Disciples of John the Baptist
November 5th, 1978 @ 7:30 PM
THE DISCIPLES OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
Dr. W. A. Criswell
11-05-78 7:30 p.m.
To the thousands and the thousands of you who are listening to this service on the great radio station of the Southwest, KRLD, and on the radio station of our Bible Institute, KCBI; it is our joy to share this moment of preaching, and singing, and intercession and to welcome you as you listen now. This is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas bringing the message entitled The Disciples of John the Baptist. It is an exposition of the first seven verses of the nineteenth chapter of the Book of Acts [Acts 19:1-7]. And here in the auditorium, and all of you who listen on radio, turn to the nineteenth chapter of the Book of Acts, and we shall read out loud together the first seven verses. Acts chapter 19:1-7. Now all of us reading it out loud together:
And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus: and finding certain disciples,
He said unto them, Have you received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost.
And he said unto them, Unto what then were you baptized? And they said, Unto John’s baptism.
Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on Him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.
When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied.
And all of the men were about twelve.
Just in the reading of that pericope in the nineteenth chapter of the Book of Acts, brings an unusual and a startling revelation to us. There are some things in this story that are incredible, things that are just almost impossible to realize. Here is one: John the Baptist was baptizing in the Jordan River. He had been dead a generation, long time ago, years and years ago, the ministry of the great Baptist had been finished [Mark 6:22-28]. He had run his course; he had served his purpose as the forerunner of the Lord Jesus Christ [Luke 1:17]. And yet, here in Alexandria, way down there on the other part of the Mediterranean Sea is a brilliant Alexandrian disciple of John the Baptist [Acts 18:24-25]. And then on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, in the beautiful Asian city of Ephesus, here are disciples of John the Baptist, a dozen of them [Acts 19:1-7]. What an amazing come-to-pass, an astonishing historical development! In Alexandria, in Ephesus, a generation after John the Baptist had died, been martyred, are these disciples of the great Baptist forerunner.
All right; another thing that is astonishing in this story: the baptism of John in the Jordan River was the only baptism that Jesus had [Matthew 3:13-17]. The baptism of John was a requirement for a man to be an apostle. In the first chapter of the Book of Acts, we learn that in order for a man to be an apostle, he had to be baptized by John, and he had to be a personal witness of the resurrection of our Lord [Acts 1:22]. So the only baptism that Jesus had was the baptism of John [Matthew 3:13-17], and the only baptism that the apostles had was the baptism of John [Acts 1:22]. And yet here in this story, these twelve men who say that they have been baptized in the baptism of John, they are baptized again, they are rebaptized [Acts 19:3-7]. That in itself is a remarkable development!
Now when we look at this passage against the background of Christian history, we learn to our astonishment that the John the Baptist movement continued alongside the Christian movement. They were parallel. It was the intention of God that the great forerunner enmesh his ministry into the ministry of Jesus our Lord. And John was willing to do it, and spoke wonderfully, powerfully to that holy end. “I must decrease, He must increase” [John 3:30]. “He that hath the bride is the bridegroom, and the friend of the bridegroom . . . rejoices to hear his voice” [John 3:29]. John the Baptist fulfilled his mission gladly in introducing the Lord Christ Messiah. “The One upon whom you see the Spirit of God descending . . . the same is He” [John 1:32-33], said the Lord to the Baptist forerunner.
But the disciples of John were of not that order or not of that nature. They so revered their mighty, prophetic leader that they carried on his work and his movement for the years and the years after his martyrdom, after his death. We find this confrontation between the disciples of John the Baptist and the disciples of Jesus from the beginning. For example, in the third chapter of the Gospel of John we read, “After these things came Jesus and His disciples into the land of Judea; and there Jesus tarried with them, and baptized” [John 3:22]. Then John later says, “Not the Lord, but His disciples” [John 4:2]. Then, the next verse, “And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there” [John 3:23]. It takes a lot of water to baptize. You cannot use a tea cup, and you cannot use a glass. You have to have a lot of the water to baptize.
And John the Baptist was baptizing at Aenon . . . because there was much water there: and they came and were baptized.
For John was not yet cast into prison.
Then there arose a question—
Now you look at this—
there arose a question between some of John’s disciples and the Jews about purifying—
And they came unto John, and said unto him, Rabbi, He that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness—
the Lord Jesus—
behold, He baptizes, and all men come to Him.
So when it says here that there is a question with John’s disciples about purifying, I know the question is about baptism, because in the next verse it says, “Look, this Jesus to whom you gave witness in the Jordan River, look, He baptizes, and all men are coming to Him” [John 3:26]. “You don’t shine in the glorious and fabulous and heavenly light of the Son of God. You are overshadowed by Him.” And there was this discussion between the disciples of John and those who were looking at the ministry of our Lord [John 3:25].
Now you look again at this confrontation in the fifth chapter of Luke, “They said unto Him, Why do the disciples of John fast often, and make prayers . . . but Thine eat and drink?” [Luke 5:33]. “You are so different from the disciples of John the Baptist. They are ascetic, they fast, they pray; and You, You go to marriage ceremonies [John 2:2]. You are convivial and gregarious; we do not understand this difference.”
Now you look again, in the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. We have here the tremendous influence of John, when the Lord says, Matthew 21:25:
The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men?
And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we say, From heaven; He will say unto [us], Then why did you not believe him?
But if we say, Of men, we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet.
The influence of the great Baptist preacher was illimitable, immeasurable. And after he died, after his death, he had that same tremendous influence. Look at the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Mark:
And King Herod heard about Jesus; (for His name was spread abroad:)
and he said, That John the Baptist was risen from the dead,
and therefore mighty works do show forth themselves in him.
He had as great and dynamic an influence after his martyrdom, after his death, as in the days of his prophetic ministry. Now to our amazement, that John the Baptist movement continued for all of the years and the generations after the martyrdom of the great Baptist preacher. Here in the nineteenth chapter of the Book of Acts, a generation after the death of John [Mark 6:22-28], you have the brilliant Apollos, down in Alexandria—a disciple of John the Baptist [Acts 19:1]. And in Ephesus, the capital of the Roman province of Asia, you have these twelve disciples [Acts 19:1-7], who are disciples of John the Baptist; it continued on.
Then when we come into the reading of Christian history, Justin Martyr, who flourished about 110 AD, speaks of the disciples of John the Baptist. Then about thirty years after Justin Martyr, Hegesippus writes about the disciples of John the Baptist. And in the Clementine Homilies and in the Clementine Recognitions, these are literatures of the Christian movement, and I am now reading in the second century, they speak of the disciples of John the Baptist. For example, I have a pericope from the Clementine Recognitions, quote:
And behold, one of the disciples of John—
now this is two hundred years now after Jesus—
Behold, one of the disciples of John asserted that John was the Christ and not Jesus, inasmuch as Jesus Himself declared that John was greater than all men and all prophets. If then, said this man, he be greater than all, he must be held to be greater than Moses and than Jesus Himself. But if he be the greatest of all, then must he be the Christ.
That movement of John the Baptist continued through years, and the generations, and the centuries. Now at the close of the first century, you will notice that, when the apostle John writes his Fourth Gospel, he is very careful to interdict and to contradict the disciples of the disciples of John the Baptist, who are saying that he is the Messiah Christ. Now you look at John as he writes in the first chapter of His Gospel. Look at him. This is the record of John:
When the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou?
He confessed and he denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ.
You see how emphatically John writes that in his Gospel? “Who are you?” they say, this official committee from the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem—”Who are you? And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ” [John 1:19-20]. There is a reason why John writes that negation in his introduction in the first chapter to the Fourth Gospel. Out of all of the things that John says he could write about the life of the Lord, if he were to write it all, he says the world itself could not contain the books [John 21:25]. But out of the things that he did choose, he chooses that: to deny the word that John the Baptist is the Christ the Messiah [John 1:19-20].
And now to my amazement, as I read in Christian history, to this day—to this day, there are disciples of John the Baptist. They are called “Mandaeans,” and they live in Mesopotamia, a community of about two thousand. They have a book purported to be the book of John the Baptist, declaring that he is the Christ Messiah. Therefore, looking at it, we see that the John the Baptist movement continued through all of the years and the centuries side by side with the Christian movement.
Now what was that John the Baptist movement like? How is it described? And what kind of disciples were they? What characterized this John the Baptist movement? Number one: it was first, and foremost, and above everything ascetic. Asceticism appeals to a certain kind of mind and disposition. John the Baptist was as though he had stepped out of the pages of the Old Testament. He looked like an Elijah, he dressed like an Elijah, he lived like an Elijah, and his preaching was like that of Elijah.
He was a Nazirite [Numbers 6:1-8]. He had never cut his hair; he was dressed in rough raiment. He was a child of the wilderness; that is, not dependent upon any man, not subservient to any man. His food was locusts and wild honey [Matthew 3:4]. He was absolutely free from obedience to any authority among men. And when he spoke, he thundered his message of judgment: “The axe is laid at the root of the tree” [Matthew 3:10; Luke 3:9]; “The winnowing fan is in the hand of the Lord God” [Matthew 3:12]. “The burning fire, He is now ready to pour out upon the earth” [Matthew 3:12]. “The judgment day has come. Repent and get ready for Him, the Messiah who is at hand, the entrance of the kingdom of God” [Matthew 3:1-12]. Ah, the preaching of John the Baptist!
Now the life and ministry of our Lord was in an altogether different world. And the disciples of John the Baptist were overwhelmed and amazed at the Lord and His disciples. The Lord Jesus was gregarious; wherever people were, there you would find Him. If they had a wedding in Cana of Galilee, there you would find Jesus [John 2:1-11]. He was convivial; He was with the people. He sat down with them to eat. So far as I know, He never turned down an invitation to dinner in His life, not once, not once. All you had to do to have Jesus to dinner is just invite Him.
Man, that is the best thing about a country preacher; just spend your time with those dear people. Oh, that is what I miss here in this church! I wish I could eat dinner with every one of you, if you would invite me. Well, that was the Lord Jesus. He was so different. He lived in a different kind of a world, was a different kind of a man. He came eating and drinking. But John the Baptist and his disciples were ascetic, they were monastic, and they were rigorous in their continence. It was a movement of great power in his preaching the gospel of repentance, of righteousness, and the sign of it was the immersion, the baptism in water [Matthew 3:5-6].
Well, this John the Baptist movement had a repercussion that was so different as it developed through the years. Now you look at these two instances here in the eighteenth and in the nineteenth chapter of the Gospel of Acts. One of these disciples of John the Baptist is described to us: the Alexandrian, Apollos [Acts 18:24]. And it says here in the Bible that he was instructed in the way of the Lord, knowing only the baptism of John [Acts 18:25]. This man Apollos had been carefully taught, meticulously trained; he just did not know of the crucifixion and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And the gospel that he preached was the ethical gospel of our Lord, the gospel of the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5:1-7:29], up to—and he didn’t know of—the crucifixion [Matthew 27:32-50], and the resurrection of our Lord [Matthew 28:1-7]. He was beautifully trained and marvelously taught. And do you notice that he is not rebaptized? [Acts 18:25]. The baptism of John that Apollos received was accepted by the congregation of the Lord in Ephesus, and in Corinth, and wherever Apollos preached.
But these twelve disciples of John the Baptist in Ephesus are of a different stripe, of a different kind [Acts 19:1-7]. These disciples in Ephesus were the disciples of the disciples, of the disciples of John the Baptist. And by that time the movement had so disintegrated that it had drifted far away from its first and original calling from God. When the apostle Paul sees these twelve disciples of John, he senses a tremendous defect in their faith—a lack in their life. He watches them. They are rigorously ascetic; they are austere; they are continent in the extreme. But they are not happy, there’s no buoyancy, there’s no joy, there’s no “Ha, ha, ha!” in their singing. And it is very evident they don’t have victory, they are not overcomers, but they are lugubrious, they are downcast. They live an ascetic and monastic life. And Paul looking at them says, “When you believed, did you receive the Holy Spirit?” [Acts 19:2].
And they said, “We have not known whether there be any Holy Spirit” [Acts 19:2].
Now you look again how far they had deviated from the preaching of John. Didn’t John preach the Holy Spirit? Didn’t he? Didn’t he say, “The One that comes after me shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit, and with fire”? [Matthew 3:11]. Isn’t that right? Didn’t John say, “God told me the One upon whom I see the Spirit of God descending . . . the same is He that cometh—the Messiah Christ”? [John 1:33]. John preached the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, and these men say, “We have never heard whether there was any such thing as the Holy Spirit” [Acts 19:2]. The disciples of the disciples of John the Baptist, until finally these men are brought into a movement that is monastic, that is ascetic. And they have been baptized, they have been immersed [Acts 19:3], but they have never been introduced to the great truth of the gospel of God that John was sent to introduce. Therefore, Paul showed them the way of God perfectly, beautifully. And upon listening to the gospel of Christ, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus [Acts 19:4-5].
Now we are going to take it from there and look at the baptism of John and Christian baptism. Number one: Christian baptism is always associated with the Holy Spirit of God. Baptism in itself is absolutely meaningless. These twelve disciples of John were living under the law [Acts 19:7]. Whether the law is the Old Testament law of Moses [John 5:39], or whether the law is the New Testament Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5:1-7:29], in either way they were living under the law. They were seeking to be saved by works [Galatians 2:16]. Rather, and on the other hand, Christian baptism is always associated with grace, with the Holy Spirit of God [Romans 6:3-4; 1 Corinthians 12:13]. And apart from that Spirit, there is no meaning whatsoever to baptism, to immersion. Look, when John the Baptist came preaching he said, “I baptize with water: . . . He that cometh after me, greater than I . . . shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit, and with fire” [Matthew 3:11], always connecting it with the Holy Spirit of God. In the first chapter of the Book Acts, the Lord Jesus reminds the disciples of that prophecy of John the Baptist, “and you shall be baptized,” He says, “not many days hence” [Acts 1:5]. And when that outpouring came, it was the Holy Spirit of God [Acts 2:1-4].
Baptism is connected with the Holy Spirit of God. And the disciples preached that. “You,” the apostle says to these twelve disciples of the disciples of John the Baptist, “You, when you believed and were baptized, did you receive the Holy Spirit at that time?” [Acts 19:2].
And when they say, “We never heard of any such thing as the Holy Spirit of God” [Acts 19:2], then the apostle Paul, preaching to them the whole message of Christ, His crucifixion, His burial, His resurrection, His ascension into heaven [Acts 19:8], and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit of Pentecost [Acts 19:4], then they were baptized in the name of the blessed Jesus [Acts 19:5].
For you see, the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12:13: “By one Spirit are we all baptized into the body of Christ.” By one Holy Spirit of God are we all added to the body of Christ, we are regenerated, we are saved. We are born from above, and we are added to the body of Christ. By one Spirit are we all baptized into the body of Christ [1 Corinthians 12:13]. Baptism always is associated with the Holy Spirit of God. And what we do in water is an outward sign of what the Spirit of God has done with us in our souls! The Holy Spirit of God baptizes me into the body of Christ [1 Corinthians 12:13], and this is an outward sign of that holy baptism of the Holy Spirit. And when you disassociate the Holy Spirit from baptism, it has no meaning whatsoever. Baptism always is a sign, an outward sign, of what the Spirit of God has done in our souls and in our hearts [Titus 3:5]. “Have you received, did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed? Were you saved? Were you regenerated? Were you?” [Acts 19:2].
If I could turn aside in a parenthesis, could you imagine the apostle Paul today watching an infant being baptized? And he asked that question, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” An unconscious baby could not answer that question. The Holy Spirit is one of the vital accompaniments, addenda, corollaries of baptism. And without the Holy Spirit there is no such thing as a New Testament baptism. And a little child could not answer that question. A little infant in your hands, in your arms, “Little infant, did you receive the Holy Spirit when you were saved, when you believed, the Holy Spirit?” The baby wouldn’t know what you say. He doesn’t understand. It is in another world. The Holy Spirit is always connected with New Testament baptism.
Now second: let us discuss what is New Testament baptism? These men here were baptized again; they were baptized a second time [Acts 19:5], though they had been baptized by the disciples and the disciples of John the Baptist [Acts 19:3]. Well, what is that? This is that. There is nothing magical in baptism itself, nothing at all, nothing at all. The ordinance of baptism in water is a ritual, it is a ceremony. And what we are reading here in this passage is this: the apostle Paul refuses to let the Christian faith fall into dead ritual and dead ceremonial, such as the Judaism of his day had fallen into [Romans 7:6]. Christianity is vibrant, it is alive, it is spirit, it is burning! It is life, and it is never dull, orthodox, ceremonial, ritual. And Paul refused to let the Christian faith ever be delineated by, described by, some kind of a dead, cold ritual, even baptism. Baptism in itself has no magical power at all, none at all.
A second thing here that you find in this apostolic story: even though Paul denies, and decries, and interdicts the magic of baptism, there is no saving grace in being baptized at all [1 Peter 3:21]. Even though he denies that, in itself it is an empty, barren, sterile ritual. Even though he denies that, yet you look at him. He is very careful to be obedient to that great commission of our Lord [Matthew 28:19-20]. He baptizes these twelve men [Acts 19:5-7]. They had been baptized [Acts 19:3], but Paul is very careful that we have a right candidate and a right administrator, and a right purpose; very careful in those three things. And in keeping with that obedience to the great command of the Lord Jesus [Matthew 28:19], he baptizes these twelve men again; that is, really and actually [Acts 19:5]. Before they had not been really and actually baptized.
Last: that means that I am to be baptized being regenerated, being converted, being saved. If I have been immersed, if I have been baptized before I was regenerated, saved, born from above, I wasn’t baptized; I was just immersed in water. And there is nothing magic in an immersion in water. Baptism always is a following of our regeneration, our conversion, our being saved, our being born from above, always [Acts 8:36-38]. And when people discover, “When I was baptized, when I was immersed, I was not really saved, I was not regenerated. I found the Lord in the years after, or the days after.” Then I call them my “second milers”; these are they who, even after they were immersed, they have found the Lord as their Savior and now they are going to be really and truly baptized just like these twelve disciples of John [Acts 19:5]. They were baptized again, they were baptized a second time. They were really baptized this time, because they had found the Lord, they had been saved, they had been regenerated [Acts 19:5]. And now, their baptism associated with the regenerating Spirit of God in their hearts [Acts 19:5-6], is really an obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus [Matthew 28:19].
You know, I have looked at that for now over half a century, and here is what I have discovered: if there is a man who was immersed, maybe as a boy, maybe as a youngster, but way back there he was immersed and he was not saved when he was immersed, and then in the days after, in the years after maybe, he really found the Lord, he was really saved, you know what I found in his life? And there is no exception to this: there is a shadow over his heart and a strange thing about that shadow, the closer he gets to God, the heavier the shadow will be. The heavier the burden will lie on his heart, “I haven’t been really baptized. I was immersed back there, way back there, but I wasn’t saved. I wasn’t regenerated; I didn’t know the Lord. And it has been since then that I have found the Lord, that I have been saved, and I haven’t been baptized, not really.” And you know, the closer you get to Jesus, the more heavy that darkness will weigh upon your soul. And that’s why I plead with our dear people here: “If you have found the Lord after you were immersed, that shadow will be over your soul as long as you live. Don’t go through life heavy, weighted down, walking in darkness. Be baptized! Pastor, I want to be a ‘second miler.’ I wasn’t really baptized. I found the Lord since those days and really now, I want to follow the Lord in obedience to His Great Commission” [Matthew 28:19].
All right, another observation: for over fifty years, I have never seen anyone do that—what I call, “going the second mile”—I have never seen anyone do that, be a second miler, be really baptized, I have never seen them do that, but that they were twice as devoted, twice as committed; preciously given to the will and service of God, doubly. I have never seen an exception to it.
Paul says: examine yourself. Look at yourself, prayerfully, earnestly before God, as these twelve disciples were led to look at themselves in the presence of the apostle Paul [Acts 19:3-7]. And if you were saved and regenerated, and then you were baptized, God be praised for you; you’ve done exactly as God has asked us to do. But if you were saved, regenerated, born-again after you were immersed, you’ll never be really happy in your heart. You’ll never have a fullness of life and grace in your soul. There will be a shadow that will dog your heels the rest of your life, don’t live like that!
To be baptized in accordance with the great command of our Savior is one of the most glorious privileges in the world! [Matthew 28:19]. There’s not much we can do for God, but we can be baptized and we can follow Him. And if God speaks that word to your heart, be bold in it! “Pastor, why, I was saved ten years after I was immersed!” Or, “I was saved thirty years after I was immersed.” Or, “I was saved two years after I was immersed. I haven’t been really baptized; I’m going to follow Jesus as these twelve disciples here have done. I’m going to follow the Lord Jesus in true Spirit baptism” [Acts 19:3-7].
Oh! The Lord bless you and guide you as you open your heart, naked before God, as the Lord speaks to you His word of understanding and commandment. Now in a moment I’m going to stand right there by the side of this Lord’s Supper table, and as the Spirit of God has spoken to your heart, answer tonight with your life. “Pastor, tonight, for the first time in my life, I want to take the Lord Jesus as my Savior, and here I am, confessing Him openly and publicly before men” [Romans 10:8-13]. Or, “Pastor, tonight I am bringing my family into the circle of this dear church; we’re all coming.” Or, “Pastor, this is my wife, we’ve just been married; the two of us are coming to give our heart, home, and life to the Lord and to pray with you in this dear church.” Or, “Pastor, I want to be baptized; I have accepted the Lord Jesus as my Savior, and I want to be baptized” [Acts 8:35-38]. Or, once in a while, as some of you come to see, “Pastor, I’ve been a member of the church, on the church roll, but I have never been really baptized. I was converted after I was immersed, and I want to be really baptized. I want to be what you call a “second-miler.” God speed you in the way as you come. As the Spirit presses the appeal to your heart, answer with your life. I’ll be standing right there; come and stand by me. “Pastor, I give you my hand; I give my heart to Jesus, and here I am” [Ephesians 2:8]. May angels attend you as you come, prayerfully, while we stand and as we sing.