Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me” (Mal 3:1).
“God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets …” (Heb 1:1 NKJV).
Roughly 400 years had passed since God spoke through His messenger Malachi. God promised His messenger would be sent to prepare the people for the Lord’s coming, and no one had come (Mal 2:7-9; 3:1). Occupation by foreign powers resumed. What power the Jews retained organized into the rival parties of Pharisees and Sadducees. Hopelessness, helplessness and spiritual darkness characterized those whom God once blessed.
“The word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness” (Luk 3:2).
John’s arrival went generally unnoticed until he began preaching in the wilderness of Judaea. He was not only the forerunning messenger promised in Malachi but, as Isaiah forecasted, he was “the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord” (Isa 40:3). God, as always, at the right time had a servant ready to accomplish His purposes.
John’s demand for baptism was part of the message he preached. It was for a transitory period, preparing the people for the coming of the Lord. The requirement was repentance, and this baptism unequivocally identified them with John and his message.
“O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Mat 3:7).
John demanded repentance before he would baptize anyone. Repentance was needed to prepare the way for the Messiah and, as Isaiah 40 says, this would make His paths straight. The Jewish leaders, with an elitist mentality, resting upon their genealogical link with Abraham, were like mountains that needed to be made low. The multitudes of common people were like valleys that needed to be lifted up. Tax collectors were the crooked ones needing straightening. Soldiers were rough ones needing smoothing (see Luk 3:5).
“Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Mat 3:15 ESV).
There was one who came to John for baptism whom John initially forbade for a different reason. People baptized by John were identified as his disciples. But when the Lord Jesus came to be baptized by John, to identify with him (although not as his disciple) and with the people being baptized, John recognized that the Lord ought to be baptizing him. But the Lord taught John it was necessary for them to fulfill all righteousness. So he took the Lord and baptized Him.
As John and the individuals being baptized were in the water, there was likely a confession of sins made – yet not with this Man. Instead of demonstrating flight from the coming wrath, the One who had nothing to escape was approached by the Spirit of God descending like a dove. In contrast with declarations of repentance, there was silence going into the water, but coming out of the water a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mat 3:17). The Father and the Holy Spirit each bore testimony that John was baptizing the righteous Messiah for whom the people had been waiting. This lack of confession and positive confirmation from heaven demonstrated this baptism was to “fulfill all righteousness.”
“Thou child … [shall] give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins” (Luk 1:76,77).
Those baptized by John were repentant, but were they forgiven? Luke 1:77 indicates that John would point the people to salvation, and Luke 3:3 and Mark 1:4 show that those who identified with John in baptism were also indicating their sins were forgiven. “By the remission of” (or “in view of the remission of sins”) cannot speak of future forgiveness from sins on the condition of holding tight until the Messiah could deliver. God never has and never will leave a people without access to justification where true repentance and faith are present. What’s more, though there were steps to bring us to salvation, salvation from the penalty of our sins is not a process. Scripture describes salvation as being brought from death to life, darkness to light, and in the unique case of Paul, as a sudden premature birth (Eph 2:1-4; Col 1:13; 1Co 15:8).
Baptism itself can never save. The requirement of God has always been faith in what God required. Regarding Abraham, for example, Genesis 15:6 simply records, “And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.” Habakkuk, under the law, wrote, “The just shall live by his faith” (2:4).
What about the disciples of John in Ephesus who encountered Paul in Acts 19? We’re not told where these disciples came from, but it is plausible that they were converts of Apollos to John’s baptism. If so, Apollos’ incomplete gospel resulted in “converts” who weren’t saved – they didn’t receive the Holy Spirit when they believed (Act 19:2). John taught that the baptism in the Spirit was coming and Apollos must not have known this had occurred. However, in searching for and desiring truth, they received it when it came.
This is similar to Cornelius in Acts 10, who believed all he understood and yet didn’t know about the implications of the death of Christ. He was instructed to call for Simon Peter, “who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved” (Act 11:14). Since the message of faith in Christ has come, the object of faith unto salvation is Jesus Christ (Gal 3:21-26). Both Cornelius and the disciples of John in Ephesus were brought into the requirements for justification within our dispensation when they heard the word and believed. These disciples of John in Ephesus show John’s baptism was necessary for its time but is no longer the mind of God. It was for a past era of preparing for the Messiah. Now God “hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son” (Heb 1:2).
 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.