The soul unswerving and the fearless tongue?
The much-enduring wisdom, sought
By lonely prayer the haunted rocks among?
Who counts it gain
His light should wane,
So the whole world to Jesus throng?
The two Johns appear in many devotional pictures, one on each side of Jesus. Yet the two men were vastly unlike. The Baptist was a wild, rugged man of the desert; the apostle was the representative of the highest type of gentleness and spiritual refinement. The former was the consummate flower of Old Testament prophecy; the latter was the ripe fruit of New Testament evangelism. They appear in history one really on each side of Jesus; one going before him to prepare the way for him, and the other coming after him to declare the meaning of his mission. They were united in Jesus; both of them were his friends.
It seems probable that Jesus and the Baptist had never met until the day Jesus came to be baptized. This is not to be wondered at. Their childhood homes were not near to each other. Besides, John probably turned away at an early age from the abodes of men to make his home in the desert. He may never have visited Jesus, and it is not unlikely that Jesus had never visited him.
Yet their mothers are said to have been cousins. The stories of their births are woven together in an exquisite way, in the opening chapters of the Gospels. To the same high angel fell the privilege of announcing to the two women, in turn, the tidings which in each case meant so much of honor and blessedness. It would have seemed natural for the boys to grow up together, their lives blending in childhood association and affection. It is interesting to think what the effect would have been upon the characters of both if they had been reared in close companionship. How would John's stern, rugged, unsocial nature have affected the gentle spirit of Jesus? What impression would the brightness, sweetness, and affectionateness of Jesus have made on the temper and disposition of John?
When at last the two men met, it is evident that a remarkable effect was produced on John. There was something in the face of Jesus that almost overpowered the fearless preacher of the desert. John had been waiting and watching for the Coming One, whose herald and harbinger he was. One day he came and asked to be baptized. John had never before hesitated to administer the rite to any one who stood before him; for in every one he saw a sinner needing repentance and remission of sins. But he who now stood before him waiting to be baptized bore upon his face the light of an inner holiness which awed the rugged preacher. "I have need to be baptized of thee," said John; but Jesus insisted, and the rite was administered. John's awe must have been deepened by what now took place. Jesus looked up in earnest prayer, and then from the open heaven a white dove descended, resting on the head of the Holy One. An ancient legend tells that from the shining light the whole valley of the Jordan was illuminated. A divine voice was heard also, declaring that this Jesus was the Son of God.
Thus it was that the friendship between Jesus and the Baptist began. It was a wonderful moment. For centuries prophets had been pointing forward to the Messiah who was to come; now John saw him. He had baptized him, thus introducing him to his great mission. This made John the greatest of the prophets; he saw the Messiah whom his predecessors had only foretold. John's rugged nature must have been wondrously softened by this meeting with Jesus.
Brief was the duration of the friendship of the forerunner and the Messiah; but there are evidences that it was strong, deep, and true. There were several occasions on which this friendship proved its sincerity and its loyalty.
Reports of the preaching of John, and of the throngs who were flocking to him, reached Jerusalem; and a deputation was sent by the Sanhedrin to the desert to ask him who he was. They had begun to think that this man who was attracting such attention might be the Messiah for whom they were looking. But John was careful to say that he was not the Christ. "Art thou Elias? ... Art thou that prophet?" He answered "No." -- "Who art thou, then?" they asked, "that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself?"
This gave John an opportunity to claim the highest honor for himself if he had been disposed to do so. He might have admitted that he was the Messiah, or quietly permitted the impression to be cherished; and in the state of feeling and expectation then prevailing among the people, there would have been a great uprising to carry him to a throne. But his loyalty to truth and to the Messiah whose forerunner he was, was so strong that he firmly resisted the opportunity, with whatever of temptation it may have had for him. "I am a voice," he answered -- nothing but a voice. Thus he showed an element of greatness in his lowly estimate of himself.
True, a voice may do great things. It may speak words which shall ring through the world with a blessing in every reverberation. It may arouse men to action, may comfort sorrow, cheer discouragement, start hope in despairing hearts. If one is only a voice, and if there be truth and love and life in the voice, its ministry may be rich in its influence.
Much of the Bible is but a voice coming out of the depths of the past. No one knows the names of all the holy men who, moved by the Spirit, wrote the wonderful words. Many of the sweetest of the Psalms are anonymous. Yet no one prizes the words less, nor is their power to comfort, cheer, inspire, or quicken any less, because they are only voices. After all, it is a great thing to be a voice to which men and women will listen, and whose words do good wherever they go.
Yet John's speaking thus of himself shows his humility. He sought no earthly praise or recognition. He was not eager to have his name sounding on people's lips. He knew well how empty such honor was. He wished only that he might be a voice, speaking out the word he had been sent into the world to speak. He knew that he had a message to deliver, and he was intent on delivering it. It mattered not who or what he was, but it did matter whether his "word or two" were spoken faithfully or not.
Every one of us has a message from God to men. We are in this world for a purpose, with a mission, with something definite to do for God and man. It makes very little difference whether people hear about us or not, whether we are praised, loved, and honored, or despised, hated, and rejected, so that we get our word spoken into the air, and set going in men's hearts and lives. John was a worthy voice, and his tones rang out with clarion clearness for truth and for God's kingdom. It was his mission to go in advance of the King, and tell men that he was coming, calling them to prepare the way before him. This he did; and when the King came, John's work was done.
The deputation asked him also why he was baptizing if he was neither the Christ nor Elijah. Again John honored his friend by saying, "I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; he it is, who coming after me is preferred be fore me, whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose." John set the pattern for friendship for Christ for all time. It is, --
"None of self, and all of thee."
It is pitiable to see how some among the Master's followers fail to learn this lesson. They contend for high places, where they may have prominence among men, where their names shall have honor. The only truly great in Christ's sight are those who forget self that they may honor their Lord. John said he was not worthy to unloose the shoe-latchet of his friend, so great, so kingly, so worthy was that friend. He said his own work was only external, while the One standing unrecognized among the people had power to reach their hearts. It were well if every follower of Christ understood so perfectly the place of his own work with relation to Christ's.
Another of John's testimonies to Jesus was made a little later, perhaps as Jesus returned after his temptation. Pointing to a young man who was approaching, he said, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." It was a high honor which in these words John gave to his friend. That friend was the bearer of the world's sin and of its sorrow. It is not likely that at this early stage John knew of the cross on which Jesus should die for the world. In some way, however, he saw a vision of Jesus saving his people from their sin, and so proclaimed him to the circle that stood round him. He proclaimed him also as the Son of God, thus adding yet another honor to his friend.
A day or two later John again pointed Jesus out to two of his own disciples as the Lamb of God, and then bade them leave him and go after the Messiah. This is another mark of John's noble friendship for Jesus, -- he gave up his own disciples that they might go after the new Master. It is not easy to do this. It takes a brave man to send his friends away, that they may give their love and service to another master.
There is further illustration of John's loyal friendship for Jesus. It seems that John's disciples were somewhat jealous of the growing fame and influence of Jesus. The throngs that followed their master were now turning after the new teacher. In their great love for John, and remembering how he had witnessed for Jesus, and called attention to him, before he began his ministry and after, they felt that it was scarcely right that Jesus should rise to prosperity at the expense of him who had so helped him rise. If John had been less noble than he was, and his friendship for Jesus less loyal, such words from his followers would have embittered him. There are people who do irreparable hurt by such flattering sympathy. A spark of envy is often fanned into a disastrous flame by friends who come with such appeals to the evil that is in every man.
But John's answer shows a soul of wondrous nobleness. He had not been hurt by popularity, as so many men are. Not all good people pass through times of great success, with its attendant elation and adulation, and come out simple-hearted and lowly. Then even a severer test of character is the time of waning favor, when the crowds melt away, and when another is receiving the applause. Many a man, in such an experience, fails to retain sweetness of spirit, and becomes soured and embittered.
John stood both tests. Popularity did not make him vain. The losing of his fame did not embitter him. He kept humble and sweet through it all. The secret was his unwavering loyalty to his own mission as the harbinger of the Messiah. "A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven," he said. The power over men which he had wielded for a time had been given to him. Now the power had been withdrawn, and given to Jesus. It was all right, and he should not complain of what Heaven had done.
