One can always recognize St John by the standard he carries and the little lamb near his feet. I find a great deal of meaning in it. He is the prophet who spoke to the world after a long silence from God, a prophet called to be an outsider. He was a prophet of the old ways who led people to look past their ethnic groups and denominations to their need for a savior who saves from sin.
After the prophet Malachi had written his book -- and ended it with a threat, no less-- there was no prophet in Israel. Imagine that: a nation whose ruler, judge and king were God or His prophets, suddenly endures four hundred years of non-communication. Or miscommunication. Other prophets and great warriors had shown up during those empty periods. The Maccabees, for instance. But these people were mere soldiers or patriots. They were not the soldier/priests like Joshua or the judges. And they were not prophets. The nation of Israel has had so many destructions and holocausts during this period that they long for a Messiah. The name Mary, which means bitterness, becomes a popular name. The people cry out about the
bitterness of their oppression. Where is their deliverer? Is there another Deliverer on the horizon? Their heart is on Moses'prophecy of a "Prophet like myself." They have kept their eyes peeled for the Messiah, the son of David. And after centuries of silence, a great prophet arrives on the scene. His name is John.
He is the son of a priest. His mother is quite old when she conceives him. Is this the prophet? The deliverer? This prophet tells everyone that he isn't the Prophet. He tells that that the new Prophet is no mere earthly deliverer. The new prophet will bring God's spirit to them and baptise them in spirit and in fire. Is this the deliverer they have been searching for? John does all of his prophetic work outside of the strictures of the religious hierarchy. He is not a Pharisee, although he follows God's law and lives an austere life. He is not an intellectual Sadducee. He is not a zealot party member who mixes God's truth with patriotism. He could care less about patriotism. He preaches to everyone whether they are Jewish, Roman or Idumean. But neither is he on the side of the king or the Roman Empire. No one knows by whose authority John baptises people in the Jordan River. The religious people don't know what to make of him and ignore him but the common people believe he is a prophet sent from God.
The people who come to John are folks who don't fit into the religious hierarchy. John reaches out to Roman soldiers, tax collectors, and even Herod, a descendant of Esau. In fact, he cares so much about Herod's soul he actually offends Herod, the Idumean king by giving Herod spiritual lashings concerning Herod's adultery. Herod, a descendant of Abraham and Esau, is not really subject to Jewish laws. But here is Herod being treated as a Jew and being reminded of spiritual behavior.
Jesus said "if the people could receive it" John the Baptist was Elias. The religious leaders in John's time were probably looking for Elias. But if they followed their own reasoning, they would never in a million years assume that John and Elias were the same being. Elias did miracles of power and multiplication, blessings and cursings. John, as far as we know, never did any miracles. But isn't the ability to turn multiples of men, groups, sects to God a miracle?
Jesus said that John was the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven, but that those who will be blessed with the outpouring of the spirit will be better than John. What is it that makes John so
great? We look at his sermons. Perhaps, it's me, but they don't seem so impressive. He tells Roman soldiers not to oppress too much. He tells people not to sin. This is a great prophet?
Yes, in God's eyes. John came with a message of preparation which the world was ready for and not ready for: the story of a lamb slain for the sins of the whole of humanity. The spiritual people of that time wanted a revival. And yet. They wanted it in their own terms. They were oppressed by the Romans. Some, however, wanted freedom from their sins. Herod, for instance, longed to see the power of Yahweh. He loved to hear John speak about God and holiness. Except for those moments when John spoke of sin. The times were perfect for John and yet, like all true prophets, John could not fit into the confines of those times.
A word or two must be said about Johnís outfit. If ever you have any doubt about Godís knowledge of public relations and human expectations, one need look no further than John the Baptist, the quintessential prophet. It had been centuries since the last prophet. The people longed for word from God. They hadnít seen a prophet in their lifetimes but they knew how a prophet would look and behave. A prophet would look like a prophet. He would act differently than the insiders. He would not wear regal clothing. And he would definitely act strangely. God --who understood PR-- accommodated. Remember what God asked Ezekiel to do? The common people knew that a prophet would behave and dress like a prophet was supposed to. John looked and acted the part. Dressed in Camel hair and surviving on locust and wild honey, he could only be the summation of everyoneís idea of what a prophet would be like. Even the Roman soldiers knew what a prophet would or should look like.
John is a wonderful prophet and a very loving prophet. There is no racism or nationalism in him. He was solitary from an early age and thus free from the cultural baggage that might have changed the message God wanted him to preach. He didn't cower before Herod. The power of religious, regal, and governmental power didn't impress him. He loved Herod and the Roman soldiers as lost children of God. He viewed everyone equally. And in the end, he was loved by the common people but disliked because he didn't tailor his message to man-made authority. John's expectation of the lamb of God was that the savior would be a savior of humanity, bringing healing, spiritual freedom, healing the sick. From the start, he was one of the few who looked for this kind of savior. Even old Simeon only saw the baby Jesus as the savior of Israel. Being the only one with this realization of the savior's work, no wonder John struggled with his belief as his life drew close to its end. Although he had seen that this was the savior, he worried: What if he was wrong about this savior? In the end, John was martyred. But he died in faith.
The Bible tells us that God will send two great prophets at the end of the ages. Who they are we do not know. Perhaps they will be Enoch and Elias. Jesus said John had come in the spirit of Elias. Perhaps someone will come again in that spirit. The question is: will the people living in those times be able to listen to the preacher? John prepared the hearts of the people of his time by making them see themselves as sinners, even while they were God's people and even while they were oppressed. This is a hard thing to do.
When we suffer, we don't want to hear about our sins. When we are "God's people", we don't want to be standing beside a sinner who is "Not God's people." We don't know how hard Jesus's task would have been without his herald, but we know that John's work out there beside the Jordan was needed.
I like John very much. In our day and throughout Christianity, there have been many prophets and good people who were outside of the body of Christ. I'm thinking of Simone Weil and Dorothy Day and so many others. The Bible tells us that we must forsake not the assembling of ourselves together. Yet it also tells us to come out from among certain churches. Perhaps, in the
last days, we will once again find true believers in home churches. In the meantime, read up on John and study the greatest human prophet of the Bible. A prophet called to be outside of the religious network, called to be outside of the temple, a non-church-goer if you will.
When Herodias was humiliated by John the Baptist she used her power to destroy John. Humiliated people often use their power to destroy others. I have seen humiliated pastors add snide comments to their sermons in order to humiliate someone who made them feel stupid. Caiaphas and Annas were humilated that a mere "fellow" like Jesus dared to say He was called by God. Powerful people, religious or political or merely wealthy, think they can silent God's prophets by destroying them. Like Jesus, St John the Baptist, was killed by both the church and the state. Like Jesus, St John the Baptist didn't fit in well in any of the denominations. They do not associate with a religious world that loves easy moralisms, platitudes, sweet know-it-all phrases. They wanted to lead people to God and not to particular denominations or sects. And religious people colluded with the government to destroy them because they did not follow denominational rules. I wonder what will happen in the last days. Will so-called Christians be the first to destroy God's people? Will they rush to follow the anti-Christ because that false prophet will fit into their idea of what a Christian is?
In our time, this denominationalism often leads Christians to force their thinking into denominational categories in order to be safe. Are Catholics safe from Baptists? Or vice versa? But what of the Christian who believes something of what the Baptists say but differs with them in other matters...or falls more in line with Charismatics or Episcopalians or Catholics in other matters. The religious world demands that they pick a denomination and declare themselves.
As St Paul said, some people go about saying, "I am of Paul" or "I am of Apollos." He said they were being carnal and immature. When you attempt to bring people to Jesus, do you instead bring them to your denomination? No wonder many people refuse to become Christians -- they don't see love, they see infighting. Or we make salvation complicated for them by insisting on discussing picayune differences: water baptism, immersion, sprinkling, liturgy, pro-Creed, anti-Creed. Let us be like John and bring people to Jesus only. Let us be like John who didn't differentiate between God's people. He didn't say Pharisees were better than Saducees, or priests were better than soldiers. He acknowledged each person's work and vocation and accepted them as working for God in their own way.
During the past 2000 years, many Christians have decided it was better for their souls to live away from the world and from other Christians. The Desert Fathers and Hermits rejected the established medieval and renaissance Catholic church because of its wealth and sins. Many modern Christians don't fit neatly into any denomination. None of the christian denominations are right about everything. And people are human. As in John's time, they are more children of their culture than they are of God. As in John's time, there are and will always be people who forget that St Paul said the greatest spiritual trait is kindness and gentlenss. There will be judgmental people, bad teaching, funky theology, social and spiritual hierarchies and general imperfection. What is a Christian to do?
A fellowship of good christian friends can keep a christian on the right path of holiness. Talking to them via telephone can be as good as any sermon. Sometimes better. Many Bible believers have weekly phone meetings to discuss the Bible with each other. Some folks even have the old-fashioned home churches. One has has much chance of falling into bad teaching with one's friends as one does in a denomination.
But even John had his fellowship and companions.The Bible doesn't say we must go to church. But it says we should not forsake the assembling of ourselves together. It says nothing about having to go to church every week. But it does want us to remember the Lord's Day or whichever day we call the Sabbath. So can Christian fellowship be found outside of churches? Yes. But the only time Paul ever told us to avoid churches is when a church has the form of holiness but denies the power thereof. That is the only loophole we have.
So if your pastor is judgmental and stupid, you'll have to hold on. Or move to another church (or another denomination if the judgmentalism is widespread in the denomnation.) The churches of today are as divided and as imperfect as the churches in Paul's time and the sects in John's time. One will never find a perfect church. God has not called us to be outsiders. Even John had his fellowship. But God has called us to use our minds. And He has called us to peace. We must find a place of worship that brings us more joy than sorrow, more truth than lies, helps us to commit more to God than to ourselves or even to society. We cannot quit all churches simply because many of them are bad. Nor can we live apart from Christians, even if the majority of them seem to be judgmental.
Let us remember that the time is short. A kingdom and its army should not be fighting against itself ...especially when the final battle is heating up. And no soldier --however right he may be-- has the choice to sit out the corporate fight. Find a good church or a good home fellowship. Who knows? The time might soon come when the only true churches will be those found in homes. The important thing, however, is to not forsake the assembling of yourselves together.
I enjoyed reading this, the history and the truth. This article truly shows us that although we are One in Christ we are not all the same and what we do with our calling may differ from the "norm." Personally I like the small group of friends, where trust and relationships can build and then go forth to reach others with the Gospel. Thank you for sharing.