"Oh, may I join the choir invisible
The Old Covenant and the New -- Elijah and the Baptist -- A Parallel -- The Servant inferior to the Lord -- The Baptism of the Holy Ghost -- The Indwelling Spirit
Great men are God's greatest gifts to our race; and it is only by their interposition that mankind is able to step up to higher and better levels of life. The doctrine of evolution is supposed to explain the history of the universe. Men would have us believe that certain forces have been set in motion which have elaborated this great scheme of which we are a part, and the evolutionist would go so far as to say that man himself has been evolved from protoplasm, and that the brains of a Socrates, of a Milton, or of any genius who has left his mark upon the world, have simply emanated from the whole process which culminates in them. We believe, on the contrary, that at distinct points in the history of the universe, there has been a direct interposition of the will and hand of God; and it is remarkable that in the first chapter of Genesis that august and majestic word create is three times introduced, as though the creation of matter, the creation of the animal world, and the creation of man, were three distinct stages, at which the direct interposition of the will and workmanship of the Eternal was specially manifest. Similarly, we believe that there have been great epochs in human history, which cannot be accounted for by the previous evolution of moral and religious thought, and which must be due to the fact that God Himself stepped in, and by the direct raising up of a man, who became the apostle of the new era, lifted the race to new levels of thought and action. It is in this light that we view the two illustrious men who were, each in his own measure, the apostles of new epochs in human history -- Elijah in the old Covenant, and John the Baptist in the new.
It is remarkable that the prophet Malachi tells us that the advent of the Messiah should be preceded and heralded by Elijah the prophet; and that Gabriel, four hundred years after, said that John the Baptist, whose birth he announced, would come in the spirit and power of Elijah. This double prediction was referred to by our Lord when, descending from the Mount of Transfiguration, in conversation with the apostles, He indicated John the Baptist as the Elijah who was to come. And, indeed, there was a marvellous similarity between these two men, though each of them is dwarfed into insignificance by the unique and original personality of the Son of Man, who towers in inaccessible glory above them.
I. LET US INSTITUTE A COMPARISON BETWEEN ELIJAH THE TISHBITE, AND JOHN THE BAPTIST. -- They resembled each other in dress. We are told that Elijah was a hairy man -- an expression which is quite as likely to refer to the rough garb in which he was habited, as to the unshorn locks that fell upon his shoulders. And John the Baptist wore a coarse dress of camel's hair.
Each of them sojourned in Gilead. In the remarkable sentence, which, for the first time, introduces Elijah to the Bible and the world, we are told that he was one of the sojourners in Gilead, that great tract of country, thinly populated, and largely given over to shepherds and their flocks, which lay upon the eastern side of the Jordan. And we know that it was there amid the shaggy forests, and closely-set mountains, with their rapid torrents, that John the Baptist waited, fulfilled his ministry, preached to and baptized the teeming crowds.
Each of them learnt to make the body subservient to the spirit. Elijah was able to live on the sparse food brought by ravens, or provided from the meal barrel of the widow, was able to outstrip the horses of Ahab's chariot in their mad rush across the valley of Jezreel; and after a brief respite, given to sleep and food, went in the strength of it for forty days and nights, through the heart of the desert until he came to Horeb, the Mount of God. His body was but the vehicle of the fiery spirit that dwelt within; he never studied its gratification and pleasure, but always handled it as the weapon to be wielded by his soul. And what was true in his case, was so of John the Baptist, whose food was locusts and wild honey. The two remind us of St. Bernard, who tells us that he never ate for the gratification of taking food, but only that he might the better serve God and man.
We remember also that each of these heroic spirits was confronted by a hostile court. In the case of Elijah, Ahab and Jezebel, together with the priests of Baal and Astarte, withstood every step of his career; and in the case of John the Baptist, Herod, Herodias, and the whole drift of religious opinion, with its repeated deputations to ask who he might be, dogged his steps, and ultimately brought him to a martyr's end.
How distinctly, also, in each case there was the consciousness of the presence of God. One of the greatest words which man has ever uttered was that in which Elijah affirmed, in the presence of king Ahab, that he was conscious of standing at the same moment in the presence of the Eternal: "And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the sojourners of Gilead, said unto Ahab, 'As the Lord, the God of Israel, liveth, before whom I stand'" -- a phrase afterwards used by Gabriel himself when he told Zacharias that he was one of the presence angels. "And the angel answering, said unto him, 'I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God.'" This consciousness of the Divine presence in his life revealed itself in his great humility, when he cast himself on the ground with his face between his knees; and in the unflinching courage which enabled him to stand like a rock on Mount Carmel, when king, and priest, and people, were gathered in their vast multitudes around him, sufficient to daunt the spirit that had not beheld a greater than any. This God-consciousness was especially manifest in the Baptist, who referred so frequently to the nearness of the kingdom of God. "The kingdom of heaven," he said, "is at hand." And when Jesus came, unrecognised by the crowds, his high spirit prostrated itself, and his very visage was shadowed with the vail of intense modesty and humility, as he cried; "In the midst of you standeth One whom ye know not, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose." Coupled with this sense of God, there was, in each case, a marvellous fearlessness of man. When Obadiah met Elijah, and was astonished to hear that the prophet was about to show himself to Ahab, Elijah overbore his attempts to dissuade him, saying: I will certainly show myself to thy master: go, tell him Elijah is here. And when afterwards the heavenly fire had descended, and the prophets of Baal were standing bewildered by their altar, he did not flinch from arresting the whole crowd of them, leading them down to the valley of the Kishon brook beneath and there slaying them, so that the waters ran crimson to the sea. This fearlessness was also conspicuous in the Forerunner, who dared to beard the king in his palace, asserting that he must be judged by the same standard as the meanest of his subjects, and that it was not lawful for him to have his brother's wife.
To each there came moments of depression. In the case of Elijah, the glory of his victory on the brow of Carmel was succeeded by the weight of dark soul-anguish. Did he not cast himself, within twenty-four hours, beneath the juniper tree of the desert, and pray that he might die, because he was no better than his fathers -- a mood which God, who pities his children and remembers that they are dust, combated, not by expostulation, but by sending him food and sleep, knowing that it was the result of physical and nervous overstrain? And did not John the Baptist from his prison cell send the enquiry to Jesus, as to whether, after all, his hopes had been too glad, his anticipations too great, and that perhaps after all He was not the Messiah for whom the nation was waiting?
Both Elijah and John the Baptist had the same faith in the baptism of fire. We never can forget the scene on Carmel when Elijah proposed the test that the God who answered by fire should be recognised as God; nor how he erected the altar, and laid the wood, and placed the bullock there, and drenched the altar with water; and how, in answer to his faith, at last the fire fell. John the Baptist passed through no such ordeal as that; but it was his steadfast faith that Christ should come to baptize with the Holy Ghost and fire.
Each of them turned the hearts of the people back. It was as though the whole nation were rushing towards the edge of the precipice which overhung the bottomless pit, like a herd of frightened horses on the prairie, and these men with their unaided hands turned them back. It would be impossible for one man to turn back a whole army in mad flight -- he would necessarily be swept away in their rush; but this is precisely what the expression attributes to the exertions of Elijah and John. The one turned Israel back to cry, Jehovah, He is God; the other turned the whole land back to repentance and righteousness, so that publicans and soldiers, Sadducees and Pharisees, began to confess their sin, put away their evil courses, and return to the God of their fathers.
Each prophet was succeeded by a gentler ministry. Elijah was sent from Horeb to anoint Elisha, who, for the most part, passed through the land like genial sunshine -- a perpetual benediction to men, women, and children; while John the Baptist opened the door for the Shepherd, Christ, who went about doing good, and whose holy, tender ministry fell on his times like rain on the mown grass.
From the solitudes beyond the Jordan, as he walked with Elisha, talking as they went, the chariot and horses of fire which the Father had sent for his illustrious servant from heaven bore him homeward, while his friends and disciples stood with outstretched hands, crying: The chariot and horses of Israel are leaving us, bearing away our most treasured leader. In those same solitudes, or within view of them, the spirit of John the Baptist swept up in a similar chariot. As the headsman, with a flash of his sword, put an end to his mortal career, though no mortal eyes beheld them, and no chronicler has told the story, there must have been horses and chariots of fire waiting to convey the noble martyr-spirit to its God. The parallel is an interesting one -- it shows how God repeats Himself; and, if time and space permitted, we might elaborate the repetition of a similar conception, either in Savonarola of Florence, or in Martin Luther, or in John Knox, who had been baptized into the same Spirit, and inspired to perform the same ministry. That Spirit is waiting still -- waiting to clothe Himself with our life; waiting to do in us, and through us, similar work for the time in which we live. What these men did far back in the centuries, it is probable that others Will have to do before this dispensation passes utterly away. A man, or men, shall again rise up, who will tower over their fellows, who will speak and act in the spirit and power of Elijah -- men like Edward Irving, but without the mistakes that characterized his heroic life. Perhaps some young life may be inspired by this page to yield itself to God, so that it may be sent forth to turn back the hearts and lives of vast multitudes from their evil way, turning the heart of the fathers to their children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
II. NOTICE THE INFERIORITY OF THESE GREAT MEN TO THE LORD. -- Neither Elisha, the disciple of Elijah, nor the eloquent Apollos, the disciple of John the Baptist, would have dared to say of their respective masters what Philip and Andrew, Peter and Thomas, habitually said of Christ. Greatly as they revered and loved their masters, they knew that they were men like themselves; that their nature was made in the same mould, though, perhaps, of finer clay; that there were limitations beyond which they could not go, and qualities of mind and soul in which they were not perfected. They dared not say of them, "My Lord and my God." They never thought of prostrating themselves at their feet in worship; they never appealed to them after their decease as able to hear and answer prayer from the heaven into which they had passed.
Neither Elijah nor John had what Jesus asserted -- the consciousness of an unique union with God; neither of them dared to affirm, as Jesus did, that he was the Son of God, in the sense that made other use of that term blasphemy; neither of them thought of anticipating a moment when he should be seen sitting at the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds; neither of them dared to couple himself with Deity in the sublime and significant pronoun we -- "We will come and make our abode with Him." Neither of them would have dreamed of accepting the homage which Jesus took quite naturally, when men worshipped Him, and women washed and kissed his feet: and I ask how it could be that Jesus Christ, so essentially meek and lowly, so humble and unwilling to obtrude Himself, should have spoken and acted so differently, unless his nature had been separated by an impassable gulf from that of other men, however saintly and gifted? The very fact that these men, acknowledged amongst the greatest of our race, drew a line, and said: Beyond that we cannot pass; we are conscious of defilement and need; we require forgiveness and grace, equally with those to whom we minister. And this compels on our part the acknowledgment that Jesus Christ was all He claimed to be, and that He is worthy to receive glory, and honour, and riches, and power, and blessing; for He is Man of men, the second Man, the Lord from Heaven.
Neither of these dared to offer himself as the Comforter and Saviour of men. Elijah could only rebuke sin, which he did most strenuously; but he had no panacea for the sin and sorrow of his countrymen. He could bid them turn to God; and he did. But he could say nothing of any inherent virtue, or power, which could proceed from him to save and help. It was never suggested for a moment that he could act as mediator between God and men, though he might be an intercessor. And as for John the Baptist, though he deeply stirred the religious convictions of his countrymen, he could only point to One who came after him, and say: "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." But within six months after the commencement of his ministry, Jesus says; "Son, thy sins are forgiven thee"; "The Son of Man hath authority on earth to forgive sins"; "Daughter, thy sins, which are many, are forgiven thee: go in peace"; and presently: "This is the cup of the New Covenant in my blood, shed for many, for the remission of sins", and again: "The Son of Man came to give his life a ransom for many." Tell me of any, either in the story of Elijah or of John the Baptist, to compare with these words, spoken by the lowest and humblest being that ever trod time's sands? Does that not indicate that He stood in a relationship to God and man which has never been realized by another?
Besides, neither of them introduced a new type of living. Their own method of life seemed to indicate that there was sin in the body, or sin in matter; and that the only way of holiness was by an austerity that lived apart in the deserts, dreading and avoiding the presence of men. That was a type of holiness which every great religious teacher has followed; for you remember that Buddha used to say that all the present is an illusion and a dream, while the realities await us beyond. On the other hand, Jesus taught that the Redeemer was also the Creator; that there was nothing common or unclean in man's original constitution; that sin consisted not in certain actions, functions, or duties -- but in man's heart, and will, and choice; and that if a man were only right there, all his nature and circumstances would become illumined and transfigured by the indwelling Spirit. Let it never be forgotten that Christ taught that God is not going to cancel the nature which He Himself has bestowed in all its human and innocent out-goings, but only to eliminate the self-principle which has cursed it -- as you would wish to take small-pox from the body of the little child, or the taint out of the rotting flesh of the leper.
O Christ, Thou standest pre-eminent in thy unparalleled glory! Let Elijah and John the Baptist withdraw, but oh, do Thou tarry! To whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. All the prophets and kings of men without Thee will not suffice; but to have Thee is to have all that is strong, and wise, and good, gathered up into the perfect beauty of a man, with the Divine glory of the Infinite God.
III. HOW MAY WE HAVE THAT SAME SPIRIT? -- John the Baptist came in the spirit and power of Elijah: that spirit and power are for us too. Just as the dawn touches the highest peaks of the Alps, and afterwards, as the morning hours creep on, the tide of light passes down into the valley, so the Spirit that smote that glorious pinnacle Elijah, and that nearer pinnacle the Baptist, is waiting to descend upon and empower us.
We are all believers in Jesus, but did we receive the Holy Ghost when we believed? (Acts xix.2). When the great apostle of the Gentiles met the little handful of John's disciples, gathered in the great idolatrous city of Ephesus, the first word he addressed to them was the eager enquiry, "Did ye receive the Holy Ghost when ye believed?" And they replied, "Nay, we did not so much as hear whether the Holy Ghost was given." In other words: We heard from our master, John, that Jesus, of whom he spake, would baptize with the Holy Ghost and with fire; but we have never heard of the fulfilment of his prediction -- we only know of Him, concerning whom our great leader so often spake, as the great Teacher, Miracle-worker, and Sacrifice for the sins of the people -- but what more there is to tell and know we wait to hear from thee.
Then Paul explained that John's baptism had stood only for confession and repentance: "John baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people that they should believe on Him, which should come after him, that is, on Jesus." Those who descended the shelving banks of Jordan to be plunged beneath its arrowy waters, declared their discontent with the past, their desire to be free of it, and their belief in the Messianic character of Jesus of Nazareth, who was to introduce a new and better age.
But the apostle hastened to explain that this Jesus, whom the Jews had delivered up and slain by wicked hands, was the Prince of Life; that God had raised Him from the dead; and that being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, He had poured Him forth in mighty power on the waiting Church, anointing it for its ministry to mankind. It was as though he had said: Our Lord, on his Ascension, baptized those that had believed with the Spirit of which Joel spake. The water of John's baptism symbolised a negation, but this baptism is positive; it is as cleansing, purifying flame; it was good to know Jesus after the flesh, it is a thousand times better to know Him after the Spirit: and this gift is to us and to our children, and to all that are far off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.
When they heard this they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. They exalted Him to the throne of their hearts as the glorified and ever-blessed Son of God. They directed their longing eyes towards Him in his risen glory, that He should do for them as He had already done for so many. And in answer to their expectant faith, the blessing of Abraham came upon them -- they received the promise of the Spirit by faith; the Holy Ghost came upon them, and they were equipped for witness-bearing in Ephesus by the very power which had rested once on Elijah, and also on their first teacher and guide; and, as the result, a revival broke out in that city of such magnitude that the magic books were burned, and the trade of the silversmiths grievously injured.
This power of the Holy Spirit is for us all. Of course we could not believe in Jesus in the remission of sin, or the quickening of our spiritual life, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit; but there is something more than this, there is a power, an anointing, a gracious endowment of fitness for service -- which are the privilege of every believer. The Holy Spirit is prepared, not only to be within us for the renewal and sanctification of character, but to anoint us as He did the Lord at his baptism. He waits to empower us to witness for Jesus, to endure the persecution and trial which are inevitable to the exercise of a God-given ministry, and to bring other men to God. It would be well to tarry to receive it. It is better to wait for hours for an express train than to start to walk the distance; the hours spent in waiting will be more than compensated for by the rapidity with which the traveller will be borne to his destination. Stay from your work for a little, and wait upon the ascended, glorified Redeemer, in whom the Spirit of God dwells. Ask Him to impart to you that which He received on your behalf. Never rest until you are sure that the Spirit dwells in you fully, and exercises through you the plenitude of his gracious power. We cannot seek Him at the hand of Christ in vain. Dare to believe this: dare to believe that if your heart is pure, and your motives holy, and your whole desire fervent -- and if you have dared to breathe in a deep, long breath of the Holy Spirit -- that according to your faith so it has been done to you; and that you may go forth enjoying the same power which rested on the Baptist, though you may not be conscious of any Divine afflatus, though there may have been no stroke of conscious power, no crown of flame, no rushing as of the mighty wind.
God is still able to vouchsafe to us as large a portion of his Spirit as to the disciples on the day of Pentecost. We are not straitened in Him, but in ourselves. The power of his grace is not passed away with the primitive times, as fond and faithless men imagine; but his Kingdom is now at hand, and Christ, standing on the threshold of the century, waits to lead his Church to greater triumphs than she has ever known. Oh that He would hasten to come forth from his royal chambers! Oh that He would take his throne as Prince of the kings of the earth! Oh that He would put on the robe of his majesty, and assume the sceptre of his unlimited and almighty reign. Creation travails; the Spirit and the Bride invoke; the mind of man has tried all possible combinations of sovereignty, and in vain.
"O Lord Jesus Christ, who at thy first coming didst send thy messenger to prepare the way before Thee; grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; that, at thy second coming to judge the world, we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen."