"But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" - Matthew 3:7.
It seems that the Baptist's ministry had been attended with almost incredible success, as if the population of the country had been roused in mass by the tidings of his doctrine. "Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan, and were baptized by him in Jordan, confessing their sins."
The success of his ministry was tested by the numbers that he baptized. Not so a modern ministry. Ministerial success is not shown now by the numbers who listen. Not mere impression, but altered character, marks success. Not by startling nor by electrifying congregations, but by turning men from darkness unto light, from the power of Satan unto God, is the work done. With John, however, it was different. He was on earth to do a special work - the work of the axe, not the trowel; to throw down, not to build; to startle, not to instruct; and therefore his baptism was simply symbolized by water, the washing away of the past: whereas that of Christ was symbolized by fire, the touching of the life and heart with the living flame of a heavenlier life. Whoever, therefore, came to John for baptism, possessed conviction of the truth of that which John taught, and thereby so far tested the fidelity and success of his ministry.
Bearing, then, in mind that coming to John's baptism was the seal of his success, and that his baptism contained, in symbolical form, the whole substance of his teaching, these are the two topics of the text:
I. The meaning wrapped up in John's message.
II. The Baptist's astonishment at his own success.
I. The meaning of John's message. His baptism implied to those who came to put themselves under its protection that they were in danger, for it was connected with the warning, "Flee from the wrath to come!"
Future retribution has become to us a kind of figment. Hell is in the world of shadows. The tone in which educated men speak of it still, is often only that good-humored condescension which makes allowance for childish superstition.
Part of this incredulity arises from the confessedly symbolical intimations of Scripture on the subject. We read of the fire and the worm - of spirits being salted with fire - of a lake of fire and brimstone. All this tells solely of physical suffering. And accordingly, for centuries this was the predominant conception of Christendom on the subject. Scarcely any other element was admitted. Whoever has seen those paintings on which the master-spirits in Art have thrown down the conceptions of their age, will remember that hideous demons, distorted countenances, and waves of flame represent the whole idea. And in that immortal work in which he who sang of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven has embodied the belief of his day, still the same fact prevails. You read of the victims of unchaste life hurried on the dark whirlwind forever; of the heretics in their coffins of intense fire, and of the guilty spirits who are plunged deep down in "thick-ribbed ice." But in those harrowing pictures which his genius has painted with such vividness, there is not one idea of mental suffering embodied. It is all bodily-awful, intolerable torture. Now all this we believe no longer. The circles of hell and the mountain of purgatory are as fabulous to us as the Tartarus of the heathens. Singular that in an age in which the chief aim of science appears to be to get rid of physical pain and discomfort, as if these were the worst evils conceivable, the idea of a bodily hell should be just the one at which we have learnt to smile. But with the form, we have also dispossessed ourselves of belief in the reality of retribution at all.
Now Scripture language is symbolical. There is no salt, no worm, no fire to torture. I say not that a diseased soul may not form for itself a tenement hereafter, as here, peculiarly fitted to be the avenue of suffering; but unquestionably we can not build upon these expressions a material hell.
Hell is the infinite terror of the soul, whatever that may be. To one man it is pain. Rid him of that, he can bear all degradation. To another it is public shame. Save him from that, and he will creep and crawl before you to submit to any reptile meanness. "Honor me now, I pray thee, before the people," cries Saul, till Samuel turns from the abject thing in scorn. To others, the infinite terror is that compared with which all these would be a bed of roses. It is the hell of having done wrong - the hell of having had a spirit from God, pure, with high aspirations, and to be conscious of having dulled its delicacy and degraded its desires - the hell of having quenched a light brighter than the sun's - of having done to another an injury that through time and through eternity never can be undone - infinite, maddening remorse - the hell of knowing that every chance of excellence, and every opportunity of good, has been lost forever. This is the infinite terror; this is wrath to come.
You doubt that? Have you ever marked that striking fact, the connection of the successive stages of the soul? How sin can change the countenance, undermine the health, produce restlessness? Think you the grave will end all that - that by some magic change the moral being shall be buried there, and the soul rise again so changed in every feeling that the very identity of being would be lost, and it would amount to the creation of a new soul? Say you that God is love? Oh, but look round this world. The aspect of things is stern - very stern. If they be ruled by love, it is a love which does not shrink from human agony. There is a law of infinite mercy here, but there is a raw of boundless rigor too. Sin, and you will suffer - that law is not reversed. The young, and the gentle, and the tender, are inexorably subjected to it. We would shield them if we could, but there is that which says they shall not be shielded. They shall weep and fade, and taste of mortal anguish, even as others. Carry that out into the next world, and you have "wrath to come."
John's baptism, besides, implied the importance of confession. "They were baptized, . . . . confessing their sins." On the eve of a promised new life, they were required to acknowledge the iniquity of their past life. In the cure of our spiritual maladies there is a wondrous efficacy, to use a homely phrase, in making a "clean breast." There is something strengthening, something soothing, and at the same time something humbling, in acknowledging that we have done wrong. There is a pride in us which can not bear pity. There is a diseased sensitiveness which shrinks from the smart of acknowledgment; and yet that smart must be borne before we can be truly soothed. When was it that the younger son in the parable received the ring, and the robe, and the banquet, which represent the rapture of the sense of being forgiven? When he had fortitude enough to go back, mile by mile, step by step, every inch of the way he had gone wrong, had borne unflinchingly the sneer of his father's domestics, and, worse than all, the sarcasms of his immaculate brother, and manfully said out, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee. "When was it that the publican went down justified to his house - when he said, even before a supercilious Pharisee, "God be merciful to me a sinner?" When did the royal delinquent, hear the words, "The Lord hath also put away thy sin?" When he gave the sacrifice of his lips - "I have sinned before the Lord." And when did the Church of Ephesus rise into the brightest model of a perfect church that has yet been exhibited on earth? After her converts had publicly come forward, burnt those manuscripts which were called "Ephesian letters" to the value of 50,000 pieces of silver, "confessed and showed their deeds."
There is a profound truth in the popular anxiety that a murderer should confess before he dies. It is an instinctive feeling that a true death is better than a false life - that to die with unacknowledged guilt is a kind of lie. To acknowledge his sin is to put it from him - to abjure it - to refuse to acknowledge it as part of himself - to separate it from him to say, I will keep it as mine no more: then it is gone. Who here has a secret of guilt lying like lead upon his heart? As he values serenity of soul, let that secret be made known. And if there be one to-day who is impressed or touched by all this, let him beware bow he procrastinates that which was done when John baptized. The iron that once was cooled may never be warmed again - the heart that once had its flood-gates open, and has delayed to pour out the stagnation of its wretchedness, may be closed forever.
Once more, John's baptism implied the necessity of a renewal of heart. We lose part of the significance of that ceremony from its transplantation away from a climate in which it was natural and appropriate.
Ablution in the East is almost a religious duty: the dust and beat weigh upon the spirits and heart like a load; the removal is refreshment and happiness. And it was impossible to see that significant act - in which the convert went down into the water, travel-worn and soiled with dust, disappeared for one moment, and then emerged pure and fresh without feeling that the symbol answered to, and interpreted a strong craving of the human heart. It is the desire to wash away that which is past and evil. We would fain go to another country and begin life afresh. We look upon the grave almost with complacency, from the fancy that there we shall lie down to sleep and wake fresh and new. It was this same longing that expressed itself in heathenism by the fabled river of forgetfulness, of which the dead must drink before they can enter into rest.
Now to that craving John gave reality and meaning when he said, "Behold the Lamb of God!" For else that craving is but a sick fond wish. Had John merely said, "Flee from the wrath to come!" he would have filled man's life with the terrors of anticipated hell. Had he only said, "My baptism implies that ye must be pure," he would have crushed men's hearts with the feeling of impossibility; for excellence without Christ is but a dream. He gave meaning and promise to all when he said, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world."
Sin-laden and guilty men - the end of all the Christian ministry is to say that out with power, "Behold the Lamb of God!" Divine life and death! to have had one glimpse of which, with its ennobling impulses, it were worth while to have endured a life of suffering. When we believe that the sacrifice of that Lamb meant love to us, our hearts are lightened of their load: the past becomes as nothing, and life begins afresh. Christ is the river of forgetfulness in which bygone guilt is overwhelmed.
II. The Baptist's astonishment at his own success. It was a singular scene which was exhibited in those days on the banks of Jordan. There was a crowd of human beings, each having a history of his own - men who have long mouldered in earth's dust, but who were living then in fresh and vigorous existence. Think of it. Busy life was moving there - beings who had their hopes and fears about time and eternity, to whom life was dear as it is to us at this day. They had come to be cured of that worst of human maladies, the aching of a hollow heart; and a single mortified man was bending over them, whose countenance bore all that peculiar aspect of saintliness which comes from spare diet and austere habits, and all that unruffled composure which comes from lonely communings with God: - a solitary man, who had led a hermit's life, but was possessed of rare sagacity in worldly matters; - for, hermit as he was, John took no half-views of men and things: there was nothing morbid in his view of life; there was sound common sense in the advice he gave the different classes which came to him. "Repent," with him, did not mean, Come with me into the wilderness to live away from the world, but it meant this: Go back to the world, and live above it, each doing his work in an unworldly spirit. It was a strange spectacle, men of the world coming with implicit reverence to learn the duties of active life from a man whose world was the desert, and who knew nothing of active life except by hearsay.
Now what was the secret of this power by which he chained the hearts of men as by a spell?
One point in the secret of this success was a thing which we see every day. Men of thought and quiet contemplation exercise a wonderful influence over men of action. We admire that which we are not ourselves. The man of business owns the control of the man of religious thoughtfulness. Like coalesces in this world with unlike. The strong and the weak, the contemplative and the active soldiers, bind themselves together. They are necessary for each other. The active soldiers and the scheming publicans came to the lonely, ascetic John to hear something of that still, inner life, of which their own career could tell them nothing.
A second cause of this success appears to have been that it was a ministry of terror. Fear has a peculiar fascination. As children love the tale of the supernatural which yet makes them shudder, so do men, as it would seem, find a delight in the pictures of eternal woe which terrify them - partly from the pleasure which there is in vivid emotions, and partly, perhaps, from a kind of feeling of expiation in the horror which is experienced. You could not go among the dullest set of rustics and preach graphically and terribly of hell-fire without insuring a large audience. The preaching of John in this respect differed from the tone of Christ's. Christ taught much that God is love. He spoke a great deal of the Father which is in heaven. He instructed in those parables which required thoughtful attention, exercise of mind, and a gently sensitive conscience. He spoke didactic, calm discourses, very engaging, but with little excitement in them: such discourses as the Sermon on the Mount, respecting goodness, purity, duties; which assuredly, if any one were to venture so to speak before a modern congregation, would be stigmatized as a moral essay. Accordingly His success was much less marked than that of John's. No crowds were baptized as His followers: one hundred and twenty, in an upper chamber, appear to have been the fruits of His lifework. To teach so, is assuredly not the way to make strong but it is the way to work deeply, gloriously - for eternity. How many of John's terrified Pharisees and Sadducees, suppose we, retained the impression six months?
What is your religion? Excitability, romance, impression, fear? Remember, excitement has its uses, impressions has its value. John, in all circumstances of his appearance and style of teaching, impressed by excitement. Excitement, warmed feelings, make the first actings of religious life and the breaking of inveterate habits easier. But excitement and impression are not religion. Neither can you trust to the alarm produced by the thought of eternal retribution. Ye that have been impressed, beware how you let those impressions die away. Die they will, and must: we can not live in excitement forever; but beware of their leaving behind them nothing except a languid, jaded heart. If God ever gave you the excitements of religion, breaking in upon your monotony, as John's teaching broke in upon that of Jerusalem, take care. There is no restoring of elasticity to the spring that has been overbent. Let impression pass on at once to acting.
We have another cause to assign for John's success. Men felt that he was real. Reality is the secret of all success. Religion in Jerusalem had long become a thing of forms. Man had settled into a routine of externals, as if all religion centred in these. Decencies and proprieties formed the substance of human life. And here was a man in God's world once more who felt that religion is an everlasting reality. Here was a man once more to tell the world that life is sliding into the abyss - that all we see is but a shadow - that the invisible Life within is the only real life. Here was a man who could feel the splendors of God shining into his soul in the desert without the aid of forms. His locust-food, his hair-garment, his indifference to earthly comforts, spoke out once more that one at least could make it a conviction to live and die upon, that man does not live on bread alone, but on the Living Word which proceedeth out of the mouth of God. And when that crowd dispersed at sunset, and John was left alone in the twilight, with the infinite of darkness deepening round him, and the roll of Jordan by his side, reflecting the chaste, clear stars, there was something there higher than Pharisaic forms to speak to him: there was heaven and eternity to force him to be real. This life was swiftly passing. What is it to a man living like John but a show and a dream? He was homeless upon earth. Well, but beyond - beyond - in the blue eternities above, there was the prophet's home. He had cut himself off from the solaces of life. He was to make an enemy of the man of honor, Herod. He had made an enemy of the man of religion, the Pharisee. But he was passing into that country where it matters little whether a man has been clothed in finest linen or in coarsest camel's hair: that still country, where the strugglestorm of life is over, and such as John find their rest at last in the home of God, which is reserved for the true and brave. If perpetual familiarity with such thoughts as these can not make a man real, there is nothing in this world that can.
And now look at this man. so disciplined. Life to John was a reality. The citizens of Jerusalem could not go to him, as they might have gone to the schools of their rabbis, for learned subtleties, or to the groves of Athenian literature for melting imagery. Speech falls from him sharp-rugged-cutting: - a word, and no more. "Repent!" - "wrath to come." "The axe is laid at the root of the trees." "Fruitless trees will be cast into the fire." He spoke as men speak when they are in earnest, simply and abruptly, as if the graces of oratory were out of place. And then, that life of his! The world could understand it. There was written on it, in letters that needed no magnifying-glass to read, "Not of this world."
It is, after all, this which tells - the reality of unworldliness. The world is looking on to see what religious people mean. It has a most profound contempt for unreality. Such a man as John comes before them. Well, we understand that: - we do not like him: get him out of the way, and kill him if he interferes with us - but it is genuine. They then turn and see other men drawing ingenious distinctions between one kind of amusement and another - indulging themselves on the sabbath-day and condemning others who do similar things, and calling that unworldliness. They see that a religious man has a shrewd eye to his interests - is quick at making a bargain - captivated by show and ostentation - affects titled society. The world is very keen-sighted: it looks through the excitement of your religious meetings, quietly watches the rest of your scandal, scans your consciousness, and the question which the world keeps putting pertinaciously is, Are these men in earnest? Is it any marvel if Christian unreality is the subject of scoffs and bitter irony?
Let men see that you are real - inconsistent, it may be, sinful: oh, full of sin, impetuous, hasty, perhaps stern - John was. But compel them to feel that you are in earnest. This is the secret of influence.
So much, then, for the causes of success. Now let us analyze that success a little more closely, by considering the classes of men on whom that influence told.
First of all, we read of soldiers, publicans, and the poor people, coming to John for advice, and with the acknowledgment of guilt, and we do not read that their arrival excited the smallest emotion of astonishment in John's bosom. The wonder was not there. No wonder that the poor, whose lot in this world is hard, should look wistfully for another. No wonder that soldiers, with their prompt habits of obedience and their perpetual opportunities of self devotion, should recognize with reverence the type of heroic life which John presented. No wonder that the guilty publicans should come for purification of heart. For is it not true that the world's outcasts may be led by their very sin to Christ? It is no wonder to see a saddened sinner seeking in the disappointment and weariness of solitary age that which he rejected in the heat of youth. Why even the world is not astonished when it sees the sinner become the saint. Of course, the world has its own sarcastic account to give. Dissipation leads to weariness, and weariness to satiety, and satiety to devotion, and so your great sinner becomes a great saint, and serves God when all his emotions are exhausted. Be it so. He who knew our nature well, knew that marvellous revolutions go on in the soul of a man whom the world counts lost. In our wildest wanderings there is sometimes a love, strong as a father's, tender as a mother's, watching over us, and bringing back the erring child again. Know you not the law of Nature? Have you never seen how out of chaos and ferment Nature brings order again - life out of death, beauty out of corruption? Such, gainsay it who will, often is the history of the rise of saintliness and purity out of a disappointed, bruised, and penitent spirit. When the life-hopes have become a wreck - when the cravings of the heart for keen excitement have been ministered to so abundantly as to leave nothing but loathing and self-reproach behind - when innocence of heart is gone - yes, even then - scoff who will - the voice of Him is heard, who so dearly purchased the right to say it: "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."
John was not surprised that such came to him, owning the power of life-giving truth.
But among those who came, there were two classes who did move him to marvel. The first was the moral, self-satisfied formalist. The second was the calm, metaphysical, reasoning infidel. When he saw the Pharisees and Sadducees coming, he said: "Who hath warned you?" Now who were these men?
The Pharisees were men who rested satisfied with the outward. The form of religion, which varies in all ages, that they wanted to stereotype. The inner heart of religion - the unchangeable - justice, mercy, truth - that they could not feel They had got their two schools of orthodoxy - the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel; and, under the orthodoxy of these popular idols of the day, they were content to lose their own power of independent thought: souls that had shrunk away from all goodness and nobleness, and withered into the mummy of a soul. They could jangle about the breadth of a phylactery; they could discuss, as if it were a matter of life and death, ecclesiastical questions about tithe; they could decide to a furlong the length of journey allowable on the sabbath-day; but they could not look with mercy upon a broken heart pouring itself out to God in His temple, nor suffer a hungry man to rub an ear of corn on the Sabbath, nor cover the shame of a tempted sister or an erring brother. Men without souls, from whose narrow hearts the grandeur of everlasting truth was shut out.
There was another class in Israel as different from the Pharisees as man can be from man. The Sadducees could not be satisfied with the creed of Pharisaism, and had begun to cross-examine its pretensions. They felt that the thing which stood before them there, challenging the exclusive name of religion, with its washing of cups, its fastings, its parchment texts, this had nothing in it of the Eternal and the Infinite. This comes not from the Almighty God, and so from doubt they passed on to denial. The usual order had taken place. The reaction from superstition is infidelity. The reaction from ultra-strictness is laxity. The reaction from Pharisaism was the Sadducee. And the Sadducee, with a dreadful daring, had had the firmness to say: " Well then, there is no life to come. That is settled. I have looked into the abyss without trembling. There is no phantom there. There is neither angel, spirit, nor life to come. And this glorious thing, man, with his deep thoughts, and his great, unsatisfied heart, his sorrows and his loves, godlike and immortal as he seems, is but dust animated for a time, passing into the nothingness out of which he came." That cold and hopeless creed was the creed of Sadduceeism. Human souls were trying to live on that, and find it enough.
And the strange thing was that these men, so positive in their creed, so distinct in their denial, so intolerant of the very name of future existence, crowded to John to make those confessions, and promise that new life, which were meet for men who desired to flee from the wrath to come. Wrath to come! What had the infidel to do with that? Repentance unto life! Why should the denier of life listen to that? Fruits meet for repentance! What had the formalist to do with that rebuke, whose life was already all that could be needed? "0 generation of vipers," said the prophet, in astonishment, "who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"
I deduce, from those facts which astonished John, two truths. Formalism, even morality, will not satisfy the conscience of man. Infidelity will not give rest to his troubled spirit. It is a pregnant lesson, if we will only read it thoughtfully' to consider those two classes going up for baptism. That heart of man which the moralist tells us is so pure and excellent, the light of day has shone into it, and behold, in the moralist's self, it is not pure, but polluted and miserable: else, what has that Pharisee to do with the symbol of new life which he has gone to John to use? That clear, unbiased intellect with which the skeptic reached his conclusions, behold it is not clear nor unbiased! It has been warped by an evil life. His heart is restless, and dark, and desolate; else, why is that Sadducee trembling on Jordan's brink? There is a something which they want, both Pharisee and Sadducee, and they come to see if baptism will give it them. Strangely moved indeed must those men have been - ay, shaken to the inmost soul - before they could so contradict their own profession as to acknowledge that there was a hollowness in their hearts. We almost fancy we can stand at the water's edge and hear the confession which was wrung from their lips, hot-burning and choked with sobs, during the single hour in which reality had forced itself upon their souls: - "It is a lie! - we are not happy - we are miserable - Prophet of the Invisible! what hast thou got to tell us of that awful other world?"
For when man comes to front the everlasting God, and look the splendor of His judgments in the face, personal integrity, the dream of spotlessness and innocence, vanish into thin air: your decencies, and your church-goings, and your regularities, and your attachment to a correct school and party, your gospel formulas of sound doctrine - what is all that, in front of the blaze of the wrath to come?
And skepticism too, how philosophical and manly soever it may appear, will it rock the conscience with an everlasting lullaby? Will it make, with all its reasonings, the tooth of the worm less sharp, and the fire less fierce that smoulders inwardly? Let but the plain, true man speak. We ask from him no rhetoric. We require no eloquence. Let him but say, in his earnestness, Repent - or - Wrath to come, and then what has infidelity to fall back upon?
There is rest in this world nowhere except in Christ the manifested love of God. Trust in excellence, and the better you become, the keener is the feeling of deficiency. Wrap up all in doubt, and there is a stern voice that will thunder at last out of the wilderness upon your dream.
A heart, renewed - a loving-heart - a penitent and humble heart - a heart broken and contrite, purified by love - that and only that is the rest of man. Spotlessness may do for angels, repentance unto life is the highest that belongs to man.