Study Guide 2


(religion vs. relationship)

It may surprise you to find that John the Baptist and Jesus Christ were born into the most religious culture ever. There are some cultures today that possibly match Israel’s religious zeal; perhaps some practicing the Islamic or Buddhist religions come close. At that time, Israel was the top banana when it came to religiosity and ritual. They had rules for rules. There was the law of God from Scripture, then thousands of traditional laws that supposedly kept you from getting close to breaking the laws of Scripture. For instance, they had rules for how far you could walk to visit a neighbor on the Sabbath (seventh day) because you couldn’t work. They had traditional laws for washing of hands and dishes before eating. The dishes were already clean…the washing was a ritual. Over 2,000 such rules existed then, in Israel. In some ways things haven’t changed that much. Although the rules aren’t written down, they still exist.  We watch as people around us from our national leadership to our next door neighbors go through rituals of Christianity without any heart Change.  It may surprise you that John’s purpose was not to establish a new religious order, but to re-establish a relationship with the loving God, through Jesus Christ.

He’s the “anti-religion”. We’ll take a look at the Mission, Methods, and Message of John the Baptist, and imagine that they all start with M.

1. The Mission: (Revival)

Lk 1:16-17 “Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people for the Lord.”

a. Repent.

This word is often used within Church circles without explanation, which leads to a certain amount of confusion.  Simply stated repentance means to change your mind, or to turn your heart toward the Lord.

These were the most religious people in the world; why would they need to be brought back to the Lord? Israel was the center of the religious world, and Jerusalem, the religious center of Israel, yet John was running all over the countryside saying “turn around…come back to God!” This was his ministry…and it was effective. The Bible says all of Jerusalem and Judea came to admit their wrong and be baptized.

Why would the most religious people have to turn around to get to God? Because religion alone doesn’t move you toward a relationship with God…we’ve tried that and failed for centuries.  In my opinion that was the magic of the first century Church, they had a relationship with God minus the entanglements of religious tradition.  As soon as man could box in the work of the Church through councils and proclamations we find a religious system without the power to change lives that God intended!

b. The Spirit of Revival.

We could do a whole Bible study on this one phrase. John went in the Spirit of Elijah. Elijah is a perennial favorite among Biblical characters. His ministry was to stand outside the established kingdom of Israel and denounce the sin, to preach against Ahab, the king, and his wife, Jezebel, and the religious leaders who established Baal worship and led all of Israel away from God. Here John comes preaching against Herod, the king, his wife and the religious leaders of Israel. Why? Because just like Ahab before, they were leading Israel away from God and toward a false religion.

c. Revival we need!

Mk 7:8, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”

How many places claim to promote a relationship with God only as long as it doesn’t interfere with their tradition? Each group has it’s own catch phrases and code words you must speak to be accepted by them. Each has it’s own interpretation on the Bible rather than letting the Bible speak for itself.  Some say God must do whatever you say, as if He’s our servant. Some say there’s nothing you could ever do to lose your relationship with God, while others say if you have one little errant thought, you’ve lost it. In Ireland for several hundred years they have been killing each other because of differing ideas of what Christianity is. Is it any wonder that the church in the UK is almost non-existent!

We must have our own current, living relationship with the Loving God, based on his terms not ours. When we do, we’ll be able to see some traditions for the vanity that they are. John says to us, “Turn around!”

Principle 1:  Religious adherence doesn’t guarantee the right relationship.

2. Methods:

(What does effective look like)

To say John was unorthodox might be a bit of an understatement.  His person dietary habits and dress were so remarkable that they Bible authors took time to make note of them.

Mt 3:1-4 “In those days, John the Baptist came, preaching in the desert of Judea…John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey…”

a. Dress:

They used to say dress for success in John’s case that dress was the same as Elijah’s. It was course, not fine. You see, at that time, as now, the religious leaders wore the finest clothing. Jesus criticized them for their soft lifestyle, taking the seats of honor at all occasions, making a big show of their religiousness, getting special treatment by everyone. What they didn’t know then and don’t seem to know now is, the word for minister in their language actually means to serve…not to be served. John expected no honor or gifts. He ate what God gave him…bugs and honey. By the way,  “Are you supposed to cook grasshoppers before you eat them?”  John hadn’t read “Dress for Success”. His dress was the opposite of tradition.

b. Location Location Location:

That’s a catch phrase in our real-estate culture today. Yet John broke the rules here as well.  The location of John’s ministry was the same as Elijah’s. It was desolate, not desirable. He preached in the wilderness and baptized people in the river. As we’ve discussed, Jerusalem was the center of the religious world. No one did it any finer than at the holy temple in the holy city, in the holy country. The walls were ornate, carved stone, with gold decorations. The hangings were of the finest materials. All of the utensils for worship were made of gold. When you visited the city to worship, you could get comfortable accommodations; you could eat the finest foods from around the world. Yet the Bible says all the people of this city flocked to see John in the wilderness where neither restaurant nor toilet were provided. They came because they knew he was sent by God…and they were starving for God while living in the holy city, steeped in religion.

Principle 2:  Sometimes a less than orthodox approach might just be the right one, it all depends on intentions.

3. Message:

(Religion vs. Relationship)

Mt 3:7-12 “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?..The ax 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…He will…(gather) His wheat into the barn.”

a. Against Hypocrisy:

John called the religious leaders a brood of vipers because they were leading people away from God. A hypocrite says, “I’ve arrived! I’m better than you. I am perfected.” The apostle John wrote:

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” I John 1:18

He was writing to Christians! Apparently, the problem we have now, started way back then. Religious people, having been saved by the grace of God, decide that they saved themselves and are better than others.

To be honest I remember a time I thought like that.  I felt like I had done pretty well for myself, had made good decisions, and had the right to be proud.  The truth is I am blessed by God!  I was adopted by two loving parents, raised with a good understanding of scripture,  trained by men who loved the lord and loved his word, blessed enough to marry a gal who loves God as much or more than I do.  In reality I’m not nearly the product of my own invention as I am the product of Gods patient creation.  To him be the glory!

I know it’s become cliché but we’re all nothing except that Jesus chose to make us something through His power. No effort of ours can earn this, it is given by God freely to anyone who is willing to accept him on his terms.

Some people are so filled with themselves spiritually, they begin to set up “Holy Clubs” that keep the rest out. Some call this the draw-bridge principle. Once the King, out of his generosity, allows them into the castle, they hurry up and raise the drawbridge so no one else can get in. It breaks my heart to see those so desperately in need of a savior pushed away from salvation through the arrogance of the saved!

b. For Relationship:

John’s ministry was for relationship as much as it was against hypocrisy. The prophecy announced in Malachi 4:6 and repeated near John’s conception in Luke 1:17 Reminds us of this.  God said John mission was “to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous–to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” In other words to restore family relationships and prepare the world to be spiritually restored in Gods family. There is nothing more beautiful than a healthy family.  They care for one another’s needs, support and encourage one another, and together work to make the others what they could never be alone.

John wasn’t showcasing a form of religion to come to, rather something that we are to become!

He prepared the world for Jesus, saying, ‘He would gather His wheat into the barn’. Jesus was called Emanuel (God with us). He said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”  John 15:5

The message of John the Baptist and of Jesus is…you can have a relationship with God.

James 1:27

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Principle 3:  For God it has always been about restoring a relationship to his people.  Lets make sure we never get in the way by misrepresenting his word or excluding any who seek his mercy.