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DO YOU CATCH THE DRIFT ?
John the Baptist is a startling character. Thousands came to him, and yet his concern was not with himself. He divested himself of disciples as a MAIN AIM, and testified of truth without regard to the cost. It was not,
How do I add Christ to my busy life ? It was rather,
How do I testify of Christ as the aim of my life,
since life, the world and eternity are all lost in the end, without Him;
how do I live for Him !
In Matthew 3 as in John 1, we find a great interest in him, many coming, high and low, to his desert retreat.
Let us then pursue John 1:20ff..
1. WHO HE IS NOT – John 1:20-21
John is clear that he is not the Christ; nor is he Elijah returned in flesh; nor is he ‘that prophet’. All of these in some sense were expected. He, John, confessed clearly and openly that he was NONE of them. No desire for glory was his. His answers appeared from the report, to be pithy: No, No, No! three denials to three questions.
How then could his baptising be justified ? This was the question the put to him.
The great prophet of Deuteronomy 18:18ff., was to supersede Moses, and this was written in Moses, but it was not he. Elijah was used as a symbol of one coming before the end, to prepare men for it, as in Malachi 4:5, and obviously this was preliminary to Christ, in one seen as doing prodigies of reconciliation like Elijah, lest the earth be smitten with a curse:. It was not therefore the end, but a preparation for it. Indeed, it was a prelude to the actual coming of the King. It was one before the Messiah, on the scroll of coming epochal events at this stage, and Christ attested as much saying (Matthew 17:12ff.):
“ ‘Indeed, Elijah
is coming first and will restore all things.
But I say to you that Elijah has come already,
and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished.
the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands.’
Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist.”
You will notice that Christ in a cryptic fashion refers here to John the Baptist as ‘Elijah’, that is the bold, fearless man of God remembered for ever in his epoch; and yet John does not respond affirmatively to the question: Are you Elijah ? The reason for this is clear and twofold. Firstly, John was NOT that man called Elijah, and that was the question. He was no resurrectee at this stage! He was John. Secondly, when the Master Himself designates Him in the terms that ‘Elijah has indeed come, but they did not know him’, He both gives His own stamp to this role for John, and shows that it is of course NOT the same person, but a man who was typified by Elijah, as such to come, and who did come as John, the antitype. Likewise, He said of Himself, the Son of man will suffer ...
Because of this, it is evident as from Malachi where that prophecy was made, that the very next personage is Christ Himself, who will thoroughly purge His threshing floor (Matthew 3:12, Malachi 3, 4). Who, asks Malachi, can stand the day of His coming! This is spiritual for the time of His purge of the temple and exposure of the frauds who were priests (John 2:13ff.), and is to be judicial when Judgment sits, and HE is the judge (Acts 17:31, Malachi 4:1), on the day which God has appointed. To those who fear His name, however, not as a furnace but as the Sun of Righteousness He will arise, with healing in His wings (Malachi 3, 4:2). A bull-dozer, to change the imagery, is very useful for making foundation sites for buildings; but when you are in its way, it has a less pleasing aspect.
2. WHO HE IS – John 1:22-23
John, having sated his interlocutors with negatives, did then directly declare his own mission, as God had shown it to him:
“the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord’ –
as in Isaiah 40:3.
In this way, he has negatively removed misconception that he is a resurrected person, or the new focus on the one hand, a clarification for which he made enormous efforts; while positively he has shown that HE IS THE VERY INTRODUCTION TO CHRIST! PREPARE the way of the Lord. This focusses Christ, John’s objective, in drawing people to Him! John came to feature the One who came for man. You will notice that he is not out to ‘fulfil his life’, but to fulfil his mission; and at that, not his own, but that of the Lord; and as Christians, we must do the same. SAVE your life, and do your own will, and you lose it; lose it for Him, and by, in and with Him, you have it. Autonomy is death; yielding is life, when it is your home! (cf. John 14:1-9, Luke 14:30ff., Matthew 16:24ff.).
3. WHY HE DOES IT – John 1:24-28
Why, they then asked, did John baptise ? This new sacramental thing seemed strange if he was only a forerunner! How refreshingly different John was: instead of trying to maximise his personal life, he was maximising the testimony of Christ, the truth! The fact was that he was using precisely that method of baptising which Ezekiel 36:25-27 shows to be relevant to the Jews when in something of a national scale, they become Christians. There was in that case first the sprinkling, signifying spiritual need of cover and cleansing, and willingness to have it met; then the cleansing and then the new heart. Repentance into faith, with baptism for the new Jew formerly merely circumcised, is in view, and with this change so symbolised, there is the cleansing through faith and a new heart, the gift of God. Here was Jeremiah 31:31’s new covenant at hand!
It was not however yet the time for the national return of the Jew to the Lord in the New Covenant such as Ezekiel depicts; and John merely returned that HIS BAPTISM was with water, but there was another among them, unknown to them. In Matthew 3:11, we find his baptism described as little compared with that ultra-ceremonial, that super-baptism to come when the Messiah was found; for this was with a vital dynamic BY NATURE, with fire and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11 cf. Acts 2). This, John's then current baptism was preliminary, preparatory, with the deep sound of repentance like the roaring of the oceanic breakers; but for all that, it was textured on the prophetic mode to come, just as it could be applied in the case of Jesus (Matthew 3:13ff.), for "righteousness"!
This is nothing about righteousness being fulfilled in baptism, but rather sin being represented as covered; nor for that matter, is there anything in John's baptism, with the deep diapason of repentance, applicable to Christ. THAT naturally is why he declared that it was he who needed to be baptised by Christ, not vice versa (Matthew 3:14).Permit it! Christ declared, for rightesouness had to be FULFILLED!
In what way would it be fulfilled if a non-sinner (I Peter 2, Hebrews 4:15-16) should be baptised in a setting meaning REPENTANCE! It was not a confession of sin which led to the willingness of John to baptise Jesus, but an appeal to the opposite, the fulfilment of righteousness. Christ was coming as a religious person, and the sprinkling would signify consecration to a priestly work, as in Numbers 8:7. Thus even touching a dead person required sprinkling with water, and in this world, Christ was ceremonially sanctified for His work, like a surgeon with a-septic gloves on.
Although without sin, and in need of no repentance as John so correctly indicated - for on that topic, the roles would be reversed, yet for RIGHTEOUSNESS sake, this setting apart for service in the midst of an unclean world was an act of recognition of his role, the world's pollution and his service to come to it. As usual, He took the lowliest estate, though occupying the highest, so proceeding to give to the uttermost to those willing to receive Him.
"For we have not an high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities;
but one in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.
"Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace,
that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need."
The Messiah, he indicated, was so great that he, the popular prophet was unworthy even to untie his shoe strings.
But WHY would John baptise, since he was none of the three, concerning whom he had been asked ? A voice crying in the wilderness ? but why baptise ?
First, the voice in the wilderness is not some eccentric, some esoteric or some occlusive phenomenon. It is associated in Isaiah 40 with an astonishing event. It is, this wilderness voice and its provider, this person, to produce something almost (but not quite) an oxymoron. It is to ally itself with A HIGHWAY in the desert. In modern terms, it is rather like saying: A four lane highway ill this provide.
Thus the office of this 'voice' person is singular, remarkable, extraordinary, unmistakable; and this is crucially important since one of his main stated works in the prophecy, is to PREPARE in this way a highway for OUR GOD! Amazing things follow this divine advent, and it is traced in its beauty and tenderness in Isaiah 40:10-11, where this advent is to be associated with the taking of little children into the arms of that Shepherd, that good Shepherd who is God, as shown similarly in Ezekiel 34, where it is clear that none other, or less than God Himself will come and to the shepherding work so disgracefully misused in selfish and slippery ways by misled and misleading priests.
This being so, repentance is indeed a vast tonal symphony, John's Symphony in Self-Minor for the Saviour's Coming! That is what it was.
CRY, it says in Isaiah 40, to the cities of Judah, BEHOLD YOUR GOD! Do not be afraid, lift up your voice.
How MUCH John did this, eventually leading to his decapitation at the heretical hands of the besotted Herod, wanting to please a dancing girl with a dangerous mother! How brilliantly he challenged the Pharisees, as fleeing from the wrath to come, and required fruit worthy of repentance, not some sickly and spiritually slovenly if not meaningless sacramental approach which was alternative to, not expression for what it symbolised! The axe, he denounced, would be laid to the trees!
People often dislike Cassandras, as they esteem them, as they disliked the early Churchill with so much talk of war when there was this lovely peace and prosperity to be enjoyed, with all the advances to the super man and that sort of stuff which was in vogue.
They still like it, but are rather more shame-faced, since it is all so sham-faced, and man has shown how 'advanced' he is in the ruin of the lives of millions and the terrain and beauty of much of the earth, amid hate, hollowness, pretence, artificiality, deviousness, aspirations of power, self-centredness and pretentious pulpiteering from 'science', pushing like a playboy into philosophy and religion alike, so that it is degraded to fairy tale status in this aspect (cf. Earth Spasm, Conscience Chasm: and the Renewal of Life Ch. 1, Repent or Perish Ch. 7, Stepping Out for Christ, Ch. 8, Ch. 10; The Gods of Naturalism have No Go! Chs. 3, and 5).
