Luke 3
Expositor's Bible Commentary
Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene,
Chapter 6


WHEN the Old Testament closed, prophecy had thrown upon the screen of the future the shadows of two persons, cast in heavenly light. Sketched in outline rather than in detail, still their personalities were sufficiently distinct to attract the gaze and hopes of the intervening centuries; while their differing, though related missions were clearly recognized. One was the Coming ONE, who should bring the "consolation" of Israel, and who should Himself be that Consolation; and gathering into one august title all such glittering epithets as Star, Shiloh, and Emmanuel, prophecy reverently saluted Him as "the Lord," paying Him prospective homage and adoration. The other was to be the herald of another Dispensation, proclaiming the new King, running before the royal chariot, even as Elijah ran from Ahab to the ivory palace at Jezreel, his Voice then dying away in silence, as he himself passes out of sight behind the throne. Such were the two figures that prophecy, in a series of dissolving views, had thrown forward from the Old into the New Testament; and such was the signal honor accorded to the Baptist, that while many of the Old Testament characters appear as reflections in the New, his is the only human shadow thrown back from the New into the Old.

The forerunner thus had a virtual existence long before the time of the Advent. Known by his synonym of Elias, the prophesied, he became as a real presence, moving here and there among their thoughts and dreams, and lighting up their long night with the beacon-fires of new and bright hopes. His voice seemed familiar, even though it came to them in far-distant echoes, and the listening centuries had caught exactly both its accent and its message. And so the preparer of the way found his own path prepared: for John’s path and "the way of the Lord" were the same; it was the way of obedience and of sacrifice. The two lives were thus thrown into conjunction from the first, the lesser light revolving around the Greater, as they fulfill their separate courses-separate indeed, as far as the human must ever be separated from the Divine, yet most closely related.

Living thus through the pre-Advent centuries, both in the Divine purpose and in the thoughts and hopes of men, so early designated to his heraldic office, "My messenger," in a singular sense, as no other of mortals could ever be, it is no matter of apology, or even of surprise, that his birth should be attended by so much of the supernatural. The Divine designation seems to imply, almost to demand, a Divine declaration; and in the birth-story of the Baptist the flashes of the supernatural, such as the angelic announcement and the miraculous conception, come with a simple naturalness. The prelude is in perfect symphony with the song. St. Luke is the only Evangelist who gives us the birth-story. The other three speak only of his mission, introducing him to us abruptly, as, like another Moses, he comes down from his new Sinai with the tables of the law in his hands and the strange light upon his face. St. Luke takes us back to the infancy, that we may see the beginnings of things, the Divine purpose enwrapped in swaddling clothes, as it once was set adrift in a rush-plaited ark. Back of the message he puts the man, and back of the man he puts the child-for is not the child a prophecy or invoice of the man?-while all around the child he puts the environment of home, showing us the subtle, powerful influences that touched and shaped the young prophet-life. As a plant carries up into its outmost leaves the ingredients of the rock around which its fibers cling, so each upspringing life-even the life of a prophet-carries into its farthest reaches the unconscious influence of its home associations. And so St. Luke sketches for us that quiet home in the hill-country, whose windows opened and whose doors turned toward Jerusalem, the "city of the great" and invisible "King." He shows us Zacharias and Elisabeth, true saints of God, devout of heart and blameless of life, down into whose placid lives an angel came, rippling them with the excitements of new promises and hopes. Where could the first meridian of the New Dispensation run better than through the home of these seers of things unseen, these watchers for the dawn? Where could be so fitting a receptacle for the Divine purpose, where it could so soon and so well ripen? Had not God elected them to this high honor, and Himself prepared them for it? Had He not purposely kept back all earlier, lower shoots, that their whole growth should be upward, one reaching out towards heaven, like the palm, its fruit clustering around its outmost branches? We can easily imagine what intense emotion the message of the angel would produce, and that Zacharias would not so much miss the intercourse of human speech now that God’s thoughts were audible in his soul. What loving preparation would Elisabeth make for this child of hers, who was to be "great in the sight of the Lord!" what music she would strike out from its name, "John" (the Grace of Jehovah), the name which was both the-sesame and symbol of the New Dispensation! How her eager heart would outrun the slow months, as she threw herself forward in anticipation among the joys of maternity, a motherhood so exalted! And why did she hide herself for the five months, but that she might prepare herself for her great mission? That in her seclusion she might hear more distinctly the voices that spake to her from above, or that in the silence she might hear her own heart sing?

