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Free Books » Meyer, Frederick Brotherton » The Gospel of the King

Chapter 6 - The Greatest of the Prophets The Gospel of the King by Meyer, Frederick Brotherton

Index

THE GREATEST OF THE PROPHETS

 

"Yet, yet sustain me, Holiest!-I am vowed

To solemn service high;

And shall the Spirit, for Thy tasks endow'd,

Sink on the threshold of the sanctuary?

Fainting beneath the burden of the day

Because no human tone unto the altar-stone

Of that pure spousal fane inviolate,

Where it should make Eternal Truth its mate,

May cheer the sacred solitary way?

Oh! be the whisper of Thy voice within

Enough to strengthen!"

F. HEMANS.

 

 

THE GREATEST OF THE PROPHETS

(MATTHEW iii. 1.)

BETWEEN the second and third chapters of this Gospel we must insert a period of not less than thirty years, during which Jesus, "the Carpenter," grew up in Nazareth, learn­ing Joseph's trade, presently taking his place, and knowing of a truth whence He came, who He was, and whither He went.

Nature, it has been said, begins and perfects her finest works in secrecy and silence. No eye has ever beheld the invisible weavers of her summer dress; no ear has ever heard the clang of her mechanics as they build minute crystals and mighty mountains. It was thus in secret that the life of Jesus unfolded in the privacy of His village home; and in similar secrecy that of His cousin, a few months older than Himself, who was to introduce the Bridegroom to the bride, the true Shepherd to the flock, and to withdraw the curtain that veiled His Personality from the eyes of His waiting fellow-country-men.

In the political world great changes were transacting. Archelaus, mentioned in the previous chapter (22), had been deposed, after a brief tenure of power, on account of his tyranny, and the land had passed under the rule of the Roman Procurator. Roman officials were in every street, Roman soldiers in every garrison, Roman coins in every pouch. The sceptre had departed from Judah, and the Law­giver from between His feet, and Shiloh was at hand. But before He appeared, behold God sent a messenger before Him who should prepare His way. "The voice of one cry­ing in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make His paths straight." "In those days cometh John the Baptist."

Whence did he come? That is our first inquiry. John the Baptist sprang from an old priestly stock, both parents being descended from Aaron. His mother was own cousin to the mother of Jesus. His birthplace was a city in the hill country of Judaea, possibly Hebron, the old regal and priestly city of Judah. There a simple and sincere youth was happily spent, broken only by his father's journeys to fulfil his priestly office at the temple, and enlightened by the teaching of the Scrip­tures in respect of the past, which had left its indelible im­pression on all the country, and of the future, which was big with Messianic forecast and hope.

One Evangelist tells us that he passed his youth and man­hood in the desert: and his habits and speech seemed to reflect its spirit. He was not clothed in soft raiment, but in a coarse tunic of camel's hair; had no craving for sumptuous food, but was content with the simplest fare of dried locusts and honey from the rock; was no reed shaken by the wind, but a gnarled oak which the wind could neither bend nor break. He spake of the stones baked in the desert sun, that mock the culture of man, but await the creative power of God; of the viper brood lying concealed among the rocks; of the trees, which send their roots into the dry and stony soil, but fail to find moisture enough to make them fruitful.

He came, then, from a priestly parentage, an historic city, and finally from the training of the wilderness, where only an occasional caravan gave him the news of the world or brought him in touch with his kind.

"Whence did he come?" We again ask the question. Some have tried to account for him by citing the existence of the Essenes-a school of hermits and anchorites who had their home in the desert wastes. But there was little in common between them and him. They forbade flesh; John ate without scruple the flesh of the locust. They were great in ablutions; but John had only his baptism, a rite administered but once. They sought to save their souls by forsaking the world; he proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God to the homes and cities of men. It were impossible to account for the great preacher thus. If you press the question to its furthest there is but one answer: "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John."

Our Lord sketches some of the characteristics of this wonderful man, and the story of the Evangelists completes them. He was eminently holy, for he was filled with the Holy Spirit from his birth. He was eminently abstemious, for, according to Gabriel's words, he came neither eating nor drinking, being a Nazarite (Luke i. 15, 16). He was eminently humble, content to be just a voice crying; to be a courier of the coming King, whose shoe-latchet he was unworthy to unloose; to decrease as the morning star, dying in the dawn. His outward life was the expression of a severe and solitary spirit detached from the delights of sense and from the blessedness of human love, because the coming kingdom flamed ever before him, and his age seemed to be hopeless and ready for the fire.

Our Lord greatly appreciated him, and loved to speak of his unalterable resolution like an iron pillar, of his superiority to considerations of ease and comfort, of his direct vision of God. He described him as a lamp that burned as well as shone. He said that he was a prophet, and more than a prophet. His brief years of ministry recalled Elijah, and the greatest of the prophets.

The burden of his ministry was twofold. (1) He caught sight of the coming kingdom of God. "Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." He believed that the moment was at hand when God would set up His kingdom over the hearts of men, and that the King was near.

The prophets, when they dreamed and spoke of a golden age, always connected it with the Divine Prince, the Messiah.  In the Messiah the hopes of Hebraism centred-it was He who should bring the kingdom about. The ideas of the King and the kingdom, which were blended in prophecy, were indissolubly connected in the mind of John. At one time he said, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand"; at an­other, "After me cometh One mightier than I."

He loved to contrast his own meanness with the King's greatness. He was but a voice; but the King had the win­nowing fan. He urged men to flee from the wrath to come; but the King would gather the wheat into His garner, and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. He only baptized with water; but the King would baptize with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.

But there was a second element in his preaching. (2) He preached the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. The land was filled with priests and burdened with ritual. New moons and Sabbaths, the appointed feasts and multi­tudes of sacrifices, prayers and incense, were rigorously ob­served. The Sadducee said scornfully that the Pharisees would soon clean the face of the sun-so keen was the pas­sion for ceremonial purity. But never had the heart of Israel been more corrupt. As Jesus said afterwards, they were "the lost sheep of the house of Israel." How could the Messiah be revealed unless there were a genuine reform?

With a mighty zeal burning in his heart, he therefore preached the baptism of repentance. With unparalleled boldness he met the entire Israelitish community with the solemn declaration that the whole camp was unclean, and that all must undergo a holy ablution before they could enter the new community. In fact, he excommunicated the entire nation, and prescribed a symbolical repentance to prepare it for entering the kingdom of the Messiah. It was among the requirements of the law that the Jewish proselytes should undergo a washing when they passed over from the camp of the heathen to the camp of Israel; but here he applied to the whole nation what had been applied to the individual: "Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment; relieve the oppressed; judge the fatherless; plead for the widow."

Thus he came preaching. What a word is this! It is the cry of the herald. We call him a preacher who delivers his well­-prepared sermons to his select and cultured audience twice each Sunday; but the preacher is a herald, whose voice rings out on the quiet air, suddenly, startlingly, "Prepare, prepare! the King is at hand!"

The effect of John's ministry was instantaneous and electric. Beneath his burning appeals Israel was moved as Israel had not been moved for centuries. His voice reached from the Jordan to the capital city, and awed its heart. Pharisees and Sadducees, priests and scribes, publicans and sinners, went forth to listen. East and west, north and south, the tidings spread that the silence of the centuries was broken, and that God's voice was to be heard. Publicans, like Zac­cheus, left their gains; Pharisees, like Nicodemus, their phylacteries; soldiers of Roman or Herodian armies who were on the march, the common people in their myriads-­all left their homes and occupations and hurried to the Jordan, till the river banks were black with the crowds of penitents. "There went out to him Jerusalem and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, and were baptized of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins"; and beneath his words thousands repented, turned from their old ways, and began to climb towards the heavenly life.

The collision between such a man and the religious leaders of his age was inevitable. Amid the crowds honest in their desire for a new life, came Pharisees and Sadducees. They had no desire to amend their lives and flee from wrath. They were borne along by the tide of the excited multitudes, and only came to submit to the rite because they dared not remain outside the great popular movement. They believed that they were safe from the coming wrath because they were children of Abraham; and they only came to John's baptism to maintain before the people the appearance of orthodoxy.

He could not refuse to receive and baptize them, because he had to take them on their own professions; but he did not hesitate to announce the judgments which the Messiah would inflict on the wicked. In threatening accents he com­pared them to trees at the root of which the axe is laid whilst the woodman adjusts his vesture and makes brief prepa­rations for the final stroke. They might trifle with his baptism, but there would be no trifling with the baptism of fire. With him chaff and wheat might gather in one pro­miscuous heap, but with the King there could be no evasion. His threshing-floor would be the scene of unmistakable work, and of severing the wheat for the barn, and the chaff for the fire.

There is nothing which the age needs more than the prophet. There is never a lack of priests. Everywhere the heart of man has created many human mediators. They develop ritual to the injury of pure and undefiled religion; they create artificial sins (as, for instance, the sin (!) of hav­ing missed a confession, or of taking food before the Com­munion) that they may become the more necessary for their removal; they offer a ceremonial and sacramental purity which is fatal to the nobler and more generous virtues. Oh, for another Savonarola, a Latimer, a Spurgeon, who with tongue of fire should show the absolute uselessness of the outward, the sacramental, and the hereditary, and insist on the living heart of religion beating deep down beneath the ribs of each child of Adam! But such a man cannot be popular. He uses words that grate on polite ears. He calls a spade a spade. There are point and power in his utterances which make them pierce to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, of the joints and marrow.

But there was another note-sweeter, softer, gentler, as the weeks went on. He did not speak so much of the unsparing Judge, axe in hand, hewing down the fruitless trees, and burning the empty chaff, but of the Lamb of God, who bears away the sin of the world. We must not judge our preachers by one discourse. To-day they may be compelled to call the Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of vipers; to-morrow they may threaten sinners with the axe; and the third day they may tell of the fan and the fire: but go again the fourth day, and you will see a new light on their faces, hear a mellow sweetness in their voices, as they point to Jesus, saying, "Behold the Lamb of God!"

Are there not some to whom this message comes as from God Himself? You have been priding yourself on your descent. You have been relying on the goodness of your parents, the immaculateness of your early life, the punctilious­ness of your attendance at religious sacraments and means of grace. But every one of us must be stripped of all these. We must stand before God apart from father or mother; we must reckon that there is infinite default in our best when weighed in heaven's balances and seen in heaven's light: we must realise that it is of no avail to cleanse the outside of the cup and platter whilst the inward part is full of lust and pride.

In other words, we must repent not only of our sins, but of our good deeds, and cling only to Jesus Christ, in whom alone we can be accepted and justified. He alone is the Lamb of God, pure and guileless. He alone bears our sins in His own body on the tree.

"Then cometh John the Baptist." It is the present tense. He is always coming. Has he come to you? The kingdom is wait­ing for you close at hand. It is near. But both King and kingdom will be veiled from you unless you first give audi­ence to this ringing, searching voice. Behold, your King is at the gates, but if you would have Him enter you must make ready. The evil things that hide under a decorous exterior must be surrendered, and the keys of Mansoul, without exception, must be placed in His hands.

But do not fear Him! He is meek and lowly in heart!

"Gentle and faithful, tyrannous and tender,

Ye that have known Him, is He sweet to know?

Softly He touches, for the reed is slender,

Wisely enkindles, for the flame is low."