The enlightenment teaching of the Essene was known as the WAY. This teaching became the final interpretation of the Law and the Prophets, as revealed by Yeshua Messiah. The Way became the enlightened transitional teaching in the early church.
John announces the foundation principles of the Way, and his call to righteousness foretells Messiah.
Since the arrival of Alexander the Great in 332 BC, Judaism writhed in torment. For the first time, Judaism split into different divisions: Pharisee, Sadducee, and Essene. The Essenes were composed of two primary groups, the Osseaens and Nazarenes. The Osseaens and Nazarenes both accounted for themselves as the righteous remnant of the former unified priesthood (Zadokites). The Pharisees were well known as legalists, much closer to the celibate Osseaens. The Sadducees composed the third component of the Zadokites, and remained as the current Temple priests, corrupted though they were.
Both Nazarene and Qumran Essene* viewed, as did John, the coming Jewish Deliverer tied to repentance by the nation of Israel. According to John, the Deliver’s arrival would also include the removal of the Sadducees from Temple control. John’s message becomes a powerful unifying force and cements John in biblical history as an ascendent transitional figure, considered by many the Prophet of Prophets.
John’s primary teaching was “knowledge (Gr. gnosis)* of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins” (Lk. 1.77 ). John intends no more judgment or conviction, and a remission from both, symbolized by the baptism, which prepares each person for the righteous message of the Deliverer. John would walk “before the face of the Lord (God), and to prepare His ways (76). (79) To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of [spiritual] death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
*gnosis: “knowledge acquired by learning, effort, or experiences” (from Kregel Companion Bible, 1990). Remission: sin no longer imputed to you (“…neither do I condemn thee. Go, and sin no more,” Jn. 8.11).
Dedicated to the Nazarite tradition from birth, John’s early training emerged from the group known as the Qumran Essene (Osseaens). Often referred to today as the ‘scribal authority’, it is from this group the biblical reference ‘lawyers and scribes’ derives. However, unlike some of his Essene brothers, John’s message cannot be considered wholly legalistic, but a higher spiritual call for the repentance of Israel and a return to the fundamentals of righteousness. His is more the teaching of the heart. His water baptism moves past the obedience to the law and accepts the cleansing of sin and the pursuance toward righteousness by direct commitment.
Sow seed for the teaching of the heart.
CALL TO RIGHTEOUSNESS
John’s call to righteousness is best described in Lk. 1.72: “To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant,” and to v. 75, “In holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life. (76) And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest.” This pronouncement is included in the prophetic speaking of John’s father, Zacharias. In v. 69, John is given the highest of designations as a prophet— “And has raised up a horn of salvation for us.” Although John is a “horn of salvation,” he is not the Messiah himself but will perform as the forerunner to him.
It is unlikely the members of John’s Essene division, the Osseaens, would view themselves as needing repentance. They viewed themselves as a part of the ‘righteous remnant’ of the Zadokite priesthood, similar to the Nazarenes in that respect. As lawyers and scribes of the law, Qumran Essene believed themselves to be the repository of repentance, and that repentance came by the ever-closer following of the law.* From ten commandments they had assembled over two thousand laws, many of which had to do with sabbath observation. They believed themselves the rightful heirs to Temple authority and the Temple itself. Their intellectual challenges to Jesus would define their legalistic-repentance views.
*Pharisees also added many more laws of their own. Osseaens and Pharisees are closely associated and within scripture are often found together.
By the nature of law itself, new laws would naturally heighten the Osseaen position of authority. These laws were twofold: first came extra laws concerning cleanliness, ritual, abstention, and celibacy, none of which were pronounced under Mosaic law. The second organization of law became a developing commentary of when and how the laws were to be applied. The commentaries on the prophets and Mosaic law would become extensive and minute.
By the making and enforcing of these ‘extra’ laws, excepting celibacy, the people were led to believe that holiness would surely follow legal obedience. Within this lawyered embroilment the Osseaens became misdirected and plunged Judaism further into legalism and thus decay. Contrarily, John offers ‘repentance and pathway’, clearly a more holistic vision than that of his own sect’s reliance on the law as foremost.
The Nazarenes, represented by Jesus, would see repentance as more of a wholesale change of heart and mind. It is they who would teach the Way, essentially an enlightenment teaching dealing with oneness or wholeness with God. This would require an altered relationship with God and toward God, a new form of righteousness. If love is paramount (Mt. 22.34-40)*, then unity and brotherhood cannot be far behind, offering wholeness and love toward God, contributing to oneness with Him (Jn. 10.30).
*Verses in Mark 34 & 35 provide an encapsulated picture of the mentalities of Sadducees, Pharisees, and lawyers. As to the Pharisees & Sadducees specifically, John admonishes them to “bear fruits worthy of repentance,” or else face the “wrath to come” (Mt. 3.7-8).
Water and the Spirit
John preaches a fundamental shift in the current pathway of Judaism—you no longer need a priest or the synagogue as such, you don’t need one sect or another, you need only come to God and be baptized and repent. The baptism symbolizes a changed nature, and not that you will do everything perfectly well or that you will never sin. The repentance entails a change in thinking. Essentially, the new thinking comes from this changed nature. Jesus will later describe this process to Nicodemus as born-again, but in simple terms, it is intended to awaken the spirit within, if even a little, so the awakening may continue.
The shift in focus is now completely different. The person no longer identifies with the law, which in those days remained minute and required detailed adherence, but the soul is now identified with the changed-nature, sometimes referred to as spirit-nature. John initiates a type of born-again experience.
The thinking shifts from rules, which is law and condemnation by law, into beingness with God, and actions which should then follow. The lawyered man is sublimated, and the spirit-man is brought forth. From micro-attentiveness to law into a macro-vision that embraces a higher relationship with God, the result produces enlightenment into the nature of God, or enlightenment with God.
In John’s view, all must change. The baptism is meant to convey a complete submersion into this changed nature, intended as a strong commitment, just as it is today. Relying on God’s favor after being sons of Abraham no longer will be of advantage. A whole new order now moves forward. The law has its place, but the centering upon God’s heart and mind must now supersede. Much like the back of the hand compared to the palm, even though part of the same hand the back and the palm look nothing alike.
John is essentially formatting a new (restored) religion, which Jesus will complete. This ‘born again’ commitment would require a direct coming forth unto God, rather than only obedience to religious laws, including sacrifice. Even David understood the principle that sacrifice (Law) would not be enough to rectify the murder of Uriah the Hittite.* But legalism had crept into Judaism since the times of Ezra and Malachi (450 BC), with Israel suffering under the law but without a prophet until Jesus arrived. The new commitment signifies a new awakening, an awakening to higher truth. John requires each man to stand and come forth.
*Psalm 51, especially v. 11.
Sow seed for the changed-nature to manifest.
John does not contend with the Messiah as John’s own sect, the Qumran Essene, will later do. John baptizes with water, the Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit (Lk. 3.16), thus John clearly understands his role as forerunner quite well (Jn. 1.25). As he sees Jesus he has no problem recognizing him and immediately announces him, Messiah. Jesus then submits to John, and in doing so both submit to each other’s proper position. In heaven, there is a proper order to all things, and so when John and Jesus meet, John being in leadership then anoints Jesus. The proper order in heaven is reflected on earth.
Is it possible that John was encouraged as a forerunner by the Nazarenes themselves? It is a controversial question but seldom asked. Nazarenes had the same access to scripts as did those in Qumran. They both shared a similar knowledge base. Clearly, the legal doctrine is opposed by Jesus. John prepares the people to receive the mystical message Jesus will deliver, and the mystical doctrine Jesus will later put forward. There is nothing pertaining to the law when it comes to baptism into changed thinking.
To say that John and Jesus knew one another would be obvious. After all, they were cousins, and in those days families remained close. That John establishes some of the fundamentals of the Jesus ministry as well as introducing Jesus, these make for an association of teaching, outlook, and mission, as well as an easy familiarity. John later needs to be consoled that Jesus is the Messiah, but at the time of their first meeting, he seems to have no doubt.
Of repentance, laws may be followed quite closely, but hearts and minds often lag behind, as John alludes to, and Jesus later edifies: “committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt. 5.24); and “whoever is angry… without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment” (22). Both statements lend themselves to the core principle of understanding hearts and minds. “…he knew what was in a man” (Jn. 2.23-25), is not reserved for acts of healing and teaching only, but rather references a much deeper thought-teaching, the teaching of heart and mind, essentially the teaching of the Way.
In short, piecemeal the laws may be followed, but when pathway forms it centers a new way of life. John essentially stands in the gap of transference from law into a direct relationship with God, or from ancient religious views into modern. This last is very important for understanding John. He is not only the forerunner, as orthodoxy often emphasizes, but except for Jesus himself, John is also the pivotal transitional figure into the spirituality that will now begin to move upon the world.
John’s ministry introduces a change in the direction of Judaism.
John introduces wholeness within the pathway of renewed heart and mind. The pathway concept, as opposed to the strict following of the law, in turn, produces a walk with God, or walking in the Way. John represents the repentance pathway; Jesus would later redefine it as the love pathway. Even so, God becomes more touchable, more personal through the advent of the new message and the baptismal (water/Holy Spirit), and by the nature of his ministry, John, as well as Jesus, deemphasize the law.
For the common person, John cracks the door into the revelation of God within, which Jesus will later open wide. John is not the man who will accomplish the final task, but he realizes someone must prepare the way for him who will. The structure of the current priesthood must be struck down, and the higher call to righteousness within the individual must be called forth. All of these viewpoints reflect Nazarene theology, at least as Jesus presented it. John the Baptist preached stridently and with an urgency that this change of direction now lay before the Jewish people. This call to spiritual arms, this harsh clanging bell, would keynote John’s ministry.
CONFESSION, BAPTISMAL, and the Political/Religious Message
The second great theme of John was to confess sin and receive the ritual cleansing by baptism. The Essene were the only religious group known to use baptism. The baptismal is a powerful element, a strong confluence of consciousness representing commitment, for it is intended as a true calling, and a true anointing. For example, water can be seen, but the Holy Spirit is not seen (Mt. 3.10-17), and so it is that faith itself, especially in things not seen, becomes a preeminent virtue of the early church. The baptismal accords as an entering-in intended to bring new substance to the soul, a new pathway, intended to extend into the soul of the nation. The people would have received it as a holy event.
John preached a political/religious message. John for his part mostly condemns the priesthood, much as Jesus does. John’s denunciations of the current religious order would leave some perhaps wondering what his speakings truly intended. However, the common man would heed the call, and perhaps intuitively understood John very well, that is, the need for great spiritual change in Israel.
It is known that many Pharisees found a willingness to take the baptism. However, the motive was to ingratiate themselves unto the people, but with no real intent to change. Other Pharisees may have felt the need and the calling, though not knowing truly what it was all about. Witness Nicodemus. The Sadducees would have seen no need to participate in a new baptism, for they followed only the Pentateuch, and would not have understood the need for a messiah in any case.
Some would see John’s ministry as the initial step to rid the land of the Romans; others would see his message as integral to the Messiah. The Pharisees themselves later ask John, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” (Jn. 1.25). Even the religious hierarchy was questioning, then doubting, trying to find their place within the messianic vision held by many Jews of that day. Minds were being influenced, and it seems clear a new movement is launched within Judaism.
John’s job was to prepare the way. While others waited, John acted. While others might stand by, John picked up a rock and threw it in your face. Many watched and hoped for a sign, but John baptized and stood up for Messiah’s coming—a reformation within Israel must be established. He not only preached repentance, but it was repentance (changed mind) that would lead to a revelation-oriented mind, thus new spiritual freedom, and shared enlightenment with God.
John’s comprehension of the vision might not have been complete, yet he tells us the process: that the axe is taken to the roots of evil, to repent and produce good fruit, and that the baptism into this commitment should be performed now, done openly before God. With the addition of the anointing of the Holy Spirit and the Shekinah glory, the early church practiced just these steps.
John leaves no doubt who will be left out of the Deliverer’s Israel—the Pharisees, and the Sadducees to name two. These conflicts were not a light dance of disagreement with the powers that be. John condemns the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem, to be swept away if they did not repent. Herod and his sinful kingdom must fall. To be replaced with what? This new creation would leave behind the powers that currently reigned. These chilling insights would convey to the religious hierarchy.
ARE YOU WORTHY?
A third theme would echo throughout John’s ministry, to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Mt. 3.8). First, John says to confess weaknesses or shortcomings, second to purify or restore the soul by being baptized into the new, and third is to redeem the mind or to bear fruit. The inner discipline now moves toward positive creation, and worthy fruit, and removes itself from the shackles of legalistic restraints. Healing on the sabbath, as Jesus did, is a good example.
By inference, John determines Judaism has become rooted in unrighteousness, twisted and convoluted, typified by compounded legalism. Similarly, John points to a lack of preparation within the Jewish community nor has it embraced the enlightened vision now offered. The religious hierarchy becomes those pronounced as unworthy. John wants the whole of it consumed as if by fire.
Many yearn for an important consequence to occur, yet their thinking has not yet arrived to either produce the needed benefit or embrace it should it arrive. John announces a new perspective in thinking—essentially, to prepare in faith for that not yet seen, essentially a faith that seeks and receives from beyond the veil; repent of unworthy thinking and sow new good seed. Jesus will extensively teach these subjects.
As John says to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance,” Jesus also speaks of bearing good fruit in Lk. 13.1-9. James mentions faith without works (more correctly, ‘actions’) is no kind of faith at all (Jm. 2.17). True repentance may begin with prayer, even baptism, but the redemptive process should bear the fruit of the new pathway as well. This concept of presenting the teaching, but walking in the pathway, is integral to the Way. Teaching and pathway must always work together, or else something is bound to go amiss.
Throughout John and Jesus’ ministries, the willingness to demonstrate, or produce, is far more emphasized than most people take note of. A portion comes to us as loving your neighbor as your own family (repentance of anger, redemption by love). This fruit brings us to a much greater extended family, or brotherhood, and demonstrates love in the more universal sense. Jesus speaks of a lantern shedding its light within the room, and the city on the hill. These examples are given to demonstrate spirit illuminating the mind, unification of teaching, and pathway. By this nature, we should go about our daily business and thus become the shining city upon the hill. These concepts reflect the new enlightenment John pronounces, and which Jesus will fulfill.
WHAT ARE YOUR ROOTS?
The fourth axiom: “The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire,” Matt. 3.10 NIV.
The above scripture is John’s personal call to action, a call to participate. The mind must expunge itself and in doing so symbolically burn that which is not useful: to “burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire,” Lk. 3.17. (18) “And many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.” These last statements contain a very Essene quality—black and white, rousing, but also expressing finality.
The term ‘good news’ delivered a basic message of spiritual salvation. Confess sin (tell the truth), become baptized (accept the anointing), accept the changed nature God has anointed within you; honor the kingdom within, and bear fruit accordingly. The reality that a person may still have issues with sins under the law does not obviate the fact that he has come forth, and that a different nature is now operating. To wake up, to receive new spiritual birth, is the focus of John’s ministry.
To a great extent, John gives us himself: enlightened, dedicated, and whole within his purpose. He gives us the proto-version of the Way: pull up by the roots that which does not bear fruit and burn it and move into the spirit of God. Sowing good seed is a major assist in this process. There can be no good fruit unless a good seed is planted in fertile ground.
Doubt and halting steps do not measure up to John’s calling. Make a commitment, he admonishes. The burning fire of the spirit consumes impatience and weariness—Messiah comes to give the final interpretation of the Law and the Prophets. John has put himself on the line for the nation and the Jewish people. John’s cogent enlightened mind pronounces Jesus, but then lays himself down and defers to him who has now arrived.
With previous prophets, the concern had always been with the Jewish nation or people as a whole. The greater enlightenment of the Way will not only apply to the Jew but will also apply to the heathen, meaning anyone and everyone. Jesus speaks to the Roman soldiers and tells them to take only what is proper, and not to steal for themselves. He implies that everyone, even the heathen, is under God’s authority and that the new message includes all. Thus, he begins the fountainhead of not separating one man from another but including all mankind. His message goes to anyone, an appeal without limits.
To appeal to those outside Judaism is borderline heretical for this day and time. Although being loving toward outsiders was not unknown, the tendency to view the world as ‘them or us’ remained the Judaic standard at this time in history, with the ‘us’ part giving credence to the chosen or protected people of God. The omnibus enlightenment message now begins to take form. Jesus would later teach that this message, most emphasized as love and forgiveness, must come home to the heart and mind of every man.
A fifth emphasis is an urgency to wake up now, and one mightier than I am is coming (Lk. 3.16). Some intent, some preparedness always precedes great change. Beside the Jordan River, a powerful and anointed prophet heralds change and the coming Messiah. It is clear that many people are hungry for his message. Accompanying John a sense of rushing change presents itself, even in the midst of God’s anointing power. The Sanhedrin has sent Nicodemus to inquire, perhaps to spy, and then return with his verdict. This fomentation, this spiritual light that seems to abound, people changed in their lives, making new commitments and being willingly baptized—to the Sanhedrin the locusts had emerged from the desert soil.
John was beginning to wield a powerful and influential ministry. This is a religious/social movement stumbling out of itself and spilling over the countryside: brawny, raw, loud, and in your face. It is unremitting, forceful, pushy, willing to point fingers and dare you to strike. If you try to contain it, it will smash itself out of the box; if you try to grab it, it will turn and bite you; to limit it you have yet to deal with Jesus. Most Christians today have trouble grasping the power and threat of John’s message.
Why was there a way finally found to murder John? For Herod the intent and need to silence John became absolute. John’s ministry was already reaching many thousands. It is thought that John spoke and taught in southern Judea years before the time to reveal his ministry. The roar of the people emerged from the bowels of Herod’s corrupt kingdom. Nonetheless, Jesus would soon be arriving. With him would come the announcement that the spirit of God is alive in you, His kingdom is within, walk with me and I will show you the Way.