Christian Friend vol. 14, 1887
John the Baptist as Prophet.
In Matthew 3 we have the public ministry of John the Baptist presented to us. A few words of the Saviour's, uttered in defence of John before the multitude, seem to me to characterize this ministry. "A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet." (Matt. 11:9.) John the Baptist was a prophet, but even as such his position and ministry went beyond those of the ancient prophets. These last prophesied at Jerusalem, in Israel, or in the midst of the captive or returned people. John the Baptist separates himself from the people; he dwells in the desert. The only prophet to whom he can be likened in other respects is Elijah; but his failure, and not Jehovah, led him into the wilderness. (1 Kings 19.) A remnant of Judah had returned from captivity in Babylon, but in the eyes of the prophet it did not merit the name. Henceforth there was but a remnant of this remnant which could be recognized as Israel.
This is why John the Baptist does not appeal to the people as a whole, like the prophets who had preceded him. He says, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness." Israel was a wilderness for God. The prophet's appeal is henceforth based on their irretrievable ruin, whilst that of the ancient prophets always supposed the possibility of a national return to Jehovah. Divine judgment was not then definitively pronounced on the human race, and the prophets were authorized by their mission to search and see if there were any good in man by which he might be brought back to God. Like them, doubtless, John the Baptist had preached repentance, but a repentance founded on ruin without remedy. Therefore Isaiah, describing the ministry of John, adds, "The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: the grass withereth, the flower fadeth because the Spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it surely the people is grass." What remains of man? Nothing. The wrath of the Lord has blown upon him. Henceforth repentance owned that there must be self-judgment in the presence of God; and they "went out" to the prophet, "confessing their sins," to be baptized of him in Jordan. The sinner did not confine himself to the confession of his sins, but owned that henceforth the only answer to his state was death, that there was no remedy.
Moreover, the period about to dawn in the world's history rendered such a ministry necessary. The Lord was appearing upon the scene. The history of the first man was virtually at a close (it was ended, in fact, at the cross), to make way for the history of the second Man, to whom henceforth it was a question of belonging. The way to belong to this living Messiah on the earth1 was to pass condemnation on oneself, and to accept grace. Thus Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, prophecies of the little child, "Thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways; to give knowledge of salvation unto His people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death." (Luke 1:76-79.)
And what kind of people are seen coming to the prophet's baptism? Publicans, men whose character was openly despicable; soldiers, accustomed to oppress the people. Corruption and violence, but owned and judged, find a meeting-place at the baptism of repentance. "John," said the Lord, "came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him." (Matt. 21:32.) For such people there is no resource, and God can only recognize in them the fruit of His own work. "God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham." (Matt. 3: 9.)
There is another character of prophetic ministry which cannot be lacking in John the Baptist, and which he presents more fully and strikingly than his predecessors. It is judgment in contrast to grace. The Pharisees and Sadducees went with the crowd to his baptism. They did not come as guilty, but as self-righteous. The sight of the work of God in publicans and harlots produced among these people neither remorse nor faith (Matt. 21:32), and their final sentence is pronounced. A "generation of vipers" can only be destined to "the wrath to come;" such cannot be taught to flee from it. If they accepted this judgment, they would bring forth fruits meet for repentance. The seed of Abraham, according to the flesh, was set aside. God would raise up children to Abraham by giving life to that which was dead and hard as stone. (Matt. 3: 9.)
John adds, "And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees." As in a forest the trees to be cut down are marked with a hatchet, so already the objects of judgment were designated; but it was no longer a question of cutting off branches or even the trunk; the root was bad. "Nothing will remain of you," said the prophet, "in view of the judgment which is at hand." And who will execute this judgment? Christ. "He," said he, "shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire." (v. 11.) He possesses the two means of destroying sin — the Spirit, the gift of grace consequent on the Saviour's work; and fire, consuming judgment. It seems as if the prophet said, "I cannot do a work in your favour. I baptize with water; but He brings to you complete deliverance, and to the world definitive judgment." Then, describing what the Lord is about to do in Israel, he contemplates in the future the final result of His action, "whose fan is in His hand" - a judgment which separates the chaff, but which preserves the grain to be gathered into His garner. This is what will take place for Israel. Then the threshing-floor of Jehovah will be thoroughly purged, and there will be no more defilement, but unquenchable fire will destroy all the chaff. Such then is one of the features of the ministry of John the Baptist — the fulness of judgment and the greatness of deliverance, both made known in the person of the Messiah.
This brings us to the Lord's second word, "Yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet." John the Baptist is the only prophet heralded by the prophets themselves (Isaiah 60; Mal. 3; Mal. 4), but that does not constitute the especial greatness which raises him above them. He does not announce in the midst of Israel future glories introduced by the coming Messiah, but he is the messenger of the Lord Himself, sent to prepare His way before Him. (Matt. 3:1; Luke 1:76.) The Messiah whom he announces is a coming Messiah, already present among His people. The kingdom of heaven was there; not near at hand, but having come in the person of Christ. (Matt. 3:2.) The Lord was going, if received, to take in hand the government of the earth immediately. John did not fail in his mission. He prepares the way before the Lord. (Mal. 3:1.) He appeals to faith, and finds an answer in the heart of a feeble remnant of Israel. He cries, "Prepare ye the way." This way by which the Lord could enter was repentant hearts convicted of sin, confessing their guilt, finding the end of the flesh, in death and grace the only resource. John had hardly said the words, "He that cometh after me," before Jesus came Himself. (Matt. 3:13.) John opens the door, and in the person of Jesus — this Man, poor and abused — the Messiah of Israel appears upon the threshold.
How admirable at this moment is the great prophet, John the Baptist! He stoops lower than the latchet of the sandals of Christ. (Matt. 3:11; John 1:27.) He declares that he has need to be baptized of Him. (Matt. 3:14.) Thus humbling himself, he exalts, on the one hand, the personal dignity of his Lord; and owns, on the other, in the presence of such perfection, his own condition as a sinner. But how much more worthy of admiration still is the Saviour Himself! He, the most high, humbles Himself still lower than John, who stooped to the sandals of His feet. "Suffer it to be so now," He says; and taking His place in grace at the baptism of John with those who repent, He finds His delight in broken and contrite hearts, and associates Himself with the "excellent" of the earth. Then, not content with abasing Himself, He adds, "It becometh us to fulfil all righteousness," raising John to a level with Himself, and making him a companion in the accomplishment of the will of God. "The heavens were opened" upon and occupied with such perfection, and our hearts too may well be opened to contemplate it.
1) John baptized to a living Christ, Christian baptism is to the death of Christ.