“After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized (for John had not yet been put in prison). “ (John 3:22-24 (ESV)
For John had not yet been put in prison. All the other gospels start their narration of Jesus ministry wit h John going to Prison and Jesus in Galilee. But we learn from John the Evangelist that Jesus actually did stay in the Judean country side. He seems to have taken up John’s ministry, he is baptizing at this time. Though we learn that Jesus himself didn’t baptize, but his disciples did. (John 4:2) Nonetheless, because they are Jesus disciples, Jesus is the one who is credited with it. Most of these disciples would have been followers of John the Baptist earlier. It seems likely that this was more of a continuation of John the baptist’s ministry than anything else, a baptism of repentance, though we can learn something about Christian baptism, which is a bit different from John’s baptism, from this episode. That is, when the disciples of Jesus baptize, it is Jesus who is doing the work, we are merely his servants. So when John the Baptist said he will baptize you with the fire and the holy Spirit, he was talking about that baptism with which your pastor poured water over your head in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. There it was that Christ baptized you with fire and the Holy Spirit.
This also adds context to the whole discussion Jesus has with Nicodemus. When Jesus is speaking t Nicodemus, people are being baptized, of Water and the Holy Spirit. Water and the Holy Spirit go together in baptism. And so perhaps, here we see that there is at least a connection between what John was doing and what Jesus would begin to do when John went to prison, and more so, after Jesus’ own baptism, his death and resurrection. John draws the hard line between what the two would do. His is a baptism of water, Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. But now you have this question to be asked. If John was a prophet how could the Holy Spirit be absent from what he preached and did? And the answer is, it could not. But that does not mean the Holy Spirit was present in the same manner or for the same reasons, to accomplish the same things. It does mean that to reject John’s baptism was still a rejection of the Holy Spirit, of God’s word, of repentance which is the work of God in our life operating in faith. To reject John’s baptism was to reject God’s word. Even if his baptism was an incomplete baptism that had to be fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus before it could have the full import that Christian baptism has today, John’s baptism had the Holy Spirit, but in a different manner than that of which Ezekiel speaks in Ezekiel 36:25. For God’s law also carries with it the Holy Spirit.
But we too often think that a person can only receive the Spirit once and in one way. This isn’t so. We know that faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and that the disciples had faith, they confessed Jesus to be the Christ! They followed him to his death. Yet, Jesus gives them the Holy Spirit in John 20. And it would be a mistake to think the Holy Spirit did not take. Yet again the Holy Spirit falls on them in Acts chapter 2? Did they lose Him sometime between the upper room incident and Pentecost? Not likely. Rather the Spirit who never left, now comes to them with new gifts, with new tasks, with new purpose. And so it is also with the Christian. We receive the Holy Spirit in many and various ways throughout life, as he is constantly working in and through us. The Holy Spirit comes to us in baptism, in the word and in the Sacraments, giving us what we need for the day that we are in to sustain our faith. At this season in our life he grants us one gift to accomplish his work, at another he may take that gift away, and give us another. That the faith might always be found perfect in the midst of our weakness, always fulfilled in the cross of Christ. It is not found in flaming tongues and the miraculous signs the evil generation asks for, but in Christ and the Cross, for it was this baptism by which you were saved, and it was into this baptism, the death of Christ, you were buried in baptism that you might be saved. And it is this that the Holy Spirit accomplishes now in Baptism, but which it could only begin in John’s baptism.