And as John fulfilled his course, he said, Whom think you that I am? I am not he. But, behold, there comes one after me…
The life of every individual may be compared to a river: rising in obscurity, increasing by the accession of tributary streams, and, after flowing through a longer or shorter distance, losing itself in some common receptacle. Whilst a stream is confined within its banks, it fertilises, enriches, and improves the country through which it passes; but if it deserts its channel, by stagnating in lakes and marshes, its exhalations diffuse pestilence and disease around. Some glide away in insignificance: whilst others become celebrated. Some are tranquil and gentle in their course; whilst others, rushing in torrents, dashing over precipices, become objects of terror and dismay. But, however diversified their character, or their direction, all agree in having their course short, limited, and determined. Thus human characters, however various, have one common destiny; their course of action may be greatly diversified, but they all lose themselves in the ocean of eternity. Few have appeared on the stage of action whose life was more important than of John. His course was a very extraordinary one. John was called to a very singular work; his ministry formed an epoch in the history of the Church. It was the connecting link between the two dispensations. His career was brilliant, successful, short, and his end violent and tragical.
I. THAT THERE IS A PRESCRIBED COURSE OR SPHERE OF ACTION APPOINTED TO EVERY INDIVIDUAL BY THE AUTHOR OF OUR NATURE.
1. We are not a race of independent creatures sent into the world to follow the dictates of our own will. We are not our own; we belong to another. To do God's will, to serve the end of His government, and to promote His glory; these are the great ends of our existence. Thus our Saviour Himself when in this world was devoted to His Father's will. "My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me," etc. And we live to no purpose, or to a bad one, but as we conform to this.
2. But, although this is the universal principle by which all are to be actuated, yet it admits of great and numerous variations in its practical application. The manner in which an apostle, for instance, was called upon to do this, is not that in which an ordinary teacher is to do it; nor the manner of an ordinary teacher that of a private Christian. The duties of a sovereign are different from those of his ministers; and those again, from the duties of inferior magistrates; and of magistrates, from those of private subjects. Of the rich it is required "to do good and to communicate"; of the poor, to be prudent, diligent, careful; and so on. Although the end is the same in all, yet the manner in which this end is viewed will be various: the rays of light, when blended in day, are simple and of a uniform colour; but when they are refracted through a prism, they exhibit all the colours of the rainbow.
II. THAT THERE IS A SET AND LIMITED TIME ALLOTTED TO THAT SPHERE AND COURSE OF ACTION: "There is an appointed time to man upon the earth."
1. The course of man is not indeterminate, but has its limits. If "a sparrow falleth not to the ground without His knowledge," much less can the death of a human creature take place without His interposition. Whether we fall premature victims to disease, or perish by what men call accident, or sink under the burdens of age, still it is according to the will of God, "whose counsels shall stand, and who will do all His pleasure."
2. It is short. "Thou hast made my days as an handbreadth." Whether we drop in infancy, from the cradle to the grave, or are cut off in youth; whether we attain to manhood, or even to old age; still, we soon reach the end of our course, and often without passing through its intermediate stages.
3. It is rapid and impetuous; its waves follow each other in quick succession, and many are engulfed almost as soon as they appear. Early in infancy the stream glides away like a summer brook, and leaves the fond parent mournfully to recall the pleasure he received in contemplating its unsullied purity and its playful meanders. Of those who set out with us in this journey of life, how many have disappeared from our side!
III. OUR HAPPINESS AND OUR HONOUR CONSIST ENTIRELY IN COMPLETING THE COURSE WHICH GOD HAS ASSIGNED TO US. Here we are liable to fall into two great mistakes.
1. That there is some other happiness and honour than that which is to be found in fulfilling our course, in occupying that sphere of duty which God hath been pleased to assign us. Some are looking, for their satisfaction, to the pleasures of sin; others to the gratification which the world affords; some attach their notion of happiness to some external situation not yet found, and imagine it is to be met with there. Settle it in your minds that the only happiness worth seeking — that which will live in all circumstances, and abide the vicissitudes of life, consists in fulfilling our course, conforming to the Divine will, and this fountain of water flows for the refreshment of the meanest peasant, as well as of the greatest monarch.
2. That we should be able to conform ourselves to the will of God, and to our own sphere of action, better in some other state; and being therefore dissatisfied with that precise state in which His providence has placed us. The wisdom of each consists in fulfilling His own course. The course of John the Baptist was difficult, obstructed with afflictions, and beset with dangers: but he fulfilled it. How many objections might he have formed against the precise course assigned him! The poor may easily imagine how amiably and liberally they should have acted if their lot had been cast among the rich; and the rich, on the other hand, how safely they should have been preserved from a variety of snares, if they had been screened by the privacy of the poor. The young will ascribe their errors to the impetuosity so natural to their age; and the aged wish for the energy which belongs to youth: their time, they plead, is passed; it is too late for them to change. But all these are great mistakes. It is not a change of state that we want, but a change of heart. The grace of God will keep us humble in prosperity, cheer us in adversity, sustain and direct us in life, support us in death, and go with us into eternity. Finally, let each of us attach himself with more seriousness, alacrity, and fervour than ever, to the proper duties of his station; let each consider in what instances he fails to fulfil his course. The memory of John the Baptist is perpetuated with honour, because he "fulfilled his course"; while that of Herod and Pontius Pilate are covered with infamy. Which of these characters will you imitate? Whenever the gospel is preached, this alternative is presented of "shining like the sun forever; or of awaking to shame and everlasting contempt."
Parallel VersesKJV: And as John fulfilled his course, he said, Whom think ye that I am? I am not he. But, behold, there cometh one after me, whose shoes of his feet I am not worthy to loose.