THE HERALD OF THE KING
'In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, 2. And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. 3. For this is He that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. 4. And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey. 5. Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, 6. And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins. 7. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8. Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: 9. And 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. 10. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the flre, 11. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to clean he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: 12. Whose fan is in His hand, and He will throughly purge His floor, and gather His wheat into the garner; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.'—MATT. iii. 1-12.
Matthew's Gospel is emphatically the Gospel of the kingdom. The keynote sounded in the story of the Magi dominates the whole. We have stood by the cradle of the King, and seen the homage and the dread which surrounded it. We have seen the usurper's hatred and the divine guardianship. Now we hear the voice of the herald of the King. This section may be conveniently treated as falling into two parts: the first, from verse 1 to verse 6, a general outline of the Baptist's person and work; the second, from verse 7 to end, a more detailed account of his preaching.
I. We have an outline sketch of the herald and of his work. The voice of prophecy had fallen silent for four hundred years. Now, when it is once more heard, it sounds in exactly the same key as when it ceased. Its last word had been the prediction of the day of the Lord, and of the coming of Elijah once more. John was Elijah over again. There were the same garb, the same isolation, the same fearlessness, the same grim, gaunt strength, the same fiery energy of rebuke which bearded kings in the full fury of their self-will. Elijah, Ahab, and Jezebel have their doubles in John, Herod, and Herodias. The closing words of Malachi, which Matthew, singularly enough, does not quote, are the best explication of the character and work of the Baptist. His portrait is flung on the canvas with the same startling abruptness with which Elijah is introduced. Matthew makes no allusion to his relationship to Jesus, has nothing to say about his birth or long seclusion in the desert. He gives no hint that his vague expression 'in these days' covers thirty years. John leaps, as it were, into the arena full grown and full armed. His work is described by one word—'preaching'; out of which all modern associations, which have too often made it a synonym for long-winded tediousness and toothless platitudes, must be removed. It means proclaiming, or acting as a herald, and implies the uplifted voice and the brief, urgent message of one who runs before the chariot, and shouts, 'The king! the king!'
His message is summed up in two sentences, two blasts of the trumpet: the call to repentance, and the rousing proclamation that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. In the former he but reproduces the tone of earlier prophecy, when he insists on a thorough change of disposition and a true sorrow for sin. But he advances far beyond his precursors in the latter, which is the reason for repentance. They had seen the vision of the kingdom and the King, 'but not nigh.' He has to peal into the drowsy ears of a generation which had almost forgotten the ancient hope, that it was at the very threshold. Like some solitary stern crag which catches the light of the sun yet unrisen but hastening upwards, long before the shadowed valleys, John flamed above his generation all aglow with the light, as the witness that in another moment it would spring above the eastern horizon. But he sees that this is no joyful message to them. Nothing is more remarkable in his preaching than the sombre hues with which his expectation of the day of the Lord is coloured. 'To what purpose is the day of the Lord to you? It is darkness and not light'; it is to be judgment, therefore repentance is the preparation.
The gleam and purity of lofty spiritual ideas are soon darkened, as a film forms on quicksilver after short exposure. John's contemporaries thought that the kingdom of heaven meant exclusive privileges, and their rule over the heathen. They had all but lost the thought that it meant first God's rule over their wills, and their harmony with the glad obedience of heaven. They had to be rudely shaken out of their self-complacency and taught that the livery of the King was purity, and the preparation for His coming, penitence.
The next touch in this outline sketch is John's fulfilment of prophecy. Matthew probably knew that wonderfully touching and lowly answer of his to the deputation from the ecclesiastical authorities, which at once claimed prophetic authority and disclaimed personal importance, 'I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.' The prophecy in its original application refers to the preparation of a path in the desert, for Jehovah coming to redeem His people from captivity. The use made of it by Matthew, and endorsed by all the evangelists, rests on the principle, without which we have no clue to the significance of the Old Testament, that the history of Israel is prophetic, and that the bondage and deliverance are types of the sorer captivity from which Christ redeems, and of the grander deliverance which He effects.
Our evangelist gives a vivid picture of the asceticism of John, which was one secret, as our Lord pointed out, of his hold on the people. The more luxuriously self-indulgent men are, the more are they fascinated by religious self-denial. A man 'clothed in soft raiment' would have drawn no crowds. A religious teacher must be clearly free from sensual appetites and love of ease, if he is to stir the multitude. John's rough garb and coarse food were not assumed by him to create an impression. He was no mere imitator of the old prophets, though he wore a robe like Elijah's. His asceticism was the expression of his severe, solitary spirit, detached from the delights of sense, and even from the softer play of loves, because the coming kingdom flamed ever before him, and the age seemed to him to be rotting and ready for the fire. There is no need to bring in irrelevant learning about Essenes to account for his mode of life. The thoughts which burned in him drove him into the wilderness. He who was possessed with them could not 'come eating and drinking,' and might well seem to sense-bound wonderers as if some demonic force, other than ordinary motives, tyrannised over him.
The last point in this brief resume of John's work is the universal excitement which it produced. He did not come out of the desert with his message. If men would hear it, they must go to him. And they went. All the southern portion of the country seemed to empty itself into the wilderness. Sleeping national hopes revived, the awe of the coming judgment seized all classes. It was so long since a fiery soul had scattered flaming words, and religious teachers had for so many centuries been mumbling the old well-worn formulas, and splitting hairs, that it was an apocalypse to hear once more the accent of conviction from a man who really believed every word he said, and himself thrilled with the solemn truths which he thundered. Wherever a religious teacher shows that he has John's qualities, as our Lord in His eulogium analysed them—namely, unalterable resolution, like an iron pillar, and not like a reed shaken with the wind, conspicuous superiority to considerations of ease and comfort, a direct vision of the unseen, and a message from God, the crowds will go out to see him; and even if the enthusiasm be shallow and transient, some spasm of conviction will pass across many a conscience, and some will be pointed by him to the King.
II. The second portion of this section is a more detailed account of John's preaching, which Matthew gives as addressed to the Pharisees and Sadducees. We are not to suppose that at any time John had a congregation exclusively made up of such; nor that these words were addressed to them only. What is emphasised is the fact that among the crowds were many of both these parties, the religious aristocrats who represented two tendencies of mind bitterly antagonistic, and each unlikely to be drawn to the prophet. Self-righteous pedants who had turned religion into a jumble of petty precepts, and very superior persons who keenly appreciated the good things of this world, and were too enlightened to have much belief in anything, and too comfortable to be enthusiasts, were not hopeful material. If they were drawn into the current, it must have run strong indeed. These representatives of the highest and coldest classes of the nation had the very same red-hot words flung at them as the mob had. Luke tells us that the first words in this summary were spoken to the people. Both representations are true. All fared alike. So they should, and so they always will, if a real prophet has to talk to them. John's salutation is excessively rough and rude. Honeyed words were not in his line; he had not lived in the desert for all these years, and held converse with God and his own heart, without having learned that his business was to smite on conscience with a strong hand, and to tear away the masks which hid men from themselves. The whole spirit of the old prophets was revived in his brusque, almost fierce, address to such very learned, religious, and distinguished personages. Isaiah in his day had called their predecessors 'rulers of Sodom'; John was not scolding when he called his hearers 'ye offspring of vipers' but charging them with moral corruption and creeping earthliness.
The summary of his preaching is like a succession of lightning flashes. We can but note in a word or two each flash as it flames and strikes. The remarkable thing about his teaching is that, in his hands, the great hope of Israel became a message of terror, the proclamation of the impending kingdom passed into a denunciation of 'the wrath to come,' set forth with a tremendous wealth of imagery as the axe lying at the root of the trees, the fan winnowing the wheat from the chaff, the destroying fire. That wrath was inseparable from the coming of the King; for His righteous reign necessarily meant punishment of unrighteousness. So all the older prophets had said, and John was but carrying on their testimony. So Christ has said. No more terrible warnings of the certain judgment of evil which is involved in His merciful work, have ever been given, than fell from the lips into which grace was poured. We need to-day a clearer discernment of the truth which flamed before John's eyes, that the full proclamation of the kingdom of heaven must include the plain teaching of 'the wrath to come.'
Next comes the urgent demand for reformation of life as the sign of real repentance. John's exhortation does not touch the deepest ground for repentance which is laid in the heart-softening love of God manifested in the sacrifice of His Son, but is based wholly on the certainty of judgment. So far, it is incomplete; but the demand for righteous living as the only test of religious emotion is fully Christian, and needed in this generation as much as it ever was. All preachers and others concerned in 'revivals' may well learn a lesson, and while they follow John in seeking to arouse torpid consciences by the terrors which are a part of the gospel, should not forget to demand, not merely an emotional repentance, but the solid fruits which alone guarantee the worth of the emotion.
The next flash strikes the lofty structure of confidence in their descent. John knows that every man in that listening crowd believes that his birth secured him joy and dominion when Messiah came. So he wrenches away this shield against which his sharpest arrows were blunted. What a murmur of angry denial must have met his contemptuous, audacious denial of their trusted privilege! The pebbles on the Jordan beach, or the loose rocks scattered so plentifully over the desert, could be made as good sons of Abraham as they. A glimpse of the transference of the kingdom to the despised Gentiles passed across his vision. And in these far-reaching words lay the anticipation, not only of the destruction of all Jewish exclusiveness, but of the miracles of quickening to be wrought on the stony hearts of those beyond its pale.
Once more with a new emblem the immediate beginning of the judgment is proclaimed, and its principles and issues are declared. The sharp axe lies at the roots of the tree, ready to be lifted and buried in its bark. The woodman's eye is looking over the forest; he marks with the fatal red line the worthless trees, and at once the swinging blows come down, and the timber is carted away to be burned. The trees are men. The judgment is an individualising one, and all-embracing. Nothing but actual righteousness of life will endure. All else will be destroyed.
The coming of the kingdom implied the coming of the King. John knew that the King was a man, and that He was at the door. So his sermon reaches its climax in the ringing proclamation of His advent. The first noticeable feature in it is the utter humility of the dauntless prophet before the yet veiled Sovereign. All the fiery force, the righteous scorn and anger, the unflinching bravery, melt into meek submission. He knows the limits of his own power, and gladly recognises the infinite superiority of the coming One. He never moved from that lowly attitude. Even when his followers tried to stir up base jealousy in him at being distanced by the Christ, who, as they suggested, owed His first recognition to him, all that his immovable self-abnegation cared to answer was, 'He must increase, but I must decrease.' He was glad 'to fade in the light of the Sun that he loved.' What a wealth of suppressed emotion and lowly love there is in the words so pathetic from the lips of the lonely ascetic, whom no home joys had ever cheered: 'He that hath the bride is the bridegroom.... My joy is fulfilled'!
Note, too, the grand conception of the gifts of the King. John knew that his baptism was, like the water in which he immersed, cold, and incapable of giving life. It symbolised, but did not effect, cleansing, any more than his preaching righteousness could produce righteousness. But the King would come, bringing with Him the gift of a mighty Spirit, whose quick energy, transforming dead matter into its own likeness, burning out the foul stains from character, and melting cold hearts into radiant warmth, should do all that his poor, cold, outward baptism only shadowed. Form and substance of this great promise gather up many Old Testament utterances. From of old, fire had been the emblem of the divine nature, not only, nor chiefly, as destructive, but rather as life-giving, cleansing, gladdening, fructifying, transforming. From of old, the promise of a divine Spirit poured out on all flesh had been connected with the kingdom of Messiah; and John but reiterates the uniform voice of prophecy, even as he anticipates the crowning gift of the gospel, in this saying.
Note, further, the renewed prophecy of judgment. There is something very solemn in the stern refrain at the end of each of three consecutive verses,—'with fire.' The first and the third refer to the destructive fire; the second, to the cleansing Spirit. But the fire that destroys is not unconnected with that which purifies. And the very same divine flame, if welcomed and yielded to, works purity, and if repelled and scorned, consumes. The rustic simplicity of the figures of the husbandman with his winnowing-shovel, the threshing-floor exposed to every wind, the stored wheat, the rootless, lifeless, worthless chaff, and the fierce fire in some corner of the autumn field where it is utterly burned up—needs no comment. They add nothing but another vivid picture to the thoughts already dealt with. But the question arises as to the whole of the representation of judgment here: Does it look beyond the present world? I see no reason for supposing that John was speaking about anything but the sifting and destroying which would attend the coming of the looked-for kingdom on earth. The principles which he laid down are, no doubt, true for both worlds; but the application of them which his prophetic mission embraced, lies on this side of the grave.
Note, further, the limitations in John's knowledge of the King. His prophecy unites, as contemporaneous, events which, in fact, are widely separate,—the coming of Christ, and the judgments which He executes, whether on Israel or in the final 'great day of the Lord.' There is no perspective in prophecy. The future is foreshortened, and great gulfs of centuries are passed over, as, standing on a plain, we see it as continuous, though it may really be cleft by deep ravines. He did not know 'what manner of time' the spirit which was in him did 'signify.' No doubt his expectations were correct, in so far as Christ's coming really sifted and separated, and was the rising and the falling of many; but it was not attended by such tokens as John inferred. Hence we can understand his doubts when in prison, and learn that a prophet was often mistaken as to the meaning of his message.
Again, while we have here a clear prediction of the Spirit as bestowed by Christ, we find no hint of His work as the sacrifice for sin, through whom the guilt which no repentance and no outward baptism could touch was taken away. The Gospel of John gives us later utterances of the Baptist's, by which we learn that he advanced beyond the point at which he stood here. 'Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world,' was his message after Christ's baptism. It is the last, highest voice of prophecy. The proclamation of a kingdom of heaven, of a king mighty and righteous, whose coming kindled a fire of judgment, and a blessed fire of purifying, into one or other of which all men must be plunged, contained elements of terror, as well as of hope. It needed completion by that later word.
When John stretched out his forefinger, and with awe-struck voice bade his hearers look at Jesus coming to him, prophecy had done its work. The promise had been gradually concentrated on the nation, the tribe, the house, and now it falls on the person. The dove narrows its circling flight till it lights on His head. The goal has been reached, too, in the clear declaration of Messiah's work. He is King, Giver of the Spirit, Judge, but He is before all else the Sacrifice for the world's sins. Therefore he to whom it was given to utter that great saying was a prophet, and more than a prophet; and when he had spoken it, there was nothing more for him to do but to decrease. He was like the breeze before sunrise, which springs up, as crying 'The dawn! the dawn!' and dies away.
THE BAPTISM IN FIRE
'He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.'—MATT. iii. 11
There is no more pathetic figure in Scripture than that of the forerunner of our Lord. Lonely and ascetic, charged to light against all the social order of which he was a part, seeing many of his disciples leave him for another master; then changing the free wilderness for a prison cell, and tortured by morbid doubts; finally murdered as the victim of a profligate woman's hate and a profligate man's perverse sense of honour: he had indeed to bear 'the burden of the Lord.' But perhaps most pathetic of all is the combination in his character of gaunt strength and absolute humility. How he confronts these people whom he had to rebuke, and yet how, in a moment, the flashing eye sinks in lowest self-abasement before 'Him that cometh after me'! How true, amidst many temptations, he was to his own description of himself: 'I am a voice'—nothing more. His sinewy arm was ever pointed to the 'Lamb of God.' It is given to very few to know so clearly their limits, and to still fewer—and these, men who keep very near God—to abide so contentedly within them, and to acquiesce so thankfully in the brightening glories of One whom self-importance and ambition would prompt to take for a rival and an enemy.
The words before us signalise at once John's lofty conception of the worth of his work, and his humble consciousness of its worthlessness as compared with Christ's. 'I indeed baptize you with water, but He with fire.' As is the difference between the two elements, so is the difference between His ministry and mine—the one effecting an outward cleansing, the other being an inward penetrating power, which shall search men through and through, and, burning, shall purge away dross and filth. The text comes in the midst of a triple representation of our Lord's work in its relation to his, each portion of which ends with the refrain, 'the fire.' But these three fires have not the same effects. The first and last destroy, the second cleanses. These are threatenings, but this is altogether a promise. There is a fire that consumes the barren tree and the light chaff that is whirled from the threshing-floor by the wind of His fan; but there is also a fire that, like the genial heat in some greenhouse, makes even the barren tree glow with blossom and loads its branches with precious fruit. His coming may kindle fire that will destroy, but its merciful purpose is to plunge us into that fiery baptism of the Holy Ghost, whereof the result is cleansing and life. Looking at the words before us, then, they lead us to think of that emblem of the Spirit of God, of Christ as bestowing it, and of its effects on us. I venture to offer a few considerations now on each of these points.
I. The Holy Spirit is fire.
It would scarcely be necessary to spend any time in illustrating that truth, but for the strange misapprehension of the words of our text which I believe to be not uncommon. People sometimes read them as if the first portion referred to those who trust in Christ, and who therefore receive the blessings of His sanctifying energy, whilst the latter words, on the other hand, were a threatening against unbelievers. Now, whatever may be the meaning of the emblem in the preceding and subsequent clauses, it can have but one meaning in our text itself—and that is, the purifying influence of the Spirit of God. Baptism with the Holy Ghost is not one thing and baptism with fire another, but the former is the reality of which the latter is the symbol.
It may be worth while to dwell briefly on the force of the emblem, which is often misunderstood. Fire, then, all over the world has been taken to represent the divine energy. Even in heathendom, side by side with the worship of light was the worship of fire. Even that cruel Moloch-worship, with all its abominations rested upon the notion that the swift power and ruddy blaze of fire were symbols of glorious attributes. Though the thought was darkened and marred, wrongly apprehended and ferociously worked out in ritual, it was a true thought for all that. And Scripture has from the beginning used it. It would carry us too far to enumerate the instances which might be adduced. But we may quote a few. When the covenant was made between God and Abraham, upon which all the subsequent revelation reposed, the divine presence was represented by a smoking furnace, and a lamp of fire that passed between the divided pieces of the sacrifice. When the great revelation of the divine Name was given to Moses, which prepared for the great deliverance from Egypt, the sign of it was a thorn-bush—one of the many dotted over the desert—burning and unconsumed. Surely the ordinary interpretation, which sees, in that undying flame, an emblem of Israel undestroyed in the furnace of bondage, is less natural than that which sees in it a sign having the same purpose and the same meaning as the deep words, 'I am that I am.' The Name, the revelation proper, is accompanied by the sign which expresses in figure the very same truth—the unwearied power, the undecaying life of the great self-existent God, who wills and does not change, who acts and does not faint, who gives and is none the poorer, who fills the universe and is Himself the same, who burns and is not consumed—the 'I am.' Further, we remember how to Israel the pledge and sacramental seal of God's guardianship and guidance was the pillar which, in the fervid light of the noonday sun, seemed to be but a column of wavering smoke, but which, when the darkness fell, glowed at the heart and blazed across the sleeping camp, a fiery guard. 'Who among us,' says the prophet, 'shall dwell with everlasting burnings?' The answer is a parallel to the description given in one of the Psalms in reply to the question, 'Lord, who shall abide in Thy tabernacle?' From which parallelism, as well as from the whole tone of the passage, the conclusion is unavoidable that to Isaiah 'everlasting burnings' was a symbolic designation of God. And, passing by all other references, we remember that our Lord Himself used the same emblem, as John does, with apparently the same meaning, when, yearning for the fulfilment of His work, He said,' I am come to send fire on earth—oh that it were already kindled!' The day of Pentecost teaches the same lesson by its fiery tongues; and the Seer in Patmos beheld, burning before the throne, the sevenfold lamps of fire which are 'the seven spirits of God.'
Thus, then, there is a continuous chain of symbolism according to which some aspect of the divine nature, and especially of the Spirit of God, is set forth for us by fire. The question, then, comes to be—what is that aspect? In answer, I would remind you that the attributes and offices of the Spirit of God are never in Scripture represented as being destructive, and are only punitive, in so far as the convictions of sin, which He works in the heart, may be regarded as being punishments. The fire of God's Spirit, at all events, is not a wrathful energy, working pain and death, but a merciful omnipotence, bringing light and joy and peace. The Spirit which is fire is a Spirit which giveth life. So the symbol, in the special reference in the text, has nothing of terror or destruction but is full of hope and bright with promise.
Even in its more general application to the divine nature, the same thing is to a large extent true. The common impression is the reverse of this. The interpretation which most readers unconsciously supply to the passages of Scripture where God is spoken of as flaming fire, is that God's terrible wrath is revealed in them. I am very far from denying that the punitive and destructive side of the divine character is in the symbol, but certainly that is not its exclusive meaning, nor does it seem to me to be its principal one. The emblem is employed over and over again, in connections where it must mean chiefly the blessed and joyous aspect of God's Name to men. It is unquestionably part of the felicity of the symbol that there should be in it this double force—for so is it the fitter to show forth Him who, by the very same attributes, is the life of those who love Him and the death of those who turn from Him. But, still, though it is true that the bright and the awful aspects of that Name are in themselves one, and that their difference arises from the difference of the eyes which behold them, yet we are justified, I think, in saying that this emblem of fire regards mainly the former of these and not the latter. The principal ideas in it seem to be swift energy and penetrating power, which cleanses and transforms. It is fire as the source of light and heat; it is fire, not so much as burning up what it seizes into ashes, but rather as laying hold upon cold dead matter, making it sparkle and blaze, and turning it into the likeness of its own leaping brightness; it is fire as springing heavenwards, and bearing up earthly particles in its shooting spires; it is fire, as least gross of visible things;—in a word, it is fire as life, and not as death, that is the symbol of God. It speaks of the might of His transforming power, the melting, cleansing, vitalising influence of His communicated grace, the warmth of His conquering love. It has, indeed, an under side of possible judgment, punishment, and destruction, but it has a face of blessing, of life-giving, of sanctifying power. And therefore the Baptist spake glad tidings when he said, 'He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.'
II. Christ plunges us into this divine fire.
I presume that scarcely any one will deny that our version weakens the force of John's words by translating 'with water, with the Holy Ghost,' instead of 'in water, in the Holy Ghost.' One of the most accurate of recent commentators, for instance, in his remarks on this verse, says that the preposition here 'is to be understood in accordance with the idea of baptism that is immersion, not as expressing the instrument with which, but as meaning "in," and expressing the element in which the immersion takes place.' I suppose that very few persons would hesitate to agree with that statement. If it is correct, what a grand idea is conveyed by that metaphor of the completeness of the contact with the Spirit of God into which we are brought! How it represents all our being as flooded with that transforming power! But, apart from the intensity communicated to the promise by such a figure, there is another important matter brought distinctly before us by the words, and that is Christ's personal agency in effecting this saturating of man's coldness with the fire from God. This testimony of John's is in full accord with Christ's claims for Himself, and with the whole tenor of Scripture on the subject. He is the Lord of the Spirit. He is come to scatter that fire on the earth. He brings the ruddy gift from heaven to mortals, carrying it in the bruised reed of His humanity; and, in pursuance of His merciful design, He is bound and suffers for our sakes, but, loosed at last from the bands by which it was not possible that He should be holden, and 'being by the right hand of God exalted, He hath shed forth this.' His mighty work opens the way for the life-giving power of the Spirit to dwell as an habitual principle, and not as a mere occasional gift, among men, sanctifying their characters from the foundation, and not merely, as of old, bestowing special powers for special functions. He claims to send us the Comforter. We know but little of such high themes, but we can clearly see that, while there may be many other reasons for the full bestowment of the Spirit of God having to be preceded by the gift of Christ, one reason must be that the measure of individual and subjective inspiration varies according to the amount of objective revelation. The truth revealed is the condition and the instrument of the Spirit's working. The sharper that sword of the Spirit is, the mightier will be His power. Hence, only when the revelation of God is complete by the message of His Son, His life, death, resurrection, and ascension, was the full, permanent gift of the Spirit possible, not to make new revelations, but to unfold all that lay in the Word spoken once for all, in whom the whole Name of God is contained.
