Christian Friend vol. 14, 1887
Failure of John the Baptist.
We have hitherto considered John the Baptist in the different phases of his progress as a man of faith. We are coming to the only point in his history where weakness and failure are exhibited. The great prophet John, like Elijah, was for a moment disheartened. He was in prison, and his Master had not delivered him; his hopes were disappointed, and apparently there were no fruits to his ministry. The people, "offended in" Christ, had not "gathered under His wings;" the disowned Messiah had not where to lay His head; and this glorious Lord, who had been announced as coming "suddenly to His temple," on the very heels of His messenger, with His fan in His hand to purge His floor, was rejected and despised. Alas! under such circumstances, for the prophet to be discouraged was natural, but it was not faith, for it led John to doubt Christ, to ask himself if He was indeed the promised Messiah, He who was coming according to Mal. 3:1. John did not in his uncertainty ask himself if he were really the messenger; our failures more readily lead us to suspect God than ourselves. Any way, this scene is somewhat consoling; if John be led to question the Messianic character of the Saviour, he is in no doubt about Him in other respects. The word of Jesus is his only and sufficient resource. "Art thou He that should come? or do we look for another?" It is decline in a career of faith; but, thank God, it is still faith, however small its measure, and it finds, as it always will, a perfect response. John, however, the great witness, failed in his testimony. It is ever so with man; something is lacking, and even be he a John the Baptist, he will not compare with Christ. We lose nothing by it. The Lord alone remains unchangeable. It is beautiful to see in John 1 the man of faith humbling himself before the Lord; the Lord Himself is still more admirable when, man being necessarily lost to sight, He alone remains in view.
Let us consider in greater detail the Saviour's part in this scene. Whilst John is in doubt about Christ, the Lord meets his failure by putting before him His grace. "Go and show John again those things which ye do hear and see" (His words and His works): "the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them." (vv. 4, 5.) All these miracles, accomplished in presence of John's messengers, were the sign of the presence of Messiah in Israel (Isa. 61:1-2), not Messiah in grace. Was grace then a less thing than the glory expected by the Baptist? To his question Jesus replies, "Grace remains in power, and the poor have the gospel preached to them." It is a precious thought, that in the present time — a time of weakness and of the cessation of miracles — a soul may recognize Jesus in the preaching of the gospel to the poor, and say, — "I myself have heard the Lord." Jesus adds: "And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me." (v. 6.) In spite of the forsaking of the people, there is a blest remnant convicted of sin, who, instead of awaiting Messiah's glory, have found favour in a rejected Saviour come for sinful man. The knowledge of grace in the person of Jesus constitutes the happiness of such. This was a gentle and delicate reproof to John the Baptist. Ought not the one who had saluted Jesus as Lamb of God to have remembered this grace? "Are you any longer of this blest company?" the Saviour's voice seems to say. But for the glory of Christ, the great prophet John the Baptist must be an object of grace even as others.
Whilst the imprisoned forerunner is for a moment discouraged, and abandons his testimony, the Lord Himself bears witness to John before the multitude. What grace! What divine delicacy in the choice of such a time for re-instating John, whose doubts had lowered him in his capacity of prophet, in the eyes of all! "What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind?" A man who in trial was weak and uncertain? Ah!! if he shows himself such at the time when Jesus was speaking, he had not been so at the outset of his career, and it was then that they had been called to make acquaintance with him. Or had they gone to see a rich man clothed like the great ones of this world? Nothing of the kind. But John the Baptist was still the great messenger of whom Malachi 3 speaks, although the Lord had not come to His temple. A little further on, alluding to Malachi 4:5 (not to Malachi 3), Jesus adds, "And if ye will receive it" (that which I say), "this is Elias, which was for to come." If they received the Lord Jesus, the kingdom might be established, the curse still hanging over the people set aside, and relationships according to God re-established in Israel; in such a case, the future mission of Elias would not be necessary, and John the Baptist, come in the spirit and power of Elias, would occupy the place, so to speak, of the future prophet.1
In what follows (vv. 16-19) Jesus does not content Himself with declaring the greatness of His messenger; in grace, He raises him in presence of the multitudes to the level of his Master, or rather associates Himself with him in testimony. Their testimonies are not alike. John was likened to those who "mourned," when he called the people to repentance; the Lord resembled those who "piped;" He brought the sweet strains of grace to all. The first presented himself with the severity of a prophet, separated from the people on whom judgment was pronounced; the second made Himself accessible to men, in order, if it were possible, to win for God the confidence of sinners. These two testimonies had found no echo; these two witnesses had been rejected; man did worse than that, he accused John of having a devil, and Christ of being a participator in the sins of those He came to save. By refusing grace, by refusing it thus, what a weight of suffering has not man accumulated on the heart of the Saviour
Whilst John, unstable beneath accumulated rejection and opprobrium, is like a reed shaken by the wind, Christ alone abides unmoved amidst the ruins. The prophet and the man of faith, the wise and prudent of this world, Israel with her cities, nothing of this remains. He abides for ever. He abides, not only in a divine repose, which meets everything, but in an unruffled and ineffable joy, even whilst His human heart is broken and bleeding under undeserved reproach. "In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit," the Gospel of Luke tells us. (Luke 10:21.) The hopes of Israel were interrupted by the fact of the rejection of Christ; but even that opened to view other vast and infinite prospects. Jehovah hid His face (see Isa. 8:17); the Father was revealed. Heaven was opened when earth shut the door on Christ. Babes, being of but little value, were raised to the enjoyment of supreme blessings, while the wise and prudent were blinded. The least in the kingdom of heaven was henceforth greater than the greatest of prophets (v. 11), through the enjoyment of privileges unknown to the most eminent among the representatives of the law. Henceforth a little child would be nearer to Christ, in position, in knowledge, and in glory, than the greatest witness to the coming of His kingdom. I repeat it, the Lord sees in His rejection the foundation of present and future kingdom-blessing for the people of God. The people according to the flesh had miserably failed, and there was an end to all right to the kingdom as to fleshly descent; henceforth it would be taken by force, and could not be entered by right of inheritance; to have part in it, there must be a necessary act of faith, the giving up of pre-existing relations, the breaking of natural links.
The mass of the people had turned away, but a remnant remained according to the election of grace, established in virtue of the work accomplished after the Saviour's rejection. Those who formed part of it were not offended because of Him; to these "violent" the kingdom henceforth belonged. As wisdom's children, begotten by her, they justified her by accepting grace. The Lord found all His delight among these few, and even if His work of grace had only brought Him one poor woman of Samaria, it would have been enough to enable Him to say, "The fields are white already to harvest."
The rejected Jesus remains alone amidst the rubbish, unmoved, full of assurance and joy, praising the Father, even though there was nothing more to be expected from man. He is not more perfect — that He could not be — but His perfection shines forth more absolutely in circumstances, which, putting the faith of a man to the test, acknowledged the incompetency and feebleness of man. Abiding alone, a high tower, a sure refuge, He says, "Come unto Me." Neither John nor any other could be resorted to. The weary and heavy-laden of this world could only find rest with Christ. The grace which revealed the Father's heart to poor sinners could only be known in His person; and practical peace of heart in the abandonment of self-will could only be realized after having been learnt of Him, the perfect man, subject to the yoke, the Father's will.
John the Baptist has vanished. The One whose herald he had been remains alone, the only One capable of meeting in grace the failure of His servant, of bearing all the weight of the work of grace which lays the foundation of the new creation, the only Centre of attraction for every poor sinner who thirsts for grace, and the only perfect Model for any who seek to be like Him. The law and the prophets come to an end. In Christ grace abides, set up for eternity, established forever.
1) This explains why John the Baptist said to the messenger of the Jews that he was not Elias. In consequence of the rejection of Messiah, the mission of Malachi 3 will be accomplished by another. Who will this future Elias be'? "Elijah the prophet," it is said. We must remember that Elijah did not see death. Such a man would be a worthy precursor of the One who is coming in judgment.