This is a continuation of the series starting with Cross or Resurrection 1: Which is Determinative? Sorry this has taken some time to appear.
I was interested to read a news article, linked to by Joel Watts, about Mandaeans who have found refuge in the USA. It seems that the little known religion of Mandaeism, until recently most widespread in Iraq, is now flourishing in a small way in Massachusetts. The chief prophet of their religion is none other than John the Baptist, and they practice baptism, weekly in rivers. However, they reject Jesus as a false Messiah, and the Holy Spirit as an evil being. Mandaeism in fact seems to be a surviving Gnostic sect with its roots in the early centuries AD.
Already in the time and region of Paul’s journeys related in the book of Acts there seem to have been widespread groups of “disciples” who “knew only the baptism of John”, among them Apollos (Acts 18:24-25) and a group Paul met in Ephesus (19:1-6). These were not Mandaeans, as Apollos already knew about Jesus, and the Ephesus group were quick to listen to Paul’s teaching about him and accept the Holy Spirit. But it is not fanciful to see a real continuity between those among these groups who never accepted the Christian gospel and the modern Mandaeans.
So what can we say about followers of John the Baptist, in ancient times and today? Jesus’ commendation of John had something of a sting in the tail:
Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Matthew 11:11 (NIV)
So, for Jesus, John is greater even than the Old Testament saints, but he is still outside the kingdom of God. And I would suppose that Jesus would say the same about his followers, those who only know his baptism, whether ancient “disciples” or modern Mandaeans. Indeed that seems to have been Paul’s understanding, for he baptised the “disciples” again, this time in the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 19:5). It was only after that that the Holy Spirit came on them, with gifts indicating that the kingdom of God was breaking into their lives.
The baptism of John was for repentance, as he declared himself; indeed he recognised that Jesus would bring a greater baptism, “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11). Christian baptism is far more than just a sign of repentance: it is a sign of death and resurrection, as Paul explained:
We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
Romans 6:4 (NIV)
The ancient Jews offered regular sacrifices and sin offerings as a sign of their repentance. But these animal sacrifices had no power to change them:
The law … can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. 2 Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. 3 But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. 4 It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
Hebrews 10:1-4 (NIV)
Similarly, baptism for repentance has no power to change those who repent, if they do not go on to accept the message of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Mandaeans clearly do not believe that through being baptised once they have been “cleansed once for all”, as they undergo baptism as a weekly ritual.
Sadly we see the same attitude in many of our Christian churches. Roman Catholics are encouraged to confess their sins regularly to a priest in private. Anglican worshippers, among others, are expected to repeat at least every week words such as the following, from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer liturgy for The Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion:
We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we from time to time most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.
When the priest offers the absolution, they believe that their past sins have been forgiven – but also that they are expected to continue to sin, so they have something to confess the next Sunday. Clearly this kind of repeated ritual is no more effective than Old Testament sacrifices or Mandaean baptisms, as it cannot “make perfect those who draw near to worship”.
The biblical picture of the true Christian believer is very different:
No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.
1 John 3:9 (NIV)
John Meunier offers an interesting discussion of this verse and how it was understood by John Wesley – not, as I expected, as the basis of his controversial teaching on sinless perfection. Indeed, as the apostle John writes earlier in the same letter, we should not claim to be sinless and perfect:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.
1 John 1:8-10 (NIV)
But note those words “purify us from all unrighteousness”. Neither animal sacrifices nor repeated baptisms can do this. Nor can a declaration of forgiveness which comes with an expectation that more sins will follow. The Cross of Christ can bring forgiveness of sins, but apart from the Resurrection the only righteousness it can bring is that of death, of someone who cannot sin because they are dead. As John the apostle writes, a person can live a righteous life if and only if they are born again of God, if the life of the risen Jesus is within them.
So if we live by the Cross without the Resurrection, we are no better off than John the Baptist, forgiven our sins but still outside the kingdom of God. But if we leave our expectation of continuing to sin at the Cross and move on to take hold of the life of the risen Jesus, the kingdom of God is within and among us, and we can bring it to the world around.