All this discourse concerning John Baptist, occasioned by his sending to ask whether he was the Messiah or no, we had, much as it is here related, Matt. 11:2-19.
I. We have here the message John Baptist sent to Christ, and the return he made to it. Observe,
1. The great thing we are to enquire concerning Christ is whether he be he that should come to redeem and save sinners, or whether we are to look for another, Luke 7:19, 20. We are sure that God has promised that a Saviour shall come, an anointed Saviour; we are as sure that what he has promised he will perform in its season. If this Jesus be that promised Messiah, we will receive him, and will look for no other; but, if not, we will continue our expectations, and, though he tarry, will wait for him.
2. The faith of John Baptist himself, or at least of his disciples, wanted to be confirmed in this matter; for Christ had not yet publicly declared himself to be indeed the Christ, nay, he would not have his disciples, who knew him to be so, to speak of it, till the proofs of his being so were completed in his resurrection. The great men of the Jewish church had not owned him, nor had he gained any interest that was likely to set him upon the throne of his father David. Nothing of that power and grandeur was to be seen about him in which it was expected that the Messiah would appear; and therefore it is not strange that they should ask, Art thou the Messiah? not doubting but that, if he was not, he would direct them what other to look for.
3. Christ left it to his own works to praise him in the gates, to tell what he was and to prove it. While John’s messengers were with him, he wrought many miraculous cures, in that same hour, which perhaps intimates that they staid but an hour with him; and what a deal of work did Christ do in a little time! Luke 7:21. He cured many of their infirmities and plagues in body, and of evil spirits that affected the mind either with frenzy or melancholy, and unto many that were blind he gave sight. He multiplied the cures, that there might be no ground left to suspect a fraud; and then (Luke 7:22) he bade them go and tell John what they had seen. And he and they might easily argue, as even the common people did (John 7:31), When Christ cometh, will he do more miracles than these which this man hath done? These cures, which they saw him work, were not only confirmations of his commission, but explications of it. The Messiah must come to cure a diseased world, to give light and sight to them that sit in darkness, and to restrain and conquer evil spirits. You see that Jesus does this to the bodies of people, and therefore must conclude this is he that should come to do it to the souls of people, and you are to look for no other. To his miracles in the kingdom of nature he adds this in the kingdom of grace (Luke 7:22), To the poor the gospel is preached, which they knew was to be done by the Messiah; for he was anointed to preach the gospel to the meek (Isa. 61:1), and to save the souls of the poor and needy, Ps. 72:13. Judge, therefore, whether you can look for any other that will more fully answer the characters of the Messiah and the great intentions of his coming.
4. He gave them an intimation of the danger people were in of being prejudiced against him, notwithstanding these evident proofs of his being the Messiah (Luke 7:23): Blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in me, or scandalized at me. We are here in a state of trial and probation; and it is agreeable to such a state that, as there are sufficient arguments to confirm the truth to those that are honest and impartial in searching after it, and have their minds prepared to receive it, so there should be also objections, to cloud the truth to those that are careless, worldly, and sensual. Christ’s education at Nazareth, his residence at Galilee, the meanness of his family and relations, his poverty, and the despicableness of his followers—these and the like were stumbling-blocks to many, which all the miracles he wrought could not help them over. He is blessed, for he is wise, humble, and well disposed, that is not overcome by these prejudices. It is a sign that God has blessed him, for it is by his grace that he is helped over these stumbling-stones; and he shall be blessed indeed, blessed in Christ.
II. We have here the high encomium which Christ gave of John Baptist; not while his messengers were present (lest he should seem to flatter him), but when they were departed (Luke 7:24), to make the people sensible of the advantages they had enjoyed in John’s ministry, and were deprived of by his imprisonment. Let them now consider what they went out into the wilderness to see, who that was about whom there had been so much talk and such a great and general amazement. “Come,” saith Christ, “I will tell you.”
1. He was a man of unshaken self-consistence, a man of steadiness and constancy. He was not a reed shaken with the wind, first in one direction and then in another, shifting with every wind; he was firm as a rock, not fickle as a reed. If he could have bowed like a reed to Herod, and have complied with the court, he might have been a favourite there; but none of these things moved him.
2. He was a man of unparalleled self-denial, a great example of mortification and contempt of the world. He was not a man clothed in soft raiment, nor did he live delicately (Luke 7:25); but, on the contrary, he lived in a wilderness and was clad and fed accordingly. Instead of adorning and pampering the body, he brought it under, and kept it in subjection.
3. He was a prophet, had his commission and instructions immediately from God, and not of man or by man. He was by birth a priest, but that is never taken notice of; for his glory, as a prophet, eclipsed the honour of his priesthood. Nay, he was more, he was much more than a prophet (Luke 7:26), than any of the prophets of the Old Testament; for they spoke of Christ as at a distance, he spoke of him as at the door.
4. He was the harbinger and forerunner of the Messiah, and was himself prophesied of in the Old Testament (Luke 7:27): This is he of whom it is written (Mal. 3:1), Behold, I send my messenger before thy face. Before he sent the Master himself, he sent a messenger, to give notice of his coming, and prepare people to receive him. Had the Messiah been to appear as a temporal prince, under which character the carnal Jews expected him, his messenger would have appeared either in the pomp of a general or the gaiety of a herald at arms; but it was a previous indication, plain enough, of the spiritual nature of Christ’s kingdom, that the messenger he sent before him to prepare his way did it by preaching repentance and reformation of men’s hearts and lives. Certainly that kingdom was not of this world which was thus ushered in.
