ritual of baptism developed, baptizō was used of the immersion in water that took place in baptism ceremonies and it was also the word that was used for affusion, or baptism by pouring water.
The noun baptisma (“baptism”) is found only in the New Testament and ecclesiastical literature that was written after the New Testament. Baptisma refers to the baptism that John and Jesus did, and also to Christian baptism. Like the verb baptizō, it was also used figuratively for afflictions that were overwhelming, including martyrdom (Mark 10:38). Another noun used of baptism is baptismos (Strong’s #909 βαπτισμός), and it means to wash or to purify by washing (Mark 7:4). It was also used for the various Jewish washings required by the Mosaic Law (Heb. 6:2; 9:10) and for Christian baptism.
The fourth noun associated with baptism is baptistēs (Strong’s #910 βαπτιστής), and it means “baptizer” or “one who baptizes” (Matt. 3:1). In the New Testament it always refers to John the “Baptist,” which would be clearer if the phrase was translated “John the Baptizer.”
Although most people think of “baptism” as being in water, the word “baptism” has no reference to what the person is baptized in. Besides water, baptism in other religions has been known to occur in wine, oil, honey, blood, and even cow’s urine (Vergilius Ferm, An Encyclopedia of Religion, Philosophical Library, New York, NY, 1945, p. 54). John the Baptist spoke of two different baptisms, water and spirit. He said, “I baptized you in water, but he [the Messiah] will baptize you in holy spirit” (Mark 1:8).
Debates have raged through the centuries about the “right” way to water baptize: by immersion, affusion (affusion, sometimes called infusion, is the practice of pouring water on the head of the person being baptized), or aspersion (sprinkling). These debates sometimes center on the meaning of the Greek words for baptism and whether or not they demand immersion, but the historical practice of administering water baptism is also considered. Too many times people have drawn conclusions about the meaning of a word, for example, baptizō, by just looking it up in a lexicon and taking that definition as the “true meaning” of the word. But to know the full range of meaning of any biblical word we must discover the different ways the people who lived in the biblical culture used it. The definitions given in lexicons are often not complete, and they can occasionally give erroneous or misleading information, especially if the lexicon is an older one. Archaeologies and historians are constantly discovering ancient documents that expand our understanding of the meaning of ancient words. For example, Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, which is commonly used but was written in 1896, gives the following definitions for baptizō: to dip repeatedly, to immerse, submerge; to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash, to make clean with water; to wash oneself, bathe. Thus, from reading Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon a person might conclude that baptism has to be by immersion. However, baptizō is the word that is consistently used of “baptism” in holy spirit (cp. Matt. 3:11; Acts 1:5; 11:16), and every reference to baptism in the spirit, including the Old Testament prophecies about it, shows that the spirit is “poured out” upon us (Isa. 32:15, 44:3; Ezek. 39:29; Joel 2:28, 29; Zech. 12:10; Acts 2:17, 18, 33; 10:45; Titus 3:6). So the Bible itself shows us that baptizō, “baptism” can refer to baptism by pouring water as well as immersion.
John and Jesus baptized in the Jordan River, and could well have baptized in other places as well because there were baptism sites all over Israel. The baptisms they performed were most likely by immersion because that would follow the pattern of the immersion rituals that were already being performed by the Jews. But since many people could not swim and may have been afraid of deep flowing water, there is no reason John could not have poured water onto people in the same way the Bible says the holy spirit was to be “poured out.” The Greek vocabulary about baptism does not forbid pouring. Furthermore, although immersion was the general practice of the Jews in their baptism rituals, there is very good evidence that affusion (baptism by pouring the water on the person) was practiced very early in the Church. For example, it is mentioned in the Didache, which could have even been written as early as in the latter years of the first century. But how would pouring the water have started? We cannot conclusively prove it did not start with John or Jesus themselves and then been continued by the apostles.
It is also important to notice that early Christian art depicts baptism by pouring, not immersion. T. M. Lindsay writes,“…if the witness of the earliest pictorial representations be collected, then we must infer that affusion was the usual method [of baptism] and that immersion was exceptional; for the pictorial representations, almost without exception, display baptism performed by affusion; i.e., the recipient is seen standing in water while the minister pours water on the head” (Geoffrey Bromily, editor, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, p. 419, “Baptism”). The early Christians baptized by pouring water, and that practice could have started with John, Jesus, or the apostles, but in any case it was a practice that started very early, was the dominant way of baptizing for centuries, and has continued among some Christians to this day.
We have to be honest about the fact that just as the Bible does not describe any “right way” to have a Christian meeting, it does not describe a “right way” to baptize. Perhaps that is because baptism was a symbol: water was always a symbol. Water baptism never actually conferred spiritual cleanness in the Old Testament, and in New Testament times it never actually conferred salvation or any other spiritual grace. All the various washings in the Law were symbolic and pointed to the ultimate baptism, the baptism in the holy spirit.
John the Baptist, who was both a priest and a prophet, clearly pointed to baptism in the holy spirit being greater than his water baptism. He said that in contrast to his baptism in water, the Messiah would “baptize” in the spirit. Another thing that points to the symbolic nature of water rituals is that God did not give any commandments about washing or cleansing in water before the Mosaic Law, and that was given to Israel by God about 1450 BC. Considering Adam was created around 4000 BC, it is hard to imagine that water is necessary for spiritual cleansing, but God never mentioned it for the first 2500 years of human existence.
Water can remove physical uncleanness, but it cannot remove mental and spiritual uncleanness. But a person’s willingness to be symbolically baptized in water showed their faith that God could and would make them clean in His sight, and that is the goal: to be pleasing to God and clean in His sight.
“a baptism that symbolized repentance.” The Greek word translated “repentance” is, metanoia (#3341 μετάνοια), and it means to change one’s mind, and therefore life and lifestyle. It is ceasing thinking and doing things that are contrary to God, and instead thinking and behaving in a way that is in obedience to God.
“repentance” is in the genitive case, so literal translation is: “baptism of repentance.” Daniel Wallace points out that the genitive is so ambiguous that it can have many meanings, and therefore he says, “it may well be best to be non-committal: ‘baptism that is somehow related to repentance” (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 80). While Wallace’s statement is accurate, it is unsatisfying. It leaves us with the same problem we started with, which is that we do not know the meaning of the phrase. We should be able to draw a conclusion about the meaning of the genitive from the scope of Scripture. Of course, the denominations vary greatly about their interpretation of the scope of Scripture, and the scholars do also. On one extreme, for example, is saying the genitive is one of production, so the meaning would be “a baptism that produces repentance.” We assert that the baptism did not produce the repentance, or “complete” it in any way, except perhaps cementing in the mind of the person who had been baptized that since he had made a public declaration before God and people, he better honor his vow and live a godly lifestyle.
In his list of possible interpretations, Wallace himself gives what may be the best way to understand and translate this verse and the concept behind it: “baptism that symbolized repentance.” In the same way that animal sacrifice was a symbol that pointed to the ultimate sacrifice of Christ, water baptism and washing rituals were part of the Old Testament and pointed to and symbolized the coming of the greater baptism, which was baptism in holy spirit. Many Old Testament prophets foretold the coming of the spirit, which they universally said would be poured out from heaven (Isa. 32:15; 44:3; Ezek. 39:29; Joel 2:28-29; Zech. 12:10). Then, John the Baptist was the first person we know of to refer to that pouring out as “baptism,” and then Jesus also referred to the pouring out of the holy spirit upon people as a “baptism” in the holy spirit (Matt. 3:11; Acts 1:5).
A number of translators and scholars have seen that the genitive in this sentence is a genitive of relation, and the relation that best is being expressed is that when a person repents before God, he demonstrates that repentance by a public ceremony of baptism. Thus the outward act of water baptism symbolized the inner act of going from the old to the new, or from death to life, in the heart. C. S. Mann writes: “An alternative rendering of this Semitism would be, ‘A baptism which symbolized repentance’” (The Anchor Bible: Mark). F. Grant writes: “This baptism was the symbol of repentance” (The Interpreter’s Bible). Walter Wessel writes: “the baptism indicated the repentance had already occurred of was being accompanied by it” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary; F. Gaebelein general editor). Ann Nyland translates the last part of Mark 1:4 as: “He [John] preached that people should be baptized as a symbol that they had changed their minds, and this resulted in their sins being cancelled” (The Source NT). Charles Williams translates: “a baptism conditioned on repentance” (The NT in the Language of the People). The New Testament in Modern English by J. B. Phillips translates the last part of the verse: John came... “proclaiming baptism as the mark of a complete change of heart and of the forgiveness of sins.”
“repentance resulting in the remission of sins.” The Greek word eis, here translated as “resulting in,” has many meanings, primarily purpose or result. The translation in most versions, “for” is somewhat ambiguous although accurate. A major theme in the Bible is that if a person will repent he will be forgiven. Over and over God tells people that if they will humble themselves and come to Him for forgiveness, he will indeed forgive them (1 John 1:9 is very clear, but also see such verses as: Neh. 9:7; Ps. 32:5; 103:11-13; Prov. 28:13; Jer. 5:1; 36:3; Luke 6:37). There is no place where God says something such as: “If you confess your sin I will consider forgiving you.”
The eis can be translated “because,” a less frequent but very valid meaning of eis (cp. Wuest, Word Studies). In that case, people were baptized as a symbol because their sins had been forgiven. However, that is actually just another way of understanding the eis as a result clause—it would be saying the people were baptized because their repentance led to remission. That concept can be worded as a result clause, as we have in the REV: “baptism that symbolized repentance resulting in the remission of sins.” In other words, the people were baptized as a symbol that they had repented, a repentance which had, as always, resulted in the remission of their sin.
The people came to John to be baptized so they could enter the Kingdom of God. As they stood by John they confessed their sins and repented. That confession and repentance resulted in their sins being forgiven (remitted), and John baptized them as a symbol of that repentance and forgiveness. Ann Nyland translates the phrase: “baptized as a symbol that they had changed their minds, and this resulted in their sins being cancelled” (The Source NT).