Why did John the Baptist water baptize in the wilderness of Judaea?
Some sincerely think his water baptism was a picture of the death, burial, and resurrection. This could hardly be the case since his followers did not yet know who Christ was, and Christ’s own water baptizing disciples did not understand the cross (John 3:26; Luk 18:33-34).
Others think he was instituting a new testament ordinance for the church. Yet, we know that the new testament could not begin until Christ’s death (Heb 9:17); the new testament was to Israel and Judah, not the church (Hebrews 8:8); and the mystery of Christ about the church had not yet been revealed (Rom 16:25).
So what was he doing? What saith the scripture?
John Manifests the Prophesied Messiah
“And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water.” – John 1:31
John was baptizing to bare witness of the Messiah, to make him manifest to Israel (John 1:15).
According to Israel’s prophecies a messenger would come to prepare the way of the Messiah (Mal 3:1). Thus John preached, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” (Mark 1:3).
All in Israel that were water baptized were making themselves ready for the coming Christ (Luke 1:17), identifying themselves with the greater one John bare witness of.
This is why the chief priests in Israel would not acknowledge John’s baptism was from God. If they did, they would be admitting that Jesus was the Christ.
“The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men? And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say unto us, Why did ye not then believe him?” – Matthew 21:25
Peter Witnesses Christ According to Prophecy
John’s ministry of water baptism had made the Messiah manifest to Israel.
When Peter preached to Israel at Pentecost, he also preached John’s water baptism, only now he preached it in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38).
Peter was a witness of Christ, making him manifest to Israel through preaching prophecy and water baptism (Acts 1:22; Acts 2:32; Acts 3:20-21).
If Israel was not water baptized by Peter, they were rejecting Jesus as the Messiah.
A Baptism Controversy in Corinth
We are now in a position to understand the controversy in Corinth during Paul’s ministry. If John and Peter water baptized to manifest Christ to Israel, then would believers in Paul’s ministry who were not baptized by Peter or John be rejecting Jesus as the Messiah?
This would be true if it were not for the revelation of the mystery of Christ given to the apostle Paul to preach to Gentiles (Eph 3:1-2).
John’s baptism was to make the Messiah manifest to Israel. When Paul was sent to Gentiles, he was sent with the gospel of salvation to sinners, and not to water baptize (1 Tim 1:15-16).
“For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect” – 1 Corinthians 1:17
Did Paul reject Jesus as Christ? This would be absurd. He was water baptized by Ananias, and preached in every synagogue that Jesus was Christ (Acts 9:18-20).
Paul water baptized some because water baptism made Christ manifest to Israel, and Paul ministered Christ. More important is why did he not baptize everyone (1 Cor 1:14-17).
Paul Manifests Christ According to the Mystery
Paul was not sent with the ministry to make Christ manifest to Israel. He was not sent with a water baptism ministry. Israel had already rejected John, Jesus, and Peter. Christ raised up Paul precisely because of Israel’s rejection of Christ and spiritual fall.
Instead of making the prophesied Messiah manifest to Israel, Paul was given the ministry of making the mystery of Christ manifest to all men: Jew and Gentile (Eph 3:9-10).
“Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints” – Col 1:26
When it was time for the Messiah to come to Israel, John water baptized to make him manifest to Israel according to the prophets. When the Messiah was gone, Israel fell, and the mystery of Christ was revealed, there was no longer any need for the manifestation of water baptism, but the manifestation of the mystery of Christ.
“Withal praying also for us… to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds: That I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak.” – Col 4:3-4
Paul separated the gospel message from water baptism in 1 Corinthians 1:17.
John was sent to water baptize to make the prophesied Christ manifest to Israel. Paul was sent not to water baptize to make the mystery of Christ manifest to the world.
“Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and that they will hear it.” – Acts 28:28