John Was Independent of the Sanhedrin
When God called John the Baptist, a prophet equal with Moses (Matthew 11:11), to prepare the way for Jesus’ first coming, leaders like Korah were in charge of the church. Though John was faithful to the church, he did not recognize the authority of these self-appointed leaders and he fearlessly reproved them for their pride and arrogance. “John had not recognized the authority of the Sanhedrin by seeking their sanction for his work; and he had reproved rulers and people, Pharisees and Sadducees alike.” Desire of Ages, 132.
John’s calling and authority did not come from man, but from God, and John the Baptist respected the authority of heaven. The Sanhedrin, the highest human authority in the church, had tried to assume prerogatives and authority that belonged to God alone, thus making themselves independent of God. John the Baptist did not join in their independence by submitting himself to them. Moreover, he reproved rulers and elders just as well as the common people—he was no respecter of persons. Though some would consider that criticism of the leadership, John recognized clearly that sin in one was as bad as sin in another, and public sins, that were unrepented of, needed to be publicly reproved.
When John the Baptist “saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them . . . ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father,” For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ ” Matthew 3:7–10.
John taught the people not to put full faith in any system, profession of personal piety, or institution—for “every tree which does not bear good fruit” will be “cut down.” Every person, congregation, conference, institution, or ministry, however large or small, that becomes independent from God will be cut down. “God has a church . . . It is the people who love God and keep His commandments.” Upward Look, 315. God’s church, His people who are totally dependent upon Him and who “follow the lamb wherever He goes,” Revelation 14:4, will go through to the end, and they will go through unitedly as a body of Christ. Yet it must be understood that the movement is much more than systems, buildings and legal documents. When the Seventh-day Adventist headquarters at Battle Creek became independent, God burned it down; but the church itself survived, and will ultimately triumph. We want to triumph with it. God is not going to start a new church or a new movement, but the movement must be purified from every element of independence from Him.
God’s Promises Are Conditional
The Jews thought that because they could trace their lineage and system back to Abraham, they were secure; but John said that God was not dependent upon them to have a people—He could take the stony hearts of the Gentiles and graft them into the true stock. In commenting upon John’s message, Ellen White elaborates: “Not by its name, but by its fruit, is the value of a tree determined. If the fruit is worthless, the name [Jew, Israel, Christian or Seventh-day Adventist] cannot save the tree from destruction. John declared to the Jews that their standing before God was to be decided by their character and life. Profession was worthless . . . If their life and character were not in harmony with God’s law, they were not His people.” Desire of Ages, 107.
Somehow John did not seem to understand, as the leaders did, that the church (which to them meant the visible structure that was under their control) was going through regardless. “The Jews had misinterpreted God’s promise of eternal favor to Israel: ‘Thus saith the Lord, which giveth the sun for a light by day, and the ordinances of the moon and of the stars for a light by night, which divideth the sea when the waves thereof roar; The Lord of hosts is His name: If those ordinances depart from before Me, saith the Lord, then the seed of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before Me forever. Thus saith the Lord; If heaven above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, I will also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done, saith the Lord.’ Jeremiah 31:35–37. The Jews regarded their natural descent from Abraham as giving them a claim to this promise. But they overlooked the conditions which God had specified.” The Acts of the Apostles, 106.
The Jews trusted in these promises of the Bible—that they, as a people, would last forever, as long as the sun and moon existed. They could tauntingly argue with John the Baptist, asking, “Is the sun still shining, John? You see then, God must not have cast us off.” But they had overlooked the conditions upon which the promises were based. John assuredly warned them that “every tree which does not bear good fruit” will be cut down and “thrown into the fire”—even Israel and Jerusalem!
When John warned the church that God could work without them, in their eyes he committed the unpardonable sin. Instead of taking his message to heart and working to purify the church so that the conditions of acceptance with God could be fulfilled, they sought to silence the reprover. To them the church was the structure of buildings and the human leadership in Jerusalem, and that system was as secure in their eyes as the throne of God itself. Yet, “from the beginning, faithful souls have constituted the church.” The Acts of the Apostles, 11. Never has the Lord, either anciently or today, made His work or His church totally dependent on physical structure. God removed the structure in Jesus’ day, but the true church survived. Throughout the Old Testament God had promised that “in the place where it was said . . . ‘You are not My people,’ there it shall be said to them, ‘You are the sons of the living God.’ ” Hosea 1:10. As it is today, so it was then, God was not dependent upon the established church to preserve a people. He could raise up children to Abraham from the stony hearts of the Gentiles, for “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Galatians 3:29.
John warned that, “not by its name, but by its fruit, is the value of a tree determined. If the fruit is worthless, the name cannot save the tree from destruction.” Desire of Ages, 107. When God’s people begin to worry about the semantics of their name, seeking to protect the words themselves by crucifying people who use it, as they did Jesus upon the cross, it is a sure sign that they have lost the true significance of the name. The primary purpose of a name is to signify the character within. If Jesus had not called Himself a Jew, the Jewish leaders would not have put Him to death.
John the Baptist’s Message is Needed Today
It is time again for the message and ministry of John the Baptist to come to God’s heritage in order that we might be prepared for Jesus’ second coming. Today we are called to do a work similar to that of John the Baptist, and to give the same message in even stronger terms, yet in a spirit of love. “In this fearful time, just before Christ is to come the second time, God’s faithful preachers will have to bear a still more pointed testimony than was borne by John the Baptist. A responsible, important work is before them; and those who speak smooth things, God will not acknowledge as His shepherds. A fearful woe is upon them.” Testimonies, vol. 1, 321. It is a fearful thing to be a minister and speak smooth and popular messages that please the people. Though they may receive the credentials and tithes of the conference, God does not acknowledge them as His ministers.
” ‘Peace and safety’ is the cry from men who will never again lift up their voice like a trumpet to show God’s people their transgressions and the house of Jacob their sins. These dumb dogs that would not bark are the ones who feel the just vengeance of an offended God.” Testimonies, vol. 5, 211.
Probably the only person in the Bible who talked straighter than John the Baptist, as God’s preachers today are to do, was Jesus. When Jesus met the religious leaders, He did not simply call them poisonous snakes, as John had done; He plainly stated that they were the children of Satan. The Jews had argued with Him that they were assuredly God’s people because they had the official name and the official organization that had been sacredly handed down for centuries, John 8:39–41, but Jesus said, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and came from God; nor have I come of Myself, but He sent Me . . .You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do.” John 8:42–44. You may think you represent God because you have the official name and represent the official organization, but if your life is not in harmony with God’s expressed will, you are most assuredly not His representatives.
When Jesus came, He was viewed from the very beginning as being independent; but of all the people on earth, He was the least independent person who ever lived. He said, “I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me.” John 5:30. Jesus was the least independent minister who ever lived, as far as His own will was concerned, but He was independent from the church organization on earth because they had become independent of God. He would like to have been united with them, but He could not unite with them and remain dependent on His Father, for the two were not in harmony. As the Bible says: “Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?” Amos 3:3.
Thus, to outward appearances, He manifested what appeared to be an independent attitude. “Under the synagogue teachers the youth were instructed in the countless regulations which as orthodox Israelites they were expected to observe. But Jesus did not interest Himself in these matters. From childhood He acted independently.” Jesus was viewed as being independent, but what was He independent from? Let us finish the sentence. “From childhood He acted independently of the rabbinical laws. The Scriptures of the Old Testament were His constant study, and the words, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ were ever upon His lips.” Desire of Ages, 84.
If one wants to cause trouble, let him ask for the authority from the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy when confronted by the church manual. But that is the kind of trouble Jesus caused. (It was because we did not want our church to become like the Jewish church that we decided not to have a church manual when it was first proposed in 1883, but the decision was reversed in the General Conference of 1931.)
Though Jesus tried “in every gentle and submissive way . . . to please those with whom He came in contact . . . He would not be easily influenced by their teaching.” Desire of Ages, 85. The priests could not tolerate this spirit of independence in Jesus. “They urged Him to receive the maxims and traditions that had been handed down from the ancient rabbis, but He asked for their authority in Holy Writ. He would hear every word that proceeds from the mouth of God; but He could not obey the inventions of men.” Ibid. I can hear them urging Him: “Jesus, don’t you believe that this is God’s church?” “Yes,” He would answer. “Well, don’t you believe that God has guided and directed in this church down through the ages?” “Yes,” He would answer again. “Then you must believe the practices and teachings of this church which have been decided upon and practiced for centuries. You don’t believe that all these rabbis were wrong, do you?” (Notice,it was the “maxims and traditions that had been handed down from ancient rabbis” which they urged upon Jesus.) But Jesus would simply answer, “Where does it teach that in the Bible?”
Even Jesus’ own mother, who was a converted person and a conscientious member of the church, thought Jesus was too independent. “Mary often remonstrated with Jesus, and urged Him to conform to the usages of the rabbis.” Desire of Ages, 90. What a trial this must have been for Jesus. All alone Jesus bore His fidelity to truth. He was misunderstood by the best people in church—they could not understand how any sincere, consecrated person could become so independent from the teaching of the much respected rabbis of the past and present, since they had been ordained of God.
For Jesus, there was no inspired manual other than the holy Word of God. But so hierarchical had the church become that they knew of no other way that the church could function other than by man made rules, authority and a strong, Jerusalem centered structure. But Jesus elevated truth above structure.
Jesus was viewed as being so independent of the structure that the leaders of the church decided that if He was allowed to continue He would destroy the church—and there is no question that their power structure would have been destroyed. “He who was the foundation of the ritual and economy of Israel would be looked upon as its enemy and destroyer.” Desire of Ages, 111. The pious leaders of the church tried to prevent His influence from destroying the church in every way possible. They tried to prove Him wrong. They warned the people against listening to Him. They prevented Him from speaking in the churches. They spread lies and rumors about Him and His ministry. They tried everything to limit His influence (and they were quite successful at this), but nothing seemed to stop Him. Finally, as a last resort, they “regretfully” decided that they must put Him to death. They undoubtedly “hated” to do this, but the church must be preserved—its reputation and name must be protected from such irresponsible people as Barabbas and Jesus.
Jesus and Barabbas, of course, were quite different —one was a murderer and one was a life giver. But they were both independent, and of the two, Jesus was the most dangerous because His doctrines and practices fooled the common people. And once the spirit of independence gets started, they figured that there was no way to protect the church. It was inconceivable to them that God could protect and preserve His church if they would purify themselves and call upon Him for His protection —no, if they did not preserve it, the church would be destroyed. It was either Jesus or the church. John 11:50. Therefore, Jesus must be destroyed so that the church could survive. “If He stands in the way of Israel’s well-being, is it not doing God a service to remove Him? Better that one man perish than that the whole nation be destroyed. . . In their opinion, He had set aside the priesthood. He had refused to acknowledge the theology of the rabbinical schools. He had exposed the evil practices of the priests, and had irreparably hurt their influence . . . Satan told them that in order to maintain their authority, they must put Jesus to death. This counsel they followed . . . Such was their deception that they were well pleased with themselves. They regarded themselves as patriots, who were seeking the nation’s salvation.” Ibid., 540–541. Thus Jesus was disfellowshipped and the people who disfellowshipped Him thought they had saved the church from some great independent calamity that was threatening their very existence.