The Manifestation of the Messiah

Jesus, though sinless, came to John to be baptized. Evangelist F. B. Meyer paints the singular scene and explains its Messiah-manifesting meaning.

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Detail from “Saint John the Baptist” (1867) by John Linnell
Click here to see the full painting

“John’s life, at this period, was an extraordinary one. By day he preached to the teeming crowds, or baptized them; by night he would sleep in some slight booth, or darksome cave. But the conviction grew always stronger in his soul, that the Messiah was near to come; and this conviction became a revelation. The Holy Spirit who filled him, taught him. He began to see the outlines of his Person and work.”

“It was this vision of the Sun before the sunrise, as he viewed it from the high peak of his own noble character, that induced in the herald his conspicuous and beautiful humility. He insisted that he was not worthy to perform the most menial service for Him whose advent he announced. ‘I am content,’ he said in effect, ‘to be a voice, raised for a moment to proclaim the King’. . . . ‘There cometh after me He that is mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.'”

“John was not only humble in his self-estimate, but also in his modest appreciation of the results of his work. It was only transient and preparatory. It was given him to do; but it would soon be done. . . . He was the morning star ushering in the day, but destined to fade in the glory of ruddy dawn, flooding the eastern sky. But our impression of the sublime humility of this great soul will become deeper, as we consider that marvelous scene in which he first recognized the divine mission and claims of his kinsman, Jesus of Nazareth.”

Jesus at the Jordan

“For thirty years the Son of Man had been about his Father’s business in the ordinary routine of a village carpenter’s life. . . . The wild winds, as they careered over his village home, must have often borne to Him the wail of broken hearts, asking Him to hasten to their relief . . . entreating that He would come and heal them. But He waited still, his eye on the dial of the clock, till the time was fulfilled which had been fixed in the Eternal Council Chamber.”

“As soon, however, as the rumors of the Baptist’s ministry reached Him, and He knew that the porter had taken up his position at the door of the sheepfold, ready to admit the true Shepherd, He could hesitate no longer. . . . He must tear Himself away from Nazareth, home, and mother, and take the road which would end at Calvary. ‘Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him.'”

“Picture that remarkable scene. The arrowy stream, rushing down from the Lake of Galilee to the Dead Sea; the rugged banks; the shadowy forests; the erect, sinewy form of the Baptist; and Jesus of Nazareth. . . . At the sight of Him, note how the high look on the Baptist’s face lowers; how his figure stoops in involuntary obeisance; how the voice that was wont to ring out its messages in accents of uncompromising decision falters and trembles!”

“There was an indefinable majesty, a moral glory, a tender grace, an ineffable attractiveness in this Man, which was immediately appreciated by the greatest of woman-born, because of his own intrinsic nobility and greatness of soul. . . . He who had never quailed before monarch or people, directly he came in contact with Christ, cast the crown of his manhood at his feet, and shrank away. The eagle that had soared unhindered in mid-heaven seemed transfixed by a sudden dart, and fell suddenly, with a strange, low cry, at the feet of its Creator. ‘I have need to be baptized of Thee, and comest Thou to me?'”

Fulfilling All Righteousness

“‘Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness’ — with such words our Lord overruled the objections of his loyal and faithful Forerunner. This is the first recorded utterance of Christ, after a silence of more than twenty years; the first also of his public ministry: it demands our passing notice. He does not say, ‘I have need to be baptized of thee’; nor does He say, ‘Thou hast no need to be baptized of Me.’ He does not stay to explain . . . why a rite which confessed sin was required for one who was absolutely sinless. It is enough to appeal to the Baptist as his associate in a joint necessary act, becoming to them both . . . and claiming their common obedience.”

“In his baptism, our Lord acknowledged the divine authority of the Forerunner — as the last and greatest of the prophets, who was to close the Old Testament era, for ‘the law and the prophets prophesied until John’. . . . John’s baptism, moreover, was the inauguration of the Kingdom of Heaven. . . . The old system, which gave special privileges to the children of Abraham, was in the act of passing away, confessing that God could raise up children to Abraham from the stones at the water’s edge, and demanding that those who would enter the Kingdom must be born from above, of water and of the Spirit.”

“Christ said, in effect, ‘I, too, though King, obey the law of the Kingdom, and bow my head, that, by the same sign as the smallest of my subjects, I may pass forward to my throne’. . . . His baptism was his formal identification with our fallen and sinful race, though He knew no sin for Himself. . . . He was as pure as the bosom of God, from which He came; as pure as the fire that shone above them in the orb of day; as pure as the snows on Mount Hermon, rearing itself like a vision of clouds on the horizon. But He needed to be made sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.”

Becoming and Suffering

“‘It becometh us’ — I like that word, becometh. If the Divine Lord thought so much about what was becoming, surely we may. . . . ‘Need I perform that lowly act?’ It is becoming. ‘Need I renounce my liberty of action in that respect?’ It would be very becoming. And whenever some hesitant soul, timid and nervous to the last degree, dares to step out, and do what it believes to be the right thing because it is becoming, Jesus comes to it, enlinks his arm, and says, ‘Thou art not alone in this. Thou and I stand together here. It becomes us to fill up to its full measure all righteousness.'”

“‘Then he suffered Him.’ Some things we have to do for Christ, and some to bear for Him. Active virtues are great; but the passive ones are rarer and cost more, especially for strong natures like the Baptist’s. But, in all our human life, there is nothing more attractive than when a strong man yields to another, accepts a deeper interpretation of duty than he had perceived, and is prepared to set aside his strong convictions of propriety before the tender pleadings of a still, soft voice. Yield to Christ, dear heart. Suffer Him to have his way.”

Consecrated as the Christ

“It is not to be supposed that the designation of Jesus as the Christ was given to any but John. . . . As the Man of Nazareth emerged from the water, the sign for which John had been eagerly waiting and looking was granted. . . . The veil was rent to admit of the coming forth of the Divine Spirit, who seemed to descend in visible shape . . . and to alight on the head of the Holy One. . . . The Spirit not only came, but abode. Here was the miracle of miracles, that He should be willing to abide in any human temple, who for so many ages had wandered restlessly over the deluge of human sin.”

“The voice of God from heaven proclaimed that Jesus of Nazareth was his beloved Son, in whom He was well pleased. . . . How much that designation meant to Christ! It was his Pentecost, his consecration and dedication to his lifework; from thenceforth, in a new and special sense, the Spirit of the Lord was upon Him, and He was anointed to preach. But it was still more to the Baptist. He knew that his mission was nearly fulfilled, that his office was ended. He had opened the gate to the true Shepherd, and must now soon consign to Him all charge of the flock. Jesus must increase, while he decreased. He that was from heaven was above all; as for himself, he was of the earth, and spake of the earth. The Sun had risen, and the day-star began to wane.”

Excerpts from john the baptist by F. B. Meyer (morgan & scott, 1900)

Baptism unto Repentance

John came to baptize. He told everyone to repent. Evangelist F. B. Meyer explains the baptism of repentance all must undergo to follow Christ.

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“Saint John the Baptist Sees Jesus from Afar” (circa 1886-94) by James Tissot

“John has a ministry with all men. He represents a phase of teaching and influence through which we must pass if we are properly to discover and appreciate the grace of Christ. With us, too, a preparatory work has to be done. There are mountains and hills of pride and self-will that have to be leveled, crooked and devious ways that have to be straightened . . . before we can fully behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. In proportion to the thoroughness and permanence of our repentance will be our glad realization of the fullness and glory of the Lamb of God.”

“Repentance, according to the literal rendering of the Greek word, is ‘a change of mind.’ Perhaps we should rather say, it is a change in the attitude of the will. The unrepentant soul chooses its own way, regardless of the law of God. . . . But in repentance the soul changes its attitude. It no longer refuses the yoke of God’s will . . . but yields to it, or is willing to yield. There is a compunction, a sense of the hollowness of all created things, a relenting, a wistful yearning after the true life, and ultimately a turning from darkness to light.”

“In its beginning there may be no sense of gladness or reconciliation with God, but just the consciousness that certain ways of life are wrong, mistaken, hurtful, and grieving to God; and the desire, which becomes the determination, to turn from them, to seek Him who formed the mountains and created the wind.”

Repentance and Faith, Turning From and Turning To

“Repentance may be accounted as the other side of faith. They are the two sides of the same coin, the two aspects of the same act. If the act of the soul which brings it into right relation with God is described as a turning round, to go in the reverse direction to that in which it had been traveling, then repentance stands for its desire and choice to turn from sin, and faith for its desire and choice to turn to God. We must be willing to turn from sin and our own righteousness; that is repentance. We must be willing to be saved by God, in his own way, and must come to Him for that purpose; that is faith.”

“We need to turn from our own righteousnesses as well as from our sins. . . . You must turn away from your own efforts to save yourself. These are, in the words of the prophet, but ‘filthy rags.’ Nothing, apart from the Savior and his work, can avail the soul, which must meet the scrutiny of eternal justice and purity.”

Accepting Christ’s Claims, or Standing at the Brink

“Repentance is produced sometimes and specially by the presentation of the claims of Christ. We suddenly awake to realize what He is, how He loves, how much we are missing, the gross ingratitude with which we respond to his agony and bloody sweat, his cross and suffering, the beauty of his character, the strength of his claims.”

“At other times repentance is wrought by the preaching of John the Baptist. We hear of the axe laid at the root of the trees, and the unquenchable fire for the consuming of the chaff, and the heart trembles. Then we are led to the brink of the precipice, and compelled to see the point at which the primrose path we are traveling ends in the fatal abyss. . . . It is at such a time as this that the soul sees the entire fabric of its vain confidences and hopes crumbling like a cloud-palace, and turns from it all . . . to find Jesus standing with the resurrection glory on his face and radiant love in his eyes.”

“We repent once, but are penitents always. We repent in the will; we are penitent in the heart. We repent, and believe the Gospel; we believe the Gospel of the Son of Man, and as we look on Him, whom our sins have pierced, we mourn. We repent when we obey his call to come unto Him and live; we are penitent as we stand behind Him weeping, and begin to wash his feet with our tears, and to wipe them with the hair of our head.”

The Signs and Symptoms: Confession

“If John the Baptist has never wrought his work in you, be sure to open your heart to his piercing voice. Let him fulfill his ministry. See that you do not reject the counsel of God, as it proceeds from his lips; but expose your soul to its searching scrutiny, and allow it to have free and uninterrupted course. He comes to prepare the way of the Lord, and to make through the desert of our nature a highway for our God.”

“There are signs and symptoms of repentance. The first is confession. ‘They were baptized of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins’. . . . The formalist confessed that the whited sepulcher of his religious observances concealed a mass of putrefaction. The skeptic confessed that his refusal of religion was largely due to his hatred of the demands of God’s holy law. The multitudes confessed that they had been selfish and sensual, shutting up their compassions, and refusing clothing and food to the needy. . . . The notoriously evil liver confessed that he had lain in wait for blood, and destroyed the innocent and helpless for gain or hate. The air was laden with their cries and sighs, who beheld their sin for the first time in the light of eternity and of its inevitable doom.”

“Confession is an essential sign of a genuine repentance, and without it forgiveness is impossible. ‘He that covereth his transgressions shall not prosper; but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall obtain mercy.’ ‘If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ So long as we keep silence, our bones wax old through our inward anguish; we are burnt by the fire of slow fever. . . . But on confession there is immediate relief.”

The Signs and Symptoms: Fruit Worthy of Repentance

“Upon that river’s brink, men not only confessed to God, but probably also to one another. Lifelong feuds were reconciled; old quarrels were settled; frank words of apology and forgiveness were exchanged; hands grasped hands for the first time after years of alienation and strife.”

“Confession should not be made to God alone, when sins are in question which have injured and alienated others. If our brother has aught against us, we must find him out, while our gift is left unpresented at the altar, and first be reconciled to him. We must write the letter, or speak the word; we must make honorable reparation and amends.”

“‘Bring forth, therefore, fruit worthy of repentance,’ said John, with some indignation, as he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism. He insisted that practical and vital religion was not a rule, but a life; not outward ritual, but a principle; not works, but fruit — and he demanded that the genuineness of repentance should be attested by appropriate fruit. ‘Do men gather grapes of thorns, and figs of thistles?’ . . . You will never get right with God till you are right with man. It is not enough to confess wrongdoing; you must be prepared to make amends so far as lies in your power. Sin is not a light thing, and it must be dealt with, root and branch.”

The Signs and Symptoms: A Baptism of Repentance

“‘They were baptized . . . confessing their sins.’ The cleansing property of water has given it a religious significance from most remote antiquity. Men have conceived of sin as a foul stain upon the heart, and have couched their petitions for its removal in words derived from its use. . . . ‘Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.’ They have longed to feel that as the body was washed clean, so the soul was freed from stain. In some cases this thought has assumed a gross and material form; and men have attributed to the water of certain rivers . . . the mysterious power of cleansing away sin.”

“There was no trace of this, however, in John’s teaching. It was not baptism unto remission, but unto repentance. It was the expression and symbol of the soul’s desire and intention, so far as it knew, to confess and renounce its sins, as the necessary condition of obtaining the Divine forgiveness.”

“In his hands the rite assumed altogether novel and important functions. It meant death and burial as far as the past was concerned; and resurrection to a new and better future. Forgetting and dying to the things that were behind, the soul was urged to realize the meaning of this symbolic act, and to press on and up to better things; assured as it did so that God had accepted its confession and choice, and was waiting to receive it graciously and love it freely.”

Excerpts from john the baptist by F. B. Meyer (morgan & scott, 1900)

Everyone Must Decide

Joseph decided. The magi decided. Herod decided. John decided. And when John came to make the people ready for Jesus, he said all must decide.

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Which way will you go?

Imagine John the Baptist is preaching to you. Repent, he says! Stop living however you please and embrace God’s true way of life! Turn from your selfishness and your sins, which will destroy you, and turn to God, who loves you and wants to save you! Change your mind about the ways and wiles of the world, and open your heart to the kingdom of heaven! Can you answer, “Sir, I have repented and confessed my sins”? Can you say, “I have been baptized as a sign of my repentance”? Can you say, “I now bear good fruit for my God”?

Friends, John told all to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Some did. They changed their minds and confessed that they were living in rebellion to the King and the good laws He had made. As they changed their minds, they changed their ways and strove to live by His Word. Others did not repent, or only pretended to. John was particularly hard on the pretenders. He said that unless they produced fruit “in keeping with repentance,” they would not escape “the wrath to come.” Jesus would sort them out. In the end, “every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

The First Ministry of the Baptist

Of those born of this world, Jesus said, none was greater than John. Evangelist F. B. Meyer explains the might of the fearless forerunner of Christ.

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“Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees” (circa 1886-94) by James Tissot

“For many years John had been living in the caves that indent the limestone rocks of the desolate wilderness which extends from Hebron to the western shores of the Dead Sea. By the use of the scantiest fare, and roughest garb, he had brought his body under complete mastery. From nature, from the inspired page, and from direct fellowship with God, he had received revelations which are only vouchsafed to those who can stand the strain of discipline in the school of solitude and privation.”

“At last the moment arrived for him to utter the mighty burden that pressed upon him; and . . . ‘the word of God came unto John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness.’ It may have befallen thus. One day, as a caravan of pilgrims was slowly climbing the mountain gorges threaded by the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, or halted for a moment in the noontide heat, they were startled by the appearance of a gaunt and sinewy man, with flowing raven locks, and a voice which must have been as sonorous and penetrating as a clarion, who cried, ‘Repent! the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.'”

“It was as though a spark had fallen on dry tinder. The tidings spread with wonderful rapidity that in the wilderness of Judea one was to be met who recalled the memory of the great prophets, and whose burning eloquence was of the same order as Isaiah or Ezekiel. Instantly people began to flock to him.”

Popular Prophet, Telling the Truth

“Many causes accounted for John’s immense popularity. The office of the prophet was almost obsolete. Several centuries . . . had passed since the last great prophet had finished his testimony. The oldest man living at that time could not remember having seen a man who had ever spoken to a prophet.”

“Moreover, John gave abundant evidence of sincerity — of reality. His independence of anything that this world could give made men feel that whatever he said was inspired by his direct contact with things as they are. . . . He spoke what he knew, and testified what he had seen. His accent of conviction was unmistakable. When men see the professed prophet of the Unseen and Eternal as keen after his own interests as any worldling . . . they are apt to reduce to a minimum their faith in his words. But there was no trace of this in the Baptist, and therefore the people went forth to him.”

“Above all, he appealed to their moral convictions, and, indeed, expressed them. The people knew that they were not as they should be. For a long time this consciousness had been gaining ground; and now they flocked around the man who revealed themselves to themselves, and indicated with unfaltering decision the course of action they should adopt. How marvelous is the fascination which he exerts over men who will speak to their innermost souls! . . . Though a man may shrink from the preaching of repentance . . . he will be irresistibly attracted to hear the voice that harrows his soul.”

Pharisees and Sadducees

“John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism. Their advent appears to have caused him some surprise. ‘Ye offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’ The strong epithet he used of them suggests that they came as critics; because they were unwilling to surrender the leadership of the religious life of Israel, and were anxious to keep in touch with the new movement, until they could sap its vitality, or divert its force into the channels of their own influence.”

“But it is quite likely that in many cases there were deeper reasons. The Pharisees were the ritualists and formalists of their day, who would wrangle about the breadth of a phylactery, and decide to an inch how far a man might walk on the Sabbath day; but the mere externals of religion will never permanently satisfy the soul made in the likeness of God. Ultimately it will turn from them with a great nausea and an insatiable desire for the living God.”

“As for the Sadducees, they were the materialists of their time. . . . Disgusted and outraged by the trifling of the literalists of Scripture interpretation, the Sadducee denied there was an eternal world and a spiritual state, and asserted that ‘there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit.’ But mere negation can never satisfy. The heart still moans out its sorrow under the darkness of agnosticism. . . . It was hardly to be wondered at, then, that these two great classes were in the crowds that gathered on the banks of the Jordan.”

The Kingdom of Heaven

“Let us briefly enumerate the main burden of the Baptist’s preaching. First, ‘the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’ To a Jew that phrase meant the reestablishment of the Theocracy, and a return to those great days in the history of his people when God Himself was Lawgiver and King.”

“But some misgiving must have passed over the minds of his hearers when they heard the young prophet’s description of the conditions and accompaniments of that long-looked-for reign. Instead of dilating on the material glory of the Messianic period, far surpassing the magnificent splendor of Solomon, he insisted on the fulfillment of certain necessary preliminary requirements . . . in which the inward and spiritual took precedence of the outward and material.”

“It was the old lesson, which in every age requires repetition, that unless a man is born again, and from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God. . . . No outward circumstances, however propitious and favorable, can bring about true blessedness. We might be put into the midst of heaven itself, and be poor, and miserable, and blind, and naked, unless the heart were in loving union with the Lamb. . . . Life must be centered in Christ if it is to be concentric with all the circles of heaven’s bliss. We can never be at rest or happy while we expect to find our fresh springs in outward circumstances. It is only when we are right with God that we are blest and at rest.”

The Wrath to Come

“Alongside the proclamation of the kingdom was the uncompromising insistence on ‘the wrath to come.’ John saw that the Advent of the King would bring inevitable suffering to those who were living in self-indulgence and sin. There would be careful discrimination. He who was coming would carefully discern between the righteous and the wicked; between those who served God and those who served Him not. . . . There was no middle class. Men were either for Him or against Him. The sheep on this side; the goats on that.”

“There would also be a period of probation. . . . The Jewish people had become sadly unfruitful; but a definite period was to intervene, three years of Christ’s ministry and thirty years beside, before the threatened judgment befell. All this while the axe lay ready for its final stroke; but only when all hope of reformation was abandoned was it driven home, and the nation crashed to its doom.”

“Perhaps this may be the case with one of my readers. You have been planted on a favorable site, and have drunk in the dews and rain and sunshine of God’s providence. But what fruit have you yielded in return? How have you repaid the heavenly Husbandman? May He not be considering whether any result will accrue from prolonging your opportunities for bearing fruit? . . . He may well consider the advisability of removing you from the stewardship, which you have used for your own emolument, and not for his glory.”

What Shall We Do? Repent!

“It is for want of a vision of the inevitable fate of the godless and disobedient that much of our present-day preaching is so powerless and ephemeral. . . . Only when we modern preachers have seen sin as God sees it, and begin to apply the divine standard to the human conscience; only when our eagerness and yearning well over into our eyes and broken tones; only when we know the terror of the Lord, and begin to persuade men as though we would pluck them out of the fire . . . shall we see the effects that followed the preaching of the Baptist when the people crowded around him, saying, ‘What shall we do?'”

“All John’s preaching, therefore, led up to the demand for repentance. The word which was oftenest on his lips was ‘Repent!’ It was not enough to plead descent from Abraham, or outward conformity with the Levitical and Temple rites. . . . There must be the renunciation of sin, the definite turning to God, the bringing forth of fruit meet for an amended life. In no other way could the people be prepared for the coming of the Lord.”

Excerpts from john the baptist by F. B. Meyer (morgan & scott, 1900)

John Becomes the Baptist

Before John was “John the Baptist,” he was just John. And John had to decide to give up everything to serve the Lord. No halfway plan would do.

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Making straight paths, or sort of straight paths?

Imagine you’ve been given a very specific job to do — but it’s hard, very hard. You know your assignment. The Boss has been clear about what He wants you to do, and He’s given you all the tools you need to get the job done. He’s a good Boss. He never fails to reward His workers in the end. But doing this job for Him requires you to turn your back on nearly everything that people value. Your pay? Negligible. Working conditions? Abominable. Critics and challenges? Innumerable. Surely you’re tempted to look for a shortcut, for some way to do the job without sacrificing so much of yourself. Surely John was tempted.

Friends, to do the job he was called to do, John couldn’t shortcut God’s plan or obey halfway. He had to leave his way of life behind, go to the wilderness, and learn to depend on the Lord of Life. He had to call men and women to repent and bear fruit worthy of repentance, even though it was guaranteed to offend. When people flocked to him, he had to be ever-willing to point them not to himself and his ministry, but to the King and His coming kingdom. To be the Baptist, John had to go out, cry out, and prepare the Lord’s way at great cost to himself. He did, and so became the mighty man God created him to be.

The Suspicion of Herod

Herod murdered a village of babies rather than submit to Christ. Poet Richard Crashaw, in 1646, sorrowed for all that this blind king failed to see.

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Detail from “The Massacre of the Innocents” (1860-61) by Angelo Visconti
Click here to see the full painting

The Suspicion of Herod
by Richard Crashaw

Why art thou troubled, Herod? what vain fear
Thy blood-revolving breast to rage doth move?
Heaven’s King, who doffs Himself weak flesh to wear,
Comes not to rule in wrath, but serve in love;
Nor would He this thy feared crown from thee tear,
But give thee a better with Himself above.
Poor jealousy! why should He wish to prey
Upon thy crown, who gives His own away?

Make to thy reason, man, and mock thy doubts;
Look how below thy fears their causes are;
Thou art a soldier, Herod; send thy scouts,
See how He’s furnished for so feared a war.
What armour does He wear? a few thin clouts.
His trumpets? tender cries. His men to dare
So much? rude shepherds. What His steeds? alas,
Poor beasts! a slow ox and a simple ass.

excerpt from “SOSPETTO D’HERODE” in Steps to the temple (1646)