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[Preached March 25, 1686.]
THE LIFE OF JESUS CHRIST CONSIDERED, AS OUR EXAMPLE.
Leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps.—1 Pet. ii. 21.
THE example of Christ is an argument never un seasonable; and though it be somewhat foreign to the occasion of this day, yet it will afford us some thing not improper to be considered by us, concerning the blessed mother of our Lord. I have handled this argument of our Lord’s example very largely, and, among other things, have shewn the manifold advantages of it, in these following respects:
I. That the example of our Lord is a most absolute and perfect pattern, being the life of God, in the nature and likeness of man.
II. A most familiar and easy example, in which we see the several virtues of a good life practised in such instances, and upon such occasions, as do frequently happen in human life.
III. It is an encouraging example; nothing being more apt to give life to good resolutions and endeavours, than to see all that which God requires of us, performed by one in our own nature, and a man as like ourselves, as it is possible for a perfect pattern to be.
IV. It is likewise an universal example, calculated as equally as it is possible for all conditions 273and capacities of men, and fitted for general direction and imitation of all sorts of virtue and goodness; such virtues as are the greatest and most substantial, the most rare and unusual, the most useful and beneficial to others, the most hard and difficult to be practised, and for the exercise whereof there is the greatest and most frequent occasion in human life. There remains now only to be spoken to, the
V. Fifth and last advantage, which I mentioned of our Lord’s example; that it is, in the nature of it, very powerful to engage and oblige all men to the imitation of it. But before I enter upon this, I proposed to clear what hath been already said concerning our Lord’s example from three or four obvious objections.
The first objection is, that a great part of our Saviour’s life consisted of miraculous actions, wherein we cannot imitate him.
This is very true; and for that very reason, because we cannot imitate him herein, we are not obliged to do it: but we may imitate the compassion and charity which he shewed in his miracles, by such ways, and in such effects, as are within the compass of our power. We are not anointed, as he was, “with the Holy Ghost, and with power to heal all manner of sickness and disease:” but we may “go about doing good,” as he did, so far as we have ability and opportunity; we may comfort those in their sickness and distress, whom we are not able in a miraculous manner to recover and relieve; and in diseases that are curable, we may help the poorer at the expense of our charity, and do that by slower and ordinary means, which our Saviour did by a word in an instant.
Secondly, Against the universality of our Saviour’s example, it is objected, that he hath given274as no pattern of some conditions and relations of life, for which there seems to have been as great need and reason as for any other.
To this I answer, that though his single state of life did hinder him from being formally an example as to some of the most common relations, as of a father and a husband; yet he was virtually so in the principle and practice of universal charity, which principle, if it be truly rooted in us, will sufficiently guide and direct us in the duties of particular relations.
And whereas it is further objected, that he hath left us no example of that, which by many is esteemed the only religious state of life; viz. perfect retirement from the world, for the more devout serving of God, and freeing us from the temptations of the world, such as is that of monks and hermits; this, perhaps, may seem to some a great oversight and omission: but our Lord in great wisdom thought fit to give a pattern of a quite different sort of life, which was, not to fly the conversation of men, and to live in a monastery or a wilderness; but to do good among men, to live in the world with great freedom, and with great innocency. He did, indeed, sometimes retire himself, for the more free and private exercise of devotion, as we ought to do; but he passed his life chiefly in the conversation of men, that they might have all the benefit that was possible of his instruction and example. We read, that “he was carried into the wilderness to be tempted;” but not that he lived there, to avoid temptation. He hath given us an example of denying the world, without leaving it; and of renouncing, not only the pomp and vanity, but even the lawful enjoyments and conveniences of life, when it may serve to any good end, either of glory to God, or of advantage to men; 275teaching us hereby, that charity is a duty no less necessary than devotion; that we cannot serve God better, than by endeavouring the good and happiness of men. So that if our Saviour’s example be of authority with us, that will soon decide which is the most perfect state of life, to go out of the world, or to live innocently and usefully in it. And since neither our Saviour nor his apostles have recommended it to us by their example, nor by one word of precept or counsel tending that way, it seems very plain that they did not esteem monkery the most perfect, much less the only religious, state of life. There could not have been so deep a silence throughout the New Testament concerning so important a piece of religion, as the church of Rome would bear us in hand this is: for to be professed of some monastical order, they call entering into religion; and they speak of it as the most direct and ready way to heaven; and not only so, but they give fair encouragement to believe, that to die, or be buried in a monk’s habit, will go a great way (they are loath to tell us how far), in the carrying of a bad man towards heaven, or at least to the abatement of his pain in purgatory.
Thirdly, It is objected, that some particulars of our Saviour’s carriage towards rulers and magistrates seem liable to exception, and not proper for our imitation: as, his bold reproofs of the scribes and pharisees, many of whom were chief rulers, and of greatest authority among them; and his message to Herod, “Go and tell that fox.” This opprobrious and reproachful treatment of magistrates seems directly contrary to an express law of God: (Exod. xxii. 28.) “Thou shalt not revile the gods, (or judges,) nor speak evil of the ruler of thy people.”276
But to this the answer is plain: that our Lord used this freedom by the virtue and privilege of his prophetical office, and of his immediate commission from God; it being the office of prophets, and a part of their commission, to reprove kings and rulers with all freedom and plainness, because they were really superior to them in the execution of that office. In all positive laws of respect to superiors, there is an exception of the Divine commission; because, in that case, the prophet speaks in the name, and by the authority of one infinitely greater than the greatest upon earth; as, in the Lord’s name, and by his commission, any man may check inferior magistrates, and that in such a manner, as would be rudeness and insolence for any other, not so war ranted, to do it. And of this there are manifold examples in the prophets of the Old Testament; and what the tenor of their commission was, t we may see in that given to the prophet Jeremiah: (chap. i. ver. 10.) “Behold, I have set thee over the nations, and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull up, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant,” (that, is, to denounce judgments and calamities, or peace and prosperity to them;) and, (ver. 17, 18.) “Thou therefore gird up thy loins, and arise, and speak unto them all that I command thee; be not dismayed at their faces, lest I confound thee before them. For, behold, I have made thee this day a defenced city, and an iron pillar, and brazen walls .against the whole land; against the kings of Judah, against the princes thereof, against the priests thereof, and against the people of the land.” This commission set him above them all in the discharge of his office: and therefore, what our Lord did in this kind, by virtue of an extraordinary 277commission, and the privilege of a prophet immediately sent by God, is not to be drawn into example in ordinary cases: for we may do that by special commission from God, which the ordinary rules of duty, and respect to princes and governors, will by no means allow to be done.
The fourth and last objection is, that our blessed Saviour does not seem to bear himself with that duty and respect towards his mother, which that relation seems to require. And to speak according to the first appearance of things, this seems to be, of all other, the most exceptionable part of his life, and to require some particular and extraordinary reason, not so obvious at first sight, for the vindication of it
There are, to my best remembrance and observation, but five passages in the history of our Saviour’s life, concerning his carriage towards his mother, and his discourse with her, and of her; in all which he seems rather to treat her with some appearance of neglect, than with any great show of reverence and respect. Not that we are to imagine, but that he did pay her an entire duty; for we know that he “fulfilled all righteousness:” but, for reasons best known to his infinite wisdom, he thought fit very much to conceal it in his public behaviour, and to have as little notice taken of it in the history of his life.
And the first passage is, Luke ii. 48. when his parents having lost him, at last found him in the temple disputing among the doctors; and his mother reproved him, “Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing:” he gives them this short and obscure answer, which they knew not what to make of; “How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” This happened 278when he was but twelve years old. And that we may not think, that, during his minority, he did ordinarily assume this behaviour towards his parents, but only upon this first essay of his public appearance, the evangelist purposely adds, (ver. 51.) that “he went down with his parents to Nazareth, and was subject to them.”
The second passage is, John ii. 4. when his mother desiring him to work a miracle, at his first appearance and entrance upon his public ministry, he takes occasion to declare to her, that he was discharged from her conduct and government, and this in terms to all appearance of no great respect: “Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.” Greg. Nyssen reads both sentences with an interrogation: “What have I to do with thee? is not mine hour now come?” As if he had said, “Why dost thou interpose in these matters? is not the time come, that I am to enter upon my office; and in the discharge of it, to be directed by God, and none else?”
The third passage is, Matt. xii. 47. when he was told, that his mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with him: “Who is my mother (says he), and who are my brethren?” And pointing to his disciples, “Behold my mother, and my brethren; for whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” Here is but little appearance of regard; for we do not find that he left the business he was about, to speak with her when she desired it. Nor, it seems, did she understand her power so well as the church of Rome hath done since, when (as is to be seen in some of their mass-books) they address to her in these terms, Jure 279matris impera redemptori; “By the authority of a mother, command the Redeemer.”
The fourth passage is not much different from the former; (Luke xi. 27, 28.) when “a certain woman said to him, Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked: he said, Yea, rather blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.” He does not deny what was said in honour of her, but turns his discourse another way; and, foreseeing the danger of a superstitious veneration of her, he seems to bring her down to the same level with all sincere Christians; teaching us, that no external privilege or relation, how glorious so ever, no, not that of being the mother of the Son of God, was so valuable as doing the will of God: “Yea, rather blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.”
The last passage is at the time of his death: (John xix. 25-27.) “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus, his mother: when Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son: then saith he to the disciple. Behold thy mother. And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.” Here, indeed, he shewed his great kindness and concernment for her, in committing her to the care of his best-beloved friend; but yet without any extraordinary demonstration of respect in the manner of it.
These are all the passages I know in the gospel, which concern our Lord’s carriage towards his mother; which, upon the whole matter, is so strange, that we cannot imagine but there must be some special and extraordinary reason for it: and we who have lived to see and know what hath happened 280in the Christian world, are now able to give a better account of this great caution and reservedness in his behaviour towards her; namely, that, out of his infinite wisdom and foresight, he so demeaned himself towards her, that he might lay no temptation before men, nor give the least occasion to the idolizing of her. He always called her “woman:” and by the privilege of his Divinity and high office, hardly seems to pay her the respect due to a mother, that he might restrain all Christians from worshipping her as a Deity: or if they did, that they might have no colour or excuse for it, from any thing he said or did. This is so probable an account of that which might otherwise seem so unaccountable, that I persuade myself, that all unprejudiced persons will readily assent to it. And, which is farther remarkable in this matter, the apostles of our Lord, in all their writings, use the same reservedness, and, no doubt, by the direction of the same Spirit, concerning the blessed mother of our Lord. For, throughout the history of the Acts, and all the Epistles of the apostles, there is but one mention made of her, and that only by the by; (Acts i. 14.) where it is said, that the “disciples all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus.” So far are they from proposing her for an object of our worship, that they only once make mention of her, and that joining with others in prayer and supplication to God, without any special remark concerning her; much less do they speak of any devotion paid to her.
And surely, if this “blessed among women,” the mother of our Lord (for I keep to the titles which the Scripture gives her), have any sense of what we 281do here below, she cannot but look down with the greatest disdain upon that sacrilegious and idolatrous worship which is paid to her, to the high dishonour of the great God and our Saviour, and the infinite scandal of his religion. How can she, with out indignation, behold how they play the fool in the church of Rome about her? What an idol they make of her image? and with what sottishness they give Divine honour to it! How they place her in their idolatrous pictures in equal rank with the blessed Trinity, and turn the salutation of the angel, Ave Maria, “Hail Mary, full of grace,” into a kind of prayer; and in their bead-roll of devotion repeat it ten times, for once that they say the Lord’s Prayer, as of greater virtue and efficacy! And, indeed, they almost justle out the devotion due to Almighty God, and our blessed Saviour, by their endless idolatry to her.
So that the greater part of their religion, both public and private, is made up of that which was no part at all of the religion of the apostles and primitive Christians; nay, which plainly contradicts it: for that expressly teaches us that there is but one object of our prayers, and one Mediator, by whom we are to make our addresses to God. “There is one God; and one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus,” says St. Paul, when he gives a standing rule concerning prayer in the Christian church. And yet, notwithstanding all the care that our blessed Saviour and his apostles could take to prevent the gross idolatry of the blessed mother of our Lord, how blindly and wilfully have the church of Rome run into it: and, in despite of the clearest evidence and conviction, do obstinately and impudently persist in it, and justify 282themselves in so abominable a practice. I come now to the
V. Fifth and last advantage of our Lord’s example, that it is in the nature of it very powerful, to engage and oblige all men to the imitation of it.
It is almost equally calculated for persons of all capacities and conditions, for the wise and the weak, for those of high and low degree; for all men are alike concerned to be happy. And the imitation of this example is the most ready and direct way to it, the most effectual means we can use to compass this great and universal end; nay, it is not only the means, but the end, the best and most essential part of it. To be like our Lord, is to be as good as it is possible for men to be; and goodness is the highest perfection that any being is capable of; and the perfection of every being is its happiness.
There is a kind of contagion in all examples; men are very apt to do what they see others do, though it be very bad: every day’s experience furnisheth us with many and sad instances of the influence of bad examples; but there are peculiar charms in that which is good and excellent. A perfect pattern of goodness does strongly allure and invite to the imitation of it, and a great example of virtue to a well-disposed mind is a mighty temptation, and apt to inspirit us with good resolutions, to endeavour after that in ourselves, which we so much esteem and admire in others. And such is the example of our Lord, perfect as is possible, and yet obvious to common imitation, and as much fitted for the general direction of mankind in all sorts of virtue and goodness, as any one single example can be imagined to be.
The virtues of his life are pure, without any mixture 283of infirmity and imperfection. He had humility without meanness of spirit; innocency without weakness; wisdom without cunning; and constancy and resolution in that which was good, without stiffness of conceit, and peremptoriness of humour: in a word, his virtues were shining without vanity, heroical without any thing of transport, and very extra ordinary without being in the least extravagant.
His life was even and of one tenor, quiet, and without noise and tumult, always employed about the same work, in doing the things which pleased God, and were of greatest benefit and advantage to men. Who would not write after such a copy; so perfect, and yet so familiar, and fit for our imitation? Who would not be ambitious to live the life which God lived, when he was pleased to become man, and dwell among us?
We are ambitious to imitate those whom we esteem, and are apt to have their example in great dearness and regard, from whom we have received great kindness and mighty benefits. This pattern, which our religion proposeth to us, is the example of one whom we ought to reverence, and whom we have reason to love above any person in the world; it is the example of our Lord and master, of our sovereign and our Saviour, of the founder of our religion, and of the author and finisher of our faith; it is an example that carries authority with it, and commands our imitation. “You call me Lord and Master,” says he himself, recommending to us the example of his own humility. (John xiii. 13, 14.) “You call me Lord and Master, and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet;” that is, stoop to the lowest and meanest office to serve 284one another; “for I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.”
Yet farther, it is the example of our best friend and greatest benefactor, of him who laid down his life for us, and sealed his love to us with his own blood; and, while we were bitter enemies to him, did and suffered more for us, than any man ever did for his dearest friend. How powerfully must such a pattern recommend goodness, and kindness, and compassion to us, who have had so much comfort and advantage from them? Had not the Son of God commiserated our case, and pitied and relieved us in our low and wretched condition, we had been extremely, and for ever miserable, beyond all imagination, and past all remedy. All the kindness and compassion, all the mercy and forgiveness he would have us practise towards one another, he himself first exercised upon us; and surely we have a much greater obligation upon us to the practice of these virtues than he had: for he did all this for our sakes, we do it for our own. We have a natural obligation, both in point of duty and interest; his was voluntary, and what he took upon himself, that he might at once be a Saviour and an example to us. He that commands us to do good to others, was our great benefactor; he that requires us to forgive our enemies, shed his own blood for the forgiveness of our sins; while we were enemies to him, laid down his life for us, making himself the example of that goodness, which he commands us to shew to others.
Are any of us reduced to poverty and want? let us think of him, who, being Lord of all, “had not where to lay his head; who being rich, for our sakes became a beggar, that we through his poverty might be made rich: Are we persecuted for righteousness 285sake, and exercised with sufferings and reproaches? “Let us run with patience the race which is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame.”
When we are ready to be discouraged in well doing, by the opposition we meet withal from the ingratitude of men, and the malicious interpretation of our good actions, perverting the best things, done with the best mind and to the best ends, to some ill purpose and design, “consider him who endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest you be weary and faint in your minds.”
Can we be proud, when the Son of God “hum bled himself, and became of no reputation;” emptied himself of all his glory, and was contented to be “despised and rejected of men?” Shall we be covetous, and thirst after the things of this world, when we consider how the Son of God despised them, and trampled upon them? Shall we contemn and despise the poor; nay, can we choose but esteem them for his sake, whom they resemble, and whose low and indigent condition in the world hath made poverty not only tolerable, but glorious? Can we be peevish and fro ward, and apt to fly out into passion upon every little occasion, when we consider the meekness of the Son of God, and with what serenity and evenness of mind he demeaned himself, under great and continual provocations? Shall we be discontented in any condition, when we consider how contented the Son of God was in the meanest and most destitute condition; how he welcomed all events, and was so perfectly resigned to the will of his heavenly Father, that whatsoever pleased God, 286pleased him? Shall we be so ready to separate from the communion of the church of God, upon pretence of something that we think amiss, or less pure and perfect (which will always be in this world); when the Son of God lived and died in the communion of a church guilty of great corruptions both in doctrine and practice, such as can with no colour be objected to ours?
Shall we resent injuries, slanders, and calumnies so heinously, as to be out of all patience, when we consider with what meekness of temper, and how little disturbance of mind, the Son of God bore all these; how “he gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that plucked off the hair, and with held not his face from shame and spitting?” How “he was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as the sheep before the shearer is dumb, so he opened not his mouth; being reviled, he reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously?” Such vile and barbarous usage the Son of God met withal; and yet, under all this, he possessed his soul in patience: and do we expect to be better treated than he was? Was goodness itself contented to be traduced, and evil spoken of, perfect innocence to be slandered and persecuted; and shall we, who are sinners, great sinners, think ourselves worthy to escape these things, and too good to have that done to us, which was done to one infinitely better than we are? It is our Lord’s own argument, and there is great weight and reason in it; “if the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. Remember the word that I said unto you, the servant is not greater than the lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; it is 287enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord: if they have called the Master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of the household?”
Can we entertain thoughts of revenge, when we have such a pattern of forgiving before us, who poured out his blood for the expiation of the guilt of them that shed it, and spent his last breath in fervent and charitable prayers for his betrayers and murderers? Lord endow us with the like temper; but do not try us with the like sufferings.
Thus by setting the example of our Lord before us, and keeping this pattern always in our eye, we may continually correct all our own errors and defects, all the distempers of our minds, and the faults and irregularities of our lives; we may argue ourselves into all kind of virtue and goodness, and from such an example be strongly excited and sweetly led to the practice of it.
Let us not be discouraged by the consideration of our own weakness; for he who hath given us such an example of virtue, is ready likewise to give us his Holy Spirit, to assist and enable us to conform ourselves to this pattern of our Lord and Master, and to follow the blessed steps of his holy life.
“Now the God of peace,” &c.288
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