By C. P. Jacobs, Indianapolis, Ind.
I am not going to attempt in this paper a biography of the son of Elizabeth. With his genealogy or personal history I shall have little to do; and indeed the facts as to these matters which have been preserved to us are so meagre that it is plain that to the mind of Luke they were altogether subordinate and inferior in interest. To what, do you ask? Why, to the man's work. In a certain sense any man ought to be greater than his work, for he makes it. But in another sense it is as true that a man's work may be greater than himself. It will outlast him and go on working for good or evil, long after his eyes are closed in their last slumber. What he was may be forgotten speedily - what he did may have the seed of immortality in it.
To be equal to a great occasion, and to fulfill it, or turning the words around, to fill it full, is much. To be greater than a great occasion, to have a reserve, to possess unused power, is more. Some men draw the bow to full tension at all marks, common or uncommon. They use all their strength whenever roused, and they are roused to it by tri fling or unimportant things. Others use just enough strength to do the special work in hand, husbanding the rest. The latter, then, is not readily surprised; the former may often be.
In estimating the place of the Baptist it is proper to consider the characteristics of the man, the message, and the audience.
I. The Characteristics of the Man.
It may fairly be presumed, I think, that he had the natural advantages of a good personal presence and pleasing manner of address. That, at least, there was nothing ungainly in his personal appearance, unattractive in his vocal utterance, nor repellant in his manner when he addressed the people. It may be conjectured that he had even some of the graces of the orator, but his success may be accounted for without taking these into account.
And to my mind, the prime characteristic of the man was, that from an early period in his life he was impressed with a consciousness that he was called to a high mission from a source higher than and beyond himself. Hidden away from the world in the wilderness, and delighted with the solitude and companionship of nature, his meditations over the duty of his life must have been long and deep; and here, in the quiet places of bodily rest, the empty soul, up turned to the sky, must have been filled with an overflowing sense of the Divine presence.
Desert sands are not always unfruitful, and lonely places are often the ones where the mind's eye sees farthest into life's mystery. And it was here the summons came to him, and in language we may not discover, "the word of God came unto John, the son of Zacharias."
How it came, or when it came is not important. He felt and recognized its message, and yielded to its authority. If he ever thought of questioning its credentials we have no hint of it, and any suggestion of evading or disobeying its command was promptly put down.
And when he was summoned we may be sure, from results, even if we do not consider who it was that summoned him, that he was permitted to make proper preparation for his work. How he was girded about in spirit, or disciplined in heart, we are not told. It is all silence about this. But it was adequate — the furnishing of the man for the service. It satisfied the Chief, and the subordinate was not restless over any fancied lack. And it is never otherwise. When God anoints a champion he does not go down into battle unharnessed or untried. It may be Saul's armor will not fit him, but there are stones in the brook, staves growing on the mountain side, and if need be the earth would reach out a hundred weapons from as many hands. It may have been in the halls of Pharoah, in the camps of the Egyptian soldiery, or in the desert of Midian, or in all of these, that due preparation was made of a leader to conduct a chosen people out of bondage — it may have been at the feet of Gamaliel, or upon the field of war, or both, that the character of the great apostle of the Gentiles was consolidated and indurated into that firmness which is now, as then, the greatest human illustration of Christian heroism. But clearly in all these, and in all others who have been appointed to great leaderships, or set for great defenses, in the kingdom of the Lord, the most ample provision was made against failure. Men make mistakes in judging men. God never does. Men imagine oftentimes that they are strong supports of God's government, but when from weakness or infirmity of any kind they drop from under it, there is not the slightest deflection. It never rested upon their shoulders. It may have touched them, but that was all.
At length the seclusion must be broken; the exile was at an end. The man who avoided, now sought men. From the desert, barren of plant and man, he came into the Jordan valleys, fruitful and overflowing with both. He felt himself clothed upon with a high mission to his fellow men, and with the power to execute it. They needed him because of what he could bring to them, and not for himself. And he knew this, and acted upon it. It was no matter of personal ambition to succeed in gaining the ear and heart of the multitude, but a desire to render them a priceless service that urged him on. In his mission he lost sight of himself. He was not a prophet - not even a leader; he was only a voice.
II. - The Characteristics of the Message.
It was not something that had originated with himself. The words were not his own, but those of another. He had heard, and had not conceived them. He came to repeat just what he had been told to say. To deliver it just as he had received it. The message was his King's, the voice only was the herald's. Doubtless the form partook of the flavor of the man, but the substance was the word of God. He cast it into the mould of his personality, and brought it forth in the garb of his own speech, but neither of these detracted from the sublimity of power. It was simple, and not difficult to be understood, but it went to the very centre of things with direct purpose.
The speaker dealt heavy blows at ecclesiasticism, smote formalism, and wrathfully denounced impiety and worldliness. If impiety was not always hereditary, piety certainly could not be entailed. The covenant of God with the children of Abraham, like all other contracts, had not less than two contracting parties, and he who failed to keep it could not require the other to perform its stipulations. The promise, after all, was of grace — and this is unmerited favor. And grace could abound towards rocks and stones and wake them to sing its praise, if living men would not.
So, too, there was to be no longer, if ever there was at all, any refuge in multitudinous or general religion.. Men should not be allowed to shelter themselves in aggregates. Piety was not a national or churchly, but a personal question, and demanded a personal answer. It was not " How shall we? " but, "How shall I, escape the wrath to come?" It was not the consciousness of national but of individual guilt, and the duty not of churchly but of personal repentance. And this was what the voice insisted upon, what the herald required.
Perhaps of the two, the church received greater denunciation than the world. For the latter had not the added guilt of hypocrisy, of pretending to be what it was not, While it denied the power it did not put on the form of Godliness. Vipers seem to symbolize ingratitude and deadly venom. And the church of that day, the preacher said, was a breeding place for them, and they multiplied in her bosom.
Of all he required penitence, repentance, and baptism, either transferring an old or establishing a new rite of purification by water, as a symbol of that which had taken place in the soul. And of the converts he further required works worthy of their professed repentance, and as fruits of their new life.
For the Kingdom of God was at hand, and the King's viceroy was on the way to establish the Kingdom — one mightier than himself, of whom he was only the herald and servant, and who would increase in power and dominion, while the speaker himself should decrease, as a star's light goes out when the sun rises in the morning sky.
III. - The Characteristics of the Audience.
The advent of a man of power, with a message that was striking in its freshness and power, had its natural effects. The whole country round about, and even the regions be yond, was awakened from its dreams. Not only "Jerusalem," but "all Judea" — not only "all Judea, " but "all the region round about," and on both sides the river Jordan. His mighty voice echoed among the rocks and hills of Judea, among the mountains of Samaria, in the deserts and lonely places of Perea, was carried into the cities and towns of Decapolis, and reverberated among the palaces and towers of the City of David. The Pharisees, the ritualists and religious bigots of the time, heard it and sent deputations of priests and Levites from their number to swell the audience that thronged about the wounderful preacher; nay, went themselves in person. The Sadducees, the skeptics and rationalists of that age, could not absent themselves from his ministrations. Herodians, Essenes, scribes, lawyers, people of all ranks in life, publicans, soldiers, sinners of all grades — in brief, a mixed multitude that represented "all sorts and conditions of men, "came to his preaching, came to be his disciples, came and accepted his baptism and his doc trine. All these, in the sight of the forerunner, the herald of the Gospel, all these belonged to a common race of men — all were the children of God. All were suffering under the common disease of sin — all needed the same thing forgiveness, and all had a common duty, that of repentance.
To him the factitious distinctions of rank, fortune, education, and wealth were vain — they were nothing in God's sight, nothing in his own. He had not been taught in the desert solitudes that these or any of them were of any moment - he came with no graded doctrine, but to lay the axe at the root of the tree if it brought forth no good fruit. The zeal of his message burns in every sentence of his speech as recorded in the Evangelists.
Things counted holy, things venerable with antiquity, things sacred from association, things of price, and things of pleasure, all were alike swept away in the torrent of his denunciation, if he thought they stood between the multitudes and repentance.
He carried the thousands who heard him for the time with him, and from him they went forth, many of them to be in turn the centres of new thought and new life in all the cities, towns, and villages of the land.
And when He had come of whom the herald had borne witness, there was found a place prepared for his reception in the hearts of thousands of those who had heard his fore runner in the desert, and accepted the new doctrine with repentent hearts.
And it was Jesus himself who summed up the position of the man who is the subject of this paper in the words, that " Among the children of men a greater hath not arisen than John the Baptist.'
C. P. JACOBS.