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JOHN AND CHRIST, OR THE LOWER AND HIGHER
STAGES OF RELIGIOUS DEVELOPMENT.
BY REV. JOHN DENDY, B.A.
MATTHEW xi. 18, 19 : “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil.
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But Wisdom is justified of her children.”
WHEN John the Baptist began to preach his gospel and to announce the advent of the Messiah, we are told that he came clothed in a garment of camels' hair, and with a leathern girdle round his loins ;—that is, he came in the most common, most durable and least luxurious dress that could in those times be obtained. Camels' hair was frequently used for the purpose of making different kinds of clothes, and at present is employed by many tribes of Arabs in the manufacture of the black tents which they take with them on their long journeys. He lived, we are also told, upon locusts and wild honey; that is, upon the commonest of the natural productions of the land, and such as none but the poorest and most miserable were in the habit of using. The place of his appearance was the desert, and the object of his mission to exhort men to repentance and newness of life, by the dread of that punishment which might fall upon them if they, at the coming of the Lord, were found still sinful and unrepentant. “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come ?” was the language of this latest and sternest of the prophets.
When Jesus Christ came, we find him for the most part living as other men, along with the members of his own family, first at Nazareth, and afterwards in the neighbourhood of Gennesaret. He was present at the marriage feast of Cana in Galilee, and we have no reason for supposing that he endeavoured to make himself an object of notice by any outward peculiarities of dress or manner of living. In fact, after the crucifixion, the soldiers cast lots for his garment, which is particularly described as being without a seam, the same as those worn at that time by the wealthier classes, and which Josephus, in his Antiquities, says was a long robe reaching to the feet, of a blue colour, and tied around the waist with a girdle. Even the last year of his life, when he was in hourly danger, he still lived with his disciples, and with them partook of all the ordinary comforts of civilized life, and on the very evening of his seizure they had all been partaking together of the feast of the Passover. He appeared in the cities and market-places, and among men engaged in their usual avocations : only when in danger from the Pharisees did he lead his followers out into the deserts, there to teach them truths that could not be uttered in the city or near the tabernacles. He sought to bring men to God by love and through the holy spirit; and though he sometimes bitterly foretold the miseries that must fall upon a faithless and time-serving generation, and at others fearlessly exposed the vices and follies of the mighty and most severely reproved them, yet the whole tenor of his mission was one of love. He did not call men to repentance through fear of punishment, but for the sake of the joy and peace of the kingdom of heaven. “Come unto me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest," was the subject of his exhortations.
“ That ye may be in the Father, even as I am in the Father,” was the object of his mission. He was emphatically the first and the greatest of the messengers of glad tidings. He was the evangelist of God's love to man, as Matthew and Mark and Luke and John were afterwards the evangelists of his own heavenly life and death and resurrection to the whole human race.
In the characters of John the Baptist and of our Saviour, we have the most complete types of two great classes of religious teachers, and of two distinct stages of religious development; and it is interesting to remark how naturally and beautifully the higher follows upon the lower, in nations no less than in individuals. When the self-reproach and selfdenial of the first is real and unfeigned, then the peaceful and rational happiness of the second follows almost as a matter of necessity. First there ever comes the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye, prepare ye the way of the Lord, and make his paths straight;" and afterwards cometh the Saviour, whispering to the repentant and the broken-hearted, “Blessed are ye faithful ; enter now into the joy of your Lord !"
In every nation, when it arrives at a certain stage of social and political corruption, there are found men ready to rise up and protest against the prevailing vices. It is a part of God's wise providence for man, that the vices of a great multitude must re-act upon the virtues of some individuals; that when thousands of minds are polluted and consciences deadened, some men must arise eminent in purity and self-sacrificing energy.
And even when thousands of men are fallen for generations upon a succession of evil days, nature asserts her rights through the cruel penances and mortifications which some of the community are driven to undergo, in the hope of thus warding off punishment from a wicked generation. Hence from time immemorial that crowd of men who have separated themselves from their fellows, and sought to draw near to heaven by retreating from earth, and to obtain insight into all the mysteries of eternity by blinding themselves to the truths of time. It is a bad sign for any nation or any church, when its most trustful and earnest members are driven to such excesses.
It shews that there is something wrong in its very nature, and that it must perish, when that which should have been virtue under the guidance of wisdom, being led by fancy and by folly, turns to repulsive and unnatural acts, scarcely better in their nature than the deeds of the most vicious. Then has come about that most terrible of all states, when the light that was in them is turned to darkness; and oh! how great is that darkness ! Even in the midst of this misdirected devotion, there exists, however, that element of truthful, self-sacrificing zeal which in the end may be the harbinger of better things, which by its own rigid asceticism may make others conscious of their self-indulgence, and by its own wild earnestness may arouse others from their slothful and careless indifference. Thus when the Jews were daily drinking deeper and deeper of the vices of their Roman conquerors, came John the Baptist, discarding all ideas of personal pleasure or worldly honour, and endeavouring, by fasting and solitude and prayer, to bring back the nation to the knowledge of God and of his truth. He did not know the truth himself; he could not reveal the perfect will of God; but he clearly foresaw the advent of one who would do this; and he made straight the way of the Lord by infusing new earnestness and purity into the thousands whom he baptized, and by teaching them to expect the arrival of one greater than himself, who, living in the light of God's presence, would teach them that of which he could only prophesy, would reveal to them things which to him were but dim and indistinct. There was no mean envy, no petty jealousy in his mind; he appears to have known that he was only in the lower and inferior state of religious culture; and even whilst he denounced vengeance upon a generation of vipers, he knew that he was preparing the way for the Messenger of peace and forgiveness and divine love. How different from the conduct of many, who cannot bear to think that their own narrow forms may perish,—who will not believe that one may come after who will be greater than they,—and will not prepare the way for that constant and unintermitted expansion of the truth which is essential to its existence. They die, and their deeds die with them, for they contain none of the elements of immortality. John the Baptist, however, loved the truth better than his own theories; he was sincere and unprejudiced in his teachings, and rejoiced in nothing more than that he could prepare the way for a better and holier and more inspired teacher than himself, and when he died his deeds lived for ever in the good foundation which he laid, and on which was built the church of Christ. In wisdom he may have been less than the least of the kingdom of heaven ; but in zeal, earnestness and selfdevotion, he was a great and a shining light in days of darkness and sin.
Again : It is also a part of God's providence that after a period of real and earnest self-sacrifice, and after consistent purity and reformation of life, there should come a period of greater light. A hopeful calm succeeds the storm of self-denunciation and self-reproach. Faith follows in the deep and burning footsteps of despair; men begin not only to abhor the evil, but to love the good ; and as they go about their deeds of mercy with a trusting heart, they hear the voice of the infinite Father, saying, “Fear not, for thou art my
son, in whom I am well pleased.” “I seek not the death of a sinner, but would rather he should repent and live.” Thus after thousands had repented at the voice of John-after they had learnt to look with abhorrence upon their evil deeds, and had learnt to prefer even the mortification of the flesh to the death of sin-came the Saviour with words of hope and com