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THE LIFE OF JESUS CHRIST CONSIDERED, AS OUR EXAMPLE.
Leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps.—1 Pet. ii. 21.
THE apostle here propounds to Christians the example of our Saviour as an argument to persuade them to one particular grace and virtue; namely, patience under sufferings unjustly laid upon us: (ver. 19-21.) “For this is thank-worthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? But if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently; this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps.”
But though the example of our Saviour be here propounded to us upon a particular occasion, and with a more especial regard to the particular virtue of patience under unjust sufferings, which did so eminently appear in our blessed Saviour, the most meek and patient endurer that ever was, of the greatest and most wrongful sufferings; yet the apostle does not limit this great pattern of all righteousness to the single virtue of patience, but propounds it to us, as an example of universal holiness and goodness; for so he extends it in the next words, 232“leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps; who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth.”
In this latitude and extent I shall discourse of it at this time, and that under these following heads:
I. That his life is a most absolute and perfect pattern.
II. That it is a very easy and familiar example.
III. Very encouraging to the imitation of it.
IV. An universal pattern fitted for the imitation of all sorts of persons, of what rank or condition soever.
V. In the nature of it, very powerful to engage and oblige men to the imitation of it.
I. The life of our blessed Saviour is a most absolute and perfect pattern of holiness and goodness, complete and entire in all its parts, and perfect to the utmost degree, in the following whereof there is no danger of being misguided, no fear of miscarriage: whereas all other examples of mortal men are fallible and uncertain guides, which if we follow too closely, will some time or other mislead us. In the lives of the best men recorded in Scripture, we may discern some spot and blemish, some error and oversight, some fall or slip; so that the lives of the holiest men are no sure rule, no perfect measure of our duty, and are therefore to be imitated with great wisdom and wariness, lest, if we follow all their actions indifferently and implicitly, in confidence they are good, because they are theirs, we may fall into great errors and failings; and therefore, in following the lives and examples of the best men, we must have an eye to the rule, and by that judge of the example which we propose to imitate; otherwise 233we may easily be seduced by the authority of a great example.
But the example of our Lord is a living law and rule, his precepts and his pattern are of equal perfection, and the imitation of his life and actions is the very same thing with obedience to his laws. For the life of our blessed Saviour here on earth, is the life of God in the nature and likeness of man; he was God as well as man, and the Divine nature is certainly the pattern of all perfection. As he was the Son of God, he was “the brightness of his Father’s glory, and the express image and character of his person;” and as he was the Son of man, though he had natural frailties and infirmities, and was subject to hunger and thirst, weariness and pain, like other men; yet he had all the moral perfections belonging to human nature, without any of the evil inclinations, and sinful frailties, to which it is incident; and his human nature was assisted in an extraordinary manner by the Spirit of God, which “was not communicated to him by measure, but he was anointed with that holy unction above his fellows,” above all the sons of men, above all the prophets and messengers of God that ever were sent to mankind; “he had no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth.” And indeed it was requisite, that he that “was manifested to take away our sins,” and to make expiation for them, should himself be “without sin,” as the apostle to the Hebrews reasons: (Heb. vii. 26.) “Such a high-priest became us, who was holy, harmless, and undefined, separate from sinners:” and had he not been so, he could neither have been an example nor an expiation.
And this is no small advantage to mankind, to have so excellent a pattern of the same nature with 234ourselves to imitate, so perfect a copy to write after. For whoever would excel in any kind, must (as Quintilian says) optima quæque exempla ad imitandum proponere, “propose to himself the highest and most perfect examples of that kind for his imitation;” and the example of our blessed Saviour is unquestionably such a perfect pattern of all goodness and virtue, to the perfection whereof though we can never attain, yet it is a great advantage to have it always before us, and in our eye, that we may correct the errors and deformities of our lives, by the unspotted purity and perfect innocency of his life, and that we may be always aspiring after farther degrees of goodness; for surely we can no way better learn how God would have men to live in this world, than by seeing how God himself lived, when he was pleased to become man, to assume our nature, and dwell among us.
II. As the life of our blessed Saviour is a most perfect, so likewise it is a familiar and easy example. The Divine nature is the great pattern of perfection; but that is too remote from us, and above our sight; “no man hath seen God at any time, nor can see him;” and though his perfections are represented to our minds in some degree, yet they are so glorious and dazzling an object, that we cannot bear to be hold them with that steadfastness, with which we ought to eye our pattern; and therefore God hath been pleased to condescend so far to our weakness, as to give us a visible example of those virtues he requires of us in “his own Son, appearing in the likeness of sinful flesh:” and the Son of God is an example of equal perfection with God himself, but much more easy and familiar, and level to us, in which we may see the several virtues of a good life 235practised in such instances, and upon such occasions, as do frequently happen in human life.
Nothing was ever more simple and open, more obvious and easy to common imitation, than the life of our blessed Saviour, in which there was nothing dark and mysterious, abstruse and intricate; it was all perfect innocency and goodness, and he carried on one plain, and intelligible, and uniform design, which was to do all the good he possibly could to all men: this he pursued with all his might, with the greatest vigour and industry, with an undaunted courage and resolution, with an unwearied diligence, with a constant cheerfulness and serenity of mind; this was “his meat and drink,” his great business and delight, his life and his happiness; he was not superciliously morose, had no affected singularities, no peculiar austerities in habit or diet, different from the common usage of men; his conversation was kind and innocent, free and familiar, open and indifferent to all sorts of persons; for he was a physician, and every body had need of him, all mankind were his patients. He did not place religion (as some have done since) in retirement from the world, and shunning the conversation of men, and taking great care to do nobody good: not in profound mysteries and fine speculations, but in the plain and honest practice of the solid and substantial virtues of a good life; in meekness and humility, in kindness and charity, in contentedness in a low and mean condition, and a calm compo sure of mind under all accidents and events, in patience under the greatest reproaches and sufferings, and a perfect submission to the will of God in all his dispensations, how harsh and unpleasant soever.236
Now there is nothing in all this, but what lies open to every man’s understanding, and is easy to our practice and imitation, requiring nothing but an honest mind, and due care and diligence to do what we may easily know, to follow our guide in a plain way, and in all the actions of our lives, to tread in those steps in which the Son of God, and the best man that ever was, hath gone before us.
III. The life of our blessed Saviour is likewise an encouraging example. It cannot but give great life to all good resolutions and endeavours, to see all that which God requires of us performed by one in our nature, by a man like ourselves. Our Saviour, indeed, had many advantages above us, being God as well as man; and his humanity, being supported by the Divine nature to which it was united, being clear from all the ill effects of original sin, and from all kind of vicious and inordinate inclinations; but then it is a great encouragement to us, to consider that God doth not require at our hands a perfect and unsinning obedience, as the condition of our salvation and happiness; but only such an obedience to his laws as is sincere, and continually aspiring after greater perfection, which is very possible to us by the grace of Christ, even in this imperfect state; that God considers our weakness, and how much we stand in need of his grace and assistance, and hath assured us that it shall not be wanting to us, if we heartily and earnestly beg it of him; and that strength which we may have for asking, is as good as if it were our own. If Christ were the Son of God, so are we, in a lower degree, by grace and adoption; and “if we be the sons of God, the Spirit of God dwells in us,” to quicken and raise us to newness of life. And he 237that hath left us such an example, on purpose that we might follow it, will not surely leave us destitute of power to enable us to do so. It is a good argument to us, that he will enable us to do that in some degree in our own persons, which he himself did for example in our nature.
An example more suitable to our weakness, might seem to have had more of encouragement in it: but we are to consider, that the Son of God assumed our nature, as compassed with infirmities, and liable to be “tempted in all things as we are, only without sin;” so that his example could not possibly have come nearer to us than it does, without great disadvantage to us, without wanting that perfection which is necessary to a complete and absolute pattern. In short, the Spirit of Christ dwells in us; and the same Spirit which kept and preserved him from all sin, is equally able to mortify sin in us, and to enable us to do the will of God in such manner as he will accept to our justification.
IV. It is an universal pattern. As the doctrine of our Saviour, so his example was of an universal nature and design, calculated for all times and places; and, as much as was possible, abstracted from the circumstances of a particular condition, that it might be the more equally suited to all callings, and conditions, and capacities of men, and fitted for general direction and imitation in all sorts of goodness and virtue, either in the general principle, or in the particular instances of them. And for this reason he would not engage himself in any particular calling, or way of life, that his pattern might more equally and indifferently regard all mankind.
He was really a great person, the greatest that 238ever was in birth and dignity, being the only Son of God, the maker and heir of all things: and yet he submitted to the lowest condition, to all the degrees of poverty and meanness, of contempt and sufferings, to teach men of high degree to be humble and serviceable to the good of others: and men of low degree to be contented and cheerful in the meanest condition, and the hardest circumstances that the providence of God shall see good to place them in.
He had the deepest and most comprehensive knowledge; in him, as the apostle expresseth it, “were hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge:” and yet he made no vain show and ostentation of it; he did not puzzle his hearers with abstruse speculations and sublime mysteries, but, in a way of plain and familiar instruction, declared to his hearers those things which were most useful and necessary for them to know. He confuted the doctors, and confounded the wisdom of the wise, those who were conceited of their own knowledge and skill in Divine things; but was always ready to condescend to the weakness and ignorance of the meanest capacity; giving herein an example to the wise and learned, not to make a show of their knowledge, but to make the best use of it; not to lift up themselves above others, but to condescend and stoop to them for their good.
He sometimes retired from conversation and company, that he might be alone, and at leisure to at tend upon God, and meditate on Divine and heavenly things, without interruption and distraction; but most frequently he conversed with others, and mingled himself with all sorts of persons, that he might give all the advantage, and do all the good he could to all men. Nay, he did not decline the 239conversation of the worst of men, and it was really true which was objected to him, that “he was a friend of publicans and sinners,” being sincerely desirous to do them the greatest kindness in the world, to reform their manners, and reclaim them to a better course; so that he was a pattern both of the contemplative and active life, and shews us how to mix these to the greatest advantage; and by his own example teacheth us, that we cannot serve God better than by doing good to men; and that he is as well pleased, when we lay out ourselves for the benefit of others, spiritual and temporal, as if we employed all our thoughts and meditations wholly upon himself and Divine things; that a perpetual retirement from the world, and shunning the conversation of men, is not the most religious life, but living among men, and doing good to them.
More particularly, the life of our blessed Saviour is a pattern to us,
1. Of the greatest and most substantial virtues.
2. Of the most rare and unusual.
3. Of the most useful and beneficial.
4. Of the most hard and difficult: and,
5. Of such virtues as are most needful; and for the practice of which, there is the greatest and most frequent occasion in human life.
1. It is a pattern of the greatest and most substantial virtues.
Of a fervent piety and devotion toward God. We read, that he often retired to pray, and sometimes spent whole nights in it: his mind was continually upon God, as appears by his frequent ejaculations upon all occasions, by his communication and discourse, which was always either instructive of men 240in Divine truths, or persuasive to a holy practice; from worldly objects and occurrences, he would take occasion to raise some spiritual meditation, and to speak of heavenly things.
And then his ready and cheerful obedience to the will of God in all things: “In the volume of the book it is written of me, I come to do thy will, O my God.” He speaks of it with pleasure; and he delighted to do it: he declined the will of God in no instance, how difficult and displeasing soever to flesh and blood.
The perfect purity and innocency of his life; he was “a lamb without spot and blemish,” (1 Pet. i. 19.) “He did no sin,” (chap. ii. 21.) “Leaving us herein an example, (that though we cannot keep equal pace with him, yet) we should follow his steps.” He was “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners,” (Heb. vii. 26.)
And then his universal charity, taking all opportunities to do all the good, temporal and spiritual, that he could to all men, of which his whole life is one great and continued instance: these are all great and substantial virtues.
I have indeed said nothing of justice, both because there was little occasion for it, he having no thing to do in those matters wherein justice is concerned: he had no estate of his own, and he meddled not with those of other men: and, likewise, because his life was all goodness, which is a virtue of a higher pitch than justice: he that was so good to all, we need not doubt of his justice, if there had been occasion for it.
2. He was a pattern of the most rare and unusual virtues.
Such was his sincerity, “guile was not found in 241his mouth,” (1 Pet. ii. 22.) His conversation was free and open, without disguise and concealment; and therefore, when the high-priest asked him of his disciples, and of his doctrine, (John xviii. 19.) he wondered at the question: “Why askest thou me? Ask them that heard me. I spake openly to the world, I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort, and in secret have I said nothing.” And this is no common virtue, and therefore our Saviour gave it as a singular commendation to Nathanael: (John i. 47.) “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile.” Perfect sincerity is a great foundation of goodness; it is soundness at the heart, and, like perfect health, seldom to he seen; there is hardly any thing wherein men, otherwise good and virtuous, do oftener trip and falter.
Another virtue, which is not very usual, was eminent in our Saviour—I mean true humility, without affectation and secret pride lurking under it. This appeared very remarkable, and very natural, in his whole life, which was all of it the greatest instance of humility that ever was; and, therefore, with great assurance he propounds himself to our imitation in this: (Matt. xi. 29.) “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in spirit.” And St. Paul sets this virtue before us, as being the constant temper of our Lord, and visible in his whole undertaking, and in every part of it from first to last, from his coming into the world to his going out of it: (Phil. ii. 5-8.) “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus; who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God; but made himself of no reputation (he emptied himself of all his majesty and glory), 242and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” Here was humility indeed, from so great a height to stoop so low, from the top of glory and majesty, to the lowest pitch of meanness and misery! Here is a pattern for us; and how should it shame and confound the pride of the sons of men, to see the Son of God so humble? There is no virtue I am sure which we have so much reason, and yet none which we have so little inclination, to imitate. “Pride was not made for men,” says the son of Sirach; it does not become us, and yet it is the fashion; we know that we have no cause to be proud, and yet we know not how to be humble. Let the example of our Lord’s humility bring down the haughtiness of men, and when we consider how he abased himself, let us be “vile in our own eyes, and abhor ourselves in dust and ashes.”
And then his contempt of the world, and the enjoyments and pleasures of it, to that degree, that he would have no part and share in the possessions of it, not so much as one of the first and almost lowest conveniences of life, a settled abode and habitation; so that, as he himself tells us, he was in a more destitute condition than the brute creatures: “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” Not that he designed to oblige us to a strict imitation of him in this particular; for he might, and we may lawfully possess and enjoy these things: but to teach us not to overprize them, not to seek them too earnestly, nor love them inordinately. That he despised them, should keep us from admiring them, 243and doating upon them; that he would not have them in his possession, should keep them out of our hearts, and make us very loose and indifferent in our affections to them; that he valued doing good above all the enjoyments of this world, should make us value them only in order to that end.
And then his excessive kindness and benignity to us, such as men very rarely shew to their best friends, and the best men; but such as no man ever shewed to his enemies: “Peradventure, for a good man one would even dare to die, (says St. Paul, Rom. v. 7.) But herein God commended his love to us, in that whilst we were sinners, Christ died for us.” And this pattern of love our Saviour propounds to our imitation: (John xv. 12, 13.) “This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love than this hath no man, that a man lay down his life for his friend.” The highest pitch of human friendship that ever was, was to die for a friend: but our Lord died not for his friends, but for his enemies, that he might make them his friends, by gaining them to the obedience of his laws: “Ye are my friends, if you do whatsoever I command you.” The same pattern the apostles of our Lord propound to us: (Ephes. v. 2.) “Walk in love as Christ also hath loved us, and given himself for us.” (1 John iii. 16.) “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us; and we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” Here is a pattern of the highest and most unusual kind of love proposed to our imitation; not that every man, by virtue of this example, is to lay down his life for another, because that is not practicable; for then, by the same 244reason that I am obliged to lay down my life for another, he would be as much obliged to lay down his life for me; and so, by my dying for him, I should hinder him of doing a duty to which he was equally obliged, and take it out of his hands: but the meaning of this precept is, that, as Christ died for a common good, so we ought to bear that common affection to mankind, and especially to our brethren, who are endeared to us by a nearer relation, as, in imitation of the example he hath given us, to be ready by our single life, if there be occasion, to redeem the lives of many of our brethren, and to expose ourselves to save them. This I conceive is all that can reasonably be collected from our obligation to imitate our Lord’s example.
3. The life of our blessed Saviour is likewise a pattern of such virtues, as are most useful and beneficial to others.
In his readiness to do good to all persons and all kinds; by instructing their ignorance, and supplying their wants, spiritual and temporal; by resolving their doubts, and comforting them in their sorrows; by healing their diseases and infirmities, which he, indeed, did in extraordinary and miraculous ways, because he was destitute of ordinary means; and we are to do it by ordinary means, and such as are in our power, which when they are, there is no need of miracles. And then in his seeking occasions and opportunities for it, not content with those that offered themselves, but inquiring after them; and in his unwearied diligence in this work; for “he went about doing good,” spent whole days from morning to night, for the service and benefit of others; neglected himself, and the ordinary refreshments of nature, out of his great 245zeal to “work the work of him that sent him,” to bring glory to God, and good to men.
And in the delight he took in this employment; it was “his meat and drink” to be doing of it,: he esteemed it his happiness, yea, a greater felicity to confer benefits upon others, than any man finds in receiving the greatest benefit from others: for that, it seems, was a noted saying of his, a kind of motto with him, as St. Paul testifies: (Acts xx. 35.) “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” And in all this, he persisted in despite of the greatest discouragements from the ingratitude and malice of men, who maligned him for his kindness, and put an ill construction upon his most charitable actions, and were ready “to stone him for his good works:” but this did not discourage him, and take him off; so he might do good, he was contented to hear and suffer ill.
And then in his condescension to others, and consideration of their weakness, and complying with them in lawful and indifferent things, for their edification, and to gain them in greater matters; this St. Paul tells us, was our Lord’s temper, and he urgeth Christians with the example of it: (Rom. xv. 1-3.) “We then that are strong, ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let every one of us please his neighbour for his good to edification: for even Christ pleased not himself.” Where we have liberty and can yield, we ought to abate of our own humour, for the good and edification of others; and not peevishly and stiffly to insist upon lesser things, to the hinderance of a greater good; “for even Christ pleased not himself.” He who had all authority to command, and right to be obeyed, and who could not err in any thing; yet he 246condescended to the weakness and infirmities of others, and in all indifferent things, did not consult his own inclination, but their interest and edification.
And, which greatly conduceth to the comfort and benefit of all societies, both civil and ecclesiastical, he gave us the example of an obedient and peace able temper, conforming himself and his actions not only to Divine, but human laws, “giving to Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s, and to God the things which are God s;” insomuch, that when tribute was demanded of him, though he was really free from any such obligation, and so poor, that he was not able to pay it, in which case even Cæsar must lose his right; nevertheless, to avoid offence, he submitted to it, and chose rather to work a miracle, than to appear refractory and disobedient.
And in religious rites and ceremonies, and the observance of days and times, he did not only conform to all Divine institutions, but to human appointment and usage in all things that were of an innocent and indifferent nature; and this without any anxious scrupulosity, and perverse disputing every inch of his liberty; with great peaceableness observing those religious festivals, which had no other appointment but of the civil authority, and were of mere human institution; and with great prudence steering a middle course, between endless superstition and scrupulous and petulant faction; giving all Christians herein a pattern, how to demean themselves in like cases with great peaceableness and obedience, and not to do or avoid the doing of any thing, out of peevishness and singularity of humour, and a spirit of contradiction, and not to indulge needless and endless scruples, especially 247on the wrong side, as it is too visible many men’s scruples lie almost wholly about obedience to authority, and compliance with indifferent customs, but very seldom about the danger of disobedience and unpeaceableness, and rendering in pieces the church of Christ, by needless separations, and endless divisions.
And our Lord did not only give us the example of a peaceable and uniting spirit, but a little before his departure out of the world, he bequeathes it to his disciples, as his last legacy. (John xiv. 27.) “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.” And, to confirm it to them, he makes it his most earnest and particular prayer to God for them, that God would preserve this spirit of peace and unity among Christians to the end of the world, foreseeing, in his infinite wisdom, what mischiefs and dishonour the contrary temper would bring to his holy religion. (John xvii. 20-23.) “Neither pray I for these alone,” meaning his disciples, “but for them also which shall believe on me through their word;” that is, for all Christians to the end of the world; “that they all may be one, as thou Father art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me, I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one. I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that thou hast sent me.” Intimating, that nothing is more apt to bring in question the divinity of the Christian doctrine, than contentions and divisions among Christians; “that the world may know that thou hast sent me.”
Let us often think of this pattern, and this prayer 248of our Saviour, and let the consideration of it quell those unchristian heats which are among us, lest, by our animosities and divisions about lesser things, which, whatever opinion men may have of them, do no ways touch upon the life and essence of religion, we first dishonour, and finally destroy from among us the best religion in the world. “And God grant that we may all know and do in this our day, the things which belong to our peace, before they be hid from our eyes, for his mercy’s sake in Jesus Christ; to whom, with the Father, and the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory now and for ever.”249
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