"The last and greatest herald of heaven's King,
"His food was locusts and what there doth spring,
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.
Repentance is produced sometimes and specially by the presentation of the claims of Christ. We suddenly awake to realize what He is, how He loves, how much we are missing, the gross ingratitude with which we respond to his agony and bloody sweat, his cross and suffering, the beauty of his character, the strength of his claims.
At other times repentance is wrought by the preaching of John the Baptist. Then we hear of the axe laid at the root of the trees, and the unquenchable fire for the consuming of the chaff: and the heart trembles. Then we are led to the brink of the precipice, and compelled to see the point at which the primrose-path we are travelling ends in the fatal abyss. Then our faith in our hereditary position and privilege is shattered by the iconoclasm of the preacher; and we are levelled to the position of stones which are lapped by the Jordan, but are insensible to its touch. It is at such a time as this that the soul sees the entire fabric of its vain confidences and hopes crumbling like a cloud-palace, and turns from it all -- as Mary from the sepulchre, where her hopes lay entombed, to find Jesus standing with the resurrection glory on his face and radiant love in his eyes.
For purposes of clear thinking it is well to discriminate in our use of the words Repentance and Penitence, using the former of the first act of the will, when, energized and quickened by the Spirit of God, it turns from dead works to serve the living and true God; and the latter, of the emotions which are powerfully wrought upon, as the years pass, by the Spirit's presentation of all the pain and grief which our sin has caused, and is causing, to our blessed Lord. We repent once, but are penitents always. We repent in the will; we are penitent in the heart. We repent, and believe the Gospel; we believe the Gospel of the Son of Man, and as we look on Him, whom our sins have pierced, we mourn. We repent when we obey his call to come unto Him and live; we are penitent as we stand behind Him weeping, and begin to wash his feet with our tears, and to wipe them with the hair of our head.
If John the Baptist has never wrought his work in you, be sure to open your heart to his piercing voice. Let him fulfil his ministry. See that you do not reject the counsel of God, as it proceeds from his lips; but expose your soul to its searching scrutiny, and allow it to have free and uninterrupted course. He comes to prepare the way of the Lord, and to make through the desert of our nature a highway for our God. Of course, if, from the earliest you have been under the nurture of pious parents, and your young heart turned to God in the early dawn of consciousness, you will not pass through these experiences as those must who have spent years in the service of Satan. For these there is but one word -- Repent! They must, in a moment of time, take up an entirely different attitude to God and holiness, to Christ and his salvation.
II. THE SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF REPENTANCE. -- (1) Confession. "They were baptized of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins." What this precisely means it is not possible to say in detail; but it is not improbable that beneath the strong pressure of inward remorse and bitterness of spirit, men of notoriously bad life, as well as those who had never abandoned themselves to the mad currents of temptation, but were none the less conscious of heart and hidden sins, stood up, "confessing and declaring their deeds," as in a memorable scene long afterwards (Acts xix.17-20).
The formalist confessed that the whited sepulchre of his religious observances had concealed a mass of putrefaction. The sceptic confessed that his refusal of religion was largely due to his hatred of the demands of God's holy law. The multitudes confessed that they had been selfish and sensual, shutting up their compassions, and refusing clothing and food to the needy. The publican confessed that he had extorted by false accusation and oppression more than his due. The soldier confessed that his profession had often served as the cloak for terrorizing the poor and vamping up worthless accusations. The notoriously evil liver confessed that he had lain in wait for blood, and destroyed the innocent and helpless for gain or hate. The air was laden with the cries and sighs of the stricken multitudes, who beheld their sin for the first time in the light of eternity and of its inevitable doom. The lurid flames of "the wrath to come" cast their searching light on practices which, in the comparative twilight of ignorance and neglect, had passed without special notice.
Upon that river's brink, men not only confessed to God, but probably also to one another. Life-long feuds were reconciled; old quarrels were settled; frank words of apology and forgiveness were exchanged; hands grasped hands for the first time after years of alienation and strife.
Confession is an essential sign of a genuine repentance, and without it forgiveness is impossible. "He that covereth his transgressions shall not prosper; but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall obtain mercy." "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." So long as we keep silence, our bones wax old through our inward anguish; we are burnt by the fire of slow fever; we toss restlessly, though on a couch of down. But on confession there is immediate relief. "I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord, and Thou forgavest me the iniquity of my sin."
Confess your sin to God, O troubled soul, from whom the vision of Christ is veiled. It is more than likely that some undetected or unconfessed sin is shutting out the rays of the true sun. Excuse nothing, extenuate nothing, omit nothing. Do not speak of mistakes of judgment, but of lapses of heart and will. Do not be content with a general confession; be particular and specific. Drag each evil thing forth before God's judgment bar; let the secrets be exposed, and the dark, sad story told. Begin at the beginning, and go steadily through. Only be very careful to leave no trace of your experiences for human eyes or ears. To tell this story to another will rob it of its value to yourself and its acceptableness to God. It is enough for God to know it; and to tell Him all is to receive at once his assurance of forgiveness, for the sake of Him who loved us and gave Himself a propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but for those of the whole world. Directly the confession leaves our heart, nay, whilst it is in process, the Divine voice is heard assuring us that our sins, which are many, are put away as far as the east is from the west, and cast into the depths of the sea.
