John the Baptist

CC BY-NC, david_shankbone, Flickr
CC BY-NC, david_shankbone, Flickr

John the Baptist—the more I think of him the more I consider how his peculiar upbringing must have resembled Jesus’s.

The archangel Gabriel had detailed John’s life and purpose to his father Zechariah in the temple. John would be great and greatly used by God. Certainly Zechariah and Elizabeth were proud to know this, declared by the chief emissary of Heaven. “He will be a joy and delight to you,” Gabriel had promised.

But I wonder what became of their mood as John grew. This son of the priest bore a deep spirituality, but did it look like it was going off the rails as it evolved? Did his attitude toward Israel, fierce message of repentance, and uncustomary baptism of Jews seem radical to his parents? And were they maxed out and questioning God when John left the comfort of home for the wilderness, a preaching ascetic and possible embarrassment to his father?

I don’t know. Perhaps Zechariah had learned well from his first bout of unbelief and muteness and fully trusted despite his concerns. Furthermore, how do we respond to our relatives and acquaintances when their pattern of life or spirituality takes turns that throw our minds into tailspins? It can be scary to watch.

Everything’s Gonna Be All Right

Most of us haven’t had the assurance of an angel that our Johnny was gonna be okay. It would be great if there were a way to be certain that the people we love would turn out all right in their emotional and spiritual development. Since there isn’t, we have to do the next best things, which I will explain.

Concerns or problems do not exist in vacuums; people are involved. We must remember that dealing with potential issues is necessarily relational. We must avail ourselves to people about whom we have concerns. No one appreciates being viewed as a problem or problematic. Even mentally ill people deserve the respect of being treated as persons.

True care for people makes it easier for us to hear them, see the issue fully or discern whether there really is one, and offer our knowledge and counsel. We cannot help people we do not love.

Moreover, we must sometimes release people to discover their own way. This can be hard but none of us like hearing stories about folk hard-pressed by religious rearing who rebel. We would never want to create haters of God.

Freedom grants a person the ability to detach from all he or she knows to rummage through the piles of acquired wisdom and decide for themselves what they believe—and we should respect a person’s right to think and choose for themselves. Joshua expresses this marvelously: “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served…or the gods…in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (24:15).

We should not view this negatively, as though we release a person to their doom. This is to forget the providence of God. Sometimes people go through periods of questioning, conflict, or gloom like stages in birth without which we would never see the light of greatness within them. No, we never give up on others but can be certain that God will control what we cannot.

The process may not always feel good or look glamorous, but just because it doesn’t look like what we expected doesn’t mean God isn’t in it. We just have to trust him.

Now, Back to John…

We see the full picture of John the Baptist and know that he was among the greatest Hebrew prophets. He must have owned a deep spirituality and interaction with God, for he sensed a profound call and exercised astute spiritual discipline.

I can imagine that John would have been viewed as uncouth by many of his society when, in fact, he was spiritually avant-garde. But he was what he was—by some an assumed religious quack roaming the back country—because of what was inside of him. John’s process was the only way for his greatness to come forth.

John’s testimony of Jesus (John 1:29-34) is pretty revealing to me of God’s power and reality in his life. John and Jesus didn’t know one another, and John had no reason to know that Jesus was the Messiah until he baptized him. But it wasn’t merely the baptism that pointed out Christ to John; Jesus already existed in John’s pronounced spiritual aptitude. Look and ponder carefully:

I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit’ (1:32-33).

If Zechariah and Elizabeth could have only seen how their boy turned out.

More on this topic: God, Our Contender

Law and Legalism

CC BY NC-ND, Wally Gobetz Flickr
CC BY NC-ND Wally Gobetz Flickr

In Colossians 2:16-23, the apostle Paul presents a straightforward defense against legalistic injunctions being forced upon the Colossian church. To the quick reader it may seem as though Paul is being critical of the Law of Moses since many people lump anything having to do with rules and religion in the word legalism. But this is not the case.

In fact, Paul shows great respect for the Law of Moses in Galatians 3 and Romans 7. For instance, he says, “Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law” (Rom. 7:7) and “So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (v. 12).

Distinguishing Law and Legalism

What the apostle is doing for the Colossian Christians is liberating them from human rules. Paul understood Torah very well—remember that great resume of his in Philippians 3? He was once a Pharisee. Judaism was his heritage and the ground from which Christianity—Christ himself—sprang.

I think it would be fair to speculate that he could respect the devout Jew who did his or her best to follow God’s requirements apart from the knowledge of Christ or with hesitance or resistance to the new Jesus religion. The Law was indeed the tutor in righteousness (Gal. 3:24); however, altering one’s understanding of religious conviction is always difficult. Paul would have recalled his own dramatic crossroads.

What Paul is fighting in Colossians are additional, burdensome do’s and don’ts that false teachers would make these new Christians believe were obligatory for acceptance with God. This is legalism. Moreover, these teachers used the Law of Moses as a guise for their own extra rules, thus turning people away from Christ and back to works religion and locking their minds to wrong teaching.

The Treachery of Rule Givers

The implications in these verses are many. In fact, the warning remains as important to Christians today as it was then. I find in Paul’s words the increasing need for biblical teaching. The apostle was cutting away the excess that kept these Christians laden down. In a day when pulpits are overrun with newfangled concepts, self-help tactics, and glitzy preaching, Christians too stand in need of strong biblical teaching that will excise anything that is not verily the word of God.

CC BY-SA, J. Nathan Matias, Flickr
CC BY-SA, J. Nathan Matias, Flickr

We would be remiss to think that teaching like this comes devoid of ulterior motive, which is often the grasp for human control, a notion present in Paul’s argument. Rules, religious and otherwise, can be powerful because they bear, or are assigned, moral and ethical value. For this reason they can be used to control and manipulate. Rule-givers and paragons typically gain control when adherents go astray or are too weak to question authority.

This is exactly what Paul explains about the Law in Romans 7:7-25. The law of God was (and is) good for us, but, sin being found in us, we are beaten down with condemnation for our moral failure resulting from the command (Rom. 7:8). Now to the Colossians, Paul tells them that not only has Christ liberated them by fulfilling this Law completely and perfectly, but these false teachers are adding requirements that God never authorized.

It is also the character of the rule, or the spirit of the law, that is important. God’s rules never come to bash or condemn (cf. John 3:17; Rom. 8:1-2); so we can be confident that our honest effort counts with God. He is always firm but loving. This is yet another way of discerning what is and is not of God.

The End of the Matter

The significance is this: Sin must be sin for God’s sake, never for humans’ sake. What God calls good and bad, right and wrong, is what is indeed moral and immoral, ethical and unethical, and no person can add to it. Also, what we can assess to be the heart of God on an issue, by careful study of God’s holy character, the example of scripture, and the teaching of historical Christian writers, is sufficient to answer the questions of generations today and tomorrow.

This should make an end of debates on “petty sin” issues, like dancing and drinking, and some larger issues fit here, too.

We have to be sure that our answers do not make God and the Bible say things they never do. Sometimes our brand of religion promotes extra-biblical requirements, and we should be resolute to get biblical answers about why those requirements exist. What we may discover is that, although sincere, there is more to be gained by the leadership with certain rules being kept than for the laity being saved by their strict obedience.