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Ministry of John the Baptist.
1 Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Cæsar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judæa, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituræa and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, 2 Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. 3 And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins; 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; 6 And all flesh shall see the salvation of God. 7 Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. 9 And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. 10 And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? 11 He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise. 12 Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? 13 And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you. 14 And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.
John's baptism introducing a new dispensation, it was requisite that we should have a particular account of it. Glorious things were said of John, what a distinguished favourite of Heaven he should be, and what a great blessing to this earth (ch. i. 15, 17); but we lost him in the deserts, and there he remains until the day of his showing unto Israel, ch. i. 80. And now at last that day dawns, and a welcome day it was to them that waited for it more than they that waited for the morning. Observe here,
I. The date of the beginning of John's baptism, when it was that he appeared; this is here taken notice of, which was not by the other evangelists, that the truth of the thing might be confirmed by the exact fixing of the time. And it is dated,
1. By the government of the heathen, which the Jews were under, to show that they were a conquered people, and therefore it was time for the Messiah to come to set up a spiritual kingdom, and an eternal one, upon the ruins of all the temporal dignity and dominion of David and Judah.
(1.) It is dated by the reign of the Roman emperor; it was in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Cæsar, the third of the twelve Cæsars, a very bad man, given to covetousness, drunkenness, and cruelty; such a man is mentioned first (saith Dr. Lightfoot), as it were, to teach us what to look for from that cruel and abominable city wherein Satan reigned in all ages and successions. The people of the Jews, after a long struggle, were of late made a province of the empire, and were under the dominion of this Tiberius; and that country which once had made so great a figure, and had many nations tributaries to it, in the reigns of David and Solomon, is now itself an inconsiderable despicable part of the Roman empire, and rather trampled upon than triumphed in.
——En quo discordia cives,
What dire effects from civil discord flow!
The lawgiver was now departed from between Judah's feet; and, as an evidence of that, their public acts are dated by the reign of the Roman emperor, and therefore now Shiloh must come.
(2.) It is dated by the governments of the viceroys that ruled in the several parts of the Holy Land under the Roman emperor, which was another badge of their servitude, for they were all foreigners, which bespeaks a sad change with that people whose governors used to be of themselves (Jer. xxx. 21), and it was their glory. How is the gold become dim! [1.] Pilate is here said to be the governor, president, or procurator, of Judea. This character is given of him by some other writers, that he was a wicked man, and one that made no conscience of a lie. He reigned ill, and at last was displaced by Vitellius, president of Syria, and sent to Rome, to answer for his mal-administrations. [2.] The other three are called tetrarchs, some think from the countries which they had the command of, each of them being over a fourth part of that which had been entirely under the government of Herod the Great. Others think that they are so called from the post of honour they held in the government; they had the fourth place, or were fourth-rate governors: the emperor was the first, the pro-consul, who governed a province, the second, a king the third, and a tetrarch the fourth. So Dr. Lightfoot.
2. By the government of the Jews among themselves, to show that they were a corrupt people, and that therefore it was time that the Messiah should come, to reform them, v. 2. Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests. God had appointed that there should be but one high priest at a time, but here were two, to serve some ill turn or other: one served one year and the other the other year; so some. One was the high priest, and the other the sagan, as the Jews called him, to officiate for him when he was disabled; or, as others say, one was high priest, and represented Aaron, and that was Caiaphas; Annas, the other, was nasi, or head of the sanhedrim, and represented Moses. But to us there is but one high priest, one Lord of all, to whom all judgment is committed.
II. The origin and tendency of John's baptism.
1. The origin of it was from heaven: The word of God came unto John, v. 2. He received full commission and full instructions from God to do what he did. It is the same expression that is used concerning the Old-Testament prophets (Jer. i. 2); for John was a prophet, yea, more than a prophet, and in him prophecy revived, which had been long suspended. We are not told how the word of the Lord came to John, whether by an angel, as to his father, or by dream, or vision, or voice, but it was to his satisfaction, and ought to be to ours. John is here called the son of Zacharias, to refer us to what the angel said to his father, when he assured him that he should have this son. The word of the Lord came to him in the wilderness; for those whom God fits he will find out, wherever they are. As the word of the Lord is not bound in a prison, so it is not lost in a wilderness. The word of the Lord made its way to Ezekiel among the captives by the river of Chebar, and to John in the isle of Patmos. John was the son of a priest, now entering upon the thirtieth year of his age; and therefore, according to the custom of the temple, he was now to be admitted into the temple-service, where he should have attended as a candidate five years before. But God had called him to a more honourable ministry, and therefore the Holy Ghost enrols him here, since he was not enrolled in the archives of the temple: John the son of Zacharias began his ministration such a time.
2. The scope and design of it were to bring all the people of his country off from their sins and home to their God, v. 3. He came first into all the country about Jordan, the neighbourhood wherein he resided, that part of the country which Israel took possession of first, when they entered the land of promise under Joshua's conduct; there was the banner of the gospel first displayed. John resided in the most solitary part of the country: but, when the word of the Lord came to him, he quitted his deserts, and came into the inhabited country. Those that are best pleased in their retirements must cheerfully exchange them, when God calls them into places of concourse. He came out of the wilderness into all the country, with some marks of distinction, preaching a new baptism; not a sect, or party, but a profession, or distinguishing badge. The sign, or ceremony, was such as was ordinarily used among the Jews, washing with water, by which proselytes were sometimes admitted, or disciples to some great master; but the meaning of it was, repentance for the remission of sins: that is, all that submitted to his baptism,
(1.) Were thereby obliged to repent of their sins, to be sorry for what they had done amiss, and to do so no more. The former they professed, and were concerned to be sincere in their professions; the latter they promised, and were concerned to make good what they promised. He bound them, not to such ceremonious observances as were imposed by the tradition of the elders, but to change their mind, and change their way, to cast away from them all their transgressions, and to make them new hearts and to live new lives. The design of the gospel, which now began, was to make men devout and pious, holy and heavenly, humble and meek, sober and chaste, just and honest, charitable and kind, and good in every relation, who had been much otherwise; and this is to repent.
(2.) They were thereby assured of the pardon of their sins, upon their repentance. As the baptism he administered bound them not to submit to the power of sin, so it sealed to them a gracious and pleadable discharge from the guilt of sin. Turn yourselves from all your transgressions, so iniquity shall not be your ruin; agreeing with the word of the Lord, by the Old-Testament prophets, Ezek. xviii. 30.
III. The fulfilling of the scriptures in the ministry of John. The other evangelists had referred us to the same text that is here referred to, that of Esaias, ch. xl. 3. It is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, which he heard from God, which he spoke for God, those words of his which were written for the generations to come. Among them it is found that there should be the voice of one crying in the wilderness; and John is that voice, a clear distinct voice, a loud voice, an articulate one; he cries, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, and make his paths straight. John's business is to make way for the entertainment of the gospel in the hearts of the people, to bring them into such a frame and temper as that Christ might be welcome to them, and they welcome to Christ. Luke goes further on with the quotation than Matthew and Mark had done, and applies the following words likewise to John's ministry (v. 5, 6), Every valley shall be filled. Dr. Hammond understands this as a prediction of the desolation coming upon the people of the Jews for their infidelity: the land should be made plain by the pioneers for the Roman army, and should be laid waste by it, and there should then be a visible distinction made between the impenitent on the one side and the receivers of the gospel on the other side. But it seems rather to be meant of the gospel of Christ, of which that was the introduction. 1. The humble shall by it be enriched with grace: Every valley that lies low and moist shall be filled and be exalted. 2. The proud shall by it be humbled; the self-confident that stand upon their own bottom, and the self-conceited that lift up their own top, shall have contempt put upon them: Every mountain and hill shall be brought low. If they repent, they are brought to the dust; if not, to the lowest hell. 3. Sinners shall be converted to God: The crooked ways and the crooked spirits shall be made straight; for, though none can make that straight which God hath made crooked (Eccl. vii. 13), yet God by his grace can make that straight which sin hath made crooked. 4. Difficulties that were hindering and discouraging in the way to heaven shall be removed: The rough ways shall be made smooth; and they that love God's law shall have great peace, and nothing shall offend them. The gospel has made the way to heaven plain and easy to be found, smooth and easy to be walked in. 5. The great salvation shall be more fully discovered than ever, and the discovery of it shall spread further (v. 6): All flesh shall see the salvation of God; not the Jews only, but the Gentiles. All shall see it; they shall have it set before them and offered to them, and some of all sorts shall see it, enjoy it, and have the benefit of it. When way is made for the gospel into the heart, by the captivation of high thoughts and bringing them into obedience to Christ, by the leveling of the soul and the removing of all obstructions that stand in the way of Christ and his grace, then prepare to bid the salvation of God welcome.
IV. The general warnings and exhortations which he gave to those who submitted to his baptism, v. 7-9. In Matthew he is said to have preached these same things to many of the Pharisees and Sadducees, that came to his baptism (Matt. iii. 7-10); but here he is said to have spoken them to the multitude, that came forth to be baptized of him, v. 7. This was the purport of his preaching to all that came to him, and he did not alter it in compliment to the Pharisees and Sadducees, when they came, but dealt as plainly with them as with any other of his hearers. And as he did not flatter the great, so neither did he compliment the many, or make his court to them, but gave the same reproofs of sin and warnings of wrath to the multitude that he did to the Sadducees and Pharisees; for, if they had not the same faults, they had others as bad. Now observe here,
1. That the guilty corrupted race of mankind is become a generation of vipers; not only poisoned, but poisonous; hateful to God, hating one another. This magnifies the patience of God, in continuing the race of mankind upon the earth, and not destroying that nest of vipers. He did it once by water, and will again by fire.
2. This generation of vipers is fairly warned to flee from the wrath to come, which is certainly before them if they continue such; and their being a multitude will not be at all their security, for it will be neither reproach nor loss to God to cut them off. We are not only warned of this wrath, but are put into a way to escape it, if we look about us in time.
3. There is no way of fleeing from the wrath to come, but by repentance. They that submitted to the baptism of repentance thereby evidenced that they were warned to flee from the wrath to come and took the warning; and we by our baptism profess to have fled out of Sodom, for fear of what is coming upon it.
4. Those that profess repentance are highly concerned to live like penitents (v. 8): "Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance, else, notwithstanding your professions of repentance, you cannot escape the wrath to come." By the fruits of repentance it will be known whether it be sincere or no. By the change of our way must be evidenced the change of our mind.
5. If we be not really holy, both in heart and life, our profession of religion and relation to God and his church will stand us in no stead at all: Begin not now to frame excuses from this great duty of repentance, by saying within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father. What will it avail us to be the children of godly parents if we be not godly, to be within the pale of the Church if we be not brought into the bond of the covenant?
6. We have therefore no reason to depend upon our external privileges and professions of religion, because God has no need of us or of our services, but can effectually secure by his own honour and interest without us. If we were cut off and ruined, he could raise up to himself a church out of the most unlikely,—children to Abraham even out of stones.
7. The greater professions we make of repentance, and the greater assistances and encouragements are given us to repentance, the nearer and the sorer will our destruction be if we do not bring forth fruits meet for repentance. Now that the gospel begins to be preached, now that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, now that the axe is laid to the root of the tree, threatenings to the wicked and impenitent are now more terrible than before, as encouragements to the penitent are now more comfortable. "Now that you are upon your behaviour, look to yourselves."
8. Barren trees will be cast into the fire at length; it is the fittest place for them: Every tree that doth not bring forth fruit, good fruit, is hewn down, and cast into the fire. If it serve not for fruit, to the honour of God's grace, let it serve for fuel, to the honour of his justice.
V. The particular instructions he gave to several sorts of persons, that enquired of him concerning their duty: the people, the publicans, and the soldiers. Some of the Pharisees and Sadducees came to his baptism; but we do not find them asking, What shall we do? They thought they knew what they had to do as well as he could tell them, or were determined to do what they pleased, whatever he told them. But the people, the publicans, and the soldiers, who knew that they had done amiss, and that they ought to do better, and were conscious to themselves of great ignorance and unacquaintedness with the divine law, were particularly inquisitive: What shall we do? Note, 1. Those that are baptized must be taught, and those that have baptized them are concerned, as they have opportunity, to teach them, Matt. xxviii. 19, 20. 2. Those that profess and promise repentance in general must evidence it by particular instances of reformation, according as their place and condition are. 3. They that would do their duty must desire to know their duty, and enquire concerning it. The first good word Paul said, when he was converted, was, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? These here enquire, not, What shall this man do? but, What shall we do? What fruits meet for repentance shall we bring forth? Now John gives answer to each, according to their place and station.
(1.) He tells the people their duty, and that is to be charitable (v. 11): He that has two coats, and, consequently, one to spare, let him give, or lend at least, to him that has none, to keep him warm. Perhaps he saw among his hearers some that were overloaded with clothes, while others were ready to perish in rags, and he puts those who had superfluities upon contributing to the relief of those that had not necessaries. The gospel requires mercy, and not sacrifice; and the design of it is to engage us to do all the good we can. Food and raiment are the two supports of life; he that hath meat to spare, let him give to him that is destitute of daily food, as well as he that hath clothes to spare: what we have we are but stewards of, and must use it, accordingly, as our Master directs.
(2.) He tells the publicans their duty, the collectors of the emperor's revenue (v. 13): Exact no more than that which is appointed you. They must do justice between the government and the merchant, and not oppress the people in levying the taxes, nor any way make them heavier or more burdensome than the law had made them. They must not think that because it was their office to take care that the people did not defraud the prince they might therefore, by the power they had, bear hard upon the people; as those that have ever so little a branch of power are apt to abuse it: "No, keep to your book of rates, and reckon it enough that you collect for Cæsar the things that are Cæsar's, and do not enrich yourselves by taking more." The public revenues must be applied to the public service, and not to gratify the avarice of private persons. Observe, He does not direct the publicans to quit their places, and to go no more to the receipt of custom; the employment is in itself lawful and necessary, but let them be just and honest in it.
(3.) He tells the soldiers their duty, v. 14. Some think that these soldiers were of the Jewish nation and religion: others think that they were Romans; for it was not likely either that the Jews would serve the Romans or that the Romans would trust the Jews in their garrisons in their own nation; and then it is an early instance of Gentiles embracing the gospel and submitting to it. Military men seldom seem inclined to religion; yet these submitted even to the Baptist's strict profession, and desired to receive the word of command from him: What must we do? Those who more than other men have their lives in their hands, and are in deaths often, are concerned to enquire what they shall do that they may be found in peace. In answer to this enquiry, John does not bid them lay down their arms, and desert the service, but cautions them against the sins that soldiers were commonly guilty of; for this is fruit meet for repentance, to keep ourselves from our iniquity. [1.] They must not be injurious to the people among whom they were quartered, and over whom indeed they were set: "Do violence to no man. Your business is to keep the peace, and prevent men's doing violence to one another; but do not you do violence to any. Shake no man" (so the word signifies); "do not put people into fear; for the sword of war, as well as that of justice, is to be a terror only to evil doers, but a protection to those that do well. Be not rude in your quarters; force not money from people by frightening them. Shed not the blood of war in peace; offer no incivility either to man or woman, nor have any hand in the barbarous devastations that armies sometimes make." Nor must they accuse any falsely to the government, thereby to make themselves formidable, and get bribes. [2.] They must not be injurious to their fellow-soldiers; for some think that caution, not to accuse falsely, has special reference to them: "Be not forward to complain one of another to your superior officers, that you may be revenged on those whom you have a pique against, or undermine those above you, and get into their places." Do not oppress any; so some think the word here signifies as used by the LXX. in several passages of the Old Testament. [3.] They must not be given to mutiny, or contend with their generals about their pay: "Be content with your wages. While you have what you agreed for, do not murmur that it is not more." It is discontent with what they have that makes men oppressive and injurious; they that never think they have enough themselves will not scruple at any the most irregular practices to make it more, by defrauding others. It is a rule to all servants that they be content with their wages; for they that indulge themselves in discontents expose themselves to many temptations, and it is wisdom to make the best of that which is.