But neither the eagerness of Elisabeth nor the dumbness of Zacharias is allowed to hasten the Divine purpose. That purpose, like the cloud of old, accommodates itself to human conditions, the slow processions of the humanities; and not until the time is "full" does the hope become a realization, and the infant voice utter its first cry. And now is gathered the first congregation of the new era. It is but a family gathering, as the neighbors and relatives come together for the circumcising of the child-which rite was always performed on the corresponding day of the week after its birth; but it is significant as being the first of those ever-widening circles that moving outwards from its central impulse, spread rapidly over the land, as they are now rapidly spreading over all lands. Zacharias, of course, was present; but mute and deaf, he could only sit apart, a silent spectator. Elisabeth, as we may gather from various references and hints, was of modest and retiring disposition, fond of putting herself in the shade, of standing behind; and so now the conduct of the ceremony seems to have fallen into the hands of some of the relatives. Presuming that the general custom will be observed, that the first-born child will take the name of the father, they proceed to name it "Zacharias." This, however, Elisabeth cannot allow, and with an emphatic negative, she says, "Not so; but he shall be called John." Persistent still in their own course, and not satisfied with the mother’s affirmation, the friends turn to the aged and mute priest, and by signs ask how they shall name the child (and had Zacharias heard the conversation, he certainly would not have waited for their question, but would have spoken or written at once); and Zacharias, calling for the writing-table, which doubtless had been his close companion, giving him his only touch of the other world for the still nine months, wrote, "His name is John." Ah, they are too late! The child was named even long before its birth, named, too, within the Holy Place of the Temple, and by an angel of God. "John" and "Jesus," those two names, since the visit of the Virgin, have been like two bells of gold, throwing waves of music across heart and home, ringing their welcome to "the Christ who is to be," the Christ who is now so near. "His name is John"; and with that brief stroke of his pen Zacharias half rebukes these intrusions and interferences of the relatives, and at the same time makes avowal of his own faith. And as he wrote the name "John," his present obedience making atonement for a past unbelief, instantly the paralyzed tongue was loosed, and he spake, blessing God, throwing the name of his child into a psalm; for what is the "Benedictus" of Zacharias but "John" written large and full, one sweet and loud magnifying of "the Grace and Favor of Jehovah?"

It is only a natural supposition that when the inspiration of the song had passed away, Zacharias’ speech would begin just where it was broken off, and that he would narrate to the guests the strange vision of the Temple, with the angel’s prophecy concerning the child. And as the guests depart to their own homes, each one carries the story of this new Apocalypse, as he goes to spread the evangel, and to wake among the neighboring hills the echoes of Zacharias’s song. No wonder that fear came upon all that dwelt round about, and that they who pondered these things in their hearts should ask, "What then shall this child be?"

And here the narrative of the childhood suddenly ends, for with two brief sentences our Evangelist dismisses the thirty succeeding years. He tells us that "the hand of the Lord was with the child," doubtless arranging its circumstances, giving it opportunities, preparing it for the rugged manhood and the rugged mission which should follow in due course; and that "the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit," the very same expression he afterwards uses in reference to the Holy Child, an expression we can best interpret by the angel’s prophecy, "He shall be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb." His native strength of spirit was made doubly strong by the touch of the Divine Spirit, as the iron, coming from its baptism of fire, is hardened and tempered into steel. And so we see that in the Divine economy even a consecrated childhood is a possible experience; and that it is comparatively infrequent is owing rather to our warped views, which possibly may need some readjustment, than to the Divine purpose and provision. Is the child born into the Divine displeasure, branded from its birth with the mark of Cain? Is it not rather born into the Divine mercy, and all enswathed in the abundance of Divine love? True, it is born of a sinful race, with tendencies to self-will which may lead it astray; but it is just as true that it is born within the covenant of grace; that around its earliest and most helpless years is thrown the aegis of Christ’s atonement; and that these innate tendencies are held in check and neutralized by what is called "prevenient grace." In the struggle for that child-life are the powers of darkness the first in the field, outmarching and out-maneuvering the powers of light? Why, the very thought is half-libelous. Heaven’s touch is upon the child from the first. Ignore it as we may, deny it as some will, yet back in life’s earliest dawn the Divine Spirit is brooding over the unformed world, parting its firmaments of right and wrong, and fashioning a new Paradise. Is evil the inevitable? Must each life taste the forbidden fruit before it can attain to a knowledge of the good? In other words, is sin a great though dire necessity? If a necessity, then it is no longer sin, and we must seek for another and more appropriate name. No; childhood is Christ’s purchased and peculiar possession; and the best type of religious experience is that which is marked by no rapid transitions, which breaks upon the soul softly and sweetly as a dawn, its beginnings imperceptible, and so unremembered. So not without meaning is it that right at the gate of the New Dispensation we find the cradle of a consecrated childhood. Placed there by the gate, so that all may see it, and placed in the light, so that all may read it, the childhood of the Baptist tells us what our childhood might oftener be, if only its earthly guardians whose hands are so powerful to impress and mould the plastic soul-were, like Zacharias and Elisabeth, themselves prayerful, blameless, and devout.

Now the scene shifts; for we read he "was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel." From the fact that this clause is intimately connected with the preceding, "and the child grew and waxed strong in spirit"-the two clauses having but one subject-some have supposed that John was but a child when he turned away from the parental roof and sought the wilderness. But this does not follow. The two parts of the sentence are only separated by a comma, but that pause may bridge over a chasm wide enough for the flow of numerous years, and between the childhood and the wilderness the narrative would almost compel us to put a considerable space. As his physical development was, in mode and proportion, purely human, with no hint of anything unnatural or even supernatural, so we may suppose was his mental and spiritual development. The voice must become articulate; it must play upon the alphabet, and turn sound into speech. It must learn, that it may think; it must study, that it may know. And so the human teacher is indispensable. Children reared of wolves may learn to bark, but, in spite of mythology, they will not build cities and found empires. And where could the child find better instructors than in his own parents, whose quiet lives had been passed in an atmosphere of prayer, and to whom the very jots and tittles of the law were familiar and dear? Indeed, we can scarcely suppose that after having prepared Zacharias and Elisabeth for their great mission, working what is something like a miracle, that she and no one else shall be the mother of the forerunner, the child should then be torn away from its natural guardians before the processes of its education are complete. It is true they were both "well stricken in years," but that phrase would cover any period from threescore years and upwards, and to that three score the usual longevity of the Temple ministrants would easily allow another twenty years to be added. May we not, then, suppose that the child-Baptist studied and played under the parental roof, the bright focus to which their hopes, and thoughts, and prayers converged; that here, too, he spent his boyhood and youth, preparing for that priestly office to which his lineage entitled and designated him? For why should not the "messenger of the Lord" be priest as well? We have no further mention of Zacharias and Elisabeth, but it is not improbable that their death was the occasion of John’s retirement to the deserts, now a young man, perhaps, of twenty years.

According to custom, John now should have been introduced and consecrated to the priesthood, twenty years being the general age of the initiates; but in obedience to a higher call, John renounces the priesthood, and breaks with the Temple at once and for ever. Retiring to the deserts, which, wild and gloomy, stretch westward from the Dead Sea, and assuming the old prophet garb-a loose dress of camel’s hair, bound with a thong of leather-the student becomes the recluse. Inhabiting some mountain cave, tasting only the coarse fare that nature offered-locusts and wild honey-the new Elias has come and has found his Cherith; and here, withdrawn far from "the madding crowd" and the incessant babble of human talk, with no companions save the wild beasts and the bright constellations of that Syrian sky, as they wheel round in their nightly dance, the lonely man opens his heart to God’s great thoughts and purposes, and by constant prayer keeps his clear, trumpet voice in drill. Evidently, John had seen enough of so-called "society," with its cold conventionalities and hypocrisies; his keen eye had seen only too easily the hollowness and corruption that lay beneath the outer gloss and varnish-the thin veneer that but half concealed the worminess and rottenness that lay beneath. John goes out into the desert like another scapegoat, bearing deep within his heart the sins of his nation-sins, alas, which are yet unrepented of and unforgiven! It was doubtless thoughts like these, and the constant brooding upon them, which gave to the Baptist that touch of melancholy that we can detect both in his features and his speech. Austere in person, with a wail in his voice like the sighing of the wind, or charged at times with suppressed thunders, the Baptist reminds us of the Peri, who-

"At the gate Of Eden stood disconsolate."

Sin had become to John an awful fact. He could see nothing else. The fragments of the law’s broken tables strewed the land, even the courts of the Temple itself, and men were everywhere tripping against them and falling. But John did see something else; it was the day of the Lord, now, very near, the day that should come scathing and burning "as a furnace," unless, meanwhile, Israel should repent. So the prophet mused, and as be mused the fire burned within his soul, even the fire of the Refiner, the fire of God.

Our Evangelist characterizes the opening of John’s ministry with an official word. He calls it a "showing," a "manifestation," putting upon the very word the stamp and sanction of a Divine appointment. He is careful, too, to mark the time, so giving the Gospel story its place among the chronologies of the world; which he does in a most elaborate way. He first reads the time on the horoscope of the Empire, whose swinging pendulum was a rising or a falling throne; and he states that it was "the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar," counting the two years of his joint rule with Augustus. Then, as if that were not enough, he notes the hour as indicated on the four quarters of the Hebrew commonwealth, the hour when Pilate, Herod, Philip, and Lysanias were in conjunction, ruling in their divided heavens. Then, as if that even were not enough, he marks the ecclesiastical hour as indicated by the marble time-piece of the Temple; it was-when Annas and Caiaphas held jointly the high priesthood. What is the meaning of this elaborate mechanism, wheels within wheels? Is it because the hour is so important, that it needs the hands of an emperor, a governor, three tetrarchs, and two high priests to point it? Ewald is doubtless right in saying that St. Luke, as the historian, wished "to frame the Gospel history into the great history of the world" by giving precise dates; but if that were the Evangelist’s main reason, such an accumulation of time-evidence were scarcely necessary; for what do the subsequent statements add to the precision of the first-"In the fifteenth year of Tiberius?" We must, then, seek for the Evangelist’s meaning elsewhere. Among the oldest of the Hebrew prophecies concerning the Messiah was that of Jacob. Closing his life, as Moses did afterwards, with a wonderful vision, he looked down on the far-off years, and speaking of the coming "Seed," he said, "The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come". {Genesis 49:10} Might not this prophecy have been in the thought of the Evangelist when he stayed so much longer than his wont to note times and seasons? Why does he mention Herod and Pilate, Philip and Lysanias, but to show how the scepter has, alas! departed from Judah, and the lawgiver from between his feet, and how the chosen land is torn to pieces by the Roman eagles? And why does he name Annas and Caiaphas, but to show how the same disintegrating forces are at work even within the Temple, when the rightful high priest can be set aside and superseded by the nominee of a foreign and a Pagan power? Verily "the glory has departed from Israel"; and if St. Luke introduces foreign emperors, tetrarchs, and governors, it is that they may ring a muffled peal over the grave of a dead nation, a funeral knell, which, however, shall be the signal for the coming of the Shiloh, and the gathering of the people unto Him.

Such were the times-times of disorganization, disorder, and almost despair-when the word of God came unto John in the wilderness. It came "upon" him, as it literally reads, probably in one of those wonderful theophanies, as when God spake to Moses from the flaming bush, or as when He appeared to Elijah upon Horeb, sending him back to an unfinished task. John obeyed. Emerging from his wilderness retreat, clad in his strange attire, spare in build, his features sharp and worn with fasting, his long, disheveled hair telling of his Nazarite vow, he moves down to the Jordan like an apparition. His appearance is everywhere hailed with mingled curiosity and delight. Crowds come in ever-increasing numbers, not one class only, but all classes-priests, soldiers, officials, people-until it seemed as if the cities had emptied themselves into the Jordan valley. And what went they "out for to see?" "A reed shaken with the wind?" A prophesier of smooth things? A preacher of revolt against tyranny? Nay; John was no wind-shaken reed; he was rather the heavenly wind itself, swaying the multitudes at will, and bending hearts and consciences into penitence and prayer. John was no preacher of revolt against the powers that be; in his mind, Israel had revolted more and more, and he must bring them back to their allegiance, or himself die in the attempt. John was no preacher of smooth things; there was not even the charm of variety about his speech. The one burden of his message was, "Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." But the effect was marvelous. The lone voice from the wilderness swept over the land like the breath of God. Borne forwards on a thousand lips, it echoed through the cities and penetrated into remotest places. Judaea, Samaria, arid even distant Galilee felt the quiver of the strange voice, and even from the shore of the Northern Sea men came to sit at the feet of the new teacher, and to call themselves John’s disciples. So widespread and so deep was the movement, it sent its ripples even within the royal palace, awaking the curiosity, and perhaps the conscience, of Herod himself. It was a genuine revival of religion, such as Judaea had not witnessed since the days of Ezra, the awaking of the national conscience and of the national hope.

Perhaps it would be difficult, by any analysis of ours, to discover or to define the secret of John’s success. It was the resultant, not of one force, but of many. For instance, the hour was favorable. It was the Sabbatic year, when field-work was in the main suspended, and men everywhere had leisure, mind and hand lying, as it were, fallow. Then, too, the very dress of the Baptist would not be without its influence, especially on a mind so sensitive to form and color as the Hebrew mind was. Dress to them was a form of duty. They were accustomed to weave into their tassels sacred symbols, so making the external speak of the eternal. Their hands played on the parti-colored threads most faithfully and sacredly; for were not these the chords of Divine harmonies? But here is one who discards both the priestly and the civilian dress, and who wears, instead, the rough camel’s-hair robe of the old prophets. The very dress would thus appeal most powerfully to their imagination, carrying back their thoughts to the time of the Theocracy, when Jehovah was not silent as now, and when Heaven was so near, speaking by some Samuel or Elijah. Are those days returning? they would ask. Is this the Elias who was to come and restore all things? Surely it must be. And in the rustle of the Baptist’s robe they heard the rustle of Elijah’s mantle, dropping a second time by these Jordan banks. Then, too, there was the personal charm of the man. John was young, if years are our reckoning, for he counted but thirty; but in his case the verve and energy of youth were blended with the discretion and saintliness of age. What was the world to him, its fame, its luxury and wealth? They were only the dust he shook from his feet, as his spirit sighed for and soared after Heaven’s better things. He asks nothing of earth but her plainest fare, a couch of grass, and by-and-by a grave. Then, too, there was a positiveness about the man that would naturally attract, in a drifting, shifting, vacillating age. The strong will is magnetic; the weaker wills follow and cluster round it, as swarming bees cluster around their queen. And John was intensely positive. His speech was clear-cut and incisive, with a tremendous earnestness in it, as if a "Thus saith the Lord" were at his heart. John’s mood was not the subjunctive, where his words could eddy among the "mays" and "mights"; it was plainly the indicative, or better still, the imperative. He spoke as one who believed, and who intensely felt what he believed. Then, too, there was a certain nobleness about his courage. He knew no rank, no party; he was superior to all. He feared God too much to have any fear of man. He spake no word for the sake of pleasing, and he kept back no word-even the hot rebuke-for fear of offending. Truth to him was more than titles, and right was the only royalty. How he painted the Pharisees-those shiny, slimy men, with creeping, sinuous ways-with that dark epithet "brood of vipers!"

With what a fearless courage he denounced the incest of Herod! He will not level down Sinai, accommodating it to royal passions! Not he. "It is not lawful for thee to have her"-such were his words, that rolled in upon Herod’s conscience like a peal of Sinai’s thunder, telling him that law was law, that right was more than might, and purity more than power. Then, too, there was something about his message that was attractive. That word "the kingdom of heaven" struck upon the national heart like a bell, and set it vibrating with new hopes, and awaking all kinds of beautiful dreams of recovered pre-eminence and power.

But while all these were auxiliaries, factors, and co-efficients in the problem of the Baptist’s success, they are not sufficient in themselves to account for that success. It is not difficult for a man of superior mental attainment, and of strong individuality, to attract a following, especially if that following be in the direction of self-interest. The emotions and passions of humanity lie near the surface; they can be easily swept into a storm by the strong or by the pathetic voice. But to reach the conscience, to lift up the veil, and to pass within to that Most Holy of the human soul is what man, unaided, cannot do. Only the Divine Voice can break those deep silences of the heart; or if the human voice is used the power is not in the words of human speech-those words, even the best, are but the dead wires along which the Divine Voice moves-it is the power of God.

