A Sermon Delivered by DAVID B. UPDEGRAFF
Updegraff, David B. Old Corn; Or, Sermons and Addresses on The Spiritual Life. Boston: The McDonald & Gill Co., 1892, pages 241-254.
This is The Quaker Homiletics Online Anthology, Part 3: The 19th Century.
It is not our purpose in the present examination of this Scripture to consider either the rite of
baptism or its mode, but to call attention to the person, life, and ministry of John, as the herald of
our blessed Lord. It is always admitted that the position occupied by him in the history of divine
revelation is most unique. His personal relations to Jesus confer a special interest and peculiar
value to all that John ever said or did.
I. The circumstances that preceded and accompanied the birth of John are of the most interesting
character. The preparation of the race and of all things for the appearance of the Lord from
heaven, "the second man," were well-nigh completed. Prophecy and types had long been used to
make the idea of "God manifest in the flesh" conceivable to men. But all providential preparations
for the advent of the Savior of men were eclipsed by one who was especially ordained to go
before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways. The account of his nativity is carefully given by
Luke. Zacharias was a priest of the course of Abijah, and when he was chosen by lot to minister
before the Lord, he went into the temple to burn incense "according to the custom," while "the
whole multitude of the people were praying without," and the "people marveled that he tarried so
long in the temple." But there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord, standing on the right side
of the altar of incense. And the angel said, "Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy
wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John." Other predictions
followed. He should be great in the sight of the Lord. He should be a Nazarite. He should be filled
with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb. He should turn many of the children of Israel
to the Lord their God. He should make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
"Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years," was the
query of the doubting heart of Zacharias. And the angel said, "I am Gabriel, that stand in the
presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings." But
because Zacharias believed not his words, but wanted a sign, he got one, and the angel said,
Thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed."
When he came out, he explained to the astonished multitude by signs that he had seen a vision. As
soon as the days of his ministration were over he departed to his home in Judah, in the hill country
Elizabeth did conceive, and though the birth of John was not supernatural in the sense of being
contrary to nature, it was beyond the powers of nature, and he was thus the child of promise, as
Isaac had previously been. He was "sent from God," and was the gift of God, as the name John
When Zacharias wrote, saying, "his name is John," his sentence of muteness was terminated, and,
being "filled with the Holy Ghost," he prophesied in rapturous strains of the coming salvation.
Such was the early home of John; but even as a child he was in the desert, and waxed strong in
spirit until the day of his showing unto Israel. He was being prepared to "prepare the way of the
Lord." He was educated by the Holy Ghost. The Psalms of David and the prophecies of Isaiah,
Jeremiah and Malachi were, no doubt, but household words to him, while the memories of home
and the holy influence of parents filled with the Holy Ghost and "walking in all the
commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless," were all burned in upon his soul But he
was himself filled with the Holy Ghost, who could reveal the full consciousness of his high
commission, and this fact of itself is the solution of many a question that perplexes students.
His days were passed far from "the stunning tide" of the world's conflicts, and the cruel
magnificence of Herod's court was a thing of naught to John.
He was of the consecrated tribe of Levi, and a priest by birth, a conspicuous example of
hereditary sanctity and ceremonial religiousness, yet there is nowhere any reference to priestly
functions or any part whatever in the service of the temple. He was not even thus consecrated, but
was in the deserts until the day of his appearing unto Israel.
In the solitude of the caverns and-mountain gorges of the wilderness the word of God came unto
John, and his great soul was charged with Messianic revelations until they were like fire in his
bones. God's hour had struck, and God's man and messenger was ready.
II. We have now to consider the character and purport of John's ministry. "And he came into all
the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins."
Suddenly emerging from retirement, he came upon the scene of greatest publicity. "John came in
the spirit and power of Elias," who was in some respects his illustrious prototype. In austerity of
life, zeal for God, and a peculiar power of the Holy Ghost, they resembled each other. But the
contrasts were great as well. Elijah was the man of judgment, and a messenger of the old
covenant. The drouth, the sword, and the avenging fire which fell upon the captains and their
fifties at his word, all tell us this. And his career was fittingly closed when his chariot of fire, with
horses of fire, were swept up into heaven by a whirlwind. John was the man of mercy, the
messenger of peace and of the new covenant; the voice that cried, "Behold the Lamb of God!"
Again and again had all Levitical institutions been well-nigh destroyed by the evil doings of those
who "provoked the Lord God of Israel to anger." But again and again had they been restored by
men raised up of God like Asa, Josiah, Hezekiah and Nehemiah, who burnt idols, cut down
groves, put away wives, restored the feasts, rebuilt the wall, read the law, offered its sacrifices,
cleansed the temple, sanctified the priests, and put again to rights the whole machinery of the
Mosaic economy. Now again, at the close of that dispensation, we stand amid the fragments and
ruin of the whole system. God's sentence, uttered by His last prophet, had been: "I have no
pleasure in you, neither will I accept an offering at your hands." "Ye are cursed with a curse; for
ye have robbed me, even this whole nation." "Ye are gone away from mine ordinances and have
not kept them." "But my name shall be great among the Gen tiles." In fearful fulfillment had the
torrent of evil risen for four hundred years, and not a single prophetic voice to stem its tide. The
glory of the Lord had long since gone up from the midst of the city, and strangers were come into
the sanctuaries of the Lord's house." Judea was a Roman province, and the tribute money that
ought to have been given to God alone must be paid to Caesar. Into the midst of a scene like this
comes the Lord's "messenger" with a commission, "to give light to them that sat in darkness and
in the shadow of death, to guide their feet into the way of peace," and to "turn the disobedient to
the wisdom of the just." The question is, Did he do it? Jesus testifies that he "fulfilled his mission."
How? Was it by the restoration and reconstruction of Levitical rites? or by his Holy Ghost
ministry, for which there was no provision whatever in the law of Moses, any more than for the
symbol with which it was accompanied?
About thirty years before this, the few "just and devout" persons that were "waiting for the
consolation of Israel" had seen the Lord's Christ, and taken Him into their arms, and encouraged
one another to look to Him for "the redemption of Jerusalem." He was "an horn of salvation" and
the only "hope of Israel." They now had none whatever from Moses or the law. To the scattered
remnant, thus prepared and expectant, the first blast from the trumpet of "the prophet of the
Highest" was hailed as the glad tidings that the "Sun of righteousness, with healing in his wings,"
had indeed arisen. It was a summons to repent and "believe the gospel"-- that the kingdom of
heaven is at hand, because "the time is fulfilled." Once more, then, the solemn question is to be
answered, -The baptism of John, whence was it? From heaven or of men?" The "chief priests and
elders" of old were afraid to say it was not from God, and they knew it was not from Moses, so
they "could not tell." His tests of repentance and righteousness were too severe for these ruling
classes and domineering spirits. They could not make up their minds whether his mission was
human, divine or diabolic, but they say "he hath a devil." But there are those in this day who do
not hesitate to answer our Lord by saying we can tell. "It is from Moses, or possibly from the
Egyptians as saith Herodotus." But in this question Moses is included with all other men. There is
no third alternative. If it is from Moses, it is not "from heaven," which is to break the Scriptures,
which declare that John "was sent from God."
But once more, if from Moses, and he was "a priest under the law," his functions were clearly
prescribed, as well as his qualifications. (1.) He must be washed with water." He was there
clothed in garments of fine white linen, with a "girdle of needlework" and "white linen bonnets,"
all "for glory and beauty." Then their "hands were laid upon the head of the bullock for the sin
offering," and upon "the head of the ram for the burnt offering," and upon the "head of the ram of
consecration." "And Moses put of its. blood upon the tip of their right ear, and upon the thumbs
of their right hand, and upon the great toes of their right feet." "And Moses took of the anointing
oil and of the blood which was upon the altar, and sprinkled it upon Aaron and upon his garments,
and upon his sons and upon his sons' garments." They were then to "boil the flesh" of the ram of
consecration and eat it with the bread in the basket of consecrations," and for seven days was this
feast to be kept up at the "door of the tabernacle," "that ye die not." And this was priestly
consecration under the law. (2.) He must continually bring his own sin offering and burnt offering
and "make an atonement for thyself." (3.) His next work of offering the sacrifices and gifts of all
the people was ceaseless. His post of duty must ever be in the midst of moaning oxen, bleating
sheep and bleeding birds. He must stand between the people and their God and relieve them of
every offensive detail in these bloody and, to us, revolting rites. As the most complete antithesis
to all of this, look at John the Baptist. Instead of "living at the door of the tabernacle that he die
not," his life is in the "deserts "; instead of garments of "beauty and glory," see his rough and
uncomely clothing of "camel's hair"; instead of a linen "girdle of fine needlework" to fasten it
about his loins, see a strip from the "skin" of some animal; instead of feeding from a basket of
delicious "consecrations "presented by the people, his homely fare is furnished by the wilderness;
and finally, no uplifted knife or burning censer is ever seen in his hand. But instead of a round of
rites performed by the priest, independent of the moral instruction of the people, or of his own
moral condition, John the Baptist came forth in the fullorbed brightness and power of his
communion with God, and "full of the Holy Ghost," began his unceasing work to declare a "way
of righteousness," into which the moral offscouring of the world might at once enter, and so
"justify God." If otherwise, and his baptism was only one of the usages of the "law," how comes it
that "the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized
of him?" How came it that these "believed him not," but the publicans and harlots did, and went
into the kingdom of God before them? His ministry summoned men to moral renovation, and
unlike the ministry of those who minimize John's in the present day, it was clothed with the
authority of the Holy Ghost. The hardened soldier cried for mercy, the weeping harlot was
penitent, and the extortioner hastened to put his house in order. Such displays of God's power
caused even the onlookers in that day to reason among themselves, "Is not this the Christ?" They
never thought of Moses. His denunciation of sin, hypocrisy and uncleanness was carried into the
palace of the king, and his fearless proclamation of the "Lamb of God," as the sinner's only refuge,
received the tragic reward of moral courage. He was brutally murdered as the success of a vile
plot of Herodias, who is said to have pricked with a bodkin the silenced tongue of this inflexible
preacher of repentance. He suffered the ignominious death of a proto-martyr in the loathsome
fortress of Machaerus.
But let us briefly discuss some of the specific ideas, or rather doctrines, upon which John insisted.
Not as elaborate propositions, so much as trumpet peals of divine truth and gospel doctrines. We
believe, and shall insist upon it, that John heralded the hope of the world; that his lessons are
suited to every generation; that his message needs to be repeated in this nineteenth century as well
as to the first, and that it is indeed "the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God";
that Jesus sealed the new covenant made with man with His own blood, shed for the remission of
sins; and that John's ministry stands for the dispensation of the Son, and is intermediate between
that of the Father and that of the Holy Ghost, as it were, a clasp between the two.
Our text says, that he preached "the baptism of repentance unto the remission of sins." Not
baptism, but repentance for remission, is what John preached, and his entire ministry is elsewhere
simply called "John's baptism," a term which refers chiefly to the spiritual work wrought, but
including the simple rite that symbolized it.
(1.) John constantly proclaimed the truth about sin and its damning consequences: "O generation
of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" As their fathers were, so were
they, children of the wicked one. That was, and is, God's estimate of a sinner, and Jesus plainly
told them so. "From within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries,
fornications, murders, thefts," etc.
(2.) He not only proclaimed the blessedness of true believers as possessors of everlasting life, but
the eternal ruin and wretchedness of persistent unbelievers. "He that believeth not the Son shall
not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him "(John 3: 36).
(3.) John and Jesus were alike in commencing their public ministry by the cry, "Repent ye," and
they grounded this call not only on the above facts, but urged the gospel of the kingdom of
heaven that was at hand. A kingdom, however, demanding a thorough spiritual change, and not
the exclusive heritage of the Jews.
Hear John declare to them: "Abrahamic succession depended upon is only a millstone about your
necks." "It will not save you from the wrath of God." "Neither will any ceremonial observance."
"Even yielding so far as to accept baptism at my hands will not do it." "Nothing short of deep,
heartfelt repentance and the fruits thereof." "And God is able to raise up spiritual children unto
Abraham, even out of dead Gentiles."
