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§ 41. John’s Recognition of Jesus as the Messiah.

(1.) Import of his Baptism of Jesus.—(2.) The Continuance of his Ministry.—(3.) Possible Wavering in his Conviction of Christ’s Messiahship.—(4.) His Message from Prison.—(5.) Conduct of his Disciples towards Jesus.

As John’s conception of the Messiah included his office in freeing the people of God from the power of evil, and imparting to them a new life in the life of God, it appears that he presupposed also the fulness of the Holy Ghost dwelling in him in such a way as that he could best w it upon others. From the first germ of the idea of Messiah in the Prophets down to the time of Christianity itself, we find ever that a just and profound conception of his office involves in it a higher idea of his person. So, perhaps, John, although his expectation of a visible realization of the Theocracy shows him as yet upon Old Testament ground, may have at least touched upon the stand-point of Christianity. His position was very like that held by Simeon, and indeed, in general, by all those Jews who, in advance of the sentiments of the times, were inspired with earnest longings for the appearance of the Messiah, and thus stood upon the border-land between the two stages of the kingdom of God. And in John’s representation of his own inferiority to him “that should come,” and in his clear apprehension of the limits of his mission and his power—an apprehension that distinguished him from all other founders of preparatory epochs—we have an assurance that he will never imagine his preparatory stand-point to be a permanent one; and that, as he feels himself unworthy “to unloose the shoestrings” of the lofty One that is to appear, so he will bow himself in the same humble reverence when He, whom his spiritual sense shall recognize as the expected one, shall appear in person before him.

We are fully aware of the objections that may be raised against these conclusions. It may be said, and truly, that one may do homage to an idea, whose general outlines are present to his intuition, but may be unfit to recognize the realization of the idea when presented before his eyes in all its features. The prejudices of his time and circumstances are sure to start up and hinder him from the recognition. But surely, in the case of John, the lowliness of mind and sobriety of judgment to which we have just referred give us ground to expect that he, at least, would so far surmount his peculiar prejudices as to recognize the admission of a higher element into the course of events—to recognize a stand-point even essentially different from his own; especially as he had himself pointed out beforehand the characteristics of such a difference. Yet we do not wish to deny that doubts may arise, in regard to the fact of John’s recognition of Jesus as Messiah, 56in the minds of those who do not presuppose the unconditional credibility of the Gospels. Perhaps the remark above made, in reference to a possible commingling of the subjective and the objective in the Gospel accounts, may be applicable here. But before we proceed with our connected historical recital, we must seek sure historical footing, by inquiring into the grounds of the doubts referred to.

The following questions, perhaps, express these grounds: If John was really convinced of Christ’s Messiahship, why did he continue his independent ministry, and not rather submit himself and all his followers as disciples to Christ 1 Why did he wait until after his imprisonment before sending to inquire of Jesus whether he were tile Messiah, or men should look for another? Why, even after the Baptist’s death, did his disciples preserve their separate existence as a sect? How happened it that, in a public proclamation of the Gospel (Acts, x., 37; xiii., 25), no stress is laid upon John’s divinely inspired testimony concerning Christ—nay, it is not even quoted—while his exhortations to repentance and his announcement of the coming Messiah are dwelt upon as the preparation for Christ’s public ministry? Do not these difficulties make it doubtful whether John really did, before the time of his imprisonment, recognize Christ’s Messiahship? Or, is it not probable that the Christian view, which sees in Christ the ἐρχόμενος announced by John, was involuntarily attributed to the Baptist, and so the tradition grew up that he had personally recognized the Messiahship of Jesus, and introduced him into his public labours? In this case we should have to admit that he was first induced, while in prison, by what he heard of Christ, to recognize his calling—and that not only had this fact been transferred to an earlier period in his history, but too much made of it altogether.

Now it would be easy to overthrow this whole structure at once, by assuming the genuineness and authority of John’s Gospel.9797   John, i., 7, 15; iii., 32; v., 33. It is true, as has been before said, the disciple, after going beyond his Master, might have seen more in the previously uttered words of the latter than he himself had intended; but, at any rate, those words must at least have afforded some ground for the disciple’s representation. If the above-mentioned doubts are well grounded, John’s misrepresentation of what occurred between the Baptist and Christ is nothing short of wilful falsehood. The later Christian traditions, indeed, might have admitted such a transposition without the intent to deceive; but John was an eye-witness. We do not intend, however, to appeal to John’s authority, but shall examine the matter on internal evidence, grounded on the nature of the case.

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(1.) Import of the Baptism of Jesus by John.

We first consider the baptism of Jesus by John. Those who carry their doubts of John’s testimony farthest, dispute even the fact of this baptism. But this is absolutely groundless skepticism; for all the New Testament accounts, however else they may differ, presuppose the event as a fact. It would be impossible to account even for the origin of such a tradition, if the event itself did not originate it; the very application of John’s baptism to the sinless Jesus must have caused difficulties to the Christian mind, which a peculiar line of thought alone could remove. But, admitting the fact, it cannot be supposed that Christ submitted to the baptism in the same sense, and for the same purpose, as others did; for we can find no possible connecting link between the sense of sin and the desire for purification and redemption felt by all ordinary applicants for the ordinance, and the consciousness of the sinless Redeemer. It was with this latter, unoriginated consciousness, however, that Jesus presented himself for baptism. But we cannot suppose that he did it in silence; such a course might have led the Baptist, if not otherwise enlightened, to suppose that he came forward in the same relation to the ordinance as other men. Its probability is diminished, too, in proportion to our idea of John’s susceptibility for the disclosures which Christ might have made to him. We are led, therefore, by the internal necessity of the case, to suppose that, in administering the baptism, he received a higher light in regard to the relation which he himself sustained to Christ.

(2.) The Baptist’s continuance in his Ministry of Preparation.

We must conclude, however, that if John did recognize Jesus as Messiah, he applied to him all his Old-Testament ideas of Messiah as the founder of a visible kingdom. With these views he would expect that Christ would bring about the public recognition of his office by his own Messianic labours, without the aid of his testimony. This expectation would naturally cause him to forbear any public testimony to Christ, and to content himself with directing only a few of the most susceptible of his disciples to the Saviour; but this would have been a merely private affair, forming no part of his open mission to the world. That mission remained always the same, viz., to prepare the way for the Messiah’s kingdom, and to point to Him who was soon to reveal himself; not to anticipate his self-revelation, and to declare him to the people by name as the Messiah. This preparatory position of John had to continue until the time when the entrance of Jesus as Theocratic King, upon the establishment of his kingdom, gave the signal for all to range themselves under his banners. The Baptist, true to the position that had been assigned to him in the Theocratic developement, 58had to continue his labours until their termination, a termination which external circumstances were soon to bring about.9898   I am gratified to find that Winer, one of the most eminent investigators of Biblical literature, has given an intimation of the view which I have here fully carried out. See his “Biblisches Realwörterbuch,” i., 692, 2d ed. As, therefore, John’s testimony was merely private, and never openly laid before the people; and, moreover, as its value depended entirely upon the recognition of John’s own prophetic calling (a recognition by no means universal among the Jews), there is no difficulty in accounting for the fact that so little use was made of his testimony in the citation of proofs for Jesus’s Messiahship by Peter and Paul, in the passages above referred to.9999   Acts, x., 37; xiii., 25. Paul had much more occasion to quote John’s testimony when preaching to his disciples at Ephesus (Acts, xix., 1-5). There is no ground for asserting positively that he did not quote it, although the passage does not state expressly that he did; for it remains doubtful whether the words τοῦτ᾽ ἔστιν, of verse 4, are applied by Paul to the ἐρχόμενος announced by John, or were intended by him to be attributed to the Baptist. What is said of Apollos (Acts, xviii., 25: he was instructed in the way of the Lord, knowing only the baptism of John) cannot be understood nakedly of the pure, spiritual Messiahship. This could only be the case if ὅδος τοῦ κυρίου (v. 25) were equivalent to Θεοῦ ὅδου (v. 26), and signified merely the way revealed by God, the right way of worshipping God. But this cannot be. The word κύριος must be taken in its specific, Christian sense, as applicable to Christ; an interpretation confirmed by what follows, viz.: he taught diligently the things of the Lord, which cannot refer to the doctrine of God, but to the proclamation of Jesus as Messiah. But if it could be fully proved that all these disciples of John knew as yet nothing of Jesus as the ἐρχόμενος announced by the Baptist, it would not affect our assertion at all; for we have already admitted that the latter only partially directed his followers to Christ as Messiah.

(3.) Possible Wavering in John’s Conviction of the Messiahship of Jesus.

Supposes now, that John’s faith did waver in his prison—that, in an unhappy hour, he was seized with doubts of Christ’s Messiahship—would it follow that he had not before enjoyed and expressed with Divine confidence his conviction of the truth? Would the later doubt suffice to do away with the earlier and out-spoken certainty? Can the man who makes such an assertion have any idea of the nature and developement of religious conviction and knowledge—of the relation between the Divine, the supernatural, and the natural? It is true that scientific knowledge and conviction, logically obtained, can never be lost so long as the intellect remains unimpaired; but it is quite another thing with religious truths. These do not grow out of logic; but, presupposing certain spiritual tendencies and affections, they arise from an immediate contact of the soul with God, from a beam of God’s light, penetrating the mind that is allied to him. The knowledge and the convictions which are drawn neither from natural reason nor from the knowledge of the world, but are always rebelled against by the latter until the whole spirit is penetrated by the Divine, can retain their vitality only by the same going forth of the higher life which gave them 59birth; only so far as the soul can maintain itself in the same atmosphere, and in the same tendency to the supernatural and the Divine. So one may, when in the full enjoyment of the higher life, when no vapours of earth dim his spiritual vision, have clear conception and conviction of religious truths, which may perplex him with obscurities at times when the earthly tendencies prevail. And thus we may explain the fluctuations and transitions in the developement of religious life, convictions and knowledge, of which the experience of Christians in all ages affords instances. It may be said that, although this explanation holds good of religious life in general, it cannot apply to an inspired prophet like John, or to the truths which he obtained from the light of a supernatural revelation. This objection would imply that a single objective revelation is the only source of Christian truth, which is not the case. The apprehension of such truths in every individual mind rests not merely upon this single objective ground, but also upon a repetition of the Divine manifestation to the mind itself. The difference between the inspired prophet and the ordinary Christian believer, in regard to the reception of God’s truth, is not a difference in kind, but in degree. Christ declared that the least of Christians was greater than John; words that ill entitle us to draw such a line of distinction between the Baptist and living Christians of all ages as to apply another standard and another law to his religious life. It is true, there is a lifeless supernaturalism which views all Divine communications rather as overlying the mind than incorporating themselves with its natural psychological developement; and the opponents of revealed religion caricature this view to serve their purpose of subverting the doctrines they so bitterly hate. But notwithstanding, the doctrine of such Divine communication is perfectly in accordance with the facts of the Divine life as they are stated in the Scriptures; and we are compelled thereby to connect these manifestations with the natural growth of the mind in its receptive powers and spontaneous activity; to apply the general laws of the mind to the developement of whatever is communicated to it by a higher light.

As we have before remarked, John stood between two different stages of the developement of the Theocracy. It is, therefore, not unlikely that in times of the fullest religious inspiration, caused in his soul by Christ’s revelations to him, he obtained views of the coming kingdom which he could not always hold fast, and his old ideas sometimes revived and even gained the ascendency. Although he had just conceptions of Messiah’s kingdom in regard to its moral and religious ends, he was always inclined to connect worldly ideas with it. But the object of his hopes was not realized. He heard, indeed, a great deal about the miracles of Jesus, but saw him not at the head of his visible kingdom. The signal so long waited for was never given. Is it, therefore, 60matter of wonder if, in some hour of despondency, the worldly element in the Baptist’s views became too strong, and perplexity and doubt arose within him?

(4.) The Message from Prison.

The inquiry which John sent to the Saviour from prison100100   Matt., xi, 2, 3. shows that his doubts did not refer at all to the superiority of Christ, but to the question whether the mission of the latter was the Messiahship itself, or only a preparation for it. So great was his respect for the authority of Christ, that he expected the decisive answer to the question from his own lips. Neither the form of the question nor the Saviour’s reply favour the supposition that John was led, simply by the reports of Christ’s labours which had reached him in prison, to the thought that he might be the ἐρχόμενος. Had this been the case, Christ would have answered him as he did others in similar circumstances; he would not have warned him not to be perplexed or offended because his groundless expectations in regard to the Messiah were not fully realized in Christ’s ministry, but, on the contrary, would have cherished a faith which could grow up in one who was languishing in prison, and unable to see with his own eyes the mighty works that were done, and would have encouraged him to yield himself fully up to the dawning conviction. The warning against σκανδαλίζεσθαι was precisely applicable to one who had once believed, but whose faith had wavered because his hopes were not fully fulfilled. The answer of Jesus, moreover, shows plainly in what expectations John was disappointed: they were, as we shall have occasion to show hereafter, such as grew out of his Old Testament stand-point, and attributed an outward character to the kingdom of God.

(5.) Conduct of John’s Disciples towards Jesus.

It does not militate at all against our position, in regard to the Baptist’s recognition of Christ, that many of his disciples did not join the Saviour at a later period; and even that a sect was formed from them hostile to Christianity. We have already seen that it was necessary for John to maintain his independent sphere of labour, and that his position naturally led him to direct only the more susceptible of his disciples to Jesus, and that too by degrees. These latter were probably such as had imbibed more of John’s longing desire for “him that was to come,” than of the austere and ascetic spirit of the sect. As to the rest, we have only to say that we have no right to judge the master by his scholars, or the scholars by their master. Men who hold a position preparatory and conducive to a higher one, often retain the peculiar and one-sided views of their old ground, and are even driven into an 61attitude of opposition to the new and the better. This seems to have been the case with John’s disciples in relation to Christianity.

From this full investigation of the question, we cannot but conclude that there is no reason to doubt the historical veracity of the narrative. It is matter of fact, that John openly recognized Jesus as the Messiah when he baptized him. Having secured this firm historical basis, we proceed now, with the greater confidence, to inquire into the peculiar import of the baptism itself.


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