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THE TRUE EXCELLENCY OF A GOSPEL MINISTER.
JOHN V. 35. He was a burning and a shining light.
THAT discourse of our blessed Saviour we have an account of in this chapter from the 17th verse to the end, was occasioned by the Jews' murmuring against him, and persecuting him for his healing the impotent man at the pool of Bethesda, and bidding him take up his bed and walk on the Sabbath day. Christ largely vindicates himself in this discourse, by asserting his fellowship with God the Father in nature and operations, and thereby implicitly showing himself to be the Lord of the Sabbath, and by declaring to the Jews that God the Father, and he with him, did work hitherto, or even to this time; i. e., although it be said that God rested on the seventh day from all his works, yet indeed God continues to work hitherto, even to this very day, with respect to his greatest work, the work of redemption, or new creation, which he carries on by Jesus Christ, his Son. Pursuant to the designs of which work was his showing mercy to fallen men by healing their diseases, and delivering them from the calamities they brought on themselves by sin. This great work of redemption, God carries on from the beginning of the world to this time; and his rest from it will not come till the resurrection, which Christ speaks of in the 21st and following verses the finishing of this redemption as to its procurement, being in his own resurrection; and as to the application, in the general resurrection and eternal judgment, spoken of from verse 20 to verse 30. So that notwithstanding both the rest on the seventh day, and also the rest that Joshua gave the children of Israel, in Canaan; yet the great rest of the Redeemer from his work, and so of his people with him and in him, yet remains, as the apostle observes, Heb. chap. iv. This will be at the resurrection and general judgment; which Christ here teaches the Jews, was to be brought to pass by the Son of God, by the Father's appointment, and so the works of God to be finished by him.
And inasmuch as this vindication was so far from satisfying the Jews, that it did but further enrage them, because hereby he made himself equal with God, Christ therefore refers them to the witness of John the Baptist; whose testimony they must acquiesce in, or else be inconsistent with themselves; because they had generally acknowledged John to be a great prophet, and seemed for a while mightily affected and taken with it, that God, after so long a withholding the spirit of prophecy, had raised up so great a prophet among themand it is concerning him that Christ speaks in this verse wherein is the text: "He was a burning and a shining light; and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light."
In order to a right understanding and improvement of the words of the text, we may observe,
1. What Christ here takes notice of in John, and declares concerning him, viz., that he was a burning and a shining light. He was a light to the church of Israel, to reveal the mind and will of God to them, after a long continued
Preached at Pelham, August 30, 1744, at the ordination of the Rev. Mr. Robert Abercrombie to the work of the gospel ministry in that place.
THE TRUE EXCELLENCY OF A GOSPEL MINISTER.
dark season, and after they had been destitute of any prophet to instruct them, for some ages: he arose on Israel, as the morning star, the forerunner of the sun of righteousness, to introduce the day-spring, or dawning of the gospel-day, to give light to them that till then had sat in the darkness of perfect night, which was the shadow of death; to give them the knowledge of salvation; as Zacharias his father declares at his circumcision, Luke i. 76-79: "And thou child shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest; for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord, to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation unto his people, by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."
And he was a burning light, as he was full of a spirit of fervent piety and holiness, being filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother's womb, having his heart warmed and inflamed with a great love to Christ, being that friend of the bridegroom, that stood and heard him, and rejoiced greatly because of the bridegroom's voice; and was glad that Christ increased, though he decreased, John iii. 29, 30. And was animated with a holy zeal in the work of the ministry: he came in this respect, in the spirit and power of Elias; as Elias was zealous in bearing testimony against the corruption, apostacies, and idolatries of Israel in his day, so was John the Baptist in testifying against the wickedness of the Jews in his day: as Elias zealously reproved the sins of all sorts of persons in Israel, not only the sins of the common people, but of their great ones, Ahab, Ahaziah, and Jezebel, and their false prophets; with what zeal did John the Baptist reprove all sorts of persons, not only the publicans and soldiers, but the Pharisees and Sadducees, telling them plainly that they were a generation of vipers, and rebuked the wickedness of Herod in his most beloved Just, though Herod sought his life for it, as Ahab and Ahaziah did Elijah's. As Elias was much in warning the people of God's approaching judgments, denouncing God's awful wrath against Ahab, Jezebel and Ahaziah, and the prophets of Baal, and the people in general: so was John the Baptist, much in warning the people to fly from the wrath to come, telling them in the most awakening manner, that the " axe was laid at the root of the tree, and that every tree that brought not forth good fruit should be hewn down and cast into the fire, and that he that came after him had his fan in his hand, and that he would thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner, and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
John the Baptist was not only a burning, but a shining light he was so in his doctrine, having more of the gospel in his preaching than the former prophets, or at least the gospel exhibited with greater light and clearness, more plainly pointing forth the person that was to be the great Redeemer, and declaring his errand into the world, to take away the sin of the world, as a Lamb offered in sacrifice to God, and the necessity that all, even the most strictly moral and religious, stood in of him, being by nature a generation of vipers; and the spiritual nature of his kingdom, consisting not in circumcision, or outward baptism, or any other external performance or privileges, but in the powerful influences of the Holy Ghost in their hearts, a being baptized with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.