Whether then or now, however, the realities must be met; and John ensured that they COULD not miss, except of course as is so common, they positively CLENCHED their eyes shut, belligerently blind! and for what ... ?
Here was a towering prophet, and among those born of women, said Christ, there had arisen NONE GREATER! ( Matthew 11:11). He did not even glory in his baptisms, these being one of the signs on the highway, for as he himself declared, it was of the Lamb of God he had the crucial testimony, and his work was that this Christ be recognised. "I did not know Him," he declared (John 1:31), "but that He should be revealed to Israel, therefore I came baptising with water."
It was not baptism which was crucial, but Christ. It was not to be a distinctive 'baptism worker' that he set himself, a maker of notoriety through an improper emphasis on a sacrament, itself infinitely less important than the One to whom and to whose work it referred. It was that CHRIST should be REVEALED to ISRAEL, that he baptised. Like Paul, he did not glory in baptism, for as the apostle in similar vein announced,
"I thank God I baptised none of you, except Crispus and Gaius,
lest anyone should say that I had baptised in my own name ...
"For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel,
not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.
"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,
but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" -
I Corinthians 1:14-18.
How anyone could want to have the name 'Baptist' added therefore as a cognomen, a title, is beyond this author. It is not that the sacrament is to be undervalued, but relatively, it is so subsumed in terms of the revelation of Jesus Christ and His power, of which it speaks in format, that it is in a way, rather like calling oneself a wing-maker, if the objective is high-flying in the stratosphere.
You have it, it is important, yes; but it is sublimely unimportant by any comparison (cf. Questions and Answers 11, as marked). It is indeed, by Paul, expressly derogated in dignity and functionality, and this lest any misunderstand. It is treated similarly by Peter. Significant symbol and useful challenge to cowardly incognito it could be for some such as circumcised Jews who then, as now, might wish to hide from public knowledge of their stand; yet it is still sign, not substance (I Peter 3:21). It is still the 'baptism' which changes the heart, that into one body by one Spirit (I Corinthians 12:13, John 3) which is indispensable just as it is indivisible from conversion (John 6:50ff., Romans 8:9). It is this which Peter carefully distinguishes from the sacrament. The latter can be a testimony; it is the truth however which is crucial, and that, it is Christ.
So was it for John, for whom this sacramental tool, or if you will, this pre-sacramental tool was a polished shaft, used as such, to point them to Christ: so used, it was to be envisaged as forgetful of all but Him, not stopping on the threshold to admire the wood-work. This must not be construed as criticism, but as concern. The spirit and essence of thing must ever be thus, and terms must be watched lest they exalt what is NOT to be exalted, or become apt to mislead.
Water baptism was thus directed to be associated with the revelation of Christ to Israel, the mission depicted for it in the end (cf. Zechariah 12:10). John had been told by God that the One on whom the Spirit would come and rest would be the Messiah, and he John had seen just this, and knew and confessed the Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. It is He, said John, who is the SON OF GOD! (John 1:34).
They came, provoked into spiritual repentance, in many cases; John pointed, evoking action of a different sort as the end of the matter. It was to find Christ that mattered.
Concerning Christ, it is impossible to ascribe too much greatness,
to the very stature of the Godhead (cf. Philippians 2:1,9-11,
John 5:19ff., 8:58, Colossians 1:15 with Isaiah 45, John 3:31-32 –
“He who comes from heaven is above all”, as John the Baptist put it,
for God ALONE is Saviour – Isaiah 43:10-11);
and all things fall into place behind Him, including
which John so blessedly blew right away (cf. Question and Answer Ch. 2),
(such as vipers fleeing from the wrath to come - for some of those
so addressed by John would doubtless have been highly placed) and
In these latter two, first the church, which is supposed to hold up Christ and placard Him as in Galatians 1, holds up itself, one of the most nauseous messes; and in the latter, the soul holds up the experience it derives, like a man supposedly in love with some damsel, who continually babbles on about the charm of his experience of her to the point of a narcissistic enterprise more deadly than lead.
Experience has a place as the correlation to the love of God - yet it is NOT that we loved God but that He loved us, declares I John 4. To love Him is crucial, but love is more forgetful of itself than of its object. Church has a place, for from this source comes the Gospel accorded to it by God, and through it is transmitted the Bible which is the word of the living God, infallible, strength to the feeble and overpowering to the strong. Yet the implement does not glorify itself, if its concern is for Another; far less does it worship itself as if it were God Almighty on earth, or any such blasphemy, since the impersonation of God is infinitely wrong; nor does it glorify its experience, being satisfied with what it experienced, the ONE. It is not the feelings about seeing Niagara Falls which are paramount, but The Falls which evoke them! Otherwise it is too easy to be lost in the mist, and to miss the point.
John was direct on these things. HE as a mighty prophet was quite unworthy even to undo the strings of Christ's sandals! So much for pomp and pride of place!
At once then, all things ready as in a scientific experiment, John directs wondering disciples of himself, to perceive, behold, find the Lamb of God. HE must increase, said he, and I decrease. Is this not what an introduction is for ? Is it that one should glorify the preliminary preparation, or be engrossed in what it serves as pointer to present!
For John it was not the ecstasy of the flesh, but the wonder of the Spirit; nor did he hold back lest any suffer anguish of soul. It was better, to revert to the image, to have anguish if need be, when Hitler's intentions were clear, and to act with severity and realism, having disdained the correct message of Churchill for so long, than proud, to be invaded! John's delight was in FINDING the ONE whom he was sent to present: the Christ. GOD used His own way of showing John who it was, the One on whom he would see the spirit descend and on whom that Person would STAY! He saw this, and indeed the divine voice declared, "This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased!" (Matthew 3:16-17).
It was HE, the prophet declared, on whom the Spirit REMAINED! (John 1:32). Baptism comes and goes; on Christ the Spirit remained, and indeed as John 1 also declared, the Spirit was not given to Him by measure, fitting for the Son of God, as one Infinite Person relating to another in the Trinity (John 3:34). Baptism is a covenantal application so that one is introduced by a visual ordinance to the Eternal God, in the person of the Saviour, Jesus Christ; or such life shown (cf. Question and Answer 11).
It is not an episodic dipping, as if one could come dripping from a procedure, but a covenantal expression of the One in whom as believer, one is to live, or as infant, of the One to whom one is pointed and for whom those who nurture the child live. It signals or signifies covering as did the blood; but Christ's blood being limited physically, it is no more that blood as of the sacrifice of bulls (Hebrews 9), but this water of sprinkling which covers (as in Exodus 24, where the book and the people were covered, and as in numerous sin sacrifices, leper cleansings and the like). Thus in Hebrews 'baptisms' are then itemised with sprinklings as norms (Hebrews 9:10 - literally 'baptisms' followed by the significant sprinkling list of 9:12-22).
It is nothing novel; merely adapted for the consummation. Its newness lies in its scope, in its relationship to the New Covenant; but then this is the flowering of the bud of the Old as Hebrews is at such pains to show in its shadow-substance teaching (cf. Hebrews 10:1).
One is, when baptised into Christ (and the main point is the spiritual one which no ceremony can create, though it may reflect it - I Corinthians 12:13), kept for ever (John 10:9,27-28). There is NO COMING OUT, but only a going on.
It is to Christ it all refers, and so John made exceptionally clear in this preliminary baptism, introducing to Christ, just as Paul made it so clear that it was NOT TO BAPTISE, but to preach the Gospel that he was called.
In all of this depiction, declaration, clarification and thrust and parry with those who came in multitudes to him, John was preparing in the desert a highway for our God, who would indeed take up the little ones in His arms.
What the was the development when they DID go to Him ?
4. WHAT RESULTS ? John 1:29-51
In John 1:36, two of his disciples were redirected by John to Jesus, as the Lamb of God, the Son of God. These then followed Him, for John’s work was practical and demonstrative, as well as testimonial. He was guide as well as prophet. Interrogating Jesus, the disciples were asked to see for themselves, as the Lord does: TASTE AND SEE THAT THE LORD IS GOOD! (Psalm 34:8). One of these was Andrew, who found his brother Peter.
The next result is that Christ characterises Peter. This disciple is not called a rock, for ONLY GOD IS THAT (II Samuel 22:32,47, Psalm 62), but a stone: perhaps one you could flip, as Satan tried to do with Peter not without some success at first; and yet, something solid! (cf. Matthew 16:18,23). Stones can move, but petra does not. Peter is not called petra but petros, not mass of living rock, but movable stone item; and how movable he was, this first pope of Rome, no Pope at all, but the one who actually and actively tried to have Christ not even crucified! (Matthew 16)!
There is a variant not unlike the Romanist Mass in that this is put as the very pinnacle of Christian life: “the source and summit of the whole Christian life” cf. SMR pp. 1088C. If actually Christ had meant to be literal about the bread as His body, He would of course have committed suicide so that – since man is given to die ONCE – there COULDN’T have been any Cross. So does error tie itself in knots.
The petra, the foundation (I Cor.10:11) was the Son of the living God as revealed in Peter’s testimony, His Christ: this being the point of the Christ’s preceding question, “But who do you say that I am ?” Here is the "I am" of John 8:58, made the more precisely impactive since the topic is time, the point being Christ's declaration that Abraham knew Christ BEFORE He came to earth, and was glad at the day of His coming. Responding to the divinely put QUESTION, WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM ? Peter presents the reply EXPRESSLY INSPIRED BY THE FATHER, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!
What then is the 'examiner's' response to Peter's reply ? Christ attests its source from His Father, and declares that on this Rock (the substantial item contrasted with Peter's name, stone), His Church will be built.
What are the components ?
Interrogation ? Yes.
Reply ? Yes.
Its inspiration ? Yes again, confirmed, not a muscle of man's mind but the deliverance of God personally, this is attested to be.
Estimate of value: On this Rock, the Church will be built.
The spectacular spectacle of Christ interrogating Peter in this way has produced spiritual reality for the Church. Since GOD ONLY is the Rock, what is the meaning ? It is on God as revealed in this way, by His Messiah, seen by faith and expressed, declared by courage, and hence on Christ as Lord and Saviour, Son of God incarnate, that the Church will be built. Paul says no less in I Corinthians 3:11.
These things all done, the disciples grew: Jesus wanted to go to Galilee: so finding Philip, he told him, “Follow me!”. Philip, from Bethsaida, city of Peter and Andrew, was used to add Nathaniel, the latter frankly amazed that Jesus had recognised him as one of His own, before they even met, while he was under the fig tree! This was ‘an Israelite in whom is no guile!’ - Christ declared. ‘You,’ said Nathaniel, ‘are the Son of God, the King of Israel.’ Much had occurred, and no doubt various episodes as things developed, did occur; but here was pith.
Greater things than these will you see! Christ told Nathaniel, even angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man: His title from Daniel 7:13-14), which means the One to whom all nations will come and who is Lord. So does the Christian find greater things than those of his or her first spiritual birth, as the pilgrimage continues, when it is done as was John’s, testifying of the truth, the Lord, with life and deed, voice and virtue, conviction and zest.
In this way did the PREDICTED DESERT HIGHWAY open up disciples and impact for the Saviour, just in that totally extraordinary fashion which had been predicted by Isaiah; and so was everything to the last point, even the sprinkling ordinance of Ezekiel, designed for a later day but not for a divergent spiritual occasion for the individual, arranged and arrayed. The testimony of the advent then becomes that of the consummation, of the bud, that of the flower; and this awaits, just as that did, arriving as from the dynamic power of the Lord of the Book.
The highway in the desert was not only metaphorical, as if it implied a mere multitude of people coming; it was literal to the point that so many came that the lonely desert, void of attractive features, may well have become a congestion of coming and going, and amongst those going were some to be SENT by the Saviour Himself!
So does the word of God always speak the same language, consistent, persistent, insistent.
Let us draw near to God, and finding our life in Him, go far for Him, but never far from Him; for He is your life, and if for anyone, He is not yet that, it is because your life is dead to God, and a tomb to truth. Repent therefore and live! But for some even now, You ARE His ? Act like John, fearless and faithful, fervent and true.
Never forget the Symphony in Self-Minor for the Saviour's Coming!
Originally created by God, it was brilliantly rendered by John.
Its tonal truth instructs the heart;
its music anoints the ears:
but best of all, its topic is Truth who is both alive, and resurrected from the dead -
always as in all things on time,
in fact on the third day,
as shown centuries before (cf. SMR Ch. 6).
If you love Him, God almighty come in flesh,
then you will of course love His words, and this is precisely what He said (John 14:21-23).
As to God, He is not inarticulate,
having articulated that mini-marvel called man,
whose powers of articulation are His own invention.
There is room for poetry, there is room for declaration;
there is room for repentance, there is room for true analysis of one's condition before God. There is room in love, for beautiful imagery;
but the love itself, and the One who loves,
it is this which matters.
Abhorring such a love, really, does not leave any other,
for only this one is stronger than death:
for God made death as sin's pit, and broke it by becoming man
and granting in Himself the leading from it.
Thus bringing many to Himself, He used at the outset,
a highway in the desert... as He said.