And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who are you?…
I. THE DEPUTATION'S QUESTION. "Who art thou?" This implies:
1. That a spirit of inquiry trod been awakened. Whether from curiosity, officialism, or jealousy, it was there. It is better to be questioned from any motive than not to be questioned at all. It is better for the questioners themselves. That is a very dull age or person that asks no questions. Asking is the condition of receiving. It is better for the one questioned, especially if he be a public man - a teacher with a truth, or a herald with a message. It proves that his presence and efforts awake attention. This was the case with the Baptist now. It gladdened his heart that a deputation came and questioned him. It proved that his voice had begun to stir the land and awake the spirit of inquiry.
2. That there was a prevalent expectation at the time for the appearance of a great personage. Some expecting the Messiah, some Elijah, some the prophet, and all expecting some great one to appear. Time somehow had reached its fulness; it had been in travail for some time, and a birth was naturally expected. Ancient prophecy also nursed the expectation, and there was a deeply felt need for the fulfilment and for the appearance of a Deliverer. There is a close connection between want and expectation, and between both and inquiry. So that when the Baptist began to burn in the wilderness, the spirit of the age soon caught the flame, and the country was ablaze with inquiry from different motives.
3. A high compliment is paid to John and his ministry, whether meant or not. Especially by the first form of the inquiry, "Art thou the Christ?" No one would ask a taper, "Art thou the sun?" but one would be tempted to ask the question of the moon or the morning star. John would doubtless be satisfied with the simple question, "Who art thou?" and drop it there and listen to the reply; for how many come and go and act on the stage of time without exciting the simple question, "Who art thou?" But John succeeded soon in eliciting this question, not from the thoughtless crowd, but from the mental and moral princes of the nation, and they ask him, "Art thou the Christ?" John was such a shining light that it was pardonable to mistake him for a moment for the Light of the world. The herald partook so much of the majesty of the coming King that it was natural to suspect that he might be the King himself. All this was befitting and natural.
4. Great persistency and demand in their inquiry. They ask in every shape and form, and ask again and again; and in this they are worthy of imitation by all inquirers for truth. If your first question fails, ask again and again. How many have not been admitted to the temple of truth and the heaven of life because they only timidly knocked at the door once and then ran away! But this deputation were persistent and demanding. And in this they were neither wrong, intrusive, nor unwelcome. The ministry of John was such as to deserve and demand inquiry. The public had a right to demand his testimonials, and he was ready to furnish them. Truth suffers not by inquiry, but gains. This inquiry in its persistency and demand was as pleasing to John as it ought to be profitable to the deputation.
5. The inquiry is made of the proper party. Many ask for information everywhere but where they are likely to get it. They try to gather knowledge of a person of everybody but of the person himself. They try to find a risen Saviour in an empty grave, find the stars in the day, and the sun in the night. But this deputation act wisely and intelligently in their search for knowledge concerning John by coming to John himself, and asking him, "Who art thou?" And who was so likely to know and. reply? If you want water, go to the fountain. If you want to know something about the rose, do not go to the oak or even the lily, but go to the rose itself; look at its delicate beauty, and inhale its sweet perfume, if you want truth, go to him who is the Truth. Do not accept things at second hand when you can get them new and fresh. So far as the formality of this inquiry goes, it is wise and intelligent.
II. JOHN'S ANSWER. Negatively. To the form of the inquiry which implied that he might be the Christ, Elijah, or the prophet, he gave a firm denial. This proves his strict honesty as an herald. The temptation would be too strong for an impostor or an ambitious upstart; he would likely reply affirmatively or evasively. These are questions which no one but John had to answer. His position was unique. He had strong individuality and transparent honesty. He would be no other than himself. His only ambition was to occupy his own place, and work out his own mission in life. Affirmatively. He was glad to deny in order to affirm; to say something about himself in order to introduce the great subject of his mission - the coming Messiah. He refers to himself as a subject of ancient prophecy, and therefore a divinely appointed herald (Isaiah 40.). "Now, I am that voice." We have here:
1. The import of his mission. "Make straight the way of the Lord." This implies:
(1) That the Lord was coming. He was coming in his Son - their long expected Messiah. He was close at hand; in fact, in their midst, although they knew him not.
(2) That his way had become crooked. The way of the Lord, as opened by himself through Moses, was straight, leading directly to the Messiah; but they had made it crooked and uneven with their traditions and wicked conduct.
(3) That it should be immediately straightened. This was their solemn duty, and this they were called to do by suitable preparation - by repentance, by a radical reformation and inward cleansing. The King was at hand, and the way should be worthy of the distinguished traveller. Let every barrier to the progress of his chariot be removed; and, that his march may be triumphant and men be blessed, his way should be straightened.
2. His characteristics as a messenger. In addition to those indicated, we have:
(1) Mysteriousness. "The voice." He was a mystery to himself as well as to others. Born and bred in the desert, holding closer communion with heaven than with earth, with God than with men, with ancient prophets and seers than with his own family, having dreams from early youth of a Divine mission which suddenly burst out into a voice like a peal of thunder upon the wilderness, people listened, wondered, and were stirred to inquiry; and in this whirlwind of excitement he was half a mystery to himself as well as to others.
(2) Self-obliviousness and devotion to his mission. As if he were to say, "You have suspected me of being the Christ, Elijah, or the prophet: I am neither, only the voice of one crying," etc. The voice is that of some one; but never mind that some one, but attend to the voice and its contents: "your Messiah is in it." With John it was not the messenger, but the mission; not the herald, but the coming King. And it should ever be so. The minister is but the voice - the herald of the King, the aural expression of Divine thought, to be heard rather than seen.
(3) There is a striking adaptation. His work was crying, and he was the voice. He was a herald with a Divine message, and he bad a voice to publish it. We should not grumble because we have not some gifts, if we have the necessary gifts for our special calling; if we have not, we have made a mistake. When our land was a moral wilderness, God's old pioneering heralds had voices like thunder. How the wilderness to a great extent is transformed into a garden, and the voice becomes naturally more suppressed. The Baptist was a special herald with a special message in the world's wilderness, and he had a voice like a trumpet.
(4) Awful loneliness. "The voice of one crying in the wilderness." Here is a vast wilderness, and only one crying in it. John was literally so, and morally to a greater extent. He had scarcely any one to sympathize with him, no responsive voice but the echo of his, no inspiration but that from within and from above. The Messiah he heralded was personally unknown to him. Great reformations have commenced with a few - with one - and that one alone bearing a lonely torch through a scene of dense darkness. Let those who labour almost alone in foreign lands remember the lonely crier of the Judaean wilderness, the sources of his inspiration, and the ultimate results.
(5) Terrible earnestness. "The voice of one crying." Not moaning, or muttering, or whispering, but crying. John was terribly earnest. His message burned like fire in his soul, quivered on his lips, and thundered forth in his voice. His whole being was merged into speech - his head and feet, his face, his eyes, especially his trumpet voice, and even his strange garment spoke; so that he could not give a better account of himself than by saying, "I am the voice." He almost felt all voice. And it should ever be so. The observer should be all eyes, the listener all ears, but the herald all voice. Let the preacher be all mind in the study, but all voice in the pulpit.
(6) Great power and effect. There is a great power in a voice, even the mere sound of material forces - the peals of the thunder, the sweeping blast of the storm, the mighty tones of the ocean, or the terrible roar of the cataract; but what is all this sound to the human voice in its various cadences and modulations, as the expression of thought, the flaming chariot of passion and enthusiasm, and the stately vehicle of intelligence? In the thunder and the storm matter only speaks; but in the human voice mind speaks; and in that of a Divine herald God himself speaks. So that in the voice of John could be heard the want of the world and the will of God. The thunder is not much without the lightning. The Baptist had a message of lightning and a voice of thunder, so that it was very powerful and effective. Its first notes were stern and terrible as he came in contact with the awful hypocrisy, infidelity, and vice of the age. Then his voice burst forth into thunders of invective and whirlwinds of condemnation, "O generation of vipers," etc.! But towards the close of his ministry his voice grew more tender and mellow, so that we cannot imagine even the stern Baptist's voice to be otherwise than soft and musical as he uttered the words, the climax of his ministry, "Behold the Lamb," etc.! The ministry of John terrified and charmed, stirred society to its very core, answered its purposes, and drove all nearer to or further from God.
(7) Evanescence. "I am the voice," etc. Notice the difference between the description of Christ and that of John. One is the "Word," abiding and permanent; the other is the "voice," transient and evaporating. John and his ministry were the voice - like the report of a cannon, soon to die away, but not before the shot is sent home. John's voice was soon hushed, but hushed in the music of fulfilment, and in the sweeter voice of the already present King.
1. Many inquire while they ought to know. This deputation and those that sent them were masters in Israel, and ought to know the coming of their Lord and Messiah.
2. Many inquire in proper form, but in a wrong spirit. This deputation were outwardly proper, but inwardly hollow and insincere.
3. Many inquirers at first raise high hopes, but they are soon blighted. Doubtless John at first was elated with such a respectable and apparently genuine deputation; but his hopes were soon blighted by the hoar frost of bigotry and pride. It came to nothing, at least with regard to the majority of them.
4. The faithful herald should publish his message irrespective of consequences, treat all with respect, answer questions. Some may benefit by others failures, and drink the water drawn but left by some one else. - B.T.
Parallel VersesKJV: And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou?