The Baptism of Repentance.

The word of God constantly presents two subjects of the deepest interest for each one of us: one is the degraded state of the heart of man; the other, the manner in which God, in His grace, seeks and saves the sinner. Created innocent, man listened to Satan, and sin entered the world, with its sad consequences of misery of every kind during life; then death, and after that the judgment of God. Placed under the holy law of God, man showed that he was incapable of keeping it. And finally, when called by grace, he has trodden under foot the goodness of God, crucified the Lord Jesus, and resisted the Holy Spirit. The prophet had already cried, "Lord, who has believed our report?" and Stephen, recounting the history of the people of Israel before the Jewish Sanhedrim, says, "Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them who showed before the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it." (Acts 7:51-53.)

What a picture of the perversity of a people so favoured of God! But, as has often been remarked, Israel is only an example chosen of God to bring out what man is when placed in the most favourable circumstances for producing good, if good were in him. It is a moral mirror, wherein we can see ourselves as we are, as God sees us. Nevertheless, God has not given us His word to plunge us into despair, but to make known to us the truth; for His grace cannot be separated from the truth. We see this in the history of the Samaritan woman. When her conscience was reached, she made the confession, "He told me all things I had ever done." Thus the woman had learnt that He who had spoken unto her was the Christ, and in the simplicity of her faith she invites her fellow-citizens to come and see Him in whom her heart, exposed in its depths by the light of the truth, had nevertheless found its refuge. Her invitation led them to say, "We have heard Him ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Saviour of the world." God must act to produce in us the conviction of sin; for without that, the natural heart would always reject the truth. We do not like to hear it; we feel condemned by it; and moreover we love sin.

God operates in man by the conscience. True intelligence of spiritual things is only acquired by the conscience being awakened and exercised in the presence of God. Consequently where God acts, the truth presented to the heart by His Spirit and by His word leads to confession of sins. Instead of seeking to cover oneself and hide from God, as Adam did in the garden of Eden, the hidden evil in the heart is laid bare, upon discovering that it is God Himself who delivers from it. He reveals Himself as the One "who forgives iniquity and transgression and sin." (Exodus 34:7.) Thus grace and truth came together. The same thing is brought out in the gospels. Before the Lord Jesus was manifested in the world, there to make known the Father, and to accomplish redemption, God sent a man before Him to prepare His way - John the Baptist. For those who submitted to it, the baptism that he preached was the guarantee that their sins would be put away, although the work in virtue of which this could be done righteously was not yet accomplished. But in thus accepting this ordinance from the God of grace and truth, they took their place before Him, walking in His presence with the blessed conviction of being the objects of His favour, and that in His own way and time He would make known the fulness of His salvation. It was a baptism for the remission of sins in view of redemption. John required sincerity of heart in all those who came to him. "Produce therefore fruit worthy of repentance, and do not think to say within yourselves, We have Abraham for our father; for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham." In other words, "Do not rely on temporal advantages, saying that, because you are descended from Abraham according to the flesh, you must necessarily share in all the promised blessings." No; the time was come when God announced that He would no longer bear with sin. The time of man's prolonged testing had come to a close, and now he must choose between the grace or the judgment of God. And besides, if the promised blessings were to be enjoyed nationally, the people must turn to God, rending their hearts, and not their garments, as Joel, and indeed all the prophets, had said. (Jer. 25:4-5; Hosea 6:4-6.) On such terms only could the kingdom be entered.

In the desert of Judea a John proclaimed, "Already the axe is applied to the root of the trees: every tree therefore not producing good fruit is cut down, and cast into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water to repentance: but He that comes after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not fit to bear: He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit, and with fire: whose fan is in His hand, and He shall throughly purge His threshing-floor, and shall gather His wheat in the garner; but the chaff He will burn with fire unquenchable." (Matt. 3:10-12.) In view of the announced judgment, every one must take his place before God in integrity, separating himself from the evil which is in the world, and coming to God in order to profit by the proffered grace. In principle the apostle Paul said the same thing at Athens: "God therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, now enjoins men that they should all everywhere repent: because He has set a day in which He will judge the habitable earth in righteousness, by the Man whom He has appointed." (Acts 17:30-31.) Repentance was absolutely necessary, and God required a real work in the heart; for God is not mocked. He knows our most secret thoughts. It is not a question of a profession of religion of whatever kind, but of turning to God in self-judgment to profit by the grace He offers.

And in the case of God's chosen people, this work must be national as well as individual. They boasted of their descent from Abraham; but Abraham's children, if they were to realize as a people what God had promised, could only do so on the condition of partaking of the character of their father, walking with God, and obeying His word. (Gen. 18:19.) The Ezras and the Daniels had felt this deeply, and their sense of the national sins were all the deeper from their own walk having been irreproachable in the fear of God. They felt what sin was to God, and judged it as in His presence.

It was while Daniel was thus confessing his sin, and the sin of his people, that he learned that he was "greatly beloved." (Dan. 9) Of course, a work in the heart of this nature must be individual. But when God wrought in many, as He did through John's ministry, He brought to light a company of people, who walked in the steps of the men of faith of old, and thus practically formed "the remnant," so often spoken of - the nucleus of God's Israel, over whom Christ was to reign. The moral character of this remnant is beautifully set forth in the beginning of Luke's gospel. They trusted in God's mercy, felt their need of a Saviour, and learned salvation "in the remission of their sins." They sought for nothing in themselves which could in any sense give them a title to the promised blessings. They had only their sins to bring to God; but in the blessed sense that, through His mercy, the Day-star from on high had visited them, to shine to them that dwelt in darkness and in the shadow of death. (See Job 10:21-22; 34:22.) What an assembly was that which surrounded John at Jordan! They were all guilty, self-convicted sinners, who had nothing to plead for their justification, and moreover did not seek to do so. They came to confess the evil that they had committed, and to put themselves into the hands of God. They all understood, as moreover John had told them, that a changed life would manifest the sincerity of their repentance. We cannot confess our sins in the presence of God and yet continue a mode of life characterized by the pursuit of the world and its vanities, and by insubjection to God. We cannot love sin and at the same time hate it. Sincere confession of sin is a proof that we hate it. But the mere fact of hating it does not deliver from it, whether from its guilt or from its power. In order that we may be delivered from sin, God must intervene. And the baptism of John was the divine guarantee of this intervention; so that the people were in expectation. John had the sorrow of listening to these histories of all kinds of evil; his life was passed in the midst of sinners; his ministry was for them. But he could not yet tell them that their sins had been put away from before God.

In the midst of these people, doubtless despised by the proud world, the Lord Jesus came to take His place. He came from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. John did not understand this act of grace; he strongly opposed it, saying, "I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? But Jesus said unto him, Suffer it to be so now; for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness." The will of the Father was ever the motive power of Jesus, the perfect model of man as he should be according to God's thoughts, and for God on the earth. He could ever say, in the words of Psalm 16, "I have set the Lord always before me." Thus He would identify Himself in grace with those in whom the Spirit of God was working, leading them to listen to His word, and submit to His will. At the same time He fulfilled another word of this Psalm, showing that He found all His delight in those whom He called "the saints that are in the earth, the excellent." The world despised them; but God in grace had His eye upon them, and the Lord Jesus, publicly identifying Himself with them, began His ministry in thus openly recognizing the work that God was then accomplishing by His servant John the Baptist.

It is evident that personally the Lord did not need to go to John. He had no sins to confess; but in order to fulfil righteousness, He must recognize that which God was doing, and practically to show who were the persons whom God called "the saints" - those who bowed to the truth of God, with conscience exercised in His presence; those who did not seek to escape from the consequences of a public confession of what they were. Jesus had come to suffer and to accomplish His work of grace for just such. He did not think of Himself; He thought of God, and of the objects of His grace - He identifies Himself with them in grace, however great the humiliation for Him. But God takes upon Himself to glorify Him. "Jesus, having been baptized, went up straightway from the water; and lo, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon Him: and behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I have found my delight." God shows the personal perfection of the Lord Jesus, and glorifies Him in the eyes of all, at the moment when He came to accomplish this act of humiliation in publicly placing Himself in the midst of sinners.*

*Later on, those whom He came to save crucified Him between two thieves. How opposed is the heart of man to God! And how the perfect grace of the Lord shines out in contrast with all the hatred that man pours upon Him!

But this is not all. At this moment, and in this place, God is fully revealed for the first time as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Though proofs of the Trinity are not wanting in the Old Testament, we should there seek in vain for the full revelation that we have here. The Son of God was there - pure, perfect, spotless; the voice of the Father acknowledged Him as such; and the Holy Spirit, in a corporeal form, came to abide upon Him, the only Man who could receive the Spirit in this way; for He alone was without sin. The dove was a bird that the law of Moses allowed to be offered for a burnt-offering; it was the emblem of the purity that God requires. In taking this form, the Spirit shows that divine purity, absolute and perfect, was found in Jesus.

When the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), He took the form of tongues of fire, because in us there are ever things which call for the fire of judgment, with which "every one shall be salted." (Mark 9:49, and compare 1 Cor. 11:31.) In Jesus there was nothing to judge; everything in Him was well-pleasing to God. And thus He is sealed with the Holy Spirit for His public ministry in a way which morally separates Him even from those in the midst of whom He lived and walked, and whom He brought to the knowledge of God. At the same time, how changed was their position! They had listened to the gospel of repentance preached by John the Baptist, and they now found themselves associated with the One who was declared Son of the Father. Henceforth they were united around His glorious Person. Doubtless they did not yet understand the extent of the blessing into which they had been introduced; but they found themselves in the presence of the One who was the truth, and also the personal expression of all the blessing into which God brings His redeemed saints. They could not enjoy this blessing until redemption was accomplished, and the Holy Spirit had descended upon them. This took place later (Acts 2); but the expression of all divine blessing, as well as the Christian position fully revealed later on, was henceforth presented to faith in the person of the Lord. The believer is sealed with the Holy Spirit; he knows the Father, and is the object of His favour; the heavens are opened to him, because the Lord is there, and He who sanctifies and they who are sanctified are all of one.

The revelation was made in connection with the person of Jesus as a Man upon earth, and humbled even to taking a place with sinners; for in Him all was perfect. We enjoy this blessing by virtue of the redemption that He has wrought, and because He has, as Man, taken His place at the right hand of God in glory; for the Holy Spirit could not be given until Jesus was glorified. (John 7:39.) But as soon as the Holy Spirit was come, the Christian position could be, and was, plainly set forth; so that the believer, sealed with the Holy Spirit, learns that he is united to a glorified Christ, while waiting for the moment when he shall be caught up to be with the Lord in glory in the Father's house. And, in the meantime, the path, the ways, the manner of life of Jesus is the expression of the Christian walk. He said: "The Father has not left me alone, because I do always the things that are pleasing to Him." (John 8:29, and compare with that John 3:22.)

May we lay hold of the truth as it is IN JESUS, and together learn the lesson of practical holiness, gathered around His adorable person. May we lay hold by faith of the fulness of the truths conveyed in what Stephen saw, finding the heavens opened to us because Jesus, the Son of man, is there - learning the truth too in such a way that our hearts may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 15:13); and while waiting to enjoy the full blessing, of which He is the earnest, have our hearts, thoughts, and affections set upon things above, "where Christ sitteth." W. J. Lowe.