"Hark, what a sound, and too divine for hearing,
"Surely He cometh, and a thousand voices
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,
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.