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 into the early church.
John announces the foundation principles of the Way, 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 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 of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins” (Lk. 1.77 ). John’s repentance message also becomes the preparedness message for the soon to arrive 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.” God’s plan will soon bring forth the Deliverer. John will announce the Messiah and prepare the people for his coming.
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 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.
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 in belief 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.
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 wholistic 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 34 & 35 provide an encapsulated picture of the mentalities of Sadducees, Pharisees, and lawyers (Osseaen Essene priests). As to the Pharisees & Sadducees specifically, John admonishes to “bear fruits worthy of repentance,” 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. He does not seem to care much for the political or religious structure of his day: you don’t need a priest, you don’t need one sect or another, you don’t need the synagogue as such, you need only come to God and be baptized and repent. However, this repentance entails a change in thinking. The thinking shifts from rules into beingness with God, from micro-attentiveness to law into a macro-vision that embraces a higher relationship with God.
In John’s view, all must change. Just as Jews always relied on being sons of Abraham, no longer will that be of advantage. A whole new order will now be established, and you must repent of the old to accept the new. 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 they look nothing alike.
John is essentially formatting a new religion, of which Jesus will complete. This ‘born again’ commitment would require a direct coming forth unto God, rather than only obedience to God’s laws. It signifies awakening, a new commitment. Instead of obeying, John requires each man to stand and come forth.
John does not contend with the Messiah as John’s own sect 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. 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, 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. To say that John and Jesus knew one another would be a statement of the 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 pathway forms and centers a new way of life. John essentially stands in the gap of transference from law into a direct relationship with God, 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.
Instead of only following God’s rules or laws, John’s ministry introduces a change in the direction of Judaism.
Through the new vision for repentance, John introduces wholeness within the pathway of renewed heart and mind. This change begins to remove more formal adherence to structured Judaism. 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, subjugate 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. 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. For the Essene, baptism was always given in running water, thus the River Jordan, particularly its tributaries, set the scene for John’s baptismal. Further, the Essene remained the only division of Judaism known to practice baptism. Those Essene priests who preached a new message often baptized a follower into their new order. Jews from Jerusalem and Jericho came to hear John, and many accepted his water baptismal. As people would come and go over time,* this might include thousands who were baptized. John, you see, was a nationwide phenomenon.
*John was six months older than Jesus; at the age of thirty, teaching or beginning a ministry was then allowed.
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 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, and meant to extend into the soul of the nation. The people would have received it as a holy event.
John preached a political/religious message. Many Pharisees found willingness to take the baptism, but 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. 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.
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). Minds were being influenced, and it seems clear a new movement launches within Judaism. Even the religious hierarchy was questioning, then doubting, trying to find their place within this messianic vision.
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 a repentance 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, 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 would become chilling insights for 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 verbally or prayerfully confess, second to purify or restore the soul by being baptized into the new, third is to redeem the mind, or to bear fruit. If what you produce is not fruitful then chop it up and throw it into the consuming fire, John preaches. John points to a lack of preparation within the Jewish community. Judaism has become rooted in twisted unrighteousness, typified by compounded legalism. Nor can it embrace the enlightened vision. The religious hierarchy is no longer worthy, for it has prospered no good results. John wants the whole of it consumed as if by fire.
Almost all people have encountered the same obstacle within themselves. They are yearning for an important consequence to occur, yet their thinking has not arrived to either produce the needed benefit or embrace it should it arrive. John announces a new perspective in thinking—to prepare in faith for that not yet seen and thus a faith that seeks beyond the veil, repent of unworthy thinking and sow new good seed. By ceaseless speaking and teaching, John sows that seed.
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, 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. 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, and by nature is the manner we should go about our daily business. 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 final.
What is not producing fruit in your own life? For John, it was the priestly hierarchy of his day. What hierarchies oversee your personal lack of wakefulness? All thought has structure and tends to produce more structures like itself. What principles oversee and rule you? These are questions Jesus will delve into more closely, but John lays down this beautiful template for the Messiah.
To a great extent, John gives us himself: enlightened, dedicated, and whole within his purpose. He gives us the proto-version of the Way: lay down that which does not bear fruit, burn it, and move into the spirit of God. 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 on 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 as one whose sandal he is not fit to unloose. John lays himself down and defers to him who has arrived, Messiah Jesus.
The greater enlightenment of the Way provides one more important point. With previous prophets, the concern had always been with the Jewish nation or people as a whole. John’s message will not only apply to the Jew but will also apply to the heathen, meaning anyone and everyone. He speaks to the Roman soldiers, and tells them to take only what is proper, and not to steal for themselves. This implies the message 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 includes all mankind. His message goes to anyone, an appeal without limits.
The appeal to those outside Judaism is borderline heretical for this day and time. Although loving outsiders was not unknown, the tendency to view the world as ‘them or us’ remained the Judaic standard, with the ‘us’ part giving evidence to the chosen or protected people of God. The omnibus enlightenment message now begins to take form. Jesus would later decree, this message 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 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 of 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. The roar of the people emerged from the bowels of Herod’s 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.