Chapter 10 | Table
of Contents | Chapter 12
The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah
FROM THE MANGER IN BETHLEHEM TO THE BAPTISM IN
IN THE FIFTEENTH YEAR OF TIBERIUS CAESAR AND
UNDER THE PONTIFICATE OF ANNAS AND CAIAPHAS
A VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS
(St. Matthew 3:1-12; St. Mark 1:2-8; St.
THERE is something grand, even awful, in the almost absolute
silence which lies upon the thirty years between the Birth and the first
Messianic Manifestation of Jesus. In a narrative like that of the Gospels, this
must have been designed; and, if so, affords presumptive evidence of the
authenticity of what follows, and is intended to teach, that what had preceded
concerned only the inner History of Jesus, and the preparation of the Christ.
At last that solemn silence was broken by an appearance, a proclamation, a
rite, and a ministry as startling as that of Elijah had been. In many respects,
indeed, the two messengers and their times bore singular likeness. It was to a
society secure, prosperous, and luxurious, yet in imminent danger of perishing
from hidden, festering disease; and to a religious community which presented
the appearance of hopeless perversion, and yet contained the germs of a
possible regeneration, that both Elijah and John the Baptist came. Both
suddenly appeared to threaten terrible judgment, but also to open unthought-of
possibilities of good. And, as if to deepen still more the impression of this
contrast, both appeared in a manner unexpected, and even antithetic to the
habits of their contemporaries. John came suddenly out of the wilderness of
Judæa, as Elijah from the wilds of Gilead; John bore the same strange ascetic
appearance as his predecessor; the message of John was the counterpart of that
of Elijah; his baptism that of Elijah's novel rite on Mount Carmel. And, as if
to make complete the parallelism, with all of memory and hope which it
awakened, even the more minute details surrounding the life of Elijah found
their counterpart in that of John. Yet history never repeats itself. It fulfils
in its development that of which it gave indication at its commencement. Thus,
the history of John the Baptist was the fulfilment of that of Elijah in 'the
fulness of time.'
For, alike in the Roman world and in Palestine, the time had
fully come; not, indeed, in the sense of any special expectancy, but of
absolute need. The reign of Augustus marked, not only the climax, but the
crisis, of Roman history. Whatever of good or of evil the ancient world
contained, had become fully ripe. As regarded politics, philosophy, religion,
and society, the utmost limits had been reached.1
Beyond them lay, as only alternatives, ruin or regeneration. It was felt that
the boundaries of the Empire could be no further extended, and that henceforth
the highest aim must be to preserve what had been conquered. The destinies of
Rome were in the hands of one man, who was at the same time general-in-chief of
a standing army of about three hundred and forty thousand men, head of a Senate
(now sunk into a mere court for registering the commands of Cæsar), and
High-Priest of a religion, of which the highest expression was the apotheosis
of the State in the person of the Emperor. Thus, all power within, without, and
above lay in his hands. Within the city, which in one short reign was
transformed from brick into marble, were, side by side, the most abject misery
and almost boundless luxury. Of a population of about two millions, well-nigh
one half were slaves; and, of the rest, the greater part either freedmen and
their descendants, or foreigners. Each class contributed its share to the
common decay. Slavery was not even what we know it, but a seething mass of
cruelty and oppression on the one side, and of cunning and corruption on the
other. More than any other cause, it contributed to the ruin of Roman society.
The freedmen, who had very often acquired their liberty by the most
disreputable courses, and had prospered in them, combined in shameless manner
the vices of the free with the vileness of the slave. The foreigners - especially
Greeks and Syrians - who crowded the city, poisoned the springs of its life by
the corruption which they brought. The free citizens were idle, dissipated,
sunken; their chief thoughts of the theatre and the arena; and they were mostly
supported at the public cost. While, even in the time of Augustus, more than
two hundred thousand persons were thus maintained by the State, what of the old
Roman stock remained was rapidly decaying, partly from corruption, but chiefly
from the increasing cessation of marriage, and the nameless abominations of
what remained of family-life.
1. Instead of detailed quotations I would here generally refer to works on Roman history, especially to Friedländer's Sittengeschichte Roms, and to Döllinger's
exhaustive work, Heidenthum and Judenthum.
The state of the provinces was in every respect more
favourable. But it was the settled policy of the Empire, which only too surely
succeeded, to destroy all separate nationalities, or rather to absorb and to
Grecianise all. The only real resistance came from the Jews. Their tenacity was
religious, and, even in its extreme of intolerant exclusiveness, served a most
important Providential purpose. And so Rome became to all the centre of attraction,
but also of fast-spreading destructive corruption. Yet this unity also, and the
common bond of the Greek language, served another important Providential
purpose. So did, in another direction, the conscious despair of any possible
internal reformation. This, indeed, seemed the last word of all the
institutions in the Roman world: It is not in me! Religion, philosophy, and
society had passed through every stage, to that of despair. Without tracing the
various phases of ancient thought, it may be generally said that, in Rome at
least, the issue lay between Stoicism and Epicureanism. The one flattered its
pride, the other gratified its sensuality; the one was in accordance with the
original national character, the other with its later decay and corruption.
Both ultimately led to atheism and despair - the one, by turning all higher
aspirations self-ward, the other, by quenching them in the enjoyment of the
moment; the one, by making the extinction of all feeling and self-deification,
the other, the indulgence of every passion and the worship of matter, its
That, under such conditions, all real belief in a personal
continuance after death must have ceased among the educated classes, needs not
demonstration. If the older Stoics held that, after death, the soul would
continue for some time a separate existence - in the case of sages till the
general destruction of the world by fire, it was the doctrine of most of their
successors that, immediately after death, the soul returned into 'the world-soul'
of which it was part. But even this hope was beset by so many doubts and
misgivings, as to make it practically without influence or comfort. Cicero was
the only one who, following Plato, defended the immortality of the soul, while
the Peripatetics denied the existence of a soul, and leading Stoics at least
its continuance after death. But even Cicero writes as one overwhelmed by
doubts. With his contemporaries this doubt deepened into absolute despair, the
only comfort lying in present indulgence of the passions. Even among the
Greeks, who were most tenacious of belief in the non-extinction of the
individual, the practical upshot was the same. The only healthier tendency,
however mixed with error, came from the Neo-Platonic School, which accordingly
offered a point of contact between ancient philosophy and the new faith.
In such circumstances, anything like real religion was
manifestly impossible. Rome tolerated, and, indeed, incorporated, all national
rites. But among the populace religion had degenerated into abject
superstition. In the East, much of it consisted of the vilest rites; while,
among the philosophers, all religions were considered equally false or equally
true - the outcome of ignorance, or else the unconscious modifications of some
one fundamental thought. The only religion on which the State insisted was the
deification and worship of the Emperor.2
These apotheoses attained almost incredible development. Soon not only the
Emperors, but their wives, paramours, children, and the creatures of their
vilest lusts, were deified; nay, any private person might attain that
distinction, if the survivors possessed sufficient means.3
Mingled with all this was an increasing amount of superstition - by which term
some understood the worship of foreign gods, the most part the existence of
fear in religion. The ancient Roman religion had long given place to foreign
rites, the more mysterious and unintelligible the more enticing. It was thus
that Judaism made its converts in Rome; its chief recommendation with many
being its contrast to the old, and the unknown possibilities which its
seemingly incredible doctrines opened. Among the most repulsive symptoms of the
general religious decay may be reckoned prayers for the death of a rich
relative, or even for the satisfaction of unnatural lusts, along with horrible
blasphemies when such prayers remained unanswered. We may here contrast the
spirit of the Old and New Testaments with such sentiments as this, on the tomb
of a child: 'To the unjust gods who robbed me of life;' or on that of a girl of
twenty: 'I lift my hands against the god who took me away, innocent as I am.'
2. The only thorough resistance to this worship came from hated Judæa, and, we may add, from Britain (Döllinger, p. 611).
3. From the time of Cæsar to that of Diocletian, fifty-three such apotheoses took
place, including those of fifteen women belonging to the Imperial families.
It would be unsavoury to describe how far the worship of
indecency was carried; how public morals were corrupted by the mimic
representations of everything that was vile, and even by the pandering of a
corrupt art. The personation of gods, oracles, divination, dreams, astrology,
magic, necromancy, and theurgy,4
all contributed to the general decay. It has been rightly said, that the idea
of conscience, as we understand it, was unknown to heathenism. Absolute right
did not exist. Might was right. The social relations exhibited, if possible,
even deeper corruption. The sanctity of marriage had ceased. Female dissipation
and the general dissoluteness led at last to an almost entire cessation of
marriage. Abortion, and the exposure and murder of newly-born children, were
common and tolerated; unnatural vices, which even the greatest philosophers
practised, if not advocated, attained proportions which defy description.
4. One of the most painful, and to the Christian almost incredible, manifestations of
religious decay was the unblushing manner in which the priests practised
imposture upon the people. Numerous and terrible instances of this could be given. The evidence of this is not only derived from the Fathers, but a work has been preserved in which formal instructions are given, how temples and altars are to be constructed in order to produce false miracles, and by what
means impostures of this kind may be successfully practised. (Comp. 'The
Pneumatics of Hero,' translated by B. Woodcroft.) The worst was, that this kind of
imposture on the ignorant populace was openly approved by the educated. (Döllinger, p. 647.)
But among these sad signs of the times three must be specially
mentioned: the treatment of slaves; the bearing towards the poor; and public
amusements. The slave was entirely unprotected; males and females were exposed
to nameless cruelties, compared to which death by being thrown to the wild
beasts, or fighting in the arena, might seem absolute relief. Sick or old
slaves were cast out to perish from want. But what the influence of the slaves
must have been on the free population, and especially upon the young - whose
tutors they generally were - may readily be imagined. The heartlessness towards
the poor who crowded the city is another well-known feature of ancient Roman
society. Of course, there was neither hospitals, nor provision for the poor;
charity and brotherly love in their every manifestation are purely Old and New
Testament ideas. But even bestowal of the smallest alms on the needy was
regarded as very questionable; best, not to afford them the means of
protracting a useless existence. Lastly, the account which Seneca has to give
of what occupied and amused the idle multitude - for all manual labour, except
agriculture, was looked upon with utmost contempt - horrified even himself. And
so the only escape which remained for the philosopher, the satiated, or the
miserable, seemed the power of self-destruction! What is worse, the noblest
spirits of the time of self-destruction! What is worse, the noblest spirits of
the time felt, that the state of things was utterly hopeless. Society could not
reform itself; philosophy and religion had nothing to offer: they had been
tried and found wanting. Seneca longed for some hand from without to lift up
from the mire of despair; Cicero pictured the enthusiasm which would greet the
embodiment of true virtue, should it ever appear on earth; Tacitus declared
human life one great farce, and expressed his conviction that the Roman world
lay under some terrible curse. All around, despair, conscious need, and
unconscious longing. Can greater contrast be imagined, than the proclamation of
a coming Kingdom of God amid such a world; or clearer evidence be afforded of
the reality of this Divine message, than that it came to seek and to save that
which was thus lost? One synchronism, as remarkable as that of the Star in the
East and the Birth of the Messiah, here claims the reverent attention of the
student of history. On the 19th of December a.d.
69, the Roman Capitol, with its ancient sanctuaries, was set on fire. Eight
months later, on the 9th of Ab a.d.
70, the Temple of Jerusalem was given to the flames. It is not a coincidence
but a conjunction, for upon the ruins of heathenism and of apostate Judaism was
the Church of Christ to be reared.
A silence, even more complete than that concerning the early
life of Jesus, rests on the thirty years and more, which intervened between the
birth and the open forthshowing5
of John in his character as Forerunner of the Messiah. Only his outward and
inward development, and his being 'in the deserts,'6
are briefly indicated.7
The latter, assuredly, not in order to learn from the Essenes,8
but to attain really, in lonely fellowship with God, what they sought
externally. It is characteristic that, while Jesus could go straight from the
home and workshop of Nazareth to the Baptism of Jordan, His Forerunner required
so long and peculiar preparation: characteristic of the difference of their
Persons and Mission, characteristic also of the greatness of the work to be
inaugurated. St. Luke furnishes precise notices of the time of the Baptist's
public appearance - not merely to fix the exact chronology, which would not
have required so many details, but for a higher purpose. For, they indicate,
more clearly than the most elaborate discussion, the fitness of the moment for
the Advent of 'the Kingdom of Heaven.' For the first time since the Babylonish
Captivity, the foreigner, the Chief of the hated Roman Empire - according to
the Rabbis, the fourth beast of Daniel's vision9
- was absolute and undisputed master of Judæa; and the chief religious office
divided between two, equally unworthy of its functions. And it deserves, at
least, notice, that of the Rulers mentioned by St. Luke, Pilate entered on his
shortly before the public appearance of John, and that they all continued till
after the Crucifixion of Christ. There was thus, so to speak, a continuity of
these powers during the whole Messianic period.
5. This seems the full meaning of the word, St. Luke i. 80. Comp. Acts i. 24 (in the A. V. 'shew').
6. The plural indicates that St. John was not always in the same 'wilderness.' The
plural form in regard to the 'wilderness which are in the land of Israel,' is common in Rabbinic writings (comp. Baba K. vii. 7 and the Gemaras on the passage). On the fulfilment by the Baptist of Is. xl. 3, see the discussion of
that passage in Appendix XI.
7. St. Luke i. 80.
8. Godet has, in a few forcible sentences, traced what may be called not merely the difference, but the contrast between the teaching and aims of the Essenes and those of John.
9. Ab.Zar.2 b.
10. Probably about Easter, 26 a.d.
As regards Palestine, the ancient kingdom of Herod was now
divided into four parts, Judæa being under the direct administration of Rome,
two other tetrarchies under the rule of Herod's sons (Herod Antipas and
Philip), while the small principality of Abilene was governed by Lysanias.11
Of the latter no details can be furnished, nor are they necessary in this
history. It is otherwise as regards the sons of Herod, and especially the
character of the Roman government at that time.
11. Till quite lately, those who impugn the veracity of the Gospels - Strauss,
and even Keim - have pointed to this notice of Lysanias as an instance of the unhistorical character of St. Luke's Gospel. But it is now admitted on all
hands that the notice of St. Luke is strictly correct; and that, besides the other Lysanias, one of the same name had reigned over Abilene at the time of Christ. Comp. Wieseler, Beitr. pp. 196-204, and Schürer in Riehm's
Handwörterb, p. 931.
Herod Antipas, whose rule extended over forty-three years,
reigned over Galilee and Peræa - the districts which were respectively the
principal sphere of the Ministry of Jesus and of John the Baptist. Like his
brother Archelaus, Herod Antipas possessed in an even aggravated form most of
the vices, without any of the greater qualities, of his father. Of deeper
religious feelings or convictions he was entirely destitute, though his
conscience occasionally misgrave, if it did not restrain, him. The inherent
weakness of his character left him in the absolute control of his wife, to the
final ruin of his fortunes. He was covetous, avaricious, luxurious, and utterly dissipated
suspicious, and with a good deal of that fox-cunning which, especially in the
East, often forms the sum total of state-craft. Like his father, he indulged a
taste for building - always taking care to propitiate Rome by dedicating all to
the Emperor. The most extensive of his undertakings was the building, in 22 a.d., of the city of Tiberias, at the
upper end of the Lake of Galilee. The site was under the disadvantage of having
formerly been a burying-place, which, as implying Levitical uncleanness, for
some time deterred pious Jews from settling there. Nevertheless, it rose in
great magnificence from among the reeds which had but lately covered the
neighbourhood (the ensigns armorial of the city were 'reeds'). Herod Antipas
made it his residence, and built there a strong castle and a palace of
unrivalled splendour. The city, which was peopled chiefly by adventurers, was
mainly Grecian, and adorned with an amphitheatre, of which the ruins can still
A happier account can be given of Philip, the son of Herod the
Great and Cleopatra of Jerusalem. He was undoubtedly the best of Herod's sons.
He showed, indeed, the same abject submission as the rest of his family to the
Roman Emperor, after whom he named the city of Cæsarea Philippi, which he built
at the sources of the Jordan; just as he changed the name of Bethsaida, a
village of which he made an opulent city, into Julias, after the daughter of
Augustus. But he was a moderate and just ruler, and his reign of thirty-seven
years contrasted favourably with that of his kinsmen. The land was quiet and
prosperous, and the people contented and happy.
As regards the Roman rule, matters had greatly changed for the
worse since the mild sway of Augustus, under which, in the language of Philo,
no one throughout the Empire dared to molest the Jews.12
The only innovations to which Israel had then to submit were, the daily
sacrifices for the Emperor and the Roman people, offerings on festive days,
prayers for them in the Synagogues, and such participation in national joy or
sorrow as their religion allowed.13
12. Philo, ed. Frcf., Leg. 1015.
13. u. s. 1031, 1041.
It was far other when Tiberius succeeded to the Empire, and
Judæa was a province. Merciless harshness characterised the administration of
Palestine; while the Emperor himself was bitterly hostile to Judaism and the
Jews, and that although, personally, openly careless of all religion.14
Under his reign the persecution of the Roman Jews occurred, and Palestine
suffered almost to the verge of endurance. The first Procurator whom Tiberius
appointed over Judæa, changed the occupancy of the High-Priesthood four times,
till he found in Caiaphas a sufficiently submissive instrument of Roman
tyranny. The exactions, and the reckless disregard of all Jewish feelings and
interests, might have been characterised as reaching the extreme limit, if
worse had not followed when Pontius Pilate succeeded to the procuratorship.
Venality, violence, robbery, persecutions, wanton malicious insults, judicial
murders without even the formality of a legal process - and cruelty, such are the
charges brought against his administration.15
If former governors had, to some extent, respected the religious scruples of
the Jews, Pilate set them purposely at defiance; and this not only once, but
again and again, in Jerusalem,16
and even in Samaria,18
until the Emperor himself interposed.19
14. Suet. Tiber. 69.
15. Philo, u.s. 1034.
16. Jos. Ant. xviii. 3. 1, 2.
17. St. Luke xiii. 1.
18. Ant. xviii. 4. 1, 2.
19. Philo, Leg. 1033.
Such, then, was the political condition of the land, when John
appeared to preach the near Advent of a Kingdom with which Israel associated
all that was happy and glorious, even beyond the dreams of the religious
enthusiast. And equally loud was the call for help in reference to those who
held chief spiritual rule over the people. St. Luke significantly joins
together, as the highest religious authority in the land, the names of Annas
The former had been appointed by Quirinius. After holding the Pontificate for
nine years, he was deposed, and succeeded by others, of whom the fourth was his
son-in-law Caiaphas. The character of the High-Priests during the whole of that
period is described in the Talmud21
in terrible language. And although there is no evidence that 'the house of
guilty of the same gross self-indulgence, violence,23
luxury, and even public indecency,24
as some of their successors, they are included in the woes pronounced on the
corrupt leaders of the priesthood, whom the Sanctuary is represented as bidding
depart from the sacred precincts, which their presence defiled.25
It deserves notice, that the special sin with which the house of Annas is
charged is that of 'whispering' - or hissing like vipers - which seems to refer26
to private influence on the judges in their administration of justice, whereby
'morals were corrupted, judgment perverted and the Shekhinah withdrawn from
illustration of this, we recall the terrorism which prevented Sanhedrists from
taking the part of Jesus,28
and especially the violence which seems to have determined the final action of
against which not only such men as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, but even
a Gamaliel, would feel themselves powerless. But although the expression
'High-Priest' appears sometimes to have been used in a general sense, as
designating the sons of the High-Priests, and even the principal members of
there could, of course, be only one actual High-Priest. The conjunction of the
two names of Annas and Caiaphas32
probably indicates that, although Annas was deprived of the Pontificate, he
still continued to preside over the Sanhedrin - a conclusion not only borne out
by Acts iv. 6, where Annas appears as the actual President, and by the terms in
which Caiaphas is spoken of, as merely 'one of them,'33
but by the part which Annas took in the final condemnation of Jesus.34
20. The Procurators were Imperial financial officers, with absolute power of government
in smaller territories. The office was generally in the hands of the Roman
knights, which chiefly consisted of financial men, bankers, chief publicans, &c. The order of knighthood had sunk to a low state, and the exactions of
such a rule, especially in Judea, can better be imagined than described. Comp. on the whole subject, Friedländer, Sittengesch. Rom, vol. i. p. 268 &c.
21. Pes. 57 a.
22. Annas, either Chanan (Nnx), or else Chana or Channa, a
common name. Professor Delitzsch has rightly shown that the Hebrew equivalent
for Caiaphas is not Keypha ()[email protected]') = Peter, but Kayapha ()[email protected]),
or perhaps rather - according to the reading KaifaV
- )pafy:qa, Kaipha, , or Kaiphah. The name occurs in the Mishnah as Kayaph
[so, and not Kuph, correctly] (Parah iii. 5). Professor Delitzsch
does not venture to explain its meaning. Would it be too bold to suggest a
derivation from )pq, and the meaning to be: He who is 'at the top?'
23. Jos. Ant. xx. 8. 8.
24. Yoma 35 b.
25. Pes. u.s.
26. If we may take a statement in the Talmud, where the same word occurs, as a commentary.
27. Tos. Set. xiv.
28. St. John vii. 50-52.
29. St. John xi. 47-50.
30. Jos. Jewish War vi. 2. 2.
31. I do not, however, feel sure that the word 'high-priests' in this passage should
be closely pressed. It is just one of those instances in which it would suit Josephus to give such a grandiose title to those who joined the Romans.
32. This only in St. Luke.
33. St. John xi. 49.
34. St. John xviii. 13.
Such a combination of political and religious distress, surely,
constituted the time of Israel's utmost need. As yet, no attempt had been made
by the people to right themselves by armed force. In these circumstances, the
cry that the Kingdom of Heaven was near at hand, and the call to preparation
for it, must have awakened echoes throughout the land, and startled the most
careless and unbelieving. It was, according to St. Luke's exact statement, in
the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Cæsar - reckoning, as provincials
would do,35 from his
co-regency with Augustus (which commenced two years before his sole reign), in
the year 26 a.d.36
According to our former computation, Jesus would then be in His thirtieth year.37
The scene of John's first public appearance was in 'the wilderness of Judæa,'
that is, the wild, desolate district around the mouth of the Jordan. We know
not whether John baptized in this place,38
nor yet how long he continued there; but we are expressly told, that his stay
was not confined to that locality.39
Soon afterwards we find him at Bethabara,40
which is farther up the stream. The outward appearance and the habits of the
Messenger corresponded to the character and object of his Mission. Neither his
dress nor his food was that of the Essenes;41
and the former, at least, like that of Elijah,42
whose mission he was now to 'fulfil.' This was evinced alike by what he
preached, and by the new symbolic rite, from which he derived the name of
'Baptist.' The grand burden of his message was: the announcement of the
approach of 'the Kingdom of Heaven,' and the needed preparation of his hearers
for that Kingdom. The latter he sought, positively, by admonition, and
negatively, by warnings, while he directed all to the Coming One, in Whom that
Kingdom would become, so to speak, individualised. Thus, from the first, it was
'the good news of the Kingdom,' to which all else in John's preaching was but
35. Wieseler has, I think, satisfactorily established this. Comp. Beitr. pp. 191-194.
36. 779 a.u.c.
37. St. Luke speaks of Christ being 'about thirty years old' at the time of His baptism. If John began His public ministry in the autumn, and some months elapsed before Jesus was baptized, our Lord would have just passed His thirtieth year when He appeared at Bethabara. We have positive evidence that
the expression 'about' before a numeral meant either a little more or a little less than that exact number. See Midr. on Ruth i. 4 ed. Warsh. p. 39 b.
38. Here tradition, though evidently falsely, locates the Baptism of Jesus.
39. St. Luke iii. 3.
40. St. John i. 28.
41. In reference not only to this point, but in general, I would refer to Bishop Lightfoot's
masterly essay on the Essenes in his Appendix to his Commentary on Colossians (especially here, pp. 388, 400). It is a remarkable confirmation of the fact
that, if John had been an Essene, his food could not have been 'locusts' that the Gospel of the Ebionites, who, like the Essenes, abstained from animal food,
omits the mention of the 'locusts,' of St. Matt. iii. 4. (see Mr. Nicholson's
'The Gospel of the Hebrews,' pp. 34, 35). But proof positive is derived from Jer. Nedar. 40 b, where, in case of a vow of abstinence from flesh, fish and locusts are interdicted.
42. 2 Kings i. 3.
43. Our A.V. wrongly translates 'a hairy man,' instead of a man with a hairy (camel's
hair) raiment.' This seems afterwards to have become the distinctive dress of the prophets (comp. Zech. xiii. 4).
Concerning this 'Kingdom of Heaven,' which was the great
message of John, and the great work of Christ Himself,44
we may here say, that it is the whole Old Testament sublimated, and the
whole New Testament realised. The idea of it did not lie hidden in the
Old, to be opened up in the New Testament - as did the mystery of its
But this rule of heaven and Kingship of Jehovah was the very substance of the Old
Testament; the object of the calling and mission of Israel; the meaning of all
its ordinances, whether civil or religious;46
the underlying idea of all its institutions.47
It explained alike the history of the people, the dealings of God with them,
and the prospects opened up by the prophets. Without it the Old Testament could
not be understood; it gave perpetuity to its teaching, and dignity to its
representations. This constituted alike the real contrast between Israel and
the nations of antiquity, and Israel's real title to distinction. Thus the
whole Old Testament was the preparatory presentation of the rule of heaven and
of the Kingship of its Lord.
44. Keim beautifully designates it: Das Lieblingswort Jesu.
45. Rom. xvi. 25, 26; Eph. i. 9; Col. i. 26, 27.
46. If, indeed, in the preliminary dispensation these two can be well separated.
47. I confess myself utterly unable to understand, how anyone writing a History of
the Jewish Church can apparently eliminate from it what even Keim designates as
the 'treibenden Gedanken des Alten Testaments' - those of the Kingdom and the King. A Kingdom of God without a King; a Theocracy without the rule of God; a perpetual Davidic Kingdom without a 'Son of David' - these are antinomies
(to borrow the term of Kant) of which neither the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigraphic writings, nor Rabbinism were guilty.
But preparatory not only in the sense of typical, but also in
that of inchoative. Even the twofold hindrance - internal and external - which
'the Kingdom' encountered, indicated this. The former arose from the resistance
of Israel to their King; the latter from the opposition of the surrounding
kingdoms of this world. All the more intense became the longing through
thousands of years, that these hindrances might be swept away by the Advent of
the promised Messiah, Who would permanently establish (by His spirit) the right
relationship between the King and His Kingdom, by bringing in an everlasting
righteousness, and also cast down existing barriers, by calling the kingdoms of
this world to be the Kingdom of our God. This would, indeed, be the Advent of
the Kingdom of God, such as had been the glowing hope held out by Zechariah,48
the glorious vision beheld by Daniel.50
Three ideas especially did this Kingdom of God imply: universality, heavenliness,
and permanency. Wide as God's domain would be His Dominion; holy, as
heaven in contrast to earth, and God to man, would be his character; and
triumphantly lasting its continuance. Such was the teaching of the Old
Testament, and the great hope of Israel. It scarcely needs mental compass, only
moral and spiritual capacity, to see its matchless grandeur, in contrast with
even the highest aspirations of heathenism, and the blanched ideas of modern
48. xiv. 9.
49. 'And the Lord shall be King over all the earth: in that day shall there be one Lord, and His Name one.'
50. vii. 13, 14.
51. 'I saw in the night visions, and, behold, One like the Son of Man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. And there was given Him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve Him: His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.'
How imperfectly Israel understood this Kingdom, our previous
investigations have shown. In truth, the men of that period possessed only the
term - as it were, the form. What explained its meaning, filled, and fulfilled
it, came once more from heaven. Rabbinism and Alexandrianism kept alive the
thought of it; and in their own way filled the soul with its longing - just as
the distress in church and State carried the need of it to every heart with the
keenness of anguish. As throughout this history, the form was of that
time; the substance and the spirit were of Him Whose coming was the Advent of
that Kingdom. Perhaps the nearest approach to it lay in the higher aspirations
of the Nationalist party, only that it sought their realisation, not
spiritually, but outwardly. Taking the sword, it perished by the sword. It was
probably to this that both Pilate and Jesus referred in that memorable
question: 'Art Thou then a King?' to which our Lord, unfolding the deepest
meaning of His mission, replied: 'My Kingdom is not of this world: if My
Kingdom were of this world, then would My servants fight.'52
52. St. John xvii. 33-37.
According to the Rabbinic views of the time, the terms
'Kingdom,' 'Kingdom of heaven,'53
and 'Kingdom of God' (in the Targum on Micah iv. 7 'Kingdom of Jehovah'), were
equivalent. In fact, the word 'heaven' was very often used instead of 'God,' so
as to avoid unduly familiarising the ear with the Sacred Name.54
This, probably, accounts for the exclusive use of the expression 'Kingdom of Heaven'
in the Gospel by St. Matthew.55
And the term did imply a contrast to earth, as the expression 'the Kingdom of
God' did to this world. The consciousness of its contrast to earth or the world
was distinctly expressed in Rabbinic writings.56
53. Occasionally we find, instead of Malkhuth Shamayim ('Kingdom of Heaven'), Malkhutha direqiya ('Kingdom of the firmament'), as in Ber. 58 a, Shebhu. 35 b. But in the former passage, at least, it seems to
apply rather to God's Providential government than to His moral reign.
54. The Talmud (Shebhu. 35 b) analyses the various passages of Scripture in which it is used in a sacred and in the common sense.
55. In St. Matthew the expression occurs thirty-two times; six times that of 'the Kingdom;' five times that of 'Kingdom of God.'
56. As in Shebhu 35 b; Ber. R. 9, ed Warsh, pp. 19 b, 20 a.
This 'Kingdom of Heaven,' or 'of God,' must, however, be
distinguished from such terms as 'the Kingdom of the Messiah' (Malkhutha
'the future age (world) of the Messiah' (Alma deathey dimeshicha58),
'the days of the Messiah,' 'the age to come' (sculum futurum, the Athid
labho59 - both
this and the previous expression60),
'the end of days,'61
and 'the end of the extremity of days' Soph Eqebh Yomaya 62).
This is the more important, since the 'Kingdom of Heaven' has so often been
confounded with the period of its triumphant manifestation in 'the days,' or in
'the Kingdom, of the Messiah.' Between the Advent and the final manifestation
of 'the Kingdom,' Jewish expectancy placed a temporary obscuration of the
Messiah.63 Not His
first appearance, but His triumphant manifestation, was to be preceded by the
so-called 'sorrows of the Messiah' (the Chebhley shel Mashiach), 'the
tribulations of the latter days.'64
57. As in the Targum on Ps. xiv. 7, and on Is. liii. 10.
58. As in Targum on 1 Kings iv. 33 (v. 13).
59. The distinction between the Olam habba (the world to come), and the Athid
labho (the age to come), is important. It will be more fully referred to by-and-by. In the meantime, suffice it, that the Athid labho is the more specific designation of Messianic times. The two terms are expressly distinguished, for example, in Mechilta (ed. Weiss), p. 74 a, lines 2, 3.
60. For example, in Ber. R. 88, ed. Warsh. p. 157 a.
61. Targ. PseudoJon. on Ex. xl. 9, 11.
62. Jer. Targ. on Gen. iii. 15; Jer. and PseudoJon. Targ on Numb. xxiv. 14.
63. This will be more fully explained and shown in the sequel. For the present we refer only to Yalkut, vol. ii. p. 75 d, and the Midr. on Ruth ii. 14.
64. The whole subject is fully treated in Book V. ch. vi.
A review of many passages on the subject shows that, in the
Jewish mind the expression 'Kingdom of Heaven' referred, not so much to any
particular period, as in general to the Rule of God - as acknowledged,
manifested, and eventually perfected. Very often it is the equivalent for
personal acknowledgment of God: the taking upon oneself of the 'yoke' of 'the
Kingdom,' or of the commandments - the former preceding and conditioning the
Accordingly, the Mishnah66
gives this as the reason why, in the collection of Scripture passages which
forms the prayer called 'Shema,'67
the confession, Deut. vi. 4 &c., precedes the admonition, Deut. xi. 13
&c., because a man takes upon himself first the yoke of the Kingdom of
Heaven, and afterwards that of the commandments. And in this sense, the
repetition of this Shema, as the personal acknowledgment of the Rule of Jehovah,
is itself often designated as 'taking upon oneself the Kingdom of Heaven.'68
Similarly, the putting on of phylacteries, and the washing of hands, are also
described as taking upon oneself the yoke of the Kingdom of God.69
To give other instances: Israel is said to have taken up the yoke of the
Kingdom of God at Mount Sinai;70
the children of Jacob at their last interview with their father;71
and Isaiah on his call to the prophetic office,72
where it is also noted that this must be done willingly and gladly. On the
other hand, the sons of Eli and the sons of Ahab are said to have cast off the
Kingdom of Heaven.73
While thus the acknowledgment of the Rule of God, both in profession and
practice, was considered to constitute the Kingdom of God, its full
manifestation was expected only in the time of the Advent of Messiah. Thus in
the Targum on Isaiah xl. 9, the words 'Behold your God!' are paraphrased: 'The
Kingdom of your God is revealed.' Similarly,74
we read: 'When the time approaches that the Kingdom of Heaven shall be
manifested, then shall be fulfilled that "the Lord shall be King over all the
On the other hand, the unbelief of Israel would appear in that they would
reject these three things: the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of the House of
David, and the building of the Temple, according to the prediction in Hos. iii.
follows that, after the period of unbelief, the Messianic deliverances and
blessings of the 'Athid Labho,' or future age, were expected. But the final
completion of all still remained for the 'Olam Habba,' or world to come. And
that there is a distinction between the time of the Messiah and this 'world to
come' is frequently indicated in Rabbinic writings.78
65. So expressly in Mechilta, p. 75 a; Yalkut, vol. ii. p. 14 a, last line.
66. Ber. ii. 2.
67. The Shema, which was repeated twice every day, was regarded as distinctive of Jewish profession (Ber. iii. 3).
68. For example, Ber. 13 b, 14 b; Ber. ii. 5; and the touching story of Rabbi Akiba thus taking upon himself the yoke of the Law in the hour of his martyrdom, Ber. 61 b.
69. In Ber. 14 b, last line, and 15 a, first line, there is a shocking definition of what constitutes the Kingdom of Heaven in its completeness. For the sake of those who would derive Christianity from Rabbinism. I would have quoted it, but am restrained by its profanity.
70. So often Comp. Siphré p. 142 b, 143 b.
71. Ber. R. 98.
72. Yalkut, vol. ii. p. 43 a.
73. Midr. on 1 Sam. viii 12; Midr. on Eccl. i. 18.
74. In Yalkut ii. p. 178 a.
75. Zech. xiv. 9.
76. The same passage is similarly referred to in the Midr. on Song. ii. 12, where the words 'the time of the singing has come,' are paraphrased; 'the time of the Kingdom of Heaven that it shall be manifested, hath come' (in R. Martini Pugio Fidei, p. 782).
77. Midr. on 1 Sam. viii. 7. Comp. also generally Midr. on Ps. cxlvii. 1.
78. As in Shabb. 63 a, where at least three differences between them are mentioned. For, while all prophecy pointed to the days of the Messiah, concerning the world to come we are told (Is. lxiv. 4) that 'eye hath not seen, &c.'; in the days of the Messiah weapons would be borne, but not in the world to come; and while Is. xxiv. 21 applied to the days of the Messiah, the seemingly contradictory passage, Is. xxx. 26, referred to the world to come. In Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Exod. xvii. 16, we read of three generations: that of
this world, that of the Messiah, and that of the world to come (Aram: Alma
deathey=olam habba). Comp. Ar. 13 b, and Midr. on Ps. lxxxi. 2 (3 in A.V.), ed. Warsh. p. 63 a, where the harp of the Sanctuary is described as of seven strings (according to Ps. cxix. 164); in the days of the Messiah as of eight strings (according to the inscription of
Ps. xii.); and in
the world to come (here Athid labho) as of ten strings (according to Ps. xcii. 3). The references of Gfrörer (Jahrh. d. Heils, vol. ii. p. 213) contain, as not unfrequently, mistakes. I may here say that Rhenferdius
carries the argument about the Olam habba, as distinguished from the days of the Messiah, beyond what I believe to be established. See his
Dissertation in Meuschen, Nov. Test. pp. 1116 &c.
As we pass from the Jewish ideas of the time to the teaching of
the New Testament, we feel that while there is complete change of spirit,
the form in which the idea of the Kingdom of Heaven is presented is
substantially similar. Accordingly, we must dismiss the notion that the
expression refers to the Church, whether visible (according to the Roman
Catholic view) or invisible (according to certain Protestant writers).79
'The Kingdom of God,' or Kingly Rule of God, is an objective fact. The
visible Church can only be the subjective attempt at its outward
realisation, of which the invisible Church is the true counterpart. When Christ
'except a man be born from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God,' He
teaches, in opposition to the Rabbinic representation of how 'the Kingdom' was
taken up, that a man cannot even comprehend that glorious idea of the Reign of
God, and of becoming, by conscious self-surrender, one of His subjects, except
he be first born from above. Similarly, the meaning of Christ's further
teaching on this subject81
seems to be that, except a man be born of water (profession, with baptism82
as its symbol) and the Spirit, he cannot really enter into the fellowship of
79. It is difficult to conceive, how the idea of the identity of the Kingdom of God
with the Church could have originated. Such parables as those about the Sower, and about the Net (St. Matt. xiii. 3-9; 47, 48), and such admonitions as those
of Christ to His disciples in St. Matt. xix. 12; vi. 33; and vi. 10, are
utterly inconsistent with it.
80. St. John iii. 3.
81. in ver. 5.
82. The passage which seems to me most fully to explain the import of baptism, in its subjective
bearing, is 1 Peter, iii. 21, which I would thus render: 'which (water) also, as the antitype, now saves you, even baptism; not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the inquiry (the searching, perhaps the
entreaty), for a good conscience towards God, through the resurrection of
Christ.' It is in this sense that baptism is designated in Tit. iii. 5, as the 'washing,' or 'bath of regeneration,' the baptized person stepping out of the waters of baptism with this openly spoken new search after a good conscience
towards God; and in this sense also that baptism - not the act of baptizing, nor yet that of being baptized - saves us, but this through the Resurrection of
Christ. And this leads us up to the objective aspect of baptism. This consists in the promise and the gift on the part of the Risen Saviour, Who, by and with His Holy Spirit, is ever present with his Church. These remarks leave, of course, aside the question of Infant-Baptism, which
rests on another and, in my view most solid basis.
In fact, an analysis of 119 passages in the New Testament where
the expression 'Kingdom' occurs, shows that it means the rule of God;83
which was manifested in and through Christ;84
is apparent in 'the Church;'85
gradually develops amidst hindrances;86
is triumphant at the second coming of Christ87
('the end'); and, finally, perfected in the world to come.88
Thus viewed, the announcement of John of the near Advent of this Kingdom had
deepest meaning, although, as so often in the case of prophetism, the stages
intervening between the Advent of the Christ and the triumph of that Kingdom
seem to have been hidden from the preacher. He came to call Israel to submit to
the Reign of God, about to be manifested in Christ. Hence, on the one hand, he
called them to repentance - a 'change of mind' - with all that this implied;
and, on the other, pointed them to the Christ, in the exaltation of His Person
and Office. Or rather, the two combined might be summed up in the call: 'Change
your mind', repent, which implies, not only a turning from the past, but a
turning to the Christ in newness of mind.89
And thus the symbolic action by which this preaching was accompanied might be
designated 'the baptism of repentance.'
83. In this view the expression occurs thirty-four times, viz: St. Matt. vi. 33; xii.
28; xiii. 38; xix. 24; xxi. 31; St. Mark i. 14; x. 15, 23, 24, 25; xii. 34; St. Luke i. 33; iv. 43; ix. 11; x. 9, 11; xi. 20; xii. 31; xvii. 20, 21; xviii. 17,
24, 25, 29; St. John iii. 3; Acts i. 3; viii. 12; xx. 25; xxviii. 31; Rom. xiv. 17; 1 Cor. iv. 20; Col. iv. 11; 1 Thess. ii. 12; Rev. i. 9.
84. As in the following seventeen passages, viz.: St. Matt. iii. 2; iv. 17, 23; v. 3,
10; ix. 35; x. 7; St. Mark i. 15; xi. 10; St. Luke viii. 1; ix. 2; xvi. 16; xix. 12, 15; Acts i. 3; xxviii. 23; Rev. i. 9.
85. As in the following eleven passages: St. Matt. xi. 11; xiii. 41; xvi. 19; xviii.
1; xxi. 43; xxiii. 13; St. Luke vii. 28; St. John iii. 5; Acts i. 3; Col. i. 13; Rev. i. 9.
86. As in the following twenty-four passages: St. Matt. xi. 12; xiii. 11, 19, 24, 31, 33, 44, 45, 47, 52; xviii. 23; xx. 1; xxii. 2; xxv. 1, 14; St. Mark iv. 11, 26,
30; St. Luke viii. 10; ix. 62; xiii. 18, 20; Acts i. 3; Rev. i. 9.
87. As in the following twelve passages: St. Mark xvi. 28; St. Mark ix. 1; xv. 43; St.
Luke ix. 27; xix. 11; xxi. 31; xxii. 16, 18; Acts i. 3; 2 Tim. iv. 1; Heb. xii. 28; Rev. i. 9.
88. As in the following thirty-one passages: St. Matt. v. 19, 20; vii. 21; viii. 11; xiii. 43; xviii. 3; xxv. 34; xxvi. 29; St. Mark ix. 47; x. 14; xiv. 25; St. Luke vi. 20; xii. 32; xiii. 28, 29; xiv. 15; xviii. 16; xxii. 29; Acts i. 3; xiv. 22; 1 Cor. vi. 9, 10; xv. 24, 50; Gal. v. 21; Eph. v. 5; 2 Thess. i. 5; St. James ii. 5; 2 Peter i. 11; Rev. i. 9; xii. 10.
89. The term 'repentance' includes faith in Christ, as in St. Luke xxiv. 47; Acts v. 31.
The account given by St. Luke bears, on the face of it, that it
was a summary, not only of the first, but of all John's preaching.90
The very presence of his hearers at this call to, and baptism of, repentance,
gave point to his words. Did they who, notwithstanding their sins,91
lived in such security of carelessness and self-righteousness, really
understand and fear the final consequences of resistance to the coming
'Kingdom'? If so, theirs must be a repentance not only in profession, but of
heart and mind, such as would yield fruit, both good and visible. Or else did
they imagine that, according to the common notion of the time, the vials of
wrath were to be poured out only on the Gentiles,92
while they, as Abraham's children, were sure of escape - in the words of the
Talmud, that 'the night' (Is. xxi. 12) was 'only to the nations of the world,
but the morning to Israel?'93
90. iii. 18.
91. I cannot, with Schöttgen and others, regard the expression 'generation of
vipers' as an allusion to the filthy legend about the children of Eve and the serpent, but believe that it refers to such passages as Ps. lviii. 4.
92. In proof that such was the common view, I shall here refer to only a few passages,
and these exclusively from the Targumum: Jer. Targ. on Gen. xlix. 11; Targ. on Is. xi. 4; Targ. on Amos ix. 11; Targ. on Nah. i. 6; on Zech. x. 3, 4. See also Ab. Z. 2 b, Yalkut i. p. 64 a; also 56 b (where it is
shown how plagues exactly corresponding to those of Egypt were to come upon Rome).
93. Jer. Taan. 64 a.
For, no principle was more fully established in the popular
conviction, than that all Israel had part in the world to come (Sanh. x. 1),
and this, specifically, because of their connection with Abraham. This appears
not only from the New Testament,94
from Philo, and Josephus, but from many Rabbinic passages. 'The merits of the
Fathers,' is one of the commonest phrases in the mouth of the Rabbis.95
Abraham was represented as sitting at the gate of Gehenna, to deliver any
otherwise might have been consigned to its terrors.97
In fact, by their descent from Abraham, all the children of Israel were nobles,98
infinitely higher than any proselytes. 'What,' exclaims the Talmud, 'shall the
born Israelite stand upon the earth, and the proselyte be in heaven?'99
In fact, the ships on the sea were preserved through the merit of Abraham; the
rain descended on account of it.100
For his sake alone had Moses been allowed to ascend into heaven, and to receive
the Law; for his sake the sin of the golden calf had been forgiven;101
his righteousness had on many occasions been the support of Israel's cause;102
Daniel had been heard for the sake of Abraham;103
nay, his merit availed even for the wicked.104
In its extravagance the Midrash thus apostrophises Abraham: 'If thy children
were even (morally) dead bodies, without blood vessels or bones, thy merit
would avail for them!'106
94. St. John viii. 33, 39, 53.
95. 'Everything comes to Israel on account of the merits of the fathers' (Siphré on Deut. p.
108 b). In the same category we place the extraordinary attempts to show that the sins of Biblical personages were not sins at all, as in Shabb. 55 b,
and the idea of Israel's merits as works of supererogation (as in Baba B. 10 a).
96. I will not mention the profane device by which apostate and wicked Jews are at that time to be converted into non-Jews.
97. Ber. R. 48; comp. Midr. on Ps. vi. 1; Pirké d. R. Elies. c. 29; Shem. R. 19 Yalkut i. p. 23 b.
98. Baba Mez. vii. 1; Baba K. 91 a.
99. Jer. Chag. 76 a.
100. Ber. R. 39.
101. Shem R. 44.
102. Vayyikra R. 36.
103. Ber. 7 b.
104. Shabb. 55 a; comp Beer, Leben Abr. p. 88.
105. Professor Wünsche quotes an inapt passage from Shabb. 89 b, but ignores, or
is ignorant of the evidence above given.
106. Ber. R. ed. Warsh. p. 80 b, par. 44.
But if such had been the inner thoughts of his bearers, John
warned them, that God was able of those stones that strewed the river-bank to
raise up children unto Abraham;107
or, reverting to his former illustration of 'fruits meet for repentance,' that
the proclamation of the Kingdom was, at the same time, the laying of the axe to
the root of every tree that bore not fruit. Then making application of it, in
answer to the specific inquiry of various classes, the preacher gave them such
practical advice as applied to the well-known sins of their past;109
yet in this also not going beyond the merely negative, or preparatory element
of 'repentance.' The positive, and all-important aspect of it, was to be
presented by the Christ. It was only natural that the hearers wondered whether
John himself was the Christ, since he thus urged repentance. For this was so
closely connected in their thoughts with the Advent of the Messiah, that it was
said, 'If Israel repented but one day, the Son of David would immediately
come.'110 But here
John pointed them to the difference between himself and his work, and the
Person and Mission of the Christ. In deepest reverence he declared himself not
worthy to do Him the service of a slave or of a disciple.111
His Baptism would not be of preparatory repentance and with water, but the
Divine Baptism in112
the Holy Spirit and fire113
- in the Spirit Who sanctified, and the Divine Light which purified,114
and so effectively qualified for the 'Kingdom.' And there was still another
contrast. John's was but preparing work, the Christ's that of final decision;
after it came the harvest. His was the harvest, and His the garner; His also
the fan, with which He would sift the wheat from the straw and chaff - the one
to be garnered, the other burned with fire unextinguished and inextinguishable.115
Thus early in the history of the Kingdom of God was it indicated, that alike
that which would prove useless straw and the good corn were inseparably
connected in God's harvest-field till the reaping time; that both belonged to
Him; and that the final separation would only come at the last, and by His own
107. Perhaps with reference to Is. ii. 1, 2.
aptly points out a play on the words 'children' - banim - and 'stones' -
abhanim. Both words are derived from bana, to build, which is also used by the Rabbis in a moral sense like our own 'upbuilding,' and in that of the gift of adoption of children. It is not necessary, indeed almost detracts from the general impression, to see in the stones an allusion to the Gentiles.
109. Thus the view that charity delivered from Gehenna was very commonly entertained (see, for example, Baba B. 10 a). Similarly, it was the main charge against the publicans that they exacted more than their due (see, for example,
Baba K. 113 a). The Greek oywnion,
or wage of the soldiers, has its Rabbinic equivalent of Afsanya (a similar
word also in the Syriac).
110. For ex. Jer. Taan. 64 a.
111. Volkmar is mistaken in regarding this as the duty of the house-porter towards arriving
guests. It is expressly mentioned as one of the characteristic duties of slaves in Pes. 4 a; Jer Kidd. i. 3; Kidd. 22 b. In Kethub. 96 a it is described as also the duty of a disciple towards his teacher. In Mechilta
on Ex. xxi. 2 (ed. Weiss, p. 82 a) it is qualified as only lawful for a teacher so to employ his disciple, while, lastly, in Pesiqta x. it is described as the common practice.
112. Godet aptly calls attention to the use of the preposition in here, while as
regards the baptism of water no preposition is used, as denoting merely an
113. The same writer points out that the want of the preposition before 'fire' shows that it cannot refer to the fire of judgment, but must be a further enlargement
of the word 'Spirit.' Probably it denotes the negative or purgative effect of this baptism, as the word 'holy' indicates its positive and sanctifying effect.
114. The expression 'baptism of fire' was certainly not unknown to the Jews. In Sanh. 39
a (last lines) we read of an immersion of God in fire, based on Is.
lxvi. 15. An immersion or baptism of fire is proved from Numb. xxxi. 23. More apt, perhaps, as illustration is the statement, Jer. Sot. 22 d, that the
Torah (the Law) its parchment was white fire, the writing black fire, itself fire mixed with fire, hewn out of fire, and given by fire, according to Deut. xxxiii. 2.
115. This is the meaning of asbestoV. The
word occurs only in St. Matt. iii. 12; St. Luke iii. 17; St. Mark ix. 43, 45 (?), but frequently in the classics. The question of 'eternal punishment' will
be discussed in another place. The simile of the fan and the garner is derived from the Eastern practice of threshing out the corn in the open by means of oxen, after which, what of the straw had been trampled under foot (not merely the chaff, as in the A.V.) was burned. This use of the straw for fire is referred to in the Mishnah, as in Shabb. iii. 1; Par. iv. 3. But in that case the Hebrew equivalent for it is #qa (Qash) - as in the above passages, and
not Tebhen (Meyer), nor even as Professor Delitzsch
renders it in his Hebrew N.T.: Mots. The three terms are, however,
combined in a curiously illustrative parable (Ber. R. 83), referring to the destruction of Rome and the preservation of Israel, when the grain refers the straw, stubble, and chaff, in their dispute for whose sake the field existed, to the time when the owner would gather the corn into his barn, but burn the straw, stubble, and chaff.
What John preached, that he also symbolised by a rite which,
though not in itself, yet in its application, was wholly new. Hitherto the Law
had it, that those who had contracted Levitical defilement were to immerse
before offering sacrifice. Again, it was prescribed that such Gentiles as
became 'proselytes of righteousness,' or 'proselytes of the Covenant' (Gerey
hatstsedeq or Gerey habberith), were to be admitted to full
participation in the privileges of Israel by the threefold rites of
and sacrifice - the immersion being, as it were, the acknowledgment and
symbolic removal of moral defilement, corresponding to that of Levitical
uncleanness. But never before had it been proposed that Israel should undergo a
'baptism of repentance,' although there are indications of a deeper insight
into the meaning of Levitical baptisms.117
Was it intended, that the hearers of John should give this as evidence of their
repentance, that, like persons defiled, they sought purification, and, like
strangers, they sought admission among the people who took on themselves the
Rule of God? These two ideas would, indeed, have made it truly a 'baptism of
repentance.' But it seems difficult to suppose, that the people would have been
prepared for such admissions; or, at least, that there should have been no
record of the mode in which a change so deeply spiritual was brought about. May
it not rather have been that as, when the first Covenant was made, Moses was
directed to prepare Israel by symbolic baptism of their persons118
and their garments,119
so the initiation of the new Covenant, by which the people were to enter into
the Kingdom of God, was preceded by another general symbolic baptism of those
who would be the true Israel, and receive, or take on themselves, the Law from
God?120 In that
case the rite would have acquired not only a new significance, but be deeply
and truly the answer to John's call. In such case also, no special explanation
would have been needed on the part of the Baptist, nor yet such spiritual
insight on that of the people as we can scarcely suppose them to have possessed
at that stage. Lastly, in that case nothing could have been more suitable, nor
more solemn, than Israel in waiting for the Messiah and the Rule of God,
preparing as their fathers had done at the foot of Mount Sinai.121
116. For a full discussion of the question of the baptism of proselytes, see Appendix
117. The following very significant passage may here be quoted: 'A man who is guilty of sin, and makes confession, and does not turn from it, to whom is he like? To a man who has in his hand a defiling reptile, who, even if he immerses in all the waters of the world, his baptism avails him nothing; but let him cast it from his hand, and if he immerses in only forty seah of water, immediately his baptism avails him.' On the same page of the Talmud there are some very apt and beautiful remarks on the subject of repentance (Taan. 16 a, towards the end).
118. Comp. Gen. xxxv. 2
119. Ex. xix. 10, 14.
120. It is remarkable, that Maimonides traces even the practice of baptizing proselytes to Ex. xix. 10, 14 (Hilc Issurey Biah xiii. 3; Yad haCh. vol. ii. p. 142 b). He also gives reasons for the 'baptism' of Israel before entering into covenant with God. In Kerith, 9 a 'the baptism' of Israel is proved from Ex. xxiv. 5, since every sprinkling of blood was supposed to be preceded by immersion. In Siphré on Numb. (ed. Weiss, p. 30 b) we are also distinctly told of 'baptism' as one of the three things by which Israel was admitted into the Covenant.
121. This may help us, even at this stage, to understand why our Lord, in the fulfilment of all righteousness, submitted to baptism. It seems also to explain why, after the coming of Christ, the baptism of John was alike unavailing and even meaningless (Acts xix. 3-5). Lastly, it also shows how he that is least in the Kingdom of God is really greater than John himself (St. Luke vii. 28).
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