Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The World of John the Baptist

Life of Christ 17

          Thus far we have been looking at the earthly origins of Jesus Christ. We shift now to the next chronological event, which is the ministry of John the Baptist. Before I discuss that ministry, and how it prepared for and intersected with Jesus I want to explain what kind of a world awaited the fiery preaching of John.
          The be all and end all of everything was Rome. They were the single largest influence politically, militarily, and economically. Even in a country and culture that so stridently maintained its separate identity, such as Israel, we find Rome intruding into daily life a tremendous amount. And that Rome was morally and culturally sick.
          The people of Rome embraced two basic philosophies. The first was epicureanism, which proposed that personal pleasure is the chief aim of life. I think you can already imagine where that would take a society. As extremes typically give rise to opposite extremes, unsurprisingly, the second was stoicism, which proposed to remove desire and live completely on reason, virtue, and will. Coincidentally (or not), both of these necessarily always end up at despair, albeit by two totally separate routes.
          Religiously, the Roman pantheon was a collection of Latinized Greek gods with the addition of a bunch of Roman emperors, etc. Being religious had much more to do with observing certain rites and rituals than it did with having faith in the gods or believing a certain set of doctrinal precepts. These rites, including animal and human sacrifice, astrology, reading the entrails of dead animals, etc. could give zero comfort or hope.
          Culturally, slavery was rampant, and respect for human life was nil. Suicide was honorable. Marriage was a facade, still maintained by many for appearance sake but in reality consisting of a fictitious, if legal, binding. Homosexuality, pedophilia, and temple worship prostitution were common. I have an horribly fascinating book in my office that walks you through the lives of each of the Roman emperors, and the absolute debauchery that characterized most of their lives is unspeakable.
          Politically, Mao Zedong, who famously said that power comes out of the barrel of a gun, would have been right at home. Political disagreements often resulted in poisonings, assassinations, and even civil wars. There was very little stability, internally, especially when a transfer of power took place. The Senate, long the guardian of the Roman Republic, had become an empty shell of itself, with little power to halt the excesses of the emperors, and even less desire to do so.
          Economically, the wealth of the known world flowed to Rome, but realistically it flowed to the Roman rich. The palatial extravagant excesses of the French Bourbons had nothing on the gilded lilies of Rome. At the same time, the common people flocked to Rome from the provinces in order to partake of the generous welfare benefits and the free entertainment gratuitously filled with violence. Bread and circuses indeed. How else do you keep a populace satiated while you are treating the empire like your personal fiefdom?
          Closer to home, in Palestine, Rome covered its iron fist with the velvet glove of regional autonomy, but make no mistake, it was an iron glove underneath. Four times, in Jesus' day, the Romans changed the high priest, in spite of the fact that it was supposed to be a lifetime appointment. It is almost certain that the office was purchased, and run as a business. The Roman administration freely trampled the most basic human rights, insulting, offending, demanding, stealing, and murdering whom it would.
          The predominant religious influence of the day in Palestine was the Pharisees, and their external and legalistic religion had no heart to it at all. Their rulings bound the people to a dead traditionalism accompanied by a long list of infinitesimally detailed and highly burdensome regulations. The Sadducees, politically and financially connected, were doctrinally lethargic and heretical. The Herodians embraced the Roman leadership while at the same time the Zealots sought a violent revolution against the might of the entire empire. Each of these groups sought its own advancement at the expense of what was best for the people as a whole.
          To quote Edersheim:

And so the only escape which remained for the philosopher, the satiated, or the miserable, seemed the power of self-destruction! What is worse, the noblest spirits of the time felt, that the state of things was utterly hopeless. Society could not reform itself; philosophy and religion had nothing to offer: they had been tried and found wanting. Seneca longed for some hand from without to life up from the mire of despair; Cicero pictured the enthusiasm which would greet the embodiment of true virtue, should it ever appear on earth, Tacitus declared human life one great farce, and expressed his conviction that the Roman world lay under some terrible curse. All around, despair, conscious need, and unconscious longing.

          Into this sin sick world God launched the uniquely fiery life and message of John the Baptist. Clearly, his world needed exactly that.
          I am an American. Before my eyes, I am watching the political, economic, and cultural decay of the greatest empire the world has known since Rome. Would to God He would send another John the Baptist.
          Or, better yet, just send Jesus.


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