John 4 marks the beginning of Jesus’s ministry with his disciples. Picking up in the train of John the Baptizer, Jesus is reported to be “making and baptizing more disciples that John” (4:2). But then it gets interesting. The next verse claims that “it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized” (4:3).
Why this little detail? Why did Jesus, in contradistinction to John refrain from baptizing anyone himself? Jesus in John does not come as a baptizer (in fact John’s Gospel omits even the mention of Jesus’s own baptism), but rather as the Word of God. Likewise throughout the Gospel of John there is a constant theme of hearing Jesus’s voice as the voice of God. In John Jesus is not a baptizer, but the speaker of the words of God. It is his disciples, those who hear and follow him who become the baptizers.
In John baptism lies always in the realm of human response, of obedience to the Word that precedes it. The disciples baptize and receive baptism in obedient submission to the one who “has the words of eternal life” (6:68b). In John baptism is not something that Christ does to us, but rather what we cannot but do after hearing the Word made flesh. Thus, baptism is not an act of moral accomplishment, but of a certain sort of apocalyptic resignation to the truth of Christ’s reality: “Lord, to whom can we go?” (6:68b)