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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
John Armitage, D.D.
Taken from the book, History of the Baptists, 1886
WHEN Malachi finished the promissory books, B. C. 397, his vision shot the great gulf between the Old and New Revelations. He had just stated that on the other side 'The Sun of Righteousness should arise with healing in his wings,' and looking 400 years in advance he saw Christ's 'messenger,' his own successor, in a young Judean prophet, and heard him uplift the cry 'Behold your God.'
Nearly 4,000 years before Malachi, a four-headed river had flowed from Eden 'to water all the ends of the earth,' and his faith now descried on the banks of the anti-typical Jordan, the Master with the messenger, two Godlike forms, each first-born, and cousins' sons.
Whom Malachi saw in a vision, Matthew met in real flesh and blood, the Baptist 'herald' and the Lord from heaven. The voice, 'Make straight his paths,' is the first sentence in Baptist history. No moral night had been so dark as that athwart which this prophet cast his eye to see the coming 'Day Star.'
Only remnants of the old Jewish faith were left, and the national life was fast going forever, with that public patriotism, free thought and outspoken manliness, which had already perished.
At first God gave the Jews the most popular government of all the nations; it treated the personal man with honor and dignity. Though they had no human king or hereditary ruler from time to time, he gave them such a political head as war or peace required, with prerogatives which met present necessity. In time the theocracy gave witness to the unity of God, and its liberties were linked to this vital truth. This theistic doctrine made Jehovah their common Father; they were uncrippled by doubtful negations, untainted with atheism, and the ideal in each man's soul clothed his fellow with the rights of a brother. The radical teaching from which all abiding liberty flows is this: 'Love God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself.'
During the period between the last prophet and the first evangelist, the Assyrian, Persian, and Macedonian empires, with their endless divisions and subdivisions, had culminated in the Roman Empire. This power absorbed into itself the sentiment, humanity, political economies, and religious philosophies of thousands of years, covering the histories of all the great races, Semitic and Indo-European, having welded the whole into a homogeneous mass. It had sprung from an obscure city more than seven centuries B. C., and now embraced the civilized world. The great republic had waged its renowned conflict between plebeians and patricians for constitutional government. The democratic spirit had passed away with its staunchest defender, the regal and republican forms of government having been swallowed up in the imperial under Augustus.
Palestine was but a hundred and eighty miles long, by about half that width. Yet, when John and Jesus came, the officers of Rome were everywhere, with no jurisprudence left; only appeal to a heathen emperor, under privilege. Three native kings, indeed, divided the old Hebrew patrimony: Antipas, in Galilee; Philip, in Ituria; and Lysanius, in Abilene. Still, over these was Pilate, the sixth procurator in twenty-three years, with the Governor of Syria over him, with Tiberius above all, and each ready to enforce his mandate by the arms of the empire.
These tyrants quarreled alternately with each other, in turn issued conflicting commands, fleeced each other in particular, and the Jews universally. One Jewish party flattered and copied the native rulers, another the foreigners, and all were proud to serve as minor officers, if they might wring a crust out of official rapacity. A third party hated and defied the intruders, plotting revolt and sedition, which kept the nation in a seething excitement and its blood ever flowing.
Yet, a few men of God never yielded heart or hope. However dark the hour of adversity, their lamp was always burning. They waited for the Deliverer to break every yoke. Their fellows, worn-out, grounded arms and died, their eyes glazed with despair. But the love of Jehovah and liberty never forsook these. No matter if the red-handed family of the age held Jacob by the throat; the holy few felt the shadow of the King at the gate. If the iron had entered their soul, it was not rusted by heart-tears.
The time had come for a new manhood; a new revelation of truth and holiness was needed, fresh in righteousness and true holiness. An age of moral suasion was dawning to work a new character in the personal man. Then, from renewed individuals should come the ‘kingdom of heaven’ in a regenerate society. Zacharias and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna felt their old hearts revive, because another Elijah was at the portal to open the golden age. Groans and strife, tears and blood, had tracked the horrid length of 100 years. At length there came a 'little child' to lead them, with a 'voice' to prepare his way; and when their withered arms pressed the reforming Baptist and his redeeming Lord to weir bosoms, the first chapter in Baptist History was begun.
Edward Irving truly says, “John was the beginning of a new race. But the words of Jesus better fix his proper place in history: Amen, I say unto you, among them that are born of women there has not risen a greater than John the Baptist.” These words alone make him the most remarkable character on the sacred page, save only He who spoke them.
Zacharias, his father, was a priest in Israel. Elizabeth, his mother, was a daughter of Aaron. Not only had their priestly ancestry stretched down fifteen centuries, but they were filled with the Holy Spirit. This is said of no other father and mother of our race. They feared that their honorable lineage would soon be blotted out, for they were old and childless. The words, 'Thy prayer is heard,' imply that their empty home had been the subject of petition at God's throne.
He had promised them a son, and when he would fulfill his word, it fell to the lot of John's father to pass through the golden gate into the holy place to burn incense: a high and holy privilege which never was repeated by the same priest, as it brought him so near to Jehovah. Already the live coals had been tarried in a fire-pan from the altar of burnt-offering, the sweet spices sprinkled thereon, and the floating perfume was on its way to the clouds, when, lo!, a mysterious form glided into the hallowed place. Gabriel stood by the altar, bright in native benignity, at its right side, too, the side of good omen, and in the attitude of Oriental service. In a moment the temple heard the new revelation - that a son should be born in the home of the man of God.
Gabriel and Michael are the only angels called by name in the Bible. Michael is the judicial messenger, the destroyer, valiant for the Lord of Hosts in terrible warfare. The mission of Gabriel is peace, especially Messianic peace. At the evening oblation, the same hour of incense, he told Daniel that the Prince, Messiah, should come. He brought the same news to Mary, and to the father of John; the three cases ascribe to him the office of Messianic angel. No person but the priest could stand by the altar and live, and fear fell upon Zacharias when he saw that the celestial visitant and did not fall dead.
Then Gabriel broke the silence of four centuries, and opened the Baptist Age, saying: “Fear not, thy wife shall bear a son, and his name shall be called John.” The venerable priest staggered through unbelief, and asked for a sign. Gabriel gave it in the very dumbness of the tongue that asked it until the child should be born. He then went forth to the people mute, beckoning, perhaps in an excited manner, but he could not pronounce the usual blessing, and they perceived that some strange thing had happened. He retired to his home at Hebron, or Juttah, near to Hebron, and remained speechless for three fourths of a year.
The ‘city Juda,’ the Levitical city of Juttah, as shown by Reland and Robinson, is about six miles south of Hebron, in the hill country, seventeen miles south of Jerusalem. Jerusalem stood 2,400 feet above the sea, and Hebron was 200 feet above that. Hebron was the ancient home of Abraham, where his pool still exists, the oldest now known in the world. This city had been given to the children of Aaron, 'with the suburbs thereof round about it,' and was a fitting birthplace of the Baptist, the greatest descendant of Aaron's house. Here David received his crown, and here were the sepulchers of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. Rabbinical tradition says of this spot, that the morning sacrifice was never offered at the temple till the watchman on its tower saw these uplands ablaze with the newly-breaking morning sun.
Zacharias saw this glory despite his speechless state; meanwhile Gabriel's words rang through his soul concerning the coming child. The pledge, “He shall be great before the Lord,” did not refer to his native wisdom, fidelity or influence, but royally set forth his great office; the great era which he should usher in, the great truths which he should proclaim—and, above all, the new stamp of manhood to be brought in his own person, as a specimen of those whom the new era was to produce.
Without rank, or wealth, or power, he was to loom up above the old classes of good men, mighty before God. Consecrated to a greater work than any other man, and opening a greater future than any had foreseen, he was to take a higher type of moral character than any had yet borne. Of a priestly house, he was to offer no sacrifice, but was to preach the first Sacrifice from a princely house. Priesthood needed not the fullness of the Spirit, and seldom possessed it, but in order to establish the new office of preacher, to lead men to salvation, he needed the indwelling Spirit. Nor was the first prophet in four centuries to work a miracle, but simply to proclaim the Christ.
When the cry of the new-born babe had brought music to the quiet home, a dispute arose among the neighbors about his name, some calling him Zacharias. This could not be. No one was named after his own father in the Old Testament. “Nay,” said his mother, “he shall be called John,” meaning: Bestowed of the Lord.' The neighbors remonstrated, none of his family were known by that name, and they made signs to his father to decide the question, who wrote upon a tablet, “His name is John.”
The child was to begin the world's new sermon, and as it was meet that the Gospel theme which had been pent in his father's soul so long should break forth, the tongue of the dumb was unloosed. With his first gust of voice he cried: “O, child! Thou shalt be called prophet of the Highest, for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord, in order to give knowledge of salvation to his people, in the remission of their sins.” It was worth the dead silence of a life-time to speak these words. Their meaning was so broad, and their music so sweet, that the old priest repeated the word salvation three times before he could stop. “A horn of salvation,”— “salvation for our enemies,”—“salvation in the remission of sins,” was the astonishing threefold theme on which he practiced his new-found tongue, in the new-found language of truth.
Gabriel put a key into his hand to open this mystery, saying: “Fear not, Zacharias, many of the sons of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their Go.” In the converts whom John should make? Nay, he said, that the mouth of the holy prophets of old had spoken of this redemption' as if the mystic fingers of dead Malachi were sweeping his old heart that day, till its chords vibrated as those of a harp. That child had brought the missing link between the two dispensations, had become the veritable bridge-builder, the true Christian pontiff, who spanned the arch from the last outskirt of Judaism to the frontier line of the Gospel.
What manner of child was this first Baptist?
The Gospels are silent on John's youth and early manhood, saying: “That the hand of the Lord was with him.” That he “grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel.” God marked him by special tokens for his great task. While his body grew his soul became mentally and morally mighty till he was ready for his public work.
The inspired limner gives simply this bold outline which makes ‘the hand of the Lord,’ the power of God, the emblem of his force. Gabriel throws light upon his discipline when he imposes the Nazarite's vow, ‘to drink neither wine nor strong drink.' Nothing inflaming was to pass his lips or affect his brain. The vow also exempted him from attendance at the feasts, and kept him separate until his showing unto Israel. Samson, Samuel, and John were all Nazarites from birth, severe consecration and denial of luxury being specially needful in the forerunner of him who was separate from sinners.
His father's priestly house furnished him with Hebrew Biblical knowledge, and held there under the holy influence of Elisabeth, like Moses in Midian and Elijah in the desert, no rabbin could pervert him, till he was ready to stir the life of Judea to its center, by the Gospel. He is the only man in Scripture, except his Master, of whom no act of sin is recorded. Samson and Samuel were 'sanctified,' set apart to the Lord from their birth, but neither of them was filled with the Holy Spirit, as was the Baptist; one of the train of wonders in his character and mission.
It seems most likely that he left his home and plunged into the wilderness of Judea when he had passed his twentieth year, the time at which young, priests were inspected by the Sanhedrin for their office. The deserts which he entered are supposed to be that weary region that stretches over Western Judea, bordering on the Dead Sea, including its desolate basin. It includes Engedi, extending from the Kedron twelve miles south of Jerusalem to the southwestern end of the Sea of Death, and in width, from thence to the mountains of Judea. It is not called a `wilderness' for barrenness of vegetation, like the African sand-wastes.
On the contrary, it is a perfect tangle of growth. Lonely and wild, the broom-brush, the stunted cedar, the ocher, the rush and the Apple of Sodom, all flourish there, and nomads pasture their cattle with great profit. It is watered by the Kedron and other streams, their course lying dark and deep, in ravines and chasms, where all is grim and ribbed with rock, sometimes to the depth of 1,000 feet below the brow of the cliff.
This region abounds in gorges, crevices and caverns. It is torn by sharp precipices from the heaving of earthquakes, leaving the flint, chalk and limestone rents in every weird aspect. Rills of water gush forth, twisting their way here and there, or falling in cascades over crags and shelves, in haste to sweeten the acrid plain and sullen Sea of Salt. There, the jackal, the wolf, the fox, the panther, and the boar find their lairs and dens. From ridge to ridge, the hoarse scream of the vulture, the raven and eagle, echoes mingled with the pensive song of the thrush, and the drone of the bee, wandering from wild flower to wild flower, yellow and blue, crimson and white.
In all its grandeur, this howling wilderness was the chosen home of the first Baptist. Its solemn desolation and wild elements preached to him of God, inured his body to hardship, and turned his soul inward upon itself. The parchment which warmed in his hand stirred him to communion with the Inspiring Spirit, who had invested its sentences with immortality, and proved its truths divine by their appeal to his heart. Life had coursed through the skin on which the text glowed before the knife of slaughter flayed it; and now, the holy afflatus, which the sacred penman had infused into its texture, warmed his soul with the beatings of an immortal life. There, he listened to the still, small voice, as did Elijah in sacred Horeb, away from noise and contention, till his spirit waxed strong in God and in the power of his might.
In his austerity, this holy recluse wore the coarsest of raiment. The rough camel's hair cloth, bound to his loins by a band of undressed leather, covered his limbs. Young and full of fire, he stood, the living image of courage, in the garb of the elder prophets. His Nazarite vow had kept his hair unclipped from birth. His diet was locusts, dried, ground, and eaten with wild honey which dripped from the rock, and he cooled his thirst at the spring wherever he roamed in the freedom of the desert. His removal from the uplands of Hebron into this somber desolation was not a mere incident. He must be equipped for his iron mission, as far as hardship could fit him to cope with moral evil.
For years, he had been wrestling with the slow openings of his fore-felt work. Self-recognition had come glimpse by glimpse, till new insight had brought him into new sympathy with the Holy One who had sent him. Struggle after struggle had wrought in him an ardent spirituality, which rebukes sin with the quietest authority. Pleading with God day and night, the depravity of his brethren, and the hollowness of their ritual were echoed to his soul from the hollow rocks by his own foot falls.
Did he pass his time amongst these grots and caverns without studying the word of God? Without the Sacred Parchments brought from his father's house, the gold had become dim and the fine gold changed, he had not been a true Baptist if ignorant of these, to win his countrymen back to Jehovah. We can scarcely doubt that in the desert these treasures showed him how the rod of Aaron, his great ancestor, should bloom again and his empty pot of manna be refilled.
How the Nazarene, then sweating at the carpenter's bench should suddenly come to his Temple to rekindle the Shekinah in new glory over the mercy-seat. The Law, the Prophets and the Psalms in his retreat, made his heart burn with prophetic fire, for he heard the voices of old Prophets quivering in the air. As night gives brilliancy to the gem, so did his desert gloom bring out lustrous truth from the inspired lore of ages, every line that he unrolled telling a divine story; for everywhere he found his Redeeming kinsman of the tribe of Judah, of whose Salvation his father had sung.
God would riot entrust the education of his greatest prophet to the skill of mortals. In visions of the night when deep sleep fell upon his father's house, fear came upon him and trembling, which made all his bones shake. An image stood before his eyes, spirits passed before his face and he heard a voice. When the breathing Parchment crackled in his hand, the pulsations of a deathless life stirred him, and the Holy Oracle was alive with living images. The flaming sword of Eden waved before him, and the ascending fire of Abel. Enoch, the seventh from Adam, told him that Jesus opened the gate of heaven, when he rose to his home without tasting death. Noah told the Baptist that the ark, wherein eight souls were saved through water, was a type of his coming Captain. That when it rocked over an immersed world in the darkness of its grave, Jesus was the lamp which hung in its window above the gloomy deep. Nay, it was he who gave hues to the first rainbow that spanned the new world, when the eight elect antediluvians pitched their tents again on dry ground, and offered sacrifice under its radiant arch.
John, also, saw Abraham's day in the desert and was glad, when the great forefather assured him that he had seen the coming King, as he looked out from the steeps of Hebron. Isaac avouched to him that he had seen his Star when he went into the fields at eventide to meditate; and Jacob declared that at Bethel he saw Jesus standing at the top of the mystic ladder, and on his pillow of stone dreamed in the night watches about the glory of the latter day. David, the son of Jesse, showed the Baptist that his great Son guided his fingers over the Messianic harp, when his throne trembled in raptures, and living anthems flew like angels from the strings. Moses told him of the Rock that followed Israel, which Rock was Christ; and Isaiah, that Jesus was the ‘Stem’ that blossomed by the house of Jesse on the hill-side of Bethlehem.
In a word, from the days of Eve, the mother of all living, to those of Mary, the mother of Jesus, the history of the Promised Seed was traced in the desert by the son of Elizabeth. And, yet, a few miles from his dingy retreat, the incarnate God had already been wrapped in swaddling bands and laid in a manger.
All this fitted him for the office to which he was born, armed him with a fidelity which nothing could daunt to grapple with his adulterous generation. Without this strength defeat only awaited him. Being fully clad in celestial panoply, the word of the Lord said to him: “Go,” and he arose to begin his true Baptist work. He emerged from the desert of the North, and came first upon the well-watered plain of the Jordan. His sandals then pressed the soil of Lot, on which the eye of Moses rested, when he died on Nebo. There the name of John became eternally united with the name of Jesus, the Christ.
Whenever an Oriental monarch passed through his realms, a herald went before him, proclaimed his coming, and required his subjects to make the neglected roads passable for their sovereign, by removing all hindrances to his progress. When Semiramis, the Queen of Babylon, marched into Persia, she crossed the Zarcean mountain, but not till its precipices were digged down and its hollows filled up to make her way smooth. We have similar records of Xerxes, Caligula, and Titus, and when Jesus entered upon his kingly course, John, his herald, demanded that all obstructions, be removed before him in his march. He cried, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” that all flesh may see his glory.
His progress was not to be that of pomp and pageantry, but that of a nation's repentance. Rugged and wretched as were the moral wastes, he was to make the desolation ring with the demand for repentance, summoning all to surrender to the coming Prince. The valleys must be filled. All debasing affections must be elevated; the downtrodden and the despairing must be lifted up. Mountains must be brought low. The proud and haughty were to be leveled, abased in the dust. The crooked should be made straight. All tortuous policies, winding deceits, and lying frauds of the self-righteous, should be exchanged for simplicity and transparency. The rugged ways must be made smooth. Coarse severity, rough tempers, hitter asperity, hot fanaticism, and stoical hardness must be cast aside, for gentleness and child-like affections. Then, all flesh should see the salvation of God. No lofty shadow was to fling its length before the face of God's Anointed. The Voice cried: “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
When John left the howling of beasts in the desert, it was to electrify the land by the startling cry “Repent,” and thenceforth, he frowned on all brutal passion. The whole nation started to its feet and flocked to him, as its center of hope. City, village, and hamlet, poured forth their hardened multitudes to see and hear the new Baptist preacher. The prophecy of Malachi had said: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” And, as the universal expectation of the Messiah was cherished by the Jews at this time, they looked for the literal accomplishment of this prediction in the return of the Tishbite, as his precursor.
The news, therefore, flew through the land that this faithful servant of God who ascended to heaven in the reign of Jehoram, had been borne back to the earth, to break the Roman Scepter, and hurl himself like a thunderbolt against all tyrants, that he might restore the glory to Israel by enthroning her new king. Every eye longed to see this somber old giant of Carmel and Horeb, and every ear listened for his strange voice. Hence, all flocked to the banks of the Jordan whence he ascended, for, said they, the chariots of Israel and the horsemen thereof, had landed him on the very spot where he laid down his mantle and burden 900 years before.
But instead of launching forth denunciation against Roman strangers, John opened an accusative ministry upon his own people. He made not his voice soft and smooth in his 'cry.' He presented a new and striking figure to them, enthusiastic, yet self-poised. Filled with deep conviction of the truth, inspired of God and consecrated to the truth, he had evidently come on no dubious errand, and his aim was worthy of his great work.
Under the pressure of a divine influence, he set his face like flint, in downright fearlessness. The scorn of every form of cunning filled his voice, holy indignation at sin flew in every syllable from his lips. His body was free from sanctimonious vestments, and his soul inflamed with zeal; he lifted up the truth, a lambent torch, for his word made dread exposures, and searched men to the core of their being.
Without the tears of Jeremiah, the sublimity of Isaiah, or the mystery of Ezekiel, he bravely struck home by rebuke and exhortation and heart-piercing censure. He dealt in no arts of insinuation, no apologies, no indulgence; but upbraided the hollow and pretentious, and shivered their pious self-conceit to atoms, while they gnashed their teeth at him. He was a living man, just sent from the living God, dealing with cardinal verities, in an original and emphatic vigor that stung the cold-hearted, and held the malignant conscience by a remorseless grip.
Wicked men saw the majestic flow of holiness in his eye. They felt its nervous vibrations in his abrupt anatomy of character, and were borne down before his impassioned demands for self-loathing. The slothful were startled in their dreams; he held up the self-blinded for their own inspection, in their true colors; he rudely tore off the masks of the false. The hard-hearted saw their guilt staring them in the face, and the reckless were haunted by the ghosts of their murdered mercies from the God of Abraham. Yet, he wielded no weapons of earthly chastisement; he mingled not the blood of sinners with the waters of the Jordan, but he pointed to the uplifted ax, as it gleamed in the terrors of the Lord, about to strike a blow and fell the withered tree.
Strangely enough, instead of repelling the multitude, his fidelity fascinated them. The Spirit of God gave power to his proclamation. This, of itself, made his holy serenity soft and saving. Consciences were aroused, hearts were broken, and the sorrows of the people for sin, re-awakened the ancient sobbings, when their fathers wept on the death of Moses. A rude and arrogant mind, having so difficult a work to do, would have been harsh in its rebukes, only exciting anger and resentment.
But John's words cut to the quick because his affectionate holiness, gravity, sincerity, and good-will made them sharp. He had been so much in retirement with God that he was imbued with his love and compassion. He carried not the mien of an ill-mannered, bold, and self-appointed censor of sin.
True, the great Baptist had brought a fire-brand out of the wilderness which set all the dry stubble in the land ablaze. But with this came confession of sin in lowly simplicity, and sincere reformation of life, which sought expression in the new faith and baptism. Instead of meeting Elijah, descending in the regal state of flame to smite the waters of their great national river and divide them, the young representative of Elijah's God stood there demanding that their buried bodies, and not his rod, should divide the waters in token of death to sin.
The alarming cry “Repent ye” rang up and down the valley of the Jordan. This demand laid bare God's extreme holiness, and their personal guilt against him. The word itself (metanoia) means a change of mind or purpose; so that he not only required deep sorrow, or contrition for their wickedness, but such an inward moral disposition as should thereafter obey the will of God.
Then they were to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance, so that the outward expression of that disposition should prove the inward change to be radical. He made their immersion in water the exterior method of “confessing” the reality of an honest, heartfelt reform: Here, then, he required a spiritual revolution, a baptism for the “remission” or forgiveness of sins, and the implanting of a new principle of life in keeping with the kingdom of heaven at hand.
These requirements, urged with the courteous fidelity of holy conviction and the sacred simplicity of an overawing holiness, led a multitude of wounded and stricken hearts to fly from all legal rites and ceremonial performances, for purification of heart and life, after the evangelical order of Isaiah: “Wash you, make you clean; Put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes.
At a stroke of the pen Matthew draws another vivid picture. Priests, Levites, and doctors in the holy city had donned their robes and bound on their phylacteries and other ecclesiastical trappings for a visit to the great river that they might pass upon John's commission. Sweeping with pomp and dignity through the gates, they mix with the throng on the slopes of the Jordan, first with a conceited curiosity, and then with a bigoted scowl.
But John's keen eye read their character, and he began to ply them with solemn invective. In the desert he had seen the slimy viper gliding through the moss; crafty, malicious, with a powerful spring and a hollow tooth through which it ejected deadly poison. He had seen the brawny forester swing the ax to cut the tap-root of a tree and fell it for converting these into blunt figures of speech, he allied his visitors with false teachers from the 'old serpent' who could not be trusted for a moment. Like the flat-headed, ash-colored reptile, they had stung the sons of God; and with bitter irony he compares them to the twisting young, ejected from their damn, to hiss, and fight her venomous battles.
Scathing them with cold sarcasm, he demands, “Brood of vipers! Have ye come to my baptism? What sent you? The ribbon on your robes is beautifully blue, the phylacteries on your brow are ostentatiously pious, but they cloak corruption. Delude not yourselves with the thought that ye are Abraham's sons. His blood may warm your veins, but ye deny his God, for your souls are dead to his faith. Behold the stones at your feet, and know that from them God is able to raise up sons to Abraham. One word from his mouth will bring from the adamant, truer Jewish hearts and softer than those that beat in you.”
He then demanded that if they were sincere, they should prove this by bringing forth fruits worthy of repentance. Nor did lie change his tone with his simile; for when he dropped the lash of scorpions, he took the edge of the woodman's ax. He could not away with their sanctimonious hair-splittings and religious tamperings, but would hew them down to be cast into the fire.
But other and better classes of the people hailed his ministry with awe, as from God. So powerfully did divine truth move them, that they actually reasoned in their hearts concerning John, whether he himself were not the Christ. How beautifully our Lord Jesus speaks of these, when he would know of the rulers whether John's baptism were from heaven or of men: “Verily, I say unto you, that the publicans and harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and ye did not believe him; and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him.”
These Rabbis were in the habit of saying that if the nation would repent but one day, the Messiah would come, yet, when he came, they themselves were obdurate. And, when publicans, soldiers and others, who were openly sunk in sin, came to the Baptist, convicted of their iniquity, it was with the saving inquiry upon their lips, “Teacher, what shall we do?” They seemed to look upon their own case as hopeless, but he fortified every man with encouragement at his weak point.
He told the publicans, to “Exact no more than that which is appointed you.” The tax-gatherers, to whom the Romans farmed out the taxation, were extortionate and cruel, for they paid so much to the government and then levied their own rates. He did not blame them for filling the political office, but lie charged them to stop all rapacity, so that a new miracle would be found, when men should see an honest publican. His reply was of great breadth, forbidding them to confiscate property by unjust exaction.
To the soldiers he replied: “Do violence to no one, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.” Josephus shows, that at this very time, Herod Antipas was sending an army against his father-in-law, Aretas, King of Arabia Petraea, who had declared war in consequence of Herod's bad treatment of his daughter. This being true, their route would lie directly through the region where John was preaching and immersing. This historian's full description of John is in perfect accord with the spirit of the above statement.
These hearers of the Baptist were men of the bow, the arrow, the sword and the shield; their trade was war. He stood before them the living image of discipline and self-denial, and demanded of them, that they keep the insolent licentiousness and brutality of war in check, and disregard the lying doctrine that might makes right. In prosecuting their hard craft, godless pillage must cease.
What lessons of love were these, enforced upon rough, heathen legions by which an unarmed young Baptist preacher tamed the fierceness of military tigers, and remanded desperate warriors back to the camp and field, made by their new faith as harmless as doves. Last of all, he threw the bridle over their license of riot and plunder, to curb them with a double bit. They must commit no robbery upon the conquered, indulge no selfishness, raise no mutiny against their officers to get more pay, but take their three oboloi a day; and be content.
Such a scene had never been witnessed on earth, and the most remarkable thing about it was, that so sweeping a ministry provoked no physical resistance. Jewish priests had shed streams of sacrificial blood at the altar for hundreds of years, whenever the nation groaned beneath the heel of its foes. They sighed for the tender mercy of God to rescue them from the hand of their enemy, and guide their feet anew into the way of peace. But now, while they felt the rankling humiliation of a hated race, and their hearts sank as they looked at the broken sceptre of their nation, a stern preacher of their own race stings them with rebuke, and demands not sacrifice but repentance.
The Ark of the Covenant was no longer there with its Tables of Stone. Urim and Thummim were gone. The glory of Bright Presence had departed forever from the most Holy place. The Golden Candlestick gave no light. Their ensigns were torn, their minstrelsy hushed, their royalty beggared, and their covenant with God broken. Was not this enough?
Their hearts sank within them when they remembered the past, in which they were never again to take lot or part, and the hatred of their hearts toward their foes filled them to the brim. Yet, without one word of sympathy for all this, they were warned to flee from coming wrath, to humble themselves under the mighty hand of God, to bury all their old sins with their bodies under the waves of Jordan, and to rise into the New Kingdom; and without a murmur it was done!