"Nothing resting in its own completeness
"Spring's real glory dwells not in the meaning,
Resentment of the Sanhedrim -- The Baptist's Credentials -- Spiritual Vision -- "Behold the Lamb of God" -- The Baptism of the Spirit
The baptism and revelation of Christ had a marvellous effect on the ministry of the Forerunner. Previous to that memorable day, the burden of his teaching had been in the direction of repentance and confession of sin. But afterwards, the whole force of his testimony was towards the person and glory of the Shepherd of Israel. He understood that for the remainder of his brief ministry, which perhaps did not greatly exceed six months, he must bend all his strength to announcing to the people the prerogatives and claims of Him who stood amongst them, though they knew Him not. "There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for witness, that he might bear witness of the Light, that all might believe through him. He was not the Light, but came that he might bear witness of the Light."
Our subject, therefore, naturally divides itself into two divisions: John's admissions about himself, and his testimony to the Lord. And it is interesting to notice that they were given on three successive days, as appears from the twofold use of the phrase, "On the morrow." "On the morrow" (i.e., after he had met and answered the deputation from the Sanhedrim), "he seeth Jesus coming unto him..." (i.29). "Again, on the morrow John was standing, and two of his disciples..." (35).
These events took place at Bethany, or Bethabara, on the eastern bank of the Jordan. The river there is one hundred feet in width, and, except in flood, some five to seven feet deep. It lies in a tropical valley, the verdure of which is in striking contrast to the desolation which reigns around.
I. THE BAPTIST'S ADMISSIONS ABOUT HIMSELF. -- When the fourth Evangelist uses the word Jews, he invariably means the Sanhedrim. John had become so famous, and his influence so commanding, that he could not be ignored by the religious leaders of the time. In their hearts they derided him, and desired to do with him "whatsoever they listed." His preaching of repentance, and his unmeasured denunciation of themselves as a brood of vipers, were not to be borne. But they forbore to meet him in the open field, and resolved to send a deputation, which might extract some admission from his lips that would furnish them with ground for subsequent action. "The Jews sent unto him from Jerusalem priests and Levites to ask him, 'Who art thou?' ... 'Why baptizest thou?'" The first question was universally interesting; the second specially so to the Pharisee party, who were the high ritualists of their day, and who were reluctant that a new rite, which they had not sanctioned, should be added to the Jewish ecclesiastical system.
It is a striking scene. The rushing river; the tropical gorge; the dense crowds of people standing thick together; the Baptist in his sinewy strength and uncouth attire, surrounded by the little group of disciples; while through the throng a deputation of grey-beards, the representatives of a decadent religion, makes its difficult way -- these are the principal features of a memorable incident.
There was a profound silence, and men craned their necks and strained their ears to see and hear everything, as the deputation challenged the prophet with the inquiry, "Who art thou?" There was a great silence. Men were prepared to believe anything of the eloquent young preacher. "The people were in expectation, and all men reasoned in their hearts concerning John, whether haply he were the Christ" (Luke iii.15). If he had given the least encouragement to their dreams and hopes, they would have unfurled again the tattered banner of the Maccabees; and beneath his leadership would have swept, like a wild hurricane, against the Roman occupation, gaining, perhaps, a momentary success, which afterwards would have been wiped out in blood. "And he confessed, and denied not; and he confessed, I am not the Christ."
If a murmur of voices burst out in anger, disappointment, and chagrin, as this answer spread from lip to lip, it was immediately hushed by the second inquiry propounded, "What then? Art thou Elijah?" (alluding to the prediction of Malachi iv.5). If they had worded their question rather differently, and put it thus, "Hast thou come in the power of Elias?" John must have acknowledged that it was so; but if they meant to inquire if he were literally Elijah returned again to this world, he had no alternative but to say, decisively and laconically, "I am not."
There was a third arrow in their quiver, since the other two had missed the mark: and amid the deepening attention of the listening multitudes, and in allusion to Moses' prediction that God would raise up a Prophet like to himself (Deut. xviii.15; Acts iii.22; vii.37), they said, "Art thou the Prophet?" and he answered, "No."
The deputation was nonplussed. They had exhausted their repertory of questions. Their mission threatened to become abortive, unless they could extract some positive admission. They must put a leading question; and their spokesman, for the fourth time, challenged the strange being, whom they found it so hard to label and place on any shelf of their ecclesiastical museum. "They said therefore unto him, 'Who art thou? -- that we may give an answer to them that sent us.' What sayest thou of thyself?" "He said, 'I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said Isaiah the prophet.'"
How infinitely noble! How characteristic of strength! A weak man would have launched himself on the flowing tide of enthusiasm, and allowed himself to be swept away by its impetuous rush. What a mingling of strength and humility! When men suggested that he was the Christ, he insisted that he was only a voice -- the voice of the herald, whom men hardly notice, because they strain their eyes in the direction from which he has come, to behold the King Himself. When they complimented him on his teaching, he told them that He who would winnow the wheat from the chaff was yet to appear. And when they crowded to his baptism, he reiterated that it was only the baptism of negation, of water, but the Christ would baptize with the Holy Ghost and with fire.
Why was this? Ah, he knew his limitations! He was the greatest-born of woman, yet he knew that his bosom was not broad enough, nor his heart tender enough, to justify him in bidding all weary and heavy-laden ones to come to him for rest; he could not say that he and God were one, and include himself with the Deity, in the majestic pronoun, we; he never dared to ask men to believe in himself as they believed in the Father: but there came after him One who dared to say all these things; and this is the inevitable conclusion, that either Jesus was inferior to John in all that goes to make a strong and noble character, or that Jesus was all that John said He was, "The Son of God, and King of Israel." There is no third suggestion possible. We must either estimate Jesus as immeasurably inferior, or incomparably superior, to the strong, sane, Spirit-filled prophet, who never wearied in declaring the impassable chasm that yawned between them.
Such humility always accompanies a true vision of Christ. If we view it from the low ground, the mountain may appear to reach into the sky; but when we reach the mountain-top, we are immediately aware of the infinite distance between the highest snow-peak and the nearest star. To the crowds John may have seemed to fulfil all the essential conditions of the prophetic portraiture of the Messiah; but he stood on the mountain, and knew how infinitely the Christ stood above him. This is apparent in his reply to the final inquiry of the Sanhedrim, "And they asked him, and said unto him, 'Why, then, baptizest thou, if thou art not the Christ, neither Elijah, neither the Prophet?'" And John said in effect, "I baptize because I was sent to baptize, and I know very well that my work in this respect is temporary and transient; but what matters that? In the midst of you standeth One whom ye know not, even He that cometh after me, the latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to unloose. The Christ is come. Have not I seen Him, standing amid your crowds, yea, descending these very banks?"
The people must have turned one to another, as he spoke. What! Had the Messiah come! It could hardly be. There had been no prodigies in earth or sky worthy of his advent. How could He be amongst them, and they unaware! But it was even so, and it is so still. The Christ is in us, and with us still. There may be no transcendent symptoms of his blessed presence, as He stands in the little groups of two and three gathered in his name; but the eye of faith detects Him. Where others see only the bare cliffs of Patmos, or the mines with their gangs of convicts, the anointed gaze beholds a face brighter than the sun, the purged ear catches the accents of a voice like the murmur of waters on the still night air. Remember how He said, "He that loveth Me shall be loved of my Father; and I will love him, and will manifest Myself to him." As the Holy Spirit revealed Him to John, so He will reveal Him to us, if only, like John, we will be content with nothing less, and wait expectant with the heart on the outlook for the manifestation of the Son of God; for so He promised, saying, "He shall take of mine, and shall declare it unto you." And when the child of faith speaks thus, with the accent of conviction, of what he has seen, and tasted, and handled, of the Word of life, it is not strange that the children of this world, whose eyes are blinded, begin to question and deride. What is there to be seen that they cannot see? What heard that they cannot detect? Ah, "the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him, neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." "There standeth One among you," said the Baptist, "whom ye know not."
II. THE BAPTIST'S WITNESS TO THE LORD. -- Six weeks passed by from that memorable vision of the opened heaven and the descending Spirit, and John had eagerly scanned every comer to the river-bank to see again that divinely beautiful face. But in vain: for Jesus was in the wilderness, being tempted of the devil, for forty days and nights, the companion of wild beasts, and exposed to a very hurricane of temptation.
At the end of the six weeks, the interview with the deputation from the Sanhedrim took place, which we have already described; and on the day after, when his confession of inferiority was still fresh in the minds of his hearers, when some were criticising and others pitying, when symptoms that the autumn of his influence had set in were in the air, his eye flashed, his face lit up, and he cried, saying: "This is He of whom I said, 'After me cometh a man who is become before me, for He was before me.' Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world."
Did all eyes turn towards the Christ? Was there a ripple of interest and expectancy through the crowd? Did any realize the unearthly beauty and spiritual power of his presence? We know not. Scripture is silent, only telling us that on the following day, when, with two disciples, he looked on Jesus as He walked, and repeated his affirmation, "Behold the Lamb of God," those two disciples followed Him, never to return to their old master -- who knew it must be so, and was content to decrease if only He might increase.
Let us notice the successive revelations which were made to John, and through him to Israel, who, you remember, held him, as they had every warrant for doing, to be in the deepest sense a prophet of the Lord. This conviction has been definitely endorsed by succeeding ages, which have classed him as one of the six greatest men that ever left their mark on the world.
(1) He rightly conceived of Christ's pre-existence. "He was before me" (John i.30). The phrase resembles Christ's own words, when He said: "Before Abraham was, I am." In John's case it developed soon after into another and kindred expression: "He that cometh from above, is above all" (John iii.31). With such words the Baptist taught his disciples. He insisted that Jesus of Nazareth had an existence anterior to Nazareth, and previous to his birth of the village maiden. He recognised that his goings had been of old, even from everlasting, that He was the mighty God, the Father of the Ages, and the Prince of Peace. As for himself, he was of the earth, and of the earth he spoke; as for this One, He came from above, and was above all. It is not surprising, therefore, that one of his disciples, catching his Master's spirit, wrote: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him."
(2) He rightly apprehended the sacrificial aspect of Christ's work. "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." Was it that his priestly lineage gave Him a special right to coin and use this appellation? It was, without doubt, breathed into his heart by the Holy Spirit; but his whole previous training, as the son of a priest, fitted him to receive and transmit it. An attempt has been made to limit the meaning of these words to the personal character of Jesus, his purity, and gentleness; but, to the Jews who listened, the latter part of his exclamation could have but one significance. They would at once connect with his words, those of the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms. "The goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a solitary land." "He bare the sin of many." "He is led as a lamb to the slaughter."
From the slopes of Mount Moriah, a young voice has expressed the longing of the ages, "Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb?" This has been the cry of the human heart in all generations. From the days of Abel men have brought the firstlings of their flocks, laying them on the altar, and consuming them with fire; but there was always a sense of failure and insufficiency. Through the ages, and in every clime, priest after priest offered the lamb upon the altar, but by the very fact of continual repetition, bore witness to the insufficiency of its propitiation. "Every priest, indeed," is the comment of inspiration, "standeth day by day ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, the which can never take away sins." Must not the hearts of hundreds of saintly priests have been filled with the same inquiry, Where is the lamb? As the prophets understood more clearly the nature of God's dealing with man -- as, for instance, Micah saw that even the offering of the first-born could never atone for the sin of the soul -- may we not suppose that from their lips also the same inquiry was elicited, Where is the lamb? Nature cannot answer that cry. She is fascinating, especially when she dimples with the smile of spring, and unveils her face in summer to receive the caresses of the sun. But with all her beauty and fascination she cannot answer the entreaty of the conscience that the penalty of sin may be removed, its power broken, so that man may walk with God with a fearless heart. Animals at the best are only symbols of the complete solution to the ever-recurring problem of human sin: thus from all the ages goes forth the cry, Where is the lamb? Then from his heaven God sends forth his Son to be the sufficient answer to the universal appeal: and the heaven-sent messenger, from his rocky pulpit, as he sees Jesus coming to him, cries, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world."
Dear soul, thou mayest venture on Him. He is God's Lamb; on Him the sin of our race has been laid, and He stood before God with the accumulated load -- "made sin"; the iniquity of us all was laid upon Him; wounded for our transgressions; bruised for our iniquities; chastised for our peace; stricken for our transgression; bearing the sin of many. As the first Adam brought sin on the race, the second Adam has put it away by the sacrifice of Himself. Men are lost now, not because of Adam's sin, nor because they were born into a race of sinners, but for the sin which they presumptuously and wilfully commit, or because by unbelief they contract themselves out of the benefits of Christ's death. The servant who had been forgiven by his king, but took his brother by the throat, brought back upon himself the full penalty from which the royal warrant had freed him; and if any one of us cling to sin, rejecting and trampling under foot the Saviour's work on our behalf, we cancel so far all those benefits of our Saviour's passion which otherwise would accrue, and bring back upon ourselves the penalties from which He would fain have delivered us.
(3) He understood the baptism of the Holy Spirit. "The same is He that baptizeth with the Holy Spirit." As Son of God, our Saviour from all eternity was one with the Holy Spirit in the mystery of the blessed Trinity; but as "the one Man," He received in his human nature the fulness of the Divine Spirit. It pleased the Father that in Him should all the fulness of the Godhead dwell, that He might be able to communicate Him to all the sons of men who were united to Him by a living faith. Thus it fell that He was able to assure his disciples that if they waited in Jerusalem for the promise of the Father, as John baptized with water, they should be baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts i.4, 5).
The term baptism, as applied to the Holy Spirit, had better be confined to those marvellous manifestations of spiritual power which are recorded in Acts ii., viii., x., xix., whilst the word filling should be used of those experiences of the indwelling and anointing of the Divine Spirit which are within the reach of us all. Still, we may all adopt the words of the Baptist, and tell our living Head that we have need to be baptized of Him -- need to be plunged into the fiery baptism; need to be searched by the stinging flame; need to be cleansed from dross and impurity; need to be caught in the transfiguring, heaven-leaping energy of the Holy Spirit, borne upon his bosom into the rare atmosphere where the seven lamps burn always before the throne of God. The blood of the Lamb and the fire of the Holy Spirit are thus inextricably united.
(4) He beheld the mystery of the Holy Trinity. For the first time this was made manifest to man. On the one hand there was the Father speaking from heaven; on the other the Spirit descending as a dove -- and between them was the Son of Man who was proclaimed to be the Son of God, the beloved Son. Surely John might say that flesh and blood had not revealed these things, but they had been made known to him by a divine revelation.
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a profound mystery, hidden from the intellect, but revealed to the humble and reverent heart; hidden from the wise and prudent, and revealed to babes. Welcome Jesus Christ as John did; and, as to John, so the whole wonder of the Godhead will be made known to thy heart. Thou wilt hear the Father bearing witness to his Son; thou wilt see how clearly the Son reveals the Father, and achieves redemption; thou shalt know what it is to stand beneath the open heaven and behold and participate in the Divine anointing. Of what good is it to reason about the Trinity if thou hast no spiritual appetite for the gifts of the Trinity? But if this is thine, and thou openest thine heart, thou wilt receive the gift and understand the doctrine.
(5) He appreciated the Divine Sonship of Christ. "I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God." This witness counts for much. John knew men, knew himself, knew Christ. He would not have said so much unless he had been profoundly convinced; and he would not have been profoundly convinced unless irrefragable evidence had been presented to him. What though, when on the following day he repeats his exclamation, his whole congregation leaves him to follow the Man of Nazareth to his home? The heart of the Forerunner is satisfied, for he has heard the Bridegroom's voice. The Son of God has come, and has given him an understanding that he might know Him that is true.