E-text prepared by Al Haines
In the original book, each right-hand page had its own header. In this e-book, each chapter's headers have been collected into an introductory paragraph immediately following that chapter's introductory poem. (The left-hand pages' header was the chapter's title.)
JOHN THE BAPTIST
F. B. MEYER, B.A.
Author of Paul: A Servant of Jesus Christ The Prophet of Hope Saved and Kept etc., etc
London: Morgan and Scott Office of The Christian 12, Paternoster Buildings, E.C. And may be Ordered of any Bookseller 1911
By Rev. F. B. MEYER, B.A.
THE "BIOGRAPHICAL" SERIES.
ABRAHAM: Or, The Obedience of Faith. ISRAEL: A Prince with God. JOSEPH: Beloved—Hated—Exalted. MOSES: The Servant of God. JOSHUA: And the Land of Promise. DAVID: Shepherd, Psalmist, King. ELIJAH: And the Secret of his Power. JEREMIAH: Priest and Prophet. JOHN THE BAPTIST. PAUL: A Servant of Jesus Christ.
The life and character of John the Baptist have always had a great fascination for me; and I am thankful to have been permitted to write this book. But I am more thankful for the hours of absorbing interest spent in the study of his portraiture as given in the Gospels. I know of nothing that makes so pleasant a respite from the pressure of life's fret and strain, as to bathe mind and spirit in the translucent waters of Scripture biography.
As the clasp between the Old Testament and the New—the close of the one and the beginning of the other; as among the greatest of those born of women; as the porter who opened the door to the True Shepherd; as the fearless rebuker of royal and shameless sin—the Baptist must ever compel the homage and admiration of mankind.
In many respects, such a life cannot be repeated. But the spirit of humility and courage; of devotion to God, and uncompromising loyalty to truth, which was so conspicuous in him, may animate us. We, also, may be filled with the spirit and power of Elijah, as he was; and may point, with lip and life, to the Saviour of the world, crying, "Behold the Lamb of God."
I. THE INTEREST OF HIS BIOGRAPHY II. THE HOUSE OF ZACHARIAS III. HIS SCHOOLS AND SCHOOLMASTERS IV. THE PROPHET OF THE HIGHEST V. THE FIRST MINISTRY OF THE BAPTIST VI. BAPTISM UNTO REPENTANCE VII. THE MANIFESTATION OF THE MESSIAH VIII. NOT THAT LIGHT, BUT A WITNESS IX. "HE MUST INCREASE, BUT I MUST DECREASE" X. THE KING'S COURTS XI. "ART THOU HE?" XII. "NONE GREATER THAN JOHN THE BAPTIST, YET..." XIII. A BURNING AND SHINING LIGHT XIV. SET AT LIBERTY XV. THE GRAVE OF JOHN, AND ANOTHER GRAVE XVI. YET SPEAKING XVII. THE SPIRIT AND POWER OF ELIAS
JOHN THE BAPTIST.
The Interest of his Biography.
"John, than which man a sadder or a greater Not till this day has been of woman born; John, like some iron peak by the Creator Fired with the red glow of the rushing morn.
"This, when the sun shall rise and overcome it, Stands in his shining, desolate and bare; Yet not the less the inexorable summit Flamed him his signal to the happier air." F. W. H. MYERS.
John and Jesus—Contemporary History—Anticipation of the Advent.
The morning star, shining amid the brightening glow of dawn, is the fittest emblem that Nature can supply of the herald who proclaimed the rising of the Sun of Righteousness—answering across the gulf of three hundred years to his brother prophet, Malachi, who had foretold that Sunrise and the healing in His wings.
Every sign attests the unique and singular glory of the Baptist. Not that his career was signalized by the blaze of prodigy and wonder, like the multiplication of the widow's meal or the descent of the fire of heaven to consume the altar and the wood; for it is expressly said that "John did no miracle." Not that he owed anything to the adventitious circumstances of wealth and rank; for he was not a place-loving courtier, "clothed in soft raiment or found in kings' courts." Not that he was a master of a superb eloquence like that of Isaiah or Ezekiel; for he was content to be only "a cry"—short, thrilling, piercing through the darkness, ringing over the desert plains. Yet, his Master said of him that "among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist"; and in six brief months, as one has noticed, the young prophet of the wilderness had become the centre to which all the land went forth. We see Pharisees and Sadducees, soldiers and publicans, enthralled by his ministry; the Sanhedrim forced to investigate his claims; the petty potentates of Palestine caused to tremble on their thrones; while he has left a name and an influence that will never cease out of the world.
But there is a further feature which arrests us in the life and ministry of the Baptist. He was ordained to be "the clasp" of two covenants. In him Judaism reached its highest embodiment, and the Old Testament found its noblest exponent. It is significant, therefore, that through his lips the law and the prophets should announce their transitional purpose, and that he who caught up the torch of Hebrew prophecy with a grasp and spirit unrivalled by any before him, should have it in his power and in his heart to say: "The object of all prophecy, the purpose of the Mosaic law, the end of all sacrifices, the desire of all nations, is at hand." And forthwith turning to the True Shepherd, who stood at the door waiting to be admitted, to Him the porter opened, bowing low as He passed, and crying: "This is He of whom Moses in the law and the prophets did write, Jesus of Nazareth, who was for to come."
Few studies can bring out to clearer demonstration the superlative glory of Christ than a thoughtful consideration of the story of the forerunner. They were born at the same time; were surrounded from their birth by similar circumstances; drank in from their earliest days the same patriotic aspirations, the same sacred traditions, the same glowing hopes. But the parallel soon stops. John the Baptist is certainly a grand embodiment of the noblest characteristics of the Jewish people. We see in him a conspicuous example of what could be developed out of eight hundred years of Divine revelation and discipline. But Jesus is the Son of Man: there is a width, a breadth, a universality about Him which cannot be accounted for save on the hypothesis which John himself declared, that "He who cometh from above is above all."
In each case, life was strenuous and short—an epoch being inaugurated, in the one case in about six months, in the other some three years. In each case, at first, there was abounding enthusiasm, bursting forth around their persons as they announced the Kingdom of God, like the flowers which carpet their own fair land after the rains; but side by side the unconcealed hatred of the religious world of their time. In each case, the brief sunny hours of service were soon succeeded by the rolling up of the thunderous clouds, and these by the murderous tempest of deadly hatred, even unto death: "Their dead bodies lay in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt." In each case, there was a little handful of detached disciples, who bitterly mourned their master's death, and took up the desecrated corpse to lay it in the tomb; whilst they that dwelt in the earth rejoiced and made merry, and sent gifts to one another, because they had been tormented by their words (Rev. xi. 10).
But there the parallel ends. The life purpose of the one culminated in his death; with the other, it only began. In the case of John, death was a martyrdom, which shines brilliantly amid the murky darkness of his time; in the case of Jesus, death was a sacrifice which put away the sin of the world. For John there was no immediate resurrection, save that which all good men have of their words and influence; but his Master saw no corruption—it was not possible for Him to be holden by it—and in his resurrection He commenced to wield his wide and mighty supremacy over human hearts and wills. When the axe of Herod's executioner had done its deadly work in the dungeons of Machaerus, the bond which knit the disciples of John was severed also, and they were absorbed in the followers of Christ; but when the Roman soldiers thought their work was done, and the cry "It is finished!" had escaped the parched lips of the dying Lord, his disciples held together in the upper room, and continued there for more than forty days, until the descent of the Holy Spirit formed them into the strongest organization that this world has ever beheld.
John's influence on the world has diminished as men have receded further from his age; but Jesus is King of the ages. He creates, He fashions, He leads them forth; He is with us always, to the end of the age. We have not to go back through the centuries to find Him in the cradle or in Mary's arms, in the fishing-boat or on the mountain, on the cross or in the grave; He is here beside us, with us, in us, "all the days." John, then, was "a burning and shining torch," lifted for a moment aloft in the murky air; but Jesus was THAT LIGHT. As the star-light, which fails to illumine the page of your book or the dial-plate of your watch, is to the sunlight, as the courier is to the sovereign, as the streamlet is to the ocean—such was John as compared with Him whose shoe-latchet he felt himself unworthy to stoop down and unloose. Greatest born of women he might be; "sent from God" he was: but One came after him who bore upon his front the designation of his Divine origin and mission, behind whom the gates of the past closed as when a king has passed through, and at whose girdle hang the keys of the doors and gates of the Ages.
To read the calm idyllic pages of the Gospels, apart from some knowledge of contemporary history, is to miss one of their deepest lessons—that such piety and beneficence were set in the midst of a most tumultuous and perilous age. Those times were by no means favourable to the cultivation of the deepest life. The flock of God had long left the green pastures and still waters of outward peace, and were passing through the valley of death-shadow, every step of the path being infested by the enemies of their peace. The wolf, indeed, was coming. The national life was already being rent by those throes of agony which betokened the passing away of an age, and reached their climax in the Fall of Jerusalem, of which Jesus said there had been nothing, and would be nothing, like it in the history of the world.
Herod was on the throne—crafty, cruel, sensual, imperious, and magnificent. The gorgeous Temple which bore his name was the scene of priestly service and sacramental rites. The great national feasts of the Passover, of Tabernacles, and of Pentecost, were celebrated with solemn pomp, and attracted vast crowds from all the world. In every part of the land synagogues were maintained with punctilious care, and crowds of scribes were perpetually engaged in a microscopic study of the law, and in the instruction of the people. In revenue, and popular attention, and apparent devoutness, that period had not been excelled in the most palmy days of Solomon or Hezekiah. But beneath this decorous surface the rankest, foulest, most desperate corruption throve.
To the aged couple in the hill-country of Judaea, as to Mary and Joseph at Nazareth, must have come tidings of the murder of Aristobulus, of the cruel death of Mariamne and her sons, and of the aged Hyrcanus. They must have groaned beneath the grinding oppression by which Herod extorted from the poorer classes the immense revenues which he squandered on his palaces and fortresses and on the creation of new cities. That he was introducing everywhere Gentile customs and games; that he had dared to place the Roman eagle on the main entrance of the Temple; that he had pillaged David's tomb; that he had set aside the great council of their nation, and blinded the saintly Jochanan; that the religious leaders, men like Caiaphas and Annas, were quite willing to wink at the crimes of the secular power, so long as their prestige and emoluments were secured; that the national independence for which Judas and his brothers had striven, during the Maccabean wars, was fast being laid at the feet of Rome, which was only too willing to take advantage of the chaos which followed immediately upon Herod's hideous death—such tidings must have come, in successive shocks of anguish, to those true hearts who were waiting for the redemption of Israel, with all the more eagerness as it seemed so long delayed, so urgently needed. Still, they made their yearly journeys to Jerusalem, and participated in the great convocations, which, in outward splendour, eclipsed memories of the past; but they realized that the glory had departed, and that the mere husk of externalism could not long resist the incoming tides of militarism, of the love of display, and the corrupting taint of the worst aspects of Roman civilization. When the feasts were over, these pious hearts turned back to their homes among the hills, tearing themselves from the last glimpse of the beautiful city, with the cry, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem!"
The darkest hour precedes the dawn, and it was just at this point that Old Testament predictions must have been so eagerly scanned by those that watched and waited. That the Messiah was nigh, they could not doubt. The term of years foretold by Daniel had nearly expired. The sceptre had departed from Judah, and the lawgiver from between his feet. Even the Gentile world was penetrated with the expectation of a King. Sybils in their ancient writings, hermits in their secret cells, Magi studying the dazzling glories of the eastern heavens, had come to the conclusion that He was at hand who would bring again the Golden Age.
And so those loyal and loving souls that often spake together, while the Lord hearkened and heard, must have felt that as the advent of the Lord whom they sought was nigh, that of his messenger must be nearer still. They started at every footfall. They listened for every voice. They scanned the expression of every face. "Behold, he shall come," rang in their hearts like a peal of silver bells. At any moment might a voice be heard crying, "Cast up, cast up the highway; gather out the stones; lift up an ensign for the peoples. Say ye to the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy salvation cometh." Those anticipations were realized in the birth of John the Baptist.
The House of Zacharias.
"There are in this loud stunning tide Of human care and crime, With whom the melodies abide Of the everlasting chime; Who carry music in their heart Through dusky lane and wrangling mart Plying their daily task with busier feet, Because their secret souls a holy strain repeat." KEBLE.
Early History of the Baptist—God's Hidden Ones—The Hill Country of Judea—A Childless Home—The Forerunner Announced.
To the evangelist Luke we are indebted for details of those antecedent circumstances that ushered John the Baptist into the world. He tells us that he had "traced the course of all things accurately from the first." And in those final words, "from the first," he suggests that he had deliberately sought to examine into those striking events from which, as from a wide-spreading root, the great growth of Christianity had originated. Who of us has not sometimes followed the roots of some newly-discovered plant deep into the black mould, intent on pursuing them to their furthest extremity, and extricating them from the clinging earth without injuring one delicate radicle? So this good physician, accustomed by his training to accurate research and experiment, went back to scenes and events anterior to any which his brother Evangelists recorded. He compensated for the authority of an eye-witness by the thoroughness and care of his investigation.
What were the sources from which the third Evangelist drew his information? We cannot be sure, but may hazard a suggestion, which is supported by the archaic simplicity, the indescribable grace, the almost idyllic beauty of his two opening chapters. Critics have repeatedly drawn attention to their unique character, and insisted that they are due to some other hand than that which has given us the rest of the story of "the Son of Man." And why should we not attribute them to "the Mother" herself? It has been truly said that mothers are the natural historians of their children's early days—never tired of observing them, they never tire of recounting their prodigies; and, in an especial manner, Mary had kept all things, pondering in her heart those wonderful circumstances which had left so indelible an impression on her life. She who, in her over-welling joy, uttered "the Magnificat," was surely capable, even judging from a literary and human standpoint, of the language in which the story is told; and the facts themselves would only stand out the clearer in her closing years, as many another memory faded from her mind. The granite remains when the floods have swept away the light soil that filled the interstices of the rocks.
It were a theme worthy of a great artist to depict! Mary's face, furrowed by deep lines of anguish, yet glowing with sacred fire and holy memory. Luke, sitting at his manuscript, now letting her tell her story without interruption, and again interpolating an inquiry, the words growing on the page; while, nearer than each to either, making no tremor in the hot summer air as He comes, casting no shadow in the brilliant eastern light—He of whom they speak and write steals in to stand beside them, bringing all things to their remembrance by the Holy Spirit's agency, even as He had told them.
The story of John the Baptist was so clearly part of that of Jesus, that Mary could hardly recall the one without the other. And, besides, Elisabeth, as the angel said, was her kinswoman—perhaps her cousin—to whom she naturally turned in the hour of her maidenly astonishment and rapture. Though much younger, Mary was united to her relative by a close and tender tie, and it was only natural that what had happened to Elisabeth should have impressed her almost as deeply as her own memorable experiences. So it is possible that from the lips of the mother of our Lord we obtain these details of the House of Zacharias.
I. THE QUIET IN THE LAND.—God has always had his hidden ones; and, while the world has been rent by faction and war, ravaged by fire and sword, and drenched with the blood of her sons, these have heard his call to enter their chamber, and shut themselves in until the storm had spent its fury. It was so during the days of Ahab, when the eye of omniscience beheld at least seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal. It was so in the awful days of the Civil War, when Puritan and Royalist faced each other at Naseby and Marston Moor, and the land seemed swept in a blinding storm. Groups of ardent souls gathered to spend their time in worship and acts of mercy—like those at Little Gidding, in Huntingdonshire, under the direction of Mr. Nicholas Ferrar. It was so when the thirty years' war desolated Germany, and "the quiet in the land" withdrew themselves from the agitated scene of human affairs to wait on God, embalming their hearts in hymns and poems which exhale a perfume as from crushed flowers.
It was eminently so in the days of which we write. Darkness covered the earth, and gross darkness the peoples. Herod's infamous cruelties, craft, and bloodshed were at their height. The country questioned with fear what new direction his crimes might take. The priesthood was obsequious to his whim; the bonds of society seemed dissolved. Theudas and Judas of Galilee, mentioned by Gamaliel, were but specimens of the bandit leaders who broke into revolt and harried the country districts for the maintenance of their followers. Greed, peculation, and lawless violence, had ample and undisputed opportunity to despoil the national glory and corrupt the heart of the national life.
Is it to be wondered that the godly remnant would meet in little groups and secluded hiding-places to comfort themselves in God? We are told, for instance, that Anna spake of the Babe, whom she had probably embraced in her aged trembling arms, "to all them that were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem" (Luke ii. 38, R.V.). What would we not give to know something more of the members of this sacred society, which preserved the loftiest traditions, and embodied in their lives some of the finest traits of the religion of their forefathers! The gloom of their times only led them more eagerly to con the predictions of their Hebrew prophets, and desire their accomplishment. Full often they would climb the heights and look out over the desert wastes to descry the advent of the Mighty One, coming from Edom, with his garments stained with the blood of Israel's foes. When they met, the burden of conversation, which flowed under vine or fig-tree, by the wayside or in humble homes, would be of their cherished hope. And as they beheld the hapless condition of their fatherland, the land of Abraham, the city of David, the cry must often have been extorted; "How long, O Lord, holy and true, will it be ere He shall come whose right it is who shall sit on the throne of his father David, and of whose kingdom there shall be no end? Come forth out of thy royal chambers, O Prince of all the kings of the earth! Put on the visible robes of thy imperial majesty; take up that unlimited sceptre which thy Almighty Father hath bequeathed Thee; for now the voice of thy bride calls Thee, and all creatures sigh to be renewed." So our great Milton prayed in more recent days.
We are not drawing on our imagination in describing these true-hearted watchers for the rising of the Day-star. They are fully indicated in the Gospel story. There was Simeon, righteous and devout, unto whom it had been revealed by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ; and Anna, the prophetess, who departed not from the temple, worshipping with fastings and supplications night and day; and the guileless Nathanael, an Israelite indeed, who had perhaps already commenced to sit at the foot of the ladder which bound his fig-tree to the highest heaven; and the peasant maiden Mary, the descendant of a noble house, though with fallen fortunes, who, like some vestal virgin, clad in snowy white, watched through the dark hours beside the flickering flame; and last, but not least, Zacharias and his wife Elisabeth, "who were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless."
For us, too, the times are dark. It is as though the shadows were being thrown far across the fields, and the light were becoming dim. Let the children of God draw together, to encourage each other in their holy faith, and to speak of their great hopes; for He who appeared once to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself shall appear a second time without sin unto salvation. We are, as the French version puts it, burgesses of the skies, "whence we wait for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall fashion anew the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, according to the working whereby He is able even to subject all things unto Himself."
But this attitude of spirit, which dwells in the unseen and eternal, which counts on the indwelling of the Son of God by faith, and which ponders deeply over the sins and sorrows of the world around, is the temper of mind out of which the greatest deeds are wrought for the cause of God on the earth. The Marys who sit at Christ's feet arise to anoint Him for his burying. Take, for instance, the Moravian Church, born and cradled amid the pietism of which Spener of Berlin and Franke of Halle were the acknowledged leaders; and it has given to the world a far larger number of missionaries in proportion to its membership than any church of the age. Or take the followers of George Fox, who have maintained through unparalleled suffering their testimony for spirituality of worship; and it is undeniable that some of the greatest reforms which have characterised the century recently closed have found their foremost advocates and apologists from their somewhat meagre ranks. Those who wait on God renew their strength. The world ignores them, scorning to reckon their tears and toils amid its renovating energies; but they refuse to abate their endeavours and sacrifices on its behalf. They repay its neglect by more assiduous exertions, its ingratitude by more exhausting sacrifices; content if, from out their ranks, there presently steps one who, like John the Baptist, opens a new chapter in the history of the race, and accelerates the advent of the Christ.
II. THE PARENTAGE OF THE FORERUNNER.—As the traveller emerges from the dreary wilderness that lies between Sinai and the southern frontier of Palestine—a scorching desert, in which Elijah was glad to find shelter from the sword-like rays in the shade of the retem shrub—he sees before him a long line of hills, which is the beginning of "the hill country of Judaea" (Luke i. 39). In contrast with the sand wastes which he has traversed, the valleys seem to laugh and sing. Greener and yet greener grow the pasture lands, till he can understand how Nabal and other sheep-masters were able to find maintenance for vast flocks of sheep. Here and there are the crumbled ruins which mark the site of ancient towns and villages tenanted now by the jackal or the wandering Arab. Amongst these, a modern traveller has identified the site of Juttah, the village home of the priest Zacharias and his wife Elisabeth.
To judge by their names, we may infer that their parents years before had been godly people. Zacharias meant God's remembrance; as though he were to be a perpetual reminder to his fellows of what God had promised, and to God of what they were expecting from his hand. Elisabeth meant God's oath; as though her people were perpetually appealing to those covenant promises in which, since He could swear by no greater, God had sworn by Himself, that He would never leave nor forsake, and that when the sceptre departed from Judah and the law-giver from between his feet, Shiloh should come.
Zacharias was a priest, "of the course of Abijah," and twice a year he journeyed to Jerusalem to fulfil his office, for a week of six days and two Sabbaths. There were, Josephus tells us, somewhat more than 20,000 priests settled in Judaea at this time; and very many of them were like those whom Malachi denounced as degrading and depreciating the Temple services. The general character of the priesthood was deeply tainted by the corruption of the times, and as a class they were blind leaders of the blind. Not a few, however, were evidently deeply religious men, for we find that "a great number of the priests," after the crucifixion, believed on Christ and joined his followers. In this class we must therefore place Zacharias, who, with his wife, herself of the daughters of Aaron, is described as being "righteous before God."
The phrases are evidently selected with care. Many are righteous before men; but they were righteous before God. Their daily life and walk were regulated by a careful observance of the ordinances of the ceremonial and the commandments of the moral law. It is evident, from the apt and plentiful quotations from Scripture with which the song of Zacharias is replete, that the Scriptures were deeply pondered and reverenced in that highland home; and we have the angel's testimony to the prayers that ascended day and night. In all these things they were blameless—not faultless, as judged by God's infinite standard of rectitude, but blameless—because they lived up to the fullest limit of their knowledge of the will of God. They were blameless and harmless, the children of God, without blemish, in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom they were seen as lights in the world, holding forth amid neighbours and friends the Word of Truth.
But they lived under the shadow of a great sorrow. "They had no child, because Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years." When the good priest put off his official dress of white linen, and returned to his mountain home, there was no childish voice to welcome him. It seemed almost certain that their family would soon die out and be forgotten; that no child would close their eyes in death; and that by no link whatsoever could they be connected with the Messiah, to be the progenitor of whom was the cherished longing of each Hebrew parent.
"They had no child!" They would, therefore, count themselves under the frown of God; and the mother especially felt that a reproach lay on her. What a clue to the anguish of the soul is furnished by her own reflection, when she recognised the glad divine interposition on her behalf, and cried, "Thus hath the Lord done unto me in the days wherein He looked upon me, to take away my reproach among men" (Luke i. 25).
But had it not been for this sorrow they might never have been qualified to receive the first tidings of the near approach of the Messiah. Sorrow opens our eyes, and bids us see visions within the vail, which cannot be described by those who have not wept. Sorrow leads us up the steep mountain of vision, and opens the panorama which lies beyond the view of those who dare not attempt the craggy steep. Sorrow prepares us to see angels standing beside the altar of incense at the hour of prayer, and to hear words that mortal lips may not utter until they are fulfilled. Sorrow leads us to open our house to those who carry a great anguish in their hearts, who come to us needing shelter and comfort; to discover finally that we have entertained an angel unawares, and that in some trembling maiden, threatened by divorce from her espoused, we have welcomed the mother of the Lord (ver. 43). Shrink not from sorrow. It endures but for the brief eastern night; joy cometh in the morning, to remain. It may be caused by long waiting and apparently fruitless prayer. Beneath its pressure heart and flesh may faint. All natural hope may have become dead, and the soul be plunged in hopeless despair. "Yet the Lord will command his loving-kindness in the morning;" and it will be seen that the dull autumn sowings of tears and loneliness and pain were the necessary preliminary for that heavenly messenger who, standing "on the right side of the altar of incense," shall assure us that our prayer is heard.
III. THE ANGEL'S ANNOUNCEMENT.—One memorable autumn, when the land was full of the grape-harvest, Zacharias left his home, in the cradle of the hills, some three thousand feet above the Mediterranean, for his priestly service. Reaching the temple he would lodge in the cloisters, and spend his days in the innermost court, which none might enter save priests in their sacred garments. Among the various priestly duties, none was held in such high esteem as the offering of incense, which was presented morning and evening, on a special golden altar, in the Holy Place at the time of prayer. "The whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense." So honourable was this office that it was fixed by lot, and none was allowed to perform it twice. Only once in a priest's life was he permitted to sprinkle the incense on the burning coals, which an assistant had already brought from the altar of burnt-sacrifice, and spread on the altar of incense before the vail.
The silver trumpets had sounded. The smoke of the evening sacrifice was ascending. The worshippers that thronged the different courts, rising tier on tier, were engaged in silent prayer. The assistant priest had retired; and Zacharias, for the first and only time in his life, stood alone in the holy shrine, while the incense which he had strewn on the glowing embers arose in fragrant clouds, enveloping and veiling the objects around, whilst it symbolized the ascent of prayers and intercessions not only from his own heart, but from the hearts of his people, into the presence of God. "And their prayer came up to his holy habitation, even unto heaven."
What a litany of prayer poured from his heart! For Israel, that the chosen people should be delivered from their low estate; for the cause of religion, that it might be revived; for the crowds without, that God would hear the prayers they were offering toward his holy sanctuary, and, perhaps, for Elisabeth and himself, that, if possible, God would hear their prayer, and, if not, that He would grant them to bear patiently their heavy sorrow.
"And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense." Mark how circumstantial the narrative is. There could be no mistake. He stood—and he stood on the right side. It was Gabriel who stands in the presence of God, who had been sent to speak to him, and declare the good tidings that his prayer was heard; that his wife should bear a son, who should be called John, that the child should be welcomed with joy, should be a Nazarite from his birth, should be filled with the Holy Spirit from his birth, should inherit the spirit and power of Elias, and should go before the face of Christ to prepare his way, by turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to walk in the wisdom of the just.
He tarried long in the temple, and what wonder! The people would have ceased to marvel at the long suspense, could they have known the cause of the delay. Presently he came out; but when he essayed to pronounce the customary blessing his lips were dumb. He made signs as he reached forth his hands in the attitude of benediction; but that day no blessing fell on their upturned faces. He continued making signs unto them and remained dumb. Dumb, because he questioned the likelihood of so good and gracious an answer. Dumb, because he believed not the archangel's words. Dumb, that he might learn in silence and solitude the full purposes of God, to set them presently to song. Dumb, that the tidings might not spread as yet. Dumb, as the representative of that wonderful system, which for so long had spoken to mankind with comparatively little result, but was now to be superseded by the Word of God.
With the light of that glory on his face, and those sweet notes of "Fear not" ringing in his heart, Zacharias continued to fulfil the duties of his ministration, and, when his work was fulfilled, departed unto his house. But that day was long remembered by the people, prelude as it was to the time when their blessings would no longer come from Ebal or Gerizim, but from Calvary; and when the great High Priest would utter from heaven the ancient words:
The Lord bless thee and keep thee. The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee. The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.
His Schools and Schoolmasters.
"Oh to have watched thee through the vineyards wander, Pluck the ripe ears, and into evening roam!— Followed, and known that in the twilight yonder Legions of angels shone about thy home!" F. W. H. MYERS.
Home-Life—Preparing for his Life-Work—The Vow of Separation—A Child of the Desert
Zacharias and Elisabeth had probably almost ceased to pray for a child, or to urge the matter. It seemed useless to pray further. There had been no heaven-sent sign to assure them that there was any likelihood of their prayer being answered, and nature seemed to utter a final No; when suddenly the angel of God broke into the commonplace of their life, like a meteorite into the unrippled water of a mountain-sheltered lake, bringing the assurance that there was no need for fear, and the announcement that their prayer was heard. It must have been like hearing news that a ship, long overdue and almost despaired of, has suddenly made harbour.
