The following article covers John the Baptist’s birth and spiritual development.
Why did John’s prophetic ministry cause such a stir among the people? Why at this time did the people consider preparedness for Messiah so critical? Why is John so important to the teaching of the Way? The answers to these questions will allow us to delve deeper into John’s ministry.
John the Baptist was raised a Nazarite, committed to this tradition before birth. At John’s birth his father, Zacharias, prophesied:
“Blessed is the Lord God of Israel,
For he has visited and redeemed his people,
And raised up a horn of salvation for us
In the house of his servant David,
As he spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets,
Who have been since the world began,
That we should be saved from our enemies
And from the hand of those who hate us,
To perform the mercy promised to our fathers
And to remember His holy covenant,
The oath which He swore to our father Abraham” (Lk. 1.61-73).
John, with his mother and four women. The four attendant women signify a birth of great importance.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, was almost certainly among them. Elizabeth was from a priestly family, which tells us that Mary is within the same high priestly family.
The Nazarite is specially consecrated to God. It is only on two other occasions that consecration was announced before or at birth, and both are biblical luminaries, Samson and Samuel. The prophetess, Anna, may also have been a Nazarite (Lk. 2. 36-38). Many believe Paul took Nazarite vows, in part due to his abstention from sex. The nature of Nazarite life lends itself toward the following: serving others, the study of scripture and knowing the Law, taking solitude, leading a contemplative life and seeking God, receiving wisdom and enlightenment into His spirit, and imparting the word God has witnessed. John seems to encompass all of the attributes mentioned above, with his final act imparting the Word and declaring the soon-to-arrive Messiah.
‘Men of Perfect Holiness’ would apply to John the Baptist and is the descriptive name for Nazarites, as mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls. John’s commitment to the Essene message also seems apparent, and many scholars, if not most, consider John to be a Qumran (Ossaean) Essene priest. The prophecy from Luke 1.77: “To give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins… (79) To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace,” describes a powerful priestly anointing. To become ‘set aside’ and thus to come into some measure of holiness, to remit from sinful thinking and not just sinful actions, the contrast of light and the shadow of death (spiritual death), and to guide each person into peace in the Lord (God, Adonai) reflect the highest of Essene tenants.
John’s ministry may have encompassed tens of thousands. This is known, in part, because Sadducees and Pharisees came from Jerusalem to hear John (Mt. 3.7), which is at least ten miles distant. He seemed to gather people from far and wide, as we see with Jesus traveling to hear him. Rather than reaching out, as in the Jesus ministry, John expected others to come to him. His more strict Essene vision leads to John’s later uncertainty concerning Jesus as Messiah; even so, John stressed a fundamental change in thinking, not only concerning the coming Messiah but other matters as well, which speaks to his transitional place, directly leading to the new testimony of Jesus.
Silence of the Desert
In desert lands birds are scarce, land creatures seldom appear, and people are rare. The desert stretches out, and into that void, the mind drifts, with the desert holding the silence. For those who have lived in the desert, and I have, the sameness and emptiness can be overwhelming. After viewing the surroundings, which does not take too long, the man settles into the lifeless habitation. He is alone in a way most people are not used to.
Along the way, Nazarites would encounter the occasional village, help in the labor, or converse on scripture, but at some point, their times of retreat would take them over. Some sought visions, others sought wisdom and the will of God. Still, others sought the Profound Peace. It is unlikely any left the desert unaffected, and it is only the one who seeks who embraces the solitude. Such would be the course for John.
During his sojourn, John would ponder scriptures and wisdom teachings shared by the priests in En-Gedi and Qumran, but his anointing would come from a different source. Directly from God Himself? By the hands of the Elect? Was it transferred through the Archangel Gabriel? We may never capture the vision John received, or how it came, but by the dark of desert night, or during the blaze of day, the vision became enhanced as John neared his time of preachment.
Of course, there is a second possibility. Remember that John was consecrated as a Nazarite from birth. Even as a child his training would have begun. It might be difficult to determine exactly what this training would entail, but as he grew in age John was to become a soul of special interest. Zacharias, John’s father, had given a well-known prophecy concerning John, with the term, “raising up a horn of salvation,” being the keynote. A second reason of great importance, and often overlooked, is Luke 1.15, spoken by the angel of visitation* to Zacharias, “and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.” In other words, John was awake in the manner we seek wakefulness, from his birth. Considering these prophecies, Essene priests would give John special attention. Perhaps it was they who perceived the truth about John, spurred on by Zacharias’ prophecy, and who confirmed John’s place within Judaism.
The “horn of salvation” might be assumed as John himself, but Luke 1.76 reins this thought into line, “for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways,” this is relative to the coming Messiah. Luke 1.17, “And he shall go before him (Messiah) in the power and spirit of Elias (Elijah).” As we see in scripture, John understands that it is not he, but the “raising up” points to some other, Jesus. Luke 3.1-2, tells us that John’s calling came when Caiaphas (successor to Aaronic priesthood) was the high priest and Annas (successor to Moses) was the head of the Sanhedrin.
John’s identity is somewhat designated when he states, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord,” in answer to the mysterious question, ‘Art thou the teacher, the prophet, or Elijah’. From, Jn. 1.25, “Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ (Messiah=Anointed One), nor Elias (=Elijah, also, one who shows the way), neither that prophet?”
And they asked him, and said unto him
They put a question, by saying to him, why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias,
neither that prophet?
“…since he denied that he was the Messiah, or Elias that was to come before the Messiah, according to the expectation of the Jews, or that prophet, or a prophet, they demand by what authority he introduced a new rite and ordinance among them, which they had never been used to; for though there were divers washings or baptisms among them, enjoined by the law of Moses in certain cases, and others which obtained by tradition, as the immersion of themselves after they had been at market, and of cups, pots, brazen vessels, and tables, yet nothing of this kind that John administered: and as for the baptism of proselytes, it seems to be of a later date than this, and had no manner of likeness to it. The ordinance John administered was such, as they apprehended that no one ought to practise, unless he was the Messiah, or his forerunner, or some eminent prophet; they insist upon it therefore, that since he denied he was either of these, that he would show his credentials, and what commission he had from God to baptize; or they suggest he was liable to be called to an account by their Sanhedrin, and be condemned as a false prophet, or an innovator in religious affairs.”*
John was not known to the wider public before he began his ministry. As mentioned before, his sojourns amongst the people would have been more limited. Being an unknown factor, the questioning by the Pharisees would require a straightforward answer. However, the answers they seek cannot be straightforwardly given, for that answer would have to be in context to the rigor of their current understanding, of which both John and then Jesus were not. Although they could condone the forerunner, who was expected, they could not fashion the wisdom nor the preaching message of John within themselves. They would not encompass John, much less Jesus.
“He was more industrious to do good than to appear great; and therefore waved anything of himself till he was legally interrogated.” Further on, “The Jews expected the person of Elias to return from heaven, and to live among them, and promised themselves great things from it.”* John faced a similar problem as Jesus, as both were not known to the Pharisees nor the Sadducees; both may be then brought on charges as being false prophets or those who are ‘innovating’, meaning not in the strictness of the law (performance) as well as strict legal interpretation as it was currently understood.
The comment, “great things from it,” is important. For the Pharisees expected to be praised for keeping the letter of the law, holding the fort for the populous, if you will, and thereby designated themselves as the most holy, or even perfectly holy, as in perfectly keeping the law. “He was the Elias [Elijah] that God had promised, not the Elias they had foolishly dreamed of.”
*From Matthew Henry’s commentary, John 1.19-28.
What was this message, and what was the interpretation of scripture left unattended?
“According to alchemists themselves—and this is the key to the Grail mystery—the vessel could at times be identical to its contents, implying a unitive or monistic level of reality above or beyond the dualistic mode of ordinary perception.
“Recall the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas (Saying 89): “Why do you wash the outside of the cup? Do you not realize that he who made the inside is the same one who made the outside?” Alchemists understood this mystical passage; they were aware… that the experimenter is an integral part of the experiment… Yet the words of Jesus as recorded by Thomas indicate that revelatory insights about non-dual reality are not the exclusive Provence of cutting-edge scientists or even anachronistic alchemists—on the contrary, they are available to everyone. Such fortunate experiences are usually associated with meditation, contemplation, and prayer… for example, in a fleeting instant when we succeed momentarily in suspending our beliefs about the world and about what is possible. Quite suddenly, the arbitrary distinction of “self and “other” vanishes… inside and outside are revealed to be one and the same.”
*Mark H. Gaffney, Gnostic Secrets of the Naassenes. Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, 2004, p. 153.
This extended quote directs us to Jesus pointing out the failure of Pharisaic legalism, which of nature is divisive, yielding either obedience or disobedience, guilt or innocence, but within the middle removes measures of compassion and emphasizes iota, not wholeness, following the law but offering no true pathway unto God. Matt. 23.25: “Woe to you scribes [probably Essene scribes] and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, that the outside of them may be clean, but within they are full of extortion and excess. (26) Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and the platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. (27) …for ye are like unto whited sepulchers*, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but within are full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. (28) Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are filled with hypocrisy and inequity.”
*Whited sepulchers:” higher ranking Essene scribes and priests wore white, leading to “…(29) because ye build the tombs of the prophets; … (30) we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets; … (31) Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets.”
What does this tell us about John? Like Jesus, John denounced the Pharisees and Sadducees and directed a new unity around a baptism symbolizing purification (water baptism), beginning with the confession of sin and the concomitant recognition of sin nature. Although John may have held to strict legal obedience, as those of Qumran espoused, he recognized also that the law had to be catapulted, arisen if you will, onto a higher moral plane, one that would signify a new beginning relative to the legal foundation, yet to be completed by the coming Messiah.
The cleansing and purification of the soul, the rinsing day by day, and waiting for the coming of age, there can be little doubt that John’s isolation in the desert led to a new vision and a new era for Judaism. Every sign is apparent, for his is a revelatory message, not a legalistic one. He does not unroll a scroll to be read in the synagogue, he is the scroll, written on his heart and accompanied by the Vision, revelation alive, giving life instead of rules, offering hope instead of repetition and subjugation.
From The Exhortation, Damascus Document, DSS: “God loves knowledge. Wisdom and understanding He has set before Him, and prudence and knowledge serve Him. Patience and much forgiveness are with Him towards those who turn from transgression; but power, might, and great flaming wrath by the hand of all the Angels of Destruction towards those who depart from the way and abhor the Precept. They shall have no remnant or survivor.”*
*Translated by Geza Verses, (section II) The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English.
The calling out of the mystic beckons as we read the above passages. In most cases, today’s Christian looks without when he prays, but Jesus tells us God’s kingdom is within.* The spirit within, the light that animates the soul, lies within us. Certainly, John would know of this secret, but during his spiritual growth would have to temper his soul to it. Even within the context of his upbringing, John is still a man, brought to purpose, fulfilling his mission, with the success of his mission bringing him to an early death.
*Lk. 17.21, “the kingdom of God is within you.”
JOHN PREPARES the PEOPLE
Remission of sins’, ‘light’, and “darkness and the shadow of death” are very reminiscent of writings appearing in the Dead Sea Scrolls. These themes are also reflected within Jesus’ ministry.
John stands in the middle, pointing to both the past and the future. He does not replicate the message of his Qumran Essene brothers, who were legalists, but seems to spring from a knowledge not yet imparted to the people. For example, John’s water baptism only requires confession and a sincere effort to repent. The trickling water across the forehead represents a clean start and a commitment to obtain a new framework for thinking. Mark 1.8, sums up this attitudinal shift: “I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.” It is repentance from certain deeds but also points to a more omnibus capture of the divine essence.
Thus, the message becomes less emphasized as to obedience to the law, although John would have favored that, but Luke 1.79 reflects the message more accurately: “To give light to them who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” John’s water baptismal holds the place of the anointing with the Holy Spirit, which the Messiah will later bring. John emphasizes that the time of Messiah is near and all must become prepared, which makes John’s message outstandingly transitional.
John speaks of the impending axe put to the root of trees that do not bear fruit (Mt. 3.10). This reference to not bearing fruit is referred to by Jesus in Matt. 7.17, “Good tree bringeth forth good fruit.” John preaches, Matt. 3.8, “Bring forth therefore fruits meet (=worthy of) for repentance: (9) And think (=think not for a moment) not to say within yourselves ‘we have Abraham to our father’.” John and Jesus both referred primarily to sin that concerned the inner man, even unto a person’s thoughts. The focus on the individual becomes a strong component within both ministries and remains a mainstay within the modern church.
The separation from the group consciousness and the legalism that had developed, both within the people and the priesthood, became the real impact in rending the old way of thinking into the new—God did not accept you because you were a Jew, but because the person had made an individual choice. This choice, in fact, is a part of the good fruit, not just legalism or legalistic behavior, but one which reflects the heart of the man. The inner man touches upon the mystic calling, the need for spiritual rebirth and the continued unfolding from within.
This ministry message decided two things: first, that God deals with you as an individual, not as a part of a group, and second, that the condition of the heart is paramount, reflected by Jesus when he states, “…for the tree is known by his fruit (Matt. 12.33), not by which group he belongs to or whether rules are followed properly (ritual), nor even in that day animal sacrifice be given. John speaks of ‘preparing the way of the Lord’, and not relying for salvation on the fact that you are a ‘child of Abraham’. ‘Child of Abraham’ becomes the message of the past. Being a Jew in and of itself is no longer enough. He breaks down group consciousness and group identity, each man is reduced down unto himself and his relationship with God. His water baptism breaks down the very system of legality created by the lawyers. Each man and woman must now individually choose.
John refers to the “brood of vipers,” the Sadducees and Pharisees. If the Jews, who had divided into as many as twenty different denominations, then the further separation by John and Jesus will draw the line as either for or against—unrepentant Jew ye remain, else ye repent of your religiosity and step out. In Luke 1.17, John is presented to us as “…go out ahead of Adonai in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous,* to make ready for Adonai a people prepared.”** John must be accounted a prophet and is certainly considered a saint, he moves forward within his dedicated path “in the spirit and power of Elijah,” which provides the specific indication of John’s priestly roots and high status.
*“…the wisdom of the righteous” points toward the higher level of understanding presented by the Essene. They considered themselves ‘the righteous’, the Hasadim. The lower-level priests, the Pharisees and Sadducees, except for a few Pharisees mentioned in scripture, were not considered righteous (read, Essenes, Jesus the Nazarene, Early History of the Way for more).
**The Complete Jewish Study Bible
“He shall do the will of God according to all that has been revealed from age to age.
He shall measure out all knowledge discovered throughout the ages, together with the Precept of the age.
He shall separate and weigh the sons of righteousness according to their spirit.
He shall hold firmly to the elect of the time according to His will, as He has commanded.
He shall judge every man according to his spirit. He shall admit him in accordance with the cleanness of his hands and advance him in accordance with his understanding. And he shall love and hate* likewise.
He shall not rebuke the men of the Pit nor dispute them.
He shall conceal the teaching of the Law from the men of injustice, but shall impart true knowledge and righteous judgement to those who have chosen the Way.” Concerning Instructions to the Master (Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, revised edition, 2004, page 111.)
*Jesus later moves past the love/hate dichotomy and presents a love and oneness teaching (see, Love-Oneness), as well as unity and wholeness with the spirit.
We know John’s later religious preaching puts him outside the Pharisee or Sadducee sects, both of which he condemned. John revisits the best the prophets have to offer, primarily that his message is revelatory as opposed to legal. Revelation provides the new way of thinking for the mind, that is, from spirit revealed (renewal) thence to understanding mind.* Out of John, a whole new revelation has now surfaced. Coming ‘in the spirit of Elijah’ launches a firebrand from this soul and makes it easy to grasp John’s strong impact and appeal.
*…spirit of Truth, Jn. 14.17; 15.26.
The calling of John the Baptist was similar to previous prophets, which is a return to righteousness. In John’s case, however, there are two additions. The first difference is the clash as he confronts the priestly hierarchy of that day. This confrontation is serious and portends further revolutionary actions. It is directed at the two predominant religious sects, Pharisees and Sadducees.* “And even now the ax is laid to the root of the tree” is typical of radical Essene writing and conveys a certain ‘outside looking in’ attitude, a condition the Essene sect seeks to rectify.
*Both major sects of Essene, Nazarenes (northern) and Osseaens (Qumran-southern), took issue with the corrupted and unrighteous Sadducaic control of the Temple. John disavowed the Pharisees if for no other reason than they had become dissolute. There were several different Pharisaic sects.
which can only come about through the repentance within the inner man, best asserted through a new baptism. In the like manner, Jesus later says, “I will have mercy [speaking to the Pharisees as to their behavior], not sacrifice,” Mt. 9.13. Yet again, John tells the Jews they cannot rely on being the “children of Abraham” as the ticket into God’s grace or to receive the kind hand of God. In effect, this message requires a new order of consciousness in the spiritual life of Israel, of which John is the opening salvo.
The new message may be to repent, which is not new, but his message is more closely interpreted as repentance from what has become an old way of thinking. This repentance is specific and oriented to the coming of the Messiah, meaning to prepare for the mental/spiritual changes the Messiah brings. John seems clear that his repentance deals with heart and mind, not just outward actions and obedience to the law. John’s repentance sublimates the law and directs toward the inner display of holiness or spiritual purity. His baptism is symbolically administered for just such spiritual purity. The washing clean is for the inside of the man. Therefore, his ministry questions how the law is understood and applied. On both subjects, Jesus will later have much to say.
One tenet of the new thinking entails the replacement of the Sadducees as the Temple priests. All Essene believed the Sadducees were corrupt. Jesus denounced the Sadducees as well. The remnant of the righteous Zadokite priesthood, now known as the Essene, should be ensconced as the Temple Priests.
In his denunciations, John also includes the Pharisees, those who most commonly implement the law. John tells the people that the coming Messiah will rectify the unjust application of the law, and following, the Pharisees themselves will have to be rectified (converted). The Messiah will provide the final interpretation of the Law and the Prophets, which will become the final interpretation of the enlightenment teaching of the Way.
The above factors separate John the Baptist from all other prophets. None of the previous prophets functioned as the forerunner of such a messianic event. John’s message is expansive and clearly states the time of Messiah’s arrival has come. The Jews of that day hoped for just such a message, a true Messiah-Savior, with the primary benefit of ridding them of the Romans.
John offers a disquieting and unusual message, yet appealing. It embroils the people, attracting thousands, and attracts much attention from the Pharisees and Sadducees, the current religious hierarchy who will soon plot against the new message of spiritual renewal.