Then John reminded his friends that he had distinctly said that he was not the Christ, but was only one sent before him. In a wondrously expressive way he explained his relation to Jesus. Jesus was the bridegroom, and John was only the bridegroom's friend, and he rejoiced in the bridegroom's honor. It was meet that the bridegroom should have the honor, and that his friend should retire into the background, and there be forgotten. Thus John showed his loyalty to Jesus by rejoicing in his popular favor, when the effect was to leave John himself deserted and alone after a season of great fame. "He must increase, but I must decrease," said the noble-hearted forerunner. John's work was done, and the work of Jesus was now beginning. John understood this, and with devoted loyalty, unsurpassed in all the bright story of friendship, he rejoiced in the success that Jesus was winning, though it was at his own cost.
This is a model of noble friendship for all time. Envy poisons much human friendship. It is not easy to work loyally for the honor and advancement of another when he is taking our place, and drawing our crowds after him. But in any circumstances envy is despicable and most undivine. Then even in our friendship for Christ we need to be ever most watchful lest we allow self to creep in. We must learn to care only for his honor and the advancement of his kingdom, and never to think of ourselves.
So much for the friendship of John for Jesus. On several occasions we find evidences of very warm friendship in Jesus for John. John's imprisonment was a most pathetic episode in his life. It came from his fidelity as a preacher of righteousness. In view of all the circumstances, we can scarcely wonder that in his dreary prison he began almost to doubt, certainly to question, whether Jesus were indeed the Messiah. But it must be noted that even in this painful experience John was loyal to Jesus. When the question arose in his mind, he sent directly to Jesus to have it answered. If only all in whose minds spiritual doubts or questions arise would do this, good, and not evil, would result in every case; for Christ always knows how to reassure perplexed faith.
It was after the visit of the messengers from John that Jesus spoke the strong words which showed his warm friendship for his forerunner. John had not forfeited his place in the Master's heart by his temporary doubting. Jesus knew that his disciples might think disparagingly of John because he had sent the messengers with the question; and as soon as they were gone he began to speak about John, and to speak about him in terms of highest praise. It is an evidence of true friendship that one speaks well of one's friend behind his back. Some professed friendship will not stand this test. But Jesus spoke not a word of censure concerning John after the failure of his faith. On the other hand, he eulogized him in a most remarkable way. He spoke of his stability and firmness; John was not a reed shaken with the wind, he was not a self-indulgent man, courting ease and loving luxury; he was a man ready for any self-denial and hardship. Jesus added to this eulogy of John's qualities as a man, the statement that no greater soul than his had ever been born in this world. This was high praise indeed. It illustrates the loyalty of Jesus to the friend who had so honored him and was suffering now because of faithfulness to truth and duty.
There is another incident which shows how much Jesus loved John. It was after the foul murder of the Baptist. The record is very brief. The friends of the dead prophet gathered in the prison, and, taking up the headless body of their master, they carried it away to a reverent, tearful burial. Then they went and told Jesus. The narrative says, "When Jesus heard of it, he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart." His sorrow at the tragic death of his faithful friend made him wish to be alone. When the Jews saw Jesus weeping beside the grave of Lazarus they said, "Behold how he loved him!" No mention is made of tears when Jesus heard of the death of John; but he immediately sought to break away from the crowds, to be alone, and there is little doubt that when he was alone he wept. He loved John, and grieved over his death.
The story of the friendship of Jesus and John is very beautiful. John's loyalty and faithfulness must have brought real comfort to Jesus. Then to John the friendship of Jesus must have been full of cheer.
As we read the story of the Baptist's life, with its tragic ending, we are apt to feel that he died too soon. He began his public work with every promise of success. For a few months he preached with great power, and thousands flocked to hear him. Then came the waning of his popularity, and soon he was shut up in a prison, and in a little while was cruelly murdered to humor the whim of a wicked and vengeful woman.
Was it worth while to be born, and to go through years of severe training, only for such a fragment of living? To this question we can answer only that John had finished his work. He came into the world -- a man sent from God -- to do just one definite thing, -- to prepare the way for the Messiah. When the Messiah had come, John's work was done. As the friend of Christ he went home; and elsewhere now, in other realms perhaps, he is still serving his Lord.