Prophecy and History
in Relation to the Messiah

The Warburton Lectures for 1880-1884

Alfred Edersheim



And thou, child, shall be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou
shall go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways. Luke 1:76.

The more we succeed in transporting ourselves into those times, the less shall we wonder that multitudes flocked to the preaching of the Baptist, from ‘Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan.’ It was, indeed, in more than the barely literal sense, ‘A Voice crying in the wilderness.’ Never before in the history of Israel had there been such absence of every prospect of a new life. If, on the eve of the rising of the Maccabees, heathen opposition had been more systematic and cruel, imperilling the very existence of Judaism, there was at least a reaction in Israel, a conflict, and the possibility, if not the prospect, of national deliverance. But only wild fanatics could, unless maddened by despair, have hoped to shake off the rule of Rome, represented by the insolence and tyranny of a Pilate. With such a governor in place of the Son of David, with the High Priesthood almost hereditary in the proverbially corrupt and avaricious family of Annas, the condition of things seemed hopeless; while within Israel itself the life-blood of the Old Testament could scarcely pulsate any longer through the ossified arteries of Traditionalism and Rabbinism. The self-righteousness and externalism of the Pharisees, the indifference and pride of the Sadducees, the semi-heathen mysticism of the Essenes, the wild extravagance into which Nationalism was running,—all this was, indeed, making the once pleasant land a moral wilderness.

And now, of a sudden, ‘the Voice’ was heard in the wilderness! It was not that of Pharisee, Sadducee, Essene, or Nationalist—and yet the Baptist combined the best elements of all these directions. He insisted on righteousness, though not in the sense of the Pharisees; nay, his teaching was a protest against their externalism, since it set aside the ordinances of Traditionalism, though not after the manner of the Sadducees. John also practised asceticism and withdrew from the world, though not in the spirit of the Essenes; and as regarded Nationalism, none so zealous as the Baptist for the Kingship of Jehovah and the rule of heaven, though not as the Nationalists understood it. The Baptist was an altogether unique personality in that corrupt age. Even a Herod Antipas heard him; even a Josephus recorded his life and work; even the Pharisees and priests from Jerusalem sent a deputation to inquire—nay, to ask him (so truthful was he, and so little suspected of mere fanaticism)—whether he was ‘the coming One,’ or Elijah, or one of the prophets. Let us see what light his history and preaching reflect on the great Messianic hope of old, and on its fulfilment in the New Testament.

1. The character and life of the Baptist prove him to have been sent of God. It is not easy to speak of him in moderate language. Assuredly, among those born of women there was none greater than he. We can picture to ourselves his child-life: how, specially God-given, he was trained in the home of those parents whom Holy Scripture describes as ‘righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord, blameless.’ When he had attained the legal age, he would (or might) take part in the services of the Temple as a priest; and he must have witnessed them, long before that period. In Jerusalem he must have been brought into contact with the world of Jewish thought and religious life. But neither of these could hold, nor yet turn him aside from that calling for which at his Annunciation the Angelic message had designated him.

What the years of solitude and meditation in the wilderness, that followed, were to him, we can only infer from his after-life and preaching. That they were years of self-discipline, we learn from his self-abnegation, which rises to the sublimity of entire self-forgetfulness. That they did not issue in mental and moral hardening, to which such ascetic life might naturally lead, we infer even from his openness to doubt, and from the intense sensitiveness of his conscience, which appears in that sublimely heroic and most deeply touching incident of his closing life—the embassy of inquiry which he sent to Christ from his dungeon. And that he was most true and most truthful, who can doubt that considers what it must have cost such a man at the close, nay, near the martyrdom, of such a life, openly to have stated his difficulties, and to have publicly sent such a message. That he was simple, absolutely self-surrendering, and trustful, almost as a child, every act of his life testifies. That he feared not the face of man, nor yet courted his favour, but implicitly acted under a constraining sense of duty as in the sight of God, his bearing alike towards the Pharisees and before Herod amply proves. But above all, it is his generosity, and his unselfishness, and absolute self-abnegation, which impress us. In a generation pre-eminently self-righteous, vain-glorious, and self-seeking, when even on the last journey to Jerusalem the two disciples nearest to Christ could only think of pre-eminence of place in the kingdom, and when, in the near prospect of suffering to the Master, a Peter could ask: What shall we have? when, even at the last meal, the disciples marred the solemn music of this farewell by the discord of their wrangle about the order of rank in which they were to be seated at the Supper—the Baptist stands alone in his life and in his death: absolutely self-forgetful.

Here we would specially remind ourselves of the two high-points in the personal history of John. The first of these is marked by the events recorded in St. John 3:25-30. Nay, the ascent to it had begun even before that. It was on the very first Sabbath of John’s emphatic testimony to Jesus as the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world, that the two who stood beside him, his most intimate and close disciples—shall we not also call them his friends—John and Andrew, following the heavenly impulse that drew their souls, forsook their master for the yet silent Christ. It was only the beginning of a far wider defection. Not long afterwards his remaining disciples—and we almost love them for this generosity of their wrongful zeal of affectionate attachment—came to him with these, to them, so distressing tidings: ‘Master, He who was with Thee beyond Jordan to Whom thou bearest witness, behold, the same baptiseth, and all men come to Him.’ So then it seemed as if every tangible token of success in a life of such self-denial and labour were to be utterly taken away! The multitude had turned from him to another, to Whom he had borne witness; and even the one solitary badge of” his distinctive mission—baptism—was no longer solely his. But immediately we have the sublime answer which the Baptist made to his disciples: ‘Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before Him. He that hath the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.’ Not to murmur, but even to rejoice in his seeming failure of success, so that his preparatory work merged in the greater Mission of the Christ; and—not in the hour of exaltation, when most of us feel as if we could find room for nobler sentiments, but in the hour of failure, when we, mostly all, become intensely self-conscious in our disappointments—to express it, not in the resignation of humility, but with the calm of joyous conviction of its rightness and meetness: that he was not worthy to loose the latchet of His sandal—this implies a purity, simplicity and grandeur of purpose, and a strength of conviction, unsurpassed among men. And, to me at least, the moral sublimity of this testimony of John seems among the strongest evidences in confirmation of the Divine claims and the Mission of Christ.

There was yet another high-point in the life of the Baptist—though in a very different direction. Here evidence comes to us from the opposite pole in his inner life: not from the strength, but from the trial of his faith. Months had passed since his dreary imprisonment at Macchærus and yet not one step would, or perhaps could, the Christ take on behalf, or for the vindication, of him who had announced Him as the coming King. And the tidings which reached the Baptist in his lonely dungeon about the new Christ, as One Who ate and drank with publicans and sinners, were seemingly the opposite of what he had announced, when he had proclaimed Him as the Judge Whose axe would cut down the barren tree, and Whose fan would throughly sift His floor. Or—oh, thought too terrible for utterance!—might it all have been on a dream, an illusion? In that dreadful inward conflict the Baptist overcame, when he sent his disciples with the question straight to Christ Himself. For such a question, as addressed to a possibly false Messiah, could have had no meaning. John must have still believed in Him when he sent to Christ with the inquiry—reported both by St. Matthew (11:2-6), and St. Luke (7:18-23): ‘Art Thou He that should come, or do we look for another?’ But at what cost of suffering must it have been that the Baptist did overcome, and what evidence of truthfulness, earnestness, and nobility of heart and purpose does it reveal! And there is yet another aspect of it. Assuredly, a man so entirely disillusioned as the Baptist must have been in that hour, could not have been an impostor, nor yet his testimony to Christ a falsehood. Nor yet could the record which shows to us such seeming weakness in the strong man, and such doubts in the great testimony-bearer, be a cunningly devised fable. I repeat, that here also the evidential force of the narrative seems irresistible, and the light most bright which the character and history of the Baptist shed on the Mission of Christ.

2. In what has been said we have already in part anticipated the next point in our argument. And yet something remains here to be added. For the character and life of the Baptist cannot be viewed as isolated from his preaching. On the contrary, they reflect the strongest light on it, even as, conversely, his preaching reflects light on his character and life. One who was, and lived, as the Baptist must also have been true in his preaching; one who believed, and therefore preached, as the Baptist must have been true in his life. And both his preaching and his life shed light on the great Old Testament hope, and on its realisation in Christ.

When we ask ourselves what had determined the Baptist, after so many years of solitude in the wilderness, to come forth into such blazing light of publicity, to which his eyes had been so unaccustomed, and to face those multitudes, to whom he had so long been a stranger, with a message so novel and startling, his own account of it leaves us not in doubt of the motive for a change so complete, and, as we view it, so uncongenial to him. Unhesitatingly, to every kind of audience and inquiry, and with unwavering assurance, he tells it—yet not in fanatical language—that a direct call had come to him from God; a direct mission and definite message had been entrusted to him from heaven. It was to announce the Christ, and to prepare for Him. His public appearance, his call to repentance, his proclamation, his warnings, his baptism, his instruction to his converts—all imply, that in his inmost soul he felt, and that he acted, as sent directly from God. And not only so, but he also expressly tells us that he had a sign Divinely given him, by which actually to recognise Him, Whose near Advent was to be the burden of his preaching. ‘And I knew Him not; but He that sent me to baptise with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, the same is He which baptiseth with the Holy Ghost.’ From this it at least follows, that the Baptist himself entertained no doubt of his Divine commission to his special work.

One theory in explanation of his assertion we shall, I think, all dismiss almost instinctively. Certainly the Baptist did not speak conscious falsehood; certainly, he was not an impostor. Of the other alternative remaining we may, with almost equal confidence, put aside the supposition that his had been the dream of a fanatic. This is contradicted by all the facts of his life. There is not anything connected with it which we could designate as fanatical. And there is much to be urged in the opposite direction. To begin with: it were difficult to understand how fanaticism could at once attach itself to One Whom, as he tells us, he had not even known before He came to him for baptism, and Whose life had hitherto been one of the utmost privacy, and under so unpromising circumstances as a carpenter’s home in the far-off Nazareth of that Galilee, which the Judæans held in such supreme contempt.

Other considerations also are opposed to the theory of fanaticism. A fanatic would, in the circumstances, have at once identified himself with, and attached himself to Him, Whom he proclaimed as the Messiah; and he would have appeared prominent in His following. John remained alone, content to do his humble work, and willing to retire from the scene when he had done it. Again, a fanatic would have been alienated by the loss of his own adherents, and disappointed when he had to retire into obscurity and forsakenness. John accepted it, and rejoiced in it, as the goal of his mission. A fanatic would, in the peculiar circumstances, have been thoroughly, and also irretrievably, disillusioned by imprisonment and the prospect of martyrdom. And the Baptist was disillusioned of many of the expectations which he had apparently connected with the kingdom, when he had announced that the axe was already laid to the root of the tree. He was disillusioned of these, and therefore he sent his final inquiry to Christ; but he was not disillusioned of the Christ, and therefore he sent his disciples to Him. But why should we hesitate to believe what so naturally suggests itself in view of the character and life of the Baptist: that this good, true, unselfish, strong man, spoke what was real, and therefore acted what was true, when he declared himself to have been Divinely commissioned to announce, and to prepare for, the coming Saviour?

And, as we further look at it, is it not quite opposed to the theory of fanaticism, and quite accordant with belief in his true Divine commission, that what the Baptist enjoined as preparation for the kingdom was so simple and unfanatical. He preached not asceticism, nor long days of fasting and devotion; not enforced poverty, nor prescribed sacrifices, but repentance, and then a return into ordinary life,—only with a new moral purpose, and a new resolve to sanctify every occupation, however lowly or full of temptation, by a simple and earnest walk with God. It is not thus that a Jewish fanatic of those days would have spoken to the soldiers of Herod, nor to the publicans of Rome, nor to sinners, nor even to the self-righteous who gathered to his baptism, and asked his direction. Nor is it in such manner that a Jewish fanatic of those days would have spoken—nor yet even the most advanced in what represents the extreme opposite, or Hellenist, direction—when he addressed the Jewish people as a ‘generation of vipers,’ or referred to them as a tree to the root of which the axe was laid. We cannot find anything elsewhere, in any sense, parallel or even analogous to it. For such language we must go back to an Isaiah or a Jeremiah. Nor yet would a Jewish fanatic of those days have said to the Jewish people: ‘Begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.’ From all that we have learned of the history of Israel; from all that we have gathered of its literature, whether in the Apocrypha or the Pseudepigrapha, we can at least draw this one unassailable conclusion—that anything more un-Jewish than what John preached, or more unlike his times, could not be imagined. Assuredly, it must have come to him as a new fact, and a new message, directly from heaven.

And, lastly, as we compare the descriptions in the Pseudepigrapha, the utterances of the Rabbis, and the well-known expectations entertained by the people, with what John the Baptist announced concerning the coming kingdom, as one not of outward domination and material bliss, but of inward righteousness and acknowledgment of God—even the most prejudiced must admit, that if he were a Jewish fanatic, it was at least not in the language of Jewish fanaticism that he spoke by the banks of Jordan.

A similar conclusion is reached when we approach the subject from the opposite direction, and ask ourselves what light the preaching of the Baptist reflects on his character and life. Here the one clear outstanding fact is, that the burden of John’s preaching was the announcement of the Advent of the kingdom and of its King. And this, not as something new, nor yet, on the other hand, as answering to the expectations of his contemporaries, but solely as the fulfilment of the Old Testament promise. All else in his work and preaching was either preparation for, or the sequence from, this announcement. At the very outset of his mission this is placed in the forefront: ‘As it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.’ And this key-note of his preaching is heard in almost every recorded utterance of his. It would be difficult, without a detailed examination, to convey how constantly the Baptist recurs to Old Testament prophecy, and how full his language and its imagery are of it. His mind seems saturated with the Old Testament Messianic hope, especially as presented in the prophecies of Isaiah, and we cannot but conclude that, during those many years of his solitary life in the wilderness, this had been the very food and drink of his soul. If—with reverence be it said—the Mission of Jesus Christ might be summed up in the words: ‘Our Father which art in heaven,’ that of His forerunner is contained in these: Lo, the kingdom of God, promised of old to our fathers!

To make this statement more clear, let us think of the Old Testament sources of the few recorded sentences in the Baptist’s preaching. For such expressions of his as: ‘generation of vipers,’ we refer to Isaiah 59:5; for the ‘planting of the Lord,’ of which he speaks, to Isaiah 5:7; the reference to these ‘trees’ recalls Isaiah 6:13; 10:15, 18, 33; 40:24; that to the ‘fire’ reminds us of Isaiah 1:31; 5:24; 9:18; 10:17; 47:14; the ‘floor’ and the ‘fan’ are those of Isaiah 21:10; 28:27, &c.; 30:24; 40:24; 41:15, &c.; the duty of the penitent to give ‘bread and raiment to the poor’ is that enjoined in Isaiah 58:7; while ‘the garner’ of which John speaks is that of Isaiah 21:10. Besides these we mark the Isaiah reference in his baptism (1:16; 52:15), and especially that to ‘the Lamb of God’ (Isaiah 53); while, lastly, in reply to his final inquiry through his disciples, Christ points to a solution of his doubts, in accordance with the prophecies of Isaiah, 8:14, 15; 35:5, 6; 61:1.

And—to sum up in one sentence this part of our argument—if what has been stated in detail is incompatible with the theory that John spoke and acted as a Jewish fanatic, it is, on the other hand, the fact, that his character, life, and history, as set before us in the Gospels, are absolutely consistent with the declaration which he so solemnly made, and upon which he died,—that he had been directly sent of God to announce the near fulfilment in Christ Jesus of that great Messianic hope of the Old Testament which had set his own soul on fire.

One step in the argument still remains—although I almost shrink from taking it. I have in the preceding course of Lectures endeavoured to show how the great hope of the Old Testament gradually unfolded; I have followed its progression through the long ages to the period when the last prophet came, who summed up all Old Testament prophecy, concentrated and reflected its light, and pointed to Him in Whom was the fulfilment. If I were to attempt describing how completely the Reality answers to the portraiture by the Prophets, I would have to pass in review the entire history of ‘the Man of Sorrows,’ the Sacrifice of the Great High Priest, the teaching of the Prophet of the New Covenant, the spiritual glory of the King in His beauty, and the provision which He has made, to which not they of that generation, but all the faithful and true-hearted, from East and West, and North and South, are bidden welcome, together with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Here we must pause—since any attempt at comparison between our Lord and even those who stood closest to Him, and were most transformed into His likeness, seems almost irreverence. This only I say, that if we think of the Baptist, or of his utterances, by the side of those of Christ, we feel that, however pure and elevated, they still occupy merely Old Testament ground. Christ stands alone in His Kingdom. John is within the porch; Christ has stepped forth into the free air, into the new light and the heavenly life. And He has brought it to us and to all men.

In conclusion, I desire simply to indicate three great points which seem to mark the fulfilment of all in Christ. They are:—First, the finality of the New Testament. We are no longer in presence of preparatory institutions, nor do we expect any further religious development in the future. All is now completed and perfected. Secondly, we mark the universality of the New Testament dispensation and Church, as no longer hemmed in by national boundaries, or narrowed by national privileges, nor yet hindered by any limitation, intellectual or spiritual. It is a universal Church: for all men, for all times, for all circumstances. Thirdly, we are in view of this great characteristic—spirituality. To every one of us the Kingdom of God, with its blessings, comes directly from God; everyone is to be taught from above, and taught by the Holy Spirit; and to each the teaching is in its principle, perfect; in its character, heavenly; and in its nature, a spiritual life planted within the heart, unfolding and developing even to the completeness of the better state, and the ‘many mansions’ of the Father’s house. If Christ had taught mankind no more than this, ‘Our Father, which art in heaven,’—if He had opened no other vision, given no other hope than that of the ‘many mansions,’—He would have reflected the light of heaven upon earth, removed its woes, lightened its burdens, sweetened its sorrows, and smoothed its cares. Even so would He have been to mankind the fulfilment of the great Messianic hope of a universal brotherhood of peace and of holiness. But He has been more than this. He hath done what He hath said; He hath given what He hath promised. In Him is the Reality of all, and to all ages. In the fullest meaning of it, He is ‘the Light to lighten the Gentiles, and the Glory of His people Israel.’

Isaiah 53
Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed? For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.

Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

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