And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then?…
The voice crying in the wilderness had awakened an answering echo in the breasts of the multitudes. The axe which God was already laying at the root of the tree was the Roman Conqueror of the land, and the tree fell when, with great slaughter, Jerusalem was taken, and of her goodly temple not one stone was left upon another. Well might the people tremble as their consciences, quickened from their long lethargy by the stern and powerful preaching of this Elijah of later days, awoke to the sense of their moral and spiritual degradation. For the moment, as often before in their history, this greatly-sinning, though highly-favoured people seemed ready to repent. They listened to John's burning words, and cried out to him, "What shall we do then?" It was the right question to ask, if only they had been possessed of the abiding spiritual conviction and the strength of purpose which would have enabled them to turn John's answers to good account. It was the question of Saul of Tarsus, of the Philippian jailor, of the multitude on the day of Pentecost. And it is the question which every awakened soul must ask, cannot help asking. Three classes came to John with this question. The answers which he returned to them were one and all directed against the vices and temptations peculiar to his questioners as respective classes. Doubtless from our Christian standpoint there is something defective in these utterances. To fulfil all these behests would not, it will be said, make any man a Christian. But it must be remembered that John himself was not a Christian. Great though he was, the least in the kingdom of heaven was greater than he. He was a preacher of righteousness. Upon him, last among men, the mantle of the old prophets had fallen. And his words are the echoes of those which had been spoken so long before: "Is not this the fast that I have chosen," &c. (Isaiah 58:6, 7). John's preaching of repentance was intended to pave the way for the Christian doctrine of the righteousness which comes by faith. And when at length Christianity did come and preach to men, it had something more to say than either John or any of his predecessors, but not one word of that Old Testament inculcation did it unsay, for it had not come to destroy, but to fulfil. John's words were true, though they were not the whole truth. And the world has not yet grown so wise, or generous, or honest, as to have risen above the need for such moral teaching as this. The answers of John to these conscience-stricken inquirers contain underlying principles suitable to men of all callings, and in all ages, who desire to lead sober, righteous, and godly lives.
I. THE PURSUIT OF ONE'S SECULAR CALLING AND DAILY OCCUPATION IS NOT INCOMPATIBLE WITH THE DESIRE TO LEAD A RELIGIOUS LIFE. John does not say to these questioners, "Quit your callings for others in which you will be less exposed to difficulty and danger"; but "Do the right thing in the situation in which you find yourselves." Even as Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 7:24), "Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God." While there are some perhaps among the many employments which obtain amongst men, in which no Christian man can consistently engage, for most of us, and for ordinary circumstances, the advice is good and sound, " Do not quit your occupation or grow restless and uneasy in it, as if you could not serve God honestly in it as in another. But see to it that you serve God in it, and that meanest duties are done from highest motives."
II. OUR RELIGION OUGHT TO ENTER INTO AND FIND ONE OF ITS GREAT SPHERES OF ACTION IN OUR DAILY LIFE AND BUSINESS. If business is not incompatible with religion, it is only because it is possible for us, and demanded of us, that we infuse the spirit of religion into our businesses. The difference between our Sundays and our week-days to be done away, or at all events lessened, not by degrading Sunday to the level of other days, but by elevating them to its level, in regard to the spirit we breathe, and the principles that govern us, and the consciousness of God's presence with us.
III. WE MUST BRING THE SPIRITUAL STRENGTH WHICH GOD GIVES US TO BEAR CHIEFLY AGAINST THE TEMPTATIONS TO WHICH WE ARE PECULIARLY EXPOSED. Some of our temptations arise out of our own evil hearts. Others are incidental to existence in a world like this. Against these general onslaughts we have all in common to strive. But there are temptations peculiar to us as individuals, or as members of a certain class — arising from the circumstances in which we are placed, and the positions we hold. It was so with the publicans and soldiers who came to John, and his advice to them was, "Oppose yourselves with all your might to the besetments which assail you in your respective callings." And what is true of the peculiar dangers arising from position and circumstance is true also of those which have their origin in personal disposition and temperament. Let us all strive so to live that men shall not be able to point to glaring inconsistencies in our lives — that they may see that our religion is no mere profession, but a living power, which has all our life and thought and conduct under its sway, which can sanctify the trivial round and common task, and transmute the base metal of our ordinary acts and occasions and duties into the gold of the cheerful obedience of loving hearts and consecrated lives.
(J. R. Bailey.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then?