It is not impossible that prayers that we have ceased to pray, and are in despair about, will yet return to us with the words, Thy supplication is heard, endorsed on them in our Father's handwriting. Not infrequently dividends are paid on investments which we have given up as valueless. Fruit that mellows longest in the sun is ripest. Such things may transcend altogether our philosophy of prayer; but we are prepared for this, since God is accustomed to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.
On his arrival in his home, the aged priest, by means of the writing-table afterwards referred to, informed his wife, who apparently had not accompanied him, of all that had happened, even to the name which the child was to bear, She, at least, seems to have found no difficulty in accepting the divine assurance, and during her five months of seclusion she nursed great and mighty thoughts in her heart, in the belief and prayer that her child would become all that his name is supposed to signify, the gift of Jehovah. It was Elisabeth also who recognised in Mary the mother of her Lord, greeted her as blessed among women, and assured her that there would be for her a fulfilment of the things which had been promised her.
Month succeeded month, but Zacharias neither heard nor spoke. His friends had to make signs to him, for unbelief has the effect of shutting man out of the enjoyment of life, and hindering his usefulness. How different this time of waiting from the blessedness it brought to his wife's young relative, who believed the heavenly messenger. He was evidently a good man, and well versed in the history of his people. His soul, as we learn from his song, was full of noble pride in the great and glorious past. He could believe that when Abraham and Sarah were past age, a child was born to them, who filled their tent with his merry prattle and laughter; but he could not believe that such a blessing could fall to his lot. And is not that the point where our faith staggers still? We can believe in the wonder-working power of God on the distant horizon of the past, or on the equally distant horizon of the future; but that He should have a definite and particular care for our life, that our prayers should touch Him, that He should give us the desire of our heart—this staggers us, and we feel it is too good to be true.
During the whole period that the stricken but expectant priest spent in his living tomb, shut off from communication with the outer world, his spirit was becoming charged with holy emotion, that waited for the first opportunity of expression. Such an opportunity came at length. His lowly dwelling was one day crowded with an eager and enthusiastic throng of relatives and friends. They had gathered to congratulate the aged pair, to perform the initial rite of Judaism, and to name the infant boy that lay in his mother's arms. Ah, what joy was hers when they came to "magnify the Lord's mercy towards her, and to rejoice with her"! As the people passed in and out, there was a new glow in the brilliant eastern sunlight, a new glory on the familiar hills.
In their perplexity at the mother's insistence that the babe's name should be John—none of his kindred being known by that name—they appealed to his father, who with trembling hand inscribed on the wax of the writing tablet the verdict, "His name is John." So soon as he had broken the iron fetter of unbelief in thus acknowledging the fulfilment of the angel's words, "his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, blessing God. And fear came on all that dwelt round about them." All these sayings quickly became the staple theme of conversation throughout all the hill-country of Judaea; and wherever they came, they excited the profoundest expectation. People laid them up in their hearts, saying, "What, then, shall this child be?"
"And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit." "And the hand of the Lord was with him."
There were several remarkable formative influences operating on this young life.
I. THE SCHOOL OF HOME.—His father was a priest. John's earliest memories would register the frequent absence of his father in the fulfilment of his course; and, on his return, with what eagerness would the boy drink in a recital of all that had transpired in the Holy City! We can imagine how the three would sit together beneath their trellised vine, in the soft light of the fading sunset, and talk of Zion, their chief joy. No wonder that in after days, as he looked on Jesus as He walked, he pointed to Him and said, "Behold the Lamb of God"; for, from the earliest, his young mind had been saturated with thoughts of sacrifice.
When old enough his parents would take him with them to one of the great festivals, where, amid the thronging crowds, his boyish eyes opened for the first time upon the stately Temple, the order and vestments of the priests, the solemn pomp of the Levitical ceremonial. The young heart dilated and expanded with wonder and pride; but how little he realized that his ministry would be the first step to its entire subversal.
He would be also taught carefully in the Holy Scriptures. Like the young Timothy, he would know them from early childhood. The song of Zacharias reveals a vivid and realistic familiarity with the prophecies and phraseology of the Scriptures; and as the happy parents recited them to his infant mind, they would stay to emphasize them with impressive personal references. What would we not have given to hear Zacharias quote Isaiah xl. or Malachi iii., and turn to the lad at his knee, saying—"These words refer to thee".—
"Yea, and thou, child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Most High; for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways."
Would not the aged priest speak to his son in thoughts and words like those with which his song is so replete; might he not speak to him in some such way as this: "My boy, God has fulfilled his holy covenant, the oath which He sware unto Abraham, our father; because of the tender mercy of our God, the Dayspring from on high has visited us, to shine upon them that sit in darkness, and to guide our feet into the way of peace." Then he would proceed to tell him the marvellous story of his Kinsman's birth in Bethlehem, and of his growing grace in Nazareth. "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel," the old man said; "for He hath visited and redeemed his people, and hath raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as He spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began." Next the father would tell as much of the story of Herod's crimes, and of his oppressive rule, as the lad could understand; and explain how there would soon be "salvation from their enemies, and from the hand of all that hated them." And his young soul would be thrilled by the hopes which were bursting in the bud, and so near breaking into flower.
Sometimes when they were abroad together in the early dawn, and saw the first peep of day, the father would say: "John, do you see that light breaking over the hills? What that day-spring is to the world, Jesus, thy cousin at Nazareth, will be to the darkness of sin." Then, turning to the morning star, shining in the path of the dawn, and paling as they gazed, he would say: "See thy destiny, my son: I am an old man, and shall not live to see thee in thy meridian strength; but thou shalt shine for only a brief space, and then decrease, whilst He shall increase from the faint flush of day-spring to the perfect day." And might not the child reply, with a flash of intelligent appreciation?—"Yes, father, I understand; but I shall be satisfied if only I have prepared the way of the Lord."
There were also the associations of the surrounding country. The story of Abraham would often be recited in the proximity of Machpelah's sacred cave. The career of David could not be unfamiliar to a youth who was within easy reach of the haunts of the shepherd-psalmist. And the story of the Maccabees would stir his soul, as his parents recounted the exploits of Judas and his brethren, in which the ancient Hebrew faith and prowess had revived in one last glorious outburst.
How ineffaceable are the impressions of the Home! What the father is when he comes back at night from his toils, and what the mother is all day; what may be the staple of conversation in the home: whether the father is willing to be the companion of his child, answering his questions, and superintending the gradual unfolding of his mind; how often the Bible is opened and explained; how the weekly rest-day is spent; the attitude of the home towards strong drink in every shape and form, and all else that might injure the young life, as gas does plants—all these are vital to the right nurture and direction of boys and girls who can only wax strong in spirit when all early influences combine in the same direction.
II. THERE WAS THE SCHOOL OF HIS NAZARITE-VOW.—The angel, who announced his birth, foretold that he should drink neither wine nor strong drink from his birth, but that he should be filled with the Holy Spirit. "John," said our Lord, "came neither eating nor drinking." This abstinence from all stimulants was a distinct sign of the Nazarite, together with the unshorn locks, and the care with which he abstained from contact with death. In some cases, the vow of the Nazarite might be taken for a time, or, as in the case of Samson, Samuel, and John, it might be for life. But, whether for shorter or longer, the Nazarite held himself as peculiarly given up to the service of God, pliant to the least indication of his will, quick to catch the smallest whisper of his voice, and mighty in his strength.
"Mother, why do I wear my hair so long? You never cut it, as the mothers of other boys do."
"No, my son," was the proud and glad reply; "you must never cut it as long as you live: you are a Nazarite."
"Mother, why may I not taste the grapes? The boys say they are so nice and sweet. May I not, next vintage?"
"No, never," his mother would reply; "you must never touch the fruit of the vine: you are a Nazarite."
If, as they walked along the public way, they saw a bone left by some hungry dog, or a little bird fallen to the earth to die, and the boy would approach to touch either, the mother would call him back to her side, saying, "Thou must never touch a dead thing. If thy father were to die, or I, beside thee, thou must not move us from the spot, but call for help. Remember always that thou art separated unto God; his vows are upon thee, and thou must let nothing, either in symbol or reality, steal away his power from thy young heart and life."
The effect of this would be excellent. It would give a direction and purpose to the lad's thoughts and anticipations. He realized that he was set apart for a great mission in life. The brook heard the call of the sea. Besides which, he would acquire self-restraint, self-mastery.
What is it to be "strong in spirit"? The man who carries everything before him with the impetuous rush of his nature, before whose outbursts men tremble, and who insists in all things on asserting his wild, masterful will—is he the strong man? Nay! most evidently he must be classed among the weaklings. The strength of a man is in proportion to the feelings which he curbs and subdues, and not which subdue him. The man who receives a flagrant insult, and answers quietly; the man who bears a hopeless daily trial, and remains silent; the man who with strong passions remains chaste, or with a quick sense of injustice can refrain himself and remain calm—these are strong men; and John waxed strong, because, from the earliest dawn of thought, he was taught the necessity of refusing things which in themselves might have been permissible, but for him were impossible.
On each of us rests the vow of separation by right of our union with the Son of God, who was holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners. Remember how He went without the camp, bearing our reproach; how they cast Him forth to the death of the cross; and how He awaits us on the Easter side of death—and surely we can find no pleasure in the world where He found no place. His death has made a lasting break between his followers and the rest of men. They are crucified to the world, and the world to them. Let us not taste of the intoxicating joys in which the children of the present age indulge; let us allow no Delilah passion to pass her scissors over our locks; and let us be very careful not to receive contamination; to have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but to come out and be separate, not touching the unclean thing.
But while we put away all that injures our own life or the lives of others, let us be very careful to discriminate, to draw the line where God would have it drawn, exaggerating and extenuating nothing. It is important to remember that while the motto of the old covenant was Exclusion, even of innocent and natural things, that of the new is Inclusion. Moses, under the old, forbade the Jews having horses; but Zechariah said that in the new they might own horses, only "Holiness to the Lord" must be engraven on the bells of their harness. Christ has come to sanctify all life. Whether we eat, or drink, or whatever we do, we are to do all to his glory. Disciples are not to be taken out of the world, but kept from its evil. "Every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the Word of God, and prayer." Natural instincts are not to be crushed, but transfigured.
This is the great contrast between the Baptist and the Son of Man. The Nazarite would have felt it a sin against the law of his vocation and office to touch anything pertaining to the vine. Christ began his signs by changing water into wine, though of an innocuous kind, for the peasants' wedding at Cana of Galilee. John would have lost all sanctity had he touched the bodies of the dead, or the flesh of a leper. Christ would touch a bier, pass his hands over the seared flesh of the leper, and stand sympathetically beside the grave of his friend. Thus we catch a glimpse of our Lord's meaning when He affirms that, though John was the greatest of women born, yet the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
III. THERE WAS THE SCHOOL OF THE DESERT.—"The child was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel." Probably Zacharias, and Elisabeth also, died when John was quite young. But the boy had grown into adolescence, was able to care for himself, and "the hand of the Lord was with him."
Beneath the guidance and impulse of that hand he tore himself from the little home where he had first seen the tender light of day, and spent happy years, to go forth from the ordinary haunts of men, perhaps hardly knowing whither. There was a wild restlessness in his soul. A young man, pleading the other day with his father to be allowed to emigrate to the West, urged that whereas there are inches here there are acres there; and something of this kind may have been in the heart of John. He desired to free himself from the conventionalities and restraints of the society amid which he had been brought up, that he might develop after his own fashion, with no laws but those he received from heaven.
Fatherless, motherless, brotherless, sisterless—a lone man, he passed forth into the great and terrible wilderness of Judaea, which is so desolate that the Jews called it the abomination of desolation. Travellers who have passed over and through it say that it is destitute of all animal life, save a chance vulture or fox. For the most part, it is a waste of sand, swept by wild winds. When Jesus was there some two or three years after, He found nothing to eat; the stones around mocked his hunger; and there was no company save that of the wild beasts.
In this great and terrible wilderness, John supported himself by eating locusts—the literal insect, which is still greatly esteemed by the natives—and wild honey, which abounded in the crevices of the rocks; while for clothing he was content with a coat of coarse camel's hair, such as the Arab women make still; and a girdle of skin about his loins. A cave, like that in which David and his men often found refuge, sufficed him for a home, and the water of the streams that hurried to the Dead Sea, for his beverage.
Can we wonder that under such a regimen he grew strong? We become weak by continual contact with our fellows. We sink to their level, we accommodate ourselves to their fashions and whims; we limit the natural developments of character on God's plan; we take on the colour of the bottom on which we lie. But in loneliness and solitude, wherein we meet God, we become strong. God's strong men are rarely clothed in soft raiment, or found in kings' courts. Obadiah, who stood in awe of Ahab, was a very different man from Elijah, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, and stood before the Lord.
Yes, and there is a source of strength beside. He who is filled and taught, as John was, by the Spirit, is strengthened by might in the inner man. All things are possible to him that believes. Simon Bar-Jona becomes Peter when he touches the Christ. The youths faint and are weary, and the young men utterly fall; but they that wait on the Lord renew their strength: they who know God are strong and do exploits.
The Prophet of the Highest.
"Ye hermits blest, ye holy maids, The nearest heaven on earth, Who talk with God in shadowy glades, Free from rude care and mirth; To whom some viewless Teacher brings The secret love of rural things, The moral of each fleeting cloud and gale, The whispers from above, that haunt the twilight vale." KEBLE.
Formative Influences—A Historical Parallel—The Burning of the Vanities—"Sent from God"
"Thou, child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Most High"—thus Zacharias addressed his infant son, as he lay in the midst of that group of wondering neighbours and friends. What a thrill of ecstasy quivered in the words! A long period, computed at four hundred years, had passed since the last great Hebrew prophet had uttered the words of the Highest. Reaching back from him to the days of Moses had been a long line of prophets, who had passed down the lighted torch from hand to hand. And the fourteen generations, during which the prophetic office had been discontinued, had gone wearily. But now hope revived, as the angel-voice proclaimed the advent of a prophet. Our Lord corroborated his words when, in after days, He said that John had been a prophet, and something more. "But what went ye out to see?" He asked. "A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet."
The Hebrew word that stands for prophet is said to be derived from a root signifying "to boil or bubble over," and suggests a fountain bursting from the heart of the man into which God had poured it. It is a mistake to confine the word to the prediction of coming events; for so employed it would hardly be applicable to men like Moses, Samuel, and Elijah, in the Old Testament, or John the Baptist and the apostle Paul, in the New, who were certainly prophets in the deepest significance of that term. Prophecy means the forth-telling of the Divine message. The prophet is borne along by the stream of Divine indwelling and inflowing, whether he utters the truth for the moment or anticipates the future. "God spake in the prophets" (Hebrews i. 1, R.V.). And when they were conscious of his mighty moving and stirring within, woe to them if they did not utter it in burning words, fresh minted from the heart.
With Malachi, the succession that had continued unbroken from the very foundation of the Jewish commonwealth had terminated. Pious Israelites might have found befitting expression for that lament in the words, "We see not our signs: there is no more any prophet" (Psa. lxxiv. 9).
But as the voice of Old Testament prophecy ceased, with its last breath it foretold that it would be followed, in the after time, by a new and glorious revival of the noblest traditions of the prophetic office. "Behold," so God spake by Malachi, "I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord come. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers; lest I come and smite the earth with a curse" (Mal. iv. 5, 6).
I. THE FORMATIVE INFLUENCES BY WHICH THE BAPTIST'S PROPHETIC NATURE WAS MOULDED.—Amongst these we must place in the foremost rank the Prophecies, which had given a forecast of his career. From his childhood and upwards they had been reiterated in his ear by his parents, who would never weary of reciting them.
How often he would ponder the reference to himself in the great Messianic prediction—"Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.... The voice of one that crieth, Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God...." There was no doubt as to the relevance of those words to himself (Luke i. 76; Matt. iii. 3). And it must have unconsciously wrought mightily in the influence it wielded over his character and ministry.
There was, also, that striking anticipation by Malachi which we have already quoted, and which directly suggested Elijah as his model. Had not Gabriel himself alluded to it, when he foretold that the predicted child would go before the Messiah, in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke i. 17)? And again his statement was confirmed by our Lord in after days (Matt. xi. 14).
Thus the great figure of Elijah was ever before the mind of the growing youth, as his model and inspiration. He found himself perpetually asking, How did Elijah act, and what would he do here and now? And there is little doubt that his choice of the lonely wilderness, of the rough mantle of camel's hair, of the abrupt and arousing form of address, was suggested by that village of Thisbe in the land of Gilead, and those personal characteristics which were so familiar in the Prophet of Fire.
But the mind of the Forerunner must also have been greatly exercised by the lawlessness and crime which involved all classes of his countrymen in a common condemnation. The death of Herod, occurring when John was yet a child, dependent on the care of the good Elisabeth, had led to disturbances which afforded an excuse for the Roman occupation of Jerusalem. The sceptre had departed from Judah, and the lawgiver from between his feet. The high priesthood was a mere forfeit in the deals of Idumaean tetrarchs and Roman governors. The publicans were notorious for their exactions, their covetousness, their cheating and oppression of the people. Soldiers filled the country with violence, extortion, and discontent. The priests were hirelings; the Pharisees were hypocrites; the ruling classes had set aside their primitive simplicity and purity, and were given up to the voluptuousness and licence of the Empire. "Brood of vipers" was apparently not too strong a phrase to use of the foremost religious leaders of the day—at least, when used, its relevance passed without challenge.
Tidings of the evil that was overflowing the land like a deluge of ink were constantly coming to the ears of this eager soul, filling it with horror and dismay; and to this must be traced much of the austerity which arrested the attention of his contemporaries. The idea which lies beneath the fasting and privation of so many of God's servants, has been that of an overwhelming sorrow, which has taken away all taste for the pleasures and comforts of life. And this was the thought by which John was penetrated. On the one hand, there was his deep and agonizing conviction of the sin of Israel; and on the other, the belief that the Messiah must be nigh, even at the doors. Thus the pressure of the burden increased on him till he was forced to give utterance to the cry it extorted from his soul: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
But in addition to these we must add the vision of God, which must have been specially vouchsafed to him whilst he sojourned in those lonely wilds. He spoke once of Him "who sent him to baptize." Evidently he had become accustomed to detect his presence and hear his voice. Those still small accents which had fallen on the ear of his great prototype had thrilled his soul. He, too, had seen the Lord high and lifted up, had heard the chant of the seraphim, and had felt the live coal touch his lips, as it had been caught from the altar by the seraph's tongs.
This has ever been characteristic of the true prophet. He has been a seer. He has spoken, because he has beheld with his eyes, looked upon, and handled, the very Word of God. The Divine Prophet, speaking for all that had preceded Him, said: "We speak that which we know, and testify that we have seen."
