By J.C. Ryle
It happened that when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he departed from there to teach and preach in their cities. Now when John heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to him, "Are you he who comes, or should we look for another?"
Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. Blessed is he who finds no occasion for stumbling in me."
As these went their way, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John, "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in king's houses. But why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and much more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, 'Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.' Most certainly I tell you, among those who are born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptizer; yet he who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptizer until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. If you are willing to receive it, this is Elijah, who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
The first thing that demands our attention in this passage, is the message which John the Baptist sends to our Lord Jesus Christ. He "sent two of his disciples and said to him, "Are you he who comes, or should we look for another?"
This question did not arise from doubt or unbelief on the part of John. We do that holy man injustice, if we interpret it in such a way. It was put for the benefit of his disciples. It was meant to give them an opportunity of hearing from Christ's own lips, the evidence of His divine mission. No doubt John the Baptist felt that his own ministry was ended. Something within him told him that he would never come forth from Herod's prison-house, but would surely die. He remembered the ignorant jealousies that had already been shown by his disciples towards the disciples of Christ. He took the most likely course to dispel those jealousies forever. He sent his followers to "hear and see" for themselves.
The conduct of John the Baptist in this matter affords a striking example to ministers, teachers, and parents, when they draw near the end of their course. Their chief concern should be about the souls of those they are going to leave behind them. Their great desire should be to persuade them to cleave to Christ. The death of those who have guided and instructed us on earth ought always to have this effect. It should make us lay hold more firmly on Him who dies no more, "continues ever," and "has an unchangeable priesthood." (Heb. 7:24.)
The second thing that demands our notice in this passage, is the high testimony which our Lord bears to the character of John the Baptist. No mortal man ever received such commendation as Jesus here bestows on His imprisoned friend. "Among those who are born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptizer." In time past John had boldly confessed Jesus before men, as the Lamb of God. Now Jesus openly declares John to be more than a prophet.
There were some, no doubt, who were disposed to think lightly of John Baptist, partly from ignorance of the nature of his ministry, partly from misunderstanding the question he had sent to ask. Our Lord Jesus silences such cavilers by the declaration he here makes. He tells them not to suppose that John was a timid, vacillating, unstable man, "a reed shaken by the wind." If they thought so, they were utterly mistaken. He was a bold, unflinching witness to the truth. He tells them not to suppose that John was at heart a worldly man, fond of king's courts, and delicate living. If they thought so, they greatly erred. He was a self-denying preacher of repentance, who would risk the anger of a king, rather than not reprove his sins. In short, He would have them know that John was "more than a prophet." He was one to whom God had given more honor than to all the Old Testament prophets. They indeed prophesied of Christ, but died without seeing Him. John not only prophesied of Him, but saw Him face to face. They foretold that the days of the Son of man would certainly come, and the Messiah appear. John was an actual eye-witness of those days, and an honored instrument in preparing men for them. To them it was given to predict that Messiah would be "led as a lamb to the slaughter," and "cut off." To John it was given to point to Him, and say, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."
There is something very beautiful and comforting to true Christians in this testimony which our Lord bears to John. It shows us the tender interest which our great Head feels in the lives and characters of all His members. It shows us what honor He is ready to put on all the work and labor that they go through in His cause. It is a sweet foretaste of the confession which He will make of them before the assembled world, when He presents them faultless at the last day before His Father's throne.
Do we know what it is to work for Christ? Have we ever felt cast down and dispirited, as if we were doing no good, and no one cared for us? Are we ever tempted to feel, when laid aside by sickness, or withdrawn by providence, "I have labored in vain, and spent my strength for nothing?" Let us meet such thoughts by the recollection of this passage. Let us remember, there is One who daily records all we do for Him, and sees more beauty in His servants' work than His servants do themselves. The same tongue which bore testimony to John in prison, will bear testimony to all his people at the last day. He will say, "Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." And then shall His faithful witnesses discover, to their wonder and surprise, that there never was a word spoken on their Master's behalf, which does not receive a reward.
"But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces, who call to their companions and say, 'We played the flute for you, and you didn't dance. We mourned for you, and you didn't lament.' For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' But wisdom is justified by her children."
Then he began to denounce the cities in which most of his mighty works had been done, because they didn't repent. "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon which were done in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. You, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, you will go down to Hades. For if the mighty works had been done in Sodom which were done in you, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom, on the day of judgment, than for you."
These sayings of the Lord Jesus were called forth by the state of the Jewish nation, when He was upon earth. But they speak loudly to us also, as well as to the Jews. They throw great light on some parts of the natural man's character. They teach us the perilous state of many immortal souls in the present day.
The first part of these verses shows us the unreasonableness of many unconverted men in the things of religion. The Jews, in our Lord's time, found fault with every teacher whom God sent among them. First came John the Baptist preaching repentance--an austere man, a man who withdrew himself from society, and lived an ascetic life. Did this satisfy the Jews? No! They found fault and said, "He has a devil." Then came Jesus the Son of God, preaching the Gospel, living as other men lived, and practicing none of John the Baptist's peculiar austerities. And did this satisfy the Jews? No! They found fault again, and said, "Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!" In short, they were as perverse and hard to please as 'contrary children'.
It is a mournful fact, that there are always thousands of professing Christians just as unreasonable as these Jews. They are equally perverse, and equally hard to please. Whatever we teach and preach, they find fault. Whatever be our manner of life, they are dissatisfied. Do we tell them of salvation by grace, and justification by faith? At once they cry out against our doctrine as licentious and antinomian. Do we tell them of the holiness which the Gospel requires? At once they exclaim, that we are too strict, and precise, and righteous overmuch. Are we cheerful? They accuse us of levity. Are we grave? They call us gloomy and sour. Do we keep aloof from balls, and races, and plays? They denounce us as puritanical, exclusive and narrow-minded. Do we eat, and drink, and dress like other people, and attend to our worldly callings and go into society? They sneeringly insinuate that they see no difference between us and those who make no religious profession at all, and that we are not better than other men. What is all this but the conduct of the Jews over again? "We played the flute for you, and you didn't dance. We mourned for you, and you didn't lament." He who spoke these words knew the hearts of men.
The plain truth is, that true believers must not expect unconverted men to be satisfied, either with their faith or their practice. If they do, they expect what they will not find. They must make up their minds to hear objections, cavils, and excuses, however holy their own lives may be. Well says Quesnel, "Whatever measures good men take, they will never escape the censures of the world. The best way is not to be concerned at them." After all, what says the Scripture? "The mind of the flesh is hostile towards God." "The natural man doesn't receive the things of God's Spirit." (Rom. 8:7. 1 Cor. 2:14.) This is the explanation of the whole matter.
The second part of these verses shows us the exceeding wickedness of willful impenitence. Our Lord declares that it shall be "more tolerable for Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, in the day of judgment," than for those towns where people had heard His sermons, and seen His miracles, but not repented.
There is something very solemn in this saying. Let us look at it well. Let us think for a moment what dark, idolatrous, immoral, profligate places Tyre and Sidon must have been. Let us call to mind the unspeakable wickedness of Sodom. Let us remember that the cities named by our Lord, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, were probably no worse than other Jewish towns, and at all events, were far better than Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom. And then let us observe, that the people of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, are to be in the lowest hell, because they heard the Gospel, and yet did not repent--because they had great religious advantages, and did not use them. How dreadful this sounds!
Surely these words ought to make the ears of every one tingle, who hears the Gospel regularly, and yet remains unconverted. How great is the guilt of such a man before God! How great the danger in which he daily stands? Moral, and decent, and respectable as his life may be, he is actually more guilty than an idolatrous Tyrian or Sidonian, or a miserable inhabitant of Sodom. They had no spiritual light: he has, and neglects it. They heard no Gospel; he hears, but does not obey it. Their hearts might have been softened, if they had enjoyed his privileges. Tyre and Sidon "would have repented." Sodom "would have remained until this day." His heart under the full blaze of the Gospel remains hard and unmoved. There is but one painful conclusion to be drawn. His guilt will be found greater than theirs at the last day. Most true is the remark of an English bishop, "Among all the aggravations of our sins, there is none more heinous than the frequent hearing of our duty."
May we all think often about Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum! Let us settle it in our minds that it will never do to be content with merely hearing and liking the Gospel. We must go further than this. We must actually "repent and be converted." We must actually lay hold on Christ, and become one with Him. Until then we are in dreadful danger. It will prove more tolerable to have lived in Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, than to have heard the Gospel in England, and at last died unconverted.
At that time, Jesus answered, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you hid these things from the wise and understanding, and revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for so it was well-pleasing in your sight. All things have been delivered to me by my Father. No one knows the Son, except the Father; neither does anyone know the Father, except the Son, and he to whom the Son desires to reveal him.
"Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart; and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
There are few passages in the four Gospels more important than this. There are few which contain, in so short a compass, so many precious truths. May God give us an eye to see, and a heart to feel their value!
Let us learn, in the first place, the excellence of a childlike and teachable frame of mind. Our Lord says to His Father, "You hid these things from the wise and understanding, and revealed them to infants."
It is not for us to attempt to explain why some receive and believe the Gospel, while others do not. The sovereignty of God in this matter is a deep mystery--we cannot fathom it. But one thing, at all events, stands out in Scripture, as a great practical truth to be had in everlasting remembrance. Those from whom the Gospel is hidden are generally "the wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight." Those to whom the Gospel is revealed are generally humble, simpleminded, and willing to learn. The words of the Virgin Mary are continually being fulfilled, "He has filled the hungry with good things. He has sent the rich away empty." (Luke 1:53.)
Let us watch against PRIDE in every shape--pride of intellect, pride of wealth, pride in our own goodness, pride in our own deserts. Nothing is so likely to keep a man out of heaven, and prevent him seeing Christ, as pride. So long as we think we are something, we shall never be saved. Let us pray for and cultivate humility. Let us seek to know ourselves aright, and to find out our place in the sight of a holy God. The beginning of the way to heaven, is to feel that we are in the way to hell, and to be willing to be taught of the Spirit. One of the first steps in saving Christianity is to be able to say with Saul, "Lord, what will you have me to do?" (Acts 9:6.) There is hardly a sentence of our Lord's so frequently repeated as this, "He who humbles himself shall be exalted." (Luke 18:14.)
Let us learn, in the second place, from these verses, the greatness and majesty of our Lord Jesus Christ. The language of our Lord on this subject is deep and wonderful. He says, "All things have been delivered to me by my Father. No one knows the Son, except the Father; neither does anyone know the Father, except the Son, and he to whom the Son desires to reveal him." We may truly say, as we read these words, "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain to it." We see something of the perfect union which exists between the first and second Persons of the Trinity. We see something of the immeasurable superiority of the Lord Jesus to all who are nothing more than men. But still, when we have said all this, we must confess that there are heights and depths in this verse, which are beyond our feeble comprehension. We can only admire them in the spirit of little children. But the half of them, we must feel, remains untold.
Let us, however, draw from these words the great practical truth, that all power and authority, in everything that concerns our soul's interests, is placed in our Lord Jesus Christ's hands. "All things are delivered unto him." He bears the keys--to Him we must go for admission into heaven. He is the door--through Him we must enter. He is the Shepherd--we must hear His voice, and follow Him, if we would not perish in the wilderness. He is the Physician--we must apply to Him, if we would be healed of the plague of sin. He is the bread of life--we must feed on Him, if we would have our souls satisfied. He is the light--we must walk after Him, if we would not wander in darkness. He is the fountain--we must wash in His blood, if we would be cleansed, and made ready for the great day of account. Blessed and glorious are these truths! If we have Christ, we have all things. (1 Cor. 3:22.)
Let us learn, in the last place, from this passage, the breadth and fullness of the invitations of Christ's Gospel.The last three verses of the chapter, which contain this lesson, are indeed precious. They meet the trembling sinner who asks, "Will Christ reveal His Father's love to such an one as me?" with the most gracious encouragement. They are verses which deserve to be read with special attention. For eighteen hundred years they have been a blessing to the world, and have done good to myriads of souls. There is not a sentence in those who does not contain a mine of thought.
Mark who they are that Jesus invites. He does not address those who feel themselves righteous and worthy. He addresses "all you who labor and are heavily burdened." It is a wide description. It comprises multitudes in this weary world. All who feel a load on their heart, of which they would sincerely get free, a load of sin or a load of sorrow, a load of anxiety or a load of remorse--all, whoever they may be, and whatever their past lives--all such are invited to come to Christ.
Mark what a gracious offer Jesus makes. "I will give you rest. You will find rest for your souls." How cheering and comfortable are these words! Unrest is one great characteristic of the world. Hurry, vexation, failure, disappointment, stare us in the face on every side. But here is hope. There is an ark of refuge for the weary, as truly as there was for Noah's dove. There is rest in Christ, rest of conscience, and rest of heart, rest built on pardon of all sin, rest flowing from peace with God.
Mark what a simple request Jesus makes to the laboring and heavy-laden ones. "Come to me--Take my yoke upon you, learn from me." He interposes no hard conditions. He speaks nothing of works to be done first, and deservingness of His gifts to be established. He only asks us to come to Him just as we are, with all our sins, and to submit ourselves like little children to His teaching. "Go not," He seems to say, "to man for relief. Wait not for help to arise from any other quarter. Just as you are, this very day, come to me."
Mark what an encouraging account Jesus gives of Himself. He says, "I am gentle and lowly of heart." How true that is, the experience of all the saints of God has often proved. Mary and Martha at Bethany, Peter after his fall, the disciples after the resurrection, Thomas after his cold unbelief, all tasted the "meekness and gentleness of Christ." It is the only place in Scripture where the "heart" of Christ is actually named. It is a saying never to be forgotten.
Mark, lastly, the encouraging account that Jesus gives of His service. He says, "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light." No doubt there is a cross to be carried, if we follow Christ. No doubt there are trials to be endured, and battles to be fought. But the comforts of the Gospel far outweigh the cross. Compared to the service of the world and sin, compared to the yoke of Jewish ceremonies, and the bondage of human superstition, Christ's service is in the highest sense easy and light. His yoke is no more a burden than the feathers are to a bird. His commandments are not grievous. His ways are ways of pleasantness, and all his paths are peace. (1 John 5:3. Prov. 3:17.)
And now comes the solemn inquiry--Have we accepted this invitation for ourselves? Have we no sins to be forgiven, no griefs to be removed, no wounds of conscience to be healed? If we have, let us hear Christ's voice. He speaks to us as well as to the Jews. He says, "Come to me." Here is the key to true happiness. Here is the secret of having a happy heart. All turns and hinges on an acceptance of this offer of Christ.
May we never be satisfied until we know and feel that we have come to Christ by faith for rest, and do still come to Him for fresh supplies of grace every day! If we have come to Him already, let us learn to cleave to Him more closely. If we have never come to Him yet, let us begin to come today. His word shall never be broken--"Him that comes unto me, I will in nowise cast out." (John 6:37.)