III. THE TEACHING OF JOHN THE BAPTIST.
[Lincoln's Inn, 2d Sunday in Lent, February 17, 1856.]
St. John I. 29.
The next day John sees Jesus coming to him, and said, Behold the Lamb of God, which takes away the sin of the world.
John the Baptist is represented throughout this chapter as speaking of One who had been before him, though He was coming after him. This is the burden of his discourse. It has been asked by the bold critics of another country, whether such language does not presume a belief in the preexistence of our Lord, which might belong to one of his apostles, but could scarcely belong to his forerunner. English divines ordinarily reply, that the question is one which cannot be entertained. 'How can we dispute the right of the Divine Wisdom to make a special revelation of this doctrine to one person or to another?'
This may be the right method of treating such an objection; but if the remarks which I made in my two last sermons were true, we are not under any necessity of resorting to it. I endeavoured to show you that the principle which St. John asserts in the opening verses of his Gospel, was far from being characteristically a doctrine of the New Testament. It belongs to the Old. It is involved in the words, acts, lives of the Jewish Prophets. It could not indeed be enunciated by them as it is enunciated by the beloved disciple. There is a largeness in it which could not be fully realized till the barrier between Jews and Gentiles had been broken down. Still it was as a Jew — as an interpreter of the Jewish records — that the writer of the fourth Gospel spoke of the Word of God. He was not using new language, which would have startled his hearers. He was expressing, in simple and familiar language, what others of his countrymen had hidden from the vulgar under learned phrases and dark conceits. Why is it difficult to believe that, in doing so, he was recording some of the lessons which he had first received from the preacher in the wilderness? Was it strange that he, the last of the Prophets, should utter in more distinct terms that which all the Prophets before him had been imperfectly uttering? External evidence would be in favour of such a supposition. The Baptist was a contemporary of teachers who notoriously spoke of the light in men's hearts and of the Word from whom it issued. Many of his disciples became, we know, afterwards blended with their disciples. There was, however, one all-important distinction between him and them. He spoke to the hearts of the multitude, — to the publicans and the soldiers; they spoke to students. He appealed to those who were conscious of folly and sin; they spoke of the illumination which was granted to the righteous and the wise. And that is just the difference which we have recognised between the statements of the Apostle, the disciple of the Baptist, and those Alexandrian teachers whom some suppose him to have imitated. It is not only that his style is simple and childlike. Throughout he speaks of the light as making men aware of the darkness that is in them. Throughout he speaks of the light as lightening all men.
Are these reports of the Baptist inconsistent with those which we derive from the other Evangelists? Are we not told that he came to level the hills, and exalt the valleys? Are we not told that he bade his countrymen not say within themselves that they had Abraham to their father, because God was able of the stones to raise up children to Abraham? What finer commentary can we find on these announcements than the words, 'He testified of the true Light, which lighteth every man that comes into the world'?
Still the reader of St. John's Gospel will continue to ask himself, 'Is not the lesson which I am taught here, in some sense or other, a more advanced lesson than that which was imparted even by the first Evangelists, — à fortiori, than that which was imparted before the day of Pentecost, before the resurrection, the death, even the preaching, of Jesus Christ?' I think, my brethren, that there is a confusion latent in this word 'advanced' — a confusion which besets other studies as well as theological. We speak of Bacon's discovery of the true method of physical investigation, as the greatest step in advance which it was possible for the man of science to take. But in another sense that discovery involved a retrogression. The schoolman, who had proceeded with the greatest satisfaction to himself in building a tower of speculations respecting nature, is stopped in his work and bidden to look back to his foundations. Classifications and generalizations, which had appeared convenient and indispensable, are disallowed, because they hinder direct dialogue with the facts. And the laborious collector of facts, though he is commended for his diligence, is told that every one of them must be submitted to tests before we can know what it is worth. Is it not true, in this and in all similar instances, that the greatest progress consists in the assertion and elucidation of first principles; that when they are asserted and elucidated, all faithful effort is seen to have been directed to the search for them, — all unfaithful, self-seeking efforts, to the construction of systems on hypothetical sand?
Applying this remark to the case before us, I conceive we may freely say, as some of the early Fathers said, that St. John's Gospel is the most spiritual and divine of all the Gospels. And we may maintain its claim to that honour, by showing that it leads us to a grand primary truth, affecting all human beings, capable of being apprehended by those who have least of what is called culture, capable of making itself manifest to the consciences of the most guilty. Does not his Gospel, for this reason, establish the truth of the other Gospels and Epistles, which had been unfolding the ways of God to men? May it not, for the same reason, have brought a number of false gospels to the test, and have scattered a number of windy theories and popular systems, which, under philosophical or theological pretences, were separating God from His creatures? Nor can I find anything inconsistent with reason and probability — or with the doctrine of Scripture that the Spirit of God brings back to the remembrance of those whom He is teaching the lessons they received, the states of mind they passed through in days long past — in the supposition that the Apostle owed his clear perception of this universal truth, in a great measure, to the vividness with which the experiences of his youth were revived in him; the sixty or seventy wonderful years which had passed over his head since he stood by the Jordan, and saw the shaggy form and awful eye of him who first spoke to him of a kingdom of heaven, helping him to take in the meaning of the words which seized and possessed him then, though he was not able to seize and possess them.
I have been anxious to make these observations, because it seems to me that the passage of St. John's Gospel of which I am to speak to-day will be utterly obscure to us — no, that the whole Gospel will be obscure — if we forget them. St. John can in not at all separate the idea of the Baptist from that of a witness concerning the Light, a messenger to declare the divine Word that in Him all men might believe. This he considers the fundamental, radical meaning of his mission, apart from which his baptism of repentance had no sense or purpose whatever. But to identify a man as connected with this teaching — as the subject of it — this was the difficulty. To do this the Baptist needed a special, formal revelation, accompanied by an outward sign. The baptism of Jesus, and the visible token that the Spirit was given Him, are said to have been the assurance which was required. While he was without it, he was a preacher of the Word who was with God and was God. He was a preacher of a light of men. He was announcing, as the prophets of old had announced, that a day of the Lord was at hand; that there would be a manifestation of the light. Thenceforth he began to mingle his previous message with announcements concerning the Word made flesh. These announcements are not repeated as if they were parts of a continuous discourse, like his words to the crowds that had flocked to him from every part of Palestine. They come forth as if they were the effect of sudden intuitions — lightning flashes which must often have been followed by periods of dimness and darkness. John knew that a crisis was at hand which would try the hearts of all men. He knew that he was sent by God to speak to their hearts of Him, as being the same now that He had been in the days of their fathers. He knew that whatever good was awaiting his countrymen must come from a fuller revelation of God. This was the preparation, the only possible preparation in his own mind, for the recognition of Jesus as the Christ, — the only way in which he could prepare his countrymen for such a Christ.
We are all aware — we dwell upon the assertion — that the Jews were at this time expecting a Christ, but that their expectations were of a wrong kind; that they pointed to a deliverer different in most respects from the One who had been promised them. We cannot, perhaps, exaggerate this error, but we may make considerable mistakes when we try to state in what it consisted. We sometimes say that the Jews were looking for a great Prince. Undoubtedly they were. If they read the Prophets, they must have looked for a king. The other Evangelists say that Jesus proved Himself to be a King, and so fulfilled the words of the Prophets. We shall find that St John says the same. 'Yes,' we go on, 'a King in a certain sense, but not a temporal king' What! is not our Lord said to have been born in the days of Herod — to have been baptized when He was about thirty years old — to have been tempted forty days — to have kept annual feasts — to have risen the third day — to have tarried forty days among His disciples after the resurrection? All the acts which are recorded of Him in the Gospels were acts done in time. 'Yes,' we resume, 'if you define temporal in this exact manner. But the Jews thought He was to be an "earthly" king.' And were not all the powers by which He showed Himself to be a king, exercised upon earth for the sons of earth, for the removal of the plagues and diseases to which earth is liable? We make another experiment. We say, they supposed that He was to be a Jewish king. Could they suppose otherwise? Was not David to have an heir to his throne? Do not the Evangelists take pains to speak of their Master as the Son of David?
The Jews of that time cannot be fairly condemned on these grounds; and yet our conviction that they were under some grievous mistake, gains strength from all we read of them — no, from our very failures to define the quality of it. May not St. John himself explain the error which had caused him such unspeakable sorrow, better than we can? Have we not the explanation here?
The Jews looked for one who was coming to be a leader and deliverer. He might come with the manifest tokens of royalty. He might come as one of the old prophets had come. It was not impossible that he might be born in some humble station, for David had been a shepherd. It was probable that he would be born in a lowly village, for Bethlehem was associated with the name of David. He might be this John, for his coarse food and raiment certainly did not show him not to be an Elijah, or an Isaiah, or a Daniel. And John had given this proof of power, that he was drawing multitudes to hear discourses that had no apparent charm — that were stern and terrible. It was not at all impossible, no, it might be presumed, that when the Christ came, He would introduce some new ordinance, or give a new force to one already in use. The river of Jordan had a sacred historical importance; to wash men in that might denote that he was preparing Israelites for conquests like those of Joshua. No doubt, other signs might be added to this in due time; there would probably be strange appearances in the heavens, — some of the tokens which had accompanied the rare visits of angels that are recorded in the Old Testament. For who could tell whether the Christ might not be an angel, the visitant from another region? Who could tell whether He might not be an old seer returning to the earth again? There were all these possibilities. One was stronger in this mind, and one in that. Which was the truest, the scribes hoped in due time to discover, by studying the letter of the divine oracles, and ascertaining what particulars of time and place were indicated in them as necessary conditions of the deliverer.
What was there faulty in such speculations? What was there to complain of in the test which was applied to ascertain their worth? St. John suggests this answer to us. They were expecting one that should come after all prophets, not one that had been before all. They were looking for a son of David, a prophet, an angel; they were not looking for One who had been with God, and was God. They were looking for one whom they should recognise with their eyes; they were not looking for One whose light had been always shining in their hearts. They were looking for a king who should reign over men; they did not think that that King must be One who had from the beginning been the Light of men. They thought of one who should be born into the world; they did not think that He who was to be born into the world was One who was in the world, and by whom the world was made, though the world knew Him not.
It was precisely to bring this information, in the only way in which it could be brought to any human being, that we are told the man John was sent from God. And because the whole mind of the Prophet was possessed with this conviction, he was able to receive the communication which told him that a Man, without any signs of royalty, without any signs of prophetical dignity, One who had apparently been born and brought up in Galilee, One who had given no proof that He possessed any power of commanding the services of multitudes or of individuals, — was that Christ in whom all the characteristics of King and Prophet were to meet. This Man, he says, this carpenter's son, was He of whom I spoke, 'He that comes after me is preferred before me; for He was before me.' Possibly a better translation of the last clause might be found, but the one we have is good enough; it conveys the sense of the original, though it be a little diluted. The next verse, as I said last Sunday, is naturally connected with this. Both, I believe, must be taken as part of John's witness. Here is that divine Word of God, out of whom all grace has issued. Each right and true man has had some grace, denoting him to be of divine origin. In Him dwelt that fulness of grace and glory, of which these were the scattered rays. Then the Evangelist comments upon this witness, and connects it with what he had said in the fifteenth verse. 'For the law was given through Moses, but the grace and the truth became through Jesus Christ.' Outward law, literal commands, tables of stone, had been given through a mere man, a mere servant or messenger. But all the grace and the truth, which were the essence of the law, which could not be expressed in letters, but only in the lives and acts of human beings, — these became parts of any man's character through Jesus Christ. For these belonged to the nature of God Himself, — these constituted His being. In Himself they could not be seen: 'No man has seen God at any time; the only-begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father.' He it is who in all ages has brought forth the divine perfection, in distinct qualities, and has exhibited them to men, and in men.
So far we have the testimony of John, originally addressed, it would appear, to his own disciples — now illustrated and expounded by the matured wisdom of one of them. Next we have the record of John, 'when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask Him, Who are you?' They had a right to know. A new pretender had started up. Slight as his credentials seemed to be, the people were crowding about him. He was baptizing, not Gentiles, but Jews; he was treating the most religious and exalted as if they were impure, as if they needed the same cleansing as those needed who had not been born in the covenant. What did it all mean? The messengers must get some clear distinct satisfaction on this point before they returned to their masters. 'And he confessed, and denied not, but confessed, I am not the Christ.' The questioners must have been surprised. If he did not actually claim a title which so many had claimed, they might have expected a little hesitation. He might have left the point open; he might have allowed his scholars to assert the dignity for him. There was another possibility. Malachi had said that an Elijah would come. John certainly had few marks of grandeur about him; but he dwelt in a desert; he did not fear the face of kings; he could have denounced Ahab and Jezebel, as he afterwards denounced Herod and Herodias. He evidently understood the question literally, for the messengers intended it literally. They supposed that Elijah had been carried away into some invisible region, and that from from there he himself would descend. Seeing, therefore, that John was not one who trafficked with words in a double sense, or who would convey a falsehood in the terms of truth, he answered to this demand also, 'I am not.' But Isaiah, Jeremiah, all the Jewish seers, had not only spoken of a great Conqueror, — they had spoken also of a Sufferer. A few might try to identify the characters. The prevailing opinion among the Jews was of course then, as it is now, that they were separated, — one description denoted a King, the other a Prophet. If he was not a King, was he that Prophet? And again he answered, 'No.'
The messengers have exhausted their guesses; they begin to be provoked. It will not do to go back merely with a set of negatives. 'Then said they, Who are you? that we may give an answer to them that sent us: What say you of yourself? He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias.' You see how carefully he associates his message with that of the old prophets; how confident he is that he is preparing a way just as they were; how sure he is that it is the way of the Lord — that wonderful road between the unseen Being and the heart of His creatures, of which they had one and all spoken. So far he was using language which belongs to every psalmist and every prophet. In adopting the words in the 40th chapter of Isaiah, as the description of his calling and his work, he proved more distinctly that he was 'sent to bear witness of the Light, that all men through Him might believe.' For the burden of that chapter is, that Jerusalem should lift up her voice, and say to the cities of Judah, 'Behold your God;' and it is the beginning of a series of prophetical inspirations, in which the Jew is represented as holding up the true image of God to all nations, that the images which they had made of Him might be confounded. John was preparing the way, then, for a declaration or manifestation of God; he was clearing away the thorns and briers which blocked up the path between the Word of God and the conscience of man.
St. John significantly intimates how little language of this kind could be intelligible to the Jewish emissaries, for he adds, 'They that were sent were of the Pharisees.' Very characteristically they relieved themselves of the embarrassment which the Scripture always caused them, when it could not be measured by lines and rules, when it appealed to the hearts of living men, by asking, 'Why baptizest you, then, if you are not the Christ, neither Elias, neither that Prophet?' They had an excuse for urging that demand. It was an audacious thing for a man to practise such a rite, to press it upon all, to speak of it as a baptism for repentance and the sending away of sins, if he had not some divine authority for what he was doing. Yet he had produced none. And now he refused all the titles which would seem to have been the warrants for such an innovation. Nor does he tell the Pharisees when or how he received his commission. His answer is, 'I baptize with water: but in the midst of you there stands One whom you know not; He it is who, coming after me, was preferred before me, whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy that I should unloose.' More is not said here. The messengers are not told what this Person who is in the midst of them would do, which John could not do; that announcement is reserved for another occasion. The thought which he still dwells upon is, that there is a mysterious Being in the midst of them, their Lord and his; One who has power to command, One whom he is bound to obey. By speaking of the latchet of the sandal, he clearly intimates that this Person is among them in a visible form. But neither in that form, nor in His own proper nature, do they know Him. They would know Him as little if they were told His name, if He stood out before them, even if He exhibited His power to them, as they did then. I am warranted in believing that this is the sense of the words; for we shall find how continually our Lord resorts to the same phrase in His conversations with the Jews, and assures them that though they saw Him, they knew Him not.
We have now reached the words of the text. They are carefully separated by the Evangelist from the discourse with the Pharisees. 'These things,' he says, 'were done, in Bethabara, beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing. The next day John sees Jesus coming to him, and said, Behold the Lamb of God, which takes away the sin of the world.' But though the sentence formed no part of that discourse, it is immediately joined to the words which have recurred so often: 'This is He of whom I said, After me comes a Man which is preferred before me; for He was before me.'
It is evident, then, I think, that we shall never enter into the force of this wonderful sentence, which has exercised more power over eighteen centuries, than perhaps any which was ever spoken or written, if we take it apart from the context of John the Baptist's life and of his preaching. All have felt that the preacher must have meant those to behold the Taker-away of sin, who had come confessing their sins, and to whom he had spoken of the remission of sins; that upon others the words must have fallen as dull, dead words, in which they had no interest. Is it not equally true that the words, 'sin of the world,' must have been connected by them with what they had heard of One who was in the world, and whom the world knew not? and with what they had heard of a light which lightens every man who came into the world, and of a darkness that had not comprehended it? I do not mean that this discovery to each man of his own darkness, this perception of a light near him which he had resisted, this conviction in each man that his sin was the sin of the world, were of themselves sufficient to unfold the infinite mystery which lay in the Baptist's words. I say of them, what I said of the verse, 'The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, as of the only-begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth;' all this Gospel is written to expound them. We must decipher them by degrees, as the Apostle and Evangelist himself deciphered them; he will lead us along with him, if we are content to follow. And do not let us be chary and timid in the demands we make upon him. Let us endure no half explanations that rob us of any portion of the meaning which must be hid in such an utterance. Let us have no imperfect substitute for any syllable of it. For the sake of our own inmost being, for the sake of our brethren, we want the whole meaning in its fullest strength. If we are told that there is One who takes away sin, we must not be content that He should be shown to take away some accident or consequence of sin. If He is said to take away the sin of the world, we must not be told that the world is a metaphor for a few individuals. We must ask why He who takes away sin is called a Lamb, — why he is called the Lamb of God? If a lamb is associated in our minds with innocence and purity, we must learn how that idea is fulfilled in this Lamb. If it was connected in the mind of every Jew with the sacrifice of the Paschal feast, we must ask how this Lamb includes whatever is expressed in that sacrifice and that feast? I do not anticipate St. John's answers to these demands; but as he has himself excited them, I am sure he will prove himself to be an honest and a God-inspired man, by telling us how they were satisfied for him, how they may be for us.
One thing more he must tell us also, and may God open our hearts to receive his instruction! John the Baptist says, that he had come baptizing with water, in order that He might be manifested to Israel who would baptize with the Spirit. Here is evidently the turning-point of the two dispensations; here the teaching of John melts away into the teaching of Jesus; here the witness of the servant is changed for the witness of the Son. Seeing, then, that St. John takes so much pains to mark this transition; seeing that the office of Christ, as the Baptizer with the Spirit, is evidently that which he will especially dwell upon in the after portions of his Gospel, — let us not doubt, but earnestly believe, that what we have heard respecting the Word will be a preparation for this more especially Christian lore, provided we have not only heard with our outward ear, but have suffered the light which is shining now, as it shone of old, to penetrate our consciences and hearts, and to turn them from their own darkness to the God who dwells in perfect light, in whom is no darkness at all.
From the Gospel of St. John by FREDERICK DENISON MAURICE, M.A, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Combridge. Published by MACMILLAN AND CO in 1882; Produced by Charlene Taylor, Julia Neufeld and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
Reach for the Calling Creator
Gospel of St. John - F.D. Maurice
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your calling be the best.