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§ 135. Doubts of John the Baptist in his Imprisonment.336336 Matt., xi., 2-15; Luke, vii., 19-30.—His Message to Christ, and its Result.—Christ’s Testimony concerning Him. —His view of the relation between the Old and New Dispensations.
John the Baptist had now languished in prison for several months in the fortress Machoerus. He was not wholly interdicted from intercourse with his disciples; for the fear of political disturbance from him was, as we have seen,337337 Cf. p. 179. the ostensible, not the real, reason of his imprisonment.
In the testimony which he gave to Christ, just before his imprisonment,338338 Cf. p. 178. he had declared his expectation that he would soon be obscured by the public manifestation of Jesus as Messiah, and by his recognition at the hands of the worthy members of the Theocratic nation. What he heard in prison of Christ’s mighty works only made him look more impatiently for the founding of his visible Messianic kingdom. The delay of this event might very naturally cause doubts to spring up in his mind.339339 Cf. p. 58. But as his faith in the Divine calling of Jesus remained unshaken, he looked for a definite decision of the question from his own lips, and sent two of his disciples with the inquiry, “Art thou He that should come, or do we look for another?”340340 We have before shown that this presupposes rather than contradicts the previous baptism and recognition of Jesus by the Baptist. It illustrates, however, the method in which the synoptical Gospels were compiled: the author of this statement, if he had known of that previous recognition, could hardly have failed to notice it.
In this reply Christ gives them, as proof of his Messiahship, the miracles that he had wrought, both upon matter and spirit.341341 It by no means follows, from the narrative, that Christ wrought all these miracles in presence of John’s messengers. They could hear of them any where, and see their effects. Nor is a chronological connexion between the resurrection of the widow’s son and this message of John’s to be inferred from the juxtaposition in which Luke places them; he may have been led to this by Christ’s mention of “the raising of the dead.” He first combines the two classes, applying the material as a type or image of the spiritual; and then makes the spiritual especially prominent. “The blind receive their sight” (both physical and spiritual), “the lame walk,342342 There is an obvious allusion here to Isa., xxxv., 5; lxi., 1; yet it is not absolutely necessary so to consider it. Nor are we bound to square the words of Christ by the quotation, and to infer that all which deviates from it has been added by another hand. A close connexion is obvious in the text. the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised,343343 This is to be understood especially of spiritual death and resurrection, a sense which joins better to the following clause, since it is precisely by the “preaching of the Gospel” that the spiritually dead are raised.the poor have the Gospel preached unto them.”344344 The word “poor” may be taken in the spiritual as well as the natural sense here, both, indeed, are connected, as it is among the poor in worldly goods that most of the spiritually poor are to be found, i. e., such as feel their inward wants and crave a supply for them.
Thus he presents himself as the Messiah, selecting the spheres of his labours among the poor in goods and in spirit, displaying his relieving and redeeming power to those who feel their need of it; the self-revealing, yet self-concealing Messiah, who does not offer himself as Theocratic king visibly before men’s senses, as the Jews expected—all expectation which perplexed even the Baptist’s own mind. And, therefore, he closes with the pregnant words of warning, “And blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in me.” (Happy is he who is satisfied, by these signs, to admit my Messiahship, and who is not offended because it does not precisely meet his expectations.)
After the disciples of John had departed, Jesus said to the multitude around him, “What went ye out into the wilderness345345 It is possible that these words had no higher meaning, and were only used to impress the single thought negatively, thus: “Ye must have gone to the wilderness to seek something more than the wilderness itself could afford to you.” But as all that follows refers antithetically to John, we infer that these words also had such a reference. to see? A reed shaken with the wind on the shore of Jordan?” To see a fickle, changeful man, the sport of outward influences? (He thus intends to represent John as a prophet, faithful and true to his convictions, and to vindicate him from any charge of instability on the ground that this question, sent by his disciples, was in conflict with his earlier testimonies.) “But perhaps ye went out to see a man in soft and splendid garments? Such men ye find not in deserts, but in the palaces of kings.” A striking contrast between the preacher of repentance, the austere censor of morals, and the luxurious courtiers who wait upon the smiles of princes.346346 Unless the words have this meaning, they appear to have none; with it, they imply that John’s conduct had given occasion for such comparisons; and perhaps this may have contributed to his imprisonment.
After these negative traits, Christ designates the stand-point of John positively. He calls him a “prophet,” and “more than a prophet,” and points him out as the Forerunner, the preacher of repentance predicted in Malachi (iii., 1), who was to go before, in the spirit of Elias, and prepare the way for the Messiah. He declares that none, in all time before, had held a higher position in the developement of the kingdom of God than John; that none had enjoyed a higher degree of religious illumination.347347 We cannot, in Matt., xi., 11, supply προφήτης after μείζων; the last clause of the verse forbids it. It probably was not in Christ’s original words; and if it be not a gloss in Luke (vii., 28), it is only an explanatory addition in the statement itself. The “superiority” does not refer to subjective moral worth, in which, certainly, Christ could not intend to place the “least” in the Christian Church above this man of (God; but refers to advantages for apprehending the nature and progress of the kingdom of God. It is in this sense that the greatest of the old, preparatory stage were less than the least of the new. Since the prophets, who form the point of transition between the two dispensations, occupied the highest stand-point in the religious developement of antiquity, the sense of the passage is the same, with or without the word προφήτης. Yet, said he, the least in the manifested kingdom of God (i. e., in the Church founded by Christ as Redeemer), the least among truly enlightened Christians is greater than John.
These words have a double importance, as they define not only Christ’s view of the stand-point of John the Baptist, but also of the Old Dispensation in general, in regard to Christianity.
In regard to the first, we must distinguish wherein John was behind Christianity, and wherein he towered above the prophets. He was behind Christianity, because he was yet prejudiced by his conception of the Theocracy as external; because he did not clearly know that Messiah was to found his kingdom by sufferings, and not by miraculously triumphing over his foes; because he did not conceive that this kingdom was to show itself from the first, not in visible appearing, but as a Divine power, to develope itself spiritually from within outward, and thus gradually to overcome and take possession of the world. The least among those who understand the nature and process of developement of the Divine kingdom, in connexion with Christ’s redemption, is in this respect greater than the Baptist, who stood upon the dividing line of the two spiritual eras. But John was above the prophets (and Christ so declared), because he conceived of the Messiah and his kingdom in a higher and more spiritual sense than they had done, and because he directly pointed men to Christ, and recognized Him as the manifested Messiah.
In regard to the second, viz., the relation of the Old Dispensation in general to Christianity, the fact that Christ places the Baptist above the prophets, who were the very culminating-point of the Old Covenant, and yet so far below the members of the new developement of the kingdom, exhibits in the most striking way possible his view of the distance between the old preparatory Testament and the New. The authority of Christ himself, therefore, is contradicted by those who expect to find the truth revealed by him, already developed in the Old Testament. If in John we are to distinguish the fundamental truth which he held, and which pointed to the New Testament, from the limited and sensuous form in which he held it, much more, according to Christ’s words, are we bound to do this in the Old Testament generally, and in its Messianic elements especially. Following this intimation, we must, in studying the prophets, discriminate the historical from the ideal sense, the conscious from the unconscious prophecies.
The testimony which Christ added in regard to the effects of John’s labours corresponds precisely with the above view of his stand-point. “From the days of John the Baptist until now348348 These words (Matt., xi., 12) obviously presuppose that John’s labours had ceased, and, of course, that he had lost his liberty. This is enough to refute the hypothesis of Schleiermacher, that he sent the message before his imprisonment. The whole tenor of the passage implies that John’s era was at an end. It has also been inferred from the words ἀπὸ δὲ τῶν ἡμερῶν Ἰωάννου, that the passage was a later interpolation, improperly put into Christ’s mouth. If this were true, it would only affect the form, not the substance of the passage, and we should have to follow Luke, xvi., 16 (where, however, the words are obviously out of place). But it is not true.the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.”349349 These words are expressly chosen to denote the earnest will, the struggle, and the entire devotion of soul which are requisite to enter into the kingdom of heaven. All the powers. of the spirit, its submission, its efforts, are necessary at all times, to secure the kingdom amid the reactions of the natural man, the carnal mind, its selfishness, its worldliness of spirit; but at that time it was especially the worldly notions of the Messiahship that had to be struggled against. The nature of the case shows that βιάζειν is to be thus figuratively taken; the usus loquendi does not contradict it; and it suits the natural connexion of the passage. (That is, “the longing for the kingdom, excited by John’s preaching, has spread among men; they press forward, striving to secure it, and those who strive with their whole souls obtain a share in it.”) “And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come.” (John is the Elias who was to come to prepare the way for Messiah—if you will only understand it—spiritually, not corporeally.)
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