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THE BAPTISM OF JOHN, WHENCE WAS IT?
“And they come again to Jerusalem: and as He was walking in the temple, there come to Him the chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders; and they said unto Him, By what authority doest Thou these things? or who gave Thee this authority to do these things? And Jesus said unto them, I will ask of you one question, and answer Me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, was it from heaven, or from men? answer Me. And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven: He will say, Why then did ye not believe him? But should we say, From men—they feared the people: for all verily held John to be a prophet. And they answered Jesus and say, We know not. And Jesus saith unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things.” MARK 11:27–33 (R.V.)
THE question put to Jesus by the hierarchy of Jerusalem is recorded in all the synoptic Gospels. But in some respects the story is most pointed in the narrative of St. Mark. And it is natural that he, the historian especially of the energies of Christ, should lay stress upon a challenge addressed to Him, by reason of His masterful words and deeds. At the outset, he had recorded the astonishment of the people because Jesus taught with authority, because “Verily I say” replaced the childish and servile methods by which the scribe and the Pharisee sustained their most willful innovations.
When first he relates a miracle, he tells how their wonder increased, because with authority Jesus commanded the unclean spirits and they obeyed, respecting His self-reliant word “I command thee to come out,” more than the most elaborate incantations and exorcisms. St. Mark's first record of collision with the priests was when Jesus carried His claim still farther, and said “The Son of man hath authority” (it is the same word) “on earth the forgive sins.” Thus we find the Gospel quite conscious of what so forcibly strikes a careful modern reader, the assured and independent tone of Jesus; His bearing, so unlike that of a disciple or a commentator; His consciousness that the Scriptures themselves are they which testify of Him, and that only He can give the life which men think they possess in these. In the very teaching of lowliness Jesus exempts Himself, and forbids others to be Master and Lord, because these titles belong to Him.
Impressive as such claims appear when we awake to them, it is even more suggestive to reflect that we can easily read the Gospels and not be struck by them. We do not start when He bids all the weary to come to Him, and offers them rest, and yet declares Himself to be meek and lowly. He is meek and lowly while He makes such claims. His bearing is that of the highest rank, joined with the most perfect graciousness; His great claims never irritate us, because they are palpably His due, and we readily concede the astonishing elevation whence He so graciously bends down so low. And this is one evidence of the truth and power of the character which the Apostles drew.
How natural is this also, that immediately after Palm Sunday, when the people have hailed their Messiah, royal and a Savior, and when He has accepted their homage, we find new indications of authority in His bearing and His actions. He promptly took them at their word. It was now that He wrought His only miracle of judgment, and although it was but the withering of a tree (since He came not to destroy men's lives but to save them), yet was there a dread symbolical sentence involved upon all barren and unfruitful men and Churches. In the very act of triumphal entry, He solemnly pronounced judgment upon the guilty city with would not accept her King.
Arrived at the temple, He surveyed its abuses and defilements, and returned on the morrow (and so not spurred by sudden impulse, but of deliberate purpose), to drive out them that sold and bought. Two years ago He had needed to scourge the intruders forth, but now they are overawed by His majesty, and obey His word. Then, too, they were rebuked for making His Father's house a house of merchandise, but now it is His own — “My House,” but degraded yet farther into a den of thieves.
But while traffic and pollution shrank away, misery and privation were attracted to Him; the blind and the lame came and were healed in the very temple; and the center and rallying-place of the priests and scribes beheld His power to save. This drove them to extremities. He was carrying the war into the heart of their territories, establishing Himself in their stronghold, and making it very plain that since the people had hailed Him King, and He had responded to their acclaims, He would not shrink from whatever His view of that great office might involve.
While they watched, full of bitterness and envy, they were again impressed, as at the beginning, by the strange, autocratic, spontaneous manner in which He worked, making Himself the source of His blessings, as no prophet had ever done since Moses expiated so dearly the offense of saying, Must we fetch you water out of the rock? Jesus acted after the fashion of Him Who openeth His hands and satisfieth the desire of every living thing. Why did He not give the glory to One above? Why did He not supplicate, nor invoke, but simply bestow? Where were the accustomed words of supplication, “Hear me, O Lord God, hear me,” or, “Where is the Lord God of Israel?”
Here they discerned a flaw, a heresy; and they would force Him either to make a fatal claim, or else to moderate His pretensions at their bidding, which would promptly restore their lost influence and leadership.
Nor need we shrink from confessing that our Lord was justly open to such reproach, unless He was indeed Divine, unless He was deliberately preparing His followers for that astonishing revelation, soon to come, which threw the Church upon her knees in adoration of her God manifest in the flesh. It is hard to understand how the Socinian can defend his Master against the charge of encroaching on the rights and honors of Deity, and (to borrow a phrase from a different connection) sitting down at the right hand of the Majesty of God, whereas every priest standeth ministering. If He were a creature, He culpably failed to tell us the conditions upon which He received a delegated authority, and the omission has made His Church ever since idolatrous. It is one great and remarkable lesson suggested by this verse: if Jesus were not Divine, what was He?
