Christian Friend vol. 14, 1887
The Nation and the Remnants.
Luke 1 - 3.
The title of this little book might mislead the reader; its subject is not so much John the Baptist as Christ. All-important and interesting as his personality may be, John can only be like the background of a picture intended to bring into relief One who was greater than he; and it is thus, as his words and his life prove, that the prophet himself would have written his history.
Luke 1 very strikingly portrays the circumstances in which Israel was found at the coming of the fore-runner, and which preceded the manifestation of the Messiah. A great change had come over the circumstances of Israel since the days of Nehemiah. The people had been brought into subjection to the last universal Gentile empire, but morally their state differed little from that revealed by the prophet Malachi 450 years before Christ. Israel was no longer in open warfare with Jehovah; the false gods had disappeared out of the house which was swept and garnished, the fig-tree was covered with the leaves of an empty profession, but absolute barrenness lay hidden beneath this outside show. Indifference and insensibility, worse than hatred, were to be found in the heart of the people. One feature of the apostasy is, that God is no longer esteemed worth the trouble of thinking about, and men of our days are in process of casting Him aside as a thing of the past. That which will bow to the very dust the forehead of the repentant remnant of Israel, when at last their eyes are opened to Christ, will be the fact of having been able to pass by the Man of Sorrows with indifference, setting no value on Him. (Isaiah 53.)
Such were the relations of Israel with God in the time of Malachi. When Jehovah said to them in the tenderest accents, "I have loved you," they replied, "Wherein hast thou loved us?" for they knew not the heart of God. When He said to the priests, "You have despised my name," they replied, "Wherein have we despised thy name?" so blinded were they as to their own state and transgressions. They polluted the table of the Lord, and "offered the lame and the sick;" because, in spite of all their religious forms, God was not in their heart or their life, nor had they the least conscience as to the dishonour they brought upon Him. (Mal. 1.) Such a religion must end some time or other by seeming superfluous to those who practise it. What is the good? "Behold, what a weariness is it!" they say. (Mal. 1:13.) It is thus that the heart of a professor expresses itself; and if beneath religious weariness he do not become an idolater himself, he soon returns to the idolatrous world, connects himself with it, "marries," as says the prophet, "the daughter of a strange god," and becomes one flesh with her in the eyes of an avenging God, who will execute judgment on both. (Mal. 2:11-16.)
This is a great danger even for the Christian in these days of ruin. Asaph expressed it thus: "Therefore His people return hither [towards the wicked] and waters of a full cup are wrung out to them," when times of affliction came upon him, contrasting with the growing prosperity of the world. (Psalm 72.) But for the believer there is a second and more subtle danger than this, because a more plausible one; and that is to isolate himself in proportion as he sees the increase of the indifference and worldliness so general among the children of God. Now this tendency is diametrically opposed to God's thought for His own, and it is precisely in view of these times of ruin that the prophet says to us, "Then, they that feared the Lord spake often one to another." (Mal. 3:16.) The apostasy does not isolate those who fear the Lord; it incites them to come together. As the psalmist says, "I am a companion of all them that fear thee." (Ps. 119:63.) It is the same at every dark epoch in the history of the people of God; it was thus with the youthful witnesses during the Babylonish captivity. (Dan. 2:17.) Such is now the case in the perilous times of the end (2 Tim. 2:22); so it was during the gloomy hours that followed the cross, when the still ignorant disciples communed one with another on the road to Emmaus; and in the early chapters of the Gospel of Luke we see a present. and striking realization of His word.
"They that feared the Lord spake often one to another" is God's resource for days of ruin. Look at these few faithful saints, amidst the barren waste of a lifeless profession, seeking and finding one another, and holding converse together. Mary and Elizabeth talk one to another, Zacharias and his neighbours commune of these things, the shepherds publish them, Simeon announces them, and Anna speaks of them "to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem." Remark, moreover, that there is but one subject of intercourse for all these faithful ones — it is the consolation of Israel; it is Christ, the Messiah; it is the person of the Saviour; and such conversation is pleasing to God, who lends an attentive ear thereto. He records these things in a book of remembrance — a special book. Nothing is so pleasing to God as hearts appreciating His beloved Son. Dear reader, He takes note of the value that you and I set on the name of Jesus. Those who appreciate Christ in days of affliction will have God's own approval at a future day of glory. "They shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels." (Mal. 3: 17.) Is not such a promise well fitted to encourage our souls?
"Spake often one to another." This occupation of the faithful allies itself with the most simple daily duties of this life. Zacharias accomplishes his priestly functions, and offers incense; Elizabeth is in the country; Mary journeys; the shepherds keep their flocks. It even connects itself with the apparent inactivity of a Simeon, who dwells at Jerusalem; of an Anna advanced in years, weakened by age, confined to the temple, but preserving unimpaired the most precious part of her activity, the hidden life of her soul with God, "night and day." But what an element of freshness and joy the person of Christ brings into the intercourse of these saints! Souls are running over, conversation changes into adoration, and those who speak one to another necessarily realize what worship is. (Luke 1:46, 68; Luke 2:29.)
Two messages had been brought by the angel Gabriel, the one concerning John the Baptist, the other about Jesus; and both elicit praises from the mouths of those by whom they are received. Still, even before His birth, as ever after, John the Baptist disappears before Christ to male way for the universal song, which rises around this little child from the lips of all the faithful. Whom does Elizabeth celebrate? Not her son, but the Lord. And Zacharias, while announcing the glorious mission of his new-born infant, only does so to exalt the Lord, the God of Israel, the Horn of Deliverance, the Christ, the Most High. With true witnesses it is always so. Blessings from the hand of God are only used by them as occasions of praise to Him who is the origin and centre of these blessings.
The circumstances which accompanied and preceded the Saviour's first coming seem to me, in many ways, applicable to the present time. As then (see Luke 3:1-2) organization is increasing in the world, which seeks a ground of safety in its own institutions; as then, under the auspices of the world, a traditional and orthodox religion prevails, indifferent, self-righteous, and ripe for the apostasy; as then, sects flourish, such as the Rationalistic Sadducees, or the Herodians, who pronounced the then existing administration excellent; as then, the Lord's coming, or rather return, is at hand; but does this happy message produce now in the hearts of the saints the same fruit as then? Oh that there might be found in our hearts that freshness of hope, those divine rays from the morning star appearing for faith in the splendour of its pristine dawn, that star resplendent with grace, herald of the glory, whose sight causes the heart to overflow with unspeakable adoration! Dear reader, if we are awaiting it, we shall be found speaking one to another until the day of glory, when we shall be the peculiar treasure of One who is coming.