|Where is the lore the Baptist taught,
The soul unswerving and the fearless tongue?
The much-enduring wisdom, sought
By lonely prayer the haunted rocks among?
Who counts it gain
His light would wane,
So the whole world to Jesus throng?|
The Moral Greatness of the Baptist -- Thoughts on Envy -- Christian Consecration -- The Baptist's Creed -- The Voice of the Beloved
From the Jordan Valley our Lord returned to Galilee and Nazareth. The marriage feast of Cana, his return to Jerusalem, the cleansing of the Temple, and the interview with Nicodemus, followed in rapid succession. And when the crowds of Passover pilgrims were dispersing homewards, He also left the city with his disciples, and began a missionary tour throughout the land of Judaea.
This tour is not much dwelt upon in Scripture. We only catch a glimpse of it here in the 22nd verse, and again in the address of the apostle Peter to Cornelius, where he speaks of Christ preaching good tidings of peace throughout all Judaea (Acts x.36, 37). How long it lasted we cannot tell; but it must have occupied some months, for He tarried from time to time at different points.
It is not likely that our Lord unfolded his Messianic character, or taught with the same clearness as in after days. For the most part, He would adopt the cry of the Baptist. Of the commencement of his ministry it is recorded: |Jesus came, ... preaching the Gospel of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe in the Gospel'| (Mark i.14, 15). But his deeds declared his royalty.
Wherever He went He was welcomed with vast enthusiasm. The scenes which had occurred a few months before to inaugurate the Baptist's ministry were re-enacted. The progress of the heaven-sent Teacher (John iii.2) was accompanied by immense throngs of people, who, wearied with the tiresome exactions of Pharisee and scribe, turned with eagerness to the humanness and holiness of the True Shepherd. It is said that cattle, sick and harried with the voyage across the Atlantic, will show signs of revival as they sniff the first land breezes laden with the breath of the clover fields.
During all this time the Baptist was continuing his preparatory work in the Jordan Valley, though now driven by persecution to leave the western bank for Aenon and Salim on the eastern side, where a handful of followers still clung to him. |John was not yet cast into prison,| but the shadow of his impending fate was already gathering over him; and so he was baptizing in Aenon, near to Salim, where the Jordan sweeps out into broad sheets of water, eminently suitable for his purpose. Thither they came and were baptized. The morning star lingers in the same heavens with the sun, whom it has announced; but its lustre has paled, and its glories are shorn.
It would appear from the R.V. (ver.25) that a Jew, probably an emissary of the Sanhedrim, brought tidings to that little circle of true-hearted disciples of the work that Jesus was doing in Judaea, and drew them into a discussion as to the comparative value of the two baptisms. It was acknowledged that Jesus did not, with his own hands, perform the rite of baptism, probably for reasons afterwards cited by his great apostle (iv.2; compare 1 Cor. i.14-17): but it would be administered by his disciples, at his direction, and with his countenance, and therefore it could be reported to the Baptist by his disciples, who came to him with eyes flashing with indignation, and faces heated with the excitement of the discussion: |Rabbi, He that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou hast borne witness, the same baptizeth, and all men come to Him| (ver.26).
It was as though they said, |Master, is it not too bad? See how thy generous testimony has been requited! In the day of thy glory thou wert too profuse in thy acknowledgments, too prodigal in thy testimonials. Now this new Teacher has taken a leaf out of thy programme; He too is preaching, baptizing, and gathering a school of disciples.| But there was no tinder in that noble breast which these jealous sparks could kindle. Nothing but love dwelt there. He had been plunged into the baptism of a holy love, which had burnt out the selfishness and jealousy, which were as natural to him as to us all. It was as when a spark falls into an ocean and is instantly extinguished. Thus his reply will ever rank among the greatest utterances of mortal man. The Lord said that of those born of woman none was greater than John; and, if by nothing else, by these words his moral stature and superlative excellence were vindicated. He seemed great when his voice rang like a clarion through Palestine, attracting and thrilling the mighty throngs; great, when he dared to tell Herod that it was unlawful for him to have his brother's wife, uttering words which those palace walls must have been startled to hear; great, when he baptized Him for whom the world was waiting, and who was declared to be the Son of God with power; but he never seemed so great as when he refused to enter into those acrimonious altercations and discussions, and said simply, |A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven.|
I. JOHN COUNTED INFLUENCE AND POSITION AS DIVINE GIFTS. -- What startling differences obtain among men -- Peter and John, Calvin and Melancthon, John Knox and Samuel Rutherford, Kingsley and Keble! Each of these has left his imprint on human history; each so needful to do his own special work, but each so diverse from all others. We are sometimes tempted to attribute their special powers and success to their circumstances, their times, their parents and teachers; but there is a deeper and more satisfactory explanation. Adopting the words of the Forerunner, we may say -- They had nothing that they had not received from heaven, by the direct appointment and decree of God.
