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15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,
Imprisonment of John the Baptist.
15 And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not; 16 John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: 17 Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable. 18 And many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, being reproved by him for Herodias his brother Philip's wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done, 20 Added yet this above all, that he shut up John in prison.
We are now drawing near to the appearance of our Lord Jesus publicly; the Sun will not be long after the morning-star. We are here told,
I. How the people took occasion, from the ministry and baptism of John, to think of the Messiah, and to think of him as at the door, as now come. Thus the way of the Lord was prepared, and people were prepared to bid Christ welcome; for, when men's expectations are raised, that which they are in expectation of becomes doubly acceptable. Now when they observed what an excellent doctrine John Baptist preached, what a divine power went along with it, and what a tendency it had to reform the world, 1. They began presently to consider that now was the time for the Messiah to appear. The sceptre was departed from Judah, for they had no king but Cæsar; nay, and the law-giver too was gone from between his feet, for Herod had lately slain the sanhedrim. Daniel's seventy weeks were now expiring; and therefore it was but three or four years after this that they looked that the kingdom of heaven should appear immediately, Luke xix. 11. Never did the corrupt state of the Jews more need a reformation, nor their distressed state more need a deliverance, than now. 2. Their next thought was, "Is not his he that should come?" All thinking men mused, or reasoned, in their hearts, concerning John, whether he were the Christ or not. He had indeed none of the external pomp and grandeur in which they generally expected the Messiah to appear; but his life was holy and strict, his preaching powerful and with authority, and therefore "why may we not think that he is the Messiah, and that he will shortly throw off this disguise, and appear in more glory?" Note, That which puts people upon considering, reasoning with themselves, prepares the way for Christ.
II. How John disowned all pretensions to the honour of being himself the Messiah, but confirmed them in their expectations of him that really was the Messiah, v. 16, 17. John's office, as a crier or herald, was to give notice that the kingdom of God and the King of that kingdom were at hand; and therefore, when he had told all manner of people severally what they must do ("You must do this, and you must do that"), he tells them one thing more which they must all do: they must expect the Messiah now shortly to appear. And this serves as an answer to their musings and debates concerning himself. Though he knew not their thoughts, yet, in declaring this, he answered them.
1. He declares that the utmost he could do was to baptize them with water. He had no access to the Spirit, nor could command that or work upon that; he could only exhort them to repent, and assure them of forgiveness, upon repentance; he could not work repentance in them, nor confer remission on them.
2. He consigns them, and turns them over, as it were, to Jesus Christ, for whom he was sent to prepare the way, and to whom he was ready to transfer all the interest he had in the affections of the people, and would have them no longer to debate whether John was the Messiah or no, but to look for him that was really so.
(1.) John owns the Messiah to have a greater excellency than he had, and that he was in all things preferable to him; he is one the latchet of whose shoe he does not think himself worthy to loose; he does not think himself worthy to be the meanest of his servants, to help him on and off with his shoes. John was a prophet, yea more than a prophet, more so than any of the Old-Testament prophets; but Christ was a prophet more than John, for it was both by the Spirit of Christ, and of the grace of Christ, that all the prophets prophesied, and John among the rest, 1 Pet. i. 10, 11. This was a great truth which John came to preach; but the manner of his expressing it bespeaks his humility, and in it he not only does justice to the Lord Jesus, but does him honour too: "He is one whom I am not worthy to approach, or draw nigh to, no not as a servant." Thus highly does it become us to speak of Christ, and thus humbly of ourselves.
(2.) He owns him to have a greater energy than he had: "He is mightier than I, and does that which I cannot do, both for the comfort of the faithful and for the terror of hypocrites and dissemblers." They thought that a wonderful power went along with John; but what was that compared with the power which Jesus would come clothed with? [1.] John can do no more than baptize with water, in token of this, that they ought to purify and cleanse themselves; but Christ can, and will, baptize with the Holy Ghost; he can give the Spirit to cleanse and purify the heart, not only as water washes off the dirt on the outside, but as fire purges out the dross that is within, and melts down the metal, that it may be cast into a new mould. [2.] John can only preach a distinguishing doctrine, and by word and sign separate between the precious and the vile; but Christ hath his fan in his hand, with which he can, and will, perfectly separate between the wheat and the chaff. He will thoroughly purge his floor; it is his own, and therefore he will purge it, and will cast out of his church the unbelieving impenitent Jews, and confirm in his church all that faithfully follow him. [3.] John can only speak comfort to those that receive the gospel, and, like other prophets, say to the righteous that it shall be well with them; but Jesus Christ will give them comfort. John can only promise them that they shall be safe; but Christ will make them so: he will gather the wheat into his garner; good, serious, solid people he will gather now into his church on earth, which shall be made up of such, and he will shortly gather them into his church in heaven, where they shall be for ever sheltered. [4.] John can only threaten hypocrites, and tell the barren trees that they shall be hewn down and cast into the fire; but Christ can execute that threatening; those that are as chaff, light, and vain, and worthless, he will burn with fire unquenchable. John refers here to Mal. iii. 18; iv. 1, 2. Then, when the floor is purged, ye shall return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, for the day comes that shall burn as an oven.
The evangelist concludes his account of John's preaching with an et cætera (v. 18): Many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people, which are not recorded. First, John was an affectionate preacher. He was parakalon—exhorting, beseeching; he pressed things home upon his hearers, followed his doctrine close, as one in earnest. Secondly, He was a practical preacher. Much of his preaching was exhortation, quickening them to their duty, directing them in it, and not amusing them with matters of nice speculation. Thirdly, He was a popular preacher. Though he had scribes and Pharisees, men of polite learning, attending his ministry, and Sadducees, men of free thought, as they pretended, yet he addressed himself to the people, pros ton laon—to the laity, and accommodated himself to their capacity, as promising himself best success among them. Fourthly, He was an evangelical preacher, for so the word here used signifies, euengelizeto—he preached the gospel to the people; in all his exhortations, he directed people to Christ, and excited and encouraged their expectations of him. When we press duty upon people, we must direct them to Christ, both for righteousness and strength. Fifthly, He was a copious preacher: Many other things he preached, polla men kai hetera—many things, and different. He preached a great deal, shunned not to declare the whole counsel of God; and he varied in his preaching, that those who were not reached, and touched, and wrought upon, by one truth, might be by another.
III. How full a stop was put to John's preaching. When he was in the midst of his usefulness, going on thus successfully, he was imprisoned by the malice of Herod (v. 19, 20): Herod the tetrarch being reproved by him, not only for living in incest with his brother Philip's wife, but for the many other evils which Herod had done (for those that are wicked in one instance are commonly so in many others), he could not bear it, but contracted an antipathy to him for his plain dealing, and added this wickedness to all the rest, which was indeed above all, that he shut up John in prison, put that burning and shining light under a bushel. Because he could not bear his reproofs, others should be deprived of the benefit of his instructions and counsels. Some little good he might do to those who had access to him, when he was in prison; but nothing to what he might have done if he had had liberty to go about all the country, as he had done. We cannot think of Herod's doing this without the greatest compassion and lamentation, nor of God's permitting it without admiring the depth of the divine counsels, which we cannot account for. Must he be silenced who is the voice of one crying in the wilderness? Must such a preacher be shut up in prison who ought to have been set up in the courts of the temple? But thus the faith of his disciples must be tried; thus the unbelief of those who rejected him must be punished; thus he must be Christ's forerunner in suffering as well as preaching; and thus, having been for about a year and a half preparing people for Christ, he must now give way to him, and, the Sun being risen, the morning-star must of course disappear.