It will be useful to know a little more about the nature, need, and upshot of John the Baptist's work before going on to Christ's work for which it was a preparation. We may realise the need for such a preparatory work if we consider the position of Christ before that work was accomplished. Christ was in the privacy of Nazareth -- unknown and without access to the public eye or ear. To have obtained this access by his own personal effort would have involved an amount and kind of labour unsuited to the part he had to perform. Israel had to be roused from a state of spiritual dormancy. The right men to be his apostles and disciples had to be collected and prepared. They were scattered here and there in the hills and valleys of Galilee -- mostly unknown to one another. A public magnet had to draw them together. Christ could not have been this magnet without prolonged and laborious efforts that would have been inconsistent with the work he had to do. And, then it was not fitting that he should introduce himself. No man can effectually introduce himself. The requirements of the case, on all points, called for a forerunner.
Such a forerunner was provided in John the Baptist; and his part was effectually performed. His teaching for over three years not only predisposed the community to submit to the requirements of righteousness, but drew public attention to the fact that the Messiah was in their midst and about to be manifested. It brought all eyes to bear expectantly on the moment and mode of his manifestation. That mode was connected with John himself. He was sent to baptise in order that that manifestation might take place. The unknown One was to come to his baptism. Upon his emergence from the water, the Holy Spirit would visibly identify him. This was revealed to John and proclaimed by him beforehand (Jno. i. 33). Such an identification was not only necessary for Israel, but for John himself; for John did not know him, as he declared (Jno. i. 31).
At first sight, it seems strange that John should not know him, considering that he was his own cousin. But the surprise lessens when we remember that they were both brought up in different parts of the country -- Jesus at Nazareth, John in the neighbourhood of Hebron -- about 50 or 60 miles apart, John's secluded habits "in the desert" would prevent the intercourse between them which might have led to the recognition of the true character of his illustrious cousin. That John knew Jesus personally, though not knowing him as the Messiah, is evident from the fact that when Jesus presented himself for baptism, John objected to baptise Jesus on the ground of his spotlessness of character: "I have need to be baptised of thee, and comest thou to me?" (Matt. iii. 14). John objected to the Pharisees being baptised, because his baptism was for repentant and reforming sinners; and he now objected to baptise Jesus because his baptism was not for righteous men: which shows personal acquaintance with Jesus. John knew Jesus enough to know that he was a righteous person: but he did not know him enough to know that he was "the one standing in their midst whose shoe-latchet he was not worthy to stoop down and unloose." Our difficulty in understanding John's deficient knowledge of him in this latter capacity arises mainly from the completeness of our own knowledge of what came after. We are liable, unconsciously, to take all this knowledge back with us to the privacy of John's secluded life, and to wonder at a want of apprehension which was natural to his circumstances.
It was probably a divinely-contrived thing that John should be ignorant of the Messiah-ship of Jesus. Had he known it, he would have been certain to have proclaimed his knowledge; and thus the testimony to Christ would not have rested on that wholly divine foundation that was essential. It would have appeared to rest on a human foundation. John, as a relative, might have been suspected of the partiality of kinship; and thus, confidence in the testimony to Christ would have been imperfect at the start, where it was necessary there should be no flaw. When we realise how unspeakably important it was that the claims of Jesus, as the long-promised Messiah, should not rest on either his own testimony or on that of any man, we get a glimpse of the purpose served by John's ignorance of him. John was as helpless as any in the crowd on the subject of who and where the Expected One was. He could not point him out. He knew he was among them. This had been revealed to him by the "word of God," which came to him "in the wilderness of Judea." "There standeth one among you whom ye know not ... and I knew him not, but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptising with water." Thus the indentification of Jesus was disconnected from all human bias or human sanction. All were alike ignorant and helpless in the matter. No one could say who the Son of God was; and it was not to be left to his own testimony. It was to be the work of God alone, to point him out and proclaim him. John's baptism supplied but the crisis and the opportunity when this could be effectually done. John was but a "voice crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord: make his paths straight." John's work brought all eyes to a focus. He told them the Holy One would come to be baptised by him, and that when he came, the Holy Spirit would openly and visibly manifest and own him, apart from which no man knew him. At last, Jesus stepped forth from the crowd: he gave himself to John's hands as others: no one knew that this unpretending carpenter was the one they were looking for. After a word of protest from John, he is buried in the water. He rises: and, while all eyes are upon him, a shaft of light strikes from the heavens, and converges in the bodily form of a dove upon his head. A voice then plainly proclaims, in the hearing of the assembled crowd, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."
And thus John's work came to its culminating point. Its particular object was now accomplished, Jesus, by its means, was manifested to Israel under circumstances that made the introduction effectual, and free from doubt. John, who till this time had to say, "I know him not," was able now to speak with emphasis in the opposite sense. He "bears record" that "this is the Son of God." On a subsequent day, he specially called the notice of his (John's) disciples to him: "This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man who is preferred before me.
He that sent me to baptise with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he that baptizeth with the Holy Spirit" (Jno. i. 30). Again, on another day, he directs the attention of two of his disciples to him, saying, "Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world." The natural effect of this was to cause these disciples to follow Christ and attach themselves to him.
Those who listened most intelligently to John would now most readily transfer their interest to Christ, to whom John's work was but a preparatory testimony. Many did not, but remained with John by preference. Others failing to find anything interesting in Christ, first doubted, and then denied him, notwithstanding their previous interest in John's work. Jesus afterwards reminded them of this, and of John's testimony to him: He said "He (John) was a burning and a shining light, and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light.... Ye sent unto John, and he bare witness to the truth. But I receive not testimony from man" (that is, the testimony to Christ's Messiahship did not rest on human authority, not even on John's, as we have seen, but on God's own declaration). "I have greater testimony than that of John's: The Father himself which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me," -- both in the announcement on the banks of the Jordan, and by the works which the Father enabled him to perform, of which he said, "The works which the Father hath given me to finish, the same works that I do, bear witness of me that the Father hath sent me."
John recognised that his work was done when Christ went forth as a miracle-working preacher of the kingdom of God, followed by thousands. But this was not quite obvious to all who had been attracted by John's preaching. Some of them inquiringly mentioned the subject of Christ's increasing popularity, as if to suggest that it was inconsistent with John's own position. Such would be of the class that were inclined in the first instance to regard John as the Christ. They said to John, "Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou bearest witness, behold the same baptizeth, and all men come to Him." John met the insinuation by reminding them that he had already told them that he (John) was not the Christ. "Ye yourselves bear me witness that I said, I am not the Christ, but I am sent before him" (Jno. iii. 28). Then referring to Christ under the figure of a bridegroom, he added "The friend of the bridegroom which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom's voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease." And from that time, John did decrease. He continued for a little while to teach the people righteousness, and the people gloried in his fearless word; but the very influence of his preaching was at last the cause of its suppression. The rebukes of unrighteousness which he administered to the people, extended to the king on his throne when opportunity served. He condemned the action of Herod, the tetrarch of Galilee, in taking Herodias, his brother Philip's wife. Herod, who exercised irresponsible power, could not endure this criticism at the hands of one whose words were so powerful with the people. He had him apprehended and put in prison. Herodias tried hard to get Herod to order his execution, but Herod could not be persuaded. He "feared John, knowing that he was a just man and a holy" (Mar. vi. 20): and he appears to have found pleasure in interviewing his prisoner occasionally, as Festus did Paul; and in listening to his counsels (ib.) It would have been better for John had Herodias had her way at the start: for he would then have been spared a lingering imprisonment which was very trying to him. It was probably needful for himself that he should have this trial. He had been honoured as no man had been honoured before him, in being the herald of the Son of God. For a considerable time, he had been a power with the whole Jewish nation, and a centre of righteous and purifying influence which even the rulers could not resist. His whole work had been gloriously crowned by the actual manifestation of the Messiah at his hands. And it was now probably needful for himself that he should have a taste of that affliction which prepares all the Sons of God for the due appreciation of the goodness in store for them. And so, he was "put in prison," for doing his duty.
How long he languished here cannot be determined with certainity -- probably about a year. But it was long enough to exercise him very painfully. He "heard in prison the works of Christ," but apparently these works were not of the class he had expected. It is possible and probable that John the Baptist shared the expectation common to the disciples, that "the kingdom of God should immediately appear" (Luke xix. II). He might suppose that the Messiah would proceed to his kingly work as soon as he was manifested in the world. If so, knowing that the Messiah had in very deed been manifested, he would anticipate his early assumption of royal power, and his deposition of Herod, and his liberation of John himself from the durance vile in which he was languishing. Instead of that, he only heard of his going about preaching and healing the sick, and of his avoiding the people when "they wanted to take him by force and make him a king" (Jno. vi. 15). It was a great trial to John's faith in the position in which he was placed. It appears to have caused him a degree of faltering. He called two of his disciples, to whom he would have access by Herod's goodwill, and sent them to Christ with this inquiry: "Art thou he that should come, or look we for another?"
The putting of such a question by John has been a great difficulty with many. They think it inconsistent with the knowledge that John had of the true character of Christ. There does not seem any real ground for this thought, when all the facts are held in view. John was an erring mortal man, and liable to be troubled by what he did not understand. The situation was such as had become unintelligible from his point of view; and it was therefore in the highest degree natural that he should seek to re-assure himself concerning Christ by direct enquiry.
John's messengers came to Jesus and went straight to the subject of their errand: "John Baptist hath sent us unto thee, saying, Art thou he that should come? or look we for another?" (Luke vii. 20). Jesus might have met the inquiry with a categorical answer. He might have said: "I am he; no one comes after me." But his answer was more effective than that. John's messengers standing by, "in the same hour he cured many of their infirmities and plagues and evil spirits, and unto many that were blind he gave sight. Then Jesus answering, said unto them. Go your way and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached" (Luke vii. 21, 22). There was an argument of irresistible power in these words. It was the argument reflected in the admission of Nicodemus: "No man can do these miracles that thou doest except God be with him" (Jno. 3:2). It was the argument of Christ's own statement to the Jews afterwards: "The works which the Father hath given me to finish, the same works that I do bear witness of me that the Father hath sent me" (Jno. v. 37).
Jesus sent to John a supplementary comment which was also very telling: "And blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended (or stumbled) in me:" This was suggesting that though the appearance of things might present a cause of stumbling, true discernment would see through the appearances, or at all events hold on by the element of solid fact in the case. This element consisted of the works Jesus was able to perform, in addition to the Father's own proclamation of him on the banks of the Jordan. No unfavourable appearance could dispose of these facts, and wise men would hold on by the facts. The unfavourable appearance was due only to the incorrect ideas of the disciples with regard to the order of his work. If those impressions had not existed, if the disciples had recognised the teaching of the prophets that Christ had first to be a teacher, and then a sacrificial sufferer, and then an absent priest in the Father's presence, during the period of the Father's "hiding of his face from the house of Jacob," they would have felt no difficulty at seeing Jesus, after his baptism, take only the position of a quiet teacher, going about doing good, and avoiding all political aims and connections. But they lacked full knowledge, and were liable to be distressed and stumbled, till the Spirit comforted them with a full understanding of the things that belonged to Christ. If they had not held on to the indisputable facts of the case, the comfort of the Spirit would have come too late. They would have been among those Jews who "went back and walked no more with him." But they could not shut their eyes to plain light, though they did not understand all. They saw the works and believed, as Jesus commanded, though not able to comprehend the programme. They endorsed Peter's attitude when asked by Jesus if they also would go away: "Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life." Thus it must be, and often is with ourselves, although in a different situation. We do not understand all; but we earnestly see much that cannot be doubted, and therefore we hold on to the main conclusion, enduring the unfavourable appearances there may be, in the confidence that full knowledge would dissipate all difficulties, and always remembering the words which, if applicable to John the Baptist, are specially applicable to us: "Blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended (or stumbled) in me."
When John's messengers had gone away, Jesus turned his discourse upon John in speaking to the people. It was a topic sure to find a ready ear, considering their relation to the matter. The whole population had been drawn to the preaching of John, the cessation of which by John's imprisonment was a comparatively recent event. The people who listened to Christ would therefore be deeply interested when "He began to speak to them concerning John," as we are told (Luke vii. 24). The question of what he was and who he was had been a matter of public speculation for a long time. Christ's remarks would therefore touch a chord of interest: "What went ye out into the wilderness for to see? A reed shaken with the wind?" -- that is, an objectless movement: a something arresting attention and exciting curiosity but having no meaning? An emphatic negative is the implied answer: John was no mere strange phenomenon, but an earnest and essential part of the work of God among men. "But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment?" -- a show? An effeminate dandy? -- a gaudy personal exhibition such as children would run after? No: men of that stamp are not to be found in the desert where John did his work. "They that are gorgeously apparelled and live delicately are in king's courts. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, Behold I send my messenger before thy face who shall prepare try way before thee. For I say unto you, among those that are born of women, there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist."
Here we have the position of John the Baptist settled beyond dispute or doubt. We may dismiss the speculations of the learned of this world on the subject. Christ settles it for us. John was "much more than a prophet" -- even the messenger of the Lord of Hosts. This was a high rank for a young man whose career was over before he was 32. Christ went further and identified him with Elijah, the promise of whom bulks more largely in the Jewish eye than even the promise of the Messiah. "If ye will receive it," said Christ, "this is Elias, which was for to come" (Matt. 11:14). Jesus did not mean by this that John the Baptist was a substitute for the real Elijah, and that the real Elijah would consequently not come. He fenced off this interpretation by saying, "Elias truly shall first come and restore all things" (Matt. xvii. II). He meant to say that the promise of Elijah had received an incipient fulfilment in John, which appears a perfectly natural intimation in view of what Gabriel said to his father, Zacharias, at the announcement of his birth: "He (John) shall go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elias" (Luke i. 17). Elias was the promised forerunner of the Messiah when he should appear to Israel in power; and here was one to act the Elias part at his coming in weakness to suffer. It was appropriate; it was beautiful. It gave John the highest position it was possible to assign him in the estimation of a Jewish congregation. It was Christ's decisive contribution to a controversy that had engaged the minds of many since John "came into the wilderness of Judea, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins." It closed the question for all who were divinely enlightened enough to see Christ in his true authority; and there has not arisen a necessity for reopening it since. John the Baptist remains for them the specially-provided and specially-qualified messenger of the Lord of Hosts, of an origin and a character that had nothing in common with the eremises and ascetics of the first century. He stands apart from human fanatics of every sort, in being the official and effectual herald of the Son of God, sent before, not only to proclaim his approach, but to cut a path for his progress in the moral wilderness that prevailed in all the land.
From a certain point of view, it is saddening to think of such a man in the hands of such creatures as Herod and his paramour; and sadder to think that his life should be sacrificed to the feminine malice created by John's upright attitude as a teacher of righteousness. But the sadness is only for a moment. It is the lot of divine things and divine men to be under the heel of wickedness in the day of sin's ascendancy. We can comfort ourselves with the thought that they do not come Under the heel by chance, or before the appointed time. It is part of the process by which they are prepared for, and ultimately introduced to "an eternal weight of glory." And there is the further consolation that to the victims of the oppression, the triumph of the enemy is "but for a moment." Death is the best thing that can happen to them. Their trials and distresses are annihilated at a stroke: and in a moment, they are face to face with the glory for which their distresses prepare them, for the simple reason that in death there is no knowledge of time, and therefore no conscious interval to the resurrection.
This reflection enables us to contemplate John's end with composure. It came quickly and without warning, which was a kindness to him. It was the result of a court whim, connected with the cause of John's imprisonment. Herod had convened the magnates of his realm to celebrate his birthday. In the midst of the festivities (approaching probably the character of carousals), there was a terpischorean performance that pleased Herod well -- so well, that he declared to the fair young dancer he would give her anything she asked. The damsel was daughter to the woman whom John said Herod ought not to have for a wife. She did not know what use to make of the splendid opportunity suddenly placed before her. In her pleasing embarrassment she appealed to her mother privately. That woman saw and seized the opportunity of venting her spleen. She had often tried in vain to induce Herod to put John out of the way: now she had him. She told her daughter to ask for John's head. The daughter, returning to the wine-heated company, preferred her request. Herod was momentarily stunned. Even in his revels he retained that respect for John that led him to fear him and listen to him with pleasure. He would have refused, but that he had pledged his word in the presence of his courtiers. There was no escape, according to the code of honour recognised by them. With deep reluctance, he gave the order which despatched an executioner to John's cell. The executioner would probably share his master's regret, but had no choice. He would announce to John the King's order. In the weariness of his imprisonment, the announcement would probably not be unwelcome to him. He surrendered himself to God and the executioner's hand, and knew nothing of the ghastly presentation presently made to the damsel in Herod's brilliant banqueting hall, of a bleeding head in a silver charger.
John's disciples, hearing of the tragic occurrence, came, and were allowed to remove John's headless body, which they interred in a grave now unknown. They took word to Christ of what had happened. Christ appears to have been painfully moved by the occurrence. "When Jesus heard of it, he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart" (Matt. xiv. 13) He would naturally seek for solitude on hearing of an event which was not only calculated to distress him on every natural ground, but which would afflict him by bringing vividly before him his own approaching end. "They have done unto him," he said, "whatsoever they listed. Likewise also shall the Son of Man suffer of them."
Zacharias and Elizabeth, being "old and well stricken in years" at John's birth, had probably gone to rest some years previously to his death. They would be spared this "piercing sword" in their soul, which Mary the mother of Jesus, did not escape, either as regards John or Jesus. They rejoiced at his birth, and probably did not live to sorrow at his death. Whether or not, the whole noble company of them will be embraced together in the same glorious healing that will shortly abolish every curse, and wipe tears from every godly eye.