The "fulness of time" having arrived for the appearance of Christ "to take away sin by the sacrifice of himself," we have to note the preparatory steps taken -- divine steps; for this was to be a divine work in a sense in which no other work among men had been divine. In former cases, human instruments had been used; in this case, God himself, by the Spirit, was to do the work by a man expressly provided, in whom His glory should be manifest: as the Spirit had declared by Isaiah, "The glory of Yahweh shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together" (Is. xl. 5) In harmony with this character of the situation, is the opening incident.
The angel Gabriel is on the scene in the 36th year of Augustus Caesar, the first imperial head of the Roman empire, and in the last year but one of Herod, his vassal, who reigned in Judea. We will not stay to consider these men, who figured so prominently in the age that witnessed the birth of Christ. They could contribute nothing valuable to the subject. They were men of strong individuality, but not in a good sense. They were vigorous specimens of the kind of men of whom Daniel says that God sets on high "the basest of men." They were both able men, but bad men from a divine point of view, especially Herod, whose enormities filled the minds of men with detestation, and made his death an event of public joy. Nor shall we contemplate the situation of things among the people, either Jew or Gentile, or take any cue from the laborious and cloudy literature of their day, with which it is so fashionable for "learning" to cumber the subject. They have no more to do with the nature of the events transacted than the traditions and habits of an obscure country village of our day have to do with the aims and manners of Victoria's Court. They were but the dung beds in which the heavenly plant was planted, by divine power, and nurtured by divine energy, contributing, by divine suction, some of the elements of growth in the case, but no more determining the character of that growth than the manure determines whether the root it environs shall grow roses or Crab apples.
We look at Gabriel, who asserted a peculiar dignity and authority in his rebuke to Zacharias for doubting his word, saying: "I am Gabriel that stand in the presence of God" (Luke i. 19). There are myriads of angels, but here is one whose words suggest a special status in the Father's presence -- a special intimacy with the Eternal Creator. There is something fitting in such an exalted representative of the Divine Majesty being employed in the initiation of the work about to be done -- the laying of the foundation of God's house of everlasting glory upon earth. It was not Gabriel's first appearance in the mighty transaction. Between five and six hundred years earlier, he was sent to Daniel to inform him of this very matter, viz., the appearance of the sacrificial Messiah to make an end of sins, and to bring in everlasting righteousness (Dan. ix. 24). Daniel says "While I was speaking in prayer, the man Gabriel whom I had seen in the vision at the beginning, being caused to fly swiftly, touched me about the time of the evening oblation, and informed me, and talked with me, and said, O Daniel:'I am now come forth to give thee skill and understanding. At the beginning of thy supplication, the commandment came forth and I am come to shew thee," &c. (verses 21, 23). It is very interesting to think of this angelic personage coming to Daniel by divine command to enlighten him with reference to the purpose of God in Christ; and then re-appearing on the scene, after a lapse of over five centuries, to perform acts in execution of that purpose.
The acts performed were simple but essential. Two visits had to be made; two announcements delivered; and power exerted in the accomplishment of the work in hand. This double form of Gabriel's errand arose from the double nature of the work. Not only was the long-promised Saviour to be born, but a forerunner was to be provided also, the necessity for whom may appear in the sequel. Not only was the name of the Father to be manifested in the seed of Abraham, but as became the dignity and the moral necessities of such an event, a man was to be raised up who should fitly herald such a manifestation in going "before his face and preparing his way before him." The two phases of the work were six months apart; and as was fit, the business of the forerunner had the first attention. Gabriel went first on this business to Zacharias, the husband of Elizabeth, who was related in cousinship to the virgin, of whom it was purposed Christ should be born. It was a suitable and happy arrangement that the forerunner of Christ should be provided from a related family. When men are allied both "in the flesh and in the Lord," the union has double power and sweetness.
Zacharias was a priest, of the course of Abijah, the eighth of the twenty-four courses into which the Aaronic families were divided by David for purposes of service by rotation (1 Chron. xxiv). His wife Elizabeth was also "of the daughters of Aaron." We may realise in this circumstance the unity and harmony of God's plan in working out His purpose upon earth. Aaron's family were chosen at the beginning to act the part of God's representatives in the midst of Israel. For many generations they had sustained this position; and now, as a new shoot in the heart of the old growth, leading to a new flowering of the divine work in the earth, a branch of that same family (just before the Aaronic priesthood is set aside) is chosen to furnish a man to go before the face of the Lord in the new manifestation, to prepare his way before him. Both Zacharias and Elizabeth "were righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless." For a lifetime they had sustained this character. Both were now old, and they were childless. Elizabeth's barrenness had been a deep disappointment to both, and had been the subject of frequent petition on the part of Zacharias (Luke 1. 13). The prayer was now to be answered, and the barrenness end in the birth of the greatest among the prophets; on which it has to be observed as a frequent -- we might almost say, a constant -- feature in the work of God, that He makes the accomplishment even of His declared purposes wait upon the prayers of His people; and makes use of human incompetences for the execution of His greatest works.
Moses, in Egypt, prays earnestly at the various critical points in the progress of the work of deliverance; Israel's various leaders and judges, the same, in times of affliction; David pours out his soul constantly in the trouble that preceded his elevation to the throne; Daniel, at the end of the seventy years, makes petition for the promised return of Jehovah's favour to Zion.
The second point (God's use of human weakness) stands out with equal prominence. Here a barren woman is made to provide the Lord's forerunner; and a virgin is made the mother of the Lord himself. So a barren woman (past the time of life) gave Isaac, the child of promise: a barren woman, Joseph, the chief among the sons of Jacob: a barren woman, Samuel, leader among the prophets: a barren woman, the strongest among men, Samson. Going wider, a herd youth, despised among his brothers, is chosen as the founder of Yahweh's royal house in the earth; a runaway flockmaster is made the deliverer of Israel and mediator of the covenant of Sinai: a nation of serfs is made use of to manifest the divine power in the face of all the earth. The principle underlying this mode of procedure is defined prophetically thus: "Not by might nor by power, but by my spirit" (Zech. iv. 6); apostolically thus: "that no flesh should glory in His presence" (1 Cor. i. 29). The principle will be found to have the sanction of the highest reason. The glory of all that man is, belongs to God from whom it springs. It is unreasonable that man should glory in himself as if he had made himself. It is not only unreasonable; it is degrading. Man's most ennobling honour is found in recognising God as the fountain of life and wisdom and power. Man can only find his chief joy in this recognition. God's purpose is to cause the discernment of this to be universal yet; and in prosecuting the purpose, he makes use of circumstances and conditions and instruments that exclude the possibility of man having any share in the glory or credit of the transaction.
To the husband of this barren woman, Gabriel presents himself in the temple, while Zacharias is attending to his office as priest. The angel appears "at the right side of the altar of incense." This is the divine symbol of acceptable prayer. That the angel should appear here to announce the granting of a request, is one of those inexpressibly beautiful coincidences of literal circumstance with spiritual analogy with which the Scriptures abound. The dispensational importance of the request to be granted adds to its beauty: this importance was beyond all expectation or knowledge on the part of Zacharias, who had asked a son, probably, for his personal comfort merely. Thus God, in granting our requests, may give us -- "above all that we ask or think." When Zacharias saw the angel, he was afraid. We are all naturally startled by the appearance of a person in an unexpected place. In this instance, it was the holy place, outside the veil -- a place above all others on earth protected from the likelihood of intrusion. But it was not only a visitor in a very unexpected place, it was a very unexpected visitor -- an angel. This would add to Zacharias's perturbation. In most recorded cases, fear has been the effect produced by the appearance of an angel. The reason of this, probably, lies in the aspect of an angel, which was described by Manoah's wife (to whom an angel had announced the coming birth of Samson), as "very terrible" (Jud. xiii. 6) -- a description illustrated by the statement that the angel that appeared to the woman at the sepulchre of Christ, had "a countenance like lightning" (Matt. xxviii. 3). The human aspect startles a beast; it is not wonderful that the angelic aspect should startle weak mortal man. But there is no cause for fear to the righteous. Though power greater than dynamite lies latent in the graceful and brilliant form of an angel, it is under the control of perfect and beneficent intelligence. The passenger on board an Atlantic liner, who walks on deck over the engine boilers, has much more cause for fear than the God-fearing man who stands in the presence of the thunder that sleeps in angelic hands. "Fear not," said the angel to startled Zacharias: "thy prayer is heard; thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.... Many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, ... to make ready a people pre-pared for the Lord."
Zacharias, calmed and re-assured by the angel's kindly manner, is able to let his mind dwell for a moment on what the angel has said. He realises its extraordinary import -- that he, an old man, and his wife barren, and "well stricken in years," should have the gloom of old age lightened by the birth of a son -- and a son, too, who should have a mission from the Lord "to turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the just," for which he should be qualified by being "filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb." It naturally seemed to him incredible. He had been praying for it for years, and yet, when his prayer is heard, he is incredulous. How natural this is. It was so in the case of those who prayed for Peter's release: they could not believe their senses when Peter presented himself at the door (Acts xii. 5, 13-16). It is human weakness. The saints of the nineteenth century may hope to have their own joyful experience of this shortly, when after praying for a lifetime for the Lord's coming amid increasing human frailty, and, it may be, faltering expectation, the angel of his presence will announce that the prayer is answered to the joy of thousands, who will only find suitable vent to their feelings in tears.
Zacharias, not quite realising at the moment the guarantee contained in an angel's word, asks, "Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years." Tiffs was casting a slight on God's messenger, and therefore on God -- an excusable error, perhaps, but still an error, and in a certain relation of things, the greatest offence a man can commit against God -- to doubt His word. As faith is so pleasing to God as to be "counted for righteousness?" so distrust of His pledged word, when we know He has pledged it, is the most displeasing sin against Him a man can commit. It was visited in the case of Moses (Num. xx. 12), and it was now visited in the case of Zacharias (and these things were "written for our learning"). The mode of the visitation was gentle, adroit, and effectual: "I am Gabriel that stand in the presence of God, and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. And behold thou shall be dumb, and not able to speak until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believedst not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season." Thus was Zacharias rebuked and the verity of the communication authenticated in a very tangible manner, at the same time: for when the angel had withdrawn, Zacharias found himself unable to speak in a situation which made the fact very noticeable. He was "executing the priest's office before God in the order of his course:" and it was his business (having gone into the temple "to burn incense") to go forth now to the people who were waiting in the court outside, to pronounce the customary blessing before their dispersal. They were waiting for this: they had to wait longer than usual; for the appearance of the angel to Zacharias had detained him; and the people who knew nothing of it, "marvelled that he tarried so long." When he went out to them, he could not speak to them, though his natural impulse in such a position would incline him to overcome any obstacle, if it were possible. "He beckoned unto them, and remained speechless." They understood, from his gestures, that he had seen something in the temple which had deprived him of his power of utterance. The people dispersed and Zacharias retired.
This brought to a close the opening incident in the great and glorious work about to be manifested on the earth. Zacharias, having completed his period of service for the time being, "departed from Jerusalem to his own house," in "the hill country of Judea" -- probably in the neighbourhood of Hebron if not Hebron itself, which was a priestly city, assigned to the sons of Aaron, to whose family Zacharias belonged. Here, without delay, the angel's words were fulfilled. "Elizabeth's full time came that she should be delivered, and she brought forth a son." It was no natural occurrence: that is, it was not the result of nature left to itself. It was a case parallel with Sarah's "who received strength to conceive seed and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised" (Heb. xi. 11). It was the incipient fulfilment of the words of God: "Behold I will send My Messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me" (Mal. iii. 1) A man who was Yahweh's messenger was no ordinary man: and the child who was to be this man was no ordinary child. He was produced by divine interposition, and he was "filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb," as Gabriel declared (Luke i. 15), which is the key to John's life and characteristics -- a puzzle to the natural-man thinkers and ecclesiastical traditionists of this benighted age, but "all plain" to those who have got into the groove of Bible thought instead of standing patronisingly outside, and trying to squeeze Bible things into human moulds.
John's birth was a glad surprise to Elizabeth's "neighbours and cousins," who "rejoiced with her," in the "great mercy the Lord had shewn her" in giving her a son in her old age They did not understand the event in its true character at first. They made the usual arrangements to have the child circumcised and named. They settled among themselves that the child should be called Zacharias, after his father, who had been dumb for over nine months, and whom apparently they could not, or did not, consult on the subject. When the eighth day arrived, their arrangement was upset to their own astonishment and fear. First, Elizabeth insisted that he should be called John, not Zacharias. They were surprised at this, saying, there were none of her relations called by the name of John. They made. signs to Zacharias himself, asking what the child should be called. Zacharias called for a writing table, and wrote, "His name is John." They had not recovered from their surprise at his decision when he surprised them still more by breaking forth in a stream of speech, all the more voluble from having been so long restrained, and from being now impelled by the Holy Spirit; for "he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and blessed God" that the time had come for the fulfilment of the longstanding promise of Christ. Then apostrophising the infant, he said: "And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for though shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation to his people, for the remission of their sins; through the tender mercy of our God, whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us; to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace" (Luke i. 76-79).
No wonder that those who heard these things "laid them up in their hearts," saying, "What manner of child shall this be?" In process of time, it became manifest "what manner of child" he was. "The hand of the Lord was with him" (Luke i. 66), which explained all. He was no chance evolution of natural force. He was no phenomenal bud on the Adamic tree. He was the workmanship of God, for the specific work of heralding His son, and preparing His way. This feature is ignored in "learned" presentments of the subject, due to the learned fable that the apostolic narratives are not infallible narratives, but merely human recitals honestly written but largely marred by the presence of exaggeration and myth to which merely human miters of that age were naturally exposed. A recognition of the inspired nature of these narratives (proved in so many ways), fences off the nebulous and derogatory views of learning on this subject, and enables us to recognise in John "a man sent from God" to "bear witness of the Light" about to be manifested to Israel; and therefore not a man to be explained on any of the philosophical hypotheses with which the wise of this world delight to amuse themselves and their readers. There is still need to listen to Paul's advice: "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy or vain deceit." Modern science is more respectable than ancient philosophy: it is more accurate in its diagnosis of the phenomena of nature. Nevertheless, it is as powerless as ancient philosophy to explain the ways of God, and as liable to obscure and pervert them by its presumptuous applications.
"The child grew and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the desert till the day of his shewing unto Israel." This covers the whole interval from his birth till his appearance as a preacher on the banks of the Jordan. It tells us as much as we need to know. It does not mean that he lived no part of the time in his mother's house, but that he remained in seclusion instead of beginning at twelve years of age, like other boys, to attend the feasts at Jerusalem regularly. He was unseen and unknown outside his own domestic circle till the hour for his public work arrived. His mother lived "in the hill country," where desert abounded, and here he would doubtless spend much of his time in the open air, indulging in contemplation and prayer, and acquiring those habits of hardihood for which he became known to the crowds who afterwards listened to his preaching. When he introduced himself to public notice at the age of 27, "he had his raiment of camel's hair and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey." The report was raised that he was demonaically possessed. This report was partly grounded on his eccentricity of habit, for "John came neither eating nor drinking" (Matt. xi. 18); and partly on the vehement dogmatism of his preaching, which was untinged with deference to the influential classes, and fired with a directness and intensity of denunciation against wickedness, that identified him with the prophets of whom Jesus said he was the greatest. These two peculiarities probably explain the attention of which he immediately became the object. He "did no miracle" (Jno. x. 41); yet there "went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan." Had his preaching consisted of the incoherent rhodomontade of fanaticism, ancient or modern, this attention would soon have subsided. But instead of subsiding, it went on increasing for over three years, until the leaders of the people were themselves drawn by the popular current to listen to him, and even Herod, the king of the country, felt constrained to defer to his words (Mark vi. 20). This fact is proof of a powerful attraction in the work of John. There is no difficulty in discovering the secret of this attraction, when the nature of the times is considered in connection with the nature of his teaching. The time specified in Dan. ix. for the appearance of the Messiah was about to expire; and we learn from Josephus and Tacitus that there was a general expectancy of Messiah's advent. This would tend to fix attention on John. As a matter of fact, Luke informs us that "the people were in expectation; all men mused in their hearts of John whether he were the Christ or not" (Luke iii. 15). John also (the other John) tells us that "the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, who art thou?" To whom he answered, "I am not the Christ" (Jno. i. 19, 20). This general suspense and anticipation would dispose the people to attend to a teacher so emphatic and peculiar. The nature of his teachings would rivet the attention excited by his peculiarity. He commanded them with authority to repent: to turn from their sins; and to submit to baptism at his hands for the remission of the same. With this command, he associated two solemn intimaations -- first, that judgment was impending on that generation: the axe was lying at the root of the trees, and every tree failing to bring forth good fruit would be cut down and cast into the fire; and secondly, that the coming one was among them, about to make his appearance, "whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Jno. i. 26; Matt. iii. 10-12).
It is not surprising that such teaching -- delivered with the fervour and fearlessness of divine authority, -- should arrest attention at a time when moral earnestness had been killed by a punctilious and hypocritical ritualism; and when the public mind was in the tension of a justly-founded expectancy. His style was an acceptable contrast to the mumbling formalisms of the scribes, who, like the clergy of the present day, were mere "intoners" of word-forms in which they had no faith. It would be pleasing to the lovers of righteousness to see him turn on the Pharisees and Sadducees as he did when they at last ventured furtively to follow the crowds in their eager attendance on John's preaching: "O generation of vipers! who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" John anticipated their claim on the score of Abrahamic descent. "Think not to say within yourselves, 'We have Abraham to our father': for I say unto you that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham." The context supplies the explanation of John's apparent brusqueness. He said, "Bring forth fruits meet for repentance" -- implying that they were not fit subjects for the remission of sins. Remission of sins is offered only to those who confess and forsake their sins. The Pharisees and Sadducees were not in the mood to do either. They were in the state afterwards described by Jesus: "outwardly righteous," but in their hearts and lives, as God estimates them, full of iniquity. John, as a man by whom the Spirit spoke, was able to address words which, though extremely harsh, were perfectly suitable to their state. To those who came with sincere desire to know God's will, that they might do it, he spoke in terms of instruction. "The people asked him, What shall we do then? He answereth and said unto them, he that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none: and he that hath meat, let him do likewise. Then came also the publicans to be baptised, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you. And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence unto no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages" (Luke iii. 10, 14).
It has been a difficulty with the "learned" why John took such an extreme and authoritative attitude, and particularly why he baptised with water. Much labour and ingenuity have been expended for the purpose of showing that baptism was Orientally practised as a religious rite before the days of John, from which it is argued that John, whose fervour is attributed by this class to his emulation of the eremite asceticism of the first century, adopted it from predecessors. There is not the least room for this idea, or for any uncertainty on the point, when men accept the apostolic account (and if that is not accepted, there is no reason for attaching value to any account: for all other literature on the subject, ancient or modern, is hazy and incoherent. But most men have a curious propensity for preferring the cloudy and bewildering vaticinations of unbelieving bookworms, to the straight, clear, and authenticated record of apostolic inspiration). The apostolic account is simple and all-sufficient. John tells us that the Pharisees sent a deputation to John, enquiring, "Why baptisest thou?" (Jno. i. 24, 25) -- (the very question of the modern "literati.") John's answer sets the question at rest for ever. The pith of it is contained in verse 33: "He (God) ... sent me to baptise with water." With what object, John? This also is settled: "After me cometh a man who was preferred before me: (for he was before me). And I knew him not, but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore, am I come baptising with water" (verses 30, 31.) John's baptism was, therefore, part of the work God gave John to do. He did it because he was sent to do it, and commanded to do it. He was commanded to do it because the word of God came to him, conveying the command as distinctly and directly as that same word came to Moses and all the prophets, "not by the will of man," as Peter informs us, but "holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit." The very date of the coming of this word is exactly supplied: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Cesar ... the Word of God came unto John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness" (Luke iii. 1). His baptism, his burning words, and commanding manner are all explained by this. He was the Lord's messenger, specially raised up and equipped, "filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb," and sent forth at the ripe moment, "in the spirit and power of Elias," to do the work of "preparing the way of the Lord."