(4.) John demanded fruits worthy of genuine repentance. He insisted upon the legitimate fruits
and practical power of repentance. "Now is the axe laid at the root of the trees: and every tree
which beareth not good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire." "The kingdom of heaven is at
(5.) But John not only preached the coming of the kingdom, he proclaimed the coming of the
King. Not as a king, but as the Lamb of God that taketh away sin. This was the great central fact
of all his preaching. Sin was guilt and condemnation. It was also defilement and death. But
through the blood of the atoning Lamb, there was pardon and peace, life and cleansing. "Behold
him!" "Believe on him, and receive everlasting life." Reject Him, and ye shall not see life, but the
wrath of God abideth on you.
(6.) The other thing that John preached concerning the person of Christ was, that He would
baptize His disciples with the Holy Ghost and with fire. The blood of the Lamb and this baptism
with the Spirit were indeed the two central and inseparable truths in all John's preaching. He never
taught his disciples that an experience of sins forgiven, and a new heart, was the ultimatum of
Christian life; on the contrary, he always taught the need of an after work of the Spirit to perfect
the inner life of holiness. "I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance," or having reference
to all that is implied in that word. It may also serve to effect important changes in your external
relations with men. "But he that cometh after me shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with
fire." "After" I have prepared His way by turning you to the Lord your God for the remission of
your sins, and the gift of everlasting life. This is a preparatory and foundation grace that is an
essential preparation for the supplemental baptism by the Lord Jesus. It is clearly taught by Christ
Himself, when He refers to this language of John, just before His ascension. His baptism was to
bestow upon the disciples His own conscious presence, in the person of the Holy Ghost. It was
not to supersede the necessity of foundation work, but to consummate or supplement it.
If, then, the question is still raised, What is involved or included in the ministry of John the
Baptist? we may recapitulate in brief by turning once again to the prophetic declaration of
Zacharias. He defines with perfect accuracy the "knowledge of salvation" that John was to give
unto his people. It should consist, first, in the remission of sins; second, guiding our feet in the
way of peace.
That this prophecy found an actual fulfillment in the spiritual lives of John's disciples, there can be
no possible reason to doubt. They repented, confessed and forsook their sins, and followed Jesus.
But repentance and confession of sin, coupled with faith in Christ, must result in pardon and
justification. It cannot possibly be otherwise. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to
forgive us our sins."
If a ministry, then, that "made ready a people prepared for the Lord," the following points are
clearly comprehended, whether the preacher be John, or any other true minister of Jesus Christ.
(1.) To turn men to the Lord their God, not to Moses, nor works, nor sacraments.
(2.) To give them a knowledge of salvation by the remission of their sins, through the tender
mercy of our God.
(3.) To give them light instead of darkness, life instead of death, and to guide their feet into the way of peace. And "being justified by faith we have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ," and in no other way.
John "did no miracle," but the resemblance between his mission and messages, and that of Jesus
and His disciples, is quite unmistakable; their work was in like manner preparatory. Not merely in
a chronological sense, or antecedent in point of time, but in a moral sense. The deeper realities of
Christ's baptism and discipleship can never be comprehended by men until they are prepared for
them by regeneration, or the beginning of Christian life. Foundation truths are much more easily
apprehended than the deeper spiritual truth concerning the baptism, indwelling and guidance of
the Holy Spirit.
Atonement and pardon are for the ungodly, and are adapted to their apprehension. The gift of the
Spirit is for the loving and obedient child.
The outpouring of Christ's blood was a visible, tangible thing that took place on this earth.
The outpouring of the Spirit is from heaven, and is a hidden mystery. There is, then, a double
sense in which men are to be prepared for the Lord.
(1.) Prepared for discipleship, as soon as the Lord should appear, and call them to "follow" Him.
This preparation was evinced by every one that Jesus thus called. "Immediately" they left their
nets and followed him.
(2.) Prepared for the "after" baptism of Him who was "mightier" than John, when Jesus was
glorified, and they were instructed to wait for it.
That John "fulfilled" his great commission, is borne witness to by Jesus Himself, whose name and
person the Baptist did his full part to embalm with an imperishable glory. Again and again did
Jesus assert the official dignity and grandeur of His servant John, and vindicate his personal
character, while His latest word spoken on earth implies the most solemn reinforcement of all that
had been said concerning the divine authority and marvelous results of the ministry of John the