By J.R. Miller
The time of John's coming was not accidental. It was "In those days,"--that is, when Jesus was still living in Nazareth. Jesus was now about to begin His public ministry and John was ready to go before Him to prepare the way for Him. Every man is made for his own time and work. John would not have fit in at any other date in the world's history.
John is not a very attractive person to our modern Christian eyes. He appears harsh, rugged and stern, and we think of gentleness and kindliness as ideal traits in a beautiful life. But there is need for stern, rugged men in Christ's kingdom--as well as for kindly, tender-hearted men. The storm has its ministry as well as the sunshine; winter its mission as well as summer; John the Baptist his work--as well as John the beloved disciple.
John came "a man, sent from God," a man with a message. He preached in the wilderness--not in the temple courts, nor in the synagogues, but away from the common haunts of men--and the people flocked to hear him. The theme of John's preaching was in one word, "Repent!" This is not the gospel, but it is a call which goes before the gospel. We must repent before we can receive forgiveness. We are in danger of making religion too easy a matter, and of being altogether too patient and tolerant with ourselves. Christ does not come to an unrepentant heart. We must make sure, too that we do thorough work in our repenting. Repentance is not merely a little twinge of remorse, over something wrong. It is not simply a burst of tears, at the recollection of some wickedness. Nor is it shame in being caught in some vile sin, impurity, or dishonesty. Confess and turn from your sins, is the meaning of the call. Repentance is the revolution of the whole life. Sins wept over--must be forsaken and given up. Repentance is a change of heart, a turning the face the other way. It is well for us to make diligent quest and be sure that we abandon the wrongdoing we deplore, that we quit the course we regret, that we turn away from the sin we confess. He who bewails a sin and confesses it, secretly intending to return to it again--has no good ground to hope that he is forgiven.
John declared that "The kingdom of heaven was at hand." What did he mean? He did not mean heaven, but a life on the earth in which heaven's kingdom ruled. The preacher meant that the King had come and was about to declare Himself. They were to repent to be ready to receive Him. When we pray, "May Your kingdom come," we ask that heaven's rule and heaven's life may come into our hearts, our homes, our lives, and our community.
John was not as anxious to have his name emblazoned before men as some people are. He was spoken of and speaks of himself as "the voice of one crying in the wilderness." The bible does not strive to attach men's names to every little piece of work they do. It matters little whether we are mentioned or not, in connection with the things we do for the Master. It is just as well to be an anonymous "voice," speaking well for Christ, as to be known as some famous 'reverend'. The Christian worker who always strives to keep his name before people, lacks somewhat at least of the mind that was in Christ.
Part of John's commission, was to make straight paths for Christ's feet, paths to reach men's homes and hearts. He will never go in any crooked paths, and if we wish Him to walk with us--we must see that the paths are straight. All sin's ways are crooked. That is what iniquity means, inequities, and unequal ways. The only straight ways are those which run along the lines of God's commandments. The great railroads are continually getting the curves out of their tracks, to make them straight, that trains may run more rapidly. They spend millions in straightening their tracks. Are there any crooked ways in our lives? If so, they should the made straight, that the feet of Christ may run easily and swiftly in them.
John was a sensationalist. He did not wear the dress of other men. He was like Elijah in his garb. The old prophet was girt and with a belt of leather; the new prophet, too, had his clothing of camel's hair and wore a leather belt. His food was that of the very poor--locusts, roasted, boiled or baked--and wild honey. His poverty was not affected, but was real--a symbol of his sincere unworldliness. He was sent from God, God's messenger, not man's.
John did not spare the people to whom he preached. Among his hearers were the great men of the nation, but as he looked into their faces, he knew that their hearts were full of sin--and he called upon them to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance. They must prove by putting away their sins, that their confession was genuine. It will not be enough to tell people we are Christians--the will wait to see the evidence of it in our lives. If a man, hitherto living an evil life, unites with the church on Sunday, and then goes back Monday morning to his worldly ways, will his neighbors credit his Sunday's profession? The heart is the important member in all spiritual life, but the heart makes the life; and if the life is evil--the heart has not been changed. The way to prove that we have really repented--is really to repent, and then the fact will speak for itself.
Throngs flocked to hear the great preacher of the wilderness, "Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region round about the Jordan." Confession of sin was the gate of admission to baptism. Baptism meant cleanness--its necessity implied impurity, but the afterlife was white.
But John saw some coming for baptism, whose sincerity he had reason to doubt. Some others of them thought they could get into the kingdom of heaven on their ancestry. They belonged to the family of Abraham, and thought this was sufficient. But John assured them that they must have more than good ancestry to commend them. God, he told them, could not be mocked. The ax was lying at the root of the trees to cut down every one on which no fruit was found. The picture is very striking. An ax leaning against a tree implies warning and also patience--delay to see if the tree will not prove fruitful. But the delay is not to be forever. The ax at the tree's root suggests, also, thorough work--not pruning, merely, to make the tree more fruitful--the time for that is past--but judgment. We are the trees. If we are fruitless and useless, not living up to our privileges and opportunities, not filling well our place in the world, the ax is lying beside us, warning us that only God's patience spares us--and the time for cutting down will soon be at hand!
The humility of John appears in all the story of his life. He claimed no greatness. The coming of throngs to his preaching did not turn his head. He knew the secondary importance of his part in the work--he baptized only with water, and water could cleanse only the outside. The real work would be done by one who could baptize the heart. Washing the body is a good thing, but it does not make one morally better, does not improve one's character. The change which will make a life like Christ's--must take place in the heart, and can be produced only by the Spirit. Water baptism is right as an ordinance and as an emblem of the inner cleansing; but if we depend upon it for salvation, without submitting ourselves to the Divine Spirit, we shall find our trust in vain!
John foretold the work of the Messiah as one of separation. He would gather the wheat into his garner--and he would burn the chaff up with unquenchable fire! There is a great difference between wheat and chaff. Wheat has life in it. Wheat grains drop into the earth, grow, and yield a harvest. Wheat is food; it makes bread and satisfies hunger. Wheat is valuable; it is highly prized in the market. But chaff has no life in it; it does not grow, and only rots in the ground. It is not food; it satisfies no hunger. It is of no value; nobody buys chaff, and it is good only to throw away or to burn. What sadder thing is there in this world--than a human life made to be golden wheat, to feed men's hunger, yet proving only worthless chaff!