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HIS EARLY YEARS.
only child, John, was born when they were advanced in years. And they had hailed his approaching birth with the profoundest religious thankfulness, the birth of a child being always, to the Hebrew's mind, invested with peculiar sacredness. Thus there was much in the parentage and early circumstances of the Baptist to exalt his nature. He was born and brought up,* as it were, within the hallowed precincts of a temple so venerable in the eyes of the nation, that the religious teachers declared that to consecrate one's possessions to the enriching of that edifice, was a more acceptable service than to devote them to the declining years of a father and mother. How must such a mind, as the whole history of John reveals, have been kindled as he stood before that altar, over which no majestic idol frowned or smiled, but where men came to adore the Unseen! A divine spirit communed with his spirit through all the awful associations of the splendid sanctuary and its multitudinous ceremonies. Upon the early history of the nation and its wonderful fortunes the ardent mind of the priest-descended youth was fed. The solemn forms of the old prophets swept before his illuminated vision. Their sacred words sounded in his ears. He saw them as they pointed into futurity. He listened to their predictions of a more than golden age, a celestial era yet to come. He caught the flame of that hope which, burning in the heart of Israel, was now mounting higher and growing more vivid as the period of its fulfilment drew nigh. By such training his spirit was led up to the Mount of
* Luke gives us to understand (ch. i. 80.) that the early years of the Baptist were spent in the deserts.' But the record is brief and indefinite. And we are not required to suppose that he was wholly a stranger to the city and the temple, or that no space of time elapsed after his birth before the wilderness became his residence.
HIS REVERENCE FOR JESUS.
Vision, where he heard the voice of God and received power to execute a divine mission.
But the circumstance, which, of all circumstances, must have wrought on him most powerfully, was his relation to Jesus. His mother Elizabeth was the cousin. and friend and associate of Mary, the Divine Mother. With Jesus then we cannot but suppose that he held frequent communion. He listened to the young Son of God, the destined Ruler of generations and ages. Think you, he caught no inspiration from such a companion? He knew not, before the baptism of Jesus, that he was the Man who was to come. "I knew him not," he declares. Of course his meaning is that he did not know Jesus as the specially sent of God. That he was personally intimate with Jesus before his baptism is clear, from the manner in which he addressed him, when the latter came to be baptized and before the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. His exclamation, "comest thou to me? I have need to be baptized of thee!" shows that he not only knew Jesus personally, but had conceived for him the greatest reverence. As John had long known Jesus, and felt his 'great superiority, we obtain a satisfactory meaning of John's words when he says, "After me cometh a man who is preferred before me; for he was before me." John had appeared first in public; yet he had always felt that Jesus was far in advance of him. He had always looked up to him as his superior. He had not inspired Jesus, but had been inspired by him. Jesus always from the first was before him. And the knowledge he had of his great Kinsman, and the reverence, with which he regarded him, (there is no feeling so quickening as veneration,) had contributed to deepen his conviction that the blessed era was close at hand. Not until after the baptism of Jesus, did John
HIS ALLUSIONS TO JESUS.
feel fully authorised to avow his belief in him as the Expected. And even then his faith faltered once, as we infer from the message which he sent to Jesus from prison by two of his disciples, "Art thou he that shall come, or must we look for another?" But before Jesus appeared in public, he was regarded with the deepest veneration by the Baptist, who knew that a character of such quiet, but unequalled power, was destined to act with unknown force upon the world. When he had himself produced a great sensation by his appearance in the wilderness, and the whole country was moved by his voice, the people caught the idea that he was the Christ. But he disclaimed the office. For he knew that a far greater than he was near him. His own exalted mind had been stirred by the living words of Jesus. Again and again they had caused his heart to burn and tremble within him. They had so raised the whole tone of his being, that he had reached that spiritual eminence which touches Heaven, where angel-harmonies may be overheard, and where he listened to the voice of God, and received the divine command to announce the approaching kingdom. He had descried its coming already, within, in his own heart. He declared to the people that he was only the herald of the king, not the king himself, that there stood one among them, so glorious and exalted, that he himself, highly as they thought of him, "was not worthy to unloose the latchet of his shoe." I understand this expression as prompted not by the general idea which, as a Jew, he had formed of the coming Messiah, but by his personal reverence for Jesus whom he knew. And so it was, I conceive, with all the allusions which he makes to him who was to succeed him, and which possess a new force when thus regarded, as prompted by his personal knowledge
THE LAST OF THE HEBREW PROPHETS.
of Jesus. He had Jesus in his mind. He had felt in his own soul, he knew, the searching, burning, power of his illustrious relative, and therefore he said, "I use only water as a sign and means of inward cleansing, but he that will shortly appear will purify you, penetrating your inmost hearts with a holy spirit* and with fire."
John was the last of the Hebrew prophets. "The least in the kingdom of Heaven was greater than he." The whole mode of his appearance, austere, ascetic, was in accordance with Jewish ways of feeling. Like the prophet Elijah, and all those who, in the ancient days of the nation, aimed at the strictest sanctity, he was clad in the rudest manner, in a garment of camel's hair bound round him with a leathern girdle. His food was the simple and scanty produce of the desert where he appeared. He announced himself in the consecrated language of one of the old prophets. Of those who resorted to him, he required the observance of a rite, already familiar to the Jews, baptism. He imposed fasts upon his disciples. All these things were fitted to arrest the Jewish eye and ear. And accordingly we read that all held John to be a prophet.'
* It is impossible to convey the full force of this word 'spirit' in a translation. The original word is much more comprehensive than the word, 'spirit.' It signifies also air,' 'wind,' and the meaning of the Baptist is, water is the symbol of my office, but the power of him who is coming after me may be signified by far subtler and more searching elements, wind and fire.' That the Baptist used this word (translated 'ghost,' and 'spirit,') with this significance, appears from the connection. He instantly likens his successor to a husbandman prepared with his fan to blow the chaff out of the wheat, and with fire to consume it. Not this baptism, this water that I use, will cleanse you; but One is coming who will purify you as with a wind and a fire from Heaven. He will stand among you, like a husbandman with his fan in his hand, amidst his heaps of unwinnowed wheat, and thoroughly sweep the floor, garnering up the wheat, and casting the chaff into unquenchable fire.'
That teachers of the law and supercilious Pharisees went with the whole country and were baptized by him, acknowledging his authority and confessing their sins, is significant of the congeniality between the appearance of John and Jewish modes of thought.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN JESUS AND JOHN.
The difference between John and Him who came after him is obvious in all these things, and it is otherwise marked. From the prison into which he was thrown by Herod, John sent two of his disciples to inquire of Jesus, who had then appeared publicly, teaching, and working miracles, whether he were the Messiah, or another was to be looked for. It has been thought that the Baptist sent his disciples on this errand for their satisfaction, not his own. But if he had no misgivings himself, he might easily have satisfied his disciples, with whom the authority of their master was supreme. Had his confidence in Jesus as the Christ been entire, he could not have endured himself, nor would he have suffered his disciples, to put a question to Jesus implying the least dissatisfaction. In implicit faith he would have waited, and enjoined it upon others to wait, for Jesus to vindicate his own claims. in his own way. He would have perceived all the force of the evidence which Jesus was giving in his works of power and mercy, and in the proclamation of the Gospel to the poor; and directed the attention of his disciples to what Jesus was doing, as furnishing decisive attestations to the truth of his pretensions. We are justified therefore in supposing that John sympathised in a degree with the popular impressions respecting the Messiah's Kingdom and glory. It was, no doubt, on account of his defective ideas on this point that Jesus declared that the least in the kingdom of Heaven was greater than he.' And for this reason