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Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad Him, saying, I have need to be baptized of Thee, and comest Thou to me? 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.”
OF all the acts of our blessed Lord, there is hardly any which at first sight seems more difficult to explain than His submitting to be baptized. It was not like His circumcision, which was received in infancy by the care of His holy mother, and in accordance with the existing law of the Church; nor like His prayers and fastings, which are perpetual examples to us; because the baptism of John was but for a time, and is now passed away. We shall nevertheless find that hardly any one of 39His acts contains deeper and more direct precepts for our imitation.
It was certainly a strange and incomprehensible sight when He who was called the Son of God, who was born by the power of the Holy Ghost, drew nigh to receive from the hands of a man like ourselves the baptism of repentance. Well might St. John Baptist forbid Him, and say, “I have need to be baptized of Thee, and comest Thou to me?” What could that baptism confer upon Him? or what part could He have in that baptism who could have no part in repentance? Was it not an act of presumption in a man, albeit “more than a prophet,” to administer the sacrament of penitence and cleansing to One that was without sin? No doubt St. John shrank back with awe and fear, as well as humility and self-abasement. And Jesus said, “‘Suffer it to be so now.’ It is all well and in season, as hereafter it shall be seen: ‘for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.’” There was some law of His Father’s kingdom to which therein he rendered His obedience, some deeper reason than appeared; for St. John then gave way: “then he suffered Him.”
Now, in the first place, the baptism of our Lord was an act of obedience to the appointment of His Father. He was born under the law, and 40by circumcision He was brought into the elder covenant. He honoured that law by a perfect submission to it throughout His whole life. Though greater than the law, and Lord of that very law, He obeyed it by observing all things which it enjoined on the obedience of others; as, for instance, the observance of the feasts and worship of the Temple, and the offerings which Moses commanded. When John was sent to baptize, a new appointment of God appeared. In that baptism, as before in the command of circumcision, the will of His Father was revealed. In receiving it He obeyed a divine precept. It was a part of holy obedience, which is most living and expressive when it is rendered to appointments in which the will of God alone is the reason of obeying. To the Holy One of God baptism was as needless as circumcision; but in both the will of God was revealed from heaven, and in both the grace of holy obedience “fulfilled all righteousness.”
Moreover it was not an act of obedience and submission alone, but also of humiliation. The baptism of John was emphatically the baptism of sinners. It was a baptism of cleansing unto repentance, that is, given to penitents as a means of perfecting their repentance. The Baptist stood by the river, surrounded by a multitude of sinners, publicans and harlots, “confessing their sins.” 41Men and women of all characters, the most notorious and outcast, the reckless and unclean, pressed to him with “violence,” to be washed of their impurities. The whole land seemed moved to give up its sinners to the discipline of repentance; the whole city poured out its evil-livers to this new and austere guide of penitents. “Then went out unto him Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan, and were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.”1515 St. Matt. iii. 5, 6. It was an act of public humiliation to join Himself and to mingle in such a crowd; to partake their shame; to seek the same cleansing, with all the circumstantials of repentance. And at that time He was known only as “the carpenter,” “the son of Joseph.” He had wrought no miracles, exhibited no tokens of His Divine nature and mission. He was but as any other Israelite, and as one of a thousand sinners He came and received a sinner’s baptism. This was a part of His humiliation.
And we may further observe, that the time of His baptism had been appointed as the time of His open manifestation as the Son of God. St. John was commissioned not only to prepare His way in the souls of men, but also to proclaim Him to be the Lamb of God. He says, “I knew Him not: but that He should be made manifest to 42Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water. And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon Him. And I knew Him not: but He that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shall see the Spirit descendings, and remaining on Him, the same is He which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.”1616 St. John i. 31-34. So manifold are the works of God. John came to make ready a people by repentance for the kingdom of God, and in so doing he became also the public herald and witness of the Messiah. The public proclamation of the Son of God sprang suddenly and unlocked for out of the ministry of repentance. Our Lord’s act of public humiliation served also to declare Him as the Son of God. This public declaration was, it would seem, a necessary condition to the undertaking of His public ministry as the Messiah. Until then He had lived a life of privacy; henceforward He was consecrated to the work of the Redeemer of the world.
There is still another mark of deep wisdom in this same mystery. At His baptism the Holy Ghost descended, and lighted upon Him; and in that inscrutable unction He was set apart to the 43work of the Messiah. The words of the prophet, to which He appealed at Nazareth as His commission, were then fulfilled: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He hath anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.”1717 St. Luke iv. 19.
Such, then, appears to be the true intention and effect of His baptism in the river. It was an act of obedience and of humiliation; it was the public proclaiming of His divine Son ship, and the solemn anointing by which He was invested with the office of the Messiah.
1. The first inference to be drawn from this part of our Lord’s example is, that submission to every even the least ordinance of Divine authority is a plain, self-evident duty. What the baptism of John was to our Lord, the Church is to us. And this cuts off at once all pleas and excuses by which men endeavour to extenuate the guilt of disobeying the rule of the Church. On the one side we here see John the son of Zacharias and Elisabeth, a mere man, a preacher of repentance, baptizing with water; and on the other, Jesus the son of Mary by the operation of the Holy Ghost, the Son of God by eternal generation, the sinless One, the Sanctifier of the elect. What claim or hold had that doctrine and that rite over Him? If ever any might have held himself exempt from 44submission, it was He. Therefore we see that no plea of intellectual or spiritual superiority, no reasonings about forms and externals and empty rites and the like, can exempt any man born again through Christ from the duty of submitting to the rule of His Church. Now no one openly denies that the Church has some authority, and that from God; because to deny this would be to deny the existence of the Church itself, and nobody is so far beside himself as to venture on this extravagance. The only question is about the limit of that authority; and it is in fixing this boundary that men of a certain cast of mind do, by consequence and in fact, deny the power of the Church altogether. I have said that we are bound to submit to every ordinance of Divine authority, and that for this reason: because the whole system of the Church being divided into ordinances which are of immediate Divine obligation, and ordinances which mediately—that is, through an authority ordained of God—become binding on us; or, in other words, some being appointed by God Himself, and some by men having Divine authority: the same obligation runs through all, and in them we obey God. For instance, the apostolical ministry, the Holy Sacraments, and the Holy Scriptures, were appointments and ordinances of Christ Himself. The authority of the apostolical ministry, 45and of the Church to which that power, with the Scriptures and Sacraments, was committed, is therefore divine, as derived from Him: and all those details of practice, discipline, and order, which the changes of the world and the succession of time have required, being made and ordained by the same authority, and in accordance with the mind of the Holy Spirit as revealed in Scripture, are enjoined upon the consciences of the members of Christ by the original authority derived from Him to His Church. And that is the meaning of His own words: “He that heareth you, heareth Me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth Me.” And St. Paul’s words: “He that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God.” The whole, therefore, of the order of the Church—its ritual, discipline, and practice, its commandments and precepts,—all, that is, which meets us at this day in the system which it has laid down for the guidance of its people—lays us under the obligation of holy obedience, for the sake of the Divine authority which is contained in the least things as truly as in the greatest. It matters not who or what we are, whether pastors or people, nor how learned, or illuminated, or sanctified we may be, nor how small, external, and, as we say, trifling, the appointment may seem; there is the same great law of the Divine authority on the one hand, and 46of holy obedience on the other. As our obedience passes on from the Church to its Head; so our disobedience is a rejection of His authority in His own kingdom.
2. Now we may remark further, that little things are great tests of the temper and character of men. The least things are often the most pregnant with moral probation; the less the particular precept is, the more the principle is exhibited: for instance, things simply commanded or forbidden without any assigned or perceptible reason, or those which in themselves have no particular attractions or inducements: such, for example, as the original probation of Adam by the forbidding of a single tree in the garden. This is what we are wont to call gratuitous or wanton disobedience; the temptation being weak, and the circumstances unlikely to promote the temptation. So, on the other hand, in the obedience of the Second Adam. It consisted not only in the universal obedience of His spotless holiness to the great laws of His Father’s will; but to the very least, in the “fulfilling of all righteousness,” even to the baptism in Jordan. In this what humility, submission, self-abasement, what pure and perfect obedience of soul to the mind of the Father! So it is in the laws and precepts by which our probation in the Church is controlled. What a test of the heart and temper is contained in the 47precept of unity! How directly it elicits any insubordination and irregularity of the individual will! With how wonderful a wisdom is the unity of the Church constructed, so as to hold together the obedient, and to yield before the rebellious! It is as the net let down into the sea, firm yet frail; close enough to bring those that abide in it safe to shore, but giving way for the escape of those that resist. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.”1818 1 St. John ii. 19.
To some minds, perhaps, the deep spiritual reasons which make united worship a high duty and direct means of sanctification, and divided or schismatical worship as high a sin, and as direct a stimulant of those tempers which grieve the Spirit of holiness, are not so much as conceivable; and yet, with their imperfect knowledge of the matter of their obligation, they do not scruple at the slightest offence, or the most trivial annoyance; or because every thing is not ruled and ordered, done and left undone, according to their liking, to withdraw themselves from the unity of a parochial altar, or even from the Church itself, and to join with those who are in open and hostile opposition to the Church 48in which till then they professed to find salvation. Now, what is the secret of all this? It is nothing more than the detection of the spirit of disobedience, which always dwelt in them, but till then had not betrayed itself. The whole character is told in a single act; and the less important the matter, the more mature and deliberate is the disobedience. The insubordination of a man who sets himself against a rite or a vesture, is very much greater than that of one who gainsays a point of doctrine; for the latter chooses his field in matters which, if any thing can justify refusal of submission, may go farther to do it, than the paltry, trifling, pitiful excuses with which many try to mask their disobedience under a plea of conscience. The less the occasion, the greater the insubordination. The lighter the alleged provocation, the heavier the offence. On the one side is the authority derived from our Lord to His Church, enjoining some commonplace and indifferent point of order; on the other, men professing the matter to be unimportant, and yet resisting the injunction. What is this but the most direct and naked struggle between authority and disobedience? If the pretext were greater, it would disguise the truth. As a test of the man, the less the better, because the probation is more visible, barefaced, and instructive. It is like the 49rage of Naaman when he was disappointed of being bidden to “do some great thing,” and was commanded to wash in Jordan. The probation of faith, submission, docility, and also of self-will, impatience, pride, is complete. It is a remarkable fact, that an insubordinate temper in trifling and external matters seems to have been always the peculiar characteristic of those who have little faith in the holy Sacraments. The sacramentarian error appeared to prepare the way for contests about vestments and postures. And how should it be otherwise? for what can be more unmeaning, wearisome, and irritating, than a careful obedience to small precepts and appointments which are destitute of spiritual grace, empty, carnal, dead, legal, and the like? The smaller they are, to such minds the more provoking. But the fact of the provocation reveals the fact of the unbelief. It is the index of a scheme of doctrine, and of a theological school. The command to wash in Jordan detected the unbelief of Naaman. Though he had come all the way out of Syria, with much profession and circumstance, to the prophet in Israel, it is plain that he had little faith after all. The prophet proved him, as the Head of the Church through the visible order of it proves us now.
3. Another obvious remark is, how great are the consequences which flow from these little things.50
At the baptism of our Lord He was proclaimed to be the Christ, by the word of the Baptist, by the voice of the Father, by the descent of the Holy Ghost. He at that time received without measure the anointing of the Eternal Spirit. Surely this is a type of the graces which descend on holy obedience. It is a silent pledge to us that the lowly, patient, submissive, docile heart shall be greatly sanctified. And so, indeed, we find it. Whatsoever may be said in praise of the earnestness, zeal, activity, and laboriousness, of those who resist the authority of the Church, there is a perceptible difference of spirit and character distinguishing them from those who live in submission to its rule. Whatever may be said of the active side of their character, it is certain that we look almost in vain for the gentleness, patience, softness, meekness, self-control, self-chastisement, the largeness and elevation of mind, the passive charity, which belong to the obedient. The whole theory of life and devotion is lower. I am speaking of good and sincere people, not of the turbulent and self-conceited; but of those who unhappily have been drawn into the same general school, and though they keenly see its faults, cannot bring themselves to forsake it. Good as they are, their standard is personal and earthly, drawn from their own inward views and feelings, or from the example or opinions 51of individuals of the same school. This is strikingly true of those who have been brought up in sects; and also of all such schools within the communion of the Church, as have, by following particular minds, lost the tone and habit of the catholic spirit. It is not necessary to say more than that the very temper of devotion, self-renunciation, reverence, submission, which is the peculiar grace of the obedient, is by them looked upon and even denounced as superstition, weakness, bondage, and slavishness. Their own estimate of the saintly character as unfolded in the Church is the best test and portrait of their own. We can do them no wrong in believing that what they censure they do not imitate. There can be no doubt that the principle of submission is peculiarly trying to some minds; and that the very habit which makes it unpalatable is that which seriously obstructs the improvement of the whole character. It is rarely seen that people grow to ripeness of faith, and to that undefinable mellowness and gentleness of spirit which is the very character of our Lord, without learning the great lesson of obedience and submission, even in little things, to the will and authority of others; that is, without obeying God in His Church. This temper is either the cause or the consequence of their growth in grace. Either way it seems inseparable from it; and to lack this, much 52more to be consciously opposed to it, is a bar, no one can say how great, to our advance in learning the humility and the mind of Christ.
I have hitherto spoken only of the direct moral effects in the way of self-discipline; but there is a higher condition of our sanctification which may be seriously affected by a captious, impatient, in subordinate temper—I mean, the direct gifts of grace which fall upon the lowly and submissive heart. Like water-springs, the Spirit leaves the lofty hills, and gathers in low places. The Spirit of the Dove does not descend and abide on the unruly, headstrong, self-willed. We know not what they forfeit. Yet so it has been from the beginning. The outward and visible Church, since the world entered into it, has always been turbulent and disordered: its rule disputed, its discipline in fringed, its doctrine gainsayed. Men of unsubdued tempers and headstrong wills have at all times troubled the outer courts of the Church; but there is a sanctuary of holy obedience into which they cannot enter. There is around every altar a fellowship of the contrite, humble, and submissive; who see Christ in His Church, and in it both minister to Him and obey Him. And they have a peace which is from the God of peace. The Spirit of peace, in gentleness, quietness, meekness, dwells in them, and shelters them even in this rough world 53from the strife of tongues. They look out upon the angry buffeting face of the visible Church with calmness and a stedfast heart; knowing that all these things must be for the trial and manifestation of the sons of God. They know that at the best the Church in this world is no more than an imperfect realisation of its perfect idea; an approximation to a type which is in heaven alone. All the struggle, and strife, and lofty looks, and swelling words, and rebellious deeds, of the disobedient and lawless are no more than must be while the kingdom of the new creation is spreading its dominion over the corruption of the old.
Let us, then, never be out of heart, though the face of the Church be ever so much marred and smitten by the spirit of misrule, and by the sway of disobedience. Let its effect on us be to make us cling closer to the guide which God has given us. Let us render a submissive, uniform, glad obedience to the Church; to its doctrine, discipline, ritual; to its precepts of fasting and humiliation; to its lightest counsel; to the least intimation of its mind and will. Let us watch not only against openly rebellious motions of our hearts, but against vanity, affectation, love of singularity, peculiar ways, habits, and choices, by which men are tempted to bend and tamper with, or, as they would say, to adapt and accommodate the system 54 of the Church to their times and to themselves. Some men cannot even say the prayers of the Church without needless and fanciful changes. This is nothing less than simple exaltation of self above the Church; and making themselves a rule for its orders and doctrines, instead of simply obeying it. Let us mortify self in all its forms; not in the grosser alone, but in those refined shapes in which it keeps its hold upon so many. How few men can endure to be put out of sight and forgotten. All that they say and do has about it something subtil and subdued, hardly perceptible, yet never unperceived, by which self again comes into view. Even in the most sacred things, and in the holiest actions, and with the precepts of self-renouncement in their mouths, there is a some thing, not so much as a word, but a tone, a look, an air, which expresses in full the presence and consciousness of a will not dead to its own choice. Let us seek with our whole heart the gift of holy obedience, that in all things we may submit to Christ ruling in His Church, as He submitted to St. John baptizing by the commandment of His Father. Let us, by prayer and self-chastisement, so cross and keep under our likings, preferences, views, opinions, judgments in all things, when the will of the Church is made known, that we may in all things obey “as unto the Lord, and not unto 55men;” with him who said: “I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me.”56
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