Christian Friend vol. 14, 1887
The angel Gabriel was commissioned to announce two glad tidings — the one to Zacharias, the other to Mary of Nazareth; but the circumstances and the import of these two messages present more of contrast than of similitude. Zacharias and his wife "were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless." Nevertheless, old age had crept over them, and Elizabeth was barren.
May we not see in them a picture of godly Israelites under the law, and of the utter inability of the law to bring forth fruit even in a regenerated man? Moreover, it does not produce intimacy with God any more than fruit; for Zacharias, who was of exemplary piety, seeing the angel, "was troubled, and fear fell upon him." Finally, it does not induce confidence, which grace alone calls forth. The priest under the law was unbelieving as to the message of grace brought by Gabriel, and so this representative of Israel remained dumb until the day when, the divine promise having in grace been fulfilled, he could, like the remnant by-and-by, praise the Author of his salvation. Mary was not only pious, but humble and simple — an object of grace, and not an exponent of the law. "Thou hast found favour with God," said the angel. She was subject — "Behold, the handmaid of the Lord;" and her confidence was in the word of God, for she added, "Be it unto me according to thy word." (Luke 1:30-38.)
The contrast between these two messages is worthy of remark. John should be "great in the sight of the Lord." Of Jesus the angel said, "He shall be great." We will return to this subject in another chapter. All John the Baptist's greatness depended on the Person whose herald he was, whilst Jesus was great in Himself and of Himself. From the place whence I write, I can see, in the light of the rising sun, the shadow of a chestnut tree assuming gigantic proportions; yet this shadow is not a picture of the size of the tree, but a witness to the sun's rising and splendour. Such was John — great because he had the signal honour of being the messenger of One of whom the angel said, "He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the highest: and the Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of His father David: and He shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of His kingdom their shall be no end." (Luke 1:32-33.)
But these words of Gabriel's — "He shall be great in the sight of the Lord" — do not express all that should characterize the Baptist; for he adds, "And he shall drink neither wine nor strong drink." This is Nazariteship; at least, the first mark thereof. John could only be great in the sight of the Lord by being a Nazarite. From Numbers 6 we see that to be a Nazarite was "to separate one's self unto the Lord." There were three distinct signs. First, the Nazarite abstained from wine and strong drink; next, he allowed the hair of his head to grow; and finally, he "came at no dead body." He deprived himself of wine — sign of joy to the heart of the natural man in the company of his equals. His long hair proclaimed that he abandoned the dignity and rights of man for subjection to the will of God, whose claims on him he acknowledged; and lastly, he avoided all that could bring him into contact with sin, whose wages is death. Such was the ordering and the secret of a Nazarite. Separation to God could only subsist at the expense of these three things, and they were carried out in the life of John the Baptist. But in this passage he is presented to us as especially set apart from all that constitutes the joy of a social man. The world, no doubt, on seeing him, would have said, "He is a sad and dismal misanthrope." What a mistake! This natural joy, the only one known to the world, was replaced in the prophet's heart by a joy which communion with the Saviour gives. These two joys are opposed to each other, and cannot subsist together; and it is only in proportion as we deny ourselves the former that we can enjoy the latter. Throughout his career divine joy was one of the characteristic features of this most austere man. As a miraculous babe in his mother's womb, his first movement is one of joy when the salutation of the mother of his Lord reaches Elizabeth's ears (Luke 1:44); and at the end of his course he says again, "This my joy therefore is fulfilled." (John 3: 29.)
We must not forget that every Christian is called to be a Nazarite, and that with regard to this there is no longer any thought of a special class of persons among God's people; neither is it now a question for us as for the Nazarite Jew of an external separation or one consisting in forms. True Nazariteship - separation to God — is of the heart. The world sees the effects in life, joy, and power, without understanding them; but separation in itself is a secret between the soul and God. Proclaiming that I am separate, occupies others with me; saying that I am in dependence on God, is to be so no longer, since I ascribe something to myself. I surrender by so doing my secret to the world, and, like Samson, abandon my flowing locks to its scissors. When once Satan and the world have learned the secret of my strength, they will not rest till they have robbed me of it. But if there are Christians to be found who are so satisfied with themselves as to divulge the secret of their Nazariteship, there are others who are constantly talking about their failures; doubtless two extremes, but two formed of the same pride. The one does not see the spots on his coat, while the other displays them; but both neglect the only things needful — humiliation and purification. If in any particular we have broken our Nazarite vow, if we have defiled ourselves for the dead, restoration is possible. (Num. 6:9-12.) Let us examine ourselves. With humiliation we shall find purification. But, alas! and it is a solemn thing, we lose through sin a joy such as the Baptist's, and a power such as the man of Zorah's. We must begin over again. It took time for Samson to recover, along with his hair, strength to break down the pillars in Dagon's temple.
To the words, "He shall drink neither wine nor strong drink," Gabriel adds, "He shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb." Here it is as if the special power of the Holy Ghost were connected with Nazariteship. Many Christians imagine that to be filled with the Holy Ghost is a special favour, that only could belong to privileged ones among the people of God. No such thing. This condition is in point of fact the normal state of the Christian — he is qualified to be filled with the Holy Spirit, that is to say, in order that the Spirit may restrain and annul every manifestation of the flesh which the child of God has in him. Every believer is a temple of the Holy Ghost; but every believer is not filled by Him. And why? Is it a lack of power to do so on the part of the Holy Ghost? Certainly not, or it would not be the Holy Spirit of God. Is it perhaps that we are unable to do aught but grieve Him? In this case we do not, as believers, know deliverance. What then is lacking, even among Christians knowing deliverance, in order to be filled with the Spirit? The reality of Nazariteship. As it is said in Eph. 5:18, "And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit." Oh, beloved children of God, what power of enjoyment, testimony, conformity to Christ would be ours if, true Nazarites, we were filled with the Spirit' Have we never, were it but for a moment, tasted such a blessing?
Stephen enjoyed it to the full during his short career as a witness. "Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost," it is said after the first mention of him; "Stephen, full of grace and of power," the Word adds, when this Nazarite, full of the Spirit, was in active service among the people; Stephen, "being full of the Holy Ghost," it says again, when the sanhedrim were gnashing their teeth on him. (Acts 6:5, 8; 7: 5-5.) And there, in presence of those who were stoning him - the ungrieved power of the Spirit fixing Stephen's eyes on heaven — he sees "the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God." His eyes and his heart, occupied by the Spirit with this heavenly vision, are arrested by an object - Jesus in glory. This man on earth sees the Son of man in heaven, and rejoices in the One who, having finished His work, has, in His own person, prepared that glorious place. Our inability to "see Jesus," our want of personal acquaintance with this precious Saviour, is connected — note it well — with the measure in which we realize the apostle's recommendation, "Be filled with the Spirit."
But Stephen not only enjoys Christ; he is a witness, and says, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God." That with which he is filled by the Spirit flows abundantly from his lips. He does not say to himself that he must bear testimony. The river overflowed its banks and watered the earth. Supplied from a heavenly source, it became in Stephen's heart a fountain of springing water. Moreover, this blessed martyr does not only bear witness; he is himself changed, while beholding, with unveiled face, the glory of the Lord. He reflects on earth, and without dimming their lustre, the character, ways, and words of the Saviour. All this, I repeat, is not a special gift, but the fruit of the Holy Spirit acting in our hearts without hindrance. Let us then exhort one another with these words, "Be filled with the Spirit."
Alas! in many ways we all fail. Jesus only, the true Nazarite, never failed. Jesus, conceived of the Holy Spirit, baptized by the Spirit, full of the Spirit (Luke 1:35, Luke 3:22), realised all these things in absolute perfection, without a shadow of failure. Man of sorrows on this earth, His joy was full; humble amongst the humble, He was possessed of a divine power which made Him victorious in conflict with Satan when led by the Spirit into the wilderness, which caused "His word to be with power" when "He returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee." (Luke 4: 1-14, 32.) Pure and holy, He could say, Satan "hath nothing in me." May He be the pattern of our Nazariteship — "He that was separated [a Nazarite] from his brethren." (Gen. 49:26; Deut. 33:16.) Then in the power of the Holy Ghost we shall follow Him, at a distance of two thousand cubits, no doubt, as Israel followed the ark; but we shall follow Him nevertheless, and to follow Him is to grow in His likeness.