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THE BAPTISM OF JESUS.
MARK I. 9-11.1
T Nazareth, in the house of Joseph the carpenter, words
of farewell were being exchanged. The father of the family was perhaps already dead, — at least we do not meet with him again ; but the mother was still living, and on this occasion we picture all the married sons and daughters who had settled in the place gathering once more under the old roof, for one of their brothers, who had so far always stayed with his mother and worked at his trade to support her, was now leaving home, and they had all come to wish him a hearty farewell. Jesus was starting on a journey, and how long he would be away it was impossible to tell. Had he himself any presentiment that the turning point of his life was drawing near, and that he would never more come back to live under his mother's roof?
He had determined to go to the Jordan to John. The impulse which this man had given to the spiritual life of his people had made itself felt at Nazareth. At the city gate, in the synagogue, and in the homes of his friends and acquaintances, Jesus had listened with eager ears to the reports of this strange preacher of the wilderness. Had the Lord really visited His people, then, and raised up a prophet as in days gone by? 3 Had John, indeed, received a commission from God to proclaim the approach of the Messianic age? At least his demand for repentance, and his immersion of the people in the purifying water, was something very different from the war-cry raised some years ago by Judas. If the kingdom of God was to be gained at all, it must be by righteousness and not by violence. If?- But might not Jesus find in the very eagerness with which he himself looked forward to the great day of the Lord a pledge that it was near at hand?
He could not quietly work on with plane and saw any longer. So he put his affairs in order, bade farewell to his family, and set out on his journey, perhaps by himself, perhaps in company with other Nazarenes, but in any case alone ; for he could not communicate the thoughts and emotions that crowded into his breast to any one. When he reached the place of his destipation he pressed with eager interest into the crowd of hearers, and marked well the man that he had so longed to see and hear. He was not disappointed. John's heroic and invincible courage, his unshaken confidence in God and in himself, bis unexampled rigor, scorning all luxury or delicacy in food and raiment, made an indelible impression on Jesus. The main purport, at least, of his preaching waked a full echo in Jesus' soul, and the firm conviction that the promises of God were soon to be fulfilled, and that a sense of guilt and a longing for righteousness were the indispensable conditions of partaking of His salvation, struck deep root in his heart. Truly this man was a prophet; ay, and more than a prophet! For the prophets did but announce God's kingdom, while John prepared the way for it, and had risen up to do Elijah's work. All this Jesus felt lle penetrated to the inner meaning of John's efforts, and reverenced his bold resolve. He could not
1 Matthew iii. 13-17; Luke iii. 21, 2.. 2 1 Corinthians ix. 5; Matthew xii. 46, xiii. 56. 8 Compare Psalın lxxiv. 9; 1 Maccabees iv. 46, ix. 27, xiv. 41. 4 See p. 89,
doubt that he was prompted by a divine impulse, was obeying • the voice of God, when he baptized in the Jordan the host of
enitents that confessed their sins and promised to strive after righteousness.
And after listening to his preaching for a time Jesus wished to be baptized himself. It is obvious why he did so. soon as he recognized this baptism as a divine institution, it was but natural that he should wish to submit to it. Hle, too, would espress under this form his fervent hope in the coming of the Lord. He, too, would register his promise to live after the will of God, and to do what in him lay to hasten the coming of the great salvation. He, too, would confess how far he was from what he would have himself, and how deeply be felt his own imperfection. He, too, would be received by the messenger of God into the company of those who should enter into the kingdom.
It would seem that he still remained with John for a time after he had been baptized by him. There was much in the preacher's surroundings, besides his person, to excite Jesus' interest and arrest his attention. How different were these scenes from those in which he had lived hitherto! He was struck by the fact that among John's most eager hearers, among the most deeply penitent of all whom he baptized, were many publicans or still more degraded creatures. Thougt
almost every one supposed them to be hopelessly lost, they were still capable of being lifted up. He saw with indignation how the priests and upper classes stayed away in indifference. Was not the eagerness of these sinners to be allowed an entrance into the kingdom of God enough to shame them into better things?i While the religious and respectable classes, as a rule, showed so much less zeal than he would have expected, he beheld the masses, humble and believing, streaming to the baptism. What a contrast between the different opinions entertained about the Baptist! What a rich store of knowledge of human nature might here be gleaned !
This stay by the Jordan exercised a decisive influence on Jesus in his choice of a career and his conception of the task of his life. For here a resolution came to maturity which must long have been half formed within bim, though hitherto his surroundings, and especially the influence of his relatives, had been unfavorable to its development. Henceforth he would devote his undivided powers to his people and to the kingdom of God. The impulse he received from the Baptist's preaching finally decided him.
The influence which Jolin exercised upon Jesus was indeed powerful. We may note in passing that the metaphor used by Jesus of the good and the bad tree, the latter of which is cut down and cast into the fire, and other such expressions, remind us of the language of John ;? and again, that Jesus, like John, gathered round him a circle of personal disciples, like him despised riches, and urged his followers to fling away whatever might be a hindrance to their entering into the kingdom of God, and in many other points reminds us of his predecessor. But it is a far more significant fact that at the beginning of his ministry he not only accepted as the voice of God the cry from the Baptist's mouth, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” but felt it laid as a word of God upon his own lips too.8
But, though now resolved, he waited till his time should come before he set his hand to the task. He could not work under John, and would not work in opposition to him. He could not even become his disciple, or long remaiu in his immediate neighborhood. For in course of time, though his admiration of him did not diminish, he felt ever more and more distinctly that a great chasm yawned between himself and
1 Matthew xxi. 32.
Matthew iv. 17, compare iii. 2. See also Matthew x. 7; Mark vi. 12.
the prophet of the wilderness. This God of judgment, whose name could only rouse a shuddering dread, was not the God of Jesus. He had received far other impressions of the Most High than those of burning wrath, and his heart bore other thoughts toward Him than that of awe-struck terror. He perceived in the set prayers and fasts which John prescribed a spirit of legalism and formality which could never enlist his sympathy; and even as to the baptism itself, he began to think that too much stress was laid upon it. As time went on, Jesus found himself less and less at home in this circle of ideas. We picture him drawing more and more completely back during the last period of John's career in the Transjordanic district, but still remaining near him, not far from the river. Perhaps, however, the whole period of his connection with John was shorter than might be supposed, for he was certainly one of his later hearers. Meanwhile he was preparing himself by observing human nature and the signs of the times, by pondering in solitude over the impressions he received, by contemplation and prayer, for the task of his life. Thus he completed his preparation for his work, and gained a clear conception of the way in which he must do it, and the class to whom he must appeal. And when his hour struck, he was ready.
From very early times the baptism of Jesus has been a source of great perplexity to the Christian community, — a sufficient proof that it is no invention; and even now it seems a strange contradiction to most Christians that the Christ himself should have begged his predecessor to admit him among the citizens of his own kingdom, and that the sinless one should have received the baptism of repentance. For us, indeed, these difficulties do not exist, though we can quite understand and appreciate them. Jesus was not the Christ as yet; and as to his repentance, the very purity and grandeur of his moral and spiritual nature must have made his conscience all the more tender, his self-accusation for even the slightest defect in zeal or in obedience all the louder, his soirow for the least departure from his moral ideal, the smallest unfaithfulness to his calling to divine perfection, all the keeper. And we must remember that the limitations of human nature necessarily imply some defect or imperfection, and that progress and development are impossible unless a lower grade of holiness and love, a certain defectiveness not perceived at the time perhaps but lamented afterwards, has
preceded. Again, we must not suppose that the expression of penitence required by John resembled the auricular confession made to a Roman Catholic priest; and without having any such gross trespasses to confess as we call sins, surely Jesus may have bad an humble consciousness that he was not perfect in goodness, that he had faltered or stumbled on the path of faith, had been tardy or impatient on his way through life. Thus in later days he still emphatically declined the name of honor, “ good Master ;”) and in the same spirit he is represented in the New Testament itself as exposed to every kind of temptation, as still requiring to learn obedience, and as being made perfect only by the sharpest test of suffering.?
But however simple this may seem to us, in former times the baptism of Jesus was a great stumbling-block to the faithful. Legend, however, can account for any thing! Assumptions and conjectures entirely without foundation were soon consolidated into a narrative which explained how it was that Jesus took such an extraordinary step, and what it was that really happened at his baptism. Thus it was said, for instance, that Jesus did not go to Judæa of his own accurd at all. A curious narrative, written in this sense, is still preserved from the Gospel according to the Hebrews.” This Gospel was widely circulated in early times. In its original form it belonged to the first century, and bore a strong resemblance to Matthew ; but the fragments referring to the baptism of Jesus, which some of the ecclesiastical Fathers have preserved for us, are among the later additions. One of these fragments runs as follows: The Lord's mother and brothers said to him, “Jolin is baptizing for the forgiveness of sins ; let us go to be baptized by him.' But he said to them, “What sin have I committed that I should go and be baptized by him? Unless, indeed, the words I have just uttered are themselves an error.'” The inventors of this story did not see that by making Jesus go up to the Jordan at the instigation of others, without desiring it or feeling the necessity of it himself, they were far from mending matters. Such weak conduct is unworthy of a man with a character of his own, and is quite foreign to the nature of Jesus. Just as unsatisfaci ory is another explanation that has come down from antiquity, according to which Jesus came to the Jordan not for his own sake, because he desired to be baptized, but
1 Mark x. 17, 18 (Luke xviii. 18, 19).