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THE WORD OF GOD
‘Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Cæsar … the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.’
Luke 3:1-Exodus :
Jewish religionism, as expressed in its decadent representatives, had opportunity afterwards of expressing what they thought of John, and a Herod killed him. And yet here with John in the desert, and not there with the great ones of the earth, was the word of power and the centre of interest for the world’s progress at the time.
I. To whom the message came.—Why are we asked to believe that God should have singled out a nation so peculiarly unattractive in their history as the Jews would seem to have been to be His own chosen people? Yet so it is. He who most is disposed to cavil at the Divine estimate of the world’s history, as set forth in the Holy Scriptures, must feel that the Jew is a present problem which cannot be explained off-hand. Clearly he has had a past; it is difficult to believe that he has not a future—‘the wanderer of the nations’; indispensable to all, yet cruelly persecuted and oppressed; thriving, yet never prosperous as a nation. We surely do not make enough in our modern perplexities of the strange and unique phenomenon of this nation to whom we believe that the Word of God came, which bears witness in its decay to the loss of a privilege whose very memory is a tradition of power. The great nations of the world had their opportunities and lost them; the Jews had their opportunity and lost it. It is our turn to-day. What are we going to do with our Imperial responsibility? There it is: Tiberius Cæsar sits on his throne; we are shouting ourselves hoarse with our grandiloquent cries, we think imperially, we are trying to act imperially; we open the map with pride if red means the extent of the British Empire, we close it with shame if it means the extent of the Empire of Jesus Christ. There are our procurators and representatives in all parts of the world, ready to uphold the honour of the British flag, but not quite so sure of what they ought to do with the Cross of Jesus Christ, and very Pilates in their keen scrutiny of the political trend of religious enterprise. There are our dependents—the different Herods which rule by our means, to whom we exhibit too often a civilisation barely tinged with Christian responsibility, and who, in imitating European manners, find them largely composed of European vices. There are our allies—perhaps in some ways more religious than ourselves—whom we leave to societies and amateurs if they wish to study the religious sources of our strength, while we give them of our best instruction in everything else which has to do with the construction or defence of our material empire. Annas and Caiaphas are not wanting, rival religious agencies, rival religious claims strive with each other in deadly theological contest, until perplexity merges into disgust, and disgust into opposition, and the Word of God passes on its way, leaving those channels which have choked and polluted it.
II. The message.—Progress, not retrenchment, was in the mind of kings; an ever-widening luxury and aggrandisement for the future, not a mournful looking into the past. We cannot imagine ‘repentance’ as a word in the vocabularies of Tiberius or Herod, or any way of the Lord other than their own way. If Domitian could not blush, certainly a Herod would know and care little about his past misdeeds. Even religion had twisted and turned God’s revelation, putting bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter, perverting promises and minimising judgments. A Messiah reigning on the throne of David, an earthly kingdom and freedom from the Roman yoke—thus they brooded and plotted, and the day of the Lord was to them darkness. And every age has a tendency to magnify its own importance, to proclaim its own millennium, and shout aloud its proud message, until the voice of God is driven away into quiet corners where they can only hear it who have ears to hear, the ready heart, and the humble mind. Is not there a strange discrepancy between the important things as the world counts importance and the important things according to the mind of God? And here stands John the son of Zacharias. Here stands the Church, saying, ‘O soul, you were made for God. Seek Him, He is your rest.’ ‘You were made for happiness, it is here.’ ‘You are the son of God, here is He Who became Incarnate for you.’ Joy is the never-ceasing message which God proclaims to you—heaven here, and heaven hereafter, in the satisfaction of every longing, in the gratification of all true aspirations.
III. We should do well not to turn a deaf ear to the appeal of special seasons for quiet, for times of earnest and serious thought, for a resolute facing of some of these great questions which concern time and eternity. To many a man the hour of death is his first really quiet time, and alone with his own soul he hardly knows it, its powers, and its needs, and its strong vitality. Gradually he has been driven in, as outwork after outwork is taken; he can no longer take his exercise or follow his all-absorbing sports and games. His acquaintances have gone away from the falling house, and his friends are few, and they gradually drop off; insensibly he is pressed in upon himself, until he finds himself alone with his artificial life fallen from him and face to face with God. Surely we ought to make more of the quiet times of our life. Our Lord has bid us with His own lips to enter into our closet and shut the door and pray to our Father which is in secret. In prayer, if it be only for a short time each day, we can stand face to face with eternal verities, and deal with things that really signify, and talk to Him Who links the past, the present, and the future in one.
—Rev. Canon Newbolt.
THE BAPTIST’S MESSAGE
‘And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.’
What is repentance?
I. Repentance is that change of mind which turns away with sorrow from anything that is wrong, which owns it, and amends it, and is willing to start afresh. So that repentance is the persistent enemy of a perpetual defect—viz. the contented acquiescence in old unworthy habits because they are old; habits which have ceased to move our indignation because we have got used to them; habits which we never own to God or man because it is best to say nothing about them; habits which we do not intend to alter, because we do not believe it possible that we ever should.
II. Repentance an excellent thing for others.—Is it not so, that we think repentance would be an excellent thing for many people—for those publicans and soldiers, for instance, for that common herd of useless men—but not for ourselves? No one is more ready than we are to lament the decadence of the times. But if we read the short account of John’s ministry in the Gospel, we find that nowhere were his denunciations more scathing, and his exhortations more earnest, than when he was addressing the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious world of his time. And our religious services, which we have received to use, are not meant for, or adapted to, the outcast and abandoned, but to such persons as ourselves that we may cry mercy, and protest penitence, and promise again and again an oft-renewed repentance—repentance that is for ourselves and not for other people. Surely, unless we realise this, we are in great danger of unreality, for there is nothing so numbing to all discipline as to use strong words which have lost all their meaning, and to promise actions which we never mean to perform.
III. It is so easy to be religious with a reservation.—It is so easy, with Ananias and Sapphira, to get the credit of renunciation while we keep back part of the price. Surely it is idle to believe in the omnipotence of God if we cannot trust Him to free us from the impotency of some hereditary taint. It is idle to trust in Christ the Liberator if we hug our chains and linger in captivity. It is melancholy to boast of freedom and to allow year after year to find us still in fetters. The divorce between faith and practice, between orthodoxy and morality, is always terribly easy. It is this more than anything else which brings in converts to the devil’s society for propagating infidelity, which is sometimes more successful than the society which propagates the Gospel. Is it not written, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them’? And how shall I recognise the power of Christianity in a religion which cannot help a man to throw off even one bad habit? But with most of us repentance means a vigorous effort to combat the deterioration which sets in even in our best efforts. Why is it that the Church is making itself so little felt? Why are we not influencing the world around us more than we do? If a tenth of our prayers were answered the world would be a different place, and why are they not answered? ‘Ye ask and ye receive not because ye ask amiss.’
—Rev. Canon Newbolt.
EARNESTNESS IN RELIGION
‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough wags shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’
Luke 3:4-Joshua :
What John the Baptist was to the First Advent, ministers of the Gospel ought to be to the Second. The text suggests the idea of earnestness—earnestness in religion—and the earnestness of which I wish to speak to you consists in a ‘prepared way’ and ‘straight paths.’
What is earnestness?
I. A fixed conviction that God loves you, that God desires to have you, that Christ is waiting to come into your heart. It is to have this well laid in your mind as a fact; and then to feel about it, ‘There is nothing like this; there is nothing in the world to be compared to this; everything else is mere dust in the balance; this is all in all. Am I Christ’s? am I safe? am I ready?’
II. It is to have made up your mind that you will be a Christian.—It is to have this as the one great object of life—above all, absorbing all, ruling all.
III. It is to have made up your mind that nothing whatever shall stand in the way—no object, however dear; no sin, however pleasant; no habit, however formed; there shall be no obstacle—nothing to grieve God wilfully, and to grieve Christ—but it should go, go to the winds.
IV. It is to have some great object in view, something steadily in hand, something you are living up to, the conquest of some particular sin which you hate, the attainment of some point in the divine life which you see before you, some good work which you will enterprise, something for love, something for God.
V. It is to be faithful and diligent in the use of means, as one who feels very weak, whose new warmth makes him feel very cold, who, in proportion to his earnestness, is painfully conscious of his sluggishness.
VI. It is to do all as in a very short time—‘My Saviour will very quickly be here.’
That is earnestness. Between such a soul and God, it is evident that all is now open, that the heart is right with God. ‘The way of the Lord’ is ‘prepared,’ and His ‘paths’ are ‘straight.’
‘WHAT SHALL WE DO?’
‘And the people asked Him, saying, What shall we do then?’
The final stage of religion is duty. Everything else, however comforting, however holy, however true, is only its cradle. It is doing what is right towards God, or what is right towards man, for God’s sake. Never think of duty as a cold word. It is something better than love, for it is love in action. Let us think of the replies of the Baptist to those who asked him of their duty.
I. Do justly.—To the publicans he said, ‘Exact no more than that which is appointed you.’ The publicans, or tax-gatherers, were men of business; they may fairly be taken as representing trade, and the duty inculcated upon trade was accurate justice. We all have our commercial transactions—some more, some less—but every one, almost every day, does business.
II. Be gentle.—To the soldiers he said, ‘Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.’ Gentleness, truth, moderation—the men of force, the men of power—the injunction running just in the line of danger—the duty curbing and neutralising and sanctifying the besetting sin; for duty is almost always throwing into a good direction a part of the character which otherwise would have gone into a bad one.
III. Be loving.—To the people he said, ‘He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none, and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.’ Love; love in familiar exercise, love in common places, love in sympathy, love in giving. It is duty to take take care that your neighbour’s want never rises up in judgment against your superabundance. It is duty to endeavour never to let a day pass without your taking away—if it be only a grain—from the heap of suffering, and adding—if it be only a grain—to the heap of happiness which there is in this world.
A MIGHTIER THAN JOHN
‘And as the people were in expectation … John answered … one mightier than I cometh.…’
Luke 3:15-Nehemiah :
From these verses several practical truths emerge.
I. One effect of a faithful ministry is to set men thinking.—‘The people … mused in their hearts.’ The cause of true religion has gained a great step in a parish, or congregation, or family, when people begin to think.
II. A faithful minister will always exalt Christ.—The Baptist refused the honour which he saw the people ready to give him, and referred them to Him who had ‘the fan in His hand,’ the Lamb of God, the Messiah. Conduct like this will always be the characteristic of a true man of God. He will never allow anything to be credited to him, or his office, which belongs to his Divine Master.
III. There is an essential difference between the Lord Jesus and even the best and holiest of His ministers.—We have it in the solemn words of John the Baptist: ‘I indeed baptize you with water; He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.’ A Paul may sow, an Apollos may water, but it is God Who giveth the increase.
IV. The change that Christ will work in His visible Church at His second appearing.—We read in the figurative words of His forerunner, ‘that He will thoroughly purge His floor, and gather the wheat into His garner; but the chaff He will burn with fire unquenchable.’ The visible Church is now a mixed body; but there will be an awful separation at the last day.
A SHARP CONTRAST
‘Herod the tetrarch … John in prison.’
Luke 3:19-Proverbs :
There could hardly be a sharper contrast than that presented in the careers of Herod Antipas and John the Baptist.
I. Herod a lofty and John a lowly position.—Yet John was loved, and Herod was hated. In the heart of Herod, bitterness; in the heart of John, peace. Not outward position, but good conscience which makes life worth living.
II. The life-history of the two provides a contrast. Keynote to the character of Herod, cowardly cunning; to that of John, courageous frankness. Herod’s cowardice was ( a) physical, ‘he feared the multitude’; ( b) moral, ‘for his oath’s sake.’ John’s courage shown in that he had no soft words for multitude and attacked Herod on his unholy marriage. Herod was false to his conscience; John obeyed his to the letter.
III. In great crises of life men are what their previous history has made them.
If Herod a warning to all not on the Lord’s side, what encouragement true Christian may gather from career of John.
Rev. Canon Sutton.
THE FIRST CALVARY
‘How when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art My beloved Son; in Thee I am well pleased.’
Luke 3:21-Song of Solomon :
The Baptism of our Lord in the River Jordan is one of the most significant events in the Gospel history.
I. The Baptism of Jesus was a prophecy.—It is not always remembered that our Lord’s public ministry lay between two Calvarys: it not only culminated in Calvary, it started from it. The baptism in Jordan was nothing less than an anticipation, a prophecy, of the Cross itself; it was the deepest act of self-abasement of which our blessed Lord was capable. As the sinner’s representative He felt bound to take the sinner’s place, to be treated, in short, as the sinner needed to be treated. It was in the supreme hour of Christ’s humiliation that the most signal manifestation of Divine favour was revealed.
II. The baptism of Jesus was a pattern.—In this great humiliation we have a mirror in which the eye of faith may see reflected the conditions and the effects of the reception of the Spirit still. These conditions are:—
( a) Faith. It is unnecessary to refer to this in the case of our Lord, but it is very necessary for us. We must believe the blessing is for us, or we shall never seek it.
( b) Obedience unto death. Upon our obedience without a question our reception of the Holy Ghost depends. ‘We are His witnesses of these things,’ said St. Peter, ‘and so is also the Holy Ghost, Whom God hath given’ (not to every one, but) ‘to them that obey Him’ ( Acts 5:32). Truly there must be an absolute consecration of ourselves to God.
III. The effects of the reception of the Spirit.—They are so manifold that it is impossible to exhaust them, but the three indicated by the narrative before us are: ( a) peace, the peace of an assured sonship; ( b) purity, exemplified by the Holy dove and the mystic voice, ‘In Thee I am well pleased’; and ( c) power—power with God and with man, for ‘Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee’ ( Luke 4:14).
Rev. E. W. Moore.
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Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Luke 3". Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent