And as they departed, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John, What went you out into the wilderness to see?…
After dismissing the messengers of John, there appeared to our Lord urgent need of indicating with precision the merits and defects of the Baptist's work, so that the people might understand hew it was the Baptist was disappointed in the Messiah he had so enthusiastically heralded, and what were the relations mutually held by the Baptist, the Messiah, and the people. In doing so our Lord touches on -
I. THE GREATNESS OF JOHN AND HIS WORK. He is unhesitating in the praise and admiration he bestows. Challenging comparison with any hero of old time, the conclusion still is, "There hath not risen a greater." And the distinctive greatness of his character was only in keeping with the unique importance of his work. This is indicated when he says of John that he was more than a prophet - a messenger preparing the way, an immediate forerunner. Up to John's time the prophets and the Law had prophesied; now the kingdom was not pointed at, but stormed and possessed. It is no longer a hope, it is a present reality; the kingdom is come. The land which had seemed very far off to the older prophets was there for whosoever had faith to win it. [By the unusual expression he employs, our Lord apparently intends to emphasize the two ideas,
(1) that only men of earnestness and vigour can win the kingdom, and
(2) that in the entrance there is much disorder and tumult.
1. Of the first of these Bunyan is the best expositor, in his picture of the man who with his drawn sword made his way into the palace. Bunyan knew that it is only by the men that can stand blows and the sight of blood that the kingdom is won even now. Many, indeed, are they who still bar the entrance, and they fight with every variety of weapon.
2. In periods when appeal is made to the elementary forces of human nature, much that is indecorous, much that is illegal, is apt to be done. And when the religious life of a community is trying to shape for itself new forms, there always come to the front men of violence, men of the type of Luther, who disgust men of taste like Erasmus, but who are the fit instruments for taking by assault the new stronghold in which faith is to find refuge. The Pharisees were shocked to see the kind of people who crowded after Jesus, and the manner of their following. We are warned, therefore, to judge no movement by its superficial unseemliness and disorderly ways, but by the underlying principles which are really its moving power.
II. Diverse as were the types of character exhibited by John and Jesus, and by their message, both were unsatisfactory to the mass of the people. John demanded of them a righteousness which seemed impossible; and Jesus was still more unsuitable, even unintelligible - a mere good-natured time-server, indifferent to the sorrows of his people so long as he could be tolerably comfortable. John has nothing but stern denunciation - we have piped unto him, but not a step will he dance. Jesus goes to the other extreme; has no ear for any of our national sorrows, and seems quite able to be happy, though overtaxed and under foreign rule - we have mourned unto him, and he has not lamented.
1. There are people who live at feud with their generation because they cannot get their own whim petted, their own idea responded to. They cannot fall in with any of the religious movements of their time, and find in the market-place of life only food for their own disappointed vanity. The children of Wisdom, on the contrary, justify the wisdom which moves religious leaders to adopt differing methods. They see in John a congruity to his work. In one who was impartially to criticize all classes, and be an embodied conscience to the whole community, there was wisdom in showing, even in his outward aspect, that he was prepared to lead the way in stern repression of self-indulgence, and superiority to the influences of fashion and worldly expectation. It is quite true he is extreme, one-sided, a man of one idea, but much of the most important work in the world is effected by men of one idea, who are blind to all else but the one thing they have to do. Similarly, a free, cheerful intercourse with men became him whose work it was, not to reveal one aspect of God, but his whole attitude towards men, and whose nature it was to be every man's Fellow, the Son of man. If Jesus is not only to convince of sin, but to save his people from their sins, how can he do so save by loving them and moving among them, and giving them his hand to help them?
2. Goodness may manifest itself in various forms of life, and we must judge men's manner and conduct by the work they have to do. Our heavenly Father is pleased with modes of life as diverse as the natures he has bestowed on us, and we need not condemn ourselves or others on the ground that our goodness does not express itself in a certain conventional form.
3. The man who makes his own tastes and expectations the measure of the religious movements of his time is apt to make mistakes fatal to his own religious growth. He will get no good from any of the movements that stir and advance other people, and he will get all the harm, the hardening of the heart, the self-righteous vanity, the hypocritical blindness to the truth, which must result from opposing the work of God in his own generation. Let us be sure we are giving our serious conviction and fullest energy to some form of life we are persuaded God approves, that we are not playing at religion like children in the market-place. Seek God in the way that commends itself to your conscience, bug be sure it is him and not your own method you adore, and when you have found him try and see him in all and through all and over all. - D.
Parallel VersesKJV: And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind?