The 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 transitional teaching in the early church.
John announces the foundation principles of the Way, his call to righteousness foretells Messiah.
Since Alexander the Great conquered Palestine in 332 BC, Judaism became divided. For the first time, Judaism split into different divisions: Pharisee, Sadducee, and Essene. The Pharisees were created as a group of laymen and priests (220 BC) who would be typified by service without expectation of reward. This attribution toward service would ethically counter the Sadducees (Sadouk=Greek) and Sadducaic Temple control—the Sadducees* had adopted a Hellenistic influence. In the two centuries intervening, and pertinent to both John and Jesus’ ministries, the Pharisees wafted more toward legalism.
*Jewish aristocrats who formed financial and legal (religious law) associations with the Greeks. Under Greek authority, they controlled the Temple.
The Essenes were composed of two primary groups, the Osseaens, and the Nazarenes, although there were other splinter groups. The Essenes originated when the ‘Teacher of Righteousness’ led those who professed to be the righteous remnant north into the Dan River (150 BC approx.), and settlements also developed in the Hauran, south of Damascus. Osseaens (scribal, legalists) and Nazarenes (esoteric, spiritual) both accounted themselves as the righteous remnant of the former unified priesthood. The Sadducees composed the third component of the Zadokites (Sadouks) 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 established a powerful unifying force and cemented 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 ). Symbolized by the cleansing of the baptism, John intends the imputation of sin should cease, 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’ derive. 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 current interpretation of 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 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.” The first four words of Lk. 1.72 hinges on the heart of the teaching John will espouse. For John, the accomplished deed of mercy for sin is performed within the baptismal. To recall God’s covenant requires a spiritual adherence, not legal.
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. Later, Jesus will extend mercy but pronounce forgiveness, and will perform not in water but with the Holy Spirit.
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 from the ever-closer following of the law. From the Ten Commandments, they had derived 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 within scripture.
By the nature of law itself, new laws would naturally heighten the Osseaean-Pharisaic position of authority. These laws were twofold: first came extra laws concerning cleanliness, ritual, abstention, and celibacy (Osseaens only), of which none were pronounced under Mosaic law. The second organization of law became a developing commentary on when and how these laws were applied. Commentaries on the prophets and Mosaic law would become extensive and minute.
By making and enforcing 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 his own sect’s reliance on the law as foremost.
The Nazarenes, represented by Jesus, would see repentance as 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).
*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, nor one sect or another, you need only come to God and be baptized and repent. The baptism symbolizes a changed nature, not that you will do everything perfectly well or 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, intended to awaken the spirit within if even a little, so the awakening may continue.
The shift in teaching 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 spiritual nature. John initiates a type of born-again experience, even though portrayed symbolically through water purity.
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 shared 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 due to being sons of Abraham will no longer be advantageous. 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, though part of the same hand the back and the palm look nothing alike.
John is formatting a new (restored) religion, which Jesus will complete. This ‘born again’ commitment would require 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 sect, the Qumran (Osseaen) Essene, will later do. John baptizes with water, Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit (Lk. 3.16), thus John understands his role as forerunner quite well (Jn. 1.25). As he sees Jesus he immediately announces him as Messiah. Many scholars contend that John was the teacher of Jesus, at least to some extent.
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, 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 seldom asked. Nazarenes had the same access to scripts as those in Qumran. Even though the legal approach to spirituality was opposed by Jesus, all Essenes shared a similar knowledge base. John does not teach the iota of the law but a much broader horizon of spirituality, intended to lead the people to Messiah. John prepares the people to receive the mystical message Jesus will deliver and the mystic doctrine Jesus will later put forward. There is nothing concerning 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 and introduces Jesus, making for an association of teaching, outlook, mission, and an easy familiarity. John later needs to be consoled that Jesus is the Messiah, but at the time of their first public meeting, he seems to have no doubt.
Of repentance, laws may be followed quite closely, but hearts and minds often lag, 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 references a much deeper thought-teaching, the teaching of heart and mind, essentially the teaching of the Way.
Piecemeal, laws may be followed, but pathway centers a new way of life. John essentially stands in the gap of transference into a direct relationship with God. This last is very important for understanding John. He is not only the forerunner, but John is also the pivotal transitional figure in the spirituality that will begin to move upon the land.
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, produces a walk with God or walking in the Way. John represents the repentance pathway; Jesus would later refine it as the love pathway. Even so, God becomes more touchable and more personal through the advent of the new message and the baptismal (water/Holy Spirit). By the nature of his ministry, John, as well as Jesus, restructures the law.
For the commoner, 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. These viewpoints reflect Nazarene theology, at least as Jesus presented it. John the Baptist preached stridently and urgently 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 representing commitment intended as a true calling and anointing. For example, water can be seen, but the Holy Spirit is not seen (Mt. 3.10-17), so faith itself, especially in things not seen, becomes a preeminent virtue of the early church. The baptismal is intended to bring new substance to the soul and a new pathway extended unto the nation’s soul. The people would have received the baptism as a holy event.
John preached a political/religious message. John condemns the priesthood, much as Jesus does. John’s denunciations of the current religious order would leave some wondering what his speaking truly meant. However, the commoner would heed the call and perhaps intuitively understood John. The need for spiritual change in Israel had a life of its own among the people.
It is known that many Pharisees found a willingness to take the baptism. However, the motive was to ingratiate themselves with the people, but with no real intent to change. Other Pharisees may have felt the need and the calling, though not knowing what it was all about. Witness Nicodemus. Contrarily, the Sadducees would have seen no need to participate in a new baptism, for they followed only the Pentateuch and did not recognize the need for a messiah.
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 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 a new movement launches 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; 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. These conflicts were not a light dance of disagreement with the powers that be. John condemns the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem. He pronounces that they will be swept away if they do 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 the third is to redeem the mind or to bear fruit. The inner discipline moves toward a positive creation and worthy fruit and removes itself from the shackles of legalistic restraints. Healing on the Sabbath, as Jesus did, is an example of such restraints removed.
By inference, John determines Judaism has become rooted in unrighteousness, outstandingly represented by the current priesthood. Twisted and convoluted, typified by compounded legalism, neither the mystic message of unity with God nor the intellectual transition to the heart teaching, was apparent. Similarly, John points to a lack of preparation within the Jewish community, which has not embraced the enlightened vision now offered. The religious hierarchy becomes those pronounced unworthy. John wants the whole of it consumed as if by fire.
John pronounces a new perspective in thinking—prepare in faith for that not yet seen (Messiah and awakening), a faith that seeks and receives from beyond the veil. Repent of unworthy thoughts, and sow new good seeds. 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 (Jm. 2.17). True repentance may begin with prayer, even baptism, but the redemptive process should also bear the fruit of the new pathway. This concept of presenting the teaching but walking on the path is integral to the Way. Teaching and pathway must always work together, or 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 universal sense. Jesus speaks of a lantern shedding its light within the room and the city on the hill. These examples illustrate the spirit illuminating the mind and 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 call to action, a call to participate. The mind must expunge itself and 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 fundamental 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 awakened kingdom within, and bear fruit accordingly. The reality that a person may still have sin issues under the law does not change the fact that he has come forth, that a different nature is now operating. John’s ministry focuses on awakening and receiving new spiritual birth.
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 seeds assists in this change 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. Commit, 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 pronounces Jesus but then lays himself down; he defers to him who has now arrived.
Previously, prophets had always been concerned with either the people or the nation as a state. The greater enlightenment of the Way will not only apply to the Jew but later 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 men. His message reaches out 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 and some preparedness always precede great change. Beside the Jordan River, a powerful and anointed prophet heralds change and the coming Messiah. Many people are hungry for his message. Accompanying John a sense of rushing change presents itself, even amid 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.