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MINISTRY OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
Luke 3:4-42.3.6. 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. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
THERE is an abruptness in the language of the prophets, which, though it sometimes casts an obscurity over their writings, often gives them very peculiar force and energy. This may be noticed particularly in the passage referred to in our text. At the beginning of the fortieth chapter of his prophecies, Isaiah, without any particular intimation of it breaks forth into a distinct subject, which from that time occupies his chief attention. He has indeed in the preceding chapters occasionally spoken of the Redeemer’s kingdom: but from the beginning of this chapter he almost loses sight of the deliverance from Babylon, and dwells, even in the primary sense of his words, on the more important deliverance of men from their bondage to sin and Satan. He informs us [Note: ver. 1, 2.] that God had commissioned him to comfort his drooping people with assured prospects of his returning favour through the intervention of the Messiah. Then, passing over eight hundred years as scarcely more than a single day, he seems to himself to hear the very voice of Christ’s forerunner, and to see him occupied in preparing the Messiah’s way: and then, with a confident expectation that God’s word should stand, he predicts the ultimate and universal establishment of the Messiah’s kingdom.
The passage is quoted by St. Luke as actually fulfilled in the preaching of John the Baptist; and it may well be considered as of peculiar importance, since it is quoted by all the Four Evangelists. In considering it, we shall be led to shew,
What are the chief obstructions to our Redeemer’s kingdom—
Some there were peculiar to the apostolic age—
[The Jews were so attached to Moses and their law, that they could not endure any thing which appeared to weaken their authority, and to transfer the people’s regard to any other teacher. Knowing that their religion was from God, and not aware that it was intended only to be of temporary duration, they accounted it the vilest blasphemy to speak of the ministry of the one, or the authority of the other, being superseded.
They had also very erroneous notions of the Messiah’s kingdom: they supposed he would be a great temporal prince, who would deliver them from the Roman yoke, and raise their nation to the highest pinnacle of human grandeur. Hence they were quite indignant that a poor despised Nazarene, who himself their Messiah.
These prejudices greatly obstructed the establishment of Christ’s kingdom among them, and proved an almost insurmountable bar to their conversion.
Nor were the Gentiles in a state more favourable than the Jews. They were addicted to the vilest lusts, the grossest superstition, the most confirmed idolatry. The more learned among them were still further from the kingdom of God, and more hostile to it, on account of their philosophic pride, which led them to reject every thing which did not savour of human wisdom, and the Gospel especially, which appeared to them so repugnant to it. To be saved by a man who was crucified, and therefore apparently unable to save himself, was in their eyes a most flagrant absurdity.
Thus St. Paul informs us, that “the preaching of the cross was to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness.”]
But there are others, which are common to all ages—
[It is not needful to distinguish between the different parts of the imagery, whereby these obstructions are described; else we might see in the elations of pride, the stubbornness of passion, and the gloominess of despondency, a correspondence between the terms that are used, and the obstacles that are depicted. Certain it is, without intending to refine upon the text, that these are the most common impediments to the establishment of the Messiah’s kingdom.
Men will not endure to be told that they are justly obnoxious to the wrath of God, and utterly incapable of saving themselves; and that all, the best as much as the worst, must be indebted to the Lord Jesus Christ for all their hope and all their salvation. The pride of the human heart rises against this, and turns from it with disgust. The lusts and passions of men also are averse to the dominion of Christ: they hate controul: they will not submit to the restraints of the Gospel: to have them mortified, is like the plucking out of a right eye, or the cutting off of a right hand: the spiritual, as well as the fleshly, filthiness that is in us, pleads for indulgence: and every disposition of the mind, as well as every appetite of the body, sets itself against the authority of Christ, and rejects his yoke.
But besides these, which are the more obvious impediments to the Gospel, there are some others, which, though little noticed, are both powerful and common. There is in most men a tendency to despair. Whilst the unbelief of some leads them to despise the Gospel as an idle tale, in others, it operates to keep them back from embracing it, under an idea, that they never can be brought to the state that it requires. Either their guilt appears too great to be forgiven, or their lusts too strong to be subdued, or their circumstances so peculiar, as not to admit of so great a change in all the habits of their life.
These are obstacles which we all feel in a greater or less degree; and which must be removed, before Christ can enter freely into our hearts.]
That a view of these things may not discourage us, let us consider,
How they are to be removed—
As there were some peculiar obstacles in the apostolic age, so were there also peculiar circumstances calculated to remove them—
[The general expectation of the Messiah, which prevailed about the time of his coming, certainly tended to prepare his way. The preaching of John the Baptist, who with holy firmness laid his axe to the root of Pharisaic pride and hypocrisy, awakened a great and general attention to religion [Note: Matthew 3:5-40.3.6.], insomuch that many doubted whether he were not the Messiah himself. The ministry of Christ also produced a general sensation through the Jewish land: the holiness of his life, the wisdom and authority of his words, and the number and beneficence of his miracles, wrought conviction upon the minds of thousands, and drove his enemies to the necessity of putting him to death, or of leaving him in the uncontrolled possession of universal influence. The ministry of the Apostles, confirmed as it was by the descent of the Holy Ghost, by the gift of tongues, and by miracles unnumbered, had yet greater effect: it bore down all opposition, and triumphed over the united powers of earth and hell. The universal extension of the Roman empire contributed also not a little to the facilitating of the establishment of the Redeemer’s kingdom; since it gave to the Apostles an easy communication both with Jews and Gentiles throughout the world, in almost every part of which the Jewish Scriptures had already prepared their way.]
But it is of more practical importance to shew how our difficulties are to be removed—
[As these are the same in every age, so the means of removing them are such as are open to the use of all. We need notice only two; and these are, repentance and faith. Repentance is the great leveller of all obstructions: it “humbles the loftiness of man,” and “brings into captivity every thought that exalts itself against the knowledge of Christ.” Wherever real penitence exists, it brings the soul into the dust before God. No longer is the Gospel deemed unnecessary or severe: the penitent sees, that without it he must inevitably perish. Whether he have been more or less moral, he is equally disposed to smite on his breast and cry for mercy. His vain conceits of his own goodness all vanish; and, instead of despising others as inferior to him in sanctity, he accounts himself rather “the chief of sinners.” And it deserves particular attention, that the Baptist himself prescribed this as the very first and principal means of smoothing the way for the reception of Christ [Note: ver. 3.].
The next means, and that which renders the other effectual, is faith. This, no less than repentance itself, is an universal leveller. If repentance brings down the hills and mountains, faith exalts the valleys, straightens the crooked paths, and smooths the rough. Wonderful indeed is the efficacy of humble faith: it dissipates at once all desponding fears: the things which appeared utterly insurmountable, now become plain and easy: the blood of Christ is acknowledged as sufficient to cleanse them from all sin; and the grace of Christ as sufficient to make them victorious over every enemy. It is remarkable that our blessed Lord, on his first entrance on his ministry, united this with repentance, as the grand, the effectual expedient for establishing his kingdom in the world [Note: Mark 1:15.]. And his Apostles after him continued to further his interests in the very same way: they preached everywhere “repentance towards God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”]
To stir us up to that exertion which is necessary, let us contemplate,
The blessed consequences of their removal—
The manifestation of Christ’s glory is that which ever did, and ever shall, follow the removal of those things which have hitherto veiled him in obscurity.
See how it was on his first appearance—
[The clouds which surrounded him, concealed in a measure the bright effulgence of his rays: his humble birth, his mean appearance, the contempt and abhorrence in which he was held, all tended to cast a veil over his divine majesty: yet even then his own more immediate Disciples “beheld his glory, as the glory of the only-begotten of the Father.”]
See it more particularly after the day of Pentecost—
[Till that time his very Apostles saw but very imperfectly the nature of that kingdom which Christ came to establish: but when the Holy Ghost had opened their eyes, and had sealed their testimony on the hearts of others, what a splendour beamed from the countenance of our incarnate God! Then it was seen, that he who had been “crucified, was the Lord of glory,” the brightness of the Father’s glory, and the “express image of his person.” Every eye looked to him: every heart trusted in him: every soul “received out of his fulness grace for grace.” He was that object which, if I may so speak, was the centre and circumference of the globe: in him all united; and beyond him none aspired. “In him the whole body of believers, collectively and individually, were complete.”]
See it at this hour—
[Who is loved? who is honoured? who is served? who is glorified, wherever the Gospel prevails? who, but that adorable Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ? Those who once saw “no beauty or comeliness in him for which he was to be desired,” now behold him as “fairer than ten thousand, and altogether lovely.” “He is truly precious” to their souls; and to call him “their Friend and their Beloved,” is the highest object of their ambition, or, rather, the only thing about which they have any material concern. It is the same in every quarter of the world: it is the same amongst high and low, rich and poor, learned and unlearned: if “God have shined into their heart to give them the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” they “determine to know nothing else,” to“glory in nothing else:” “this is all their salvation, and all their desire.”]
But who can tell what it shall be in the latter days?
[The text informs us, that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Hitherto, notwithstanding all the efforts that have been used to spread the Gospel, darkness very generally prevails, and the obstacles to the Redeemer’s kingdom are but partially removed. But the day is near at hand, when “all nations shall serve him,” and “all people shall know him from the least of them to the greatest.” Yes, “the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it;” and therefore it shall assuredly come to pass. Obstructions there are, no doubt, both great and numerous: but “before Zerubbabel the mountains shall become a plain.” The extension of vital Christianity through the world is not more incredible than the establishment which it has already gained in the earth; especially when we consider, that, what has been already done, is, under God, the work of a few unlettered fishermen. O that that day may appear! O that God would “hasten it in his time!”]
[As “a voice crying in this our wilderness,” I would now say to you, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” He has entered into the world: he has established his kingdom among men; he now “stands and knocks at the door of your hearts,” and desires admission into them. O think what is it that obstructs his entrance into your hearts? Is it a proud conceit of your own goodness? Let this mountain be brought low, comparing your lives with the demands of God’s holy law. Is it an inveterate love of sin, and of this present world? let it give way to penitence and faith, that your path may be plain and smooth. Is it a doubt of the practicability of your salvation? Rely on Christ: “all things are possible to him that believeth.”
Perhaps you will say, that “a preparation of heart must be from the Lord:”true; but it must be sought by you in the daily exercise of meditation and prayer. If you need any incentive to these duties, do but reflect upon the benefits resulting from them: think of a revelation of Christ to your soul! think of his glory exhibited to the eyes of your mind, and shining with increasing brightness to the perfect day! think too in how little a time you will “see him as he is,” and “be with him for ever!” Dearly beloved, beg of God to “take the stumbling-blocks out of your way:” he is the same gracious God as ever he was; and if you cry unto him “he will make an high-way for you, like as he did for Israel in the day that he brought them out of the land of Egypt [Note: Isaiah 11:16.];” he “will make darkness light before you, and crooked things straight: these things will he do unto you, and not forsake you [Note: Isaiah 42:16.].”]
LIBERALITY TO THE POOR
Luke 3:10-42.3.11. And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.
IN order to understand the true meaning of any part of Scripture, the strictest attention must be paid to the context. If this rule be not observed, there is scarcely any thing which may not be sanctioned by the inspired volume; and the most contradictory positions may appear to stand on equal authority. Suppose, for instance, the question in our text be taken, as other apparently similar questions must be taken, namely, as an inquiry into the way of salvation; we shall make John the Baptist return an answer directly contrary to the whole tenour of the Gospel. When the gaoler asked Paul and Silas, “What he must do to be saved?” they answered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved [Note: Acts 16:30-44.16.31.].” This is the only true answer that can be given to that question; for “there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we can be saved,” but the name of Jesus Christ [Note: Acts 4:12.]. But if we look into the context, we find that John the Baptist had been “preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins [Note: ver. 3.];” or, in other words, had been preaching salvation by Jesus Christ, exactly as the Apostle Peter, and indeed all the Apostles, did on the day of Pentecost [Note: See the people’s inquiry, and Peter’s answer, Acts 2:37-44.2.38.]. Then, seeing multitudes coming to him for baptism, and apprehending that the great majority of them were taking up a profession of religion upon very light and erroneous grounds, he cautioned them strongly against a presumptuous confidence on the one hand, or an unproductive and hypocritical profession on the other; and exhorted them, if they would not experience the fate of a barren tree, to “bring forth fruits worthy of repentance [Note: ver. 7–9.].” In reply to this, the people ask, “What shall we do?” That is, What fruits shall we bring forth, in order to evince our sincerity [Note: See the Greek, ver. 8–10. This will remove all doubt: for they adopt the very same term as John had used.]? And the direction which John gives them, is an answer exactly suited to the occasion: it is to this effect; ‘If you would approve yourselves sincere and upright in your profession of faith in the promised Messiah, shew forth your faith by your works, and, above all, by an abounding exercise of love.’
Having thus prepared our way by a view of the context, and having ascertained what the Baptist’s design was in giving the people the direction in our text, we shall proceed to the more distinct consideration of his answer, and shall open to you,
It is manifest that the direction given by him is figurative, and therefore not to be taken in its strict and literal sense. But we must not therefore imagine, that we are at liberty to disregard it, as though it had no force at all. There can be no doubt but that the Baptist intended to inculcate a very tender compassion towards our indigent fellow-creatures, and a very enlarged exercise of liberality for their relief. To obtain, with as much precision as the subject is capable of, the true import of his words, we shall adduce from other parts of Scripture, but especially from the writings of the same Evangelist,
Some other passages of similar tendency—
[First, we shall notice one or two that are also figurative [Note: Luke 12:33-42.12.34; Luke 14:12-42.14.14.] — — — There can be no doubt but that these require a very high degree of liberality to the poor, since they were actually practised in their strictest sense by the first Christians [Note: Acts 2:44-44.2.45; Acts 4:32-44.4.37.] — — — From these we may turn to others that are more plain [Note: Luke 6:38; Luke 11:41.] — — — What an accumulation of words is there in the former of these passages to encourage our compliance with the precept; and what a gracious benediction in the latter! — — — To the rich there is an especial charge given to be bountiful [Note: 1 Timothy 6:18-54.6.19.]; but it is not to them only that this duty belongs; but to those also who gain a daily subsistence by their manual labour [Note: Ephesians 4:28.]. To all, according to their ability, it equally appertains; for, on the foresight of a dearth in Judζa, all the disciples of Antioch, every one according to his ability, contributed instantly to their relief [Note: Acts 11:28-44.11.30.].]
Some examples which are set forth for our imitation—
[That of Zaccheus is particularly to our purpose, because he was just converted to the faith of Christ, and because our blessed Lord himself acknowledged this heavenly disposition to be an evidence of his having actually obtained acceptance with his God [Note: Luke 19:8-42.19.9.] — — — But the example of the Macedonian Churches is yet more pertinent; because it is an example, not of an individual, but of whole Churches; and those, not in a state of ease and opulence, but of great affliction and deep poverty; and because it is expressly set forth for the imitation of others, who are called upon to imitate it, in order to prove the sincerity of their love to Christ [Note: 2 Corinthians 8:1-47.8.4; 2 Corinthians 8:8-47.8.9.]. By carefully comparing these several passages, we see clearly what our duty is: we are not required to burthen ourselves in order to ease others, but so to participate their burthens that they may partake of our ease [Note: 2 Corinthians 8:13-47.8.14.]: thus to “bear one another’s burthens is eminently to fulfil the law of Christ [Note: Galatians 6:2.].”]
Having thus marked the import of the injunction in our text, we proceed to shew,
The whole of God’s “law is good,” and the service it requires is reasonable. But the duty enjoined in our text, though arduous to a selfish mind, is particularly reasonable. For consider,
What obligations we owe to God for the superior comforts which we enjoy—
[It is God who assigns to all their lot, not only in respect to the situation in which they are born [Note: Acts 17:26; Acts 17:28.], but in all the changes, whether prosperous or adverse, which they experience through life [Note: 1 Samuel 2:6-9.2.7.]. Whatever therefore we have above others, “it is God alone who has made us to differ [Note: 1 Corinthians 4:7.].” And how eminently is this the case with respect to the ravages of war which during these last twenty years have desolated almost the whole of Europe, but have never reached our happy land! Compare our state with that of a great part of Germany at this present moment [Note: This Sermon was preached in 1814, on occasion of a collection for the relief of the most grievous distresses in Germany.], and then say, whether a compassionate regard for our suffering fellow-creatures be not called for at our hands, and whether such an expression of it as our text requires, be at all unreasonable? Methinks, it is not possible to have even the most indistinct view of our obligations to God, without saying from our hearts, “What shall I render unto the Lord for all the benefits that he hath done unto me?”]
What we ourselves should desire, if we were reduced to the state in which myriads of our fellow-creatures now are—
[It is not easy to place ourselves in the situation of persons of whom we hear only by report: but yet we may conceive what we ourselves should desire, and what we should think reasonable, if we were perishing with cold and nakedness and hunger, whilst others, embarked in the same cause with ourselves, were exempt from those sufferings, and were enjoying comparative ease and affluence. Should we not wish them to stand forth for our relief? Should we not think it reasonable, that their exertions should rise in proportion to our necessities, and that they should almost literally fulfil the precept in our text, the man who had two coats imparting to us who had none, and that he who had meat should do likewise? Let us adopt for our principle the golden rule, and “Do unto others, as we would they should do unto us.”]
What our blessed Lord and Saviour has done for us—
[This is the consideration which St. Paul himself suggests in reference to this very point [Note: 2 Corinthians 8:9.]. O consider, “how rich he was” in the possession of his Father’s glory; and how “poor he became,” “not having so much as a place where to lay his head,” but dying under the curse that was due to our sins. Consider too what his object was; namely, that we, who deserved to be in hell without a drop of water to cool our tongues, might through his poverty be rich, and possess all the glory of heaven. Does such love as this require no return? When this very Saviour tells us, that what we do unto the least of his brethren, he accepts as done to himself, shall we think any requisition hard, or any sacrifice too great? Truly, not only our property, but even our life itself, may well be sacrificed for him [Note: 1 John 3:16. Acts 21:13.]; and we should account ourselves happy in proportion as we have an opportunity to advance his glory in the world.]
But instead of dwelling any longer on the general reasonableness of this precept, we will proceed to notice,
Its suitableness to the present occasion—
[Rarely, if ever, has greater occasion for charitable exertions existed than at present [Note: Here the particular occasion should be opened at considerable length.] — — — Now therefore we might justly call upon you to comply with our text almost in the literal sense. But, waving that, we must urge you to adopt the principle that is there inculcated — — — and to bear in mind, that “he who soweth sparingly, shall reap also sparingly, and he who soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully. Let every man do according as he is disposed in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loveth a cheerful giver [Note: 2 Corinthians 9:6-47.9.7.].” Do not however forget the important distinctions with which we began the subject. It is to glorify Christ, and to shew the sincerity of your love to him, that we invite you;—not to purchase heaven by your alms. Bear that in mind; and God will not forget it in the day of judgment.]
PRACTICAL DUTIES ENFORCED
Luke 3:10-42.3.14. And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise. Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you. And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.
WHATEVER want of human learning men may feel, they are, for the most part, well satisfied with their attainments in religious knowledge. If they are conscious of some faults, they do not suspect any want of just information, but only a defect in practising what they already know. But when persons begin to see their guilt and danger, they find that they need to be instructed in the very first principles of religion; and they are glad to make inquiries, which formerly they would have utterly disdained. This was the effect produced by the ministry of John the Baptist. The Scribes and Pharisees, being filled with self-conceit, rejected his word, and represented him as no better than a demoniac: but multitudes of others came to him with great solicitude, not to obtain answers to any speculative questions, but to ask, What they must do, to escape the wrath which he had so forcibly set before them.
We shall find it profitable to consider,
His answers to their inquiries—
Those who successively applied to him, and to whom he gave his answers, were,
[As these must of necessity comprehend a great variety of characters, the Baptist gave his answer generally, so as to strike at the characteristic evil of our fallen nature, selfishness. The natural man lives neither for God nor for his fellow-creatures, but for himself alone. If he has great superfluities, he may without any difficulty give something to the poor and indigent: but if he has little more than bare necessaries, he feels little, if any, responsibility for the use of them, and is chiefly occupied in making them subservient to his own comfort. From this selfish disposition innumerable evils proceed: indeed, it lies at the root of almost all evil. Hence the Baptist set himself in the first place to counteract it; and recommend in its stead the universal exercise of liberality and compassion.
That the Baptist’s injunction should be taken according to the strict letter, we do not say: but, to give it any sense at all, it must imply far more then is commonly practised, or generally supposed to be our duty. The least it can mean is, that we should consider ourselves as stewards of all that we possess, and dispose of it conscientiously for the honour of God and the benefit of our fellow-creatures.]
[The publicans were persons appointed under the authority of the Roman government to collect the taxes; and so odious was the office among the Jews, that few who had any regard for their own characters, would undertake it. Hence it was executed very generally in an unjust and oppressive manner; insomuch that the office, which was at first hated only on account of its evincing the subjection of the Jews to a foreign yoke, became proverbially infamous on account of the conduct of those on whom it was conferred.
Among the candidates for baptism were some of these: and they likewise inquired, what they should do. Now it is worthy of observation, that John did not recommend them to give up their office, notwithstanding the difficulties and temptations that attended the execution of it; but only to guard against the evils that were commonly practised in the discharge of it. The greater the temptations to which they were exposed, the more desirable it was that the office should be filled by persons who were truly conscientious; and the more honour such persons would do to religion, by maintaining an unblemished character in such a post. His advice therefore to them was, to exact nothing beyond what they were authorized to demand, but to regulate their whole conduct agreeably to the laws of justice and equity.
This injunction however need not to be confined to them: it is equally applicable to all persons possessed of official authority, and indeed to all persons, whose interest might lead them in a way of trade or business to impose on others for their own advantage [Note: The duties of Custom-house officers might here be profitably insisted on, especially in places where several might be supposed to be present. But when pastoral fidelity leads us to make observations which may be considered as personal, we whould be careful to make them the utmost delicacy and tenderness.].]
[The grace of God, which nothing can withstand, had reached the hearts of some of these: and they too made similar inquiries. To them also did the Baptist make a similar reply. Unfavourable as the life of a soldier is to the cultivation of piety, he did not tell them to get their discharge, but cautioned them against the evils incident to their profession. From their very education and mode of life, they are apt to disregard the feelings of men, and to injure or insult those who do not immediately comply with their wishes. In that age and country, it was also common for them to turn informers, that by false accusation they might share the fines that might be levied, or obtain bribes for exercising a pretended forbearance. Discontent and mutiny too were evils to which they were in general prone.
Against all of these practices the Baptist warned them. He testified that all such things were evil, and that every person must abstain from them, if he would avoid the wrath which hangs over the head of every impenitent transgressor.
But neither should these cautions be limited to those who made the inquiry, nor to persons engaged in the military life: for the duties of peacefulness, equity, and contentment are applicable to every situation, and every age — — —]
That these answers may appear in their proper light, we shall proceed to shew,
The suitableness of them to the occasion—
Certainly at first sight they appear defective, not to say, erroneous: for it never can be admitted for one moment that the correcting of those habits would procure everlasting salvation: such a reformation could make no atonement for their past sins, nor could it in any way supersede the necessity of believing in Christ. To understand the matter aright, we must consider what the import of their inquiries was, and what was the Baptist’s more immediate office. John had told them all to “bring forth, (the word means, do,) to do fruits meet for repentance.” They immediately inquire, each for himself, what are the particular things which they must do [Note: ποιήσατεκαρποὺς—τί ποιήσαμεν.]; that is, what they must do to evince the sincerity of their repentance? This is the question to which all his answers were directed. If it be thought that he should have begun to “preach Christ unto them,” I answer, This was not his office, at least, not in the plain specific way in which the Apostles preached Christ on the day of Pentecost: he was rather “to prepare the way of the Lord;” and therefore he “preached only the baptism of repentance [Note: Luke 3:3-42.3.4.].” Bearing these things in mind, his answer will be found precisely suited to the occasion. They were calculated to impress upon their minds the following truths:
Evil habits are an obstacle to the reception of the Gospel—
[Who does not see that the indulgence of their respective sins was calculated to blind their eyes and harden their hearts? Are persons, at the very time that they are addicted to the grossest immoralities, in a state fit to receive instructions in the sublime doctrines of the Gospel? Must not every word of it appear “foolishness unto them?” What was the effect produced on the worldly-minded Pharisees, when our Lord spoke of “making to ourselves friends of the unrighteous mammon?” We are told, “the Pharisees, who were covetous, heard all these things; and they derided him [Note: Luke 16:14.].” And does not daily experience shew, that there must be a certain preparation of mind for the due reception of truth? If you cast the best seed that can be procured into land not broken up, but overgrown with briers and thorns, will you expect a harvest? So, if persons be not sufficiently convinced of the evil of their ways as to be willing to reform them in matters which unenlightened reason would condemn, there can be no hope that they will improve aright the sublimer truths of revelation.
The Baptist’s answer then was precisely what you would give to a man who by continued drunkenness had brought on a fever: ‘I can recommend you to a physician, whose prescriptions will infallibly cure you; but it is in vain to go to him, if you do not determine to put away your habits of intoxication.’]
The putting away of besetting sins is an indispensable evidence of our sincerity—
[The people professed to be penitent, and asked what they must do to prove it. Now can any one imagine that they could be sincere, if they were not willing to change their lives? What is repentance? It is not a mere sorrow for having subjected ourselves to God’s displeasure; for then the devils, and those who have died in their sins, would be as great penitents as any: but repentance implies a hatred of sin, and a determination to forsake it: and consequently, the Baptist’s injunctions afforded the people a proper test, whereby to ascertain the truth of their professions. If we at this day heard any one expressing a desire after salvation, and were informed that, notwithstanding the plainest warnings, he still held fast his iniquities, and would not part with them; should we give him credit for sincerity? No: we should tell him at once, that all his professions were mere hypocrisy, and that whatever he might pretend respecting a dependence on Christ, he would only deceive his own soul.]
The following of the light we have, is a good preparative for more light—
[A man brought out of a dungeon cannot bear at once the full blaze of the meridian sun; he must be brought to it by degrees: so neither can we hear at once the bright effulgence of Divine truth. Our blessed Lord told his Disciples, that “he had many things to say unto them, which they were not at that time able to bear:” and “he spoke the word in parables, as the people were able to hear it.” St. Paul adopted the same method of apportioning to his people his instructions according to their respective capacities; “giving milk to babes, and strong meat to those who were of full age.” Had he not attended to this rule, he would have produced the same effects as would follow from a wrong administration of corporeal food; he would have destroyed those whom he designed to nourish: whereas by a more judicious conduct, he trained up the children for stronger food and higher attainments. Thus the Baptist directed his hearers to cultivate the acknowledged duties of humanity, honesty, and contentment: that in the exercise of these duties, they might gain a deeper insight into the evil of their past ways, and a fuller preparation of heart for a due reception of the Gospel.]
Let us learn then from hence,
The importance of ministerial fidelity—
[People in general love to have a minister who will “prophesy unto them smooth things and prophesy deceits.” But what will be the end of such things? “If the blind lead the blind, shall they not both fall into the ditch?” It may be painful to us to hear the truth, when we are called to “pluck out a right eye, and to cut off a right hand:” but it is better far that we should be informed of our danger, than that we should be left to involve ourselves in irremediable ruin We are told that many of the publicans and harlots actually repented, and became partakers of the kingdom of heaven. Did not they bless him? And will they not continue to bless God for him to all eternity? Do not then be grieved, if your minister lay his axe to the root of your sins, if he “cry aloud, and spare not.” It is his duty to do so; and if he forbear to warn you, “your blood will be required at his hands.” He must “not use flattering words;” but must “commend himself to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” It is in that way only that he can “deliver his own soul,” or hope to save the people committed to his charge.]
The need of mortifying our besetting sins—
[Every man has some sins to which he is more particularly addicted, or, at least, to which he is more exposed. His age, his situation, his employment in life, have some peculiar snares, against which he ought to guard. Every one therefore should inquire, what are the dangers to which he is more especially exposed. Persons advanced in life should examine themselves respecting querulousness: men of business should maintain a jealousy respecting worldliness and the frauds of trade: young people should watch over the vanity of their minds, and the violence of their passions. In short, the inquiry of every one should be, what have I to guard against? What have I to do? What are the chief obstacles to my advancement in religious knowledge, and to my attainment of everlasting happiness? Happy indeed would it be, if we were thus intent, every one on his own particular case! and happy would it be, if, having found out our besetting sins, we could say with the Psalmist, “I have kept myself from my iniquity!” Doubtless there is much beyond this: this is only the threshold of the sanctuary: but it is a threshold which we must pass over, before we can get within the veil. It is not our concern at present to expatiate upon the Divine life, as it is experienced by the advanced Christian: we are now only preaching, like John, the baptism of repentance; reserving to other occasions the fuller delineation of the Gospel salvation. But we shall have attained no trifling object, if the drunkard, the swearer, the whoremonger, or any other person, be led to see, that, till he has put away his besetting sins, he can no more go to heaven, than Satan himself be brought there from the depths of hell.]
The moral tendency of the Gospel—
[The things insisted on by John, are mere preliminaries: instead of being the whole Gospel, they are only an introduction to the Gospel. The Gospel itself is not satisfied with a renunciation of evil habits; it requires also the cultivation of good ones: not to put away selfishness, dishonesty, and discontent, but to live altogether above this world, and to be ready even to “lay down our lives for the brethren.” It does not call us to believe in Christ, in order that we may afterwards indulge in sin; but that our hearts may be purified by faith, and that we may be transformed into the very image of our God.
See then who are the true Antinomians: not they who urge you to come to Christ for life and salvation, but they who tell you that to be honest and just, and sober and charitable, is all that is required of you. With such persons it is common to quote those words of Balaam, “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.” But they quite forget the walking humbly with God; and then confine the doing justice and loving mercy to a few outward acts. Give the full scope to these words, and they do contain the whole of our duty: but we must omit no part of them: nor must we reduce any part to the puny standard of Pharisaic morality. Look at Christ and his Apostles, and there we see the morality which we are to aspire after. Those who are inquiring after Christ, do well to ask, What shall I do? but those who profess to have believed in Christ, must rather ask, “What do I more than others [Note: Matthew 5:47.]?]
THE IMPRISONMENT OF JOHN
Luke 3:19-42.3.20. Herod the tetrarch, being reproved by him for Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done, added yet this above all, that he shut up John in prison.
THE inspired volume, when considered only as containing a history of other ages and other nations, is read rather for the purpose of informing the mind, than of benefiting the heart; and hence it produces comparatively little effect even on those who are most conversant with its contents. But the true light in which it should be regarded is, as a history of man, to whatever age or nation he may belong. It is a mirror, that reflects the human heart in all its dispositions, and in all its actings: and, when viewed in this light, it acquires a ten-fold greater importance, because it exhibits us to ourselves, and makes us the actors in all that is done.
In reading an account of John the Baptist, and of his imprisonment by Herod, we feel but little interest, except as we condemn the licentiousness of Herod, and commiserate the fate of his faithful monitor. But if we would divest ourselves of the idea that it passed many centuries ago, and consider the transaction as having recently occurred in our own neighbourhood, we should almost of necessity be led to contemplate it in a more general view, and to notice in it the power and malignity of sin. It is in that view that I propose to call your attention to it at this time.
Let us take occasion then to remark from it,
The power of sin—
Wonderful indeed is its power to blind, to enslave, to harden all in whom it dwells—
[Herod could not but know, that it was wrong for him to take his brother Philip’s wife. Yet doubtless he contrived by some vain excuses to justify it to himself. And thus it is that every sinner deludes himself. In some cases, he denies the criminality of his actions altogether, “calling evil good, and good evil, and putting darkness for light, and light for darkness [Note: Isaiah 5:20.].” Where they cannot altogether hide from themselves the evil of their ways, they find some excuse, either from their constitutional propensities, or the habits of all around them, or some peculiarity in their situation at the time. “They feed on ashes; and yet to such a degree hath a deceived heart turned them aside, that they cannot deliver their souls, nor say, Is there not a lie in my right hand [Note: Isaiah 44:20.]?” Whatever be the particular lust of which they are enamoured — — — it is “Satan that hath blinded their eyes [Note: 2 Corinthians 4:4.];” they walk in the vanity of their mind, “having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their hearts [Note: Ephesians 4:18.]:” and “they know not whither they go, because that darkness hath blinded their eyes [Note: 1 John 2:11.].”]
[Though Herod was willing to “do many things,” and forbear many things respecting which he was admonished by John, he could in no wise be prevailed on to part with his incestuous consort. And thus it is with sinners of every description: there are some sins to which they have but little inclination, and which therefore they may be induced to renounce: but their besetting sin they cannot find it in their hearts to mortify, so addicted are they to the commission of it, and, as it were, “tied and bound with it as with a chain,” which they cannot break [Note: See this in the drunkard, the whoremonger, &c. &c.] — — — Whilst they see, and cannot but acknowledge the sinfulness of their habits, they have a “law in their members warring against the law in their minds, and bringing them into captivity to the law of sin which is in their members [Note: Romans 7:23.];” or rather, they are “taken in the snare of the devil, and led captive by him at his will [Note: 2 Timothy 2:26.].”]
[One would have supposed that when Herod, “knowing that John was a holy and just man, feared” him, he would never have been induced to persecute him for his fidelity. Yet of his own mind he had imprisoned John, and would have put him to death, had he not been restrained by his fear of the people; and, when solicited by his daughter to give her John’s head in a charger, he sent an executioner to behead him, and presented it to her according to her desire. This he did for hs oath’s sake. But how could any oath bind him to the commission of murder? He would have found ample means of inducing her to alter her request, if sin had not “seared his conscience,” and “made his heart as adamant.” But sin is of its own nature progressive: and to such a degree do men become “hardened through the deceitfulness of sin,” that evils, which once they could not have contemplated as possible ever to be committed by them, are committed easily and without remorse. Hazael, when warned of the enormities which he would one day commit, exclaimed, “Is thy servant a dog that he should do such things?” Yet he afterwards executed these things to the full extent of the predictions concerning him. And if the future conduct of many, who are now but just beginning their career of sin, were opened to their view, they would not believe that they should ever attain to such impiety. But, what is said of strife, may be said of every other sin; namely, that “the beginning of it is like the letting out of water:” the breach at first is small; but it soon widens, till the inundation becomes irresistibly powerful, and irremediably destructive.]
Such is the power of sin; of which in the history we may yet further see,
It tends to inflict misery,
On all who indulge it—
[Look at Herod in the midst of all his indulgences: was he happy? Which of the two, I would ask, was the happier; Herod, in the midst of his excesses, or John, when bound with chains in prison for righteousness’ sake? No one, I think, can entertain a doubt. The truth is, that sin and misery are indissolubly connected even in this life; according as the Apostle, speaking of the ungodly, has said, “Destruction and misery are in their ways, and the way of peace have they not known [Note: Romans 3:16-45.3.17.].” Take the adulterer, for instance: You may suppose him as happy as his heart can wish. But what is Job’s account of him? “The eye of the adulterer waiteth for the twilight, saying, No eye shall see me; and he disguiseth his face. In the dark they dig through houses which they had marked for themselves in the-day time. They know not the light: for the morning is to them even as the shadow of death: if one know them, they are in the terrors of the shadow of death [Note: Job 24:15-18.24.17.].” And of the wicked generally, Eliphaz says, “The wicked man travaileth with pain all his days: a dreadful sound is in his ears: he believeth not that he shall return out of darkness, and he is waited for of the sword [Note: Job 15:20-18.15.22.].” Yes, an evil conscience will so haunt a man, that he shall be afraid to go out into the dark, or almost even to look under his bed: so truly is it said, “The way of transgressors is hard [Note: Proverbs 13:15.].” There are indeed those who will profess to feel no apprehensions: but we are assured by the heart-searching God, that their boastings are vain: for “the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt: there is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked [Note: Isaiah 57:20-23.57.21.].”]
On the world at large—
[See what misery the gratification of Herod’s lusts produced; on Philip, whose wife he took; on Herodias, whose mind and conscience he so defiled; on John, whom for his fidelity he murdered; and on all the Church of God, whom he thus deprived of a faithful counsellor and instructor. But he cared not what evils he inflicted, if only he might have his own licentious passions gratified. And who can tell what miseries the seducer inflicts upon his hapless victim; and the adulterer, on the object of his unlawful desires? — — — The same may be spoken of the ambitious man, who wades through seas of blood to the attainment of fame and power — — — May I not mention the scoffer too, who hates and derides all serious piety, and cares not how many souls he ruins, provided he may but indulge his enmity against God and his Christ? — — — But what is it that has turned the whole world into one vast theatre of contention and sorrow? It is sin, which has established its empire on the ruins of peace and love. Nor is there to be found a nation, or family, or individual, whose happiness has not suffered from this malignant evil.]
From this subject we may yet further learn,
The danger of indulging sin—
[Who shall say whither one sinful thought shall carry us? Little did Herod imagine to what the first desire which he formed after Philip’s wife would lead him. And little did David anticipate the results of the first glance which he caught of Bathsheba. Say not then, of a sinful thought or desire, that it is little: but learn to flee from it as from the face of a serpent; and let every declension from the path of duty be viewed by you as a step towards hell itself — — —]
The duty of reproving it—
[We are not all called to act like John, and to obtrude our remarks on the ears of kings and princes. But a holy fidelity becomes us all in our respective spheres. We must take care indeed that we do not reprove others in a wrong spirit. There are many circumstances wherein silence may be the most effectual reproof. But a holy fortitude becomes us all. We must all be witnesses for God in the place where we live, and shine as lights in a dark world. And if for our fidelity we be called to suffer, as John suffered, we must rejoice that we are so honoured of our God, and be willing to lay down our own lives, if only we may save the souls of others.]
THE DESCENT OF THE SPIRIT UPON CHRIST
Luke 3:21-42.3.22. Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened; and the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.
IN every part of our Lord’s history, from his first entrance into the world to his dissolution upon the cross, we observe an astonishing combination of the most opposite events: we see the majesty of heaven degraded to the lowest depths of humiliation; and the meanest of mankind, who was “a worm, and no man, the very scorn of men, and the outcast of the people,” exalted to the highest honours that Heaven itself could confer upon him. Observe the circumstance of his birth: what can we conceive more degrading than for the Saviour of the world to be born in a stable, and to be laid in a manger? Yet, to counterbalance this, angels were sent to announce his advent, and a star to point out to the inquiring Magi the place of his nativity. Thus it was also at his baptism. The ordinance of baptism was intended to intimate the need which we have to be washed from our sins: Jesus, therefore, could not submit to baptism without acknowledging, in appearance, that he was a sinner, like unto us: nevertheless, for wise and gracious reasons, he insisted that that rite should be administered to him. But whatever ignominy might attach to him on this account, the offence was completely rolled away by the interposition of his God and Father, who on that occasion bore testimony to him by an audible voice from heaven, and by a visible descent of the Holy Ghost upon him. These are the two subjects for our present consideration. We notice,
The visible descent of the Holy Ghost upon him—
There are many things relative to the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus, which are worthy of observation—
The time of it was remarkable—
[Jesus had just conformed to God’s ordinance of baptism. Though he had no need of baptism, (not having any sin to wash away,) yet, as it was a rite instituted by God for the introducing of men into the Messiah’s kingdom, he judged it expedient to comply with it himself, that he might “fulfill all righteousness” in his own person, and be in all things a pattern to his followers. This was well pleasing to God, who cannot but be interested in the observance of his own ordinances. And the conferring of so distinguished an honour upon Jesus on that occasion clearly shews, that “God will honour those who honour him;” and that in a reverential attendance on the instituted means of grace, we may expect blessings which we shall in vain hope for in the neglect of them [Note: Those who absent themselves from the House of God under the idea that they can spend their time more profitably at home, and those who stay away from the Lord’s table under an apprehension of their unworthiness to go to it, would do well to consider this.].
He was, moreover, actually engaged in prayer. On three different occasions did the Father bear testimony to Jesus by an audible voice from heaven; and every time was either in, or immediately after, prayer [Note: At his baptism (see the text), at his transfiguration (Luke 9:29; Luke 9:35.), and just before his death (John 12:28.).]. What an evidence does this afford us of the importance and efficacy of prayer! And who that lives nigh to God in the exercise of that duty, has not found that promise realized, “Thou shalt call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am [Note: Isaiah 58:9; Isaiah 65:24.]?” Audible voices, indeed, we are not to expect; but we are sure that “God has never said to any, Seek ye my face in vain.”]
There was something peculiar also in the manner of it—
[It was of great importance that the attestation thus publicly given to the character of Jesus should be such as could admit of no doubt. Accordingly “the heavens were opened,” just as they afterwards were at the time of Stephen’s death [Note: Acts 7:55-44.7.56.], so that the very throne of God, as it were, became visible to mortal eyes; and the Holy Ghost descended visibly, in a bodily appearance, and abode upon him. Whether the Holy Ghost assumed the shape of a dove, or only appeared in a luminous body with a hovering motion, like that of a dove, we do not take upon us to determine [Note: We rather think the latter. See Doddridge on the place.]: but the appearance was such as could leave no doubt in the minds of the spectators that there was a special communication to Jesus from heaven, even such a communication as had never before been vouchsafed to mortal man.]
But the ends of the Spirit’s descent are most worthy of our attention—
[We are sure that it was designed to confirm the Baptist’s mind. The providence of God had so ordered events, that John and Jesus, though related to each other, had lived thirty years in the world without forming any acquaintance with each other. Had they been intimate with each other, it might have been thought that an agreement had been formed between them to deceive the world: but John had no knowledge of the person of Jesus, till he was inspired to point him out as “the Lamb of God, that was to take away the sin of the world:” and this very sign was promised to John, as the means whereby his mind should be satisfied that the testimony which be had borne was true: and John himself declares, that his own conviction of Christ’s Messiahship was grounded on this very thing [Note: John 1:32-43.1.34.].
But there was another end, even the inauguration of the Messiah himself to his high office. The Jewish kings and priests, and in some instances the prophets also, were anointed with oil at the time of their consecration to their work: and therefore it behoved Jesus, in whom all these offices were to be combined, to be set apart for them by a nobler unction. Accordingly he was “anointed with the oil of joy and gladness above his fellows [Note: Psalms 45:7.].” It had been expressly foretold that he should be so anointed [Note: Isaiah 61:1.], and that “the Holy Spirit should rest upon him [Note: Isaiah 11:2.]; and he himself mentioned, in his very first sermon, that these prophecies were then accomplished; and that he was then executing the very office for which he had been commissioned and qualified by that peculiar unction [Note: Luke 4:17-42.4.21.].]
Besides this visible attestation to his character, we are called to notice also,
The audible testimony of the Father to him—
In many different ways did the Father bear witness to his Son: every miracle that was wrought by Jesus was a seal whereby the Father attested the truth of his divine mission. But on this occasion he addressed his Son by an audible voice; and therein bore witness to,
His person as the promised Messiah—
[The Messiah had been long foretold under the character of “the Son of Man [Note: Daniel 7:13.];” and that term was understood by the Jews as equivalent to the Son of God [Note: Luke 22:69-42.22.70.]. That Jesus did indeed sustain this character, and that he was the very person of whom all the prophets spake, was a point to be proved; and God determined that it should be proved by every species of evidence that could be adduced. Hence, besides the foregoing proof which was offered to the eyes of men, another was added which appealed to their ears. And in the very words which are used, there seems a reference to the prophecies which were accomplished in him. “Thou art that my beloved Son,” that Son, whose advent has been so long foretold, and so long expected [Note: There is a force in the repetition of the article, which, though lost in the Translation, should not be overlooked.]. In this view the expression of the text precisely corresponds with that which had been long before used by the Prophet Isaiah: “Behold my servant whom I uphold, mine elect in whom my soul delighteth: I have put my Spirit upon him; he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles [Note: Isaiah 42:1.].” Whatever pretensions, therefore, false Christs may urge, or whatever objections infidel professors of Christianity may raise against Jesus, we have the infallible testimony of God himself that Jesus is the Christ.]
His acceptableness in that office—
[In every view the Father could not but feel complacency and delight in him. As voluntarily undertaking the mediatorial work, as richly qualified for the discharge of it, and as persevering in it notwithstanding all the difficulties that he should have to encounter, he must be highly acceptable to the Father. But God foresaw the perfect accomplishment of all his designs through the ministration of his dear Son: he saw, as it were, all his elect delivered from their guilt and misery, and made partakers of everlasting glory and felicity: he saw all his own perfections also honoured and exalted in the mystery of redemption: and he cordially approved of it as the most stupendous effort of wisdom and of love. None can henceforth entertain a doubt whether he will accept those who come to him by Christ, since it was on account of the suitableness and sufficiency of his atonement that the Father was so “well pleased in him.”]
We may learn from hence,
How we should think of God—
[We know nothing of God except from revelation. It is presumptuous, therefore, either to form notions about him from our own vague conjectures, or to refuse our assent to the representations which he has given us of himself. That there is a Trinity of the persons in the Godhead is doubtless an incomprehensible mystery: but it is plainly revealed in numberless passages of Scripture. It is indeed from other passages that we know each of the persons in the Trinity to be God: but that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, are Three distinct persons, is as clear as any truth can be: and so clearly is it intimated in the very words of our text, that the ancients were wont to say, “Go to Jordan, and there learn the doctrine of the Trinity.”]
How we should act towards him—
[All that is required of us is, to be like-minded with God. Did God point him out as his beloved Son? let us believe in him as the Messiah, the Saviour of the world. Did the Father profess himself well pleased in him? let us delight ourselves in him: let it be the joy of our, hearts to contemplate his fulness and sufficiency, and to be receiving out of his fulness grace for grace. Let us, in short, “count all things but dung for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ,” and glory in him as all our salvation, and all our desire.]
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Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Luke 3". Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany