The First Baptist S.E. Anderson
Chapter 9—Hopefully Reviewed
"He shall be great in the sight of the Lord"
Is our sight the same as the Lord’s? It should be.
Each Christian should seek to please his Lord, not in order to be called "great," but to show his gratitude for the Lord’s mercies. Everyone should try to be as useful as possible, and the more useful one is the more he will deserve to be called great.
The Lord told Jeremiah, "And seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not" (Jer. 45:5). This verse, incidentally, was decisive in changing the life direction of young Charles Haddon Spurgeon from that of seeking fame to seeking his Lord’s will. It could have meant the same for young John the Baptist.
The brief review of the life of John the Baptist is not for the purpose of exalting him. It is rather for the purpose of examining his methods and message concerning his exaltation of Christ. It is to discover how the Baptist promoted Christ so well; how he witnessed to Christ; how he remained .humble; how he prepared people for his Lord, and how he won the Lord’s approval.
"There was a man sent from God, whose name was John" (John 1:6).
This prophet was to be a Pathfinder for the greater Prophet to come a little later. For John was to survey the spiritual wilderness that was Israel. He would mark out a trail; he would blaze the trees as markers for future travelers; he would chart a long-expected Messiah.
John the Baptist was to be a road builder for his Master, this Master Who was Himself to be the Way, the Truth and the Life, and apart from Whom no one can come to the Father (John 14:6). With the Holy Spirit as the Highway Engineer, the plans were sure to be the best possible. Every traveler on this spiritual highway could be sure of his direction, his destination, and his duty en route. No detours would exist, unless and until misguided pilgrims would themselves erect roadblocks such as baptismal regeneration, baby baptism, a priestly hierarchy or a fawning Mariolatry. When the debris of tradition had accumulated with passing centuries, more and more pilgrims lost hope or succumbed to deadening formalism or empty ritualism. However, persistent inquirers could examine the original blueprints in the Gospels and Epistles, and thereby plot their course in spite of ecclesiastical dictatorships. Among such brave men were Wycliffe, Tyndale, Luther, Bunyan, Wesley and Roger Williams. These heroes did not agree on all doctrines, but they did agree on the sole Lordship of Christ and the supreme authority of His Word.
John the Baptist was the advance agent for the Lord Jesus Christ. His work was to announce the coming of his King, to prepare people for His coming, to win loyal adherents for Him in advance of His coming, and to create enthusiasm for His kingdom. All this John did superbly well. He set up attractive signs to announce his King. Baptism was such a sign: to the Jewish mind it somehow pointed to Christ. The committee sent to John by the Pharisees asked him, "Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet?" (John 1:25).
John was himself a sign post. Now, sign posts have no saving value in themselves except as they point toward a worthy goal. This John did. He always pointed to Christ.
When God was ready to start a new work in the world, He sent a baptizing preacher. Missionary statesmen and planners of new churches would be wise to learn pioneering methods from the first Christian pioneer.
"The same came for a witness" (John 1:7).
The Baptist came "to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe." Why does a light need a witness? Does the sun need anyone to announce that it is shining? No; except to those who are blind. Jesus spoke to certain Pharisees in such a way as to maneuver them into asking Him, "Are we blind also?" Jesus answered them, "If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth" (John 9:40, 41). They were blind; they could not see the deity of Christ, even after He had healed a man who had been blind from birth. What blinded them? The debris of extra-Mosaic laws regarding the Sabbath (their man-made laws) blinded them to the divine Sonship of Christ and to His goodness in healing a blind man. Each Christian should ask himself if he is blinded, even in part, by mistaken notions which can not be supported by Scripture. Perhaps most of us have "blind spots" of which we are not aware. Such a possibility, not to say probability, should keep us humble.
Just as John was not the Light, so no Christian since his day can claim that unique honor. Self-styled messiahs have come and gone, each proclaiming himself to be the Lord’s chosen light, but they have miserably flickered and failed. Only the Lord Jesus shines through the world’s darkness, "and the darkness comprehended (overcame) it not" (John 1:5).
How did John bear witness to the Light? Just what did he say?
John the Baptist witnessed to the eternity of Christ. "He was before me," said John (John 1:15, 27, 30). This could only be true if Jesus were the divine Son of God in a unique way. (This list supplements the points listed in chapter six.)
John declared the superiority of Christ. "He that cometh after me is preferred before me" (John 1:15). "He that cometh from above is above all . . . he that cometh from heaven is above all" (John 3:31).
The Baptist said that Christ was full of grace and truth (John 1:14, 16, 17). "Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." This "fulness" of grace and truth "have all we received" in contrast to the law given by Moses. Now John HAD received it, no question, and it seems that only his politeness made him say that "all we" have also received it. Not that it is not available to everyone. It is free as air. But not all have opened their hearts to receive Christ. Too many hold on to worldly idols and playthings and prejudices. But the fulness is available still. Which is more valuable: grace and truth from God or the pride and greed of the world? John chose the former.
Again, John called attention to the Lamb of God Who was to bear all the sins of all the world for all time in His own body on the ~ accursed tree of Calvary (John 1:29, 36; I Pet. 2:24). True, the records we have do not say he mentioned the cross, but his use of the word for Lamb (Greek, amnos) indicated a sacrificial lamb. This word is found only four times in the New Testament (John 1:29, 36; Acts 8:32; 1 Pet. 1:19). Acts 8:32 is a quotation from Isaiah 53:7, 8 while the verse in Peter refers to our salvation depending on "the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot." Here is sacred ground, and John trod it reverently.
John also explained that Christ was going to baptize believers in the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:5; Luke 3:11; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; 11:16). Some believe He does so now at conversion; others say the Spirit’s baptism was completed in New Testament times. Charles G. Finney received the fulness of the Spirit at conversion; others like D. L. Moody experienced unusual filling subsequent to conversion. The Spirit comes when and "where it listeth" (John 3:8), but when a Christian desires purity enough, and Christ enough, the Spirit is willing to enter such a heart with His priceless gifts.
The forerunner of Christ declared Him to be the Son of God (John 1:34). He did not say a Son of God as some humanists have erroneously done. No; Jesus was unique; He is the only begotten Son (John 3:16); His name and the pronouns for His name deserve to be capitalized. It is dangerous to minimize His deity, even as it is folly to magnify man’s divinity.
This first great friend of Christ rejoiced to herald the coming of the great Bridegroom. "He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled" (John 3:29). John was the Bridegroom’s best man, the best friend, the one who would do his best for the success of this divine wedding. Much later the message is similar, but greater: "Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honor to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready" (Rev. 19:7). "Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb" (Rev. 19:9). Great and marvelous events are before us!
Finally, the Baptist preached the judgment of God, with belief in Christ as the deciding factor. "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him" (John 3:36). Jesus repeated this criterion of judgment in John 5:27, (The Father) "hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man." Here is no room for universalism, or namby-pamby sermonettes, or playing at church, or spineless double talk—all of which would be repulsive to John the Baptist. Any witness for Christ must be true to Him. John was true.
"He that sent me to baptize in water" (John 1:33).
Why baptize at all? Why bother with "ritual baptism" as some have irreverently and erroneously called it? Since baptism is not essential to salvation, why go to the trouble? Is not "open membership" much more convenient for modern churches?
To make Christ manifest is John’s declared reason for baptizing (John 1:31). This is worth a deal of trouble: it is worth bothering oneself about. Christ was hanged on a cross, on Calvary’s hill, exposed to public view where He "endured the cross, despising the shame" (Heb. 12:2). Since Christ was willing to do all that for us, who are we to shun baptism for His sake? If a person would be baptized in order to save his soul, he would be considered sensible for his foresight. But if he refused to be baptized just because he believed it would not be needed to save his soul, he would be selfish and ungrateful. At least, that is the tenor of New Testament teaching. For baptism is an expression of gratitude to Christ Who suffered actual death and burial for our sakes. In the light of Christ’s agony on the cross, why should it be considered difficult to enter a watery grave momentarily for Him? In baptism we make Christ manifest now.
Christ’s greatest work on earth was to atone for our sins on the cross. He said so repeatedly (John 12:27, 32, 33; Mark 9:31; 10:32-34). And Paul summarizes that great work, which he says is the Gospel "by which also ye are saved," in First Corinthians 15:1-4. This Gospel, Paul says, consists of three great facts: the death, the burial, and the resurrection of Christ. These three facts are symbolized, portrayed, pantomimed and exhibited in baptism.
The cross, perhaps, is the best symbol of the Gospel of Christ. It reminds us of how, and upon what, Christ died for us. It is a plus sign on the sky line (C. W. Koller). When anyone receives Christ he adds to his life a Saviour, a Friend, a Guide, a Counselor, an inspiring Example, an Advocate with the Father, and a coming King. This plus sign adds to a believer’s life a clean conscience, an unselfish attitude (theoretically for all nominal Christians, actually for all sincere believers), a generous heart, a soul-winning zeal, and a wholesome love for people. But without the cross, one’s life is a minus sign—it is minus all of these good things.
Our unregenerated hearts are like minus signs -horizontal, worldly, and without God. But then we allow God to cross our wills with His heavenly ways, then His vertical line crosses our horizontal line, giving us the plus sign of the cross. From then on it is "Not as I will, but as Thou wilt." The good ways of heaven cross out the bad ways of earth, all to our advantage.
Excellent as the cross may be as a symbol, it does not portray the resurrection of Christ as well as does baptism. It is not quite as dramatic. Both are needed and both should be used.
John’s baptism not only symbolized the Gospel; it also synthesized the Good News. It tells many great truths in one simple ordinance. Baptism brings together in a few seconds of time the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Baptism combines in one symbol a convert’s belief in Christ’s resurrection on his behalf, his willingness to follow Christ, his humbling of self in the burying of his sins, his desire to live a new life, his desire to be united with Christ, and his belief in his own future resurrection.
Further, John’s baptism immortalizes, or preserves, the Gospel. For in this ordinance the death, burial and resurrection of Christ are seen in every century as clearly as it was seen in the first. Baptism can be observed wherever a little water can be collected, enough to immerse a body. Every believer, in his baptism, helps to perpetuate this memorial, thus keeping it fresh and alive with real meaning. No granite or marble monument could do one-thousandth as well.
If baptism had not been changed, if immersion only had been continued, and if believers only had been baptized, it is almost certain that fewer heresies would have crept into Christendom. For immersion shows to all the world the main truth of the Gospel: Christ died for our sins! Christ rose from the dead! Then salvation is not of works. We are not saved by baptism, but by Christ alone. And since baptism teaches the burial of sinful ways, it teaches clean living. Only God could provide an ordinance with lessons so vital, powerful, meaningful, beautiful and eternal as baptism.
Again, John’s baptism is meant to help evangelize the world. In several places John’s entire work of evangelizing is described in Holy Writ by the one word "baptized." This does not mean that baptizing does the evangelizing, but that baptism represents all the work of evangelism.
John said that God sent him to baptize in water. What John did, all believers should do also. The command is binding until the end of this age (Matthew 28:20). Thus John was our forerunner in showing us how to baptize and how to evangelize. He showed the way; Christ approved that way, and we are obligated to walk in it. The path for every convert leads through the baptistery, following the footsteps of Jesus. No one in the New Testament had a right to detour around baptism, except the repentant thief on the cross. He had no choice as to baptism; others do. He was saved without baptism, exactly as all Christians are saved without it. But having been saved, then baptism is essential to obedience.
"Wisdom is justified of all her children" (Luke 7:35).
Jesus spoke these words at the close of a long section devoted to the importance of John the Baptist (Luke 7:18-35). It suggests commendation of John. "By their fruits ye shall know them" (Matthew 7:20). "Every tree is known by his own fruit" (Luke 6:44). What were some of the fruits, or children, of John the Baptist? What did John produce?
The first Baptist trained some men for Christ so thoroughly that the instant He called them, they left all and followed Him immediately (John 1:35-49; Matthew 4:18-22; 9:9; 10:1-5). These men became strong leaders (Acts 1:15-22), courageous witnesses (Acts 2-12), and the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20-22). While no remaining record shows that John was in the New Testament church, he prepared the first material for it and thus had a large part in its beginnings. And if, as some believe, Christ started the church with the calling of His first two disciples, then one could assume that He would include in His church all those who were obedient to Him. The author of Ecce Homo said, "The Christian Church sprang from a movement that was not begun by Christ." It was necessarily begun by John the Baptist.
John the Baptist "justified God" (Luke 7:29), and led a multitude of people to do likewise. Here wisdom’s children were revealed. For John was the channel of God’s wisdom, and those who believed him were "baptized into Christ" (Rom. 6:3). These converts of John received and assimilated the counsel of God and thereby "justified" Him. The Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God in that they rejected John’s baptism. In these verses Jesus clearly argued the rightness and importance of baptism. Let those who quibble about it resort to Christ’s authority. He made plain the issue.
The first-century Christians were "children" of John in a real sense. He was the first Christian preacher, the first Christian baptizer, and the first teacher of New Testament doctrines. His converts went out and won many other converts, and they in turn won still more. These early Christians held firmly to their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, even as John had taught his own disciples to do.
The first-century churches multiplied in number and spread over the Roman world. While John apparently did not teach church truth as such, yet as a prophet (none greater, Luke 7:28), he was a foundation stone of the church (Eph. 2:20, 21). These churches were united in faith and order more closely than churches have been in any century since. In one sense, then, the only century in which a truly catholic church has ever existed was in the first century. But divisions came all too soon. Rome exercised leadership in the West. As the Roman Empire weakened, and finally fell in 476, the leading bishop of Rome assumed more and more power until Rome claimed to be the seat of the papacy. Leo the Great won increasing power from 440 onward, and some regard him as the first real pope. But by that time several dissenting groups of churches had appeared. In 1054 the Eastern Church, the Greek Orthodox, separated from Rome and this schism has never been healed. Hence, the claims of Rome to be "The Catholic Church" are tar from true. The qualifying adjective "Roman" nullifies the name "Catholic."
Were the first-century believers all Baptists? They were not called that, as far as we know, but since they all believed John’s doctrines they were all Baptistic. This name does not detract one iota from the honored name "Christian" which was first given by pagans (Acts 11:26), next by a pagan king (Acts 26:28), and used only once in the New Testament with its proper honor (1 Pet. 4:16). It seems entirely safe to say that the first-century Christians would consider that honored name an exact synonym for the name Baptist. This is not to slight non-Baptists of later centuries who bear honorable names, but which names were not known in Bible times.
A great ado is currently made about church union, or ecumenicity. (This author wrote his doctoral dissertation on "Ecumenicity in the Light of the New Testament" in 1947). Widely advertised ecumenical councils have been held: Amsterdam. in 1948; Evanston, Illinois, in 1954; and New Delhi in 1961. But with the inclusion of Eastern churches, real union seems more remote than ever, for the differences among them are increased. The Bible basis of unity is "One Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph. 4:5). If all churches really had one Lord, they could more easily have one faith; then with only one faith, one baptism would be enough. Conversely, if all churches had one baptism, then that baptism could point to the one faith, and thus to one Lord. In any case, unity based on the least common denominator of doctrine is hardly worth the vast amount of effort and expense currently expended on it.
The wisdom of John, implanted by the Holy Spirit and nourished by his study of the Scriptures, is seen again in the fact that unspoiled and unprejudiced people believed in him. For John was a popular preacher. His good sense appealed to the masses. His lack of pretense, of pride, and of presumption - so evident in the Pharisees - made him outstanding. And when the Holy Spirit spoke through him, the crowds recognized his wisdom and greatness. Like the early church at Pentecost, he had "favor with all the people."
The many converts of John were all of one mind: they believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. They succeeded in their witness apart from television, radio, newspapers, magazines, books, tracts, quarterlies, telephones, telegraphs, buildings, headquarters, staffs, colleges, or an elaborate hierarchy. All these may serve Christendom well in modern civilization, but they are not all essential. What is essential is that one Christian wins an unbeliever to Christ, and then shows the new convert how to win others. That is what John did.
These first converts of the Baptist may have lacked many mechanical aids but they were rich otherwise. They had Scripture and they had the authority of Scripture in which they believed. They had Christ, love, zeal, power of will, humility, scorn for earthly glory, and disdain for worldly honors. They had the courage of their convictions, all in the face of "religious" opposition. John had taught his "children" well.
What may twentieth-century Christians learn from the wisdom of John? What rewards will follow a return to his methods and message?
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