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JOHN THE PREACHER OF REPENTANCE
Luk_3:1 - Luk_3:14 .
Why does Luke enumerate so carefully the civil and ecclesiastical authorities in Luk_3:1 - Luk_3:2 ? Not only to fix the date, but, in accordance with the world-wide aspect of his Gospel, to set his narrative in relation with secular history; and, further, to focus into one vivid beam of light the various facts which witnessed to the sunken civil and darkened moral and religious condition of the Jews. What more needed to be said to prove how the ancient glory had faded, than that they were under the rule of such a delegate as Pilate, of such an emperor as Tiberius, and that the bad brood of Herod’s descendants divided the sacred land between them, and that the very high-priesthood was illegally administered, so that such a pair as Annas and Caiaphas held it in some irregular fashion between them? It was clearly high time for John to come, and for the word of God to come to him.
The wilderness had nourished the stern, solitary spirit of the Baptist, and there the consciousness of his mission and his message ‘came to him’-a phrase which at once declares his affinity with the old prophets. Out of the desert he burst on the nation, sudden as lightning, and cleaving like it. Luke says nothing as to his garb or food, but goes straight to the heart of his message, ‘The baptism of repentance unto remission of sins,’ in which expression the ‘remission’ depends neither on ‘baptism’ alone, nor on ‘repentance’ alone. The outward act was vain if unaccompanied by the state of mind and will; the state of mind was proved genuine by submitting to the act.
In Luk_3:7 - Luk_3:14 John’s teaching as the preacher of repentance is summarised. Why did he meet the crowds that streamed out to him with such vehement rebuke? One would have expected him to welcome them, instead of calling them ‘offspring of vipers,’ and seeming to be unwilling that they should flee from the wrath to come. But Luke tells why. They wished to be baptized, but there is no word of their repentance. Rather, they were trusting to their descent as exempting them from the approaching storm, so that their baptism would not have been the baptism which John required, being devoid of repentance. Just because they thought themselves safe as being ‘children of Abraham,’ they deserved John’s rough name, ‘ye offspring of vipers.’
Rabbinical theology has much to say about ‘the merits of the fathers.’ John, like every prophet who had ever spoken to the nation of judgments impending, felt that the sharp edge of his words was turned by the obstinate belief that judgments were for the Gentile, and never would touch the Jew. Do we not see the same unbelief that God can ever visit England with national destruction in full force among ourselves? Not the virtues of past generations, but the righteousness of the present one, is the guarantee of national exaltation.
John’s crowds were eager to be baptized as an additional security, but were slow to repent. If heaven could be secured by submitting to a rite, ‘multitudes’ would come for it, but the crowd thins quickly when the administrator of the rite becomes the vehement preacher of repentance. That is so to-day as truly as it was so by the fords of Jordan. John demanded not only repentance, but its ‘fruits,’ for there is no virtue in a repentance which does not change the life, were such possible.
Repentance is more than sorrow for sin. Many a man has that, and yet rushes again into the old mire. To change the mind and will is not enough, unless the change is certified to be real by deeds corresponding. So John preached the true nature of repentance when he called for its fruits. And he preached the greatest motive for it which he knew, when he pressed home on sluggish consciences the close approach of a judgment for which everything was ready, the axe ground to a fine edge, and lying at the root of the trees. If it lay there, there was no time to lose; if it still lay, there was time to repent before it was swinging round the woodman’s head. We have a higher motive for repentance in ‘the goodness of God’ leading to it. But there is danger that modern Christianity should think too little of ‘the terror of the Lord,’ and so should throw away one of the strongest means of persuading men. John’s advice to the various classes of hearers illustrates the truth that the commonest field of duty and the homeliest acts may become sacred. Not high-flying, singular modes of life, abandoning the vulgar tasks, but the plainest prose of jog-trot duty will follow and attest real repentance. Every calling has its temptations-that is to say, every one has its opportunities of serving God by resisting the Devil.
JOHN’S WITNESS TO JESUS, AND GOD’S
Luk_3:15 - Luk_3:22 .
This passage falls into three parts: John’s witness to the coming Messiah Luk_3:15 - Luk_3:17; John’s undaunted rebuke of sin in high places, and its penalty Luk_3:18 - Luk_3:20; and God’s witness to Jesus Luk_3:21 - Luk_3:22.
I. Luke sharply parts off the Baptist’s work as a preacher of repentance and plain morality from his work as the herald who preceded the king.
The former is delineated in Luk_3:7 - Luk_3:14 , and its effect was to set light to the always smouldering expectation of the Messiah. The people were ready to rally round him if he would say that he was the coming deliverer. It was a real temptation, but his unmoved humility, which lay side by side with his boldness, brushed it aside, and poured an effectual stream of cold water on the excitement. ‘John answered’ the popular questionings, of which he was fully aware, and his answer crushed them.
In less acute fashion, the same temptation comes to all who move the general conscience. Disciples always seek to hoist their teacher higher than is fitting. Adherence to him takes the place of obedience to his message, and, if he is a true man, he has to damp down misdirected enthusiasm.
Mark John’s clear apprehension of the limitations of his work. He baptized with water, the symbol and means of outward cleansing. He does not depreciate his position or the importance of his baptism, but his whole soul bows in reverence before the coming Messiah, whose great office was to transcend his, as the wide Mediterranean surpassed the little lake of Galilee. His outline of that work is grand, though incomplete. It is largely based upon Malachi’s closing prophecy, and the connection witnesses to John’s consciousness that he was the Elijah foretold there. He saw that the Messiah would surpass him in his special endowment. Strong as he was, that other was to be stronger. Probably he did not dream that that other was to wield the divine might, nor that His perfect strength was to be manifested in weakness, and to work its wonders by the might of gentle, self-sacrificing love. But, though he dimly saw, he perfectly adored. He felt himself unworthy literally, insufficient to be the slave who untied or, according to Matthew, ‘bore’ his lord’s sandals. How beautiful is the lowliness of that strong nature! He stood erect in the face of priests and tetrarchs, and furious women, and the headsman with his sword, but he lay prostrate before his King.
Strength and royal authority were not all that he had to proclaim of Messiah. ‘He shall baptize you in the Holy Ghost and fire.’ We observe that the construction here is different from that in Luk_3:16 ‘with water’, inasmuch as the preposition ‘in’ is inserted, which, though it is often used ‘instrumentaly,’ is here, therefore, more probably to be taken as meaning simply ‘in.’ The two nouns are coupled under one preposition, which suggests that they are fused together in the speaker’s mind as reality and symbol.
Fire is a frequently recurrent emblem of the Holy Spirit, both in the Old and New Testament. It is not the destructive, but the vitalising, glowing, transforming, energy of fire, which is expressed. The fervour of holy enthusiasm, the warmth of ardent love, the melting of hard hearts, the change of cold, damp material into its own ruddy likeness, are all set forth in this great symbol. John’s water baptism was poor beside Messiah’s immersion into that cleansing fire. Fire turns what it touches into kindred flame. The refiner’s fire melts metal, and the scum carries away impurities. Water washes the surface, fire pierces to the centre.
But while that cleansing by the Spirit’s fire was to be Messiah’s primary office, man’s freedom to accept or reject such blessing necessarily made His work selective, even while its destination was universal. So John saw that His coming would part men into two classes, according as they submitted to His baptism of fire or not. The homely image of the threshing-floor, on some exposed, windy height, carries a solemn truth. The Lord of the harvest has an instrument in His hand, which sets up a current of air, and the wheat falls in one heap, while the husks are blown farther, and lie at the edge of the floor. Mark the majestic emphasis on the Christ’s ownership in the two phrases, ‘ His floor’ and ‘ His garner.’
Notice, too, the fact which determines whether a man is chaff or wheat-namely, his yielding to or rejecting the fiery baptism which Christ offers. Ponder that awful emblem of an empty, rootless, fruitless, worthless life, which John caught up from Psa_1:1 - Psa_1:6 Thankfully think of the care and safe keeping and calm repose shadowed in that picture of the wheat stored in the garner after the separating act. And let us lay on awed hearts the terrible doom of the chaff. There are two fires, to one or other of which we must be delivered. Either we shall gladly accept the purging fire of the Spirit which burns sin out of us, or we shall have to meet the punitive fire which burns up us and our sins together. To be cleansed by the one or to be consumed by the other is the choice before each of us.
II. Luk_3:18 - Luk_3:20 show John as the preacher and martyr of righteousness.
Luke tells his fate out of its proper place, in order to finish with him, and, as it were, clear the stage for Jesus. Similarly the Baptist’s desert life is told by anticipation in Luk_1:80 . That treatment of his story marks his subordination. His martyrdom is not narrated by Luke, though he knew of it Luk_9:7 - Luk_9:9, and this brief summary is all that is said of his heroic vehemence of rebuke to sin in high places, and of his suffering for righteousness’ sake. John’s message had two sides to it, as every gospel of God’s has. To the people he spoke good tidings and exhortations; to lordly sinners he pealed out stern rebukes.
It needs some courage to tell a prince to his face that he is foul with corruption, and, still more, to put a finger on his actual sins. But he is no prophet who does not lift up his voice like a trumpet, and speak to hardened consciences. King Demos is quite as impatient of close dealing with his immorality as Herod was. London and New York get as angry with the Christian men who fight against their lust and drunkenness as ever he did, and would not be sorry if they could silence these persistent ‘fanatics’ as conveniently as he could. The need for courage like John’s, and plain speech like his, is not past yet. The ‘good tidings’ has rebuke as part of its substance. The sword is two-edged.
III. The narrative now turns to Jesus, and does not even name John as having baptized Him.
The peculiarities of Luke’s account of the baptism are instructive. He omits the conversation between Jesus and John, and the fact of John’s seeing the dove and hearing the voice. Like Mark, he makes the divine voice speak directly to Jesus, whereas Matthew represents it as spoken concerning Him. The baptism itself is disposed of in an incidental clause having been baptized. The general result of these characteristics is that this account lays emphasis on the bearing of the divine witness as borne to Jesus Himself. It does not deny, but simply ignores, its aspect as a witness borne to John.
Another striking point is Luke’s mention of Christ’s prayer, which is thus represented as answered by the opened heavens, the descending dove, and the attesting voice. We owe most of our knowledge of Christ’s prayers to this Evangelist, whose mission was to tell of the Son of man. Mysteries beyond our plummets are contained in this story; but however unique it is, it has this which may be reproduced, that prayer unveiled heaven, and brought down the dove to abide on the bowed head, and the divine attestation of sonship to fill the waiting heart.
We need not dwell on the beautiful significance of the emblem of the dove. It symbolised both the nature of that gracious, gentle Spirit, and the perpetuity and completeness of its abode on Jesus. Others receive portions of that celestial fullness, but itself, as if embodied in visible form, settled down on Him, and, with meekly folded wings, tarried there unscared. ‘God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto Him.’
Our Evangelist does not venture into the deep waters, nor attempt to tell what was the relation between the Incarnate Word, as it dwelt in Jesus before that descent, and the Spirit which came upon Him. We shall be wise if we refrain from speculating on such points, and content ourselves with knowing that there has been one manhood capable of receiving and retaining uninterruptedly the whole Spirit of God; and that He will fill us with the Spirit which dwelt in Him, in measure and manner corresponding to our need and our faith.
The heavenly voice spoke to the heart of the man Jesus. What was His need of it, and what were its effects on Him, we do not presume to affirm. But probably it originated an increased certitude of the consciousness which dawned, in His answer to Mary, of His unique divine sonship. To us it declares that He stands in an altogether unexampled relation of kindred to the Father, and that His whole nature and acts are the objects of God’s complacency. But He has nothing for Himself alone, and in Him we may become God’s beloved sons, well pleasing to the Father.
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MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Luke 3". MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany