"Then who are you?" they inquired. "Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" He answered, "No."
I. JOHN'S DISCLAIMER. No doubt there was an expectation, general and eager, of One who, in accordance with Hebrew prophecy, should be the Deliverer and Ruler of God's people Israel. From varying motives - in some cases with spiritual yearning, in other cases with political expectation - the Jews turned anxiously towards every personage of distinction and influence who arose among the people. Thus they turned to John, whose character was austere and inflexible as that of a Hebrew seer, and whose popular power was manifest from the multitude of his adherents and admirers. In these circumstances, John's first duty was to give an unequivocal answer to the inquiry of the Jews. This inquiry was pointed and particular. Was John Elias, again visiting the people who revered him as one of their holiest and mightiest saints? There was something in his appearance, his habits, his speech, that suggested this possibility. Or was he "the prophet," less definitely designated? Or could it be that he was none other than the Messiah? The times were ripe for the advent of the promised Deliverer; John evidently possessed a spiritual authority, a popular power, such as Israel had not seen for many a generation. To every such inquiry John had only one answer: "I am not." In this disclaimer we recognize both the intelligence and the candour of the forerunner. A weak mind might have been overpowered by interest so profound and widespread. A self-seeking and ambitious mind might have taken advantage of such an opportunity to assert a personal authority and to climb to the throne of power. John was superior to such temptations. Though greater than others born of women, he did not aspire to a position for which God had not destined him. In fact, he was too great to wish to be aught but the herald and the servant of him who was to come.
II. JOHN'S CLAIM. A just and admirable modesty was not, indeed never is, inconsistent with a due assertion of position and duties assigned by God. He who knows what God has sent him into the world to do, will neither depreciate his own work nor envy another's. The claim made by John was very remarkable. He affirmed himself to be:
1. A fulfilment of prophecy. The circumstances of his birth and education, taken in conjunction with certain declarations of Old Testament Scripture, must have suggested to John that he held a place in the revealed counsels of eternal wisdom.
2. A voice. Often had God spoken to Israel. In John he spake yet again. To him it was given to utter by human lips the thoughts of the Divine mind. Not that this was mechanical function; John's whole soul was inflamed with the grandeur and the burning necessity of that message of repentance which he was called upon to deliver to his fellow countrymen. Nothing but the conviction that his voice was the expression of Divine thought, that he was summoning men in God's Name to a higher life of righteousness and faith, could have animated him to discharge his ministry with such amazing boldness. Nor could any other conviction have overcome the difficulty he must at first have felt in publicly witnessing that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ.
3. A herald, and one preparing the way of a great Successor. It was his to make straight the Lord's way. It was his to announce the Messiah's approach, and to direct the attention of Israel to the coming in lowly guise of Israel's King. It was his. to subside into comparative insignificance, to withdraw from publicity, in order that he might make room for One whose presence would bring the realization of the brightest hopes and the most fervent prayers. It was his to administer the humbler baptism with water - the symbol of a better baptism to be conferred by Christ, even that with the Holy Spirit.
1. Learn the completeness and harmony of the Divine plan. The revelation of God proceeds upon an order which may be recognized both by the intellect and by the heart of man. The wisdom of the Eternal arranges that all preparation shall be made for the appearance of the world's Saviour; the morning star heralds the rising of the Sun of Righteousness. God's ways in grace are as regular and as orderly as his ways in providence.
2. Learn the dignity and preciousness of Immanuel. One so honourable as the Baptist yet deemed himself unworthy to serve the meek and lowly . Jesus - to act as his meanest attendant. Lowly was his attitude, and reverent his words, when the Son of God drew near. Surely he, who was so regarded and so heralded, demands our homage and deserves our love. - T.
He confessed and denied notI. THE DIGNITY OF TRUTH.
1. It seems easy for John to have confessed and denied not. But here is a people ripe for Christ. They had been expecting Him for four hundred years. Moreover, no sooner did John appear than there was a tendency in the whole nation to recognize him as the Christ. They ask expecting an affirmative. For in John they recognize a born leader, a man which met the traditional conception of what the Messiah was to be. The ball was at his feet; the sceptre within his grasp; the hermit of the desert may to-morrow be a king. One word decides the future, but the hardest temptation — that to power — is resisted.
2. It was not easy for John to resist; is it easy for us? How many are content to appear just as and what they are? There are very few who are not ready to appear more learned, clever, innocent, and better off than we really are, if our fellows will only give us credit for it. How much need there is for absolute truth telling in social life! When a man hates another he generally says what he means; but to speak truth at all times, in the ordinary dealings of life, even though admiring deputations leave us and in spite of neglect and pain, this is difficult.
3. This reality was the secret of John's power.(1) He was trained for it in the desert. He had been face to face with God and had learned to pray, think, act for himself without "consulting any but his conscience and his God." He had accustomed himself, too, to self-denial and to do without enervating luxuries and dissipating companionships. The desert enters too little into the curriculum of our education.(2) The evidence of John's reality was his popularity. This position may seem doubtful, because we often find that a man's popularity is in inverse proportion to his sincerity. Yet men love reality. John's preaching was direct, personal, frank, hard hitting; and yet the crowd was always there: the homely citizen, the publican, the warrior, the Pharisee, all swept into the vortex of this man's influence, and the reason was John's reality. At heart the world hates humbug; and it is this religious manliness that we want to-day. The Church has grown afraid of plain speaking, and her apologetic "hope I don't intrude" the world listens to with disguised contempt and dismisses with easy scorn.
II. THE GRANDEUR OF SELF REPRESSION.
1. This a rare gift in the great scramble of life, where every man sets his heart upon a common prize. Here is a great, powerful, popular man swaying a nation, and yet at the very crisis of victory obliterates himself in favour of another.
2. Thus early in history we are taught that Christ must be all in all. They called John "the Baptist"; but John dismissed the title. He said, "No, there is another baptism in comparison with which mine is nothing." We are not Wesleyans, Baptists, Churchmen — these are ephemeral distinctions which men set up. When the Master comes, all such distinctions die. We are Christians only. And when we begin to decrease into nothingness, when our poor getting on, our thirst for power, is swept out of us and there is left nothing but the desire that Christ shall shine — then there is increase for the Church.
3. Christ and John — how near they stand together; yet how far apart! Christ like John could be stern. It was to John's murderer that Christ uttered the one purely contemptuous expression that ever passed His lips. John like Christ could be gentle. The most beautiful thing ever said of Christ was said by this stern ascetic. But John was not Jesus; and he confessed it.
(W. J. Dawson.)
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