But such confession should not be made to God alone, when sins are in question which have injured and alienated others. If our brother has aught against us, we must find him out, while our gift is left unpresented at the altar, and first be reconciled to him. We must write the letter, or speak the word; we must make honourable reparation and amends; we must not be behind the sinners under the old law, who were bidden to add a fifth part to the loss their brother had sustained through their wrong-doing, when they made it good. The only sin we are justified in confessing to our brother man is that we have committed against him. All else must be told in the ear of Jesus, that great High Priest, whose confessional is always open, and whose pure ear can receive our dark and sad stories without taint or soil.
(2) Fruit worthy of Repentance. "Bring forth, therefore, fruit worthy of repentance," said John, with some indignation, as he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism. He insisted that practical and vital religion was not a rule, but a life; not outward ritual, but a principle; not works, but fruit: and he demanded that the genuineness of repentance should be attested by appropriate fruit. "Do men gather grapes of thorns, and figs of thistles?"
Probably that demand of the Baptist accounted for the alteration in his life of which Zaccheus made confession to Christ, when He became his guest. The rich publican lived at Jericho, near which John was baptizing, and he was probably amongst the publicans who were attracted to his ministry. How well we can imagine the comments that would be passed on his presence, as each nudged his neighbour and whispered. "Is not that Zaccheus?" said one. "What is he doing here?" said another. "It is about time he came to himself," muttered a third. "I wish the Baptist could do something for him," said a fourth.
And something touched that hardened heart. A great hope and a great resolve sprang up in it. He may have joined in the confessions of which we have spoken, but he did more. On his arrival at Jericho he was a new man. He gave the half of his goods to feed the poor; and if he had wrongfully exacted aught of any man, he restored four-fold. His servant was often seen in the lowest and poorest parts of the old city, hunting up cases of urgent distress, and bestowing anonymous alms, and many a poor man was delighted to find a considerable sum of money thrust into his hands, with a scrap of paper signed by the rich tax-gatherer, saying, "I took so much from you, years ago, to which I had no claim; kindly find it enclosed, with fourfold as amends." Should any ask him the reason for it all, he would answer, "Ah, I have been down to the Jordan and heard the Baptist; I believe the Kingdom is coming, and the King is at hand; and I want to make ready for Him, so that, when He comes, He may be able to abide at my house."
You will never get right with God till you are right with man. It is not enough to confess wrong-doing; you must be prepared to make amends so far as lies in your power. Sin is not a light thing, and it must be dealt with, root and branch.
(3) The baptism of repentance. "They were baptized ... confessing their sins." The cleansing property of water has given it a religious significance from most remote antiquity Men have conceived of sin as a foul stain upon the heart, and have couched their petitions for its removal in words derived from its use: "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean. Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." They have longed to feel that as the body was delivered from pollution, so the soul was freed from stain. In some cases this thought has assumed a gross and material form; and men have attributed to the water of certain rivers, such as the Ganges, the Nile, the Abana, the mysterious power of cleansing away sin.
There was no trace of this, however, in John's teaching. It was not baptism unto remission, but unto repentance. It was the expression and symbol of the soul's desire and intention, so far as it knew, to confess and renounce its sins, as the necessary condition of obtaining the Divine forgiveness.
It is not necessary to discuss the much-vexed question of the source from which the Baptist derived his baptism -- some say it was from the habits of the Essenes, or the practice of the Rabbis, who subjected to this rite all proselytes to Judaism from the Gentile world. It is enough for us to remember that he was sent to baptize; that the idea of his baptism was "from heaven"; and that in his hands the rite assumed altogether novel and important functions. It meant death and burial as far as the past was concerned; and resurrection to a new and better future. Forgetting and dying to the things that were behind, the soul was urged to realize the meaning of this symbolic act, and to press on and up to better things before; assured as it did so that God had accepted its confession and choice, and was waiting to receive it graciously and love it freely.
It is easy to see how all this appealed to the people, and specially touched the hearts of young men. At that time, by the blue waters of the Lake of Galilee, there was a handful of ardent youths, deeply stirred by the currents of thought around them, who resented the Roman sway, and were on the tip-toe of expectation for the coming Kingdom. How they spoke together, as they floated at night in their fisherman's yawl over the dark waters of the Lake of Galilee, about God's ancient covenant, and the advent of the Messiah, and the corruptions of their beloved Temple service! And when, one day, tidings reached them of this strange new preacher, they left all and streamed with all the world beside to the Jordan valley, and stood fascinated by the spell of his words.
One by one, or all together, they made themselves known to him, and became his loyal friends and disciples. We are familiar with the names of one or two of them, who afterwards left their earlier master to follow Christ; but of the rest we know nothing, save that he taught them to fast and pray, and that they clung to their great teacher, until they bore his headless body to the grave. After his death they joined themselves with Him whom they had once regarded with some suspicion as his rival and supplanter.
How much this meant to John! He had never had a friend; and to have the allegiance and love of these noble, ingenuous youths must have been very grateful to his soul. But from them all he repeatedly turned his gaze, as though he were looking for some one who must presently emerge from the crowd; and the sound of whose voice would give him the deepest and richest fulfilment of his joy, because it would be the voice of the Bridegroom Himself.