asked him, "Why then do you baptize, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?"
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.
They which were sent were of the Pharisees.1. It is an evidence of a sick and corrupt Church when corrupt men are entrusted with most grave and weighty employments in it; for so was it with the Church of the Jews when "they which were sent were of the Pharisees."
2. Corrupt men are more ready to jangle and lie at wait for advantages than to embrace the truth of God delivered by His servants; for these Pharisees take no notice of what He had said from Isaiah, nor seek to be further cleared in it, but think they have an advantage of him, that he should presume to baptize. "Why baptizest thou, then, if thou be not that Christ?" etc.
3. It was an uncontroverted truth, both among friends and foes, in the Jewish Church, that at the coming of the Messiah there should be some changes in the way of religion and an institution of new ordinances; for the Pharisees have nothing to say against his baptism if he were Christ, or Elias, or the prophet: their only objection is, "Why baptizest thou, then, if thou he not?" And John's answer, "I baptize, but there standeth One among you," etc., importeth that he being Christ's forerunner, who was now come into the world, it was lawful for him to administer this sacrament.
4. Ministers ought to arrogate no more unto themselves than to be ministers and dispensers of the external means of word and sacraments, leaving the glory and efficacy thereof unto Christ entirely; and people ought so to be affected in coming to these ordinances. Therefore saith John, "I baptize with water," not denying that Christ also baptized with water, nor yet denying that baptism administered by him was accompanied with grace and the Spirit of God; but he only compareth his person and office with Christ's, and showeth that whatever grace came by the sacrament administered by him, yet he was not the giver of it, but Christ only, who had appointed him to dispense the outward seal.
5. Christ may be among a people, and yet they who reckon themselves very high in the Church neither see Him nor know Him; for saith John, "there standeth One whom ye know not."
6. It is the duty of ministers, and will be the care of such as are faithful and zealous, to exalt and commend Christ at all occasions, that men may fall in love with Him. Therefore doth John again repeat his doctrine, "He it is," etc.
7. The more high employment and the eminent gifts men have, and the more ready men are to esteem of them, the more will they abase themselves, if they be truly gracious, and be affected with the excellency of Christ; for it is John, the greatest among them that are born of women, and so much esteemed among the Jews, and the forerunner of Christ, who thus abaseth himself. "He is preferred before me, whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose."
8. Albeit Christ, of free grace, do honour men with eminent employments under Him, and particularly ministers of the gospel. Yet such as know Christ and themselves well will not only see that they are unworthy of the high employments they have, but even to do the basest service to Him; for John saith not, I am unworthy to be His forerunner, though employed in that service, but "whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose," which was a mean and base office.
(G. Hutcheson.)Josephus under Jonathan and Hyrcanus, high priests about B.C. 145-150. In the time of Christ they had so far degenerated from their primitive piety as to make the essence of religion consist in ceremonial observance — an apostacy which drew down upon them the exposures, rebukes, and denunciations of Jesus. They were ultra-conservatives in Israel, the champions of orthodox literalism, and who accordingly watched everywhere with inquisitorial severity to see that the theocratic order was preserved intact, not merely as to ritual, but also with respect to the competence of office and doctrine (John 9:13; John 7:47, 48; John 12:42).
(T. Whitelaw, D. D.)
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