04. Challenging The Authority Of John The Baptist (1:19-28)

And this is the witness of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites that they might ask him, Who are you? And he acknowledged and did not deny; yea, he acknowledged, I am not the Christ. And they asked him, What, then? Are you Elijah? And he said, I am not. Are you the Prophet? And he answered, No. Then they said to him, Who are you, that we may give an answer to those sending us? What do you say about yourself? He said, “I am a voice crying in the wilderness:” “Make straight” “the way of the Lord,” as Isaiah the prophet said. And those who had been sent were of the Pharisees. And they asked him and said to him, Why then do you baptise, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet? John answered them, saying, I baptise in water, but One stands in your midst whom you do not know; This One it is who has come after me, who has been before me, of whom I am not worthy that I should loose the thong of His sandal. These things took place in Bethabara beyond the Jordan, where John was baptising. (John 1:19-28)

The baptism performed by John represented the cleansing of the external man; but baptism as practised among Christians at the present time represents the cleansing of the internal man, which is his regeneration. That is why we read that John baptised with water, but the Lord baptises with the Holy Spirit and with fire. So too John’s baptism is called a baptism of repentance (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:4ff; Luke 3:3, 16; John 1:25, 26, 33; Acts 1:22; 10:37; 18:25). The Jews who were baptised were nothing but external men, and the external man cannot become internal without faith in Christ. It may be seen in the Acts of the Apostles (19:3-6) that those who received John’s baptism became internal men, when they accepted faith in Christ and were then baptised in the name of Jesus. (True Christian Religion 690)

…what was signified by baptism in the Jordan by John (Matt. 3; Mark 1:4-13), and what was signified by these words of John concerning the Lord:- That He would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire Luke 3:16; John 1:33; and concerning himself:- That he would baptise with water John 1:26. The meaning of this is that the Lord washes or purifies man by Divine Truth and Divine Good, and that John by his baptism represented this; for the ‘Holy Spirit’ is Divine Truth, ‘fire’ is Divine Good, and ‘water’ is a representative of them; for ‘water’ signifies the Truth of the Word, which becomes good by a life in accordance with it.(Apocalypse Revealed 378)

As we delve deeper into the Gospel of John it’s crucial to have the foundational elements firmly established in our minds. Otherwise, we risk misunderstanding its intended message and application. From the perspective of Spiritual Christianity, it’s important to recognise that although much of the Lord’s Word is written in a historical style, its purpose is not to provide a history lesson. Instead, this style is symbolic, where every element in the Text—be it people, animals, geography, or objects—serve as symbols representing psycho-spiritual structures and processes. When a story is narrated it combines various symbols to offer insights into how our minds operate, how attitudes develop, what impact these attitudes have on our lives, and how we can overcome those things that are destructive of a spiritually focused life while fostering those that support and nurture it.

The teachings of Spiritual Christianity offer us the key to unlocking the deeper meaning in the Word. A fundamental principle to accessing this deeper, spiritual meaning is that every natural element mentioned in the Word represents and so corresponds to psychic structures and processes within the spiritual world of the human mind. By applying this principle when engaging with the Word, the focus shifts to the spiritual meaning and so to the Word’s application to the life of the mind with its thinking and affectional structures which constitute the spiritual life, the life of the spirit.

The spiritual meaning of the Word is intended for the human spirit, prompting a question: What do we mean by the human spirit?

For many, the concept of spirit can be elusive. Fortunately, the teachings of Spiritual Christianity clarify these aspects, making them more accessible for us to understand and respond to. This shift allows these concepts to move from the abstract and ethereal into the realm of practical living. Any spiritual teaching should be firmly rooted in daily life because if it stays abstract it will fall short of supporting what’s needed for the regeneration of the human mind.

Spiritual Christianity teaches that the things of the spirit are the things of the mind. That in fact, our spirit is our mind and that its quality and nature is revealed in the kinds of thoughts that occupy our attention and in the affections which underpin our emotional state. So spiritual teachings are designed to address spiritual realities, to what relates to the quality of the thoughts and affection that make up our mental life. All genuine spiritual teachings have one focus, to support what’s needed for the regeneration of the human mind. Truths from the Word provide insight into the self-centred patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving which arise from proprial states, while at the same time providing what’s needed so that people can be set free from them. For when states of self-centredness dominate our mind, they invariably block the inflow of those qualities that constitute the life of heaven within us. The process of being delivered from our selfishness, from the proprial sense of self built upon the loves of self and the world, is what is meant by salvation. To be saved from this sense of self is only achieved through taking hold of spiritual truths and making them a part of our life.

A little honest personal reflection on the inner states of our life reveals a dark side – a side that is preoccupied with self-interest and self-gratification. Spiritual teachings are designed to support us to be able to confront this unhealthy side of ourselves so that we can see where we fall short. But we might ask, Fall short of what? What is the target we need to be aiming for if we are to fulfil our spiritual potential? In Biblical language the target is framed in terms of what our chief motivations are, which are succinctly captured in the two phrases, love to the Lord and love towards our neighbour.

Yet these two phrases, as simple as they appear on the surface, are too easily misunderstood. Again, the doctrines for Spiritual Christianity provide us with a pretty clear teaching on how these phrases are to be understood spiritually. In the work Apocalypse Revealed 903 it states that…

Love to the Lord is to have faith in the Lord and to do His commandments, and to do His commandments is love toward the neighbour, because to do His commandments is to do uses to the neighbour. That they love the Lord who do His commandments, the Lord Himself teaches in John 14:21-24;

To love the Lord is to love the Word or Divine truths for their own sake, for the Lord is the Word and so to love the Word is to live according to His Commandments not from any deliberation but as a matter of spontaneous responsiveness, as one’s mode of life. This state of faith in the Lord proceeds from a knowing in the core of one’s being that the Lord alone is and lives. It is to know, as a matter of life, that what is from Him is Him and thus, that the Word being from Lord is the Lord. This is loving the Lord.

What then about love towards the neighbour? This too has to do with loving the Lord but more remotely. It is more connected with a faith based in an intellectual acknowledgement of truths which holds that what is from the Lord is something other than the Lord. In this state, the Word is seen to be from the Lord but is not known as the Lord Himself. Yet, because it is from the Lord it is loved and there is an effort to live from the Commandments. However, this effort is one in which the sense of self is loved and so the motives feel mixed. It is a faith in which there is a constant struggle to forego claiming merit for one’s self and to instead acknowledge that all good and truth is from the Lord.

But doesn’t loving the neighbour involve being of use to and serving others? Yes, and no.

There is no doubt that uses which benefit others can be expressions of love towards the neighbour but we shouldn’t confuse the idea of loving the neighbour with the common meaning that sees the neighbour purely in terms of ‘people in need’. Spiritually, the term neighbour refers to what is closest to and supports good, this being truth. Truth is the neighbour that is to be loved and by it being loved is meant applying it to our life. Truth is the neighbour of good when it is applied because when applied it gives quality to good. So, to be in love toward the neighbour is to be in the applications of truths with a view to what is good.

This radical understanding of what is meant by the neighbour which the doctrines for Spiritual Christianity offer, alters the very nature of human relationships by putting eternal ends at the core of all human interactions. To love the neighbour where others are concerned, means acting from a perspective that looks to nurture and act from what one understands to be good and true, and so specifically from those things that look to the eternal ends, and which support the regeneration of the human mind. Now, because loving the neighbour is loving what is good and true and what is good and true is the Word as the Lord, the term neighbour in its highest sense refers to the Lord and by extension all things that look to Him as the supreme end in view are the neighbour, albeit in a lower degree.

Loving the neighbour, in the context of an individual, means loving the good or, at the very least, the capacity for good that is present for us in our interactions with them. This is because such goodness is the presence of the Lord, as God alone is inherently good. Expanding to a broader perspective, it involves affection for the good or its potential in our interactions with human communities, entailing support for organisations that speak to us as being capable of fostering this goodness. On a loftier level still, it encompasses love for the spiritual purposes or virtues within organisations that convey to us a genuine dedication to authentic spiritual objectives, which may include religious and spiritual entities. But above all, it is an expression of love to the Lord, the ultimate source of all that is good and true.

But there is a question here, How can we know what the spiritual quality is of the good or potential for good which we think we see in the field of human life? How can this be discerned?

With these questions in mind, let’s return to our reading from the Gospel for insights into the condition of the natural mind in relation to its discernment of spiritual realities. The unregenerate natural mind accepts no authority other than itself. It basically lives from the principle that it knows best and when our sense of self is tied to this, it becomes bound up in pride and arrogance which blinds us to spiritual truths and the challenges that they make upon our life. This sense of self is what’s termed the infernal or hellish proprium.

This state of mind lacks an understanding that genuine spiritual enlightenment begins with true humility, a concept it struggles to grasp. In this mindset, there is a common tendency to confuse moral and spiritual life leading to judgments about others based on self-imposed moral standards. This often involves perceiving oneself as morally superior and asserting a sense of spiritual superiority. In the realms of religion and spirituality, this attitude takes the form of self-righteousness and a belief in superiority over others. All of this, therefore, underscores the need for caution and self-awareness as this infernal proprium is a tendency inherent in all of us.

We tend to create illusions where we perceive ourselves as superior to others and this is especially evident when we catch ourselves focusing on what we see as someone else’s shortcomings. In the Gospel narrative, this dysfunctional sense of self is highlighted. The Word employs a representative style of narrative to capture this tendency, representing it through the religious authorities in the story who consistently challenge the Lord. Since the Lord represents the Divine truth or Word within the human mind, the opposing forces in the story reflect elements within us that resist this truth.

In John’s Gospel, these elements are referred to as the Jews, who symbolise an antagonistic attitude within us towards spiritual matters. Which brings us to a crucial reminder that spiritual writings instruct us about our inner spiritual world, where we all harbour both Jewish and Gentile tendencies. So, when reading Scripture symbolically, these terms represent attitudes within us, not races or external groups. This is what constitutes a spiritual interpretation of the Text.

So let’s pick things up in verse 19 and 20 where it states…

And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent from Jerusalem priests and Levites, so that they should question him, “You, who are you?” And he confessed and did not deny, and confessed, “I am not the Christ [“the Anointed One”].”

John is beginning to make waves, and this has got back to the religious authorities of the day who respond by calling into question his authority to do what he was doing. Now, last time we saw that John the Baptist represents what teaches us about the light, that he is a witness to Christ who is the light itself. And leaving behind ideas of a historical person and entering the world of Biblical symbolism, we saw that what teaches us about the Lord is the Word. So, in performing this function of a witness to the light, John is a symbolic figure who represents the literal sense of the Word that bears witness to the light of Divine Truth.

When we begin to take the Word seriously, as something of real spiritual value so far as its application to the life of our mind, it begins to challenge the core beliefs and assumptions which we live our life from. This is the essence of John’s message; it is a call to make the paths straight; a call to repentance. Repentance simply means to turn one’s thinking around. In a spiritual context, it refers to an act of thinking and acting from spiritual truths; of taking them seriously and allowing them to challenge our established ways of thinking and being. So John or the literal sense of the Word, looks to challenge us to think in a different way about things. To set aside our attitudes that we know best and to lay down our life of arrogance and intellectual pride so that spiritual influences might gain a richer presence in our life. The message of the Word at the John level openly challenges us to hand our life over to a different authority – to the Lord as the Word, as a guide for our internal and external life and behaviour. This goes against our habitual established ways of doing things, our personal traditions, even our religion of self-worship, all of which is what is meant symbolically here by the term the Jews.

What we will find, if we begin to seriously consider the value of what lies in the Word, is that the response from the natural mind to this intrusion of the new ideas which challenge our entrenched ways of self centred living – is to call spiritual teachings into question. Spiritual teachings are designed to disturb natural modes of thinking. They bring things to the fore that we have been unwilling to face and deal with. When these new teachings begin to impact on our life to the point where we begin to see that we need to make some changes, then our lower reasoning processes kick into action and begin to challenge the authority of such spiritual teachings in our life.

The lower natural level of life is naturally resistant to change, particularly where that change is going to lead to a new order of things. The testimony of John is that the Lord is the Word, that the Word is Divine Truth and that we need to consider this claim seriously. The natural mind is opposed to the spiritual mind and this resistance is described here symbolically in the response of those called Jews. What the narrative illustrates is how, from out of our old established patterns of thinking that is based on self interest, we send envoys and we question the authority of the Word. These elements within us that carry this opposition to spiritual life are represented here by the Priests and Levites. The Priests and Levites are those elements with us that call into question the message of the Word, of its call for changes in our life. They represent the evils and falsities of the infernal proprium that resists any change to the status quo. As such they represent a tendency within us all that regards the Word and the things of religion with suspicion. This will become clearer as we see the development of their antagonism towards Jesus as the story moves along.

To the natural mind the Word is often dismissed as nothing more than a book filled with human weaknesses and frailties. This lower level of thinking, or lower level of our mind, focuses on John – on the most external part of the Word, this being the literal sense. And indeed, when the Word is read as to its surface meaning, it certainly appears as something that can be easily dismissed.  Its contradictions, incongruencies and mythical and historical stories seem to convey little relevance to our life in the here and now. But if we are open, we will see that this surface meaning points to something much deeper within it and this is the Christ or the Divine Truth who represents the internal sense, the spiritual meaning within the surface meaning. So the surface meaning is John who prepares the way and opens the mind to a state of receptivity to receiving the Word into our life, by pointing and leading us to deeper things. But we will only heed this leading if we are open to seeing ourselves as we truly are, thereby humbling ourselves before the Lord and allowing His Word to become an authority in our life. The message is…

“I [am] ‘a voice shouting in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of [the] Lord,”

May we hear this voice, this call, so that we might more fully know the life of heaven within…

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