Brandon asks, Why is baptism used before Jesus? I thought baptism signified Jesus’ death and resurrection. Why would baptism be used by John if that’s what it is for?
As the question suggests, the two baptisms are closely related but also have important differences. Think of it like an engagement ring and a wedding ring. The engagement ring is a token of the intent/promise to marry, while the wedding ring is a token of the actual marriage. They both relate to marriage, but in different ways. I think this sums up the difference between John’s baptism and ours. Both relate to being in a right relationship with God, but in different ways.
John came to prepare the Jewish nation for the coming of Jesus and receiving baptism was an important part of that. The Old Testament prophet Malachi had spoken of John’s coming in 3:1 and again in 4:5-6 where we read:
5 See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.
In Matthew 17:10-13, Jesus identifies John as “Elijah.” The angel who speaks to Zechariah (John’s father), does the same thing when he says, “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord”(Luke 1:17).
John called the nation back to God and his baptism was a part of that. It was a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). Many people responded to his message that not only called them for repentance but also to believe in the One coming after him (Acts 19:4).
Of course, at this time baptism had nothing to do with the death and resurrection of Jesus—it’s purpose was to put Jewish believers in a right relationship with God and ready them for the kingdom of Jesus (Luke 16:16). Those who rejected John’s baptism rejected God’s purpose for themselves (Luke 7:29-30).
According to John 1:31, a related purpose of John’s baptism was to reveal Jesus to Israel. Christ’s baptism was different from anyone else’s in that He had no sin to repent of or be forgiven of (Hebrews 4:14-16). Nevertheless, as an Israelite He embraced God’s indictment upon the nation and identified with the redemptive purposes of John’s ministry which pointed to Him. Thus, He told John His immersion was necessary to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).
After Jesus death, resurrection and ascension, baptism takes on an even deeper, richer meaning. It continues to be a faith response that God uses to put us in a right relationship with Him (1 Peter 3:21-22), but now it is in Jesus’ name (Acts 2:38), connected with His death and resurrection (Romans 6:3ff), with the Spirit being given (Acts 2:38-39). You can see the two baptisms contrasted in Acts 19:1-5.