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ELDER WM. L. BEEBE – DEAR FRIEND: – Will you please give your views on Matthew iii. 7-12, especially as to what the “trees” are, in tenth verse, also who are the “you” that John is baptizing, and the “you” that are to be baptized, in eleventh verse, and what is the fan, the wheat, and the chaff, in verse twelve?

Your compliance will oblige one who desires to know the truth.

REPLY. – The passage referred to is the rebuke addressed by John the Baptist to those Pharisees and Sadducees who came to his baptism, and his testimony of the glorious One who should come after him. In the preceding verses we are informed of the coming and preaching of this favored servant of God, and of the wonderful message by him proclaimed, not in the consecrated temple in Jerusalem, but in the wilderness of Judea. Selfish ambition would have suggested to John that his preaching, to be productive of the greatest benefit, should have been in the place where the people were accustomed to assemble to receive religious instruction, or at least in the city, or some public gathering; but the divine power by which he was sent led him to come “in the wilderness.” So very different is the way of the Lord from the “way which seemeth right unto a man.” The wilderness is the chosen place of the Lord for the revelation of his wonders of matchless grace. In the beginning of his own ministry our Lord was himself led, or driven, of the Spirit into the wilderness is specified as the peculiarly favored locality where the power of God was displayed. But while it was doubtless true that the ministry of John was first manifested in a wild and uncultivated region of Judea, yet the appropriateness of that place for the proclamation of his message only appears as revealed in the experience of the saints, all of whom are found, like Jacob, in the waste, howling wilderness, where there is no way. These are the poor and needy ones, to whom the announcement of the coming of the Holy One is good tidings of great joy. The ways of the Lord being equal, or consistent, (Ezek. xviii. 29,) he sends his gospel only where he has a people prepared to gladly receive the word. Therefore John did not come in the religious congregation of the self-righteous Jews, and in the royal courts of the kings of the earth, but in the wilderness of Judea, and in the solitary place, of which the Lord had declared by Isaiah, “The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall blossom as the rose.” And this is the place where it is appointed of the Lord that his chosen people shall experience his forgiving love and mercy, as declared by Hosea, ii. 14, 15: “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak comfortably unto her. And I will give her her vineyards from thence, and the valley of Achor [that, of trouble] for a door of hope; and she shall sing there, as in the days of her youth, and as in the day when she came up out of the land of Egypt.” To this people was John sent; and he came to them where they were, “in the wilderness.” So in every case the revelation of Christ Jesus as the only and complete Savior comes to the lost sinner in the wilderness of impenetrable darkness and gloom, where there is no way of deliverance in the power of self.

Then the message which John proclaimed was exactly adapted to the lost condition of those to whom it was sent. While the proud Prarisees were trusting in themselves that they were righteous, and despising others, and resting in their legal works and natural descent from Abraham, to commend them to the favor of God, they were not prepared to receive with joy the message sent from God by John. But to the disconsolate and solitary wanderers, who felt themselves lost, it was indeed “the joyful sound” to hear the word of the Lord commanding them to “repent,” that is, to turn from their effort to secure justification by service under the law of a carnal commandment, which could never give life, or make the comers thereunto perfect, to receive the gracious assurance that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Comparing Matthew iv. 17 with Mark i 15, it is clear that this announcement by John means that the “kingdom of God” is about to be manifested. This expression is defined to be “Righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.” – Rom. xiv. 17. Then the revelation of this kingdom in the experience of conscious sinners produces “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” And this repentance results not from the slavish principle of the fear of punishment, nor from the covetous desire of future reward, but from the love of holiness implanted within them and the right spirit given them by the amazing grace of God. Instead of compromising with the demands of divine justice, upon the basis of doing the best they can, and making up for whatever further may be required by the mercy of God remitting the remaining demands of justice, which is the highest expectation of the natural mind, they are amazed to find in the kingdom of heaven revealed within them the righteousness of God given to them, in which they are not merely pardoned, but freely justified from all things from which they could not be justified by the law of Moses, much less by any other works of their own. Then well may they be exhorted and commanded to repent, or turn away from depending on such works for salvation, in consideration of the gospel, the good news, that this kingdom, wherein dwelleth righteousness, is at hand. This kingdom is that “new heavens and new earth,” for which as many as are led by the Spirit of God look. – 2 Peter iii. 13.

