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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

John’s Preaching of Repentance

William C. Duncan

From The Life, Character and Acts of John the Baptist, 1853

Prepared by God, by whose voice he was at length summoned forth, in quiet solitude for his prophetic calling, endowed with power to perform the duty entrusted to him, and enlightened as far as was necessary to the discharge of the duties of his office, John made his appearance in the neighborhood of the Jordan, where contiguity to large towns and commercial roads would afford him access to great multitudes of people, where his preaching might be farthest extended in influence, and the reputation of his labors be the most noised abroad. According to Matthew, his residence was, ordinarily, that portion of the region round about Jordan which bordered upon the Dead Sea, and from which a steppe stretched away into the land of Judea; whence it is called by that evangelist, "the wilderness of Judea."

Here it was that John first made his public appearance, but his ministry was not long restricted to this particular theatre. He made his way northwardly until lie came into the vicinity of the Jordan, where his opportunities for meeting with hearers were most numerous; and here he prosecuted during his brief career the labors which had been imposed upon him by Jehovah.

It was in the river Jordan that John, as was his custom, was now performing the rite of baptism, "because," as Olshausen says, "the water there, being deep, afforded conveniences for immersion," and not, as some suppose, in a fountain or stream pertaining particularly to the town of Ænon.—Here, at Ænon, the Baptist prosecuted his ministry for a time, but soon after, crossing over into Perea, he was seized by Herod, and cast into prison. That side of the Jordan, therefore, on which he had commenced administering his baptism (John 10:40), was the one on which his labors at length came to a close.

Mark says nothing respecting the time at which John made his public appearance. Matthew connects his narrative of the Baptist with what he says respecting the birth of Christ with the insignificant words, "in those days". Luke alone fixes it by a precise chronological statement. The latter evangelist dates his appearance "in the fifteenth year of Tiberius" (31), who, it is known, succeeded to the administration of the Roman empire in the year 767 of the city Rome (19th of August) and 14 of the Christian era it was, therefore, in the year 29 after Christ, at which time Jesus, if he was really born in the year 4 A.C., must have been 33 years old, and John six months older. It may indeed be that the number of the years of Tiberius' reign is here reckoned from the time he was made co-regent with Augustus, and, in such event, this occurrence must have taken place from two to four years earlier.

There is, however, no decisive ground for this supposition, for it is not at all probable that the reign of Tiberius is dated by Luke farther back than the death of Augustus, who illuminated everything in such a degree by the splendor of his name, that Tiberius would scarcely have been thought worthy of being reckoned the ruler of the empire so long as he was still alive.

Pontius Pilate governed, at this time, as procurator, the land of , for, after the banishment of Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great (Matt. 1 22), his possessions, Judea, Samaria and Idumea, were ruled over by Roman procurators (from 6 A.D.) of whom the fifth was Pontius Pilate. Since this governor, on going to Rome, to plead to an accusation before the emperor, in the tenth year of his office, found Tiberius dead on his arrival at that city (789 A.U.C. and 37 A.D.), he must have been in power about two years at the period when John commenced his public preaching. If, therefore, we suppose Luke to reckon the beginning of Tiberius' administration from his co-regency with Augustus, it would scarcely give time for Pilate to have obtained his government.

This was the time, then, in which, as Luke narrates, John was summoned from his retirement by the Lord, and began to preach publicly "the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins"; that is, he invited the people to receive baptism, in order to show thereby their repentance, and that they might be able to hope for the forgiveness of their sins. In the next section we shall examine with somewhat of minuteness into the meaning of this expression, when we come to a more particular consideration of the baptism of John; while we shall confine ourselves here to the special examination, by way of preliminary, of that one of the two separate and yet intimately connected offices of his ministry which constituted the preparation for the other, viz. the repentance which he required as an indispensable pre-requisite to his baptism.

The subject-matter of the preaching of John is given in Matt. 3:2, in words consonant with the accounts of Mark and Luke: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." By repentance (Greek, literally, a change of mind, or purpose), he evidently meant to imply not merely sorrow and contrition for sins which were past, but also an earnest effort on the part of the repentant to free himself from sin, to obtain another disposition, and to act in accordance with the will of God. The repentance, therefore, which he required, included the effort to acquire a pure heart and a God-fearing disposition, which should evince itself outwardly in good works, and in the attempt to atone for former guilt of conduct by a present contrary practice of virtue.

It is agreed by all lexicographers of eminence that the word "repent", as used by the Baptist as well as by Christ and the Apostles, means much more than it does in ordinary English usage. Meyer in his Commentary (on Matt. 3:2) has the following on the word:

"metanoeite, signifies the change of the moral disposition which was required in order to obtain a share in the Messianic kingdom." De Wette defines still more closely: "sententiam mutate” (change your minds), resipiscite (return to your senses), bessert euch (reform), a technical expression and ruling idea of Christianity, deeper and more comprehensive than the Hebrew nicham, (for which the Septuagint has metanoein) and shuble (which is equivalent to metanoein in Aquilas, ed. quint.), and also more comprehensive than the metanoein of the Apocrypha (Wisdom 5:3, Sirach 17:24); connecting with the idea of a new life."

An examination of all the passages in the New Testament in which this word and its cognate metanoia (translated in the received version by repentance) occur, will show that the verb ought to be rendered in almost every case by reform, and the noun by reformation; for such is most clearly the sense in which the terms are employed by the inspired authors of the New Testament.

That John really comprehended all that is described above under his idea of repentance is made particularly clear by the maxims of conduct which he inculcated upon the several classes of people who came to him, and inquired in what manner they should manifest their repentance (Luke 3 11-14). He had just previously informed them that they should bring forth fruit meet for repentance, that is, that they should exhibit by their mode of life the fruit of their repentance, and they now ask of him, what they must do to meet the conditions of this requirement. John might now have insisted directly upon the necessity of a new disposition, but the principle of love had not yet appeared in the flesh as the model and representative of all races, and the people were yet too much taken up with the merely external to receive any great amount of enlightenment from such a description of the new state of mind which was implied in repentance.

For minds such as theirs, which, as is evinced even by their question, could comprehend nothing beyond the outward and what occurred before their eyes, the outward had to be brought prominently forward. Not because the essence of holiness and righteousness consisted therein, but because it was only by these single cases, as by examples, that it could be shown to them in what manner they were on all occasions to conduct themselves, in order that, by means of the outward expression of the disposition which they wished to obtain. That is, by their actions, they might gradually come to a knowledge of the disposition itself, and, forming themselves inwardly from without, finally make it their own.

We perceive, therefore, that John adopted that same wise proceeding, the only one in fact which was adapted to the stand-point of the people,—which Christ put into operation in his sermon on the mount, when he exhibited to men an example of a perfect pious action as a mirror, in order that they might by looking in it perceive the contrast made by their own conduct, and that, in the effort to conform to this model instituted by him, they might appropriate to themselves also the disposition from which those good works flow.

As Christ did there, so did John here exhibit in the most natural manner unto each individual among his hearers the precise contrast to the vice which. he most frequently practised and which was most deeply rooted in his affections.—Thus, he impressed it as a duty upon the people at large, the most of whom were either Pharisees or Sadducees, whose selfishness exhibited itself most prominently in covetousness and want of benevolence (for they only gave the alms prescribed by the law), that they should continually communicate to the necessitous a portion of their possessions and property, if they were not compelled to use it for the supply of their own necessities.

To the tax-gatherers (i.e. publicans) who were continually guilty of committing the greatest injustice and extortion, he assigned it as their duty that they should take no more from the people than was right and appointed by law. He commanded the Roman soldiers, on the other hand, who allowed themselves to be guilty of every kind of oppression and annoyance towards a subjugated people, to do violence to no man and to oppress none, to be satisfied with their pay and not to be covetous of more.

Thus John understood how to adapt to the stand-point of every one, in a manner intelligible to each, that great and simple command, "thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself;" and, if each one had only struggled with serious earnestness against his cherished sin, he would without doubt have attained to the right disposition, and this would in every case have produced in each an apprehension of the right and the true.

John, however, not only required the nation in general to repent, or, as we have seen that he implied under the idea of repentance, to produce the righteous fruits which belong to its exercise, but he also assigned, as the true inducement to its fulfillment, the reason why it was so particularly necessary to repent; "for," said he, "the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

The appellation "kingdom of heaven" is found only in Matthew, though we read in II Tim. 4:18. "the heavenly kingdom," a wording entirely correspondent in sense, though not in form. Elsewhere in the New Testament, and also in Matthew, the same idea is given by other equivalent expressions, "kingdom of God" (Mark 1:14, and elsewhere), "kingdom of Christ" (Matt. 13:41, 20:21, Rev. 1:9), "kingdom of Christ and God" (Eph. 5:5), and "kingdom of David" (Mark 11:10). The idea conveyed by these different forms of expression is one and the same, the divine spiritual kingdom, the reign of the Messiah

What then did John understand by the phrase "the kingdom of heaven"? A heavenly kingdom had already been founded by means of the old covenant made with the patriarchs of the Jewish people, which had subsequently been renewed, confirmed and more firmly grounded upon the basis of the Old Testament with the people in the time of Moses in which kingdom God ruled unlimited as the absolute sovereign of the Israelitish nation by means of his organs and representatives. But this divine kingdom was, and from its nature could only be, imperfect.

The laws of God were frequently broken through the hard-heartedness and worldly inclination of the people. Those who should have been his organs were but too often only the instruments of sin; disturbances and revolts of the whole nation from their heavenly king but too frequently occurred. And if this defection did not display itself outwardly and universally, it was exhibited so much the more by individuals among the nation and showed itself in thoughts and actions which were enlisted in the service of sin rather than in that of the divine sovereign. The kingdom of God, therefore, had never appeared in its full perfection; and the observant must soon have become conscious of the difference between what it actually was and what it should have been.

A new epoch, accordingly, had to be introduced by a new act of the divine power, such an epoch as had been long since announced in the promises of the Old Testament, and had been earnestly looked for by all believers in which a separation was to be made in the multitude who now boasted themselves in their appellation of "people of God," and only the true servants of God were to be chosen as the citizens of the kingdom, while the rest were to be rejected, when God should, by means of an instrument truly correspondent to its vocation, rule over this new kingdom, which, on its part, should never more be subjected to change and degeneracy by sin working from within, or from enemies attacking from without. In a word, when all the precious promises respecting a happy, untroubled life and uninterrupted enjoyment should be fulfilled in the utmost measure, so that for the members of this kingdom heaven should in truth have descended to earth.

Since John and a, few of his contemporaries,—each of whom, however, hoped for the satisfaction of his own individual, and often not very pure, wishes, from the entrance of this heavenly kingdom,—recognized the fact that this celestial reign was to be one thoroughly spiritual; so did he, still further, recognize the additional fact, that entrance into it would be allowed only to those who turned in repentance unto God; and therefore he proposed repentance as the chief and fundamental condition of participation in its enjoyments.

Just as clearly did he perceive that unrepentant and obdurate sinners would become obnoxious to divine punishment on the coming of this new kingdom (although, as we further see, he conceived of this punishment, in a manner not accordant with the truth, as connected externally with the appearance of the Messiah; compare, on the other hand, the words of Christ, John 3:13, 19); and, in order to exhibit this more intelligibly to the people, he makes use of the two similes, or comparisons, which we have recorded in Matt. 3 :10, and 12, and in Luke 3 :9, and 17.

