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said, "*Master, what shall we do?" And he said, "Exact no more than that which is appointed you." Keep clear from that rapine and extortion of which you are so often guilty in the collection of the revenue.— Thef soldiers too demanded of him, "What shall we do?" His answer was, "Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely, and be contented with your wages." That is, abstain from those acts of injustice, violence, and oppression, to which your profession too often leads you. Lewd and debauched people also applied to him, to whom no doubt he gave advice suited to their case. And therefore what he taught was not ceremonial observances, but moral conduct on religious principle; and without this he pronounced (however disgusting the doctrine must be to a proud and superstitious people) the highest outward privileges to be of no value at all. "Think not," said he to the Jews, "to say within yourselves we have Abraham to our father, and are therefore sure of God's favor, be our conduct what it may :' for I say unto you that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham;" is able to make the most stupid and ignorant of these heathens, whom you so utterly despise, converts to true religion and heirs of the promises.
Such were the doctrines which John preached to his disciples, and the success which attended him was equal to their magnitude and importance.
This was plainly foretold by the angel that announced his birth to his father Zacharias. "Many of the children of Israel (said he) shall he turn to the Lord their God. Which in fact he did. For the evangelists tell us that "there went out unto him into the wilderness Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the region. about Jordon, and were baptized of him." The truth of this is amply confirmed by Josephus, who informs us, that "multitudes flocked to him; for they were greatly delighted with his discourses."**
Luke iii. 12. 13.
† Ibid. iii. 14.
Luke i. 16
Matth. iii. 9.
It might naturally be expected that such extraordinary popularity and applause as this would fill him with conceit and vanity, and inspire him with a most exalted opinion of his own abilities, and a sovereign contempt for any rival teacher of religion. But so far from this, the most prominent feature of his character was an unexampled modesty and humility. Though he had been styled by Malachi the messenger of the Lord, and even Elias (the chief prophet of the Jews next to Moses) he never assumed any higher title than that very humble one given him by Isaiah; the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Far from desiring or attempting to fix the admiration of the multitude on his own person, he gave notice from his first appearance of another immediately to follow him, for whom he was unworthy to perform the most servile offices. He made a scruple, till expressly commanded, of baptizing one so infinitely purer than himself, as he knew the holy Jesus to be.And when his disciples complained that all men deserted him to follow Christ (a most mortifying circumstance, had worldly applause, or interest, or power, been his point) nothing could be more ingenuously self-denying than his answer; "Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said I am not the Christ, but am sent before him. He that hath the bride, is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly. This my joy therefore is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease: he that is of the earth is earthy: he that cometh from heaven is above all."*
Of such unaffected and disinterested humility as this, where shall we find, except in Christ, another instance? Yet with this way by no means united what we are too apt to associate with our idea of humility, meanness and timidity of spirit; on the contrary, the whole conduct of the Baptist was marked throughout with the most intrepid courage and magnanimity in the discharge of his duty.
* John iii. 28, 29.
Instead of paying any court either to the great men of his nation on the one hand, or to the multitude on the other, he reproved the former for their hypocrisy in the strongest terms; "O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”* and he required the latter to renounce every one of those favorite sins which they had long indulged, and were most unwilling to part with. But what is still more, he reproved without fear and without reserve the abandoned and ferocious Herod, for injuriously taking away Herodias his brother's wife, and afterwards incestuously marrying her, and for all the other evil that he had done. He well knew the savage and unrelent ing temper of that sanguinary tyrant; he knew that this boldness of expostulation would sooner or later bring down upon him the whole weight of his resentment. But knowing also that he was sent into the world to preach repentance to all, and feeling it his duty to cry aloud and spare not, to spare not even the greatest and most exalted of sinners, he determined not to shrink from that duty, but to obey his conscience, and take the consequences.
Those consequences were exactly what he must have foreseen. He was first shut up in prison; and not long afterwards, as you all know, the life of this great and innocent man was wantonly sacrificed in the midst of conviviality and mirth to the rash oath of a worthless and a merciless prince, to the licentious fascinations of a young woman, and the implacable vengeance of an old
After this short history of the doctrines, the life, and the death of this extraordinary man, I beg leave to of fer in conclusion a few remarks upon it to your serious consideration.
And in the first place, in the testimony of John the Baptist, we have an additional and powerful evidence to the truth and the divine authority of Christ and his religion.
Matth. iii. 7,
If the account given of John in the gospels be true, the history given there of Jesus must be equally so, for they are plainly parts of one and the same plan, and are so connected and interwoven with each other, that they must either stand or fall together.
Now that in the first place there did really exist such a person as John the Baptist at the time specified by the evangelists, there cannot be the smallest doubt; for he is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus, and all the circumstances he relates of him, as far as they go, perfectly correspond with the description given of him. by the sacred historians. He represents him as using the ceremony of baptism. He says that multitudes flocked to him, for they were greatly delighted with his discourses, and ready to observe all his directions. He asserts that he was a good man; and that he exhorted the Jews not to come to his baptism without first preparing themselves for it by the practice of virtue; that is, in the language of the Gospels, without repentance. He relates his being inhumanly murdered by Herod ; and adds, that the Jews in general entertained so high an opinion of the innocence, virtue, and sanctity of John, as to be persuaded that the destruction of Herod's army, which happened not long after, was a divine judgment inflicted on him for his barbarity to so excellent a
It appears then that St. John was a person, of whose virtue, integrity, and piety, we have the most ample testimony from an historian of unquestionable veracity, and we may therefore rely with perfect confidence on every thing he tells us. He was the very man foretold both by Isaiah and Malachi, as the forerunner of that divine personage, whom the Jews expected under the name of the Messiah. He declared that Jesus Christ was this divine person, and that he himself was sent into the world on purpose to prepare the way before him, by exhorting men to repentance and reformation of life. If then this record of John (as the evangelists call it) be true, the divine mission of Christ is at once established, Joseph. Antiq. 1, xviii. c. 6. s. 2. Ed. Huds.
because the Baptist expressly asserts that he was the Son of God, and that whoever believed in him should have everlasting life.* Now that this record is true, we have every reason in the world to believe, not only because a man so eminently distinguished for every moral virtue as St. John confessedly was, cannot be thought capable of publicly proclaiming a deliberate falsehood; but because had his character been of a totally different complexion, had he for instance been influenced only by views of interest, ambition, vanity, popularity; this very falsehood must have completely counteracted and overset every project of this nature. For every thing he said of Jesus, instead of aggrandizing and exalting himself, tended to lower and to debase him in the eyes of all the world; he assured the multitude who followed him, that there was another person much more worthy to be followed; that there was one coming after him of far greater dignity and consequence than himself; one whose shoes latchet he was not worthy to unloose; t one so infinitely superior to him in rank, authority, and wisdom, that he was not fit to perform for him even the most servile offices. He himself was only come as a humble messenger to announce the arrival of his Lord, and smooth the way before him. But the great personage to whom they were to direct their eyes, and in whom they were to centre all their hopes, was JESUS CHRIST. Is this now the language of a man who sought only for honor, emolument, or fame, or was actuated only by the fond ambition of being at the head of a sect? No one can think so. It is not very usual surely for men of any character, much less for men of the best character, to invent and to utter a string of falsehoods with the professed design of degrading themselves and exalting some other person. Yet this was the plain tendency and avowed object of John's declarations, and the effect was exactly what might be expected, and what he wished and intended, namely, that great numbers deserted him and followed Christ.‡
* John iii. 36. i. 34.
† Mark i. 7. Luke iii. 16.
John iii. 26. 30. iv. 1