5. He was, upon this account, so great, that really there was not a greater prophet than he. Prophets were the greatest that were born of women, more honourable than kings and princes, and John was the greatest of all the prophets. The country was not sensible what a valuable, what an invaluable, man it had in it, when John Baptist went about preaching and baptizing. And yet he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. The least gospel minister, that has obtained mercy of the Lord to be skilful and faithful in his work, or the meanest of the apostles and first preachers of the gospel, being employed under a more excellent dispensation, are in a more honourable office than John Baptist. The meanest of those that follow the Lamb far excel the greatest of those that went before him. Those therefore who live under the gospel dispensation have so much the more to answer for.
III. We have here the just censure of the men of that generation, who were not wrought upon by the ministry either of John Baptist or of Jesus Christ himself.
1. Christ here shows what contempt was put upon John Baptist, while he was preaching and baptizing. (1.) Those who did show him any respect were but the common ordinary sort of people, who, in the eye of the gay part of mankind, were rather a disgrace to him than a credit, Luke 7:29. The people indeed, the vulgar herd, of whom it was said, This people, who know not the law, are cursed (John 7:49), and the publicans, men of ill fame, as being generally men of bad morals, or taken to be so, these were baptized with his baptism, and became his disciples; and these, though glorious monuments of divine grace, yet did not magnify John in the eye of the world; but by their repentance and reformation they justified God, justified his conduct and the wisdom of it in appointing such a one as John Baptist to be the forerunner of the Messiah: they hereby made it to appear that it was the best method that could be taken, for it was not in vain to them whatever it was to others. (2.) The great men of their church and nation, the polite and the politicians, that would have done him some credit in the eye of the world, did him all the dishonour they could; they heard him indeed, but they were not baptized of him, Luke 7:30. The Pharisees, who were most in reputation for religion and devotion, and the lawyers, who were celebrated for their learning, especially their knowledge of the scriptures, rejected the counsel of God against themselves; they frustrated it, they received the grace of God, by the baptism of John, in vain. God in sending that messenger among them had a kind purpose of good to them, designed their salvation by it, and, if they had closed with the counsel of God, it had been for themselves, they had been made for ever; but they rejected it, would not comply with it, and it was against themselves, it was to their own ruin; they came short of the benefit intended them, and not only so, but forfeited the grace of God, put a bar in their own door, and, by refusing that discipline which was to fit them for the kingdom of the Messiah, shut themselves out of it, and they not only excluded themselves, but hindered others, and stood in their way.
2. He here shows the strange perverseness of the men of that generation, in their cavils both against John and Christ, and the prejudices they conceived against them.
(1.) They made but a jesting matter of the methods God took to do them good (Luke 7:31): “Whereunto shall I liken the men of this generation? What can I think of absurd enough to represent them by? They are, then, like children sitting in the market-place, that mind nothing that is serious, but are as full of play as they can hold. As if God were but in jest with them, in all the methods he takes to do them good, as children are with one another in the market-place (Luke 7:32), they turn it all off with a banter, and are not more affected with it than with a piece of pageantry.” This is the ruin of multitudes, they can never persuade themselves to be serious in the concerns of their souls. Old men, sitting in the sanhedrim, were but as children sitting in the market-place, and no more affected with the things that belonged to their everlasting peace than people are with children’s play. O the amazing stupidity and vanity of the blind and ungodly world! The Lord awaken them out of their security.
(2.) They still found something or other to carp at. [1.] John Baptist was a reserved austere man, lived much in solitude, and ought to have been admired for being such a humble, sober, self-denying man, and hearkened to as a man of thought and contemplation; but this, which was his praise, was turned to his reproach. Because he came neither eating nor drinking, so freely, plentifully, and cheerfully, as others did, you say, “He has a devil; he is a melancholy man, he is possessed, as the demoniac whose dwelling was among the tombs, though he be not quite so wild.” [2.] Our Lord Jesus was of a more free and open conversation; he came eating and drinking, Luke 7:34. He would go and dine with Pharisees, though he knew they did not care for him; and with publicans, though he knew they were no credit to him; yet, in hopes of doing good both to the one and the other, he conversed familiarly with them. By this it appears that the ministers of Christ may be of very different tempers and dispositions, very different ways of preaching and living, and yet all good and useful; diversity of gifts, but each given to profit withal. Therefore none must make themselves a standard to all others, nor judge hardly of those that do not do just as they do. John Baptist bore witness to Christ, and Christ applauded John Baptist, though they were the reverse of each other in their way of living. But the common enemies of them both reproached them both. The very same men that had represented John as crazed in his intellects, because he came neither eating nor drinking, represented our Lord Jesus as corrupt in his morals, because he came eating and drinking; he is a gluttonous man, and a wine-bibber. Ill-will never speaks well. See the malice of wicked people, and how they put the worst construction upon every thing they meet with in the gospel, and in the preachers and professors of it; and hereby they think to depreciate them, but really destroy themselves.
3. He shows that, notwithstanding this, God will be glorified in the salvation of a chosen remnant (Luke 7:35): Wisdom is justified of all her children. There are those who are given to wisdom as her children, and they shall be brought by the grace of God to submit to wisdom’s conduct and government, and thereby to justify wisdom in the ways she takes for bringing them to that submission; for to them they are effectual, and thereby appear well chosen. Wisdom’s children are herein unanimous, one and all, they have all a complacency in the methods of grace which divine wisdom takes, and think never the worse of them for their being ridiculed by some.