However that may be, the main thing for us, dear friends, is this—that Christ gives the Spirit. In and by Jesus, you and I are brought into real contact with this cleansing fire. Without His work, it would never have burned on earth; without our faith in His work it will never purify our souls. The Spirit of God is not a synonym for the moral influence which the principles of Christianity exert on men who believe them; but these principles, the truths revealed in Jesus Christ, are the means by which the Spirit works its noblest work. Our acceptance of these truths, then, our faith in Him whom these truths reveal, is absolutely essential to our possession of that cleansing power. The promise is of 'that Spirit which they that believe on Him should receive.' If we have no faith in Jesus, then, however we may fancy that the gift of God can be ours by other means, the stern answer comes to our fond delusions and mistaken efforts, 'Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter.' Oh! you who are seeking for spiritual elevation, for intellectual enlightenment, for the fire of a noble enthusiasm, for the consecration of pure hearts, anywhere but in Christ your Lord, will you not listen to the majestic and yet lowly voice, which blends in its tones grave and loving rebuke, gentle pity, wonder and sorrow at our blindness, earnest entreaty, and divine authority—'If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that speaketh to thee, thou wouldst have asked of Him, and He would have given thee living water'?
Here are we cold, foul, dark, dead: there is that fire of God able to cleanse, to enlighten, to give life. How is true contact to be effected between our great need and His all-sufficient energy? One voice brings the answer for every Christian soul, 'I will send the Comforter.' Brethren, let us cleave to Him, and in humble faith ask Him to plunge us into that fiery stream which, for all its fire, is yet a river of water of life proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. 'He shall baptize you in the Holy Ghost and in fire.'
III. That fiery baptism quickens and cleanses.
In John's mind, the difference between the two baptisms, his and the Christ's, expresses accurately the difference between the two ministries and their effects. As has been truly and beautifully said, he is conscious of something 'cold and negative' in his own teaching, of which the water of his baptism is a fit representation. His message is divine and true, but it is hard: 'Repent, do what you ought, wait for the Kingdom and its King.' And, when his command has been obeyed, his disciples come up out of Jordan, at the best but superficially cleansed, and needing that the process begun in them should be perfected by mightier powers than any which his message wields. They need more than that outward washing—they need an inward cleansing; they need more than the preaching of repentance and morality—they need a gift of life; they need a new power poured into their souls, the fiery steam of which, as it rolls along, like a lava current through mountain forests, shall seize and burn every growth of evil in their natures. They need not water, but Spirit; not water, but Fire. They need what shall be life to their truest life, and death to all the death within, that separates them from the life of God.
So the two main effects expressed here are these: quickening and cleansing.
Fire gives warmth. We talk about ardent desires, warm hearts, the glow of love, the fire of enthusiasm, and even the flame of life. We draw the contrast with cold natures, which are loveless and unemotional, hard to stir and quicken; we talk about thawing reserve, about an icy torpor, and so on. The same general strain of allusion is undoubtedly to be traced in our text. Whatever more it means, it surely means this, that Christ comes to kindle in men's souls a blaze of enthusiastic, divine love, such as the world never saw, and to set them aflame with fervent earnestness, which shall melt all their icy hardness of heart, and turn cold self-regard into self-forgetting consecration.
Here, then, our text touches upon one of the very profoundest characteristics of Christianity considered as a power in human life. The contrast between it and all other religions and systems of ethics lies, amongst other things, in the stress which it lays upon love and on the earnestness which comes from love; whereas these are scarcely regarded as elements in virtue according to the world, and have certainly no place at all in the world's notion of 'temperate religion.' Christ gives fervour by giving His Spirit. Christ gives fervour by bringing the warmth of His own love to bear upon our hearts through the Spirit, and that kindles ours. Where His great work for men is believed and trusted in, there, and there only, is there excited an intensity of consequent affection to Him which glows throughout the life. It is not enough to say that Christianity is singular among religious and moral systems in exalting fervour into a virtue. Its peculiarity lies deeper—in its method of producing that fervour. It is kindled by that Spirit using as His means the truth of the dying love of Christ. The secret of the Gospel is not solved by saying that Christ excites love in our souls. The question yet remains—how? There is but one answer to that. He loved us to the death. That truth laid on hearts by the Spirit, who takes of Christ's and shows them to us, and that truth alone, makes fire burst from their coldness.
Here is the power that produces that inner fervour without which virtue is a name and religion a yoke. Here is the contrast, not only to John's baptism, but to all worldly religion, to all formalism and decent deadness of external propriety. Here is the consecration of enthusiasm—not a lurid, sullen heat of ignorant fanaticism, but a living glow of an enkindled nature, which flames because kindled by the inextinguishable blaze of His love who gave Himself for us. 'He shall baptize you in fire.'
Then, dear brethren, if we profess to have come into personal contact with Jesus Christ, here is a sharp test for us, and a solemn rebuke to much of our lives. For a Christian to be cold is sin. Our coldness can only come from our neglecting to stir up the gift that is in us. People reproach us with extravagant emotion: let us confess that we have never deserved that reproach half as much as we ought. The world's ideal of religion is decorous coldness—has not the world's ideal been our practice? We are afraid to be fervent, but our true danger is icy torpor. We sit frost-bitten and almost dead among the snows, and all the while the gracious sunshine is pouring down, that is able to melt the white death that covers us, and to free us from the bonds that hold us prisoned in their benumbing clasp.
No evil is more marked among the Christian Churches of this day than precisely the absence of this 'spirit of burning.' There is plenty of liberality and effort, there is much interest in religious questions, there is genial tolerance and wide culture, there is a high standard of morality, and, on the whole, a tolerable adherence to it—but there is little love, and little fervour. 'I have somewhat against thee, that thou hast left thy first love.'
Where is that Spirit which was poured out on Pentecost? Where are the cloven tongues of fire, where the flame which Christ died to light up? Has it burned down to grey ashes, or, like some house-fire, lit and left untended, has it gone out after a little ineffectual crackling among the lighter pieces of wood and paper, without ever reaching the solid mass of obstinate coal? Where? The question is not difficult to answer. His promise remains faithful. He does send the Spirit, who is fire. But our sin, our negligence, our eager absorption with worldly cares, and our withdrawal of mind and heart from the patient contemplation of His truth, have gone far to quench the Spirit. Is it not so? Are our souls on fire with the love of God, aglow with the ardour caught from Christ's love? Does that love which fills our hearts coruscate and flame in our lives, making us lights in the darkness, as some firebrand caught up from the hearth will serve for a torch and blaze out into the night? 'He shall baptize with fire.'
'O Thou that earnest from above, The pure celestial fire to impart, Kindle a flame of sacred love On the mean altar of my heart.'
Then there is another thought expressed by this symbol, namely, that this baptism gives cleansing as well as warmth, or rather gives cleansing by warmth. Fire purifies. That Spirit, which is fire, produces holiness in heart and character, by this most chiefly among all His manifold operations, that He excites the flame of love to God, which burns our souls clear with its white fervours. This is the Christian method of making men good,—first, know His love, then believe it, then love Him back again, and then let that genial heat permeate all your life, and it will woo forth everywhere blossoms of beauty and fruits of holiness, that shall clothe the pastures of the wilderness with gladness. Did you ever see a blast-furnace? How long would it take a man, think you, with hammer and chisel, or by chemical means, to get the bits of ore out from the stony matrix? But fling them into the great cylinder, and pile the fire and let the strong draught roar through the burning mass, and by evening you can run off a golden stream of pure and fluid metal, from which all the dross and rubbish is parted, which has been charmed out of all its sullen hardness, and will take the shape of any mould into which you like to run it. The fire has conquered, has melted, has purified. So with us. Love 'shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost given unto us,' love that answers to Christ's, love that is fixed upon Him who is pure and separate from sinners, will purify us and sever us from our sins. Nothing else will. All other cleansing is superficial, like the water of John's baptism. Moralities and the externals of religion will wash away the foulness which lies on the surface, but stains that have sunk deep into the very substance of the soul, and have dyed every thread in warp and woof to its centre, are not to be got rid of so. The awful words which our great dramatist puts into the mouth of the queenly murderess are heavy with the weight of most solemn truth. After all vain attempts to cleanse away the stains, we, like her, have to say, 'There's the smell of the blood still—will these hands ne'er be clean?' No, never; unless there be something mightier, more inward in its power, than the water with which we can wash them, some better gospel than 'Repent and reform.' God be thanked, there is a mightier detergent than all these—even that divine Spirit which Christ gives, and that divine forgiveness which Christ brings. There, and there alone, dear brethren, we can lose all the guilt of our faultful past, and receive a new and better life which will mould our future into growing likeness to His great purity. Oh do not resist that merciful searching fire, which is ready to penetrate our very bones and marrow, and burn up the seeds of death which lurk in the inmost intents of the heart! Let Him plunge you into that gracious baptism, as we put some poor piece of foul clay into the fire, and like it, as you glow you will whiten, and all the spots will melt away before the conquering tongues of the cleansing flame. In that furnace, heated seven times hotter than any earthly power could achieve, they who walk live by the presence of the Son of Man, and nothing is consumed but the bonds that held them. His Spirit is fire, and that Spirit of fire is, therefore, the Spirit of holiness.
But take one warning word in conclusion. The alternative for every man is to be baptized in the fire or to be consumed by it. The symbol of which we have been speaking sets forth the double thought of purifying and destruction. Nothing which we have said as to the former in the least weakens the completing truth that there is in it an under side of possible terror. One of the felicities of the emblem is its capacity to set forth this twofold idea. There is that in the divine nature which the Bible calls wrath, the necessary displeasure and aversion of holy love from sin and wrong-doers. There is in the divine procedure even now and here, the manifestation of that aversion in punishment. 'The light of Israel becomes a flaming fire.'
I have no panorama of hell to exhibit, and I would speak with all reticence on matters so awful; but this much, at any rate, is clear, that the very same revelation of God, thankfully accepted and submitted to, is the medium of cleansing and the source of joyful life, and, rejected, becomes the source of sorrow and the occasion of death. Every man sees that aspect of God's face which he has made himself fit to see. Every gift of God is to men either a savour of life unto life, or a savour of death unto death. Most chiefly is this so in regard to Christ and His gospel, who, though He came not to judge but to save, yet by reason of that very universal purpose of salvation, becomes a judge in the act of saving, and a condemnation to those in whom, by their own faults, that purpose is not fulfilled.
The same pillar of fire which gladdened the ranks of Israel as they camped by the Red Sea, shone baleful and terrible to the Egyptian hosts. The same Ark of the Covenant whose presence blessed the house of Obed-edom, and hallowed Zion, and saved Jerusalem, smote the Philistines, and struck down their bestial gods. Christ and His gospel even here hurt the men whom they do not save.
And we have only to carry that process onwards into another world, and suppose it made more energetic there, as it will be, to feel dimly in how awful a sense it may be that the same fire which gives life may be the occasion of death—and how profound a truth lies in the words—
'What maketh Heaven, that maketh Hell.'
Yes, verily; to be salted with fire or to be consumed by it, to be baptized in it or to be cast into it, is the choice offered to us all; to thee, my brother, and to me. Israel made its choice, and in seventy years, the Roman standards on Zion and the flames leaping round the Temple, interpreted John's words in one of their halves, while the growing energy of the fire that was lit on Pentecost fulfilled them in the other. Many a nation and Church has made its choice since then. You have to make yours. 'The fire shall try every man's work, of what sort it is.' Shall our work be gold, and silver, and precious stones which shall gleam and flash in the light, or wood, hay, and stubble which shall writhe for a moment in the blaze and perish? 'Our God is a consuming fire.' Shall that be the ground of my confidence that I shall one day be pure from all my sins, or shall it be the parent of my ghastliest fear that I may be, like the chaff, destroyed by contact with a holy love rejected, with a Saviour disbelieved, with a Spirit grieved and quenched? Choose which.
THE BAPTISM OF JESUS
'Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. 14. But John forbad Him, saying, I have need to be baptized of Thee, and comest Thou to me? 15. And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered Him. 16. And Jesus, when He was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon Him: 17. And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.'—MATT. iii. 13-17.
When Jesus set out from Galilee to seek baptism from John, He took the first step on His path of public work; and it is noteworthy that He took it, apparently, from self-originated impulse, and not, as in the case of the prophets of old, from obedience to a 'prophetic call.' 'The Word of the Lord came to' them; His Messianic consciousness needed no external stimulus to kindle it into flame. What did He mean by seeking baptism? John recognised the incongruity of His submitting to a rite which professed repentance and promised cleansing. It does not follow that John recognised His Messianic character, but only that he knew His blameless life. The remonstrance witnesses at once to John's humble consciousness of sin and to Jesus' acknowledged purity. Christ's answer has a sound of authority, even in its gentle lowliness, and it confirms the belief in His sinlessness by the absence of any reference to repentance, and by regarding His baptism, not as a token of repented transgression to be washed away, but as an act which completed the perfect circle of righteousness, which His life had hitherto drawn. He submitted to the appointed rite, because He would be one with His brethren in all obedience. So, then, the principle underlying His baptism is the principle underlying His incarnation, His life of obedience and identification of Himself with us, and His death. 'He also Himself likewise took part of' whatsoever His brethren were partakers of, and therefore He was 'numbered with the transgressors' in that, needing no repentance, He submitted to the baptism of repentance, and cleansed the cleansing water by being plunged in it.
What was the significance of the descent of the Spirit on Him? Matthew's account implies that the appearance of the descending dove was to Jesus. John i. 32 states that it was also visible to John. The accompanying voice is as if principally directed to John, according to Matthew, while Mark and Luke represent it as addressed to Jesus. Both appearance and voice were the tokens of the Father's approval, and acceptance of the Son's consecration of Himself to the Messianic work. The dove descending on Him was the token that henceforward His manhood should be anointed with the unbroken influences of the divine Spirit, and possess the unbroken consciousness of the Father's good pleasure, lying like sunshine on the stormy sea on which He had launched. How different the conception of the Spirit as a dove, which was Jesus' experience of it, from the Baptist's, which was that of fire! Jesus is in this incident, as in all, our pattern and example, teaching us that we too must yield ourselves to do the Father's will, and must identify ourselves with sinners, if we are to help them and to have the Father's approval sounding in our hearts, and the dove of God nestling there, and teaching us, too, that gentleness is the divinest and strongest power to win men from evil and for God.
THE DOVE OF GOD
'He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon Him.' MATT. iii. 16.
This Gospel of Matthew is emphatically the gospel of the Kingdom. It sets forth Jesus as the long-promised Messiah, the Son of David. And this conception of Him and of His work, whilst it runs through the whole of the Gospel, is more obviously influential in shaping the selection of incidents and colouring the cast of the language, in the early portion. Hence the genealogy with which the Gospel begins dwells with emphasis on His royal descent from David. Hence the story of the wise men of the East is given, who came to do their homage to the new-born King of the Jews, whose innocent poverty and infancy are set in contrast with the court and character of the cruel Herod who had for an hour usurped the title. Hence, also, the mission of John the Baptist is all summed up in his proclamation: 'The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.' He is the herald that runs before the chariot of the advancing Monarch, and shouts to a slumbering nation, 'The King! the King!'
Preserving the same reference to the royal dignity of Jesus, we may look at His baptism as being His public assumption of His Messianic office, and at this descent of the Holy Spirit as the anointing or coronation of the King. As His meek head rose, glistening from the waters of the baptism, there fluttered down upon Him the gentle token of the manifest designation from the Heavens, which solemnly declared Him to be the Son of God, anointed Messias, King of Israel and of the world.
So in looking at this incident, I take simply two points of view, and consider its bearing on Jesus, and on us.
I. As to the former, we have here the Coronation of the King.
We need not spend time upon the question which we have no materials for answering, viz.—What was the 'objective material reality' here? We do not know enough about what constitutes 'objective material reality,' nor about what are the laws of prophetic ecstasy and vision, to discuss such a question as that. Nor is there any need to moot it. It does not matter one rush whether bystanders would have seen anything or not. It does not matter in the least whether there was any actual excitation of auditory or visual nerves. It does not matter whether there was anything which people are contented to call material—a word which covers a depth of ignorance. Enough for us that this was no fancy, born in a man's brain, but an actual manifestation, whether through sense or apart from sense, to consciousness, of a divine outpouring and communication. Enough for us that the voice which spoke was God's, and that that which descended was the Spirit of God. As to all other questions, they may be amusing and interesting, but they are insoluble, and therefore unimportant.
Well, then, taking that point of view, the next question that arises is as to the purpose of this descent of the Spirit. Plainly, as I have said, it was the coronation and anointing of the Monarch. But a man is king before he is crowned. Coronation is the consequence and not the cause of his royalty. It is but the official and solemn announcement of a previous fact. No additional power, no fresh authority, comes of the crowning. And so the first purpose of this great fact is distinctly stated, in John's Gospel, as having been the solemn, divine pointing out of Messiah to the Baptist primarily, but in order that he might bear witness of Him to others. The words which follow are a commentary on, and part of the explanation of, the descent of the Holy Spirit. They are God's finger, pointing to Jesus and saying, 'Arise, anoint Him, for this is He.'
But it must be remembered always that this was neither the beginning of that divine Spirit's operation upon Jesus, nor the beginning of His Messianic nature and consciousness; nor the beginning of His Sonship. That day was not in deepest truth the 'day' on which the Son was 'begotten.' Before the baptism there was the consciousness of Messiahship witnessed in these words, so singularly compacted of humility and authority: 'Suffer it to be so now, for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness'; and before His baptism, and even before His birth, that divine Spirit wrought His manhood, and ere the heavens opened, or the dove fluttered down upon His head, He from everlasting was the Son in the bosom of the Father.
So we see here, I think, if we follow the lead of the Scriptural teaching, not the beginning of powers or communications, but an advance in these. Christ's baptism was an epoch in His human development, inasmuch as it was the public official assumption of His Messianic office. He came from out of the sheltering obscurity of the Galilean village nestling among its hills. He had now put His foot upon the path, set with knives and hot ploughshares, along which He had to walk to the Cross. Inasmuch as it was an epoch in His development (for His manhood was capable of growth and maturing), and inasmuch as new tasks needed increase of gifts, and inasmuch as His man's nature was subject to the conditions of time, and capable of expansion and increase of capacity, therefore, I believe that when Christ rose from the waters of baptism, no new gift indeed was His, but such an advance in the communication to His manhood of the sustaining Spirit, as fully equipped Him for the new calls of His Messianic work.
His manhood needed, as ours does, the continual communication of the divine Spirit, and His manhood, because it was sinless, was capable of a complete reception of that Spirit. Sinless though He knew Himself to be, as His own words declare, He yet bowed His head to the baptism of repentance, which He needed not for Himself, just as He afterwards bowed His head to a darker, a sadder baptism, which He had to be baptized with, though it likewise He needed not for Himself, because in both the one and the other He would make Himself one with His brethren. The Spirit of God had shaped His manhood ere His birth. The Spirit of God had been abiding in His holy infancy and growing youth, but now it came in larger measure for new needs and His Messiah's work.
So, dear friends, we see in Christ, baptized with the Spirit of God, the realised ideal of manhood, ever dependent, ever needing for its purity that holy influence, and receiving at every pore that divine gift. What a contrast to our limited partial reception, broken and interrupted so often! All the doors that are barred in our hearts by sin, all the windows that are darkened in our souls by vice and self, in Him stood open to the day, and brilliantly receptive of the illumination. And so 'the Father giveth not the Spirit by measure unto Him.'
Notice, too, the meaning of the symbol. Think of what John, with his incomplete though not inaccurate conceptions, expected in the Messiah whom he proclaimed. To him the coming of the King was first and chiefly a coming to judgment. There is nothing more remarkable than the aspect of terror which drapes the old hope of Israel as it comes from John's lips. He believes that the King is coming, that His coming is to be an awful thing. Judgment is to go before Him, He bears 'His fan in His hand,' and kindles 'unquenchable fire,' into which the leafy trees that have no fruit upon them are to be flung, there to shrivel and crackle and disappear. This is what he expects at the worst, and at the best a baptism in the Holy Ghost, from Messiah's hands, which, however, is likewise to be fiery even whilst it quickens, and searching and destructive even whilst it gladdens. When, then, his carpenter cousin is designated as Messiah, John sees two wonders: that this is the Christ, and that the Spirit which he had thought of as searching and consuming, should come fluttering down upon His head in the likeness of a dove. Old Testament symbols and natural poetry unite in giving felicity to that emblem. 'The Spirit of God brooded on the face of the deep,' says Genesis; and the word employed describes accurately the action of the mother-bird, with her soft breast and outstretched wings quickening the life that lies beneath. The dove was pure and allowed for sacrifice. All nations have made it the symbol of meekness, gentleness, faithfulness. All these associations determined the form which the descending Benediction took.
What then does it proclaim as to the character of the King? Purity is the very foundation of His royalty. Meekness and gentleness are the very weapons of His conquest and the sceptre of His rule. The dove will outfly all Rome's eagles and all rapacious, unclean feeders, with their strong wings, and curved talons, and sharp beaks. The lesson as to the true nature of the true Kingdom, which was taught of old when the prophet said 'Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, riding on an ass,' and not upon the warhorse of secular force; the lesson which was taught unwittingly, as to the true nature of the true Kingdom, when the scoffers, speaking a deeper truth than they understood, put upon His brow the crown of thorns, and forced into His hand the sceptre of reed, was taught here—the lesson that meekness conquers, and that His kingdom is founded in suffering, and wielded in gentleness. The lesson of the ancient psalm, which in rapture of prophetic vision beheld the coming of the Bridegroom, and said with strange blending of images of war and of peace: 'Thine arrows are sharp in the heart of the King's enemies; in Thy majesty ride prosperously, because of meekness; and Thy right hand shall teach Thee terrible things';—that same lesson was taught when the King was crowned, and in the day of His coronation, that which fell upon His bowed, glistening head, was the Dove from Heaven, the proclamation that meekness and gentleness are the garment of Omnipotence.
II. Consider this incident as showing us the gifts of the King to His subjects.
Christ has nothing which He keeps to Himself. Christ received the Spirit that He might diffuse it through the whole world. Whatsoever He has received of the Father He gives unto us. This conception of the gift that Christ has to bestow upon men, as being the very life-spirit that dwelt in His manhood, and made and kept it pure, is the highest thought that we can have of what the gospel does for us. You do not understand its meaning if you content yourself with thinking of it as simply the means of escape from wrath. You do not understand its meaning—though, blessed be God! that is the first part of its mercy to us—if you think of Christ's gift as only pardon by means of His sacrifice on the Cross. We must rise higher than that; we must feel, if we would understand the 'unspeakable gift,' that it is the gift of Himself to dwell within us by His Spirit as the very spirit of our lives. Assimilation by reception of a supernatural life from Him, is the teaching of Pentecost. Christ is our life; 'the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made us free from the law of sin and death.'
Therefore, all Christian men are spoken of in the New Testament in the same language which is used in reference to their Master. Is He the Son of God? They are sons through Him. Is He the High Priest? They are priests unto God. Is He the Light of the World? They are, in their places, kindled and derived lights. Is He the Christ, the Messias, the Anointed? 'Ye have an unction from the Holy One,' and He hath anointed us in Him. So that it is no arrogance, though it may be a questionably wise form of expression, when we say that the object of Christ's coming is to make us all Christs, God's anointed, and to make us so because He Himself in His Spirit dwells in us.
Christ can do that. He can give this Spirit. That is the very thing that all other teachers cannot do. They can teach tricks of imitation, they can galvanise men, for a little while, into some kind of copy of their characteristics. They can give them the principles which they themselves have been living on, but to repeat and to continue the spirit of the Teacher is the very thing that cannot be done. 'Let a double portion fall upon me,' said Elisha; and Elijah, knowing the limits of the human relationship between master and disciple, could only shake his head in doubt and say, 'Thou askest a hard thing; perhaps thou wilt get it, perhaps thou wilt not, but it will not be I that will give it you.' But Christ says: 'I give My Spirit to you all.'
And let us remember, too, how full of blessed teaching, of rebuke, and of instruction that symbol is, in reference to ourselves. To all of us there is offered, if we like to have it, this dove-like Spirit. What does that mean? Let us for a moment dwell upon the various uses of the emblem, for they all carry important lessons. Our hearts are like that wild chaos which preceded the present ordered state of things. And over the seething darkness, full of all formless horrors and half-discerned dead monstrosities, over all the chaos of disordered wills, rebellious appetites, stinging conscience, darkened perceptions, there will come, if we will (and we may will by His help, which is never far away from us), gently, but quickening us into life and reducing confusion into order, and flooding our cloudy night with light, that divine Spirit. The dove that brooded over Chaos and made it Cosmos, will brood over your nature, and re-create the whole. 'If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation.' 'The old things are passed away.' Creator Spirit! create a clean heart in me.
And then again let me remind you that this emblem brings to us another cognate and yet distinct hope, inasmuch as the dove was the emblem of purity and clean for sacrifice. This is the characteristic of the scriptural doctrine of inspiration, by which it is distinguished from all heathen and secular conceptions of a similar sort, viz., that it puts the moral in the foreground, and that the Spirit, which is the Spirit of truth, and of wisdom and of power, is first and foremost the Spirit of holiness. So that if a man is not clean, no matter what his gifts, no matter what his wisdom, no matter what his intellectual force, no matter what his supernatural and miraculous power, he has not the Spirit of God in him. The Dove comes, and where it comes there is peace, there is purity, there is sacrifice. If any man have not the Spirit of holiness he is none of Christ's.
So, brethren, remember that not in shining faculty, not in piercing vision into mystery, not in the eloquence of honeyed tongue, nor the power of a swift hand, not in any of the lesser and subordinate gifts which the world exclusively honours as inspiration, is the power of the indwelling Spirit to be manifested. If the Spirit of God is in you, it is making you clean.
Still further, remember how, as for the King so for His subjects, the Dove that crowns Him and that dwells in them is the Spirit of meekness and of gentleness. That is the true force. Light, which is silent, is mightier than all lightnings. The Spirit, which is the 'Spirit of love,' is therefore 'the Spirit of power.' The true type of Christian character, which the gospel has brought into being, looks modest, inconspicuous and humdrum, by the side of the more brilliant and vulgar beauties of the world's ideals. Just as the iridescent hues on a dove's neck, and the quiet blue of its plumage, look modest and Quaker-like beside gaudy parroquets and other bedizened birds, so the Christian type of character, patient, meek, gentle, not self-asserting, seems pale and sober-tinted beside the world's heroes. But gentleness is the mightiest and will conquer at last. For Christ and Christ's followers go forth, through universal love to universal power.
And the last suggestion that I offer to you about the significance of this symbol is one that I freely admit to be fanciful, and yet it strikes me as being very beautiful. Noah's dove came back to the ark with one leaf in his beak. That was the prophecy and the foretaste of a whole world of beauty and of verdure. The dove that comes to us, bearing with it some leaf plucked from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God, is the earnest of our inheritance until the day of redemption. All the gifts of that divine Spirit, gifts of holiness, of gentleness, of wisdom, of truth—all these are forecasts and anticipations of the perfectness of the heavens. To us, sailing over a dismal sea, the Spirit comes bearing with it a message that tells us of the far-off land and the fair garden of God in which the blessed shall walk.
Dear friends, remember the one condition on which is suspended our possession of the Spirit of God. It is that we shall have Christ for our very own by our humble faith. If we are trusting in Him, He will come and put His Spirit within our hearts. Without Him these hearts are cages of unclean and hateful birds. But the meek presence of the dove of God will drive out the obscene, twilight-loving creatures that build and scream there, and will fill our hearts with the tranquillity, the purity, the gentleness, the hope, which are 'the fruit of the Spirit.'
THE VICTORY OF THE KING
'Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. 2. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He was afterward an hungred. 3. And when the tempter came to Him, he said, If Thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. 4. But He answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. 5. Then the devil taketh Him up into the holy city, and setteth Him on a pinnacle of the temple, 6. And saith unto Him, If Thou be the Son of God, cast Thyself down: for it is written, He shall give His angels charge concerning Thee: and in their hands they shall bear Thee up, lest at any time Thou dash Thy foot against a stone. 7. Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. 8. Again, the devil taketh Him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth Him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; 9. And saith unto Him, All these things will I give Thee, if Thou wilt fall down and worship me. 10. Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve. 11. Then the devil leaveth Him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto Him.'—MATT. iv. 1-11.
Every word of the first verses of this narrative is full of meaning. 'Then' marks the immediate connection, not only in time but in causation, between the baptism and the temptation. The latter followed necessarily on the former. 'Of the Spirit'—then God does lead His Son into temptation. For us all, as for Christ, it is true that, though God does not tempt as wishing us to fall, He does so order our lives that they carry us into places where the metal of our religion is tried. 'To be tempted'—then a pure, sinless human nature is capable of temptation, and the King has to begin his career by a battle. 'Of the devil'—then there is a dark kingdom of evil, and a personal head of it, the prince of darkness. He knows His rival, and yet He knows him but partially. He strides out to meet him in desperate duel, as Goliath did the stripling whom he despised; and both hosts pause and gaze. To a sinless nature no temptation can arise from within, but must be presented from without.
We leave untouched the question as to the manner of this temptation, which remains equally real, whether we conceive that the tempter appeared in bodily form, and actually carried the body of our Lord from place to place, or whether we suppose that, during it all, Christ sat silent, and apparently alone in the wilderness. We only divert attention from the true importance of the incident by giving prominence to picturesque or questionable externals of it.
I. The first assault and repulse, in the desert.
Unlike John the Baptist, whose austere spirit was unfolded in the desert, Jesus grew up among men, passing through and sanctifying childhood and youth, home duties, and innocent pleasures. But ere He enters on His work, the need which every soul appointed to high and hard tasks has felt, namely, the need for seclusion and communion with God in solitude, was felt by Him. As it had been for Moses and Elijah, the wilderness was His school; and as the collective Israel, so the personal Son of God, has to be led into the wilderness, that there God may 'speak to His heart.' So deep and rapt was the communion, that, for forty days, spirit so mastered flesh that the need and desire for food were suspended. But when He touched earth again, the pinch of hunger began. Analogous cases of the power of high emotion to hold physical wants in abeyance are sufficiently familiar to make so extreme an instance explicable.
We have to distinguish in the first temptation between the sphere in which it moves, the act suggested, and the true nature of the act as dragged to light in Christ's answer. The sphere is that of the physical nature. Hunger has nothing to do with right or wrong. It asserts itself independent of all considerations. In itself neutral, it may, like all physical cravings, lead to sin. Most men are most tempted by fleshly desires. Satan had tried the same bait before on the first Adam. It had answered so well then, that he thinks himself wise in bringing it out once more. Adam, in his garden, surrounded by all that sense needed, had yielded, and thereby had turned the garden into desert; Christ, in the desert, pressed by hunger, does not yield, and thereby turns the desert into a garden again. At the beginning of His course He is tempted by the innocent desire to secure physical support; at its close He is tempted by the innocent desire to avoid physical pain. He overcomes both, and by His victories in the wilderness so unlike the garden, and in Gethsemane, another garden, so unlike the first, He brings 'a statelier Eden back to man.'
The act suggested seems not only innocent, but in accordance with His dignity. It was a strange anomaly for 'the Son of God,' on whose head the dove had descended, and in whose ears the voice had sounded, to be at the point of starving. What more unbecoming than that one possessed of His mysterious closeness to God should be suffering from such ignoble necessities? What more foolish than to continue to hunger, when a word could spread a table in the wilderness? John had said that God could make children of Abraham out of these stones. Could He not make bread out of them? The suggestion sounds benevolent, sensible, almost religious. The need is real, the remedy possible and easy; the result desirable as preserving valuable life, and putting an end to an anomaly, and the objections apparently nil. The bait is skilfully wound over the barbed hook.
Christ's answer tears it away, and discloses the sharp points. He will not discuss with Satan whether He is Son of God or no. To the Jews He was wont to answer, 'I say unto you'; to Satan He answers, 'It is written.' He puts honour on 'the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,' and sets us an example of how to wield it. The words quoted are found in the account of Israel's miraculous sustenance in the desert by the manna, and are applied by Christ to Himself, not as Son of God, but as simple man. They contain the great truth that God can feed men, in their physical life, by bread or without bread. When He does it by bread or other ordinary means, it is even then not the material substance in itself, but His will operating through it, which feeds. He can abolish all the outward means, and still keep a man alive. There is no reference to the truth which is sometimes forcibly inserted into this saying, that man has a higher than bodily life, and needs more than material bread to feed the hunger of the soul. The whole scope of the words is to state the law of physical nourishment as dependent at last on the divine will, and therefore equally capable of being accomplished with or without bread, by ordinary means or apart from these.
The bearing of the words on Christ's hunger is twofold: First, He will not use His miraculous powers to provide food, for that would be to distrust God, and so to cast off His filial dependence; second, He will not separate Himself from His brethren, and provide for Himself by a way not open to them, for that would really be to reverse the very purpose of His incarnation and to defeat His whole work. He has come to bear all man's burdens, and shall He begin by separating Himself from them? Therefore He answers in words which declare the law for 'man,' and thereby merges all that was distinctive in His position in a loving participation in our lot. If the Captain of our Salvation had begun by refusing to share the privations of the rank and file, and had provided dainties for Himself, what would have become of His making common cause with them? The temptation addressed to Christ's physical nature was, to put it roughly, 'Look out for yourself.' His answer was, 'As Son of God, I hold by My filial dependence. As man, I share My brethren's lot, and am content to live as they live.'
II. The second assault and repulse, on the temple.
We need not touch on the questions as to whether our Lord's body was really transported to the temple, and, if so, to what part of it. But we may point out that there is nothing in the narrative to warrant the usual interpretation of this temptation, as being addressed to the desire of recognition, and as equivalent to the suggestion that our Lord should show Himself, by a stupendous miracle before the multitude, as the Messiah. There is nothing about spectators, and no sign that the dread solitude wrapping these two was broken by others. We must seek for the point of the second temptation in another direction.
The very locality chosen for it helps us to the right understanding of it. There were plenty of cliffs in the desert, down which a fall would have been fatal. Why not choose one of them? The temple was God's house, the fitting scene for an attempt to work disaster by the abuse of religious ideas. The former temptation underlies this. That had sought to move Jesus to cast off His filial confidence; this seeks to pervert that confidence, and through it to lead Him to cast off filial obedience. Therefore 'the Devil quotes Scripture for his purpose.' What could be more religious than an act of daring based upon faith, which again was based on a word which proceeded 'out of the mouth of God'? It is not in the suppression of certain words in the quotation that Satan's error lies. The omitted words are not material. What did he hope to accomplish by this suggestion? If Jesus was, in bodily reality, standing on the summit of the temple, the tempter, profoundly disbelieving the promise, may have thought that the leap would end his anxieties by the death of his rival. But, at any rate, he sought to lead His faith into wrong paths, and to incite to what was really sinful self-will under the guise of absolute trust.
Our Lord's answer, again drawn from Deuteronomy, strips off the disguise from the action which seemed so trustful. He changes the plural verb of the original passage into the singular, thus at once taking as His own personal obligation the general command, and pointing a sharp arrow at His foe, who was now knowingly or unknowingly so flagrantly breaking that law. If God had bidden Jesus cast Himself down, to do it would have been right. As He had not, to do it was not faith, but self-will. To cast Himself into dangers needlessly, and then to trust God (whom He had not consulted about going into them) to get Him out, was to 'tempt God.' True faith is ever accompanied with true docility. He had come to do His Father's will. A divine 'must' ruled His life. Was He to begin His career by throwing off His allegiance on pretext of trust? If the Captain of our Salvation commences the campaign by rebellion, how can He lead the rank and file to that surrender of their own wills which is victory?
The lessons for us from the second temptation are weighty. Faith may be perverted. It may even lead to abandoning filial submission. God's promised protection is available, not in paths of our own choosing, but only where He has sent us. If we take the leap without His command, we shall fall mangled on the very temple pavement. It is when we are 'in the way' which He has prescribed that 'the angels of God' whom He has promised 'meet' us. How many scandals in the falls of good men would have been avoided, and how many mad enterprises would have been unattempted, and how much more clearly would the relations of filial faith and filial obedience have been understood, if the teaching of this second temptation had been laid to heart!
III. The final assault and repulse, on the mountain.
Again the scene changes, because the stress of the temptation is different. The 'exceeding high mountain' is not to be looked for in our atlases. The manner in which all the glories of the world's kingdoms were flashed in one dazzling panorama, like an instantaneous photograph, before Christ's eyes, is beyond our knowledge. We note that Satan has no more to say about 'the Son of God.' He has been foiled in both his assaults on Christ in that character. If He stood firm in filial trust and in filial submission, there was no more to be done. So the tempter tries new weapons, and seeks to pervert the desire for that dominion over the world which was to be a consequence of the sonship. He has not been able to touch Him as Son; can he not spoil Him as King? They are rivals: can they not strike up a treaty? Jesus thinks that He is going to reign as God's viceroy; can He not be induced, as a much quicker way of getting to His end, to become Satan's? Such a scheme sounds very stupid; but Satan is very stupid, for all his wisdom, and the hopeless folly of his proposal is typical of the absurdities which lie in all sins. There is an old play, the title of which would be coarse if it were not so true, 'The Devil is an Ass.'
His boast, like all his wiles, is a little truth and a great lie. It is true that his servants do often manage to climb into thrones and other high places. It is true that beggars and worse than beggars on horseback, and princes and better than princes walking, is often the rule. It is true that the crowned saints of the world might be counted on the fingers. But, for all that, the Father of lies was like himself in this promise. He did not say that, if he gives a kingdom to one of his servants, he takes it from another. He did not say that his gifts are shams, and fade away when the daylight comes. He did not say that he and his are, after all, tools in God's hands.
What was it that he thought he was appealing to in Christ? Ambition? He knew that Jesus was destined to be King of the earth, and he blunders to the conclusion that His reign is to be such as he could help Him to. How impossible it is for Satan to penetrate the depths of that loving heart! How mole-blind evil is to the radiant light of goodness! How hate fails when it tries to fathom love! If all that Satan meant by 'the glory' of the world had been Christ's, He would have been no nearer His heart's desire.
The temptation was not only to fling away the ideal of His kingdom, but to reverse the means for its establishment. Neither temptation could originate within Christ's heart, but both beset Him all His life. The cravings of His followers, the expectations of His race, the certainty of an enthusiastic response if He would put Himself at their head, and the equal certainty of death if He would not, were always urging Him to the very same thing.
'There is nothing weaker,' says an old school-man, 'than the Devil stripped naked.' The mask is thrown off at last, and swift and smiting comes the gesture and the word of abhorrence, 'Get thee hence, Satan,'—now revealed in thy true colours. Jesus still couches His refusal in Scripture words, as if sheltering Himself behind their broad shield. It is safest to meet temptation, not by our own reasonings and thoughts, but by the words which cannot lie. As He had held unmoved, by His filial trust and His filial submission, now He clings to the foundation principle of all religion,—the exclusive worship and service of God. His kingdom is to be a kingdom of priests; therefore to begin it by such an act would be suicide. It is to be the victorious antagonist of Satan's kingdom, because it is to lead all men to worship God alone; therefore enmity, not alliance, is to be between these two. Christ's last words are not only His final refusal of all the baits, but the ringing proclamation of war to the death, and that a war which will end in victory. The enemy's quiver is empty. He feels that he has met more than his match, so he skulks from the field, beaten for the first time by having encountered a heart which all his fiery darts failed to inflame, and dimly foreseeing yet more utter defeat.
The last temptation teaches us both the nature of Christ's kingdom and the means of its establishment. It is a rule over men's hearts and wills, swaying them to goodness and the exclusive worship and service of God. That being so, the way to found it follows of course. It can only be set up by suffering, utter self-sacrifice, gentleness, and goodness. Christ is King of all because He is servant of all. His cross is His throne. His realm is of hearts softened, cleansed, made gladly obedient, and growingly like Himself. For such a king, weapons of force are impossible, and for His subjects the same law holds. They have often tried to fight for Christ with the Devil's weapons, to make compliance with him for ends which they thought good, to keep terms with evil, or to adopt worldly policy, craft, or force. They have never succeeded, and, thank God! they never will.
That duel was fought for us. There we all conquered, if we will hold fast by Him who conquered then, and thereby taught our 'hands to war' and our 'fingers to fight.' The strong man is bound. The spoiling of his house follows of course, and is but a question of time.
THE SPRINGING OF THE GREAT LIGHT
'Now when Jesus had heard that John was cast into prison, He departed into Galilee; 13. And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is upon the sea coast, in the borders of Zabulon and Nephthalim: 14. That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, 15. The land of Zabulon, and the land of Nephthalim, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles; 16. The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up.'—MATT. iv. 12-16.