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ry of a very extraordinary person called JOHN THE BAPTIST; to distinguish him from another John men-. tioned in the New Testament, who was our Saviour's beloved disciple, and the author of the Gospel that bears his name; whence he is called JOHN THE EVAN
As the character of John the Baptist is in many respects a very remarkable one, and his appearance bears a strong testimony to the divine mission of Christ and the truth of his religion, I shall enter pretty much at large into the particulars of his history, as they are to be found not only in the Gospel of St. Matthew, but in the other three Evangelists; collecting from each all the material circumstances of his life, from the time of his first appearance in the wilderness to his murder by Herod.
St. Matthew's account of him is as follows:* In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins, and his meat was locusts and wild honey. And there went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the regions round about Jordan, and were baptized of him in Jordan confessing their sins."
Here then we have a person, who appears to have been sent into the world, on purpose to be the precursor of our Lord, to prepare the way for him and his religion, here called the kingdom of heaven, and as the prophet expresses it, to make his paths straight. This is a plain allusion to the custom that prevailed in eastern countries, of sending messengers and pioncers to make the ways level and straight before kings and princes and other great men, when they passed through the country with large retinues, and with great pomp and magnificence. They literally lowered mountains, they
* Math. iii. 1-6.
raised valleys, they cut down woods, they removed -all obstacles, they cleared away all roughness and inequalities, and made every thing smooth and plain and commodious for the great personage whom they pre
In the same manner was John the Baptist in a spiritual sense to go before the Lord, before the Saviour of the world, to prepare his way, to make his paths straight, to remove out of the minds of men every thing that opposed itself to the admission of divine truth, all prejudice, blindness, pride, obstinacy, self-conceit, vanity, and vain philosophy; but above all, to subdue and regulate those depraved affections, appetites, passions, and inveterate habits of wickedness, which are the grand obstacles to conversion and the reception of the word of God.
His exhortation therefore was, " Repent ye;" renounce those vices and abominations which at present blind your eyes and cloud your understandings, and then you will be able to see the truth and bear the light. This was the method which John took, the instrument he made use of to extirpate out of the minds of his hearers all impediments to the march of the Gospel, or, as the prophetic language most sublimely expresses it, "He cried aloud to them, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight the highway for our God. Let every valley be exalted, and every mountain and hill be made low; let the crooked be made straight, and the rough places plain; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it."
What a magnificent preparation is this for the great founder of our religion! What an exalted idea must it give us of his dignity and importance, to have a forerunner and a harbinger such as John to proclaim his approach to the world, and call upon all mankind to attend to him! It was a distinction peculiar and appropriate to him. Neither Moses nor any of the prophets can boast this mark of honour. It was reserved for the Son of God, the Messiah, the Redeemer of mankind, and
*Isaiah, xl. 3—5.
was well suited to the transcendant dignity of his person, and the grandeur of his design.
The place which St. John chose for the exercise of his ministry was the wilderness of Judea, where he seems to have lived constantly from his birth to the time of his preaching; for St. Luke informs us,*" that he was in the wilderness till the time of his shewing unto Israel." Here it appears he lived with great austerity. For he drank neither wine nor strong drink; a rule frequently observed by the Jews, when they devoted themselves to the stricter exercises of religion. And his meat was locusts and wild honey: such simple food as the desert afforded to the lowest of its inhabitants. For eating some sorts of locusts was not only permitted by the law of Moses, but as travellers inform us, is common in the east to this day. The clothing of the baptist was no less simple than his diet. His raiment, we are told, was of camel's hair with a leathern girdle about his loins; the same coarse habit which the meaner people usually wore, and which sometimes even the rich assumed as a garb of mourning. For this raiment of camel's hair was nothing else than that sackcloth which we so often read of in Scripture. And as almost every thing of moment was, in those nations and those times, expressed by visible signs as well as by words, the prophets also were generally clothed in this dress, because one principal branch of their office was to call upon men to mourn for their sins. And particularly Elias or Elijah is described in the second book of Kings as a hairy man, that is, a man clothed in hair-cloth or sack-cloth (as John was) with a leathern girdle about his loins. Even in outward appearance therefore John was another Elias; but much more so as he was endued, according to the angel's prediction, with the spirit and power of Elias. Both rose up among the Jews in times of universal corruption; both were authorized to denounce speedy vengeance from Heaven, unless they repented; both executed their commission with the same intrepid zeal; both were
* Luke, i. 80.
Luke, i. 17.
t2 Kings, i. 8.
persecuted for it: yet nothing deterred either Elias from accusing Ahab to his face, or John from rebuking Herod in the same undaunted manner.
But here an apparent difficulty occurs, and the sacred writers are charged with making our Lord and St. John flatly contradict each other.
When the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask John who he was, and particularly whether he was Elias; his answer was, I am not :* But yet our Lord told the Jews that John was the Elias which was to come. How is this contradiction to be reconciled? Without any kind of difficulty. The Jews had an expectation founded on a literal interpretation of the prophet Malachi,‡ that before the Messiah came, that very same Elias or Elijah, who lived and prophesied in the time of Ahab, would rise from the dead and appear again upon earth. John therefore might very truly say that he was not that Elias. But yet as we have seen that he resembled Elias in many striking particulars; as the angel told Zacharias that he should come in the spirit and power of Elias; and as he actually approved himself, in the turn and manner of his life, in his doctrine and his conduct, the very same man to the latter Jews which the other had been to the former, our Saviour might with equal truth assure his disciples that John was that Elias, whose coming the prophet Malachi had in a figurative sense foretold. This difficulty we see is so easily removed, that I should not have though it worth noticing in this place, had it not been very lately revived with much parade in one of those coarse and blasphemous publications which have been dispersed in this country with so much activity, in order to disseminate vulgar infidelity among the lower orders of people, but which are now sinking fast into oblivion and contempt. This is one specimen of what they call their arguments against Christianity, and from this specimen you will judge of all the rest. But
The abstemiousness and rigour of the Baptist's life
* John, i. 21,
was calculated to produce very important effects. It was fitted to excite great attention and reverence in the minds of his hearers. It was well suited to the doctrine he was to preach, that of repentance and contrition; to the seriousness he wished to inspire, and to the terror which he was appointed to impress on impenitent offenders. And perhaps it was further designed to intimate the need there often is of harsh restraints in the beginning of virtue, as the easy familiarity of our Lord's manner and behaviour exhibits the delightful freedom which attends the perfection of it. At least, placing these two characters in view of the world, so near to each other, must teach men this very instructive lesson; that though severity of conduct may in various cases be both prudent and necessary, yet the mildest and cheerfulest goodness is the compleatest; and they the most useful to religion, who are able to converse among sinners without risquing their innocence, as discreet physicians do among the sick without endangering their health.
It is remarkable however that whatever mortifications John practiced himself, it does not appear that he prescribed any thing to others beyond the ordinary duties of a good life. His disciples indeed fasted often, and so did many of the Jews besides; probably therefore the former as well as the latter by their own choice. His general injunction was only,* " bring forth fruits meet for repentance." When more particular directions were desired, he commanded all sorts of men to avoid more especially the sins, to which their condition most exposed them. Thus when the people asked him (the common people of that hard-hearted nation) what shall we do? John answered, "He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none, and he that hath meat, let him do likewise." That is, let every one of you according to his abilities exercise those duties of charity and kindness to his neighbour, which you are all of you but too apt to neglect. The publicans or farmers of the revenue came to him, and † Luke iii. 10, 11.
* Matth. iii. 8.