In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,
The interval between the last verse of the second chapter and the first verse of this chapter measures the period of the life of Christ stretching from his earliest childhood to his entrance on his public ministry, or close thereupon. Meantime we are here brought to the time when appeared one of the most distinctly marked, most honoured, characters of all history. John the baptist, son of Zacharias and Elisabeth, was the child of prophecy. He was one of the noblest expressions, if not the very noblest, of the true prophet in his character and work. And as he sealed the testimony of his life with his life's blood, it was given him to win the brilliant crown that awaits the prophet and martyr united in one. This is not the place for anything resembling a dissertation on the prophetic character in general, nor on the life and character of John the Baptist in particular. This only is proposed here, to give expression to what may seem the leading suggestions of this chapter as to "one called as was" John the Baptist, prophet and herald of the Teacher, the Example, the Saviour of the world. Let us remark respecting John the Baptist that -
I. HE WAS NOT MERELY CALLED TO BE A PROPHET WHEN THE TIME CAME - THE TIME OF BIRTH, OF TRAINING, AND OF ENTRANCE UPON PUBLIC LIFE - BUT HE WAS ANNOUNCED AND HE WAS THE SPECIALLY ANNOUNCED, OF PROPHECY. (Vers. 2, 3.)
1. This circumstance places John the Baptist in a very small and select number. Many prophets there had been, and many things did they prophesy; but they did not prophesy of many persons.
2. The circumstance must equally stamp with a special peculiarity the prophet so announced. For such a man there must be some very special work.
3. To be long foretold by prophecy must wonderfully stretch the usefulness, or at all events the use, of the person so foretold. Through centuries his name is ordained to be a power. Faith attaches itself to it; hopes cluster round it; love invests something in it.
4. The fact itself must act as a lesson of non-merit and of non-boasting to the person who is all the while exalted by it. A man may be betrayed, perhaps, to think that what he is and what he does, and the consequences and results of his character and doings, are to his own praise (as, if these are wrong, they certainly redound to his own blame); but the use that came of him before ever he was must be all the work of a higher power. He can take nothing to himself for this.
5. In the light of the fulfilling of prophecy, the advent and career of John the Baptist is not only an evidence in the matter of revealed truth, but it is a leading, first-class evidence. It multiplies by a thousand the force of impression of that kind of evidence, when compared with all that results from the fulfilment of a mere event foretold.
III. THE FAITHFUL ATTITUDE OF HIS OUTER LIFE TO HIS VOCATION OR MISSION. The kingdom of God is indeed not meat, nor drink, nor dress. Yet these may have a tale to tell. They rarely fail, in fact, to bear testimony one way or another. They serve to a large degree the part of a test of the mind and the spirit that rule in any one, and certainly not least in one, a large portion of whose life is lived in public.
1. Plainness of dress, abstemiousness in diet; a strict if not severe hold upon the habit of life, shall neither constitute conclusive evidence of the inner life, nor constitute under any circumstances merit; but if the man be honest in these outside "appearances" they do constitute virtue, and are an evidence of wisdom and of goodness; even as their Opposites, ostentation, intemperance, vanity, and heedlessness, are faults that soon hasten to number themselves in the rank of vice and sin.
2. In the dress and diet of John the Baptist there may sometimes seem to be an approach to the ostentation of austerity. We may correctly hold that a certain proclamation of temperateness and severity was intended to be heard. But as these were real, of ostentation there was nothing. The degeneracy of many a day, many a period, the extremes of "purple and fine linen" and "rags." betokened a state of things that required to have most plainly preached, the plainest gospel of plain dress, plain food, and plain, simple manner and speech.
3. The particular burden of the ministry of John the Baptist did simply demand a faithfully corresponding, practical illustration, in the presence of his audience, so to say. Otherwise nothing would have been, in this case, easier than for the whole congregation of the people to observe, to think, and to utter it forth, that their prophet of denunciation was one who "said, but did not." Harmonies there are in the vast ranges of nature - in its highest and in its deepest things; in its sights most open to vision, and its subtleties most veiled with secrecy. And let us learn that it is ours to make harmonies true and genuine in what shall seem all the littlenesses of our daily life, our outer life, our life of sense as well as of soul.
4. We are not to imagine that John the Baptist exhibits this temperateness and plainness simply as the prophet non-imitable (as the priest of old wore garments of splendour not to be assumed by others), but as the example, who is set forth for this purpose, to be imitated, and imitated of all. There is therefore no more uncertain witness beneath the sun than that of him whose sarcastic motto has been written, "Do as I say, but not as I do."
III. HIS ONE EXHORTATION TO THE PEOPLE. (Ver. 1.) As there are epochs and turning-points in the history of the individual, so also in the history of a nation, and even of the world. Such a one had notably come in the time of the Flood. But now one very different had arrived. The nation of "Jerusalem and all Judaea" was hoary in sin. Yet it led the world in Divine appointments. The short, sharp summons to it, that meant from the lips of this prophet all mercy, was one of:
1. Alteration; the alteration of the kind that the word "repentance" carries. This is an alteration
(1) deep from conviction of mind;
(2) deep bathed in sorrow of heart; and
(3) developed into a reformed life.
2. The altering was challenged upon one ground, viz. the finding of a new principle of rule on earth - that which could be described as the kingdom or rule of heaven. The principle by which all heaven was ruled was to learn to acclimatize here on earth. Oh, wonderful grace and hope! If the "pattern of the tabernacle" once on a time came down from heaven, much more the pattern of this new-born rule, the not-passing, not-decaying, not-vanishing regime of human society. "For the kingdom of heaven is at hand." So this great practical repentance, rooted in all the deepest of spiritual thought, conviction, and feeling, is pleaded for because of the
(1) novel opportunity;
(2) unparalleled splendour and hope; and
(3) tremendous responsibility that lay couched in the fact that "the kingdom of heaven was at hand."
And this meant the regeneration of the world after long process of ages, through the regeneration of the individual.
IV. HIS FIRST RECEPTION ON THE PART OF THE PEOPLE, AND HIS VARIOUS TREATMENT OF THAT RECEPTION.
1. He was received with attention and obedience on the part of the great bulk of the sinful and sin-burdened people (vers. 5, 6); and he baptized these, with the manner and, no doubt, with some words of approbation and encouragement.
2. He was repaired to by "many of the Pharisees and Sadducees." This meant either a very great and real change already in them, or it meant less than none at all in any good direction, but, on the contrary, an adherence too faithful to their ingrained foolishness, their long blindness, and their rooted hypocrisy. The treatment accorded to these men by John the Baptist proves that the latter was the real state of the case with them. Notice in this treatment:
(1) Its utter plain-spokenness. Fearless of the fearless must John the Baptist have been when he apostrophized such men in the terms, "O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" Events proved that it was from no entrenched position that could reckon on safety, let a man say what his tongue might, that John spoke thus.
(2) Its consenting still to believe that there was a chance, and, therefore, still holding to the words of exhortation: "Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance."
(3) Its measured, faithful warning, with urgency added (vers. 9-12).
(4) Its self-disclaiming (ver. 11.)
(5) Its vigorous, fervent exalting of "the Mightier (vers. 11, 12). The language John held in reference to his greater Successor Jesus, in vers. 11, 12, is not only an exalting of the Person of Christ, but a description unsurpassed of his Divinest energy, as baptizing with the Holy Ghost;" of his purifying and discriminating energy with fire, and fan in hand, and cleansing of the threshing-floor; and of his consuming energy, "unquenchable fire" for the "chaff."
V. HIS MODEST RECEPTION OF JESUS, WITH ABSOLUTE SELF-RENOUNCING, IN HIS PRESENCE. The attitude of John the Baptist at this unexpected crisis was indeed to be expected. The thing to be observed is that it did not belie expectation! The mark of this great character was made indeed in those days. And the picture is engraved on the page before us, like a lively portraiture indeed. Would that more, many more, of the true servants of God and disciples of Jesus Christ were as transparent and as straight and as charged with sacred energy and reverent modesty! - B.
Parallel VersesKJV: In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,