Was Baptism Instituted Before or After Jesus’ Death and Resurrection?

by Steve Ray on May 25, 2018

The other day a friend wrote and asked a question. It was an interesting question.

Jesus to Nicodemus, “You must be born again of water and the Spirit.”

“Is the answer to this that in the earlier examples, only the disciples did the baptizing and John is using a Hebraic figure of speech such that his disciples did them in his name and by his authority? If so, it would seem that these baptisms were not, in fact, salvific but were more like the non-sacramental baptism of John the Baptist. Am I getting close?

“FYI, the context here is a caller asked the same question and got two different answers from two different guests. The caller wanted to know how Jesus could administer the very salvific baptism he announces in John 3:5 when the Spirit had not been sent yet.

Thanks, author of John’s Gospel!”

Here is how I responded: 

Transition periods in salvation history are not always easy to peg, for example, did the Apostles receive the Holy Spirit when Jesus breathed on them (Jn 20:22-23) or when the Holy Spirit came down on Pentecost?

 Another one, in Acts they were baptized in the “Name of Jesus” but Matthew says “in the Name of Father…Son…Holy Spirit.” The believers St. Paul found in Ephesus had only been baptized with John’s baptism and were then baptized by Paul in the name of Jesus to receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1-7). Should  it be in the Name of the Trinity, or in the Name of Jesus? And obviously some Christians were baptizing without the full understanding or proper method of baptizing.

Jesus stood as a bridge or transition between John the Baptist’s baptism of repentance and St. Paul’s baptism in the Name of Jesus that brought the Holy Spirit. I have to believe that when Jesus baptized, or rather when his disciples baptized in persona Christi, that something actually happened since Jesus had already announce the salvific quality of baptism earlier in John 3:3-5. Just like Jesus turned bread into his Body in the Upper Room, I believe that Jesus also through baptism brought about a regeneration. If not his baptism in John 4:1-3 is out of context with what He says in John 3:3-5.

As to who baptized – Jesus or his disciples? Let’s begin with the multiplication of loaves and fish. When Jesus broke the loaves did HE give the miraculous bread to the people (Jn 6:11) or did his disciples distribute the bread and fish? Or did Jesus give it but THROUGH the hands of his disciples (Mt 14:19)?

Your comment about in persona Christi I think is very correct.

From my book St. John’s Gospel, A Commentary and Bible Study Guide:

In verse 11, how did Jesus distribute the bread and fish? How do the other Gospels shed light on the actual means of distribution (Mt 14:19; Mk 6:40–41; Lk 9:14–16)? How did Jesus work through his apostles (cf. Jn 4:1–2; CCC 1335) as his delegated agents, with the claim that it was done by Christ himself? How does this help us understand the priesthood and the sacraments (cf. Jn 4:1–2; CCC 1548)? How does this help us understand the deeper meanings and sacramental content of St. John’s Gospel?

» Theological note: This is the only miracle in which Jesus allows his disciples to participate. Why? What does it symbolize? Compare it with Numbers 11:13ff. Here the appointed leaders participate in the “spirit” with Moses; so with the apostles and their successors with Jesus. This is a beautiful picture of the Catholic Church: “all the people” representing the universal Church, gathered in “small groups” of fifty to one hundred, representing the local churches, all being fed by Christ, the great High Priest, who provides the miraculous “bread” of the Eucharist to all the people through the hands of his priests, the apostles.”


 According to verse 1, how many disciples did Jesus have? What is symbolic and sacramental about the fact that “Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples … although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples” (Jn 13:20; CCC 858, 1548)?

» Theological note: The priest in the Catholic Church sacramentally stands “in the place of Christ” (CCC 1142, 1548). The priest shares in the work and priesthood of Christ, without in any way detracting from Christ’s unique and singular position as High Priest. As one who prays for another shares in the intercessory work of Christ (Rom 8:34; Heb 7:25; Rom 11:2, which refers to Elijah interceding with God; Eph 6:18; 1 Tim 2:1), so those who are disciples of Christ do things in his name, especially the priest who acts in a special way—in persona Christi—in the person of Christ.”

 Now as to whether the baptism is sacramental or only a Jewish washing – as a sign of repentance, looking forward to the sacrament. This is an interesting question.

 To suggest that Jesus through his disciples did not have the authority or the power to regenerate would seem rather weak. It is interesting that he is baptizing immediately following his statement that one “must be born of water and Spirit to enter the kingdom of God.”  So do Jesus’ actions contradict what he just said to Nicodemus? Do the people being baptized expect more than Jesus is actually giving? And never do I see Jesus saying “you’ll have to be baptized again after my resurrection to be regenerated.”

On the other hand, since the Holy Spirit had not officially come yet on the day of Pentecost others have a good point saying that it’s not the baptism of the New Covenant, yet.

However, in the upper room Jesus broke the bread and said it WAS his Body even though he had not yet offered himself as the sacrifice, having not yet died on the cross. The sacrament of the Eucharist had been instituted as a New Covenant sacrament yet the descent of the Holy Spirit would not take place for another fifty three days. But Jesus still says that the bread he holds in his hand is his Body and Augustine says, “he held his own flesh in his own hands.”

So I can see both sides though I fall on the side of believing it did what the “sign” suggests. In other words, I believe Jesus instituted the sacrament of Baptism when he announced it to Nicodemus and began baptizing immediately thereafter.

For a very thorough discussion of this matter in the 1913 edition of the 13-volume Catholic Encyclopedia, which I read only after writing the above, click here. Seems we concluded the same thing :-)

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Gary Rickard December 1, 2020 at 3:58 PM

GARY WRITES: When Jesus mentions being born of water and spirit in Jn 3:3, he cannot have been referring to Christian baptism. He criticizes Nicodemus for not understanding. But how could Nic be expected to understand something that did not exist yet?

STEVE RAY RESPONDS: Gary, thanks for writing. Appreciated. How do you know that Christian Baptism has not started yet? That’s making a big assumption. First of all, Jesus is talking about water and spirit to enter the kingdom of heaven and he had just gone down into the water and the spirit came down. It seems like they go together pretty well and it says all of Jerusalem went down; it should obviously be no surprise to Nicodemus.

Second, it says that Jesus as soon as he was done teaching this to Nicodemus went down in John chapter 4:1 and he and his disciples were baptizing. What kind of baptism was that?

The Old Testament portrays the starting of new things being done with water and spirit. Genesis 1:1-2 is starting a new creation with water and spirit. Noah passes thru the water with a white dove over the ark and we learned that he was saved thru water and that corresponds that we are now saved through baptism (1 Peter 3:21). Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt through the water with the Holy Spirit over top of them in the pillar and in the cloud and like them we are baptized into Christ (1 Cor 10:1-4). I think Nicodemus should have gotten the parallels if he was “the teacher of Israel.“ Then Jesus goes into the water and the spirit comes down.

GARY WRITES: (Of course, John's baptism already existed, but that was a different thing.) Since Nic, an expert in the law, should have understood, the meaning behind the phrase must be in the OT. A better explanation is that Jesus is referring to Ezekiel 36:25-27, where water and spirit work together to cleanse and give new life. So Jesus is saying, you must be born of water, that is, the Spirit — a spiritual rebirth.

STEVE RAY RESPONDS: One of the problems is that we do not read in the Greek, “that is, spirit.” That’s adding a bit to the Scriptures I think. No translation renders it that way.

Corresponding to all of the above “water and spirit” passages, the passage you quote from Ezekiel perfectly fits with water and spirits as being a prophecy about baptism to have new life. What will the new covenant mentioned by Ezekiel look like? Jesus explains it in John chapter 3.

One other thing, Jesus often taught things that didn’t “exist yet“. Look at John chapter 6 about eating his body and drinking his blood. The Eucharist was not yet instituted but he still taught it and expected people to understand, at least to listen and follow him to get a better understanding later.

Also here’s an article I wrote about being born again by water in spirit what she might find helpful: https://catholicconvert.com/blog/2020/11/20/are-you-born-again/

Gary, thanks again and God bless you!

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