The crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"
I. THE FUTILE. The Pharisee, if he were charged with any evil course, consoled himself with the thought that he was a "son of Abraham;" to his mind it was everything with God that he was lineally descended from the father of the faithful, and had been admitted by the rite of circumcision into the "commonwealth of Israel." John, anticipating the doctrine of Jesus Christ, demolishes this delusion. That, he tells his audience on the banks of Jordan, is a matter of very small account with Heaven; that is not the criterion of character; that is not the passport to the kingdom of God. Let no man think to build on that poor foundation. Not genealogical connection with the best of men (see John 1:13), not admission by outward rite into any visible community, decides our state before God. If we appear before him, and have no better plea than this to offer, we must prepare for his dismissal. All that is fleshly, all that is circumstantial, all that is outward and unspiritual, falls short of the Divine requirement. It does not bring us into the kingdom of heaven.
II. THE DIFFICULT. "God is able of these stones," etc. Nothing could be easier than for Almighty power to raise up children unto Abraham - to bring into existence more children of privilege. He had bet to "speak, and it would be done; to command, and it would come forth." But it was quite another thing to win the disobedient and the disloyal to filial love and holy service, to bring the hard of heart and the proud of spirit to penitence and confession of sin, to conduct the feet that had long been walking in paths of selfishness and guilt into the ways of wisdom and of worth. This is a work in the accomplishment of which even the Divine Spirit employs many means and expends great resources and exercises long patience. He teaches, he invites, he pleads, he warns, he chastens, he waits. And on this great, this most difficult work, this spiritual victory, on which the eternal Father spends so much of the Divine, we surely may be well content to put forth all our human, strength.
III. THE SEVERE. "Now also the axe is laid unto the root... is hewn down, and cast into the fire." John intimates that a new dispensation is arriving, and with its coming there will come also a more severe sentence against disobedience and unfruitfulness. The shining of the fuller light will necessarily throw far deeper shadows. They who will not learn of the great Teacher will fall under great condemnation. The useless trees in the garden of the Lord will now not only be disbranched, they will be cut down. It is a very solemn thing to live in the full daylight of revealed religion. With every added ray of privilege and opportunity comes increase of sacred responsibility and exposure to the Divine severity.
IV. THE PRACTICAL. (Vers. 10-14.) Real repentance will show itself in right behavior, and every man, according to his vocation, will take his rightful part. The man of means will be pitiful and generous; the man in office will be just and upright; the soldier will be civil; the servant will be faithful and be satisfied with the receipt of what is due to him; the master and the mistress will be fair in their expectation of service; the father will be considerate of his children's weakness; the children will be regardful of their parents' will. And while the right thing will be done, it will be done reverently and religiously, not only as unto man, but as "unto Christ the Lord." - C.
What shall we do then?I. JOHN DISCRIMINATES BETWEEN THE EASE-HARDENED, SELFISH, AND SCARCELY REACHABLE PHARISEES AND HIGH-PLACED REPRESENTATIVES OF OFFICIAL JUDAISM, AND "THE MULTITUDES" (Matthew 3:7).
II. HE RISES ABOVE THE PREJUDICES AND ANTIPATHIES OF THE PUBLIC OPINION OF HIS COUNTRYMEN IN A REMARKABLE WAY. Publicans. Soldiers.
III. HE IS EMINENTLY REASONABLE IN HIS REQUIREMENTS. Whilst he counsels the owner of "two coats" to show the reality of his avowed "change of character" and new-born life, of which repentance is the sign, he still leaves him "one"; and the man having food he would not have starve whilst he relieves, or that he may relieve the starving, but share only. There was no communism, no sinking of the individual in the mass, or rights of property in the properties of right. Simply a proof of unselfishness, of caring for others, is set before the first inquirers. He puts his finger unerringly on the besetting sin. When I was in Palestine and Syria, and Asia Minor, and the dominions of Turkey generally, I felt that if to-day a John the Baptist were to have the old question asked him by the pashas and other tax-farmers, his answer would go to the root of the evils that are bleeding to death the entire dominions of the sultan. One gets a glimpse herein of how far-reaching really, though local and personal seemingly, was the Baptist's answer and counsel, "Extort no more," etc. I can well conceive that some of those who had asked, "What shall we do?" must have winced under the plain-spoken answer. The answer must have darted like a lightning bolt across the inquirers' lives, at once illumining specific acts, and by the immediate encompassing darkness and silence, as John passed to his next group of inquirers, shutting them up to self-examination and self-abasement. The same observation applies to the counsel addressed to the soldiers. They, too, had a "besetting sin." The teacher warns them that he knows all about them, and their violent, outrageous, evil ways, when set free from discipline, and on semi-marauding expeditions. And so he sends home to their consciences the brave and needed counsel, "Do violence," dec. The last thing demanded all John's high-hearted courage and fidelity to the truth, to put it so unqualifiedly. Here again, in all probability, if not certainty, he spoke to men's "businesses and bosoms." There were secret or more audible complaints, murmurs, accusations. John has heard these, has inquired into them, has come to a conclusion on the matter: and so they get it articulately, and without touch of currying favour: "Your wages are sufficient — you are well paid for all that you do — be content." Your mere enthusiast, your mystic, your man preoccupied about his functions and dignities, never would have been thus solid-sensed, thus practical, thus reasonable.
IV. HE IS CONVINCING IN HIS COUNSELS. AS with our Lord (generally) "the people," and "the publicans," and "the soldiers," gave assent and consent by silence. To us, on the first blush of it, John's advice has the look of a come-down from the molten warnings and accusations that immediately preceded, and out of which the inquiries were born. But their silence showed that to them the counsels were adequate, not trivial; wen to the root of their necessities. They recognized — and we shall do well to follow in their steps — that Christian life is not made up of so-called great things, or evidenced by ecstasies, and high and higher emotion, but is constituted of habitual putting into our "walk and conversation," in DEEDS which we profess to know and believe. The most evangelical preacher and teacher may fearlessly answer, as John the Baptist did, every-day and ordinary inquirers, with no fear of not thereby "preaching" or "teaching" the gospel. For it was of these very exhortations that it is written, "With many other exhortations, therefore, preached he good tidings unto the people." These answers enshrine living principles for all time. To-day, with so much giving out of what we can spare and never feel it, when the very thing is to feel it, we need to be recalled to the first answer, to the gospel fact that our generosity must be after this type, of taking the coat off our back (if need be) to let our brother-man have "one," as we still have; and that we are to feed others, not with food different from our own, by paltry gradation of inferior, inferiorer, inferiorest, and a mocking thought, "It's quite good enough for the like of them," but with our very own food. It would again overturn tables, ay, in God's own house, and all through the commercial world and the learned professions, if John's second answer were but vitalized by present-day acceptance and influence, "Extort no more," &c. In different ways and degrees extortion — taking advantage of opportunity and circumstance — is a still wide-reaching sin. You that call yourselves Christians, and haste to be rich, beware! Then, in conclusion, how burning and high-hearted was the third answer — to the soldiers. As Dr. Reynolds put it: "There is room to suppose that the answer previously given to the publicans might be regarded by the soldiers as some kind of justification for their own high-handed acts. John tore off the cloak which their professional position was drawing over their selfishness, and he bade them terrorize no one, and bring no vamped-up worthless accusation. The professional soldier of modern times might be offended by such plain speaking. Armed authority is always open to the temptation of working on the emotion of physical fear."
(Dr. A. B. Grosart.)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.)— I remember one of my parishioners at Halesworth telling me that he thought "a person should not go to church to be made uncomfortable." I replied that I thought so too; but whether it should be the sermon or the man's life that should be altered so as to avoid the discomfort, must depend on whether the doctrine was right or wrong.
(H. W. Beecher.)
(H. C. Trumbull.)
(E. Stapler, D. D.)
(Dr. Talmage.)temper of political debate is also a matter for pulpit comment. When public time is wasted, crises at home and abroad neglected, and the whole tone of the House lowered because two political gladiators want to have a stand-up fight, and the honourable members are content to form a ring, is such wanton fooling as that in high places not to be arraigned by those who profess to view party conduct by the light of a morality which seems unknown to party politics?
(H. R. Haweis, M. A.)now. There's a man without a cloak, the sun's going down, he's over-heated, he'll catch fever — you've got an extra wrap, give it him. That woman yonder is fainting for a little food, she was so eager to be baptized she forgot her provision basket — you have more than you want, give her some. To the publican, or portitor, who paid so much to the Government for the right of collecting the taxes, and then got as much more as he could by squeezing the people: "You tyrants, you extortioners, every one knows your trade, and is willing to give you your margin of profit; well, don't exact more." To the soldiers: "You Jacks-in-office, don't levy blackmail by threatening to accuse innocent persons. Don't use the prestige of the Roman arms to oppress the civilian in the provinces, and don't mutiny and keep striking for higher pay; respect the people whom you ought to protect, and the master whom you profess to serve." This was pretty smart and practical teaching. The man of the crowd could not go home and say that the man of the desert knew nothing about him. He could go home and "repent"!
(H. R. Haweis, M. A. .)2 Corinthians 8:13, 14.
(M. F. Sadler, M. A.)
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