Topical and Doctrinal Notes
Thought: John the Baptist
We have learned who John the Baptist was-this rugged preacher in the desert and in the Jordan, clothed with a rough garment of camel's hair, and with leathern girdle, whose food was locusts and wild honey.
Soon after he had baptized our Lord Jesus Christ, John the Baptist was cast into prison. Why? You may read this in the fourteenth chapter of Matthew. It was for telling the truth. Do you remember what the Ten Blessings say about the blessedness of being hated and persecuted for righteousness' sake, and that so the prophets were persecuted who came before the apostles? John was one of these prophets. At the time of which our chapter tells, he was in prison, and later he was beheaded, and this, for righteousness' sake. You may be sure that his reward, as the Lord says in the blessings, was "great in the kingdom of the heavens." We need not fear death of the body, but we need to be terribly afraid to be unrighteous, for that leads to the death of the soul - the kind of death we talked about two lessons ago.
John was the last of the prophets before Jesus. But Jesus was the Prophet. A prophet means a teacher of truth. Therefore the Lord called Himself the "Son of man," for that was a title by which He addressed the prophets, as you can see by referring to the prophetical books of the Old Testament.
When John is still spoken of in connection with the Lord, he, as prophet, represented the teaching of the literal sense of the Word; and Jesus, being the Word, represented the essential Truth. While John was still in prison, he sent two of his disciples to Jesus to ask Him if He were the One who should come. A prison is a dark, cheerless place. So the letter of the Word, as people often have it in their minds, is in a dark and cheerless state. People do not understand it; they cannot see clearly what is meant by it. They are not sure of the internal sense when it is revealed to them, just as John when in prison asked questions of the Lord as to whether He was the promised One.
There are other things about the literal sense of the Word to which the Lord called attention, contrasting it with the internal sense. He asked the people what they went out into the wilderness to see? And He Himself answered the question by saying, "A reed shaken by the wind." (The Writings teach us that this is the way to read these words, not in the form of a question as our English Bibles print it. The Greek language in which the New Testament was written had no punctuation marks.)
Have you ever seen a reed or any long grass in the wind? How it bends before every breath of air, no matter from which quarter it comes! Is the literal sense of the Word that way? Yes. That is one of the strange and wonderful things about the letter of the Word; people can make it mean almost anything they like. It bends before every kind of breath, or spirit, of teaching. People have quoted the letter of the Word to prove that there are three Divine Persons. Again they proved by the letter of the Word, the contrary; the horrible falsity that Jesus Christ is not Divine. They take the letter of the Word to prove that man gets health, or is saved, simply by believing. They have proved by the letter of the Word, that it is right to keep slaves; that it is right to marry more wives than one; and a thousand other wicked and false things. Of course the truth is also proved by the letter of the Word, and that is the only right use that may be made of it. All the other ways of using it are "abuses" or "misuses" of it.
The Lord also referred to the coarse garments that John wore. So the letter of the Word has many things in it that are coarse: They tell of the coarse things men did and said in the past. But as John's garment was the best kind for the desert, so the letter of the Word is the best dress for the Divine Truth in the desert states of men.
On the other hand, they that wear soft garments are in kings' houses. That is, the beautiful soft presentations of the Lord's Truth are in the internal sense of the Word. The Lord is King, and His houses, His habitations in which the angels dwell, are the truths of the internal sense.
How shall I explain to you the difference between the literal sense and the internal sense?
Take something you all know: The Ten Commandments.
These tell us not to kill, not to commit adultery, not to steal, not to lie nor "bear false witness against thy neighbor." Are not the things here mentioned coarse? To kill is coarse and hard and horrible. But it is necessary to tell men who might do such a horrible thing that the Lord, who created all men, forbids the murder of any one of them. In the internal sense nothing is said about such coarse things as killing, or murder; but about soft and beautiful things that come into the lives of the angels who are full of love for their King.
Any kind of teaching is a "prophet." The prophet John taught the Word. The Lord said that John was "more than a prophet," in order to tell us that there is no teaching in the world that can be compared to the teaching that we derive from the Word. And yet the Word as the angels understand it, that is, the Word in its internal sense, is far superior to anything in the literal sense, or as men in the world understand it. This is what the Lord meant when He said that "the least in the kingdom of the heavens is greater than" John.
You will notice the expression "all the prophets and the law" (verse 13). That means the prophetical books of the Old Testament, and also the historical, especially the books of Moses, which contain very many laws.
The prophets represented the Lord who was going to come into the world; and the things that they did represented what He would do. The Law contained many directions how to prepare sacrifices and other things they used in their worship. These represented the Lord and what He does for man to save him. But when He came into the world, He put an end to sacrifices, and washings - all things of the Law - for He whom they had represented had come into the world, and He began to teach them what they had represented. "The Law was given by Moses. Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ."