Paving the Way for ‘Freedom Indeed’
“IF THE Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” An electrifying statement to a people who considered themselves to be the freest people on earth, and true worshipers of the Almighty God. They had been set free from Babylon five centuries beforehand by God’s own power. True, they chafed somewhat under Roman rule, for they wanted political autonomy, but they never thought of themselves as slaves. As to worship and as to righteousness, they considered themselves free. They looked for the Messiah to throw off the Roman political yoke, but made the mistake of thinking their righteousness was such as to be received by him with special favor. They saw no need for religious reformation. The speaker of the statement that shook them so greatly was Jehovah’s greatest Prophet, Jesus Christ. On what basis could he say this?—John 8:36, AV.
Following their release from Babylon in 537 B.C.E., a remnant of faithful Jews had returned to the desolate site of Jerusalem. They had repented and cleaned up from the idol worship that had brought God’s disfavor and disciplinary action. They rebuilt the city and its temple and settled again as a religiously free people in their own God-given homeland. They had their vicissitudes after this, for while true worship was restored at that time, the kingship of David’s line was not. Successive pagan world powers dominated them, just as had been foretold by Daniel and his fellow prophet, Ezekiel. (Ezek. 21:27; Dan. 4:25) But never had they again been carried completely off their land as slaves, leaving it entirely desolate, as had been done by Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar. Nevertheless, by the end of the first century B.C.E. they had come to be under a far more restrictive and enslaving bondage, a spiritual one. It was the more powerful in its hold on them because they were blind to their condition.—John 8:33.
RELEASE FROM SPIRITUAL BONDAGE NEEDED
This new form of bondage was brought about by their religious leaders. (Mal. 2:7, 8) God’s prophet Malachi, the last writer of the inspired Hebrew Scriptures, had foretold this condition. He warned that in order to avoid adverse judgments of God, the people would have to be turned back from their course of violating the law covenant that God had made with them through Moses. They must acknowledge their spiritually alienated position, turn around and exercise obedience to Jehovah and return to true service and worship of him, the true God. They would have to become like their faithful fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and like obedient sons toward God. Malachi said: “Look! I am sending to you people Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and fear-inspiring day of Jehovah. And he must turn the heart of fathers back toward sons, and the heart of sons back toward fathers; in order that I may not come and actually strike the earth with a devoting of it to destruction.”—Mal. 4:5, 6.
By adding many traditions to the Word of God the Jewish religious leaders circumvented many of the weightier matters of the Law. (Matt. 23:23) Their worship had deteriorated to a mere formalism. They hypocritically gave mere lip service to God, while their hearts were far removed from him. (Matt. 15:3-9) But they were self-righteous and sought the praise and honor of men. (Matt. 6:1, 2, 5) By their many traditions and precepts they had misled the people and had caused them to violate God’s law, bringing them into servitude to man. How these leaders despised and oppressed the people as they exploited them! (John 7:47-49) The nation was, therefore, in bondage to Judaism, a Babylonish religious captivity, and like all other men, they were at the same time in bondage to sin and death, from which the sacrifices they offered under the Law could not save them. (Gal. 1:13, 14; Heb. 10:4) They needed the true freedom-giving provision of God, the Messiah. According to Daniel’s prophecy of the seventy weeks the time had drawn near for the Messiah’s appearance and in 29 C.E. many were in expectation of him. (Luke 3:15) Therefore, a work must be done to pave the way for this One who would set them free, not only from Judaistic bondage, but also from sin and death, a freedom indeed!
JOHN’S PREPARATORY WORK
The prophecy of Malachi had to be fulfilled, and it was. A man born about six months earlier than Jesus, the son of the priest Zechariah, John the Baptist, proved to be the one who would pave the way for the coming of Messiah the Leader, the Liberator, the one who would bring freedom indeed. How badly the Jews needed John’s preparatory work is seen from what he felt constrained to say to Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him for baptism: “You offspring of vipers, who has shown you how to flee from the coming wrath? . . . I, for my part, baptize you with water because of your repentance; but the one coming after me is stronger than I am, whose sandals I am not fit to take off. That one will baptize you people with holy spirit and with fire. His winnowing shovel is in his hand, and he will completely clean up his threshing floor, and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with fire [in a baptism of fire] that cannot be put out.” (Matt. 3:7-12; Luke 3:7-17) How enslaved they had become!
John baptized Jesus and directed the people to him. He did not try to hold his disciples back from following Jesus. (John 3:28-30) Some days after baptizing Jesus he said to some of his disciples: “‘This is the one about whom I said, Behind me there comes a man who has advanced in front of me, because he existed before me. Even I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing in water was that he might be made manifest to Israel.’ John also bore witness, saying: ‘I viewed the spirit coming down as a dove out of heaven, and it remained upon him. Even I did not know him, but the very One who sent me to baptize in water said to me, “Whoever it is upon whom you see the spirit coming down and remaining, this is the one that baptizes in holy spirit.” And I have seen it, and I have borne witness that this one is the Son of God.’” (John 1:30-34) John was telling the truth, for Jesus had dwelt with his Father in the heavens untold centuries before John came into existence.
Matthew records that which was referred to by John, writing: “Then Jesus came from Galilee [in which Nazareth was located] to the Jordan [River] to John, in order to be baptized by him. But the latter tried to prevent him, saying: ‘I am the one needing to be baptized by you, and are you coming to me?’ In reply Jesus said to him: ‘Let it be, this time, for in that way it is suitable for us to carry out all that is righteous.’ Then he quit preventing him. After being baptized Jesus immediately came up from the water; and, look! the heavens were opened up, and he saw descending like a dove God’s spirit coming upon him. Look! Also, there was a voice from the heavens that said: ‘This is my Son, the beloved, whom I have approved.’”—Matt. 3:13-17; 2:22, 23; see also Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-23.
A BABYLONISH RELIGIOUS CAPTIVITY
That John truly came to a people in a Babylonish religious captivity similar to their previous exile in ancient Babylon is clear from the Bible’s application of prophecies that had a relationship to the return of the faithful remnant of Jews from Babylon in 537 B.C.E. John, therefore, came to carry forward an extension of the return of the Israelites from exile. The prophecy of Isaiah, which had a Babylonian background, is applied to John’s work. Chapter 39 of Isaiah tells how the things that King Hezekiah had stored up in his palace in Jerusalem would be carried to Babylon and that some of Hezekiah’s descendants would be made court officials in the palace of the king of Babylon. Then Isaiah goes on to say, at chapter 40, verses 1-5: “‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says the God of you men. ‘Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call out to her that her military service has been fulfilled, that her error has been paid off. For from the hand of Jehovah she has received a full amount for all her sins.’ Listen! Someone is calling out in the wilderness: ‘Clear up the way of Jehovah, you people! Make the highway for our God through the desert plain straight. Let every valley be raised up, and every mountain and hill be made low. And the knobby ground must become level land, and the rugged ground a valley plain. And the glory of Jehovah will certainly be revealed, and all flesh must see it together, for the very mouth of Jehovah has spoken it.’”
In ancient times the prophecy foretold that, through King Cyrus of Persia, the way would be smoothed out for the Jews to leave their long exile in Babylon and return to their homeland. This brought comfort to Jerusalem and glory to Jehovah God. The glory of Jehovah was thus revealed for all flesh to see. Isaiah prophesied that Jehovah would be going before the returning exiles and that he would be their rear guard. Therefore the preparing of the way could be spoken of as clearing up the way of Jehovah and making the highway of their God straight. (Isa. 52:12) Jehovah did not go visibly before them. Rather, it was Zerubbabel, Jehovah’s representative, who led them out of Babylon in 537 B.C.E.
John did, in a religious way, clear up the way for Jehovah and straighten out the highway through the desert plain for God. Not, of course, for Jehovah to travel over literally, but paving the way for the coming of Jehovah’s Messiah or Christ by preparing a people to recognize and accept his leadership to freedom. In fact, John the Baptist under inspiration applied the prophecy of Isaiah 40:3 to himself when questioned by the Jews, as we read at John 1:19-24: “Now this is the witness of John when the Jews sent forth priests and Levites from Jerusalem to him to ask him: ‘Who are you?’ And he confessed and did not deny, but confessed: ‘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!’ Therefore they said to him: ‘Who are you? that we may give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said: ‘I am a voice of someone crying out in the wilderness, “Make the way of Jehovah straight,” just as Isaiah the prophet said.’ Now those sent forth were from the Pharisees.” This understanding of the application of the prophecy is supported also by the apostle Matthew as well as the Bible writers Mark and Luke. Matthew tells us: “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.’ This, in fact, is the one spoken of through Isaiah the prophet in these words: ‘Listen! Someone is crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of Jehovah, you people! Make his roads straight.”’” (Matt. 3:1-3; Mark 1:1-4; Luke 3:1-6) When John baptized Jesus he had proof that Jesus was the Son of God, not Jehovah himself that he was baptizing. He had the powerful testimony of God’s own voice to that fact.—Matt. 3:13-17.
As prophesied, John had the spirit and power of Elijah, that is, the drive and the powerful message that brought about a reformation or turning around of many honest Jews. He pointed them to the “Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” He introduced Jesus’ first disciples to him. He was like “the friend of the bridegroom” that is happy to present the bride to her beloved.—John 3:28-30; compare 2 Corinthians 11:2.
WAY OF FREEDOM OPEN NOW
From all of this we can see that to be in bondage one does not have to be inside a prison wall or be a captive of war in another nation, as the Jews were when they were taken to Babylon. No, all mankind are captive to sin and death and there is added to this a religious captivity in which the great majority of mankind are being held today by Babylon the Great, the world empire of false religion. Religions of both pagandom and Christendom teach Babylonish doctrines and practices and blind their adherents to the discernment of what will actually bring them real freedom. Nevertheless, the way of freedom is being set before mankind and many are availing themselves of it. How?
Well, during the forty years prior to 1914 C.E., many important truths were cleared up, such as Jesus’ coming to earth as a man to give his human life as a ransom, that he was resurrected as a spirit, in a spiritual body, to appear before his Father Jehovah in heaven to repurchase the human race and then to return invisibly in Kingdom power. (1 Pet. 3:18; 1 Cor. 15:44) Especially since 1919 the presence of Jehovah’s appointed Liberator in Kingdom power has been announced. Yes, the fact of the establishment in 1914 of the kingdom of the Son of God, the Messiah, has been published world wide by Jehovah’s witnesses. The way has been paved for freedom. Now religious freedom is being enjoyed by those who hear the proclamation and follow the Messiah the Leader Jesus Christ and who put themselves in subservience to his kingdom. Soon, with the complete destruction of Babylon the Great and her supporters, the age-old rival to true worship will be gone. No longer will she be a threat to mankind’s spiritual freedom. Then with the annihilation of the rest of this wicked, satanic system of things by Christ Jesus the King, full and complete freedom will come to humankind during his thousand-year reign when he will remove man’s greatest enemy, death, with all of its concomitant sorrows.—Rom. 8:21; Rev. 21:1-4.