In this clearness with which he gave knowledge of salvation to God's people, John was a bright light, and among them that had been born of women there had not arisen a greater than he. In this brightness this harbinger of the gospel-day excelled all the other prophets, as the morning star reflects
more of the light of the sun than any other star, and is the brightest of all the
He also shone bright in his conversation, and his eminent mortification and renunciation of the enjoyments of the world; his great diligence and laboriousness in his work, his impartiality in it, declaring the mind and will of God to all sorts without distinction; his great humility, rejoicing in the increase of the honor of Christ, though his honor was diminished, as the brightness of the morning star diminishes, as the light of the sun increases; and in his faithfulness and courage, still declaring the mind and will of God, though it cost him his own life. Thus his light shone before men.
2. We may observe to what purpose Christ declares these things of John in the text, viz., to show how great and excellent a person he was, and worthy that the Jews should regard his testimony: great are the things which Christ elsewhere says of John the Baptist, as in Matt. xi. 7-14. He speaks of him as a prophet; and more than a prophet; and one, than whom there had not risen a greater among them that had been born of women. He observed how great and excellent a light he was in the text, to show the Jews how inexcusable they were in not receiving the testimony he had given of him; as you may see, verses 31, 32, 33.
Therefore that which I would observe from the text to be the subject of my present discourse is this:
It is the excellency of a minister of the gospel to be both a burning and a shining light.
Thus we see it is in Christ's esteem, the great prophet of God, and light of the world, head of the church, and Lord of the harvest, and the great Lord and master whose messengers all ministers of the gospel are.
John the Baptist was a minister of the gospel; and he was so more eminently than the ancient prophets; for though God at sundry times, and in divers manners, spake the gospel by them; yet John the Baptist was a great minister of the gospel in a manner distinguished from them: he is reckoned in Scripture the first that introduced the gospel day, after the law and the prophets: Luke vi. 16, "The law and the prophets were until John; since that time the kingdom of God is preached." And his preaching is called the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God, Mark i. 1. He came on that errand, to give knowledge of salvation to God's people, through the remission of their sins (as his father Zacharias observes, Luke i. 77); and to preach these glad tidings, that the kingdom of heaven was at hand.
John being thus eminently a minister of the gospel, and a burning and shining light, being taken notice of by Christ as his great excellency, we may justly hence observe, that herein consists the proper excellency of ministers of the gospel.
I would, by divine assistance, handle the subject in the following method. I. I would show that Christ's design, in the appointment of the order and office of ministers of the gospel is, that they may be lights to the souls of
II. I would show what is implied in their being burning lights.
IV. I would show that it is the proper excellency of ministers of the gospel to have these things united in them, to be both burning and shining lights.
V. I would apply these things to all that Christ has called to the work of the gospel ministry, showing how much it concerns them earnestly to endeavor that they may be burning and shining lights.
VI. Show what ministers of the gospel ought to do that they may be so.
VII. Say something briefly concerning the duty of a people that are under the care of a gospel minister, correspondent to those things that Christ has taught us concerning the end and excellency of a gospel minister.
I. I would observe that Christ's design in the appointment of the order and office of ministers of the gospel was that they might be lights to the souls
Satan's kingdom is a kingdom of darkness; the devils are the rulers of the darkness of this world. But Christ's kingdom is a kingdom of light; the designs of his kingdom are carried on by light; his people are not of the night, nor of darkness, but are the children of the light, as they are the children of God, who is the Father of lights, and as it were a boundless fountain of infinitely pure and bright light, 1 John i. 5, James i. 17.
Man by the fall extinguished that divine light that shone in this world in its first estate. The Scripture represents the wickedness of man as reducing the world to that state wherein it was when it was yet without form and void, and darkness filled it. Jer. iv. 22, 23, "For my people is foolish, they have not known me: they are sottish children; and they have none understanding: they are wise to do evil; but to do good they have no knowledge. I beheld the earth, and lo, it was without form and void; and the heavens, and they had no light." But God in infinite mercy has made glorious provision for the restoration of light to this fallen dark world; he has sent him who is the brightness of his own glory, into the world, to be the light of the world. "He is the true light that that lighteth every man that cometh into the world," i. e., every man in the world that ever has any true light. But in his wisdom and mercy, he is pleased to convey his light to men by means and instruments; and has sent forth his messengers, and appointed ministers in his church to be subordinate lights, and to shine with the communications of his light, and to reflect the beams of his glory on the souls of men.
There is an analogy between the divine constitution and disposition of things in the natural and in the spiritual world. The wise Creator has not left the natural world without light; but in this our solar system has set one great light, immensely exceeding all the rest, shining perpetually with a transcendent fulness and strength, to enlighten the whole; and he hath appointed other lesser, subordinate or dependent lights, that shine with the communications and reflections of something of his brightness. So it is in the spiritual world; there God hath appointed Jesus Christ as a Sun of righteousness: the Church of God has not the sun to be her light by day; nor for brightness, does the moon give light to her, but the Lord is her everlasting light, and her God her glory. The new Jerusalem has no need of the sun, nor the moon; for the Lamb is the light thereof. And the ministers of Christ are, as it were, the stars that encompass this glorious fountain of light, to receive and reflect his beams, and give light to the souls of men. As Christ therefore is in Scripture called the sun, so are his ministers called stars. So are the twelve apostles, the chief ministers of the Christian church, called, Rev. xii. 1: "And there appeared a great wonder in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars." And so are the ordinary ministers of the gospel called, Rev. i. 16: "And he had in his right hand seven stars." And verse 20, "The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand and the seven golden candlesticks; the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches." Here also ministers of the gospel are implicitly compared to those lamps that enlightened the temple at Jerusalem, upon the tops of the golden
candlesticks; and more expressly in Zech. iv. 2: "I have looked, and behold a candlestick, all of gold, with a bowl upon the top of it, and his seven lamps thereon."
These lamps have all their oil from Christ, and are enkindled by his flames, and shine by his beams; and being thus dependent on him, they are near to him, and held in his right hand, that they may receive light from him, to communicate to others.
The use of a light is threefold; to discover, to refresh, and to direct. The first use of a light is to discover things, or make them manifest. Without light nothing is to be seen. Eph. v. 13," Whatsoever doth make manifest is light." Ministers are set to be lights to the souls of men in this respect, as they are to be the means of imparting divine truth to them, and bringing into their view the most glorious and excellent objects, and of leading them to, and assisting them in the contemplation of those things that angels desire to look into; the means of their obtaining that knowledge is infinitely more important and more excellent and useful, than that of the greatest statesmen or philosophers, even that which is spiritual and divine: they are set to be the means of bringing men out of darkness into God's marvellous light, and of bringing them to the infinite fountain of light, that in his light they may see light: they are set to instruct men, and impart to them that knowledge by which they may know God and Jesus Christ, whom to know is life eternal.
Another use of light is to refresh and delight the beholders. Darkness is dismal the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is to behold the sun. Light is refreshing to those who have long sat in darkness: they therefore that watch and keep awake through a dark night, long and wait for the light of the morning; and the wise man observes, Prov. xv. 30, that "the light of the eyes rejoiceth the heart." Spiritual light is especially refreshing and joyful. Psalm xcvii. 11, "Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart." They that see the light of Christ, the star that hath arisen out of Jacob, are refreshed and do rejoice, as the wise men that saw the star that showed them where Christ was: Matt. ii. 10," And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy."
Ministers are set in the church of God to be the instruments of this comfort and refreshment to the souls of men, to be the instruments of leading souls to the God of all consolation, and fountain of their happiness: they are sent as Christ was, and as co-workers with him, to preach good tidings to the meek, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound, and to comfort all that mourn: they are to lead those that "labor, and are heavy laden" to their true rest, and to speak a word in season to him that is weary: they are set to be ministers of the consolation and joy of the saints. 2 Cor. i. 24, "We have not dominion over your faith; but are helpers of your joy."
The third use of light is to direct. 'Tis by light that we see where to go: "he that walks in darkness knows not whither he goes," and is in danger of stumbling and falling into mischief. 'Tis by light that men see what to do, and are enabled to work; in the night, Christ tells us no man can work. Ministers are set to be lights to men's souls in this respect also; as Zacharias observes of John the Baptist, Luke i. 79, "To guide our feet in the way of peace." Ministers have the record of God committed to them that they may hold that forth, which God has given to be to man as a light shining in a dark place, to guide them in the way through this dark world, to regions of eternal light. Ministers are set to be the instruments of conveying to men that true wisdom