We have here an account of the preaching and baptism of John, which were the dawning of the gospel-day. Observe,
I. The time when he appeared. In those days (Matt. 3:1), or, after those days, long after what was recorded in the foregoing chapter, which left the child Jesus in his infancy. In those days, in the time appointed of the Father for the beginning of the gospel, when the fulness of time was come, which was often thus spoken of in the Old Testament, In those days. Now the last of Daniel’s weeks began, or rather, the latter half of the week, when the Messiah was to confirm the covenant with many, Dan. 9:27. Christ’s appearances are all in their season. Glorious things were spoken both of John and Jesus, at and before their births, which would have given occasion to expect some extraordinary appearances of a divine presence and power with them when they were very young; but it is quite otherwise. Except Christ’s disputing with the doctors at twelve years old, nothing appears remarkable concerning either of them, till they were about thirty years old. Nothing is recorded of their childhood and youth, but the greatest part of their life is tempos, adelon—wrapt up in darkness and obscurity: these children differ little in outward appearance from other children, as the heir, while he is under age, differs nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all. And this was to show, 1. That even when God is acting as the God of Israel, the Saviour, yet verily he is a God that hideth himself (Isa. 45:15). The Lord is in this place and I knew it not, Gen. 28:16. Our beloved stands behind the wall long before he looks forth at the windows, Song 2:9. 2. That our faith must principally have an eye to Christ in his office and undertaking, for there is the display of his power; but in his person is the hiding of his power. All this while, Christ was god-man; yet we are not told what he said or did, till he appeared as a prophet; and then, Hear ye him. 3. That young men, though well qualified, should not be forward to put forth themselves in public service, but be humble, and modest, and self-diffident, swift to hear, and slow to speak.
Matthew says nothing of the conception and birth of John the Baptist, which is largely related by St. Luke, but finds him at full age, as if dropt from the clouds to preach in the wilderness. For above three hundred years the church had been without prophets; those lights had been long put out, that he might be the more desired, who was to be the great prophet. After Malachi there was no prophet, nor any pretender to prophecy, till John the Baptist, to whom therefore the prophet Malachi points more directly than any of the Old Testament prophets had done (Mal. 3:1); I send my messenger.
II. The place where he appeared first. In the wilderness of Judea. It was not an uninhabited desert, but a part of the country not so thickly peopled, nor so much enclosed into fields and vineyards, as other parts were; it was such a wilderness as had six cities and their villages in it, which are named, Josh. 15:61, 62. In these cities and villages John preached, for thereabouts he had hitherto lived, being born hard by, in Hebron; the scenes of his action began there, where he had long spent his time in contemplation; and even when he showed himself to Israel, he showed how well he loved retirement, as far as would consist with his business. The word of the Lord found John here in a wilderness. Note, No place is so remote as to shut us out from the visits of divine grace; nay, commonly the sweetest intercourse the saints have with Heaven, is when they are withdrawn furthest from the noise of this world. It was in this wilderness of Judah that David penned the Ps. 63:1-11, which speaks so much of the sweet communion he then had with God, Hos. 2:14. In a wilderness the law was given; and as the Old Testament, so the New Testament Israel was first found in the desert land, and there God led him about and instructed him, Deut. 32:10. John Baptist was a priest of the order of Aaron, yet we find him preaching in a wilderness, and never officiating in the temple; but Christ, who was not a son of Aaron, is yet often found in the temple, and sitting there as one having authority; so it was foretold, Mal. 3:1. The Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to his temple; not the messenger that was to prepare his way. This intimated that the priesthood of Christ was to thrust out that of Aaron, and drive it into a wilderness.
The beginning of the gospel in a wilderness, speaks comfort to the deserts of the Gentile world. Now must the prophecies be fulfilled, I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, Isa. 41:18, 19. The wilderness shall be a fruitful field, Isa. 32:15. And the desert shall rejoice, Isa. 35:1, 2. The Septuagint reads, the deserts of Jordan, the very wilderness in which John preached. In the Romish church there are those who call themselves hermits, and pretend to follow John; but when they say of Christ, Behold, he is in the desert, go not forth, Matt. 24:26. There was a seducer that led his followers into the wilderness, Acts 21:38.
III. His preaching. This he made his business. He came, not fighting, nor disputing, but preaching (Matt. 3:1); for by the foolishness of preaching, Christ’s kingdom must be set up.
1. The doctrine he preached was that of repentance (Matt. 3:2); Repent ye. He preached this in Judea, among those that were called Jews, and made a profession of religion; for even they needed repentance. He preached it, not in Jerusalem, but in the wilderness of Judea, among the plain country people; for even those who think themselves most out of the way of temptation, and furthest from the vanities and vices of the town, cannot wash their hands in innocency, but must do it in repentance. John Baptist’s business was to call men to repent of their sins; Metanoeite—Bethink yourselves; “Admit a second thought, to correct the errors of the first—an afterthought. Consider your ways, change your minds; you have thought amiss; think again, and think aright.” Note, True penitents have other thoughts of God and Christ, and sin and holiness, and this world and the other, than they have had, and stand otherwise affected toward them. The change of the mind produces a change of the way. Those who are truly sorry for what they have done amiss, will be careful to do so no more. This repentance is a necessary duty, in obedience to the command of God (Acts 17:30); and a necessary preparative and qualification for the comforts of the gospel of Christ. If the heart of man had continued upright and unstained, divine consolations might have been received without this painful operation preceding; but, being sinful, it must be first pained before it can be laid at ease, must labour before it can be at rest. The sore must be searched, or it cannot be cured. I wound and I heal.
2. The argument he used to enforce this call was, For the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The prophets of the Old Testament called people to repent, for the obtaining and securing of temporal national mercies, and for the preventing and removing of temporal national judgments: but now, though the duty pressed is the same, the reason is new, and purely evangelical. Men are now considered in their personal capacity, and not so much as then in a social and political one. Now repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand; the gospel dispensation of the covenant of grace, the opening of the kingdom of heaven to all believers, by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a kingdom of which Christ is the Sovereign, and we must be the willing, loyal subjects of it. It is a kingdom of heaven, not of this world, a spiritual kingdom: its original from heaven, its tendency to heaven. John preached this as at hand; then it was at the door; to us it is come, by the pouring out of the Spirit, and the full exhibition of the riches of gospel-grace. Now, (1.) This is a great inducement to us to repent. There is nothing like the consideration of divine grace to break the heart, both for sin and from sin. That is evangelical repentance, that flows from a sight of Christ, from a sense of his love, and the hopes of pardon and forgiveness through him. Kindness is conquering; abused kindness, humbling and melting. What a wretch was I to sin against such grace, against the law and love of such a kingdom! (2.) It is a great encouragement to us to repent; “Repent, for your sins shall be pardoned upon your repentance. Return to God in a way of duty, and he will, through Christ, return to you in a way of mercy.” The proclamation of pardon discovers, and fetches in, the malefactor who before fled and absconded. Thus we are drawn to it with the cords of man, and the bands of love.
IV. The prophecy that was fulfilled in him, Matt. 3:3. This is he that was spoken of in the beginning of that part of the prophecy of Esaias, which is mostly evangelical, and which points at gospel-times and gospel-grace; see Isa. 40:3, 4. John is here spoken of,
1. As the voice of one crying in the wilderness. John owned it himself (John 1:23); I am the voice, and that is all, God is the Speaker, who makes known his mind by John, as a man does by his voice. The word of God must be received as such (1 Thess. 2:13); what else is Paul, and what is Apollos, but the voice! John is called the voice, phone boontos—the voice of one crying aloud, which is startling and awakening. Christ is called the Word, which, being distinct and articulate, is more instructive. John as the voice, roused men, and then Christ, as the Word, taught them; as we find, Rev. 14:2. The voice of many waters, and of a great thunder, made way for the melodious voice of harpers and the new song, Matt. 3:3. Some observe that, as Samson’s mother must drink no strong drink, yet he was designed to be a strong man; so John Baptist’s father was struck dumb, and yet he was designed to be the voice of one crying. When the crier’s voice is begotten of a dumb father, it shows the excellency of the power to be of God, and not of man.
2. As one whose business it was to prepare the way of the Lord, and to make his paths straight; so it was said of him before he was born, that he should make ready a people prepared for the Lord (Luke 1:17), as Christ’s harbinger and forerunner: he was such a one as intimated the nature of Christ’s kingdom, for he came not in the gaudy dress of a herald at arms, but in the homely one of a hermit. Officers were sent before great men to clear the way; so John prepares the way of the Lord. (1.) He himself did so among the men of that generation. In the Jewish church and nation, at that time, all was out of course; there was a great decay of piety, the vitals of religion were corrupted and eaten out by the traditions and injunctions of the elders. The Scribes and Pharisees, that is, the greatest hypocrites in the world, had the key of knowledge, and the key of government, at their girdle. The people were, generally, extremely proud of their privileges, confident of justification by their own righteousness, insensible of sin; and, though now under the most humbling providences, being lately made a province of the Roman Empire, yet they were unhumbled; they were much in the same temper as they were in Malachi’s time, insolent and haughty, and ready to contradict the word of God: now John was sent to level these mountains, to take down their high opinion of themselves, and to show them their sins, that the doctrine of Christ might be the more acceptable and effectual. (2.) His doctrine of repentance and humiliation is still as necessary as it was then to prepare the way of the Lord. Note, There is a great deal to be done, to make way for Christ into a soul, to bow the heart for the reception of the Son of David (2 Sam. 19:14); and nothing is more needful, in order to this, than the discovery of sin, and a conviction of the insufficiency of our own righteousness. That which lets will let, until it be taken out of the way; prejudices must be removed, high thoughts brought down, and captivated to the obedience of Christ. Gates of brass must be broken, and bars of iron cut asunder, ere the everlasting doors be opened for the King of glory to come in. The way of sin and Satan is a crooked way; to prepare a way for Christ, the paths must be made straight, Heb. 12:13.
V. The garb in which he appeared, the figure he made, and the manner of his life, Matt. 3:4. They, who expected the Messiah as a temporal prince, would think that his forerunner must come in great pomp and splendour, that his equipage should be very magnificent and gay; but it proves quite contrary; he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, but mean in the eyes of the world; and, as Christ himself, having no form or comeliness; to intimate betimes, that the glory of Christ’s kingdom was to be spiritual, and the subjects of it such as ordinarily were either found by it, or made by it, poor and despised, who derived their honours, pleasures, and riches, from another world.
1. His dress was plain. This same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; he did not go in long clothing, as the scribes, or soft clothing, as the courtiers, but in the clothing of a country husbandman; for he lived in a country place, and suited his habit to his habitation. Note, It is good for us to accommodate ourselves to the place and condition which God, in his providence, has put us in. John appeared in this dress, (1.) To show that, like Jacob, he was a plain man, and mortified to this world, and the delights and gaieties of it. Behold an Israelite indeed! Those that are lowly in heart should show it by a holy negligence and indifference in their attire; and not make the putting on of apparel their adorning, nor value others by their attire. (2.) To show that he was a prophet, for prophets wore rough garments, as mortified men (Zech. 13:4); and, especially, to show that he was the Elias promised; for particular notice is taken of Elias, that he was a hairy man (which, some think, is meant of the hairy garments he wore), and that he was girt with a girdle of leather about his loins, 2 Kgs. 1:8. John Baptist appears no way inferior to him in mortification; this therefore is that Elias that was to come. (3.) To show that he was a man of resolution; his girdle was not fine, such as were then commonly worn, but it was strong, it was a leathern girdle; and blessed is that servant, whom his Lord, when he comes, finds with his loins girt, Luke 12:35; 1 Pet. 1:13.
2. His diet was plain; his meat was locusts and wild honey; not as if he never ate any thing else; but these he frequently fed upon, and made many meals of them, when he retired into solitary places, and continued long there for contemplation. Locusts were a sort of flying insect, very good for food, and allowed as clean (Lev. 11:22); they required little dressing, and were light, and easy of digestion, whence it is reckoned among the infirmities of old age, that the grasshopper, or locust, is then a burden to the stomach, Eccl. 12:5. Wild honey was that which Canaan flowed with, 1 Sam. 14:26. Either it was gathered immediately, as it fell in the dew, or rather, as it was found in the hollows of trees and rocks, where bees built, that were not, like those in hives, under the care and inspection of men. This intimates that he ate sparingly, a little served his turn; a man would be long ere he filled his belly with locusts and wild honey: John Baptist came neither eating nor drinking (Matt. 11:18)-- not with the curiosity, formality, and familiarity that other people do. He was so entirely taken up with spiritual things, that he could seldom find time for a set meal. Now, (1.) This agreed with the doctrine he preached of repentance, and fruits meet for repentance. Note, Those whose business it is to call others to mourn for sin, and to mortify it, ought themselves to live a serious life, a life of self-denial, mortification, and contempt of the world. John Baptist thus showed the deep sense he had of the badness of the time and place he lived in, which made the preaching of repentance needful; every day was a fast-day with him. (2.) This agreed with his office as Christ’s forerunner; by this practice he showed that he knew what the kingdom of heaven was, and had experienced the powers of it. Note, Those that are acquainted with divine and spiritual pleasures, cannot but look upon all the delights and ornaments of sense with a holy indifference; they know better things. By giving others this example he made way for Christ. Note, A conviction of the vanity of the world, and everything in it, is the best preparative for the entertainment of the kingdom of heaven in the heart. Blessed are the poor in spirit.
VI. The people who attended upon him, and flocked after him (Matt. 3:5); Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judea. Great multitudes came to him from the city, and from all parts of the country; some of all sorts, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, Pharisees and publicans; they went out to him, as soon as they heard his preaching the kingdom of heaven, that they might hear what they heard so much of. Now, 1. This was a great honour put upon John, that so many attended him, and with so much respect. Note, Frequently those have most real honour done them, who least court the shadow of it. Those who live a mortified life, who are humble and self-denying, and dead to the world, command respect; and men have a secret value and reverence for them, more than they would imagine. 2. This gave John a great opportunity of doing good, and was an evidence that God was with him. Now people began to crowd and press into the kingdom of heaven (Luke 16:16); and a blessed sight it was, to see the dew of the youth dropping from the womb of the gospel-morning (Ps. 110:3), to see the net cast where there were so many fish. 3. This was an evidence, that it was now a time of great expectation; it was generally thought that the kingdom of God would presently appear (Luke 19:11), and therefore, when John showed himself to Israel, lived and preached at this rate, so very different from the Scribes and Pharisees, they were ready to say of him, that he was the Christ (Luke 3:15); and this occasioned such a confluence of people about him. 4. Those who would have the benefit of John’s ministry must go out to him in the wilderness, sharing in his reproach. Note, They who truly desire the sincere milk of the word, it if be not brought to them, will seek out for it: and they who would learn the doctrine of repentance must go out from the hurry of this world, and be still. 5. It appears by the issue, that of the many who came to John’s Baptism, there were but few that adhered to it; witness the cold reception Christ had in Judea, and about Jerusalem. Note, There may be a multitude of forward hearers, where there are but a few true believers. Curiosity, and affectation of novelty and variety, may bring many to attend upon good preaching, and to be affected with it for a while, who yet are never subject to the power of it, Ezek. 33:31, 32.
VII. The rite, or ceremony, by which he admitted disciples, Matt. 3:6. Those who received his doctrine, and submitted to his discipline, were baptized of him in Jordan, thereby professing their repentance, and their belief that the kingdom of the Messiah was at hand. 1. They testified their repentance by confessing their sins; a general confession, it is probable, they made to John that they were sinners, that they were polluted by sin, and needed cleansing; but to God they made a confession of particular sins, for he is the party offended. The Jews had been taught to justify themselves; but John teaches them to accuse themselves, and not to rest, as they used to do, in the general confession of sin made for all Israel, once a year, upon the day of atonement; but to make a particular acknowledgment, every one, of the plague of his own heart. Note, A penitent confession of sin is required in order to peace and pardon; and those only are ready to receive Jesus Christ as their Righteousness, who are brought with sorrow and shame to their own guilt, 1 John 1:9. 2. The benefits of the kingdom of heaven, now at hand, were thereupon sealed to them by baptism. He washed them with water, in token of this—that from all their iniquities God would cleanse them. It was usual with the Jews to baptize those whom they admitted proselytes to their religion, especially those who were only Proselytes of the gate, and were not circumcised, as the Proselytes of righteousness were. Some think it was likewise a custom for persons of eminent religion, who set up for leaders, by baptism to admit pupils and disciples. Christ’s question concerning John’s Baptism, Was it from heaven, or of men? implied, that there were baptisms of men, who pretended not to a divine mission; with this usage John complied, but his was from heaven, and was distinguished from all others by this character, It was the baptism of repentance, Acts 19:4. All Israel were baptized unto Moses, 1 Cor. 10:2. The ceremonial law consisted in divers washings or baptisms (Heb. 9:10); but John’s baptism refers to the remedial law, the law of repentance and faith. He is said to baptize them in Jordan, that river which was famous for Israel’s passage through it, and Naaman’s cure; yet it is probable that John did not baptize in that river at first, but that afterward, when the people who came to his baptism were numerous, he removed Jordan. By baptism he obliged them to live a holy life, according to the profession they took upon themselves. Note, Confession of sin must always be accompanied with holy resolutions, in the strength of divine grace, not to return to it again.