Bearing in mind the peculiar relation occupied by John, as the messenger by whom the coming of the Lord was announced, his work is appropriately assigned him, “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” In this work that prepared people gladly received the good news, and came to confess their faith and hope in the coming Savior by being baptized with the baptism of repentance, that is, the profession that they turned away from trusting in the law of Moses, to the better hope of perfect righteousness in the Savior whom John announced. But, as is still the case, those who had no more enlarged understanding than what the natural man can receive, supposed that this kingdom proclaimed by John was but an improved form of that legal covenant which was given by Moses, and accordingly the Pharisees and Sadducees, standing high in that legal organization, came to receive whatever advantages might be secured in submitting to that ceremony administered by John, evidently having no idea of renouncing their allegiance to Moses. Instead of hailing them as a powerful and influential accession to the company of his outcast followers in the wilderness, this faithful servant of God plainly rejected them as destitute of the indispensable qualification for acceptance and admission to the ordinance of baptism, which he was sent from God to administer, presenting positively the necessity for fruits meet for repentance as prerequisite to the work to be administered by him. He was not empowered to prepare any one, but only to make ready such as were already prepared for the Lord. – Luke i. 17. This is precisely the peculiar characteristic of the church of Christ in the present day. While worldly religionists, actuated by carnal sympathy and zeal not according to knowledge, exhibit great anxiety to prepare all the human race for the Lord, and even blasphemously profess to send the gospel to distant lands in carrying on this work, the church of Christ still requires fruits meet for repentance, in evidence that every candidate for their fellowship has been prepared for the Lord; and still must we wait on the Lord for that preparation, without which the administration of baptism would be a mere mockery in profanation of that solemn ordinance of God, a sinful act of rebellion on the part of the church and administrator, and a meaningless and useless ceremony on the part of the deluded subject. The preparation must precede the administration of the ordinance, or it is no more baptism than if the form of its administration had not bee observed.

In addressing those who claimed the right to the ordinances of baptism on the ground of their own personal merit and their natural birth, the inspired designation of them as a “generation of vipers” was not in reference to their personal character, as charging upon them gross immortality. Probably they were as careful in their deportment as those whom The Lord condemned for their hypocrisy. – Matt. xxiii. But the very fact that they went about to establish their own righteousness, proved that they were utterly ignorant of the righteousness of God; even as the mad scheme of the same order of religionists, on the plain of Shinar, displayed their ignorance of the infinite height of the overarching heaven. In both instances the essential principle of all will-worship is manifest; that is, that man can do the work which will secure his own salvation. This principle is no more at variance with the truth of God when developed in those ancient votaries of human sovereignty in salvation, than when it is contended for by those of our own time who profess to trust in Jesus for salvation, yet depend on what they can do for themselves to make the grace of God efficacious in their behalf. According to this doctrine, their salvation is not effected by the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, but by their own works, on which they rely to secure to them the benefit of that redemption. All who thus despise the cleansing efficacy of the blood of Jesus evidently belong to the same “generation of vipers” whom John rejected, and upon whom the Lord denounced the woes recorded in Matthew xxiii. In nature, they could claim the blood of Abrahim, and recount their pious works; but these, instead of commending them in the sight of God, fully demonstrated that they were destitute of that repentance which results from the revelation of the perfect righteousness of God in Christ Jesus. The parable of the Pharisee and publican, with their different prayers, illustrates the same great truth. While the one cold boldly claim righteousness in his own works, the other, utterly destitute of any claim of justification in himself, and compelled by conscious sinfulness to cry to God for unmerited mercy, is presented by our Lord as going down justified, rather than the boasting Pharisee.

In the declaration that “God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham,” is asserted the sovereignty of God in the bestowal of his wondrous grace. As in the typical display of divine favor to Abraham and his promised seed, naturally, that people received the special protection of the Almighty, they had supposed that all his favor was confined to them, and that he would never manifest that favor to any outside of those whose natural descent could be traced through that fleshly lineage; now, John declares plainly the power of God to have mercy and compassion on whom he will, thus denying their claim to acceptance. The writer vividly remembers with what power this truth was applied in his own experience forty years ago, when sinking in despair of mercy from the holy God, whose justice clearly forbade all hope, this declaration of John was so presented as showing that all power is in his hand, and he is able to save to the uttermost all that come to God by Jesus. It has ever been peculiarly precious since that revelation.