It was thus that the Baptist reasoned: |Whatever success and blessing I had are due to the appointment of Him who sent me to preach his Gospel and announce the advent of his Son. Every man has his work and sphere appointed him of God. If this new Teacher meet with such success, we have no right to be jealous of Him, lest we sin against God, who has made Him what He is. And if we have not the same crowds as once, let us be content to take this, too, as the appointment of Heaven, glad to do whatever is assigned to us, and to leave all results with God.|
This is a golden sentence, indeed! -- |A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven.| Hast thou great success in thy life-work? Do crowds gather around thy steps and throng thy audience-chamber? Do not attribute them to thyself. They are all the gifts of God's grace. He raiseth up one and setteth down another. Thou hast nothing that thou hast not received; and if thou hast received it, see to it that thou exercise perpetually the faculty of receptiveness, so that thou mayest receive more and more, grace on grace. The river in its flow should hollow out the channel-bed through which it flows. Be thankful, but never vain. He who gave may take. Great talents bestowed imply great responsibility in the day of reckoning. Be not high-minded, but fear. Much success can only be enjoyed without injury to the inner life by being considered as the dear gift of Christ, to be used for Him.
Hast thou but one talent, and little success? -- yet this is as God has willed it. He might have given more had He willed it so; be thankful that He has given any. Use what thou hast. The five barley loaves and two small fishes will so increase, as they are distributed, that they will supply the want of thousands. Do not dare to envy one more successful and used than thyself, lest thou be convicted of murmuring against the appointment of thy Lord. Here, too, is the cure of jealousy, which more than anything else blights the soul of the servant of God. To an older minister, who has passed the zenith of his popularity and power, it is often a severe trial to see younger men stepping into positions which he once held and has been compelled to renounce. He is mightily tempted to disparage their power, and condemn them by faint praise; or, if he praise, to add one biting comment which undoes the generosity and frankness of the eulogium. Why should this younger man, who was not born when his own ministry was at full tide, now carry all before him, while the waves are quietly withdrawing from the margin of seaweed they once cast up! Thoughts like these corrode and canker the soul; and there is no arrest to them, unless, by a definite effort of the Spirit-energised will, the soul turns to God with the words: |A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven. I had my glad hours of meridian glory, and have still the mellow light of a summer sunset. It was God's gift to me, as rest is now; and I will rejoice that He raises up others to do his work. I will rejoice that the Kingdom is coming, that Christ is satisfied, that men are being saved; this shall be my joy, and it shall be fulfilled.|
How much misery, heart-burning, and disappointment would be saved if, at the beginning of life, each of us inquired seriously what that special work in the world might be to which he was called, and for which he is fitted. Then, instead of being poor imitations, we might be good originals. Instead of spending our time in going off on side issues, we might bend all our strength to the main purpose of our existence. God has meant each of us for something; incarnating in us one of his own great thoughts, and equipping us with all material that is necessary for its realization. We may probably discover its meaning by the peculiarities of our mental endowments or the advice of friends; by the necessity of our circumstances or the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise we must be content to go on making each day according to the pattern shown us -- not as a whole, but in detail -- sure that some day each bit and scrap, each vail and hanging, will find its place, and the tabernacle of our life stand complete.
Every name is historic in God's estimate. The obscurest among us has his place in the Divine plan, his lesson to learn, his work to do. The century opening before us can no more dispense with us than an orchestra with the piccolo. A pawn on God's chessboard may take a knight, or give check to a king. |We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works which God has before prepared (R.V.), that we should walk in them| (Eph. ii.10).
II. JOHN CAUGHT SIGHT OF A FULLER AND RICHER IDEAL THAN HIS OWN. -- Tidings had, without doubt, been brought to him of our Lord's first miracle in Cana of Galilee. We know that it had made a great impression on the little group of ardent souls, who had been called to share the village festivities with their newly-found Master; and we know that some of them were still deeply attached to their old friend and leader. From these he would learn the full details of that remarkable inauguration of this long-expected ministry. How startled he must have been at the first hearing! He had announced the Husbandman with his fan to thoroughly winnow his floor; the Baptist with his fire; the Lamb of God, holy, harmless, and separate from sinners. But the Messiah opens his ministry among men by mingling with the simple villagers in their wedding joy, and actually ministers to their innocent mirth, as He turns the water into wine! The Son of Man has come |eating and drinking|! What a contrast was here to the austerity of the desert, the coarse raiment, the hard fare! |John the Baptist came neither eating nor drinking.| Could this be He? And yet there was no doubt that the heaven had been opened above Him, that the Dove had descended, and that God's voice had declared Him to be the |Beloved Son.| But what a contrast to all that he had looked for!
Further reflection, however, on that incident, in which Jesus manifested forth his glory, and the cleansing of the Temple which immediately followed, must have convinced the Baptist that this conception of holiness was the true one. His own type could never be universal or popular. It was not to be expected that the mass of men could be spared from the ordinary demands of daily life to spend their days in the wilderness as he had done; and it would not have been for their well-being, or that of the world, if his practice had become the rule. It would have been a practical admission that ordinary life was common and unclean; and that there was no possibility of infusing it with the high principles of the Kingdom of Heaven. Consecration to God would have become synonymous with the exclusion of wife and child, of home and business, of music and poetry, from the soul of the saint; whereas its true conception demands that nothing which God has created can be accounted common or unclean, but all may be included within the encircling precincts of the Redeemer's Kingdom. The motto of Christian consecration is, therefore, given in that remarkable assertion of the apostle; |Every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified through the Word of God and prayer| (1 Tim. iv.4, 5).
John saw, beneath the illuminating ray of the Holy Spirit, that this was the Divine Ideal; that the Redeemer could not contradict the Creator; that the Kingdom was consistent with the home; and the presence of the King with the caress of woman and the laughter of the child, and the innocent mirth of the village feast. This he saw, and cried in effect: |That village scene is the key to the Messiah's ministry to Israel. He is not only Guest at a bridegroom's table, but the Bridegroom Himself. He has come to woo and win the chosen race. Of old they were called Hephzibah and Beulah; and now those ancient words come back to mind with newly-minted meaning, with the scent of spring. Our land, long bereaved and desolate, is to be married. Joy, joy to her! The Bridegroom is here. He that hath the bride is the Bridegroom. As for me, I am the Bridegroom's friend, sent to negotiate the match, privileged to know and bring together the two parties in the blessed nuptials -- blessed with the unspeakable gladness of hearing the Bridegroom's manly speech. Do you tell me that He is preaching, and that all come to Him? That is what I have wanted most of all. This my joy, therefore, is fulfilled. 'He must increase, but I must decrease.'|
III. JOHN HAD ENLARGED PERCEPTION OF THE TRUE NATURE OF CHRIST. -- It has been questioned whether the paragraph which follows (John iii.31-36) was spoken by the Baptist, or is the comment of the Evangelist. With many eminent commentators, I incline strongly to the former view. The phraseology employed in this paragraph is closely similar to the words addressed by Christ to Nicodemus, and often used by Himself, as in John v.; and they may well have filtered through to the Baptist, by the lips of Andrew, Peter, and John, who would often retail to their venerated earliest teacher what they heard from Jesus.
Consider, then, the Baptist's creed at this point of his career. He believed in the heavenly origin and divinity of the Son of Man -- that He was from heaven and above all. He believed in the unique and divine source of his teaching -- that He did not communicate what He had learnt at second-hand, but stood forth as one speaking what He knows, and testifying what He has seen -- |For He whom God has sent, speaketh the words of God.| He believed in his copious enduement with the Holy Spirit. Knowing that human teachers, at the best, could only receive the Spirit in a limited degree, he recognised that when God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit there was no limit, no measuring metre, no stint. It was copious, rich, unmeasured -- so much so that it ran down from his head, as Hermon's dews descend to the lonely heights of Zion. He believed in his near relationship to God, using the well-known Jewish phrase of sonship to describe his possession of the Divine nature in a unique sense, and recalling the utterance of the hour of baptism, to give weight to his assurance that the Father loved Him as Son. Lastly, He believed in the mediatorial function of the Man of Nazareth -- that the Father had already given all things into his hand; and that the day was coming when He would sit on the throne of David, yea, on the mediatorial throne itself, King of kings, and Lord of lords, the keys of Death and Hades, of the realms of invisible existence and spiritual power, hanging at his girdle.
To that creed the Baptist added a testimony, which has been the means of light and blessing to myriads. Being dead, he yet has spoken through the ages, assuring us that to believe on Jesus is to have, as a present fact, eternal life, the life which fills the Being of God and defies time and change. Faith is the act by which we open our heart to receive the gift of God; as earth bares her breast to sun and rain, and as the good wife flings wide her doors and windows to let in the spring sunshine and the summer air. Ah, reader, I would that thou hadst this faith! The open heart towards Christ! The yielded will! Thou needst only will to have Him, and He has already entered, though thou canst not detect his footfall, or the chime of the bells around his garment's hem. And to shut thy heart against Him not only excludes the life which might be thine, but incurs the wrath of God.
There are two concluding thoughts. First: The only hope of a decreasing self is an increasing Christ. There is too much of the self-life in us all, chafing against God's will, refusing God's gifts, instigating the very services we render to God, simulating humility and meekness for the praise of men. But how can we be rid of this accursed self-consciousness and pride? Ah! we must turn our back on our shadow, and our face towards Christ. We must look at all things from his standpoint, trying to realize always how they affect Him, and then entering into his emotions. It has been said that |the woman who loves thinks with the brain of the man she loves|, and surely if we love Christ with a constraining passion, we shall think his thoughts and feel his joys, and no longer live unto ourselves, but unto Him.
|Love took up the Harp of Life
And smote on all its chords with might;
Smote the chord of self, that trembling,
Passed in music out of sight.|
Second: we must view our relationship to Christ as the betrothal and marriage of our soul to our Maker and Redeemer, who is also our Husband. |Wherefore, my brethren,| says the apostle, |ye also were made dead to the law through the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God| (Rom. vii.4).
The Son of God is not content to love us. He cannot rest till He has all our love in return. |He looketh in at the windows| of the soul, |and showeth Himself through the lattice.| Our Beloved speaks, and says unto us, |Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.| And, as our response, He waits to hear us say:
|My Beloved is mine, and I am his;
He feedeth his flock among the lilies.
Until the day break, and the shadows flee away,
Turn, my Beloved!|