"Before me, as in darkening glass,
The Herald's Proclamation -- The Meeting of John and Jesus -- Christ's Baptism -- "It Becometh Us." -- "My Beloved Son."
John's life, at this period, was an extraordinary one. By day he preached to the teeming crowds, or baptized them; by night he would sleep in some slight booth, or darksome cave. But the conviction grew always stronger in his soul, that the Messiah was near to come; and this conviction became a revelation. The Holy Spirit who filled him, taught him. He began to see the outlines of his Person and work. As he thought upon Him, beneath the gracious teaching of Him who had sent him to baptize (John i.33), the dim characteristics of his glorious personality glimmered out on the sensitive plate of his inner consciousness, and he could even describe Him to others, as well as delineate Him for himself.
He conceived of the coming King, as we have seen, as the Woodman, laying his axe at the root of the trees; as the Husbandman, fan in hand to winnow the threshing-floor; as the Baptist, prepared to plunge all faithful souls in his cleansing fires; as the Ancient of Days, who, though coming after him in order of time, must be preferred before him in order of precedence, because He was before him in the eternal glory of his Being (John i.15-30).
It was this vision of the Sun before the sunrise, as he viewed it from the high peak of his own noble character, that induced in the herald his conspicuous and beautiful humility. He insisted that he was not worthy to perform the most menial service for Him whose advent he announced. "I am content," he said in effect, "to be a voice, raised for a moment to proclaim the King, and soon dying on the desert air, whilst the person of the crier is unnoticed and unsought for; but I may not presume to unloose the latchet of his shoes.... There cometh after me He that is mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose."
John was not only humble in his self-estimate, but also in his modest appreciation of the results of his work. It was only transient and preparatory. It was given him to do; but it would soon be done. His course was a short one, and it would soon be fulfilled (Acts xiii.25). His simple mission was to bid the people to believe on Him who should come after him (xix.4.) He was the morning star ushering in the day, but destined to fade in the glory of ruddy dawn, flooding the eastern sky.
But our impression of the sublime humility of this great soul will become deeper, as we consider that marvellous scene in which he first recognised the divine mission and claims of his Kinsman, Jesus of Nazareth. Consider the meeting between the Sun and the star, and take it as indicating an experience which must always supervene on the cleansed and holy soul, which desires and prepares for it.
I. OUR LORD'S ADVENT TO THE JORDAN BANK. -- For thirty years the Son of Man had been about his Father's business in the ordinary routine of a village carpenter's life. He had found scope enough there for his marvellously rich and deep nature; reminding us of the philosopher's garden, which, though only a dingy court in a crowded city, reached through to the other side of the world on the one hand, and up to the heaven of God on the other. Often He must have felt the strong attraction of the great world of men, which He loved; and the wild winds, as they careered over his village home, must have often borne to Him the wail of broken hearts, asking Him to hasten to their relief. On his ear must have struck the voices of Jairuses pleading for their only daughters; of sisters interceding for their Lazaruses; of halt and lame and blind entreating that He would come and heal them. But He waited still, his eye on the dial-plate of the clock, till the time was fulfilled which had been fixed in the Eternal Council Chamber.
As soon, however, as the rumours of the Baptist's ministry reached Him, and He knew that the porter had taken up his position at the door of the sheepfold, ready to admit the true Shepherd (John x.3), He could hesitate no longer. The Shechinah cloud was gathering up its fleecy folds, and poising itself above Him, and moving slowly towards the scene of the Baptist's ministry; and He had no alternative but to follow. He must tear Himself away from Nazareth, home, and mother, and take the road which would end at Calvary. "Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him."
Tradition locates the scene of John's baptism as near Jericho, where the water is shallow and the river opens out into large lagoons. But some, inferring that Nazareth was within a day's journey of this notable spot, place it nearer the southern end of the Lake of Galilee.
It may have been in the late afternoon when Jesus arrived. An expression made use of by the evangelist Luke might seem to suggest that all the people had been baptized for that day at least (Luke iii.21); so that perhaps the crowds had dispersed, and the great prophet was alone with one or two of those young disciples of whom we have spoken. Or, Jesus may have arrived when the Jordan banks were alive with the eager multitudes. But, in either case, a sudden and remarkable change passed over the Baptist's face as he beheld his Kinsman standing there.
Picture that remarkable scene. The arrowy stream, rushing down from the Lake of Galilee to the Dead Sea; the rugged banks; the shadowy forests; the erect, sinewy form of the Baptist; and Jesus of Nazareth, as depicted by the olden traditions, with auburn hair, searching blue eye, strong, sweet face, and all the beauty of his young manhood. At the sight of Him, note how the high look on the Baptist's face lowers; how his figure stoops in involuntary obeisance; how the voice that was wont to ring out its messages in accents of uncompromising decision falters and trembles!
John said, "I knew Him not" (John i.31); but this need not be interpreted as indicating that he had no acquaintance whatever with his blameless relative. Such may have been the case, of course, since John's life had been spent apart from the haunts of men. It is more natural to suppose that the cousins had often met, as boys and afterwards. But the Baptist had never realized that Jesus was the Messiah whose advent he was sent to announce. He had not recognised his high descent and claims. It had never occurred to him that this simple village Carpenter, so closely related to himself, whose course of life was apparently so absolutely ordinary and commonplace, could be He of whom Moses in the Law and the Prophets did write. In this sense John could truly say, "I knew Him not."
But John knew enough of Him to be aware of his guileless, blameless life. The story of his tender love for Mary; of his devotion to the interests of his brothers and sisters; of his undefiled purity, of his long vigils on the mountains till the morning called Him back to his toils; of his deep acquaintance with Scripture; of his speech about the Father -- had reached the Baptist's ears. He had come to entertain the profoundest respect amounting to veneration for his Kinsman; and, as He presented Himself for baptism, John felt that there was a whole heaven of difference between Him and all others. These publicans and sinners, these Pharisees and scribes, these soldiers and common people -- had every need to repent, confess, and be forgiven; but there was surely no such need for Him, who had been always, and by general acknowledgment, "holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners." "I have need," said he, "to be baptized of Thee, and comest Thou to me?" (Matt. iii.14).
There may have been, besides, an indescribable presentiment that stole over that lofty nature -- like that knowledge of good men and bad which is often given to noble women. He knew men; his eagle eye had searched their hearts, as he had heard them confess their sins; and at a glance he could tell what was in them. A connoisseur of souls was he. Among all the pearls that had passed through his hands -- some goodly ones among them -- none had seemed so rare and pure as this; it was a pearl of great price, for which a man might be prepared to part with all he possessed, if only to obtain it. There was an indefinable majesty, a moral glory, a tender grace, an ineffable attractiveness in this Man, which was immediately appreciated by the greatest of woman-born, because of his own intrinsic nobility and greatness of soul. It needed a Baptist to recognise the Christ. He who had never quailed before monarch or people, directly he came in contact with Christ, cast the crown of his manhood at his feet, and shrank away. The eagle that had soared unhindered in mid-heaven seemed transfixed by a sudden dart, and fell suddenly, with a strange, low cry, at the feet of its Creator. "I have need to be baptized of Thee, and comest Thou to me?"
II. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF CHRIST'S BAPTISM. -- "Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness" -- with such words our Lord overruled the objections of his loyal and faithful Forerunner. This is the first recorded utterance of Christ, after a silence of more than twenty years; the first also of his public ministry: it demands our passing notice. He does not say, "I have need to be baptized of thee"; nor does He say, "Thou hast no need to be baptized of Me." He does not stay to explain why the greater should be baptized by the less: or why a rite which confessed sin was required for one who was absolutely sinless. It is enough to appeal to the Baptist as his associate in a joint necessary act, becoming to them both as part of the Divine procedure, and therefore claiming their common obedience. "Thus it becometh us (you and me) to fulfil all righteousness."
In his baptism, our Lord acknowledged the divine authority of the Forerunner. As the last and greatest of the prophets, who was to close the Old Testament era, for "the law and the prophets prophesied until John"; as the representative of Elijah the prophet, before the great and notable day of the Lord could come; as the porter of the Jewish fold -- John occupied a unique position, and it was out of deference to his appointment by the Father, and as an acknowledgment of his office, that Jesus sought baptism at his hands.
John's baptism, moreover, was the inauguration of the Kingdom of Heaven. In it the material made way for the spiritual. The old system, which gave special privileges to the children of Abraham, was in the act of passing away, confessing that God could raise up children to Abraham from the stones at the water's edge; and demanding that those who would enter the Kingdom must be born from above, of water and of the Spirit. It was the outward and visible sign that Judaism was unavailing for the deepest needs of the spirit of man, and that a new and more spiritual system was about to take its place, and Christ said, in effect, "I, too, though King, obey the law of the Kingdom, and bow my head, that, by the same sign as the smallest of my subjects, I may pass forward to my throne."
There was probably a deeper reason still. That Jordan water, flowing downwards to the Dead Sea, was symbolical. In the purity of its origin, amid the snows of Hermon, and in the beauty of its earlier course, it was an emblem of man's original constitution, when the Creator made him in His own image and pronounced him very good; but in these sullied and troubled waters hurrying on to the Sea of Death -- waters in which thousands of sinners had confessed their sins, with tears and sighs -- how apt an emblem was there of the history of our race, contaminated by the evil that is in the world through lust, and meriting the wages of sin -- death! With that race, in its sin and degradation, our Lord now formally identified Himself. His baptism was his formal identification with our fallen and sinful race, though He knew no sin for Himself, and could challenge the minutest inspection of his enemies: "Which of you convinceth Me of sin?"
Was He baptized because He needed to repent, or to confess his sins? Nay, verily! He was as pure as the bosom of God, from which He came; as pure as the fire that shone above them in the orb of day; as pure as the snows on Mount Hermon, rearing itself like a vision of clouds on the horizon: but He needed to be made sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. When the paschal lamb had been chosen by the head of a Jewish household, it was customary to take it, three days before it would be offered, to the priest, to have it sealed with the Temple seal; so our Lord, three years before his death, must be set apart and sealed by the direct act of the Holy Spirit, through the mediation of John the Baptist. "Him hath God the Father sealed."
"It becometh us" -- I like that word, becometh. If the Divine Lord thought so much about what was becoming, surely we may. It should not be a question with us, merely as to what may be forbidden or harmful, what may or may not be practised and permitted by our fellow-Christians, or even whether there are distinct prohibitions in the Bible that bar the way -- but if a certain course is becoming. "Need I pass through that rite?" It is becoming. "Need I perform that lowly act?" It is becoming. "Need I renounce my liberty of action in that respect?" It would be very becoming. And whenever some hesitant soul, timid and nervous to the last degree, dares to step out, and do what it believes to be the right thing because it is becoming, Jesus comes to it, enlinks his arm, and says, "Thou art not alone in this. Thou and I stand together here. It becomes us to fill up to its full measure all righteousness." Ah, soul, thou shalt never step forth on a difficult and untrodden path without hearing his footfall behind thee, and becoming aware that in every act of righteousness Christ identifies Himself, saying, "Thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness."
A friend suggests that the Lord Jesus was here referring to the sublime prophecy of Daniel ix.24. That He might make an end of sin and bring in everlasting righteousness, it was essential that the Lamb of God should confess the sins of the people as his own (see Psa. lxix.5). This was his first step on his journey to the Cross, every step of which was in fulfilment of all righteousness, in order that He might bring in everlasting righteousness.
"Then he suffered Him." Some things we have to do for Christ, and some to bear for Him. Active virtues are great; but the passive ones are rarer and cost more, especially for strong natures like the Baptist's. But, in all our human life, there is nothing more attractive than when a strong man yields to another, accepts a deeper interpretation of duty than he had perceived, and is prepared to set aside his strong convictions of propriety before the tender pleadings of a still, soft voice. Yield to Christ, dear heart. Suffer Him to have his way. Take his yoke, and be meek and lowly of heart -- so shalt thou find rest.
III. THE DESIGNATION OF THE MESSIAH. -- It is not to be supposed that the designation of Jesus as the Christ was given to any but John. It was apparently a private sign given to him, as the Forerunner and Herald, through which he might be authoritatively informed as to the identity of the Messiah. To say nothing of the impossibility of ordinary and unanointed eyes beholding the descent of the Holy Spirit, John's own statements seem to point clearly in this direction. He says, "I knew Him not" (i.e., as Son of God), "but He that sent me to baptize with water, He said unto me, 'Upon whomsoever thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and abiding upon Him, the same is He that baptizeth with the Holy Spirit.' And I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of God" (John i.32-34). The same thought appears from putting a perfectly legitimate construction on the words of the first evangelist: "Lo, the heavens were opened unto him" (i.e., the Baptist), "and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon Him" (Matt. iii.16).
What a theophany was here! As the Man of Nazareth emerged from the water, the sign for which John had been eagerly waiting and looking was granted. He had believed he would see it, but had never thought to see it granted to one so near akin to himself. We never expect the great God to come to us! And the exclamation, Lo, indicates his startled surprise. He saw far away into the blue vault, which had opened into depth after depth of golden glory. The vail was rent to admit of the coming forth of the Divine Spirit, who seemed to descend in visible shape -- as a dove might, with gentle, fluttering motion -- and to alight on the head of the Holy One, who stood there fresh from his baptism. The stress of the narrator, as he told the story afterwards, was that the Spirit not only came, but abode. Here was the miracle of miracles, that He should be willing to abide in any human temple, who for so many ages had wandered restlessly over the deluge of human sin, seeking a resting-place, but finding none. Here, at least, was an ark into which this second Noah might pull in the fluttering dove, unable to feed, like the raven, on corruption and death.
The voice of God from heaven proclaimed that Jesus of Nazareth was his beloved Son, in whom He was well pleased; and the Baptist could have no further doubt that the Desire of all Nations, the Lord whom his people sought, the Messenger of the Covenant, had suddenly come to his temple to act as a refiner's fire and as fullers' soap. "John bare witness, saying, I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven; and it abode upon Him." "John beareth witness of Him and crieth" (John i.15, 32).
How much that designation meant to Christ! It was his Pentecost, his consecration and dedication to his life-work; from thenceforth, in a new and special sense, the Spirit of the Lord was upon Him, and He was anointed to preach. But it was still more to the Baptist. He knew that his mission was nearly fulfilled, that his office was ended. He had opened the gate to the true Shepherd, and must now soon consign to Him all charge of the flock. Jesus must increase, while he decreased. He that was from heaven was above all; as for himself, he was of the earth, and spake of the earth. The Sun had risen, and the day-star began to wane.