The figurative expression, “The axe is laid at the root of the trees,” clearly indicates the destruction of that old covenant in which those carnal Jews trusted, to whom the language was addressed, as literally the axe is laid at the root of the trees for the purpose of cutting them down. And in this application of the figure, the trees would indicate the divinely authorized institutions, ordained by Moses and enjoined upon Israel to be observed throughout their generations till Shiloh should come, unto whom, at his coming, the gathering of the people should be. – Gen. xlix. 10; Deut. xviii. 15-18. The axe denotes the decree of God by which that dispensation, which had then waxed old, should be removed, to give place to that “kingdom of heaven” which John had preached as “at hand.” In the experience of the saints the time comes when all the “trees of the garden,” or refuges amongst which they have sought to hide themselves from the just condemnation of God fall before the axe of his inflexible justice. The law has for them nothing but condemnation; their righteousness is filthy rags; their very prayers are polluted by sin, and afford no relief. All the trees in which they trusted must fall before that sharp axe. So they are cut off from all hope, and from all that is seen they may truly say, “We are cut off for our parts.” – Ezekiel xxxvii. 11. The flaming fire of infinite holiness consumes every refuge, or “tree,” under which the sinner had hoped to find shelter. Now, to these destitute ones without hope, the gospel of repentance is indeed “good tidings of great joy,” and they are blessed to know the joyful sound.

The baptism of John was as the dawn of that glorious day to which the faith of patriarchs and prophets had longingly looked, of which the psalmist sung, “This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it;” which blazed forth with divine effulgence when the victorious Captain of our salvation, coming in the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory, baptized his chosen ones with the Holy Ghost and with fire on the day of pentecost. At the revelation of that great day, before the consuming brightness of his coming that typical Jewish earth and heaven fled away, its elements of meats and ordinances were melted, the middle wall of partition, the handwriting of ordinances, was blotted out, so that “there was no more sea,” that is, peoples shut out from the favor of God. – Rev. xvii. 15. The kingdom of this world were now become the boundless realm of our Lord and of his anointed.

The fan would indicate the separating work of the Lord in leading out his people from their connection with the legal worshipers, and their deliverance from the worthless chaff of ceremonial observances. That this fan is “in his hand,” signifies not only that this separation is effected at his will, and by his own power, (which is always the figurative import of the hand, as used by inspired writers,) but that the work will prosper to its full accomplishment. “He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set judgment in the earth; and the isles shall wait for his law.” – Isaiah xlii. 4.

When his work is thus completed, his floor will be thoroughly purged. This was the work before him, when he came not to do his own will, but the will of him by whom he was sent, to save that which was lost. On Calvary he declared that work finished; and in attestation of the thorough perfection of his service, he was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father. As the garner of the husbandman is the receptacle wherein his wheat is stored for safety, so it is symbolically used here to indicate the safe-keeping of the saints in the special care of their Redeemer, and their being gathered into the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. – Matt. xxv. 24. This kingdom is the glorious land of gospel rest and liberty into which the saints are translated by the Word of the Lord, which liveth and abideth forever.

When this great and marvelous work should be accomplished, and an end of transgressions should be made by the Strong Redeemer, then the “chaff,” the lifeless covering of rites and ceremonies, having served the purpose designed in covering the wheat until its maturity, shall be burned with unquenchable fire. The law of a carnal commandment, having served the design of the Lord in its typical proclamation of the salvation to be revealed in the coming of the Anointed One, was of no further service; and together with that dispensation figuratively designated as the first heaven and the first earth, which fled away from the presence of the coming Lord, was now canceled, being, in its every jot and tittle, fulfilled in Christ Jesus. Thus, the removal of that dispensation is predicted by Malachi, as the day that shall burn as an oven. So, in the experience of the saints, the salvation of the Lord is not revealed without the exhibition of the wrath of God not only consuming all our righteousness to be filthy rags.

Those whom John baptized with water on their manifesting fruits meet for repentance, were the same who were by the Lord baptized with the Holy Ghost and with fire; not in every case literally, but as in the case of Cornelius and his company, who had received the Holy Ghost before they were baptized by the command of Peter. Their baptism with fire is fulfilled in tribulation and fiery trials, which the saints must suffer in the world.

Hoping that our effort to comply with his request may be blessed to the satisfaction of our dear inquiring friend, and that with all who love the truth as it is in Jesus he may be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation, we submit this article in the consideration of the saints, with the desire that it shall only receive their approval as sustained by the standard of the inspired Scriptures.

Elder William L. Beebe,
Middletown, N. Y.,

Editorial – Signs of the Times
Volume 49, No. 23
December 1, 1881