Matthew 11, 12.—From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.
What we call the old economy or old dispensation, was a temporary and preparatory system, extending only to the advent of the Saviour, or, at most, to the completion of his saving work. His appearance necessarily brought with it a change of dispensations, which had been foreseen and provided for from the beginning. But this part of the divine purpose had been gradually lost sight of, and the Jews had learned to regard their temporary system as perpetual, and its symbolical rites as intrinsically efficacious. To such a state of feeling and opinion the abrogation of the ancient system seemed a monstrous revolution, a calamitous catastrophe, the prospect of which shocked their strongest prepossessions, and seemed to blast their dearest hopes. In order to correct this error, and prepare the way for the event so much dreaded, even by many devout Jews, it pleased God to adopt a method which should symbolize, and, as it were, embody the true relation of the old and new economy, and the change by which the one was to replace the other.
To secure this end, Christ did not come abruptly, but was preceded by a forerunner, whose personal relations to him, and whose public ministry, presented, in a kind of type or emblem, the peculiar features of the Law as contrasted with the Gospel—or rather, exhibited, at one view, both the points of resemblance and of dissimilitude. These points are obvious enough. As, on the one hand, both the old and the new dispensation were alike from God, equally genuine and equally authoritative ; as they were both intended for man's benefit, and, ultimately, for the benefit of men in general; as the grand design of both was moral and spiritual, not material and temporal; so, on the other hand, while one was provisional, the other was permanent; one was preparatory to the other, and by necessary consequence, inferior in dignity; the peculiar features of the one were, in a great measure, arbitrary and conventional, those of the other, necessary and essential; the one was typical and ceremonial in its character, the other spiritual and substantial. The one was meant to teach the need and excite the desire of what could be fully supplied only by the other.
These resemblances and contrasts of the two great systems, were to be embodied in the person and the ministry of two individuals as their representatives. Of the gospel, no such representative was needed except Christ himself. In the one employed to represent the Law, it might have been expected that these prerequisites would meet; that he should be personally near akin to Him whose way he came to prepare; that he should be a person of high rank and sacred dignity ; that he should live, secluded from the rest of men, a life of abstinent austerity; that the moral tone, both of his doctrine and example, should be high; that his appeals should be directly to the conscience, and intended to excite the sense of guilt, danger, want, and weakness; that for this very reason, his entire ministry should be prospective and preparatory, introductory to something intrinsically better and practically more efficacious than itself. All this might have seemed beforehand necessary in the forerunner who was to symbolize the old dispensation, as distinguished from the new; and all this was actually realized in the person and ministry of John the Baptist. He was a kinsman of our Lord; he was a little older, both in person and in office; he was of sacerdotal rank and lineage; the child of eminently pious parents; one whose birth had been announced and accompanied by messages from heaven and remarkable divine interpositions; a Nazarite from the womb; a dweller in the desert from early youth "until the day of his showing unto Israel."
With the old dispensation he was clearly connected by remarkable prophecies, as the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord— as the messenger who should come before the face of the Angel of the Covenant—as the new Elijah or Elias, in whose ministry the spirit and power of the old reformer were to be revived in Judah, scarcely less apostate now than Israel was then. His connexion with the old dispensation was made still more clear and marked, by external coincidences, providentially secured and made conspicuous. His local habitation carried back the thoughts of those who saw or heard him, to the forty years error in the desert, and the giving of the law upon Mt. Sinai. His ministrations at the Jordan called to mind the passage of that river at the conquest of Canaan. His hairy garments and abstemious fare, reminded all spectators of the prophets in general, and Elijah in particular. His distant calls upon the people to go out to him, instead of seeking them in their usual places of resort, was perfectly analogous to the segregation and seclusion of the chosen people under the law, and to the local and restrictive institutions of the law itself.
With all this agreed his preaching, which was preparatory. He called men to repentance, as essential to remission of sins, but he did not offer remission itself. He preached the kingdom of heaven, not as already established, but as at hand. He described himself as a mere forerunner, inferior in dignity and power to one who was to follow, and to whom he was not worthy, in his own strong language, to perform the menial office of unlacing or carrying his sandals.
The same thing is true of the significant rite, by which his preaching was accompanied, and from which he derived his title. The baptism of John was merely the forerunner of the baptism of Christ—the baptism of repentance as distinguished from the baptism of faith—the baptism of water as distinguished from the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost. From all this, it is evident that John's preparatory ministry was perfectly adapted to its providential purpose, that of embodying, and, as it were, personifying the true relation of the old dispensation to the new, of the law to the gospel, not as rival or antagonistic systems, but as the beginning and the end, the inception and perfection of the same great process.
That the resemblance of the type and the things typified might be complete, it was ordered that John's ministry, instead of ceasing when our Lord's began, should be contemporaneous with it for a time, just as the old and new dispensations, for important providential reasons, were to merge or fade into each other, without any clearly defined point of transition or line of demarkation, so that the Church, under both its manifestations, might maintain its identity, and be, like its master's robe, "without seam, woven from the top throughout." (John 19, 23.) The consequence of this was, that, while some rejected both, and some passed through John's, as a preparatory school to that of Christ, others remained in it after its preparatory work was done, just as the body of the Jews eventually clung to the Mosaic dispensation, after it had answered its design and been superseded by the dispensation of the Son and Spirit. To such it is not, perhaps, surprising that the proofs of the Messiahship of Jesus should have seemed inconclusive. It is much more surprising that the faith of John himself should seem to waver, after his imprisonment, as some suppose to be implied in his message, sent by two of his disciples to our Lord: Art thou he that is to come, or are we waiting for another? However easy it may be to explain this, by supposing it to be intended merely to confirm the faith or solve the doubts of his disciples, neither of these solutions is absolutely needed, or so natural as that which supposes that the message was expressive of John's own misgivings, not indeed as to the person of Messiah, which had been made known to him by special revelation, and to which he had repeatedly and publicly borne witness, but with respect to our Saviour's method of proceeding, which appears to have departed too much from the spirit and the forms of the Old Testament, to be entirely satisfactory or even intelligible to the last prophet of the old economy, whose inspiration did not reach beyond the close of the system which was done away in Christ. The person of Christ himself, as the founder of a new dispensation, he distinctly recognized, but he does not seem to have been prepared, by any divine teaching, for the total revolution in the external mode of serving God and saving souls, which began to be disclosed in the personal ministry of Christ himself.
That this is the true solution of John's seeming vacillation—namely, that he still stood on the ground of the Old Testament, and still belonged to the Jewish dispensation, and was, therefore, not prepared, without a special revelation, which had not been vouchsafed to him, to understand or appreciate the new state of things which Christ had partially begun to introduce—may be gathered from our Saviour's treatment of his message. After sending back the messengers, with a reference to the miracles which they beheld, as proofs of his Messiahship, he seems to have hastened to prevent any unjust or unfavourable inferences, by the multitudes, from what they had just heard, as if John the Baptist had retracted his testimony, or wavered in his own belief. To this end, he reminded them, in lively, figurative terms, peculiarly adapted to affect an oriental audience, that when they went forth in such vast crowds to the wilderness, to hear and be baptized of John, the man whom they had sought and found there, was like any thing rather than a reed shaken by the wind—a man of versatile and fickle temper, or of uncertain, fluctuating judgment—and like any thing rather than a softly dressed and smooth-tongued courtier, who suppressed the truth to flatter and conciliate his hearers. On the contrary, they knew that John the Baptist was an eminently bold, uncompromising, plain-spoken witness to the truth of God, and against the sins of men. It would be folly, therefore, to suppose that his public testimony to our Lord's Messiahship, was either given insincerely, through the fear of men and the desire to please them, or was now retracted, from a wavering faith or fickleness of temper. This would be inconceivable in such a man, though uninspired; how much more in a prophet—a prophet in the full and highest sense of the Old Testament expression—a prophet equal in authority to any who had gone before him; nay, in one respect superior to them all, as the immediate forerunner of the new dispensation, as the last in the long series of Old Testament prophets, in whom the succession was to cease, or from whom it was to pass and be forever merged in the prophetic ministry of Christ himself. All the prophets of the law, i. e. all the prophetic intimations of the old economy, whether formal predictions or typical prefigurations—not excepting the general prospective character which stamped the system as a whole, as well as some of its more salient points—all these, our Saviour tells the people, prophesied as far as up to John the Baptist; not that he was the great end to which they pointed,—this was Christ himself, as John had again and again solemnly declared,—but he was the last of the forerunners, of the heralds who proclaimed the advent and prepared the way of the Great Deliverer: down to John the Baptist, and including him, this preparatory and premonitory system still continued, and in him, as the immediate predecessor of the Saviour, it must have an end.
The very same considerations, therefore, which exalted John the Baptist in the scale of the old economy, proved that he belonged to it, and not to the new. While it was still true that there had never before appeared a greater man, when measured by that standard, it was equally true that the least in the kingdom of heaven—the new dispensation—was greater than he, i. e. more enlightened as to the nature ol that dispensation, and the points in which it differed from the old, and better able, both to appreciate and carry into execution this new form of the divine administration, than even the greater of those, who, though invested with divine authority, were still but ministers of the old restrictive system, and might, therefore, be expected to feel some surprise, if not displeasure, at the sudden disuse of the ancient methods, the neglect of mere externals, so inseparable from religion under the Mosaic institutions, and the casting down not only of the barriers between strict Jews and notorious sinners of their own race, but between that Vol. 11.—3*
race itself and those from which it had for ages dwelt apart, a change already unequivocally intimated in our Lord's instructions and his practice, and which, viewed from the ground of the old dispensation, might well seem to confound unchangeable distinctions and to make Christ the minister of sin.
That such misapprehensions should exist in the mind of John the Baptist, as a prophet of the old dispensation, is certainly less strange, and in itself not more incredible, than that Peter, even after the effusion of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, should have still cherished the belief that, although the Gentiles might be saved as well as Jews, through faith in the Redeemer, they could only exercise that faith by first becoming Jews, or conforming to the law of Moses. Of this error he was disabused by a special revelation; and as none such seems to have been sent to John the Baptist, it is not surprising that without it, and in prison, he should have looked at what was going on beyond the walls of the fortress where he lay, with the eyes of an Old Testament prophet, rather than with those of a New Testament saint.
This seems, as I have said, to be implied in our Lord's vindication of him, as a true believer and a great prophet, but still a minister of the Old Testament, not of the New, to whom the freedom and enlargement of the course on which our Lord had either actually entered, or prospectively marked out for his apostles, might very naturally seem to be a general removal of old landmarks, and a lifting of the floodgates which had hitherto shut off the appropriated waters of the Jewish church from the natural stream and current of the nations. Even in vindicating John, our Saviour seems to intimate that this distinguished prophet had been led, by his peculiar position with respect to the outgoing and incoming dispensation, to expect that the kingdom of Messiah would be set up by a methodical and formal process, perhaps not without a large admixture of ceremonial services ; at all events, with due conformity to ancient usages and regulations; "whereas," he adds, as if appealing to their own observation for the proof of the assertion, "from the days of John the Baptist until now," i. e. since the work of my forerunner was completed, and my own begun, "the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence and the violent take it by force." 'That this does not refer to persecution, is apparent from the notorious fact, that the only persecution which had yet taken place, was that of John himself, who had just been excluded from the kingdom of heaven in the technical, distinctive sense, or, at least, assigned the lowest place in it, which, of course, forbids his treatment by his enemies to be regarded or described as that experienced by the kingdom of heaven. Equally incorrect is the assumption, that the violence here mentioned in connexion with the kingdom of heaven, is active, not passive—the kingdom of heaven exercises violence or irresistible power over men. This is equally at variance with the usage of the words immediately in question and with the other clause—the violent take it by force. The only natural interpretation is the one which takes the whole as a bold and strong, but striking and intelligible figure, to denote the eagerness and freedom from
restraint, with which men of every class and character, Pharisees and publicans, reputed saints and sinners, Jews and Gentiles, had begun or were soon to begin to press into the kingdom of heaven, through or over every barrier, moral, legal, ceremonial, or natural distinction.
The particular image most readily suggested by the' words, is, perhaps, that of a fortress* long maintained by a veteran garrison, but suddenly thrown open by its new commander, and impetuously entered by what seems to be a multitude of foes. To those within, this might well appear to put an end to the defence and to decide the contest. But after a while it is perceived that those who have thus tumultuously entered, are not enemies, but friends, and that this violent accession to the strength of the defence is more effective than any which could have been secured by gradual recruitings or occasional desertions from the enemy, however necessary these resources may be when the other fails, or in the intervals between these sudden and extensive movements from without to the interior of the fortress or the besieged town. In some points this comparison, like every other, does not hold good; but it may serve to illustrate the essential difference between John the Baptist's expectations, and the course actually taken by our Saviour, and referred to in the words of the text: "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force."
The circumstances of the case to which these words had primary reference, were so peculiar, so incapable of repetition or recurrence, that it may seem impossible to draw from them any lesson directly applicable to ourselves or to the actual condition of the church or of the world. It is not, however, as a mat ter of historical curiosity, an interesting reminiscence of antiquity, that this and many other similar discourses of our Saviour have been left on record. They were rather intended to exemplify the nature and distinctive character of his kingdom, as distinguished not only from all false religions, but from all that was temporary in the ancient manifestation of the true, and thereby to preserve us from falling into errors which were committed and corrected eighteen centu ries ago. We are, therefore, at liberty, nay bound, to apply these instructions to our own use, not by fanciful accommodation, not by allegorical confusion of things utterly distinct, but by a fair application of the principle involved in the original case to any other case, however distant and however different in form and circumstance, to which that principle is naturally applicable. Let us briefly inquire then, in the present instance, wherein the essence of the error here exposed consisted, and what analogous forms of error may exist among ourselves.
That the old dispensation, while it lasted, was entitled to respect as a divine institution, if it needed any proof, might be established, both by the precept and example of our Saviour. Even after it was virtually abrogated by the death and resurrection and ascension of our Lord and by the advent of the Holy Spirit, the apostles, acting by divine direction, still paid a certain tribute of respect to the framework of the old economy, until it was forever shaken down and scattered by a great convulsion. The error now in question, therefore, did not lie in any undue deference to the Law as a temporary system, but in making it the standard and the rule of God's most gracious dispensations under an entirely different state of things; and more particularly in supposing, that access to the Messiah's kingdom was to be as circuitous and slow and ceremonious, as the approach of Gentile converts to the altar and the oracle of God had been for ages, when, in fact, the kingdom of heaven had already begun to suffer violence, and the violent were actually taking it by force.
Into this identical mistake there is, of course, no danger of our falling. The change of circumstances already spoken of, has rendered it impossible. But may not a kindred error, and one equally pernicious, be committed now? God has appointed certain means to be assiduously used for the extension of the church and the conversion of the world. The obligation to employ these means is imperative, and cannot be dispensed with. The very fact of their divine authority entitles us to look for the most salutary effects from their constant and faithful application. We cannot err, therefore, by excess in the employment of these means. But may we not err by limiting the Holy One himself to means—even those which he has sanctioned and blessed? May we not err by supposing, that because it is our duty to make constant, prayerful, and believing use of these means, and to watch for their effect, there is nothing more to be expected—even from the free and sovereign operation of divine grace? In other words, by looking too much, or, at least, too exclusively, at the ordinary results of ordinary means, may we not cease to hope for those extraordinary gifts, with which the Lord is sometimes pleased, as it were, to reward the faithful use of the stated and appointed means of grace?
There is no doubt an opposite error, into which we are no less prone to fall, and from which the Church has suffered incalculable loss and damage. This is the error of expecting all from God's extraordinary gifts, to the exclusion of those stated means which he has ordained, and on which he has not only promised but bestowed a blessing. This error, pushed to an extreme, becomes fanaticism, and is the fruitful source of doctrinal corruptions, practical abuses, spiritual pride, and all the other evils springing from a violent excitement followed by reaction towards the opposite extreme of lethargy and deadness. The error which produces all these evils, does not merely lie in the denial or oblivion of the fact that God's extraordinary blessings must, from their very nature, be occasional, but also in denying or forgetting that extraordinary gifts are, according to a law of God's most gracious dispensations, not bestowed at random, but conferred as blessings on the faithful use of ordinary means.
To expect an extraordinary harvest, without using the means necessary to secure an ordinary one, would be scarcely more absurd than to concentrate all our hopes and wishes on extraordinary spiritual visitations, while we wilfully or negligently slight the stated and invariable means of doing and obtaining good, on which God sometimes sets the seal of his approval by remarkable outpourings of his spirit. As the manna in the wilderness did not take the place of ordinary food, but supplied its deficiencies, and furnished special proofs of the divine presence and favour to his people; so the greatest spiritual gifts to the Church now, are not intended to supplant the use of ordinary means, but rather to encourage it by signs of the divine approbation; and the hope of such extraordinary gifts is never better founded than at those times when, instead of intermitting ordinary duties, we perform them with redoubled zeal.
But no extreme of judgment or of practice is to be corrected by another. While we shun the 'error of relying on extraordinary gifts as a substitute for ordinary duties, or as an apology for slighting them, let us not lose sight of such extraordinary gifts altogether, or regard them as impossible and hopeless, or as inconsistent with the faithful use of ordinary means. By so doing, we gratuitously throw away one of the most powerful incitements to duty, and most efficacious stimulants to hope and zeal. Nothing is better suited to invigorate habitual exertion than a firm belief that God bestows his most invaluable and special gifts on such as diligently seek for those of a more ordinary nature. To relinquish this belief and hope, is to cut the sinews of our spiritual strength even in relation to our ordinary duties. At the same time, this extreme of error and misconduct tends more directly to diminish the amount of good which we might otherwise accomplish. While it still remains indisputably true, that the extension of the Chruch and the conversion of the world are suspended, under God, upon the constant use of ordinary means, for the neglect of which nothing can compensate or atone; it is equally certain that the aggregate result of these means would be comparatively small, without occasional accessions of divine and human strength, making good, as it were by a single movement, the arrears of many years; and giving a new impulse to those means which, though they cannot be dispensed with, are too apt, in human hands, to grow inert and inefficient, unless frequently renewed and set in motion by a special divine influence. In other words, and in accordance with the figurative language of the text, although the kingdom of heaven, even now, as when it was first visibly erected upon earth, must grow by constant gradual accession, and although, if this mode of increase should fail, its place could be supplied by nothing else, yet even this increase is stimulated, and the aggregate result indefinitely multiplied, by those occasional seasons of awakening and commotion, when "the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force."
I rejoice to know that I address some, I trust many, to whom the extension of this kingdom is a subject of intense desire and fervent prayer. But do the hopes of such bear due proportion to their conscientious labours and their zeal for God? Are we not, Christian brethren, too prone to despondency, as well as to presumption and security; extremes which are continually found in close proximity, not only among members of the same community, but in the "vacillating, varying experience of one and the same person? And may not one of these extremes at least, arise from the mistake which we have been considering, the mistaken notion that because Christ's kingdom must be built up by a slow and sure increase, there is no such thing to be expected as a general and powerful commotion of men's minds, producing the same result upon a larger scale and in a shorter time; that because that vast reservoir of God's grace and man's happiness is fed by rivulets and drops in ordinary times, there is no such thing to be expected as the sight of an irresistible current impetuously setting in the same direction; that because we are accustomed to see men gained over, one by one, from the service of Satan and the world to that of God, there is no such thing to be expected in our days as that of the kingdom of heaven suffering violence, and the violent taking it by force? Oh, let us see to it, that even our attachment to the stated ordinary means of grace, and our well-founded fears of spurious and fanatical excitements, do not unfit us for the reception of extraordinary mercies, and betray us, for a time at least, into unreasonable trust in accustomed forms and methods, and a groundless dread of irregularity and insubordination, simply because in this day, as in that day, "the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force."
Is there not still a class to whom I may, without offence, address myself in terms of solemn warning and entreaty, in application of the subject which has been before us? I mean such as have long enjoyed the stated dispensation of God's word, but as yet seem not to have experienced its power. To such I venture to address myself directly, and to put the question, Are you not, perhaps unconsciously, relying on this passive enjoyment of religious privileges as a means of safety, independent of all serious reflection or exertion on your own part? Such a state of mind may be produced by a misapprehension or abuse of the doctrines which you have ever been faithfully taught, of God's sovereignty and man's dependence. But this only makes your error more alarming, and your danger more imminent. God is indeed the only Saviour, the alpha and omega of our hopes, the author and the finisher of our salvation; but he does not save men in their sleep, or carry them to heaven stupefied in deathlike lethargy. If he means to save you, be assured he will awaken you. However various the degrees and forms of that alarm which enters into all evangelical repentance, or prepares the way for it, you must experience some disturbance of your long and deep sleep of security. If the absence of any such emotion is the fault of God himself, derive what consolation you find possible from this blasphemous apology; but do not forget that after all, whatever be the cause, and wherever the blame lies, your deep sleep must be broken or you never will be saved. With all allowance for the freedom and variety of God's dispensations towards the souls of men, and for the difference produced by constitution, education, and the previous mode of life, it is still true that you cannot doze or dream yourself into salvation; that in some sense, and to some extent, a vehement exertion is required and produced in every soul to which God has purposes of mercy; and that this is not peculiar to one age or country, but characteristic of God's saving methods in all times and places. So that in a certain sense it may still be truly and emphatically said that "from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force."