Thus it came to pass, in direct consequence upon the events which opened the great week of the triumph and the cross of Jesus, that the whole rank and authority of the temple system confronted Him with a stern question. They sat in Moses’ seat. They were entitled to examine the pretensions of a new and aspiring teacher. They had a perfect right to demand “Tell us by what authority thou doest these things.” The works are not denied, but the source whence they flow is questioned.
After so many centuries, the question is fresh today. For still the spirit of Christ is working in His world, openly, palpably, spreading blessings far and wide. It is exalting multitudes of ignoble lives by hopes that are profound, far-reaching, and sublime. When savage realms are explored, it is Christ Who hastens thither with His gospel, before the trader in rum and gunpowder can exhibit the charms of a civilization without a creed. In the gloomiest haunts of disease and misery, madness, idiocy, orphanage, and vice, there is Christ at work, the good Samaritan, pouring oil and wine into the gaping wounds of human nature, acting quite upon His own authority, careless who looks askance, not asking political economy whether genuine charity is pauperization, nor questioning the doctrine of development, whether the progress of the race demands the pitiless rejection of the unfit, and selection only of the strongest specimens for survival. That iron creed may be natural; but if so, ours is supernatural, it is a law of spirit and life, setting us free from that base and selfish law of sin and death. The existence and energy of Christian forces in our modern world is indisputable: never was Jesus a more popular and formidable claimant of its crown; never did more Hosannas follow Him into the temple. But now as formerly His credentials are demanded: what is His authority and how has He come by it?
Now we say of modern as of ancient inquiries, that they are right; investigation is inevitable and a duty.
But see how Jesus dealt with those men of old. Let us not misunderstand Him. He did not merely set one difficulty against another, as if we should start some scientific problem, and absolve ourselves from the duty of answering any inquiry until science had disposed of this. Doubtless it is logical enough to point out that all creeds, scientific and religious alike, have their unsolved problems. But the reply of Jesus was not a dexterous evasion, it went to the root of things, and, therefore, it stands good for time and for eternity. He refused to surrender the advantage of a witness to whom He was entitled: He demanded that all the facts and not some alone should be investigated. In truth their position bound His interrogators to examine His credentials; to do so was not only their privilege but their duty. But then they must begin at the beginning. Had they performed this duty for the Baptist? Who or what was that mysterious, lonely, stern preacher of righteousness who had stirred the national heart so profoundly, and whom all men still revered? They themselves had sent to question him, and his answer was notorious: he had said that he was sent before the Christ; he was only a voice, but a voice which demanded the preparation of a way before the Lord Himself, Who was approaching, and a highway for our God. What was the verdict of these investigators upon that great movement? What would they make of the decisive testimony of the Baptist?
As the perilous significance of this consummate rejoinder bursts on their crafty intelligence, as they recoil confounded from the exposure they have brought upon themselves, St. Mark tells how the question was pressed home, “Answer Me!” But they dared not call John an impostor, and yet to confess him was to authenticate the seal upon our Lord's credentials. And Jesus is palpably within His rights in refusing to be questioned of such authorities as these. Yet immediately afterwards, with equal skill and boldness, He declared Himself, and yet defied their malice, in the story of the lord of a vineyard, who had vainly sent many servants to claim its fruit, and at the last sent his beloved son.
Now apply the same process to the modern opponents of the faith, and it will be found that multitudes of their assaults on Christianity imply the negation of what they will not and dare not deny. Some will not believe in miracles because the laws of nature work uniformly. But their uniformity is undisturbed by human operations; the will of man wields, without canceling, these mighty forces which surround us. And why may not the will of God do the same, if there be a God? Ask them whether they deny His existence, and they will probably declare themselves Agnostics, which is exactly the ancient answer, “We cannot tell.” Now as long as men avow their ignorance of the existence or non-existence of a Deity, they cannot assert the impossibility of miracles, for miracles are simply actions which reveal God, as men's actions reveal their presence.
Again, a demand is made for such evidence, to establish the faith, as cannot be had for any fact beyond the range of the exact sciences. We are asked, Why should we stake eternity upon anything short of demonstration? Yet it will be found that the objector is absolutely persuaded, and acts on his persuasion of many “truths which never can be proved” — of the fidelity of his wife and children, and above all, of the difference between right and wrong. That is a fundamental principle: deny it, and society becomes impossible. And yet skeptical theories are widely diffused which really, though unconsciously, sap the very foundations of morality, or assert that it is not from heaven but of men, a mere expediency, a prudential arrangement of society.
Such arguments may well “fear the people,” for the instincts of mankind know well that all such explanations of conscience do really explain it away.
And it is quite necessary in our days, when religion is impugned, to see whether the assumptions of its assailants would not compromise time as well as eternity, and to ask, What think ye of all those fundamental principles which sustain the family, society, and the state, while they bear testimony to the Church of Christ.
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