He likens the people to trees, which, by the nature of their fruit, it being either good or bad, enable us to tell whether they are also inwardly pure and healthy, or not, and says: "The trees which bring forth unsound fruit, —therefore the men whose actions evince the impurity of their minds,—shall be destroyed and burnt; and, in truth, the axe now lieth at their root, therefore their judgment is near at hand, and in a short time they shall receive their punishment."

The second representation (3: 17) is that of a farmer, who throws up against the wind, with his winnowing-shovel, the corn which has been threshed upon the threshing-floor, in the open air, and thereby causes the chaff to be carried away by the wind, and the pure heavy corn to fall to the ground; who then collects together the pure corn and brings it into his granary, but burns the chaff. So also will Christ do. He will make a separation between the true wheat, the valuable and useful corn, the children of God, and the chaff, the valueless sons of the world and of vanity. The true wheat will he collect into barns, therefore will claim it as his property and under his protection, but he will burn the chaff with un-quenchable fire, which is meant, perhaps, to express the large amount of the matter collected and the long duration of the punishment, as well as the complete destruction of sinners.

The "floor" here spoken of is what is technically called a threshing-floor, a circular space in the open air, the ground of which has been leveled and beaten hard. On this the grain was deposited, and, in the time of our Saviour threshed either by the hoofs of oxen or by machines drawn by oxen. Here, it is most probable, the term threshing-floor is used briefly to denote the grain that lay upon it, as in Ruth 3:2, Job 39:12.—The "chaff" here mentioned, is not merely such in its narrow sense, but includes also the broken straw, or stubble, which was left after the operation of winnowing had been completed. This in Palestine was used for fuel.

From these expressions of John, it seems clear that he conceived of the judgment as something external which was to make its appearance on the coming of the Messiah that he, therefore, thought that the Messiah himself was to come as the judge (cp. on the other hand, John. 3:17). And, since he could not do this without considering the founder of the new kingdom not merely a spiritual but also an earthly, worldly, lord and ruler, he was accustomed to picture to himself the new kingdom as also worldly and earthly, though resting upon a truly spiritual foundation.

Neander, in his Life of Jesus, develops in his usual felicitous manner the conception which the Baptist entertained respecting the calling and work of the Messiah and the nature of his kingdom:

"He contradicts the notion so prevalent among the Jews that all the descendants of Abraham who outwardly observed the religion of their fathers would be taken into the Messiah's kingdom, while his heavy judgments would fall upon the pagans alone. On the contrary, he maintains the necessity, for all who would enter that kingdom, of a moral new birth, which he sets forth to them by the spirit-baptism; and proclaims, as a necessary preparation for this new birth, a consciousness of sin and longing to be free from it; all which is implied in the word vietanoia (reformation), when stated as the necessary condition of obtaining the promised baptism of the Spirit.

“He expects this kingdom to be visible; but yet conceives it as purely spiritual, as a community filled and inspired by the Spirit of God, and existing in communion of the divine life, with the Messiah as its visible King; so that, what had not been the case before, the theocracy and its manifestation should precisely correspond to each other. He has already a presentiment that the willing among the pagans will be incorporated into the kingdom in place of the unworthy Jews who shall be excluded. The appearance of the Messiah will cause a sifting of the theocratic people.

“This pre-supposes that he will not overturn all enemies and set up his kingdom at once by the miraculous power of God, but will manifest himself in such a form that those whose hearts are prepared for his coming will recognize him as the Messiah, while those of ungodly minds will deny and oppose him. On the one hand, a community of the righteous will gather around him of their own accord; and, on the other, the enmity of the corrupt multitude will be called forth and organized. The Messiah must do battle with the universal corruption, and, after the strife has separated the wicked members of the theocratic nation from the good, will come forth victorious, and glorify the purified people of God under his own reign."

In the expectation of the near approach of the judgment John addressed the multitude which had resorted to him, the most of whom consisted, according to Matt. 3:7, of Pharisees and Sadducees, and who, therefore, had, doubtless, come to the pious man in an unholy and unrepentant frame of mind, and threatened them with punishment:  “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" That is, who hath persuaded you, you so holy and pure a people in your own estimation, to flee from the approaching wrath of God, and that you should come to baptism in order to evince your repentant disposition?

He hints to them here with strong and bitter irony the real intention which they had in professing repentance and consequently in submitting to baptism; for they; as we shall see hereafter, were for the most part by no means of a repentant mind (cp. Luke 1: 30), and John penetrated at once their real design in presenting themselves to him for baptism. Since they were in his presence, however, the Baptist treats them as persons who had come to him in all sincerity, and proceeds with holy seriousness, "If you would really flee from the judgment, act as a sincere change of disposition requires, and suffer not yourselves to be led away by the thought ‘we have Abraham for our father’ and are therefore freed from all liability to punishment, and are of right citizens of the new kingdom."

This was a customary boast of the Jews, the bulwark behind which they always entrenched themselves, that, in consequence of their bodily descent from Abraham, God must of necessity be gracious unto them, and bestow upon them in preference to all, if not on them alone, all the blessings which they, in their earthly misconceptions of the prophetic promises, expected from the appearance of the Messianic kingdom. The falseness of this idea, however, was evident to those who entertained the true view of the moral nature of this kingdom and of the repentance which formed its ground-work. Such a more correct insight into its real nature not only John possessed, but, as we have seen in a former section, many others, as Simeon, among the nobler-minded and more advanced of his people.

"This descent," says John is manner of speaking, "is of no advantage; it is and can be at most, only fleshly, and unaccompanied by a right disposition has no worth. God could make these stones which lie around, children of Abraham as truly as you are, viz., in respect to real character, not as to physical creation. His power is unlimited; he is not bound to adhere to the fleshly descendants of Abraham, but if you are not worthy, he is at liberty to choose from among other people the heirs of the promises made to Abraham. A total change of disposition can alone make you partakers once more of the lost heritage, and protect you from the anger of God; and indeed it is high time to make this change, for the judgment is already at your doors."

Such is the course of thought in this speech of John's, which we find in nearly the same words in Matt. 3:1-10, and Luke 3:7-9. The apparent discrepancies which exist here between the narratives of Matthew and Luke are easily harmonized. Luke represents the address of John as directed to the people at large, the multitude that came out to hear his preaching; and it is entirely appropriate as so addressed, for the majority of them, being Pharisees, rejected the counsel of the Baptist, as we learn from Luke 7:30 (coll. Matt. 21:32, and 11:16).

This evangelist, however, evidently speaks generally, not intending to denote the particular classes to whom John's discourse was specially addressed, just as we would say, in popular language (and such is the language of the Scriptures), "he denounced the assembly," when in fact we mean, and are understood as meaning, that he denounced only a particular class of persons present in the assembly. Matthew speaks more definitely, representing the discourse as addressed in particular to the Pharisees and Sadducees; and such, no doubt, was the fact. Both accounts, therefore, are correct; but Luke's is the more general—Matthew's the more specific—yet are we not to conclude from these representations that no Pharisees or Sadducees believed in and were baptized by John.

From this discourse of John's we may form a pretty clear idea of the manner and scope of his preaching. Upright, repentant hearts he attempted to lead upward to a more perfect purity, and to a struggling with their cherished sins, by pointing them to the near approach of the heavenly kingdom, the citizens of which all pious souls were destined to be. The obdurate, on the other hand, and the haughty he sought to crush with the whole power of his pious earnestness, to represent them in their nakedness and sinfulness, to terrify them with the threatening of that fearful punishment by which they were shortly to be overtaken, to remove from beneath them the props of their confidence, which were founded on human wisdom, and so, perhaps, by the might of his word to subdue sinners that were not yet totally hardened and callous, and bring them with anxious sorrow to repentance.