John the Baptist - Make the Crooked Ways Straight - Sunday, 8th December, 1996
1990 saw the commencement of a new quest for the historical Jesus. Scores of books have been published since concerning theories, facts, new discoveries and theological interpretations about Jesus. In USA popular publicity has been achieved for "The Jesus Seminar" featuring a panel of scholars debating the authenticity of the sayings of Jesus.
Australia, normally a theological backwater, took an early place in the debate with the publication in 1992 on Dr Barbara Thiering's book "Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Unlocking the Secrets of His Life Story." She is described as "an obscure Australian academic" and her "history" as "the purest poppycock, the product of fevered imagination rather than careful analysis. The way she works with the data defies every canon of sober historical research, and operates outside all the rules of textual analysis" says Professor Luke Timothy Johnson of Candler School of Theology, Emery University. (1996 "The Real Jesus" p29).
Yet the ABC TV series on her book gave it some credibility in spite of its rejection by scholars. Yet her book takes its place among the scores published since 1990 on the person and uniqueness of Jesus. Throughout all of 1997 in "Sunday Night Live" I intend to speak on them and the Biblical understanding of the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Dr Barbara Thiering, however, starts the story at the right place, with John the Baptist and his association with the Essene community at Qumran near the Dead Sea. That is why we prepare for the coming of Christ at Bethlehem at the first Christmas, by considering the role of John The Baptist.
1. THE BEGINNING OF THE GOOD NEWS. Mark's Gospel, the simplest and the first to be written, starts: 1 "The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 It is written in Isaiah the prophet: "I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way" -- 3 "a voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'"
At our Wesley Mission's "An Australian Christmas at Darling Harbour" we open with Marty Rhone singing "Prepare ye the Way of the Lord" from "Jesus Christ Superstar". (screen video) We begin with John the Baptist because he first recognised Jesus as the Messiah. John called people to be ready for the coming of the Christ. John was a forerunner to the Messiah. Repentance had to be preached before salvation was possible: John preached repentance and Jesus made salvation possible.
John was a cousin of Jesus of Nazareth. His mother Elizabeth was already in late pregnancy when Mary, the mother of Jesus came to Elizabeth to tell her of her own pregnancy. John's parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were elderly. He was the only child and his parents died while he was quite young. Then he comes suddenly out of the desert wilderness when he was about 30 years of age and started baptising people in the River Jordan. Mark quotes John describing himself: 3 "a voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'" A voice, that is all. He was a notable prophet with a recognised and publicly acclaimed ministry, but he saw himself primarily as a "voice", speaking the word of God. All ministers today should follow suit: be a voice of God.
2. THE COMING OF JOHN THE BAPTIST. 4 "And so John came, baptising in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the Jordan River." John preached against the excess and shallowness of Jewish ritual, and called Jews to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Crowds of people travelled the steep road from Jerusalem to Jericho, then south along the River Jordan to where John was baptising. Soldiers, taxcollectors, lawyers, and even pharisees felt conviction in their spirit.
John was supported by a band of disciples around him, supporting his preaching, and helping in the baptisms. Some of those disciples later followed Jesus, becoming the first Christians. Others still followed the teachings of John the Baptist after his death, and there is still a small group of them existing in Iran today awaiting for the Messiah.
The Jews baptised gentile believers if they wanted to belong to the chosen people, but John said that even members of the chosen race had moved so far from God, that they too needed to repent of sin and be baptised in the River. Baptism was no delicate baptism of babies by a few drops of water in a family social atmosphere: it was a demand for repentance from sin, and commitment to God's will, followed by a complete immersion symbolising their cleansing of sin. New Testament baptism was by immersion following repentance and acceptance of Christ as Saviour. John announced the judgement of God on sin, called people to repent and alerted them to the coming Messiah.
3. THE UNIQUENESS OF JOHN THE BAPTIST. 6 "John wore clothing made of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey." John's dress and diet was typical of those who had taken the purity vows of a monastic community which lived nearby at Qumran. John developed two new aspects of baptism. David Down, the Australian archaeologist, has stated: "The Essenes practised immersion as a continuing ritual. But John used it as a once only form of purification as did Jesus and His disciples. It then became a form of initiation into the church (1 Cor.12:13.) Second, baptism was a personal ritual. But John administered it to others. "Digging Up The Past" Sept 87.
In 1948 the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered at Qumran. While the scrolls say nothing about the teachings of Jesus, they do throw a great deal of light on the group of monks that lived at Qumran. The wilderness was a place of refuge and hope. They wrote the scriptures on long scrolls, lived lives of holiness, and spoke of the coming Messiah at the same time as John and Jesus. They expected a prophet to come out of the wilderness preaching judgement and baptising prior to the Messiah's arrival.
Qumran is close by the area where John was baptising. John's favourite verses were also favourite sayings in the Essene community. John ate the same food and wore the same clothing. At Qumran, vast water storages and large baptisteries allowed daily baptisms for purification. Ritual baptisms by believers for forgiveness of sins by immersion was widely practised in Israel and scores of mikvahs or baptisteries for total immersion of believers have recently been uncovered in Jerusalem.
4. THE ONE TO WHOM JOHN POINTED. 7 "And this was his message: "After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit." The climax to his ministry occurred over seven days: (John 1:1928). People crowded to hear him. Some thought he was the Messiah. But John said: "I am not the Messiah." The next day John saw Jesus of Nazareth coming o be baptised. Jesus had walked 80 miles from Nazareth to where the River Jordan enters the Dead Sea to be baptised by John. John recognised Him, not just as his younger cousin, but as the long expected Messiah: John 1:29-34 "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, 'A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.' 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptising with water was that he might be revealed to Israel." 32 Then John gave this testimony: "I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptise with water told me, 'The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptise with the Holy Spirit.' 34 I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God."
So Jesus was baptised by John, identifying Himself in man's search to be righteous before God. We have understood more in recent decades about John the Baptist than in the past centuries. John the Baptist was a great witness to Jesus Christ and his influence upon Israel at this time is widely attested. How do we sum up the significance of John the Baptist for us today?
1. LIKE JOHN WE MUST PREPARING THE WAY FOR THE MESSIAH. John had a dream: that people would see the coming of the Messiah and prepare for His Kingdom by their repentance and baptism for the remission of their sins. That great dream was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost. Like John we dream of the coming of God's Kingdom. Kingdoms come because of dreams. Martin Luther King, the American preacher and civil rights campaigner had a dream to see racial hatred and discrimination ended: "I have a dream." The dream became a reality. Like John we must prepare the way for Jesus.
2. LIKE JOHN WE MUST COURAGEOUSLY SPEAK AGAINST SIN. John spoke out against the social, political and economic sins of his day even at the cost of his life. Such a voice is never wanted by society. The voice of a preacher is rejected by the press who shrug off the clergyman as irrelevant, a judgement not upon the clergyman, but upon the limited knowledge of journalists. The voice of a prisoner is not wanted either. John the Baptist was soon after imprisoned because he denounced King Herod for his murders and illicit marriage to his brother's wife, Herodias. The common people admired his courage. But Queen Herodias conspired with daughter Salome, to get her stepfather drunk and agreeable to anything she wanted. The precocious girl danced her dance, and the immoral old murderer fell victim to his own word of honour, and gave the girl what she asked for: the head of John the Baptist on a plate. John was a preacher and a prisoner, but they did not want to hear what He had to say. In our turn we must courageously speak against sin whether people are willing to seriously consider what we have to say or not. Christians must be brave.
3. LIKE JOHN WE MUST BE OPEN TO THE INSIGHTS OF THE SPIRIT. John was a spiritually insightful person, but the Jewish orthodoxy of his day frowned upon him and sent a commission of inquiry of priests and lawyers to find out about his ministry. How frequently in our day has the church failed to recognise the nonconformist who is open to the insights of the Spirit, and try to make him fit into a conformist role instead. We all need to be open to the Spirit of God, and free of the conforming mould regardless of what the religious bureaucrats think.
4. LIKE JOHN WE MUST HUMBLY WITNESS TO JESUS. Frequently John speaks of himself as witnessing to Jesus. Note his words:(John 1:19-34) "I am not the Christ." "I am the voice of one calling in the desert, 'Make straight the way for the Lord.'" "I baptise with water, but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie." "I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptise with water told me, 'The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptise with the Holy Spirit.' 34 I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God." John was a humble witness, pointing, not to himself but to Jesus. How we should follow the example of John and humbly point to Jesus as Lord and Saviour. John 3:30 "He must become greater; I must become less." What an example to us.
How we need follow his example in our witness to Christ. Like him I too preach repentance, baptism, and Jesus Christ as Saviour. Will you also obey in repentance, obedience and belief? Gordon Moyes
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