By Harris Franklin Rall
The Fullness of Time: the Law. — Jesus came in the fullness of time. That fullness lay not simply in what had been wrought by Greece and Rome or in what Israel contributed from her past: it lay in the very condition of the Jewish people at this time. We have seen that the two focal points in the Jewish life were the Law and the hope. The fullness of time was come so far as the religion of the Law was concerned. The Pharisees had worked out that system to its full consequences and had made every part of the people's life subject to it. But the Law that ruled men could not give men life. It could bring commandment, but not peace or power. Paul is our great illustration here. If this man failed, with his masterful will and his absolute devotion, how could the Law save common folks? The time had come for a higher way.
The Fullness of Time: in History. — The same thing is true when we think of the people's hope. The hearts of the people were filled with expectation. True, the yoke of Rome lay heavy, but the tide of national spirit ran full. The glories of the Maccabean day were not far in the past, and the people remembered them though the priests had made their compact with Rome and frowned on Messianic dreams, while the minds of the Pharisees were filled with the matters of law. The hearts of men were stirred with great hopes. We see them reflected in the pages of the New Testament, in the frequent reference to kingdom and Messiah, in the party of the Zealots, in the references to uprisings and false Messiahs (Luke 6. 15; 13. 1; Acts 5. 36, 37; 21. 38). A generation later and the conditions were all changed. The year A. D. 70 is the great dividing line in the history of Judaism. In that fateful year city and temple were destroyed and the old worship passed away; the Jewish religion became the religion of the Law alone, and the sway of the scribe was complete. We cannot think of Jesus' work as being done after that time.
John the Man
The Voice of His Age. —John the Baptist was the highest expression of the hopes and longings of his age. We have not done justice to this great figure. We have thought of him as a herald, a voice, and have not seen how much more than this he was. It was his lot to bring together the old and the new. He voiced what was noblest in the past while he made ready for that which was to come. And yet he was a man of his own age and his own people, compelling these to listen because what was deepest in their conscience and faith spoke to them through him.
His Appearing. —There are few figures more striking than that of John. He is like that Elijah with whom Jesus compared him. He comes of a sudden from the obscurity of the wilderness. We see him for a little while, a figure of commanding power swaying the multitudes; then almost as suddenly he disappears again from view. Only a few words are needed to tell the story of his life. He was a hermit, dwelling in the wilderness near the Jordan. He was a man before he was a preacher, preparing himself in meditation and repentance for the coming of the Messiah of whose nearness he felt sure. It may be that it was his fame as a hermit that reached the people first, and that their coming to him was his opportunity and his call to bring to the nation that which filled his own heart. In any case, when we first see him the throngs from all Judaea are coming to him, hearing his stern and searching word and receiving his baptism in the Jordan. Soon they were coming from Galilee as well, just as one day there came the young Man from Nazareth and the young men from Capernaum. Most of the crowd came and went, a motley company, including even haughty Pharisees and lordly Sadducees from Jerusalem. Some joined themselves to his person as disciples, of whom were Andrew and perhaps John and Peter and Nathanael.
His End. —At length Herod Antipas, to whom Galilee and Peraea belonged, laid hold of John and imprisoned him. Herod's wife, Herodias, had first married Herod Philip, who, like Antipas, was her uncle. Probably because of ambition, she left him to marry his brother Antipas. It was this shameless marriage that John had denounced, and it was the anger of Herodias that caused his death in the gloomy fortress of Machaerus, where Josephus tells us that John was imprisoned. Apart from this tragedy, only one other event comes to us from these days in prison, the sending of two disciples to Jesus to inquire whether he were the Messiah. From this distance we cannot be sure of the meaning of this act: whether it sprang from a doubt caused by John's own fate, or was done for the sake of his disciples.
The Message of John
Believe and Repent. —What was the message of John that so stirred the people from one end of the land to the other? It was first of all John's declaration that the Kingdom was at hand. That was enough to draw the multitudes. But that was not the whole of John's message, nor what was new in it. The new note was the word "repent." That word had been sounded by the prophets of old, but had not often been heard in John's day. The Jews were looking for deliverance, not because of their righteousness or repentance, but because they were Abraham's children. That is not enough to build upon, John declares; God can raise up out of these stones children of Abraham. It is righteousness that he wants. The Judgment is to be not upon the nations, but upon unrighteous men everywhere. The Messiah is coming, but he will sift Israel as wheat is sifted from the chaff. The chaff will be destroyed, the trees without fruit will be cut down. And he is at hand; repent. The ax is already at the root of the tree, the fan is already in his hand.
The Prophet. —Thus John preached, stirring first men's hopes, then laying hold of their conscience. And men heard him for the one reason as for the other, just as of old their fathers listened to the fearless prophets. That, indeed, was another reason why they came. Here was once more a prophet. Such Jesus called him, such the people held him to be. It had been one of their sorrows that for so many generations there had been no such messenger from God. Now God was speaking to his people again. Nothing shows so clearly the impression that John made as this, that the people placed him by the side of those great men who had spoken for God in the past, the men who were the glory of their nation's history.
The Baptism of John. —In one respect John differed from the prophets; he asked the people to undergo a ceremony of baptism. But here too it was the prophet at work, and not the priest. It was not that the rite had any magic meaning. It was a form familiar to the people, used for ceremonial cleansing (see Lev. 15 and elsewhere), and also when a proselyte was admitted. The people knew it, then, as a symbol of purity on the one hand, and a ceremony of enrollment on the other. With John it seems to have had both meanings, only deepened and enriched in accordance with his message. It was a baptism of repentance and a sign of cleansing from sin. And so he was wont to tell those who came for baptism definitely what evil they must cast from their lives; the soldiers must cease oppressing, the taxgatherers must not take more than was due. But it was a sign of enrollment too; these men were pledging themselves to repentance and a new life in preparation for the coming Messiah. It was the covenant of a new Israel that was to be prepared to meet its King.
The Meaning of John's Work
The Forerunner. —What was the meaning of John's work? He was first of all a prophet, as Jesus called him. We see to-day that the glory and strength of Israel lay not in priest and temple; not in the laws which were beginning and end for the Pharisees. It was in her prophets: men who saw God and feared no man, men who heard God and could but speak, men who denounced sin in places high and low, too often reaping a reward of death, like John; and yet men of courage because they believed that Jehovah had a great purpose to work out in the end. All of this at its best was in John. And he was more than a prophet: he was the forerunner whose privilege it was to usher in the new day of greater things.
His Limitations. —The limitations of John's work are as clear as its strength, and John recognized this himself. His work was negative; he could but call men to leave evil; another was to come who was to establish the good. He baptized with water, the symbol; but, like the prophets of old, he knew that a greater work was needed. Jeremiah had written of the days of the new covenant, when men were to have not a law above them, but a new spirit within them, the law in their hearts (Jer. 31. 31-34). And Joel had spoken of the Spirit that was to be poured out in that day (Joel 2. 28). So John declared that the Messiah was to baptize in the Holy Spirit and in fire. Yet even here John shares the limitations of the old; the Messiah is first of all for him the judge, fan in hand, ax at the root, cleansing with fire, but destroying as well. That was why Jesus declared the least in the kingdom of God as greater than he, not in character, but in that new vision of the God of grace and of the life of sonship which could say, "Abba, Father.''
The Tribute of Jesus. —To the greatness of John's character Jesus gave recognition in one of the finest tributes ever paid to men. John was the man of strength, Jesus said, not a swaying reed. He was the devoted man; there was no softness of raiment, no luxury of food with him. He was the prophet; there could be no higher calling. And he was a man, with none greater born of woman. It was generous praise, for we must remember that at this time Jesus was the prophet little known, while John's name and fame had swept the land. But the heart of the common people whom John had stirred went out to Jesus at this word, to this new prophet who began with kingdom and repentance, as John began, and yet whose message was so different.
The Results of John's Work
With the Nation, the Disciples, and Jesus. —What was the fruit of John's work? Very little, it would seem at first glance. With the multitudes it was largely curiosity. "What went ye out to behold?" is Jesus' question and comment. And yet there are incidents which show how mightily John stirred the nation. The crowd that came was not one that stopped for a moment in the street. They had to go out to the wilderness where John was. They came there from far Galilee as well as from Judaea, and even the Sadducees and Pharisees found their way. Even from Herod John won a mingled respect and fear. He did not want to put John to death, and his superstition saw in Jesus the mighty spirit of John come to life again. Long afterward Paul found in Ephesus a little group of disciples who had remained faithful to John's teaching (Acts 19. 1-7). And still another of his disciples was the eloquent Apollos, who, like the twelve that Paul found, remained faithful for years to the Baptist before he heard the gospel of Jesus. But John's greatest work lay in another direction. It was his message that stirred the young man Jesus in his little village home and called him forth, and it was his work that prepared the way for the greater One. He shook the easy confidence of many who had rested upon the fact that they were Abraham's children, and put upon their lips a new question: What must we do?
Directions for Study
Review briefly the previous lessons, calling to mind especially what we have studied as to the expectations of the people as to the Kingdom on the one hand, and on the other the formalism and failure in their religious life.
Read Luke 3. 1-18. Note the estimate of the religious life of his people implied in what John says, and the courage and definiteness of his preaching. John looks forward to another; compare Jesus, who knows that there is nothing higher than his own word.
Read Mark 6. 12-29. Compare Mark 6. 20 with Matthew 14. 5. Which probably gives the more accurate account?
Read Matthew 11. 7-14. With what characters in biblical history or elsewhere would you compare John the Baptist?
Give an estimate of his character, stating his strong qualities and his limitations.