In this we may have some share. It is permitted to us also to see; to climb the Mount of Vision, and look on the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ; to have revealed to us things that eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived. Let us remember that we are to be God's witnesses in the Jerusalem of the home, the Judaea of our immediate neighbours, and to the uttermost parts of the earth of our profession or daily calling. God demands not advocates, but witnesses; and we must see for ourselves, before we can bear witness to others, the glory of that light still flushing our faces, and the accent of conviction minted in our speech.
These are the three signs of a prophet: vision, a deep conviction of sin and impending judgment, and the gushing forth of moving and eloquent speech; and each of these was apparent, in an exalted and extreme degree, in John the son of Zacharias.
II. AN ILLUSTRATIVE AND REMARKABLE PARALLEL.—As John came in the spirit and power of Elijah, so, four hundred years ago, in the lovely city of Florence, a man was sent from God to testify against the sins of his age, who in many particulars so exactly corresponds with our Lord's forerunner that the one strongly recalls the other, and it may help us to bring the circumstances of the Baptist's ministry within a measurable distance of ourselves if we briefly compare them with the career of Girolamo Savonarola. It must, of course, be always borne in mind that the great Florentine could lay no claim to the peculiar and unique position and power of the Baptist. But, in many respects, there is a remarkable parallel and similarity between them, which will help us to translate the old Hebrew conceptions into our modern life.
The physician's household at Ferrara, into which Savonarola was born on September 21, 1452, was probably no more distinguished amid other families of the town than that of Zacharias and Elisabeth in the hill country of Judaea.
And as we read of the invincible love of truth which characterized the keen and intelligent lad, we are forcibly reminded of the Baptist, whose whole life was an eloquent protest on behalf of reality. In one of his greatest sermons Savonarola declared that he had always striven after truth with all his might, and maintained a constant war against falsehood. "The more trouble"—they are his own words—"I bestowed upon my quest, the greater became my longing, so that for it I was prepared to abandon life itself. When I was but a boy, I had such thoughts; and from that time, the desire and longing after this good has gone on increasing to the present day."
We cannot read of Savonarola's saintly life, over which even the breath of calumny has never cast a stain—of his depriving himself of every indulgence, content with the hardest couch and roughest clothing, and just enough of the plainest food to support life—without remembering the camel's cloth, the locusts and wild honey of the Baptist.
If John's lot was cast on evil days, when religion suffered most in the house of her friends, so was it with Savonarola. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries witnessed the increasing corruption and licentiousness of popes and clergy. The offices of cardinal and bishop were put up to auction, and sold to the highest bidder. The bishop extorted money from the priests, and these robbed the people. The grossest immorality was prevalent in all ranks of the Church, and without concealment. Even the monasteries and convents were often dens of vice. "Italy," said Machiavelli, "has lost all piety and all religion. We have to thank the Church and the priests for our abandoned wickedness."
As John beheld the fire and fan of impending judgment, so the burden of Savonarola's preaching was that the Church was about to be chastised, and afterwards renewed. So powerful was this impression on the preacher's mind that it can best be described in his own words as a vision. He tells us that on one occasion the heavens seemed to open before him, and there appeared a representation of the calamities that were coming on the Church; on another, he saw, in the middle of the sky, a hand bearing a sword, on which words of doom were written. He described himself as one who looked into the invisible world.
The herald of Jesus possessed a marvellous eloquence, beneath which the whole land was moved; and so it was with Savonarola. During the eight years that he preached in the cathedral, it was thronged with vast crowds; and as he pleaded for purity of life and simplicity of manners, "women threw aside jewels and finery, libertines were transformed into sober citizens, bankers and tradesmen restored their ill-gotten gains." In Lent, 1497, took place what is known as the Burning of the Vanities. Bands of children were sent forth to collect from all parts of the city, indecent books and pictures, carnival masks and costumes, cards, dice, and all such things. A pile was erected, sixty feet in height, and fired amid the sound of trumpets and pealing bells.
What Herod was to John the Baptist, the Pope and the magnificent Lorenzo di Medici were to Savonarola. The latter seems to have felt a strange fascination towards the eloquent preacher, tried to attach him to his court, was frequent in his attendance at San Marco, and gave largely to his offertories. To use the words of the New Testament, he feared him, "knowing that he was a righteous man, and a holy" (Mark vi. 20). But Savonarola took care to avoid any sign of compliance or compromise; declined to pay homage to Lorenzo for promotion to high ecclesiastical functions; returned his gold from the offertories; and when they ran to tell him that Lorenzo was walking in the convent garden, answered, "If he has not asked for me, do not disturb his meditations or mine."
Like John, Savonarola was unceasing in his denunciation of the hypocritical religion which satisfied itself with outward observances. "I tell you," he said, "that the Lord willeth not that ye fast on such a day or at such an hour; but willeth that ye avoid sin all the days of your life. Observe how they go about—seeking indulgences and pardons, ringing bells, decking altars, dressing churches. God heedeth not your ceremonies."
John's exhortation to "Behold the Lamb of God" finds an echo in the noble utterance of this illumined soul, who, be it remembered, anticipated Luther's Reformation by a hundred years. "If all the ecclesiastical hierarchy be corrupt, the believer must turn to Christ, who is the primary cause, and say: 'Thou art my Priest and my Confessor.'"
The fate of martyrdom that befell John was awarded also to Savonarola. Through the impetuosity of his followers, he was involved in a challenge to ordeal by fire. But by the manoeuvres of his foes, the expectations of the populace in this direction were disappointed, and their anger aroused. "To San Marco!" shouted their leaders. To San Marco they went, fired the buildings, burst open the doors, fought their way into the cloisters and church, dragged Savonarola from his devotions, and thrust him into a loathsome dungeon. After languishing there, amid every indignity and torture, for some weeks, on May 23, 1498, he was led forth to die. The bishop, whose duty it was to pronounce his degradation, stumbled at the formula declaring—"I separate thee from the Church, militant and triumphant." "From the militant thou mayest, but from the triumphant thou canst not," was the martyr's calm reply. He met his end with unflinching fortitude. He was strangled, his remains hung in chains, burned, and the ashes flung into the river. When the commissioners of the Pope arrived at his trial, they brought with them express orders that he was to die, "even though he were a second John the Baptist." It is thus that the apostate Church has always dealt with her noblest sons. But Truth, struck to the ground, revives. Hers are the eternal years. Within a few years, Luther was nailing his theses at the door of the church at Wittenberg, and the Reformation was on its way.
There is a legend, which at least contains a true suggestion, that when Savonarola was on his way to Florence from Genoa, as a young man, his strength failed him as he was crossing the Apennines, but that a mysterious stranger appeared to him, restored his courage, led him to a hospice, compelled him to take food, and afterwards accompanied him to his destination; but on reaching the San Gallo gate he vanished, with the words, Remember to do that for which God hath sent thee!
The story recalls forcibly the words with which the evangelist John introduces his notice of the Forerunner—"There was a man sent from God, whose name was John." Men are always coming, sent from God, specially adapted to their age, and entrusted with the message which the times demand. See to it that thou too realize thy divine mission; for Jesus said, "As the Father hath sent Me, even so send I you." Every true life is a mission from God.
And when we read the words of the apostle Paul about John "fulfilling his course," we may well ask for grace that we may fill up to the brim the measure of our opportunities, that we may realize to the full God's meaning and intention in creating us: and so our lives shall mate with the Divine Ideal, like sublime words with some heavenly strain, each completing the other.
The First Ministry of the Baptist.
"Hark, what a sound, and too divine for hearing, Stirs on the earth and trembles in the air! Is it the thunder of the Lord's appearing? Is it the music of his people's prayer?
"Surely He cometh, and a thousand voices Shout to the saints, and to the deaf and dumb; Surely He cometh, and the earth rejoices, Glad in his coming who hath sworn, I come." F. W. H. MYERS.
The Preaching of Repentance—His Power as a Preacher—His Message—Warning of Impending Judgment—The Wages of Sin
Thirty years had left their mark on the Forerunner. The aged priest and his wife Elisabeth had been carried to their grave by other hands than those of the young Nazarite. The story of his miraculous birth, and the expectations it had aroused, had almost died out of the memory of the countryside. For many years John had been living in the caves that indent the limestone rocks of the desolate wilderness which extends from Hebron to the western shores of the Dead Sea. By the use of the scantiest fare, and roughest garb, he had brought his body under complete mastery. From nature, from the inspired page, and from direct fellowship with God, he had received revelations which are only vouchsafed to those who can stand the strain of discipline in the school of solitude and privation. He had carefully pondered also the signs of the times, of which he received information from the Bedouin and others with whom he came in contact. Blended with all other thoughts, John's heart was filled with the advent of Him, so near akin to himself, who, to his certain knowledge, was growing up, a few months his junior, in an obscure highland home, but who was speedily to be manifested to Israel.
At last the moment arrived for him to utter the mighty burden that pressed upon him; and "in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, Herod the tetrarch of Galilee, Annas and Caiaphas the high priests, the word of God came unto John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness." It may have befallen thus. One day, as a caravan of pilgrims was slowly climbing the mountain gorges threaded by the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, or halted for a moment in the noontide heat, they were startled by the appearance of a gaunt and sinewy man, with flowing raven locks, and a voice which must have been as sonorous and penetrating as a clarion, who cried, "Repent! the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand."
It was as though a spark had fallen on dry tinder. The tidings spread with wonderful rapidity that in the wilderness of Judaea one was to be met who recalled the memory of the great prophets, and whose burning eloquence was of the same order as of Isaiah or Ezekiel. Instantly people began to flock to him from all sides. "There went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan." The neighbourhood suddenly became black with hurrying crowds—as Klondike, when the news of the discovery of gold began to spread. From lip to lip the tidings sped of a great leader and preacher, who had suddenly appeared.
He seems finally to have taken his stand not far from the rose-clad oasis of Jericho, on the banks of the Jordan; and men of every tribe, class, and profession, gathered thither, listening eagerly, or interrupting him with loud cries for help. The population of the metropolis, familiar with the Temple services, and accustomed to the splendour of the palace; fishermen from the Lake of Gennesaret, dusky sons of Ishmael from the desert of Gilead; the proud Pharisee; the detested publican, who had fattened on the sorrows and burdens of the people—were there, together with crowds of ordinary people that could find no resting-place in the schools or systems of religious thought of which Jerusalem was the centre.
1. MANY CAUSES ACCOUNTED FOR JOHN'S IMMENSE POPULARITY.—The office of the prophet was almost obsolete. Several centuries, as we have seen, had passed since the last great prophet had finished his testimony. The oldest man living at that time could not remember having seen a man who had ever spoken to a prophet. It seemed as unlikely, to adopt the phrase of another, that another prophet should arise in that formal, materialistic age, as that another cathedral should be added to the splendid remains of Gothic glory which tell us of those bygone days when there were giants in the land.
Moreover, John gave such abundant evidence of sincerity—of reality. His independence of anything that this world could give made men feel that whatever he said was inspired by his direct contact with things as they literally are. It was certain that his severe and lonely life had rent the vail, and given him the knowledge of facts and realities, which were as yet hidden from ordinary men, though waiting, soon to be revealed; and it was equally certain that his words were a faithful and adequate presentation of what he saw. He spoke what he knew, and testified what he had seen. His accent of conviction was unmistakable. When men see the professed prophet of the Unseen and Eternal as keen after his own interests as any worldling, shrewd at a bargain, captivated by show, obsequious to the titled and wealthy; when they discover the man who predicts the dissolution of all things carefully investing the proceeds of the books in which he publishes his predictions—they are apt to reduce to a minimum their faith in his words. But there was no trace of this in the Baptist, and therefore the people went forth to him.
Above all, he appealed to their moral convictions, and, indeed, expressed them. The people knew that they were not as they should be. For a long time this consciousness had been gaining ground; and now they flocked around the man who revealed themselves to themselves, and indicated with unfaltering decision the course of action they should adopt. How marvellous is the fascination which he exerts over men who will speak to their inner-most souls! This has always been the source of power to the great orators of the Romish Church—men like Massillon, for instance—and to refuse to use this method of approach is to forego one of the mightiest weapons in the repertory of Christian appeal. If we deal only with the intellect or imagination, the novelist or essayist may successfully compete with us. It is in his direct appeal to the heart and conscience, that the servant of God exerts his supreme and unrivalled power. Though a man may shrink from the preaching of repentance, yet, if it tell the truth about himself, he will be irresistibly attracted to hear the voice that harrows his soul. John rebuked Herod for many things; but still the royal offender sent for him again and again, and heard him gladly.
It is expressly said that John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism (Matt. iii. 7). Their advent appears to have caused him some surprise. "Ye offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" The strong epithet he used of them suggests that they came as critics, because they were unwilling to surrender the leadership of the religious life of Israel, and were anxious to keep in touch with the new movement, until they could sap its vitality, or divert its force into the channels of their own influence.
But it is quite likely that in many cases there were deeper reasons. The Pharisees were the ritualists and formalists of their day, who would wrangle about the breadth of a phylactery, and decide to an inch how far a man might walk on the Sabbath day; but the mere externals of religion will never permanently satisfy the soul made in the likeness of God. Ultimately it will turn from them with a great nausea and an insatiable desire for the living God. As for the Sadducees, they were the materialists of their time. The reaction of superstition, it has been said, is to infidelity; and the reaction from Pharisaism was to Sadduceeism. Disgusted and outraged by the trifling of the literalists of Scripture interpretation, the Sadducee denied that there was an eternal world and a spiritual state, and asserted that "there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit." But mere negation can never satisfy. The heart still moans out its sorrow under the darkness of agnosticism, as the ocean sighing under a starless midnight. Nature's instincts are more cogent than reason. It was hardly to be wondered at, then, that these two great classes were largely represented in the crowds that gathered on the banks of the Jordan.
II. LET US BRIEFLY ENUMERATE THE MAIN BURDEN OF THE BAPTIST'S PREACHING.—(1) "The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." To a Jew that phrase meant the re-establishment of the Theocracy, and a return to those great days in the history of his people when God Himself was Lawgiver and King. Had not Daniel predicted that in the days of the last of the great empires, prefigured in Nebuchadnezzar's dream, the God of heaven would set up a kingdom which should never be destroyed—which should break in pieces all other kingdoms and stand for ever? Had he not foreseen a time when One like unto a son of man should come to the Ancient of Days to receive a dominion which should not pass away, and a kingdom which should not be destroyed? Had he not foretold that the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven should be given to the saints of the Most High? Surely, then, all these anticipations were on the eve of fulfilment. The long-expected Messiah was at hand; and here was the forerunner described by Isaiah, the prophet, saying:—
"The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ye ready the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight."
But some misgiving must have passed over the minds of his hearers when they heard the young prophet's description of the conditions and accompaniments of that long-looked-for reign. Instead of dilating on the material glory of the Messianic period, far surpassing the magnificent splendour of Solomon, he insisted on the fulfilment of certain necessary preliminary requirements, which lifted the whole conception of the anticipated reign to a new level, in which the inward and spiritual took precedence of the outward and material. It was the old lesson, which in every age requires repetition, that unless a man is born again, and from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
Be sure of this, that no outward circumstances, however propitious and favourable, can bring about true blessedness. We might be put into the midst of heaven itself, and be poor, and miserable, and blind, and naked, unless the heart were in loving union with the Lamb, who is in the midst of the throne. He is the light of that city, his countenance doth lighten it—from his throne the river of its pleasure flows, his service is its delightful business; and to be out of fellowship with Him would make us out of harmony with its joy. Life must be centred in Christ if it is to be concentric with all the circles of heaven's bliss. We can never be at rest or happy whilst we expect to find our fresh springs in outward circumstances. It is only when we are right with God that we are blest and at rest. Righteousness is blessedness. Where the King is enthroned within the heart, the soul is in the kingdom, which is righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost; nay, perhaps more accurately, that kingdom is in the soul. And when all hearts are yielded to the King; when all gates lift up their heads, and all everlasting doors are unfolded for his entrance—then the curse which has so long brooded over the world shall be done away. The whole creation groaneth and travaileth for the manifestation of the sons of God: but when they are revealed in all their beauty, then judgment shall dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness shall abide in the fruitful field, and the work of righteousness shall be peace, and the effect of righteousness quietness and confidence for ever; and the mirage shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water (Isa. xxxii. 15, 16; xxxv. 7, R.V.).
(2) Alongside the proclamation of the kingdom was the uncompromising insistence on "the wrath to come." John saw that the Advent of the King would bring inevitable suffering to those who were living in self-indulgence and sin.
There would be careful discrimination. He who was coming would carefully discern between the righteous and the wicked; between those who served God and those who served Him not: and the preacher enforced his words by an image familiar to orientals. When the wheat is reaped, it is bound in sheaves and carted to the threshing-floor, which is generally a circular spot of hard ground from fifty to one hundred feet in diameter. On this the wheat is threshed from the chaff by manual labour, but the two lie intermingled till the evening, when the grain is caught up in broad shovels or fans, and thrown against the evening breeze, as it passes swiftly over the fevered land; thus the light chaff is borne away, while the wheat falls heavily to the earth. Likewise, cried the Baptist, there shall be a very careful process of discrimination, before the unquenchable fires are lighted; so that none but chaff shall be consigned to the flames—a prediction which was faithfully fulfilled. At first Christ drew all men to Himself; but, as his ministry proceeded, He revealed their quality. A few were permanently attracted to Him; the majority were as definitely repelled. There was no middle class. Men were either for or against Him. The sheep on this side; the goats on that. The five wise virgins, and the five foolish. Those who entered the strait gate, and those who flocked down the broad way that leadeth to destruction. So it has been in every age. Jesus Christ is the touchstone of trial. Our attitude towards Him reveals the true quality of the soul.
There would also be a period of probation. "The axe laid to the root of the trees" is familiar enough to those who know anything of forestry. The woodman barks some tree which seems to him to be occupying space capable of being put to better use. There is no undue haste. It is only after severe and searching scrutiny that the word goes forth: "Cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?" But when once that word is spoken, there is no appeal. The Jewish people had become sadly unfruitful; but a definite period was to intervene—three years of Christ's ministry and thirty years beside—before the threatened judgment befell. All this while the axe lay ready for its final stroke; but only when all hope of reformation was abandoned was it driven home, and the nation crashed to its doom.
Perhaps this may be the case with one of my readers. You have been planted on a favourable site, and have drunk in the dews and rain and sunshine of God's providence; but what fruit have you yielded in return? How have you repaid the heavenly Husbandman? May He not be considering whether any result will accrue from prolonging your opportunities for bearing fruit? He has looked for grapes, and lo, you have brought forth only wild grapes; He may well consider the advisability of removing you from the stewardship, which you have used for your own emolument, and not for his glory.
For all such there must be "wrath to come." After there has been searching scrutiny and investigation, and every reasonable chance has been given for amendment, and still the soul is impenitent and disobedient, there must be "a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation which shall devour the adversaries."
The fire of John's preaching had its primary fulfilment, probably, in the awful disasters which befell the Jewish people, culminating in the siege and fall of Jerusalem. We know how marvellously the little handful of believers which had been gathered out by the preaching of Christ and his disciples were accounted worthy to escape all those things that came to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man. But the unbelieving mass of the Jewish people were discovered to be worthless chaff and unfruitful trees, and assigned to those terrible fires which have left a scar on Palestine to this day.
But there was a deeper meaning. The wrath of God avenges itself, not on nations but on individual sinners. "He that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him." The penalty of sin is inevitable. The wages of sin is death. The land which beareth thorns and thistles, after having drunk of the rain which cometh often upon it, is rejected and nigh unto a curse, its end is to be burned; under the first covenant, every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward; the man that set at nought Moses' law died without compassion, on the word of two or three witnesses—of how much sorer punishment shall he be judged worthy who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant a common thing, and hath done despite to the Spirit of grace!
Even if we grant, as of course we must, that many of the expressions referring to the ultimate fate of the ungodly are symbolical, yet it must be granted also, that they have counterparts in the realm of soul and spirit, which are as terrible to endure, as the nature of the soul is more highly organized than that of the body. Fire to the body is easy to bear in comparison with certain forms of suffering to which the heart and soul are sometimes exposed even in this life. Have we not sometimes said, "If physical suffering were concerned, we could bear it; but oh, this pain which is gnawing at the heart—this awful inward agony, which burns like fire!" And if we are capable of suffering so acutely from remorse and shame, from ingratitude and misrepresentation, in this life where there are so many distractions and temporary alleviations, what may not be the possibility of pain in that other life, where there is no screen, no covering, no alleviation, no cup of water to slake the thirst! Believe me, when Jesus said, "These shall go away into eternal punishment," He contemplated a retribution so terrible, that it were good for the sufferers if they had never been born.
All the great preachers have seen and faithfully borne witness to the fearful results of sin, as they take effect in this life and the next. These threw Brainerd into a dripping sweat, whilst praying on a cool day for his Indians in the woods; these drew John Welsh from his bed, at all hours of the night, to plead for his people; these inspired Baxter to write his Call to the Unconverted; these drew Henry Martyn from his fellowship at Cambridge to the burning plains of India; these forced tears from Whitefield as he preached to the crowding thousands; these burn in the memorable sermon by Jonathan Edwards on "Sinners in the hands of an angry God." The notable revival which broke out at Kirk o' Shotts was due, under God, to Livingston congratulating the people that drops of rain alone were falling, and not the fire of Divine wrath. The sermons of Ralph Erskine, of McCheyne and W. C. Burns, of Brownlow Northland Reginald Radcliffe, in the last generation, were characterized by the same appeals. Though, on the other hand, because God is not confined to any one method, the preaching of the late D. L. Moody was specially steeped in the love of God. It is for want of a vision of the inevitable fate of the godless and disobedient, that much of our present-day preaching is so powerless and ephemeral. You cannot get crops out of the land merely by summer showers and sunshine; there must be the subsoil ploughing, the pulverizing frost, the wild March wind. And only when we modern preachers have seen sin as God sees it, and begin to apply the divine standard to the human conscience; only when our eagerness and yearning well over into our eyes and broken tones, only when we know the terror of the Lord, and begin to persuade men as though we would pluck them out of the fire, by our strenuous expostulation and entreaties—shall we see the effects that followed the preaching of the Baptist when soldiers, publicans, Pharisees, and scribes, crowded around him, saying, "What shall we do?"
All John's preaching, therefore, led up to the demand for repentance. The word which was oftenest on his lips was "Repent ye!" It was not enough to plead direct descent from Abraham, or outward conformity with the Levitical and Temple rites. God could raise up children to Abraham from the stones of the river bank. There must be the renunciation of sin, the definite turning to God, the bringing forth of fruit meet for an amended life. In no other way could the people be prepared for the coming of the Lord.
Baptism unto Repentance
(MARK I. 4.)
"The last and greatest herald of heaven's King, Girt with rough skins, hies to the desert wild; Among that savage brood the woods doth bring, Which he more harmless found than man, and mild.
"His food was locusts and what there doth spring, With honey that from virgin hives distill'd, Parch'd body, hollow eyes, some uncouth thing Made him appear, long since from earth exiled." W. DRUMMOND, of Hawthornden.
Repentance: its Nature—Repentance: how Produced—Repentance: its Evidences—Repentance: its Results—John's Baptism: from Heaven
At the time of which we are speaking, an extraordinary sect, known as the Essenes, was scattered throughout Palestine, but had its special home in the oasis of Engedi; and with the adherents of this community John must have been in frequent association. They were the recluses or hermits of their age.
The aim of the Essenes was moral and ceremonial purity. They sought after an ideal of holiness, which they thought could not be realized in this world; and therefore, leaving villages and towns, they betook themselves to the dens and caves of the earth, and gave themselves to continence, abstinence, fastings, and prayers, supporting themselves by some slight labours on the land. Those who have investigated their interesting history tell us that the cardinal point with them was faith in the inspired Word of God. By meditation, prayer, and mortification, frequent ablutions, and strict attention to the laws of ceremonial purity, they hoped to reach the highest stage of communion with God. They agreed with the Pharisees in their extraordinary regard for the Sabbath. Their daily meal was of the simplest kind, and partaken of in their house of religious assembly. After bathing, with prayer and exhortation they went, with veiled faces, to their dining-room, as to a holy temple. They abstained from oaths, despised riches, manifested the greatest abhorrence of war and slavery, faced torture and death with the utmost bravery, refused the indulgence of pleasure.
It is clear that John was not a member of this holy community, which differed widely from the Pharisaism and Sadduceeism of the time. The Essenes wore white robes, emblematic of the purity they sought; whilst he was content with his coat of camel's hair and leathern girdle. They seasoned their bread with hyssop, and he with honey. They dwelt in brotherhoods and societies; while he stood alone from the earliest days of his career. But it cannot be doubted that he was in deep accord with much of the doctrine and practice of this sect.
John the Baptist, however, cannot be accounted for by any of the pre-existing conditions of his time. He stood alone in his God-given might. That he was conscious of this appears from his own declaration when he said, "He that sent me to baptize in water, He said unto me." And that Christ wished to convey the same impression is clear from his question to the Pharisees: "The baptism of John, was it from heaven or from men?" Moreover, the distinct assertion of the Spirit of God, through the fourth Evangelist, informs us: "There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John, the same came for witness, that all might believe through him." "The Word of God came unto John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness. And he came."
I. THE SUMMONS TO REPENT.—John has a ministry with all men. In other words, he represents a phase of teaching and influence through which we must needs pass if we are properly to discover and appreciate the grace of Christ. With us, too, a preparatory work has to be done. There are mountains and hills of pride and self-will that have to be levelled; crooked and devious ways that have to be straightened; ruggednesses that have to be smoothed—before we can fully behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. In proportion to the thoroughness and permanence of our repentance will be our glad realization of the fulness and glory of the Lamb of God.
But we must guard ourselves here, lest it be supposed that repentance is a species of good work which must be performed in order that we may merit the grace of Christ. It must be made equally clear, that repentance must not be viewed apart from faith in the Saviour, which is an integral part of it. It is also certain that, though "God commandeth all men everywhere to repent," yet Jesus is exalted "to give repentance and the remission of sins."
Repentance, according to the literal rendering of the Greek word, is "a change of mind." Perhaps we should rather say, it is a change in the attitude of the will. The unrepentant soul chooses its own way and will, regardless of the law of God. "The mind of the flesh is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the law of God, neither, indeed, can it be; and they that are in the flesh cannot please God." But in repentance the soul changes its attitude. It no longer refuses the yoke of God's will, like a restive heifer, but yields to it, or is willing to yield. There is a compunction, a sense of the hollowness of all created things, a relenting, a wistful yearning after the true life, and ultimately a turning from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God. The habits may rebel; the inclinations and emotions may shrink back; the consciousness of peace and joy may yet be far away—but the will has made its secret decision, and has begun to turn to God: as, in the revolution of the earth, the place where we live reaches its furthest point from the sunlight, passes it, and begins slowly to return towards its warm smiles and embrace.
It cannot be too strongly emphasized that repentance is an act of the will. In its beginning there may be no sense of gladness or reconciliation with God: but just the consciousness that certain ways of life are wrong, mistaken, hurtful, and grieving to God; and the desire, which becomes the determination, to turn from them, to seek Him who formed the mountains and created the wind, that maketh the morning darkness and treadeth upon the high places of the earth.
Repentance may be accounted as the other side of faith. They are the two sides of the same coin: the two aspects of the same act. If the act of the soul which brings it into right relation with God is described as a turning round, to go in the reverse direction to that in which it had been travelling, then repentance stands for its desire and choice to turn from sin, and faith for its desire and choice to turn to God. We must be willing to turn from sin and our own righteousness—that is repentance; we must be willing to be saved by God, in his own way, and must come to Him for that purpose—that is faith.
We need to turn from our own righteousnesses as well as from our sins. Augustine spoke of his efforts after righteousness as splendid sins; and Paul distinctly disavows all those attempts to stand right with God which he made before he saw the face of the risen Christ looking out from heaven upon his conscience-stricken spirit. You must turn away from your own efforts to save yourself. These are, in the words of the prophet, but "filthy rags." Nothing, apart from the Saviour and his work, can avail the soul, which must meet the scrutiny of eternal justice and purity.