"Some men live near to God, as my right arm Is near to me; and then they walk about Mailed in full proof of faith, and bear a charm That mocks at fear, and bars the door on doubt, And dares the impossible."

Just such a man was the Baptist. He was a "man of God." He lived, and moved, and had his being in God. Self to him was an extinct passion. Envy, pride, ambition, jealousy, these were unknown tongues; his pure soul understood not their meaning. Like his great prototype, "the Spirit of the Lord God" was upon him. His life was one conscious inspiration; and John himself had been baptized with the baptism of which he spoke, but which he himself could not give, the baptism of the Holy Ghost and of fire. This only will account for the wonderful effects produced, by his preaching. John, in his own experience, had antedated Pentecost, receiving the "power from on high," and as he spoke it was with a tongue of fire, a voice in whose accent and tone the people could detect the deeper Voice of God.

But if John could not baptize with the higher baptism, usurping the functions of the One coming after, he could, and he did, institute a lower, symbolic baptism of water, that thus the visible might lead up to the invisible. In what mode John’s baptism was administered we cannot tell, nor is it material that we should know. We do know, however, that the baptism of the Spirit-and in John’s mind the two were closely related-was constantly referred to in Scripture as an effusion, a "pouring out," a sprinkling, and never once as an immersion. And what was the "baptism of fire" to the mind of John? Was it not that which the prophet Isaiah had experienced, when the angel touched his lips with the live coal taken from the altar, pronouncing over him the great absolution, "Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taketh away, and thy sin purged?" {Isaiah 6:7} At best, the baptism of water is but a shadow of the better thing, the outward symbol of an inward grace. We need not quarrel about modes and forms. Scripture has purposely left them indeterminate, so that we need not wrangle about them. There is no need that we exalt the shadow, leveling it up to the substance; and still less should we level it down, turning it into a playground for the schools.

Thus far the lives of Jesus and John have lain apart. One growing up in the hill-country of Galilee, the other in the hill-country of Judaea, and then in the isolation of the wilderness, they have never looked in each other’s face, though they have doubtless heard often of each other’s mission. They meet at last. John had been constantly telling of ONE who was coming after-"after," indeed, in order of time, but "before," infinitely before, in preeminence and authority. Mightier than he, He was the Lord. John would deem it an honor to kneel down before so august a Master, to untie and bear away His shoes; for in such a Presence servility was both becoming and ennobling. With such words as these the crier in the wilderness had been transferring the people’s thought from himself, and setting their hearts, listening for the Coming One, so preparing and broadening His way. Suddenly, in one of the pauses of his ministrations, a Stranger presents Himself, and asks that the rite of baptism may be administered to Him. There is nothing peculiar about His dress; He is younger than the Baptist-much younger, apparently, for the rough, ascetic life has prematurely aged him-but such is the grace and dignity of His person, such the mingled "strength and beauty" of His manhood, that even John, who never quailed in the presence of mortal before, is awed and abashed now. Discerning the innate Royalty of the Stranger, and receiving a monition from the Higher World, with which he kept up close correspondence, the Baptist is assured that it is He, the Lord and Christ. Immediately his whole manner changes. The voice that has swept over the land like a whirlwind, now is hushed, subdued, speaking softly, deferentially, reverentially. Here is a Presence in which his imperatives all melt away and disappear, a Will that is infinitely higher than his own, a Person for whom his baptism is out of place. John is perplexed; he hesitates, he demurs. "I have need to be baptized of Thee, and comest Thou to me?" and John, Elias-like, would fain have wrapped his mantle around his face, burying out of sight his little "me," in the presence of the Lord. But Jesus said, "Suffer it now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness". {Matthew 3:15}

The baptism of Jesus was evidently a new kind of baptism, one in which the usual formulas were strangely out of place; and the question naturally arises, Why should Jesus submit to, and even ask for, a baptism that was so associated with repentance and sin? Could there be any place for repentance, any room for confession, in the Sinless One? John felt the anomaly, and so shrank from administering the rite, till the reply of Jesus put His baptism on different ground-ground altogether clear of any personal demerit. Jesus asked for baptism not for the washing away of sin, but that He might "fulfill all righteousness." He was baptized, not for His own sake, but for the world’s sake. Coming to redeem humanity, He would identify Himself with that humanity, even the sinful humanity that it was. Son of God, He would become a true Son of man, that through His redemption all other sons of men might become true sons of God. Bearing the sins of many, taking away the sin of the world, that heavy burden lay at His heart from the first; He could not lay it down until He left it nailed to His cross. Himself knowing no sin, He yet becomes the Sin-offering, and is "numbered among the transgressors." And as Jesus went to the cross and into the grave mediatorially, as Humanity’s Son, so Jesus now passes into the baptismal waters mediatorially, repenting for that world whose heart is still hard, and whose eyes are dry of godly tears, and confessing the sin which He in love has made His own, the "sin of the world," the sin He has come to make atonement for and to bear away.

Such is the meaning of the Jordan baptism, in which Jesus puts the stamp of Divinity upon John’s mission, while John bears witness to the sinlessness of Jesus. But a Higher Witness came than even that of John; for no sooner was the rite administered, and the river-bank regained, than the heavens were opened, and the Spirit of God, in the form of a fiery dove, descended and alighted on the head of Jesus; while a Voice out of the Unseen proclaimed, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." And so the Son of man receives the heavenly, as well as the earthly baptism. Baptized with water, He is new baptized with the Holy Ghost and with fire, and anointed with the unction of the Holy One. But why should the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus in the form of a dove, and afterwards upon the disciples in the form of cloven tongues of fire? We can understand the symbolism of the cloven tongues; for was not their mission to preach and teach, spreading and establishing the kingdom by a consecrated speech-the Divine word carried forward by the human voice? What, then, is the meaning of the dove-form? Does it refer to the dove of the Old Dispensation, which bearing the olive-leaf in its mouth, preached its Gospel to the dwellers in the ark, telling of the abatement of the angry waters, and of a salvation that was near? And was not Jesus a heavenly Dove, bearing to the world the olive-branch of reconciliation and of peace, proclaiming the fuller, wider Gospel of mercy and of love? The supposition, at any rate, is a possible one; while the, words of Jesus would almost make it a probable one; for speaking of this same baptism of the Spirit, He says-and in His words we can hear the beat and whir of dove-wings-"He anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor: He hath sent me to proclaim release to the captives to set at liberty them that are bruised." {Luke 4:18}

The interview between Jesus and John was but brief, and in all probability final. They spend the following night near to each other, but apart. The day after, John sees Jesus walking, but the narrative would imply that they did not meet. John only points to Him and says, "Behold the Lamb of God; which taketh away the sin of the world"; and they part, each to follow his separate path, and to accomplish his separate mission.

"The Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." Such was John’s testimony to Jesus, in the moment of his clearest illumination. He saw in Jesus, not as one learned writer would have us suppose, the sheep of David’s pastoral, its life encircled with green pastures and still waters-not this, but a lamb, "the lamb of God," the Paschal Lamb, led all uncomplaining to the slaughter, and by its death bearing away sin-not either the sin of a year or the sin of a race, but "the sin of the world." Never had prophet so prophesied before; never had mortal eye seen so clearly and so deeply into God’s great mystery of mercy. How, then, can we explain that mood of disappointment and of doubt which afterwards fell upon John? What does it mean that from his prison he should send two of his disciples to Jesus with the strange question, "Art Thou He that cometh, or look we for another?". {Luke 7:19} John is evidently disappointed-yes, and dejected too; and, the Elias still, Herod’s prison is to him the juniper of the desert. He thought the Christ would be one like unto himself, crying in the wilderness, but with a louder voice and more penetrating accent. He would be some ardent Reformer, with axe in hand, or fan, and with baptism of fire. But lo, Jesus comes so different from his thought-with no axe in hand that he can see, with no baptism of fire that he can hear of, a Sower rather than a Winnower, scattering thoughts, principles, beatitudes, and parables, telling not so much of "the wrath to come" as of the love that is already come, if men will but repent and receive it-that John is fairly perplexed and actually sends to Jesus for some word that shall be a solvent for his doubts.

It only shows how this Elias, too, was a man of like passions with ourselves, and that even prophet’s eyes were sometimes dim, reading God’s purposes with a blurred vision. Jesus returns a singular answer. He says neither Yes nor No; but He goes out and works His accustomed miracles, and then dismisses the two disciples with the message, "Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the Gospel is preached. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in Me." These words are in part a quotation from John’s favorite prophet, Isaiah, who emphasized as no other prophet did the evangelistic character of Christ’s mission-which characteristic John seems to have overlooked. In his thought the Christ was Judge, the great Refiner, sifting the base from the pure, and casting it into some Gehenna of burnings. But Jesus reminds John that mercy is before and above judgment; that He has come, "not to condemn the world," but to save it, and to save it, not by reiterations of the law, but by a manifestation of love. Ebal and Sinai have had their word; now Gerizim and Calvary must speak.

And so this greatest of the prophets was but human, and therefore fallible. He saw the Christ, no longer afar off, but near-yea, present; but he saw in part, and he prophesied in part. He did not see the whole Christ, or grasp the full purport of His mission. He stood on the threshold of the kingdom; but the least of those who should pass within that kingdom should stand on a higher vantage-ground, and so be greater than he. Indeed, it seems scarcely possible that John could have fully understood Jesus; the two were so entirely different. In dress, in address, in mode of life, in thought, the two were exact opposites. John occupies the border-region between the Old and the New; and though his life appears in the New, he himself belongs rather to the Old Dispensation. His accent is Mosaic, his message a tritonomy, a third giving of the law. When asked the all-important question, "What shall we do?" John laid stress on works of charity, and by his metaphor of the two coats he showed that men should endeavor to equalize their mercies. And when Publicans and soldiers ask the same question John gives a sort of transcript of the old tables, striking the negatives of duty: "Extort no more than that which is appointed you"; "Do violence to no man." Jesus would have answered in the simple positive that covered all classes and all cases alike: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." But such was the difference between the Old and the New: the one said, "Do, and thou shalt live"; the other said, "Live, and thou shalt do." The voice of John awoke the conscience, but he could not give it rest. He was the preparer of the way; Jesus was the Way, as He was the Truth and the Life. John was the Voice; Jesus was the Word. John must "decrease" and disappear; Jesus must "increase," filling all times and all climes with His glorious, abiding presence.

But the mission of John is drawing to a close and dark clouds are gathering in the west. The popular idol still, a hostile current has set against him. The Pharisees, unforgetting and unforgiving, are deadly bitter, creeping across his path, and hissing out their "Devil"; while Herod, who in his better moods had invited the Baptist to his palace, now casts him into prison. He will silence the voice he has failed to bribe, the voice that beat against the chambers of his revelry, like a strange midnight gust, and that set him trembling like an aspen. We need not linger over the last sad tragedy-how the royal birthday was kept, with a banquet to the State officials; how the courtesan daughter of Herodias came in and danced before the guests; and how the half-drunken Herod swore a rash oath, that he would give her anything she might ask, up to the half of his kingdom. Herodias knew well what wine and passion would do for Herod. She even guessed his promise beforehand, and had given full directions to her daughter; and soon as the rash oath had fallen from his lips-before he could recall or change his words-sharp and quick the request is made, "Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger." There is a momentary conflict, and Herod gives the fearful word. The head of John is brought into the banquet-hall before the assembled guests-the long flowing locks, the eyes that even in death seemed to sparkle with the fire of God; the lips sacred to purity and truth, the lips that could not gloss a sin, even the sin of a Herod. Yes; it is there, the head of John the Baptist. The courtiers see it, and smile; Herod sees it, but does not smile. That face haunts him; he never forgets it. The dead prophet lives still, and becomes to Herod another conscience.

"And she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came, and took up the corpse, and buried him; and they went and told Jesus". {Matthew 14:11-12} Such is the finis to a consecrated life, and such the work achieved by one man, in a ministry that was only counted by months. Shall not this be his epitaph, recording his faithfulness and zeal, and at the same time rebuking our aimlessness and sloth?-

"He liveth long who liveth well; All other life is short and vain: He liveth longest who can tell Of living most for heavenly gain."

The Expositor's Bible

Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

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