And as they departed, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John, What went you out into the wilderness to see?…
Two of John's disciples came to Jesus with the inquiry, "Art thou he that cometh, or look we for another?" Having replied to this inquiry and sent the men away, Jesus seized the opportunity to discourse to the multitude concerning John. Note: Jesus improved every opportunity. In this, as in everything, we should endeavour to follow him. In the description of John we see -
I. THE FEATURES OF A GREAT CHARACTER.
1. Deep and earliest conviction.
(1) John was no "reed shaken with the wind." The reed, hollow and pliant, was a fit symbol of levity and inconsistency (see Isaiah 36:6).
(2) In the marshes of the wilderness were many reeds; and John was among them, but not of them. Had he been a fickle character, he would not have had his immense following. For, however reedlike the multitude may be, they are led, for good or ill, by the stronger will. Many went out "for to see" - led by curiosity. So still are there many who attend the ministry of the gospel "for to see" and to be seen.
(3) John was not the creature of circumstances. He made circumstances bend to righteousness. He would not dishonour his conscience to purchase liberty or life; he carried his integrity to the prison and to the block.
(4) His testimony concerning Christ was like himself, decisive and unwavering. "He confessed, and denied not; and he confessed," and still he stuck to it (cf. John 1:20; John 3:28). Nor does he now, in prison, waver; for his object in sending his disciples to Jesus was not to settle any doubt in his mind, but to fix their faith.
2. Superiority to vulgar ambition.
(1) Some derive their greatness from their clothes. They affect "soft clothing." They are dependent for their distinction upon the skill of their tailor or dressmaker. Such weakness was not in John, whose raiment was rough and strong - camel's hair and leather. A man's character may be seen in his dress. The man in the rough clothes may be "great in the sight of the Lord" (Luke 1:15).
(2) Some derive their greatness from their surroundings. "They that wear soft raiment are in kings' houses." The address of the courtier, like his dress, is flattering. John, the son of a chief priest, might have been a courtier had he chosen; but his sphere was in the wilderness.
(1) As Elijah behaved before Ahab and Jezebel, so did John, who came in the spirit and power of Elijah, behave before Herod and Herodias. He would not wink at the sin of Herod because he occupied a throne; nor would he conciliate the favour of Herodias by silence when she should be reproved.
(2) Integrity was more to him than meat and drink. "John came neither eating nor drinking" (cf. ver. 18; Luke 1:15). lie was a sell-denying man. Those who live a life of mortification are the less likely to be lured away from the integrity of religion.
4. The favour of God.
(1) This is the surest mark of greatness, for God cannot flatter. Jesus waited until John's disciples had retired before he pronounced his eulogy upon John.
(2) John when in prosperity bore testimony to Jesus. Jesus now, John being in adversity, bears testimony to John. The judgment of God is not influenced by the judgments of men.
(3) The testimony of Jesus to John came when John had finished his testimony. Judgment comes when our work is done (John 12:26). However consistency may suffer in the running, it will win at the goal.
II. THE TOKENS OF A GREAT PROPHET.
1. He was a prophet whose coming was predicted.
(1) He was predicted by Isaiah and Malachi (see Isaiah 40:3; Malachi 3:1; Malachi 4:5). lie was also predicted in the same quality by his father Zecharias, who was instructed by Gabriel (see Luke 1:17, 76-78). As a prophet predicted John stands alone.
(2) John "came in the spirit and power of Elijah," not in his person. The latter he disclaimed. The absence of the article in connection with the name of Elijah (ver. 14) shows this to be an autonomasia, or that he is the typical, not the actual, Elijah.
(3) He fulfilled the character of Elijah as described in prophecy.
(a) As forerunner to Messiah;
(b) appearing before the destruction of the second temple, to which Messiah was to come;
(c) as preaching repentance to turn the hearts of the wayward children to the faith of the fathers;
(d) all this before the coming of the day of judgment upon the nation.
(4) Elijah in person, however, will yet come to restore all things. Had the Jews received John as the forerunner of Jesus, had they repented to receive the gospel, then John would have been Elijah to them. Gospel truths must be received. Elijah in spirit introduced Jesus in humiliation at his first coming; Elijah in person, as the Jews still expect him, may introduce Jesus when he comes again, or herald his advent in glory.
2. John was the last and greatest of the prophets.
(1) "All the prophets and the Law prophesied." The Law prophesied of the gospel in its types. Christ began from Moses to interpret the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24:27).
(2) "Prophesied until John." John's testimony was the complement and completion of all the rest. Thence, being turned into history, prophecy ceased to be prophecy.
(3) The Old Testament in Malachi ends with Elijah; the New, in Mark, begins with Elijah again. The fulfilment of prophecy begins with John, who began to unfold, the sublimer system of the gospel (see Luke 16:16).
(4) John was more than a prophet. He was God's messenger. He was to go before the face of Immanuel. Our honour lies in our nearness to Christ. John testified to the Person of Christ.
III. THE LIMITS OF HUMAN GREATNESS.
1. John was the greatest of all that had arisen.
(1) "Among them that are born of women." A personage was introduced to the first Napoleon as the son of an eminent man. "Nay," said the sagacious emperor, "do not tell me who was his father, but who was his mother.
(2) The expression, born of women," or naturally born, may be in contrast to the Son of God. Of the kingdom of heaven Jesus is the King.
(3) The superiority of John to his predecessors may be limited to his official distinction as the harbinger of Christ.
2. Yet is he surpassed by the least in the kingdom.
(1) The least in the kingdom of glory surpasses the greatest upon earth. There are degrees of greatness there. Here we are "lower than the angels; "there, "equal unto the angels" (see Psalm 8:5; Luke 20:36).
(2) The least of the prophets of the gospel is greater than John. The first preachers of the gospel worked miracles; but "John did no sign" (John 10:41). Every gospel minister declares the blessings already come of which John preached only the near approach (cf. Matthew 13:7; Luke 7:28).
(3) The least saint under the gospel, in possessing the higher gifts of the Spirit, has a richer experience than John enjoyed. (cf. Zechariah 12:8; John 3:31-34). The saint is not only "born of a woman," but also "born of God" (John 1:13). John did not know all those matters which a catechumen learns now from the Apostles' Creed.
(4) There is a progress in which human greatness evermore surpasses itself.
3. Since John men rush into the kingdom.
(1) Conspicuous in the rush are the poor, the publicans and the sinners - those who, according to the scribes, would have little right. "It is no breach of good manners to go into heaven before our betters" (Henry).
(2) He that will enter into the joys of salvation must be in earnest. He has to overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil. Earnestness in such a battle must be violent.
(3) "Since John." His ministry, which lasted about two years, was very successful. The thousands who embraced the gospel were probably roused by the ministry of John. - J.A.M.
Parallel VersesKJV: And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind?