THE EMERGENCE OF JOHN THE BAPTIZER
In those days John the Baptizer arrived on the scene, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea. “Repent,” he said, “for the Kingdom of the Heavens has come near.” It was this man who was spoken of by Isaiah the prophet when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: `Make ready the road by which the Lord is coming, and make straight the paths which he must travel!”‘ John himself wore a garment made from camel’s hair, and he had a leathern belt round his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the district around the Jordan, went out to him. They were baptized in the river Jordan, and, as they were baptized, they confessed their sins.
The emergence of John was like the sudden sounding of the voice of God. At this time the Jews were sadly conscious that the voice of the prophets spoke no more. They said that for four hundred years there had been no prophet. Throughout long centuries the voice of prophecy had been silent. As they put it themselves, “There was no voice, nor any that answered.” But in John the prophetic voice spoke again. What then were the characteristics of John and his message?
(i) He fearlessly denounced evil wherever he might find it. If Herod the king sinned by contracting an evil and unlawful marriage, John rebuked him. If the Sadducees and Pharisees, the leaders of orthodox religion, the churchmen of their day, were sunk in ritualistic formalism, John never hesitated to say so. If the ordinary people were living lives which were unaware of God, John would tell them so.
Wherever John saw evil–in the state, in the Church, in the crowd–he fearlessly rebuked it. He was like a light which lit up the dark places; he was like wind which swept from God throughout the country. It was said of a famous journalist who was great, but who never quite fulfilled the work he might have done, “He was perhaps not easily enough disturbed.” There is still a place in the Christian message for warning and denunciation. “The truth,” said Diogenes, “is like the light to sore eyes.” “He who never offended anyone,” he said, “never did anyone any good.”
It may be that there have been times when the Church was too careful not to offend. There come occasions when the time for smooth politeness has gone, and the time for blunt rebuke has come.
(ii) He urgently summoned men to righteousness. John’s message was not a mere negative denunciation; it was a positive erecting of the moral standards of God. He not only denounced men for what they had done; he summoned them to what they ought to do. He not only condemned men for what they were; he challenged them to be what they could be. He was like a voice calling men to higher things. He not only rebuked evil, he also set before men the good.
It may well be that there have been times when the Church was too occupied in telling men what not to do; and too little occupied in setting before them the height of the Christian ideal.
(iii) John came from God. He came out of the desert. He came to men only after he had undergone years of lonely preparation by God. As Alexander Maclaren said, “John leapt, as it were, into the arena full-grown and full-armed.” He came, not with some opinion of his own, but with a message from God. Before he spoke to men, he had companied long with God.
The preacher, the teacher with the prophetic voice, must always come into the presence of men out of the presence of God.
(iv) John pointed beyond himself. The man was not only a light to illumine evil, a voice to rebuke sin, he was also a signpost to God. It was not himself he wished men to see; he wished to prepare them for the one who was to come.
It was the Jewish belief that Elijah would return before the Messiah came, and that he would t)e the herald of the coming King. “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Mal.4:5). John wore a garment of camel’s hair, and a leathern belt around his waist. That is the very description of the raiment which Elijah had worn (2Kgs.1:8).
Matthew connects him with a prophecy from Isaiah (Isa.40:3). In ancient times in the East the roads were bad. There was an eastern proverb which said, “There are three states of misery–sickness, fasting and travel.” Before a traveller set out upon a journey he was advised “to pay all debts, provide for dependents, give parting gifts, return all articles under trust, take money and good-temper for the journey; then bid farewell to all.” The ordinary roads were no better than tracks. They were not surfaced at all because the soil of Palestine is hard and will bear the traffic of mules and asses and oxen and carts. A journey along such a road was an adventure, and indeed an undertaking to be avoided.
There were some few surfaced and artificially made roads. Josephus, for instance, tells us that Solomon laid a causeway of black basalt stone along the roads that lead to Jerusalem to make them easier for the pilgrims, and “to manifest the grandeur of his riches and government.” All such surfaced and artificially-made roads were originally built by the king and for the use of the king. They were called “the king’s highway.” They were kept in repair only as the king needed them for any journey that he might make. Before the king was due to arrive in any area, a message was sent out to the people to get the king’s roads in order for the king’s journey.
John was preparing the way for the king. The preacher, the teacher with the prophetic voice, points not at himself, but at God. His aim is not to focus men’s eyes on his own cleverness, but on the majesty of God. The true preacher is obliterated in his message.
Men recognized John as a prophet, even after years when no prophetic voice had spoken, because he was a light to light up evil things, a voice to summon men to righteousness, a signpost to point men to God, and because he had in him that unanswerable authority which clings to the man who comes into the presence of men out of the presence of God.
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