The Bible records a peculiar fact about the history of Christ’s ministry. In John 4:1-2 we read, “Therefore… the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John (though Jesus Himself did not baptize, but His disciples).” Knowing the importance of the doctrine of baptism in Christianity, it is interesting to see that Jesus did not baptize personally. What does the Bible say about this recorded fact? Is it a contradiction when the Bible says that Jesus “baptized more disciples than John” while also stating that “Jesus Himself did not baptize”?
To begin with, it is important to note that baptisms have taken different forms and serve different purposes. We find that when Israel “…passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:1-2). John the Baptist performed baptisms of repentance for the remission of sins that prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry (compare Luke 3:3-5). The baptism of Jesus serves yet an additional purpose, being a baptism with, and of, the Holy Spirit.
John the Baptist understood the distinction between the baptism by water for repentance and the baptism by water with the Holy Spirit, as recorded in Matthew 3:11. John the Baptist is quoted, “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
At the same time, we must realize that John’s baptism for repentance was an integral part of the baptism with the Holy Spirit. One cannot receive the Holy Spirit without being properly baptized in water, and that baptism includes repentance. Jesus insisted to be baptized by John, even though He did not have anything to repent of, as He never sinned, but He wanted to give us an example, to fulfill all righteousness, showing that we must be baptized today in water for repentance. At the same time, John’s baptism for repentance was not enough. In Acts 19:1-5, Paul baptized disciples who had been baptized by John for repentance, but they had not known anything about the Holy Spirit. He explained that they had to believe in Jesus and that they had to be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, to receive the Holy Spirit.
From this we see that the type of baptism by water that Jesus would fulfill is different than the baptism by water for repentance performed by John. This distinction is further elaborated in John 1:32-33 when John the Baptist describes his experience baptizing Jesus Christ, “And John bore witness, saying, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”’” We can clearly see that John’s work was to perform baptism by water for repentance, and Jesus’ primary responsibility involved performing baptisms by water, not just for repentance, but also, for granting the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Part of the answer to the question of why Jesus didn’t personally perform the physical act of baptism involves the fact that He made the decision to delegate the physical task to His apostles. This shows that the baptisms of His apostles WERE in fact done pursuant to Christ’s responsibility and instruction, and this is the reason why we read on several occasions that Christ baptized (John 3:22 and 3:26). Even though He did not baptize personally, baptisms through His apostles were viewed by God as baptisms through Christ. The same is true today. When God’s ministers baptize in the name of Jesus Christ, then God and Christ view this as if the baptism had been done by God the Father and Jesus Christ themselves. We also need to stress that today, ONLY ordained ministers should baptize. It is true that at the time of Christ, He used His apostles (who were not converted, as they had not received the gift of the Holy Spirit] to baptize in preparation for the gift of the Holy Spirit at the time of Pentecost. But the apostles were in quite a different category as we are today. For instance, God gave them also power to cast out demons (something which unordained members should NEVER attempt to do). But once the New Testament church was founded, the Bible is very clear that the Holy Spirit would only be given after water baptism and the laying on of hands by ordained ministers of God.
This is an example of a division of labor in the work of the ministry. The Bible makes it clear that the distribution of ministerial responsibilities is an important part of the composition of the Church of God. We read, “For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function” (Romans 12:4). In addition, “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11). From these Scriptures, we can conclude that there are divisions of responsibilities, and that the primary focus of one’s ministry may not be the same as another’s. As evidence of this, we can see that Paul’s primary responsibility in Corinth was not to baptize, but to preach the gospel (1 Corinthians 1:17). At the same time, this did not preclude Paul from baptizing. We have already seen that he baptized disciples who had not known of the Holy Spirit, and Paul had just recounted in 1 Corinthians 1:14-16 whom he had baptized in the church at Corinth.
When we read about Paul’s experiences, we find another potential reason that Jesus chose not to perform physical baptism by water. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul expresses his frustration about the contention and the fissures in unity that occurred in the Church because of allegiance to the men in leadership positions. Paul writes, “Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name” (1 Corinthians 1:12-15). Paul acknowledges that the sinful divisions within the Corinthian Church might have been worse if he had performed more baptisms. The divisive behavior of the Church at Corinth is an indicator to Paul that a baptism performed by him in Corinth would have become a problem. He conjectures that if more people in Corinth had been baptized by him, it could have caused people to falsely inflate its legitimacy. Paul thanks God that he didn’t baptize more people in Corinth because the divisions among men there could have been worse.
Jesus Christ may have had the same perception that Paul had about how a baptism performed by Him would be used as a status symbol. One potential explanation for Jesus not generally performing the physical act of baptism by water is that He didn’t want the event to become a stumbling block for those being baptized. Knowing that a baptism by Jesus Himself would have been a very special event, it could have overshadowed the true meaning of a baptism of repentance with water for the remission of sins and the subsequent receipt of the Holy Spirit. Jesus knew that the act of repentance, and the commitment made during baptism, was critical, and He certainly would not want to do anything to shift the focus away from that.
We do not know exactly what the apostles said and did when they baptized before Christ’s death. We would conclude that they had knowledge of the Holy Spirit, and that they would have included this aspect, together with repentance, in their baptisms. We also know that the apostles had been baptized when Christ washed their feet in John 13. He said to Peter that the one who is “bathed” (literally, “baptized”) needs only to wash his feet to be clean (John 13:10). We would assume that they had been baptized by John the Baptist, as Christ was, but we cannot totally rule out that Christ had baptized them as well, even though He did not baptize the multitudes of disciples.
Jesus Christ’s role in baptism has always been a vitally important one. We learn from the Bible that He was involved in and ordered baptisms by water, but that He did not physically perform them. Personally performing baptisms (with the possible exception of His apostles and other selected disciples) was not a required job for Him during His life on earth. This responsibility was delegated to His apostles, and continues to be a responsibility of His ministry today. Because He chose not to perform physical baptisms, He prevented people from treating a baptism by Him as a status symbol. The most important role Jesus plays in water baptism involves the bestowal of the Holy Spirit, which continues to be His responsibility today.
Lead Writers: Eric Rank, Norbert Link and Dave Harris