Luke 3:1-14, etc.
There is a very considerable interval between the events of this chapter and what was occupying us last Tuesday evening; and before passing on I would briefly notice the way in which the second chapter of Luke concludes.
You can see how that chapter gives us the early life of our Lord Jesus Christ; His infancy and youth; some details of the circumstances connected with Him in that period; ending with the wonderful declaration, "Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.
That is a very blessed reality for us to dwell upon, because it sets forth the Lord Jesus Christ as God's unique sheaf, so to speak, in His own intrinsic, untainted purity, under God's eye, as Man. This is the gospel, as we saw last week, that specially and peculiarly sets forth Christ as Man. Thus then the second chapter ends: "Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man." There was no one like Him. He was alone in His perfection; growing up, as it were, for the time of the exercise of His ministry, which was yet to come. In infancy, youth, and manhood we see Him in all that beautiful subjection to His parents which marked Him as the perfect Man; having, at the same time, the fullest sense in His own person of who He was, as well as of His mission. "How is it," said He, "that ye sought Me? Wist ye not that I must be about My Father's business?"
Think, beloved friends, of all that is involved in these words; the sense that the blessed Lord had of who He was, what He was, and what He was here for; and mark as well, too, His perfect subjection as Man which accompanied that knowledge: "He went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them;" He "increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man."
This brings us to the third chapter, which presents what is introductory to the commencement of His ministry; and here let me show you an interesting point with regard to the manner in which Luke unfolds his instruction as to that. Before the blessed Lord Jesus Christ comes forward to exercise His ministry, the first thing presented is the world as it then existed. Everything was in the most perfect order, as far as man could judge of it, and as far as man's wisdom could accomplish it. You will find the emperor in his place, and the priests in their place; you will find, as has been said, government and religion all in their due place and order. That is how the chapter begins. It shows you the external condition of things in this world. There was everything that could be appreciated by men; all that could delight the heart of man; nothing to shock or outrage the feelings of mankind. Still all was a wilderness as far as God and light and truth were concerned. Now, is it not very striking to see how things that are excellent in the eyes of men, and appreciated by men, such a state of order and decorum, as we say, that which we have a sort of satisfaction and delight in, that all this is utter desolation so far as God is concerned? And therefore it is that God thus puts His mark of disapproval upon it. Instead of Christ being ushered into that order of things to take a throne there, to take a kingdom there, to acknowledge and accept the people in that condition, you find that God has His servant, — not at Jerusalem, He would not have His witness at Jerusalem, — but He has His witness exactly in that position, exactly in that locality, which is characteristic of what the whole scene was under His own eye; viz., in the wilderness. And another gospel tells us more than that, too; not merely the fact of John being in the wilderness, but that he was a voice crying in the wilderness. Nothing could be more expressive than that. The servant of God outside the ordered state of things, not claiming a throne for Jesus, but ploughing up the consciences of men. You find the most solemn voice of God here to the conscience. How striking and instructive it is! "The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. 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." vv. 4, 5.
These times of John were very like the days of the Lord Jesus Himself. I have no doubt at all that John, in his day, was looked upon just as the Lord Jesus was looked upon in His day, as a troubler of men. And when things are in that state before God, at any period, the man who stands apart on God's behalf will always be regarded as an intruder. He could not be an inclusive man; he must, from the very nature of things, be a man who stands apart, whatever the compassion of heart, whatever the longings and yearnings of his soul over the condition in which people are. His position must be one outside the whole existing order of things. How could he be a testimony for God if he were in any way associated with it, if he were part and parcel of it, partaking of its methods and principles? How could he thus stand for God, and His testimony in relation to it? "The axe is laid unto the root of the trees." v. 9. God must have this moral blot removed; He cannot accept a throne amongst a people in such a state as that. There must be a moral condition suitable to Him. This demand was the very thing that drew forth the proud opposition of Israel to Christ and God. Had Christ come and accepted honours from the nation as it stood, and taken His throne in the midst of them, recognizing them as they were, they would all have received Him; He would have been gladly welcomed and accepted. But for God to put His lance, as it were, into that putrid sore, and by John's testimony to say, "No, there must be a moral state of things suited to Me; I cannot reign over a nation or people in that condition; there must be purity and holiness, the sweeping out of those corruptible things; I will not take My throne there," — that was the very thing which stirred up the hatred of men. If you stay in corruption, and protest, you will be allowed to stay on for ever; but if you take your stand outside; if you walk, as it were, in the wilderness of this world, separate, apart, like John the Baptist, both morally and spiritually; if you withdraw from the manners, modes, and maxims of a corrupt scene like this, having a testimony to render, the voice of God through you, His own Word, then you are an intruder and unwelcome. But if you remain in the midst of it, if you accept it as it is, you may protest, and protest, and protest; it will be to no purpose; there is no power in it; your presence countenances the corruption, and negatives and annuls your protest.
This brings us to another point. You will perceive that John's ministry was really prophetic. Now, prophecy may be looked at in two ways. Sometimes our view of it is too limited; we have too often an imperfect knowledge of what it is. There are many prophecies which are not the foretelling of future events, although, of course, that thought is included in the term. Prophecy is not merely the foretelling of future events, but the presentation of the stern reality of things as they are. If any man, any servant of God, is empowered by God to bring to bear upon people's consciences the awful reality of things as they are; if he, by the Spirit of God, is enabled to bring, the Word of God to bear upon men's consciences, so that there is the detection of hidden things by the power of that Word, that is prophecy.
John 4 furnishes an instance of this. It is exactly what the woman of Samaria found with the Lord Jesus Christ Himself at Jacob's well. As He spoke to that poor woman He brought the truth, which He Himself was, in all its own power to bear on her conscience. He told her her history, opened up the hidden depths of her heart. As God He was there looking down, and searching her through and through. He could tell that woman everything in her whole life. "Sir, I perceive that Thou art a prophet," she said. He revealed to her the solemn reality of her state before God.
That is prophecy in one aspect. No doubt it foretells future events, but you must not limit it to that. Indeed, in the New Testament, prophecy is one of the gifts of the Spirit of God acting in power in the assembly; and there it is exclusively bringing to bear on the conscience the Word of God by the Spirit of God. It is the Word of God conveyed to the conscience in such power through the ministry of the prophet as to produce the conviction that God Himself is there. John's ministry was thus prophetic.
Another thing that is exceedingly interesting with regard to prophecy is, that when everything is in a state of ruin and corruption, this kind of ministry is God's great way of reaching the consciences of His people. The ministry of the Word is made to apply to people's souls. It is not so much deductions from the Word as the Word of the living God itself brought to bear on the consciences of men. It is not what the speaker says, but what that Word says, that bears fruit. That is the character of all true prophetic ministry.
Mark it here very distinctly, as we have it in the second verse — "The word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness."
In this locality was his suited place at this juncture, and not in the holy city, not in the ordered state of things according to the mind of man. He was one outside and apart; so that, like the prophet of old, he might have said, "Oh that I had in the wilderness a lodging place of wayfaring men; that I might leave my people, and go from them! for they be all adulterers, an assembly of treacherous men." Jer. 9:2.
Here, then, is God's messenger, His mouth-piece, His witness. The one He was about to use is the man outside in the desert. First of all we have the place; next, the Word of God came unto him. When everything is in rebellion and ruin and departure, God raises up a witness, who presents in his person and circumstances the salient characteristics of God's message for the moment. The Word of God came unto John in the wilderness. The message was distinct. And when that Word reached him, it constituted his commission, his ordination, his consecration, or whatever else you may be pleased to call it. He received it from God Himself; he was sent forth, and he went out true to that Word.
And now we come to the terms of the testimony he rendered. Let us look at it again; it is a most withering word. You could not get a truer sense of the utter moral wreck of everything before God than that which you get by reading and pondering over John's message. There is not a class that is not addressed; there is not a soul but must be pierced through and through by it. Your heart must faint if you look at the condition it describes, and that with regard to the coming kingdom, the coming of the Lord as the Messiah. If you think of the state of things depicted by John's message, your heart must sink within you. You are bound to say within yourself, "What is man?" Yet there is one bright thing in it, one little sentence in Isaiah 40, which Luke quotes from, that has the deepest comfort for the soul — "The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass." vv. 3-6.
"Well, the comfort is not there," you say.
Perfectly true; it is most convicting, most searching, most solemn: "All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field." The best part of it is the most fleeting: "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever." (vv. 6-8.) Now, it is in this last sentence that the real comfort lies. How blessed, how consoling, how wonderful, too, coming in exactly where it does! God always works in this way; that is to say, first of all He exposes, reveals, manifests, lets His light in on the condition of things under His holy eye. How would you like those eyes of fire turned upon you? I speak to you earnestly, affectionately, this night, my brother, my sister. Are you prepared to be searched through and through, and discovered as to all the things that are hidden away there in your hearts, and which you think nobody else knows anything about? That is God's way ever. Man's way is to cover up. God's way is to bring out into light. Man's way is to conceal. God's way is to manifest. He must have the thing in open daylight, as it were. He cannot allow you to cover up all that sin and iniquity. He cannot permit you to cling to corruption. He must have corruption known as corruption. He must let His light in upon things, and uncover them to us, and give them their true name. But when He does so there is immense comfort in this assurance, "The word of our God shall stand for ever." In such days as we are passing through, that is an immense comfort. We must feel to-day, if indeed we have hearts to feel, if we are not enveloped in deep insensibility, we must feel the heaving, the rocking, the tottering, of everything down here. Let me tell you affectionately that there is not one solitary stone of stability in any one thing in this whole earthly scene, not a single solid resting-place can faith find here. The whole system is a shifting quicksand.
Now, is it otherwise if we come to the Church? By "the Church" I mean the Church of God. We are bound to own no other church than that. There is the Church of God, the Body of Christ, and all Christians belong to it. Everything else is sectarian. It matters not by what name it is called. It may be the most noble name that could be given; but everything short of the whole Church of the living God, the Body of Christ, is something less than that which is in God's thoughts. Now then, suppose our expectations are in the direction of the Church. Looking at it in that way what shall we find? You know very well there were supposed to be certain landmarks, certain great heights, as it were, of security with regard to the truth, with regard to the doctrines of the Word of God. You know very well that security and preservation was expected from these, and they were supposed to maintain the truth intact, and to be a sort of guard to keep the truth. Well, you must surely have observed how the tide has overflown all these. The rising tide of infidelity has gone beyond the loftiest barriers that man could put up to defend the truth; and all the ancient landmarks of creeds, confessions, and articles of faith are being rapidly submerged. The infidel mind of man is more and more disposed to unbelief in what is supernatural and divine. Where, then, is stability? Faith confidently and quickly replies, In the Word of the living God. And that is one very blessed feature in Isaiah 40. Everything is fading, everything is withering, passing away, going down, but the Word of the Lord shall stand fast for ever. Oh, what a blessed thing that is! Does it not search your soul through and through to-night? Do you not respond to it in your inmost soul?
But it may be that I am speaking to one here to-night who has no interest in these things at all. Friend, and fellow-traveller to eternity, what have you got? Can you say you have got Christ, you have got the truth, you have got salvation? If not, what have you? Oh, friend, will you not face this question to-night? What are you resting on? Everything is fast breaking up. People in the world know that well. The feeling abroad in the world to-day is one of general insecurity, of universal distrust as to everything. How blessed then is this verity of God, The Word of the LORD shall stand fast for ever. I commend that Word to you to-night. That Word will reveal what your poor heart wants. It reveals Christ, salvation, everything that your soul needs.
That was John's testimony. First of all the withering up of everything that was opposed to God, and at the same time bringing that blessed Word to bear on the conscience, as well as ministering comfort by it. If any poor heart was stricken, there was, as it were, a little balm dropped from heaven. Oh, how like our God in His grace all this is!
Now we come, after John's testimony is given, to an instance of another very interesting characteristic of the Gospel of Luke. We read: "But Herod the tetrarch, being reproved by him for Herodias his brother Philip's wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done, added yet this above all, that he shut up John in prison." vv. 19, 20.
It is remarkable that this account should be given here, as the actual imprisonment of John did not take place at that time at all. Why, then, is it mentioned in this connection? Because Luke ever has a moral purpose in view, and presents things as they suit that purpose. Hence he commonly disregards the mere order of time; that is to say, he takes the events and circumstances, and groups them together with a moral object before his mind. Of course, all that he wrote, and all that the writers of the other gospels wrote, was inspired and revealed by the Spirit of God. Now, as to fact, John was not cast into prison until a considerable time after this. Yet I think you can have no difficulty in seeing that Luke introduces it here because he wants to put John aside, in order to bring in Jesus. That is the object of its being recorded in this place. He will now bring Jesus on the scene, and therefore he disposes, as it were, of John. It was perfectly true, remember, that John was cast into prison, but not exactly at this juncture.
Observe what follows: "Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened." v. 21.
You could not conceive anything more blessed than the suddenness with which we are, so to speak, ushered into the presence of the Master. The message and ministry of the forerunner has terminated in the record here in the most abrupt way and John being removed off the scene in a moment, Christ henceforth occupies it. Now we are face to face with Jesus, and, oh, what a presentation of Him! what a blessed and practical setting forth of Him it is! All the people were baptized. Jesus was baptized!
Oh, beloved friends, what a comfort for one's soul it is that the Lord, a Man from heaven, is before our eyes here! And if your heart retires from all the misery and wretchedness and failure and breakdown and weariness presented in all around, what a comfort that your eye may now rest on Jesus. And there alone it is that true rest is found. You cannot reach it in the changing things down here, nor find it in altering the condition of things around you, either in the Church or in the world. You will never find a ray of sunshine or a moment of quiet until your eye rests on Jesus! Oh, what repose He gives! What comfort and satisfaction He brings! Well may we sing of Him, that blessed "Source of calm repose" —
"Thy mighty name salvation is,
And keeps our happy souls above;
Comfort it brings, and power and peace,
And joy and everlasting love;
To us, with Thy dear name, are given
Pardon and holiness and heaven."
And here we have Him presented as a Man — Man in absolute perfection set before us in these two things. Baptized! Why? His perfect subjection in taking His place with those who turned to God in the midst of His own people, His submitting to baptism, was the expression of His own appreciation of whatever turning to God was found in the midst of the nation. It reminds us of that beautiful verse in Psalm 40 — "Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of Me, I delight to do Thy will, O My God." vv. 7, 8.
Mark, "I delight to do" it. You and I do it under constraint, often if not always; but with Christ it was the subjection of a perfect Man. It is wrought in us through many a sorrow, many a difficulty, many a pain, many a tempest. Thank God it is so. Thanks to a faithful God; when He begins He finishes. But, oh, the blessed contrast in Jesus, whose words were, "I delight to do Thy will" ! Then, as regards a poor, trembling few in the nation, He thus speaks: "My goodness extendeth not to Thee; but to the saints that are in the earth, and to the excellent, in whom is all My delight." Psalm 16:2, 3. His goodness as Man did not extend to Jehovah, but to the excellent of the earth. He says, "My delight is in them." Thus it is, the blessed One, takes His place with those turning to God in the midst of His nation, saying, as it were, "I must be there." So He is baptized. Oh, how blessed is that sight, beloved friends! How precious to dwell upon it! What a contrast to every other man! Here, in very truth, the eye can rest even on this blessed One, a Man in the perfection of His own nature.
But there is another word here; viz., "praying." I do not know any other incident in His life more full of moral glories and beauties than this. He is presented in these characteristic ways very blessedly in the Gospel of Luke. This gospel, more often than any other, sets the Lord before us praying. In all the great events of His life you find Him praying. And there is another thing that I would dwell upon. You not only find Him set before us as praying, but you will find how blessedly, as a Man perfect in dependence, He takes the attitude of prayer.
Now, beloved friends, is it not true that there is a growing tendency amongst Christians amounting to a want of reverence in this respect? I know exactly what the mind of man is, and how readily it can rebound from one thing to the opposite. Thank God if we have been delivered from superstition; but, oh, let us seek grace from Him so as not to plunge into irreverence. Be assured we are in special danger in that direction, and all the more because we have been emancipated from the thraldom of superstition. When we come into the presence of God let it be with a due sense of His presence, and let us earnestly desire the manner of reverence due to Him. Surely, if the seraphim covered their faces and their feet while they cried, saying, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts the whole earth is full of His glory," it becomes those who in spirit and in truth worship the Father not to be their inferiors in reverence.
Baptized and praying, the heavens are opened upon this perfect One. And how well you can understand that there is now an Object the heavens can open upon. Never before had there been one whom the heavens could salute according to the thoughts and affections of God the Father. But now the heavens do open on Jesus, the perfect expression on earth of a Man according to God. Have you a heart that really delights to meditate on this theme? Does your soul respond to it? I do not know anything more blessed than to see the Lord from heaven a Man — perfect Man, perfectly subject, perfectly dependent — down here upon earth. And now the heavens open upon that blessed Object; but, thank God, they are open also now for us to look at Him in heaven. Now we look up through an opened heaven, and see Jesus in the glory of God. We see that once lowly Man glorified there. In the scene before us we are looking at Him on earth, observing His blessed pathway below, and seeing how heaven finds its object in Jesus, and how everything that heaven delighted in was met and ministered to by Jesus. But be assured of this, until your eye rests upon Him in brightest glory you will never be free from the attractions and allurements of this world. You will be a mark for the devil and the world until Christ in glory fills your soul.
"I have seen the face of Jesus,
Tell me not of aught beside;
I have heard the voice of Jesus,
All my soul is satisfied.
In the brightness of the glory
First I saw His blessed face;
And from henceforth shall that glory
Be my home, my dwelling-place."
Ah, beloved friends, never is earth despised in your eyes; never are things down here withered up before you; never does time, with all that it holds out and proposes, fade from your view, until they rest on Jesus in glory. This it is that makes all the difference. You hear of people going back, turning to the world, and seeking after the things in the world. "Look at So-and-so," they say, "they are going back into the world. What a pity!" I reply without hesitation, they never were out of it. "Oh," you say, "is it possible? Think of how true and godly they were!" Ah be assured they never had the heart satisfied in heaven. Never! No one whose heart was ever captivated by Christ in glory would leave that blessed land. They delight in a captivity that lasts for ever. It is not a question of what we have got, it is a question of what Christ has got. Christ has got that heart, Christ has got that affection, He has won that soul.
But this is only in passing; yet I could not help bringing it in here. We see then the heavens open upon the Man who was everything to God and heaven. Now the heavens are open for us to see that same blessed Man in glory. Thank God, He is not changed! The circumstances are changed; He was in humiliation; He is in glory; yet He is the same blessed Man. I do like that old hymn of Hart's: "There is a Man, a real Man." And with the same heart and affection, the same love and kindness. He is in glory. There I can see Him. Standing upon the platform of His grace, I can behold Him where He is. There is nothing that dazzles, that repels, that turns me aside; for, standing upon the platform of His grace, I can rest there. And that is the real security against everything down here. It is not finding out that things down here are worthless, but finding out that the One in heaven is above all. It is exactly like John the Baptist himself. It is, in its own way, precisely that which wrought in him. His soul had found an Object in Jesus that was above and beyond all to him. Let us just for a moment turn to it. They wanted to make rivals of John and Christ. That horrid, awful spirit of rivalry, which the devil is the prime mover in, is attempted to be set up between the forerunner and the Master. They come to John, and say, "Rabbi, He that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to Him." John 3:26. What is John's reply to this? "I am delighted," says John. "You cannot bring me tidings that more delight my heart. All my heart is satisfied. All men come to Him. Well, then, I have got what my heart longs for." "He that cometh from heaven is above all." v. 31. "The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into His hand." v. 35. "This my joy therefore is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease." vv. 29, 30.
Oh, beloved brethren, believe me when I say it again affectionately, What we want in these days is not more clearness of perception, but more room in our hearts for Christ! Be assured there are a thousand difficulties, a thousand questions, which would be all solved in a moment if it were simply and only Christ before us.
Well, may God use His Word to set Him before us in all His blessedness and exquisite beauty. And if the heavens opened to Him, if He was the Object of the Father's love, may God grant, in His infinite grace, that we also may learn to have no other object, no one else before us but Himself. May God command His blessing on His own Word, and in His grace speak to our souls through it, for Christ's sake.