THE BAPTISM OF JOHN.
THUS then His boyhood, and youth, and early manhood had passed away in humble submission and holy silence, and Jesus was now thirty years old. That deep lesson for all classes of men in every age, which was involved in the long toil and obscurity of those thirty years, had been taught more powerfully than mere words could teach it, and the hour for His ministry and for the great work of His redemption had now arrived. He was to be the Saviour not only by example, but also by revelation, and by death.
And already there had begun to ring that Voice in the Wilderness which was stirring the inmost heart of the nation with its cry, "Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand."
It was an age of transition, of uncertainty, of doubt. In the growth of general corruption, in the wreck of sacred institutions, in those dense clouds which were gathering more and more darkly on the political horizon, it must have seemed to many a pious Jew as if the fountains of the great deep were again being broken up. Already the sceptre had departed from his race; already its high-priesthood was contemptuously tampered with by Idumæan tetrarchs or Roman procurators; already the chief influence over his degraded Sanhedrin was in the hands of supple Herodians or wily Sadducees. It seemed as if nothing were left for his consolation but an increased fidelity to Mosaic institutions, and a deepening intensity of Messianic hopes. At an epoch so troubled, and so restlesswhen old things were rapidly passing away, and the new continued unrevealedit might almost seem excusable for a Pharisee to watch for every opportunity of revolution; and still more excusable for an Essene to embrace a life of celibacy, and retire from the society of man. There was a general expectation of that "wrath to come," which was to be the birth-throe of the coming kingdomthe darkness deepest before the dawn. The world had grown old, and the dotage of its paganism was marked by hideous excesses. Atheism in belief was followed, as among nations if has always been, by degradation of morals. Iniquity seemed to have run its course to the very farthest goal. Philosophy had abrogated its boasted functions except for the favoured few. Crime was universal, and there was no known remedy for the horror and ruin which it was causing in a thousand hearts. Remorse itself seemed to be exhausted, so that men were "past feeling." There was a callosity of heart, a petrifying of the moral sense, which even those who suffered from it felt to be abnormal and portentous. Even the heathen world felt that "the fulness of the time" had come.
At such periods the impulse to an ascetic seclusion becomes very strong. Solitary communion with God amid the wildest scenes of nature seems preferable to the harassing speculations of a dispirited society. Self-dependence, and subsistence upon the very scantiest resources which can supply the merest necessities of life, are more attractive than the fretting anxieties and corroding misery of a crushed and struggling poverty. The wildness and silence of indifferent Nature appear at such times to offer a delightful refuge from the noise, the meanness, and the malignity of men. Banus, the Pharisee, who retired into the wilderness, and lived much as the hermits of the Thebaid lived in after years, was only one of many who were actuated by these convictions. Josephus, who for three years had lived with him in his mountain-caves, describes his stern self-mortifications and hardy life, his clothing of woven leaves, his food of the chance roots which he could gather from the soil, and his daily and nightly plunge in the cold water, that his body might be clean and his heart pure.
But asceticism may spring from very different motives. It may result from the arrogance of the cynic who wishes to stand apart from all men; or from the disgusted satiety of the epicurean who would fain find a refuge even from himself; or from the selfish terror of the fanatic, intent only on his own salvation. Far different and far nobler was the hard simplicity and noble self-denial of the Baptist. It is by no idle fancy that the mediaeval painters represent him as emaciated by a proleptic asceticism. The tendency to the life of a recluse had shown itself in the youthful Nazarite from his earliest years; but in him it resulted from the consciousness of a glorious missionit was from the desire to fulfil a destiny inspired by burning hopes. St. John was a dweller in the wilderness, only that he might thereby become the prophet of the Highest. The light which was within him should be kindled, if need be, into a self-consuming flame, not for his own glory, but that it might illuminate the pathway of the coming King.
The nature of St. John the Baptist was full of impetuosity and fire. The long struggle which had given him so powerful a mastery over himselfwhich had made him content with self-obliteration before the presence of his Lordwhich had inspired him with fearlessness in the face of danger, and humility in the midst of applausehad left its traces in the stern character, and aspect, and teaching of the man. If he had won peace in the long prayer and penitence of his life in the wilderness, it was not the spontaneous peace of a placid and holy soul. The victory he had won was still encumbered with traces of the battle; the calm he had attained still echoed with the distant mutter of the storm. His very teaching reflected the imagery of the wildernessthe rock, the serpent, the barren tree. "In his manifestation and agency," it has been said, "he was like a burning torch; his public life was quite an earthquakethe whole man was a sermon; he might well call himself a voicethe voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord."
While he was musing the fire burned, and at the last he spake with his tongue. Almost from boyhood he had been a voluntary eremite. In solitude he had learnt things unspeakable; there the unseen world had become to him a reality; there his spirit had caught "a touch of phantasy and flame." Communing with his own great lonely heartcommuning with the high thoughts of that long line of prophets, his predecessors, to a rebellious peoplecommuning with the utterances that came to him from the voices of the mountain and the seahe had learnt a deeper lore than he could have ever learnt at Hillel's or Shammai's feet. In the tropic noonday of that deep Jordan valley, where the air seems to be full of a subtle and quivering flamein listening to the howl of the wild beasts in the long night, under the lustre of stars "that seemed to hang like balls of fire in a purple sky"in wandering by the sluggish cobalt-coloured waters of that dead and accursed lake, until before his eyes, dazzled by the saline efflorescence of the shore strewn with its wrecks of death, the ghosts of the guilty seemed to start out of the sulphurous ashes under which they were submergedhe had learnt a language, he had received a revelation, not vouchsafed to ordinary menattained, not in the schools of the Rabbis, but in the school of solitude, in the school of God.
Such teachers are suited for such times. There was enough and to spare of those respectable, conventional teachers, who spake smooth things and prophesied deceits. The ordinary Scribe or Pharisee, sleek with good living and supercilious with general respect, might get up in the synagogue, with his broad phylacteries and luxurious robes, and might, perhaps, minister to some sleepy edification with his midrash of hair-splitting puerilities and threadbare precedents; but the very aspect of John the Baptist would have shown that there was another style of teacher here. Even before the first vibrating tone of a voice that rang with scorn and indignation, the bronzed countenance, the unshorn locks, the close-pressed lips, the leathern girdle, the mantle of camel's hair, would at once betoken that here at last was a man who was a man indeed in all his natural grandeur and dauntless force, and who, like the rough Bedawy prophet who was his antitype, would stand unquailing before purple Ahabs and adulterous Jezebels. And then his life was known. It was known that his drink was water of the river, and that he lived on locusts and wild honey. Men felt in him that power of mastery which is always granted to perfect self-denial. He who is superior to the common ambitions of man is superior also to their common timidities. If he have little to hope from the favour of his fellows he has little to fear from their dislike; with nothing to gain from the administration of servile flattery, he has nothing to lose by the expression of just rebuke. He sits as it were above his brethren, on a sunlit eminence of peace and purity, unblinded by the petty mists that dim their vision, untroubled by the petty influences that disturb their life.
No wonder that such a man at once made himself felt as a power in the midst of his people. It became widely rumoured that, in the wilderness of Judæa, lived one whose burning words it was worth while to hear; one who recalled Isaiah by his expressions, Elijah by his life. A Tiberius was polluting by his infamies the throne of the Empire; a Pontius Pilate, with his insolences, cruelties, extortions, massacres, was maddening a fanatic people; Herod Antipas was exhibiting to facile learners the example of calculated apostacy and reckless lust; Caiaphas and Annas were dividing the functions of a priesthood which they disgraced. Yet the talk of the new Prophet was not of political circumstances such as these: the lessons he had to teach were deeper and more universal in their moral and social significance. Whatever might be the class who flocked to his stern solitude, his teaching was intensely practical, painfully heart-searching, fearlessly downright. And so Pharisee and Sadducee, scribe and soldier, priest and publican, all thronged to listen to his words. The place where he preached was that wild range of uncultivated and untenanted wilderness, which stretches southward from Jericho and the fords of Jordan to the shores of the Dead Sea. The cliffs that overhung the narrow defile which led from Jerusalem to Jericho were the haunt of dangerous robbers; the wild beasts and the crocodiles were not yet extinct in the reed-beds that marked the swellings of Jordan; yet from every quarter of the countryfrom priestly Hebron, from holy Jerusalem, from smiling Galileethey came streaming forth, to catch the accents of this strange voice. And the words of that voice were like a hammer to dash in pieces the flintiest heart, like a flame to pierce into the most hidden thoughts. Without a shadow of euphemism, without an accent of subservience, without a tremor of hesitation, he rebuked the tax-gatherers for their extortionateness; the soldiers for their violence, unfairness, and discontent; the wealthy Sadducees, and stately Pharisees, for a formalism and falsity which made them vipers of a viperous brood. The whole people he warned that their cherished privileges were worse than valueless if, without repentance, they regarded them as a protection against the wrath to come. They prided themselves upon their high descent; but God, as He had created Adam out of the earth, so even out of those flints upon the strand of Jordan was able to raise up children unto Abraham. They listened with accusing consciences and stricken hearts; and since he had chosen baptism as his symbol of their penitence and purification, "they were baptised of him in Jordan, confessing their sins." Even those who did not submit to his baptism were yet "willing for a season to rejoice in his light."
But he had another and stranger messagea message sterner, yet more hopefulto deliver; for himself he would claim no authority, save as the forerunner of another; for his own baptism no value, save as an initiation into the kingdom that was at hand. When the deputation from the Sanhedrin asked him who he waswhen all the people were musing in their hearts whether he were the Christ or nohe never for a moment hesitated to say that he was not the Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet. He was "a voice in the wilderness," and nothing more; but after himand this was the announcement that stirred most powerfully the hearts of menafter him was coming One who was preferred before him, for He was before himOne whose shoe's latchet he was unworthy to unlooseOne who should baptise, not with water, but with the Holy Ghost, and with fireOne whose fan was in His hand, and who should thoroughly purge His floorwho should gather his wheat into the garner, but burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. The hour for the sudden coming of their long-promised, long-expected Messiah was at hand. His awful presence was near them, was among them, but they knew Him not.
Thus repentance and the kingdom of heaven were the two cardinal points of his preaching, and though he did not claim the credentials of a single miracle, yet while he threatened detection to the hypocrite and destruction to the hardened, he promised also pardon to the penitent and admission into the kingdom of heaven to the pure and clean. "The two great utterances," it has been said, "which he brings from the desert, contain the two capital revelations to which all the preparation of the Gospel has been tending. Law and prophecy; denunciation of sin and promise of pardon; the flame which consumes and the light which consolesis not this the whole of the covenant?"
To this preaching, to this baptism, in the thirtieth year of His age, came Jesus from Galilee. John was his kinsman by birth, but the circumstances of their life had entirely separated them. John, as a child in the house of the blameless priest his father, had lived at Juttah, in the far south of the tribe of Judah, and not far from Hebron; Jesus had lived in the deep seclusion of the carpenter's shop in the valley of Galilee. When He first came to the banks of the Jordan, the great forerunner, according to his own emphatic and twice repeated testimony, "knew Him not." And yet, though Jesus was not yet revealed as the Messiah to His great herald-prophet, there was something in His look, something in the sinless beauty of His ways, something in the solemn majesty of His aspect, which at once overawed and captivated the soul of John. To others he was the uncompromising prophet; kings he could confront with rebuke; Pharisees he could unmask with indignation; but before this Presence all his lofty bearing falls. As when some unknown dread checks the flight of the eagle, and makes him settle with hushed scream and drooping plumage on the ground, so before "the royalty of inward happiness," before the purity of sinless life, the wild prophet of the desert becomes like a submissive and timid child. The battle-brunt which legionaries could not dauntthe lofty manhood before which hierarchs trembled and princes grew paleresigns itself, submits, adores before a moral force which is weak in every external attribute and armed only in an invisible mail. John bowed to the simple stainless manhood before he had been inspired to recognise the Divine commission. He earnestly tried to forbid the purpose of Jesus. He who had received the confessions of all others, now reverently and humbly makes his own, "I have need to be baptised of Thee, and comest Thou to me?"
The answer contains the second recorded utterance of Jesus, and the first word of his public ministry"Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness."
"I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean."such seems to have been the burden of John's message to the sinners who had become sincerely penitent.
But, if so, why did our Lord receive baptism at His servant's hands? His own words tell us; it was to fulfil every requirement to which God's will might seem to point (Ps. xl. 7, 8). He did not accept it as subsequent to a confession, for He was sinless; and in this respect, even before he recognised Him as the Christ, the Baptist clearly implied that the rite would be in His case exceptional. But He received it as ratifying the mission of His great forerunnerthe last and greatest child of the Old Dispensation, the earliest herald of the New; and He also received it as the beautiful symbol of moral purification, and the humble inauguration of a ministry which came not to destroy the Law, but to fulfil. His own words obviate all possibility of misconception. He does not say, "I must," but, "Thus it becometh us." He does not say, "I have need to be baptised;" nor does He say, "Thou hast no need to be baptised of me," but He says, "Suffer it to be so now." This is, indeed, but the baptism of repentance; yet it may serve to prefigure the "laver of regeneration."
So Jesus descended into the waters of Jordan, and there the awful sign was given that this was indeed "He that should come." From the cloven heaven streamed the Spirit of God in a dovelike radiance that seemed to hover over His head in lambent flame, and the Bath Kôl, which to the dull unpurged ear was but an inarticulate thunder, spake in the voice of God to the ears of John"This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."