"Search thine own heart. What paineth thee
"Where now with pain thou treadest, trod
Christ's Appreciation -- His Independence -- The Simplicity of his Life -- His Place in the Devine Economy -- The Spirit of Meekness -- The Greatness of Humility
While John's disciples were standing there, our Lord said nothing in his praise, but as soon as they had departed, the flood-gates of his heart were thrown wide open, and He began to speak to the multitudes concerning his faithful servant. It was as though He would give him no cause for pride by what He said. He desired to give his friend no additional temptation during those lonely hours. We say our kind things before each other's faces; our hard things when the back is turned. It is not so with Christ. He passes his most generous encomiums when we are not there to hear them. Christ may never tell you how greatly He loves and values you; but while you lie there in your prison, with sad and overcast heart, He is saying and thinking great things about you yonder.
I. THE TIME CHOSEN FOR THE LORD'S COMMENDATION OF THE BAPTIST. -- It was when John had fallen beneath his usual level, below high-water mark, that Jesus uttered his warmest and most generous words of appreciation -- "Among them that are born of women, there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist."
"But, dost Thou really mean, most holy Lord, that this one is the greatest born of woman?"
"Certainly," saith Christ, in effect.
"But he has asked if Thou art really the Messiah."
"I know it," saith the Lord.
"But how canst Thou say that he is to be compared with Moses, Isaiah, or Daniel? Did they doubt Thee thus? And how canst Thou say that he is not a reed shaken with the wind, when, but now, he gave patent evidence that he was stooping beneath the hurrying tread of gales of doubt and depression?"
"Ah," the Master seems to say, "Heaven judges, not by a passing mood, but by the general tenor and trend of a man's life; not by the expression of a doubt, caused by accidents which may be explained, but by the soul of man within him, which is as much deeper than the emotions as the heart of the ocean is deeper than the cloud-shadows which hurry across its surface."
Yes, the Lord judges us by that which is deepest, most permanent, most constant and prevalent with us; by the ideal we seek to apprehend; by the decision and choice of our soul; by that bud of possibility which lies as yet furled, and unrealized even by ourselves.
There is a remarkable parallel to this incident in the Old Testament. When we are first introduced to Gideon, the youngest son of Joash the Abi-ezrite, he is not in a very dignified position. He is threshing wheat by the wine-press, to hide it from the hosts of Midian, which devoured the produce of the entire country. There was no moral wrong in eluding the vigilance of the Midian spies, in transporting the wheat from the open country, where the wind might fan away the chaff, to the comparative seclusion and unlikeliness of the wine-press; but there was nothing specially heroic or inspiring in the spectacle. Yet, when the angel of the Lord appeared unto him, he said, "The Lord is with thee, thou mighty man of valour."
"Mighty man of valour!" At first there is an apparent incongruity between this high-sounding salutation and the bearing of the man to whom it was addressed. Surely such an address is far-fetched and fulsome; yet subsequent events prove that every syllable of it was deservedly true. Gideon was a mighty man of valour, and God was with him. The heavenly messenger read beneath the outward passing incident, and saw under the clumsy letters of the palimpsest the deep and holy characters which were awaiting the moment of complete discovery.
Is not this, in fact, the meaning of the apostle, when he says that faith is reckoned to us for righteousness? In the fullest sense, of course, we know that to each believer in Jesus there is reckoned the entire benefit of his glorious person and work, so that we are accepted in the Beloved, and He is "made unto us ... Righteousness." But there is another sense in which faith is reckoned to us for righteousness, because it contains within itself the power and potency of the perfect life. It is the seed-germ from which is developed in due course the plant, the flower, the bud, the seed, and the reproduction of the plant in unending succession. God reckoned to Abraham all that his faith was capable of producing, which it did produce, and which it would have produced had he possessed all the advantages which pertain to our own happy lot. There is thus the objective and the subjective: in virtue of the first, through faith in Jesus, all his righteousness is accounted to us; in virtue of the second, God reckons to us all that blessed flowering and fruitage of which our faith will be capable, when patience has had its perfect work and we are perfect and entire, wanting nothing.
II. THE OUTSTANDING FEATURES OF JOHN'S CHARACTER AND MINISTRY TO WHICH OUR LORD DREW ATTENTION. -- (1) His Independence. "What went ye out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken with the wind?" The language of the Bible is so picturesque, so full of natural imagery, that it appeals to every age, and speaks in every language of the world. If its descriptions of character had been given in the language of the philosopher or academist, what was intelligible to one age would have been perplexing or meaningless to the next. Remember that the long gallery in the Pyramids, which was directed to the pole-star when they were constructed, is now hopelessly out of course, because the position of the pole-star, in relation to the earth, has so entirely altered; and what is true among the spheres is true in the use of terms. But the Word of God employs natural figures and parables, which the wayfaring man, though a fool, comprehends at a glance.
Who, for instance, on a gusty March day, has not watched the wind blowing lustily across a marsh or the reedy margin of a lake, compelling all the reeds to stoop in the same direction? Has one resisted the current or stood stoutly forth in protesting non-compliance? Has one dared to adopt an unbending posture? Not one. They have been as obsequious as were all the king's servants that were in the king's gate to the imperious Haman when he happened to enter the palace.
Thus, when our Lord asked the people whether John resembled a reed shaken by the wind, and implied their answer in the negative, could He have more clearly indicated one of the most salient characteristics of John's career -- his daring singularity, his independence of mere custom and fashion, his determination to follow out the pattern of his own life as God revealed it to him? In this he resembles the good Nehemiah, when he refers to the usual practice of men of his position, and says, "So did not I, because of the fear of the Lord"; or the three young men who, when all the myriads fell down and worshipped Nebuchadnezzar's golden image, remained erect. In the singularity of his dress and food; in the originality of his message and demand for baptism; in his independence of the religious teachers and schools of his time; in his refusal to countenance the flagrant sins of the various classes of the community, and especially in his uncompromising denunciation of Herod's sin -- he proved himself to be as a sturdy oak in the forest of Bashan, or a deeply-rooted cedar in Lebanon, and not as a reed shaken by the wind.
Many a saintly soul has followed him since along this difficult and lonely track. Indeed, it is the ordinary path for most of the choicest spirits of these Christian centuries. I do not say of all, because the great Gardener has his violets and lilies in sheltered spots; but certainly most of the trees of his right-hand planting have not stood thickly-planted in the sheltered woodland, but have braved the winds sweeping in at the gates of the hills.
You, my reader, admire, but feel you cannot follow. When your companions and friends are speaking depreciating and ungenerous words of some public man whom you love; when unkind and scandalous stories are being passed from lip to lip; when a storm of execration and hatred is being poured on a cause, which in your heart you favour and espouse -- you find it easier to bow before the gale, with all the other reeds around you, than to enter your protest, even though you stand alone. Yet the reed thrust by the soldiers into the hands of Christ may become the rod of iron with which He rules the nations. He can take the most pliant and yielding natures, and make them, as He made Jeremiah, "a defenced city, and an iron pillar, and brazen walls, against the whole land." Thou canst not; but He can. He will strengthen thee; yea, He will help thee; yea, He will uphold thee with the right hand of his righteousness. Keep looking steadfastly up to Him, that He may teach thy hands to war, and thy fingers to fight; for thou shalt be able to do all things through Him that strengtheneth thee.
(2) His simplicity. A second time the Master asked the people what they went forth into the wilderness to behold; and by his question implied that John was no Sybarite clothed in soft raiment, and feasting in luxury, but a strong, pure soul, that had learnt the secret of self-denial and self-control. Too many of us are inclined to put on the soft raiment of self-indulgence and luxury. We are the slaves of fashion, or we are perpetually considering what we shall eat, what we shall drink, and with what we shall be clothed: or we act as though we supposed that life consisted in the number of things we possessed, and the variety of servants that waited upon us: whereas the exact contrary is the case. The real happiness of life consists not in increasing our possessions, but in limiting our wants.
To all my young brothers and sisters who may read this page, and who have yet the making of their lives in their own hands, I would say, with all my heart, learn to do without the soft clothing and the many servants which characterise kings' courts. At table have your eye on the simpler dishes, those which supply the maximum of nutriment and strength, and do not allow your choice to be determined by what pleases the palate or gratifies the taste. A young friend stood me out the other day against some article of diet, which was acknowledged to be the more nutritious (it was whole-meal bread), because another was sweeter and more palatable (some white, light French rolls, from which all the nutriment had been extracted). This is the deliberate preference of the fare of kings' courts to Daniel's pulse and the Baptist's locusts and wild honey. Please note, here, that there was nothing inconsistent in his taking honey. We are not to refuse a certain diet because it is pleasant; but we are not to choose it because it is so.
So with dress. Our Master does not require of us to dress grotesquely, or to attract notice by the singularity and grotesqueness of our attire. We must dress suitably and in conformity with that station in life to which He has called us. But what a difference there is between making our dress our main consideration, and considering first and foremost the attire of the soul in meekness and truth, purity and unselfishness. They who are set upon these may be trusted to put the other in the right place. But, on the whole, the truly consecrated soul should study simplicity. It should not endeavour to attract notice by glaring colours or extravagant display. It ought not to seek a large variety of dresses and costumes, but be satisfied with what may be really needed for the exigencies of climate and health. Let it take no pleasure in vying with others, because dress is a question of utility and not of pride. On the whole, we should set our faces against the soft raiment which enervates the health, and unfits us to stretch out our hands in ready help to those who need assistance along the highways of life.
So with service. It is not well to depend on others. If it is part of our lot to be surrounded by servants, let us accept their offices with grace and kindliness, but never allow ourselves to lean on them. We should know how to do everything for ourselves, and be prepared to do it whenever it is necessary. Of course, with some of us, it is essential that we should have servants, that we may be set free to do the special work of our lives. Nothing would be more unfortunate than that those who are highly gifted in some special direction should fritter away their time and strength in doing trifles which others could do for them equally well. To think of a physician whose consulting room was crowded with patients needing help which he alone, of all men living, could give, spending the precious morning hours in the minutiae of household arrangements, blacking his boots, or preparing his food! Let these things be left to those who cannot do the higher work to which he is called.
This is the secret of making the best of your life. Discover what you can do best -- the one thing which you are called to do for others, and which probably no one else can do so well. Set yourself to do this, devolving on voluntary or paid helpers all that they can do as well as, and perhaps better than, yourself. It was in this spirit that the apostles said, "It is not fit that we should forsake the Word of God and serve tables. Look ye out, therefore, men ... whom we may appoint over this business; but we will continue steadfastly in prayer, and in the ministry of the Word."
It is specially the temptation of Eastern life, where the climate is enervating and service is cheap and plentiful, to seek the soft raiment and the large assistance of attendants, and it is almost impossible to yield to one or the other without relaxing the fibre of the soul. The temptation is always around us; and it is well to look carefully into our life from time to time, to be quite sure, lest almost insensibly its strong energetic spirit may not be in process of deterioration -- as the soldiers of Hannibal in the plains of Capua. If so, resolve to do without, not for merit's sake, but to conserve the strength and simplicity of your soul.
(3) His noble office. "But wherefore went ye out? -- to see a prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet." Nothing is more difficult than to measure men while they are living. Whilst the fascination of their presence and the music of their voice are in the air, we are apt to exaggerate their worth. The mountain towers so far above us that we are apt, in the absence of other mountains, or in our too great proximity to it, to think of it as the greatest of all the mountain-range. But it is not so, as we discover when we remove further. But subsequent ages, so far from correcting, have only confirmed our Saviour's estimate of his Forerunner. We are able to locate him in the Divine economy. He was a prophet, yes, and much more. To employ the predictive words of Malachi, he was Jehovah's messenger, the courier who announced the advent of the King, the last of the prophets -- for all the prophets and the law prophesied until John -- and the herald of that new and greater era, whose gates he opened, but into which he was not permitted to enter.
But our Lord went further, and did not hesitate to class John with the greatest of those born of woman. He was absolutely in the front rank. He may have had peers, but no superiors; equals, but no over-lords. Who may be classed with him, we cannot, dare not, say. But probably Abraham, Moses, Paul. "There hath not arisen a greater than John the Baptist." No brighter star shines in the celestial firmament than that of this brief young life, which had only time enough to proclaim the advent of the Lord, and after some brief six months of ministry by the Jordan, followed by twelve months in the gaol, waned here to shine in undimming brilliancy yonder.
There was a further tribute paid by our Lord to his noble servant. Some two or three centuries before, Malachi had foretold that Elijah, the prophet, would be sent before the great and terrible day of the Lord came; and the Jews were always on the outlook for his coming. Even to the present day a chair is set for him at their religious feasts. This is what was meant when they asked the Baptist, at the commencement of his ministry, if he were Elijah. He shrank, as we have seen, from assuming so great a name, though he could not have refused the challenge, had it been worded to include the spirit and power of the great prophet of Thisbe. But here our Lord went beyond John's own modest, self-depreciating estimate, and declared, "If ye are willing to receive it, this is Elijah which is to come." As He descended from the Mount of Transfiguration, He returned to the same subject: "And they asked Him, saying, The scribes say that Elijah must first come. And He said unto them, Elijah indeed cometh first, and restoreth all things.... But I say unto you that Elijah is come, and they have also done unto him whatsoever they listed, even as it is written of him" (Mark ix.9-13).
III. THE MASTER'S RESERVATION. Let us again quote His memorable words: "Among them that are born of women there hath not arisen a greater than John the Baptist; yet he that is but little in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he" (Matt. xi.11, R.V.).
The greatness of John the Baptist shone out in conspicuous beauty in his meek confession of inferiority. It is always a sign of the greatest knowledge, when its possessor confesses himself to be as a child picking up shells on the shores of a boundless ocean. And the Baptist's greatness was revealed in the lowliness of his self-estimate.
When the Lord Jesus summarized his own character He said, "I am meek and lowly in heart." In doing so He expressed the character of God; for He was the Revealer of God, "the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person." He was "God manifested in flesh." He was not only the Son of God, He was God the Son: "He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father. I and the Father are one." The greatness of John was proved in this, that like his Lord he was meek and lowly in heart. Neither before nor since has a son of Adam lived in whom these divine qualities were more evident. No sublimer, no more God-like utterance ever passed the lips of man than John's answer to his disciples: "A man can receive nothing except it have been given him from heaven. He must increase, but I must decrease" (see the whole passage, John iii.27-36). The very same spirit of meekness was speaking in John as acted in his Lord, when, knowing that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (though Jesus Himself baptized not, but his disciples), "He left Judea and departed into Galilee." What divisions might have been avoided in the Church had his people followed his example! But there was no man, not even the apostle John or Paul, whose spirit accorded more exactly with the Master's than his faithful and self-effacing herald and forerunner, John the Baptist. It might well be said, that of them that were born of women there had not arisen a greater than he.
But what was in our Lord's thought when He made the reservation, "Yet he that is but little in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he"? It has been suggested that the Lord was speaking of John not only as a man, but as a prophet, and that this declaration applies more particularly to John as a prophet. The words of the evangelist Luke are noticeable -- "There hath not risen a greater prophet than John the Baptist": because to balance the sentence it seems needful to supply the word prophet in the second clause -- "The least prophet in the Kingdom of heaven is a greater prophet than he." John could say, "Behold the Lamb of God"; but the least of those who, being scattered abroad, went everywhere proclaiming the word of the Kingdom, preached "Jesus and the resurrection."
But there is another way of interpreting Christ's words. John ushered in the Kingdom, but was not in it. He proclaimed a condition of blessedness in which he was not permitted to have a part. And the Lord says that to be in that Kingdom gives the opportunity of attaining to a greatness which the great souls outside its precincts cannot lay claim to. There is a greatness which comes from nature, and another greatness from circumstances. The child on the mountain is higher than the giant in the valley. The boy in our village schools knows more on certain subjects than Socrates or Confucius, the greatest sages of the world. The least instructed in the Kingdom of heaven is privileged to see and hear the things which prophets and kings longed and waited for in vain. The least in the higher dispensation may know and understand more than the loftiest souls of the dispensations that have preceded.
And may there not be even more than this? The character of John was strong, grand in its wild magnificence -- like some Alpine crag, with the pines on its slopes and the deep dark lake at its foot; he had courage, resolution, an iron will, a loftiness of soul that could hold commerce with the unseen and eternal. He was a man capable of vast heights and depths. He could hold fellowship with the eternal God as a man speaks with his friend, and could suffer unutterable agonies in self-questioning and depression. But is this the loftiest ideal of character? Is it the most desirable and blessed? Assuredly not; and this may have been in the Saviour's mind when He made his notable reservation. To come neither eating nor drinking; to be stern, reserved, and lonely; to live apart from the homes of men, to be the severe and unflinching rebuker of other men's sins -- this was not the loftiest pattern of human character.
There was something better, as is manifest in our Lord's own perfect manhood. The balance of quality; the power to converse with God, mated with the tenderness that enters the homes of men, wipes the tears of those that mourn, and gathers little children to its side; that has an ear for every complaint, and a balm of comfort for every heart-break; that pities and soothes, teaches and leads; that is able not only to commune with God alone in the desert, but brings Him into the lowliest deeds and commonplaces of human life -- this is the type of character which is characteristic of the Kingdom of heaven. It is described best in those inimitable beatitudes which canonize, not the stern and rugged, but the sweet and tender, the humble and meek; and stamp Heaven's tenderest smile on virtues which had hardly found a place in the strong and gritty character of the Baptist.
Yes, there is more to be had by the humble heart than John possessed or taught. The passive as well as the active; the glen equally with the bare mountain peak; the feminine with the masculine; the power to wait and be still, combined with the swift rush to capture the position; the cross of shame as well as the throne of power. And if thou art the least in the Kingdom of God, all this may be thine, by the Holy Spirit, who introduces the very nature of the Son of Man into the heart that loves Him truly. "He that is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he."