THE text may at first sight appear to some to stand at a very wide distance from the present occasion. But I hope, by that time I have spent a little pains in explaining it, I shall set the text and occasion at a perfect agreement.
The words therefore, are, by interpreters, diversly expounded. Among the rest, two interpretations there are, which stand as the fairest candidates for our reception.
I. Some understand the Masters here in my text, to be proud, malicious censors and judges of other men's actions; and so expound the text as a prohibition of rash and uncharitable judgment; and make it parallel to that of our Saviour, Matt. vii. ver. I, "Judge not, that ye be not judged." Be not rash and hasty in censuring or judging the actions of others, or speaking evil of them, considering that, by so doing, you will but procure a greater judgment of God upon yourselves. The chief, if not the only argument for this interpretation, is the Context of the Apostle's discourse, which in the following verses, is wholly spent against the vices of the tongue. But,
2. Others there are, who interpret the Masters in the text, to be Pastors of Teachers, in the church of God; and accordingly understand the words as a serious caution against rash undertaking of the Pastoral Office, or function, as an office attended with great difficulty and danger, a task very hard to be discharged, and wherein whoever miscarries, makes himself thereby liable to a severer judgment of Almighty God.
This latter interpretation (with submission I speak it) seems to me, almost beyond doubt, the genuine sense of the Apostle. The reasons are evident in the text itself: For, I. Unless we thus expound the words, it will be hard to give a rational account of this word, polloi, (many) why it should be inserted. For, if we understand those Masters the Apostle speaks of, to be rash judges and censurers of others, 'tis most certain then, one such would be too many, and the multiplicity of them would not be the only culpable thing. But, on he other side, if we receive the latter interpretation, the account of the word polloi is easily rendered according to the paraphrase of Erasmus, thus; (a) Let not Pastors or Teachers be too vulgar and cheap among you; let not every man rush into so sacred an office and function." (Ne passim ambiatis esse magistri.) And Drusius's gloss on this very word is remarkable: "Summa summarum; quo pauciores sunt magistri, eo melius agitur cum populo. Nam ut medicorum olim Cariam, ita doctorum & magistrorum nunc multitude perdit rempublicam. Utinam vanus sim." I need not English the words to those whom they concern.
2. If we embrace any other interpretation, we must of necessity depart from the manifest propriety of the Greek word, which our translators render Masters. The word is didaskaloi, which whoso understands the first elements of the Greek tongue, knows to be derived from didaskw, (to teach) and so literally to signify teachers; "Be not many Teachers."
And so accordingly the Syriac renders it by a word, which the learned Drusius tells us, is parallel to the Hebrew which undoubtedly signifies Doctors or Teachers.
These reasons are sufficient to justify our interpretation, though I might add the authority of the Antients, who generally follow this sense, as also the concurrent judgment of our most learned modern annotators, Erasmus, Vatablus, Castellio, Estius, Drusius, Grotius, with many others.
As for the connexion of the words thus explained, with the following discourse of the Apostle, I suppose this very easy account may be given of it: the moderation and government of the tongue, (on which St James in the sequel of the chapter, wholly insists) though it be a general duty, (for there is no man's tongue so lawless as to be exempted from the dominion of right reason and religion) yet it is a duty wherein the Pastor or Teacher hath a peculiar concern. The Minister's tongue is a chief tool and instrument of his profession, that which ex officio he must often make use of: he lies under a necessity of speaking much and often, and the wise man tells us, "In the multitude of word there wanteth not sin," Prov. x. ver. 19. And, certainly, there is scarce any consideration more powerful, to deter a man from undertaking the office of a Teacher, than this; how extremely difficult and almost impossible it is, for a man that speaks much and often, so to govern his tongue, as to speak nothing that either is itself unfit, or in an unfit time, or after an undue manner; and yet how highly ever Teacher is concerned so to do.
So that it is a very easy knot, to fasten my text to the next verse, thus: Let not every man ambitiously affect the office of a Teacher in the church of God, considering that it is an office of great difficulty and danger; "For in many things we offend all; if any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man," &c. As if he had said, As there are many ways, whereby the best of us do offend, so there is no way whereby we so easily fall into sin, as by the slippery member, the tongue; and there is no man more exposed to this danger of transgressing with the tongue than the Teacher, who makes so much and so frequent use of it. So that the Teacher is teleioV anhr, a rare and perfectly accomplished man indeed, that hath acquired the perfect government of his tongue. He that can do that, who fails not in that piece of his duty, may easily also bridle his whole body, i.e. rightly manage himself in all the other parts of his pastoral office. But this, as it is very necessary, so it is extremely difficult; and therefore "be not many Teachers."
To this it will not be amiss to add, what Grotius wifely observes, that the admonition of the Apostle concerning the vices of the tongue, subjoined to the caution in my text, is chiefly directed against brawling and contentious disputers; such Teacher abuse their liberty of speaking, unto loose discourses, and take occasion from thence to vent their own spleen and passions; men of intemperate Spirit, and virulent tongues, troublers rather than teachers of the people, whose tongues are indeed cloven tongues of fire, but not such as the Apostles were endowed with from above; as serving to burn rather than to enlighten; to kindle the flames of faction, strife, and contention, rather than those of piety and charity in the church of God.
It is true, indeed, the excellent Bishop speaks there, of those of his own most sacred order, whose place and dignity in the church of God, as it is eminently higher, their charge greater, their inspection more extensive; so will their account be accordingly. But yet the same is true, in its proportion, of every Clergyman, of what order soever he be. So St Austin, expressly, "If you mark it, (most dear brethren) you shall find, that all the Lord's Priests, not only Bishops, but Presbyters and Ministers of churches, stand in a very hazardous condition." And he gives a shrewd reason for what he says, a little after, "If at the day of judgment it will, be a hard task for every man to give an account of his own soul, what will become of Priests, of whom God will require an account of the souls of so many others committed to their charge?" He concludes, "magnum opus, sed gravis farcina;" the care of souls is indeed a great work, a noble undertaking, but yet a very grievous burden. He must be a man of very firm shoulders, that is not crushed under it.
I have oft-times, not without wonder and indignation, observed the strange confidence of Empirics in physic, that dare venture on the practice of that noble art, which they do not at all understand; considering how, for a little paltry gain, they shrewdly hazard, or rather certainly destroy, the health and lives of men; and have judged them worthy of as capital and ignominious a punishment, as those that kill men on the highways. But I have soon exchanged this meditation into another of more concernment to myself; and my indignation hath quickly returned into my own bosom, when I consider how much bolder, and more hazardous an attempt it is, for a man to venture on the Priestly Office, to minister to the eternal health and salvation of souls: how much skill is requisite to qualify a man for such an undertaking; how great care in the discharge of it; what a sad thing it would be, if through my unskilfulness, or negligence, any one soul should miscarry under my hands, or die and perish eternally!
We minister to Souls. Souls! methinks in that one word there is a sermon. Immortal souls! precious souls! one whereof is more worth than all the world besides, the price of the blood of the Son of God. I close up this with the excellent words appointed by the church to be read at the Ordination of every Priest: "Have always in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood. The church and congregation whom ye serve, is his spouse and body. And if it shall happen, the same church, or any member thereof, to take any hurt or hindrance, by reason of your negligence, you know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue."
And now methinks I may use the Apostle's words in another case, I Cor. i. ver. 26. "Ye see your calling, brethren." You see how extremely difficult and hazardous an office it is, we have undertaken: Who is sufficient for these things? Whose loins do not tremble at this fearful burden on his shoulders? Who would not be almost tempted to repent himself of his undertaking, and to wish himself any the meanest mechanic, rather than a Minister? but, alas! this were vain, yea sinful. We are engaged in this sacred office, and there is no retreating; we must now run the hazard, how great soever it be; in we are, and on we must. What shall we then say? What shall we do? Surely this is our best, yea our only course. Let us first prostrate ourselves at the feet of the Almighty God, humbly confessing and heartily bewailing our great and manifold miscarriages in the weighty undertaking; let us weep tears of blood (if it were possible) for the blood of souls, which we have reason to fear may stick upon our garments. The blood of souls, I say: for when I consider how many less discerned ways there be, whereby a man may involve himself in that guilt, as not only by an openly vicious example, but even by a less severe, prudent, and wary conversation; not only by actions directly criminal, but by lawful actions, when offensive (for by these, the Apostle assures us, "a man may destroy the soul of his weak brother, for whom Christ died," Rom. xiv. ver. 15.) not only by a gross negligence, and supine carelessness, but by every lesser remission of those degrees of zeal and diligence, which are requisite in so important an affair; in a word, by not doing all that a man can, and lies within his power, to save the fouls committed to his charge; I say, when I consider this, for mine own part I cannot, I dare not, justify myself, or plead not guilty before the great Judge of Heaven and Earth; but do, upon the bended knees of my soul, bewail my sin, and implore his pardoning grace and mercy, crying mightily unto him; "Deliver me from this blood-guiltiness, O my God, thou God of my salvation; and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
Having laid ourselves at God's feet, let us not lie idly there, but arise, and for the future do the work of God, with all faithfulness and industry; yea, let us make amends for our past negligence, by doubling our future diligence. And for our encouragement here, let us remember, that though many things are required of a Minister, yet the chief and most indispensable requisites are these two; A passionate desire to save souls, and an unwearied diligence in the pursuit of that noble design. The Minister that wants these two qualifications, will hardly pass the test, or gain the approbation of God the great judge and trier; but where these are found, they will cover a multitude of other failings and defects. Let us therefore, Reverend Brethren, (and may I here conjure both you and myself by the endeared love we bear to our own souls, and the precious souls committed to our charge, yea by the blood of the Son of God, the price of both!) let us, I beseech you, from henceforth return to our several charges, zealously and industriously plying the great work and business that is before us. Let us think no pains too great, to escape that meizon krima, that greater judgment, pray that otherwise attends us. Let us study hard, and read much, and pray often, and preach in season and out of season, and catechize the youth, and take wise opportunities of instructing those, who being of riper years, may yet be as unripe in knowledge; and visit the sick, and according to our abilities relieve the poor, shewing to all our flock, the example of a watchful, holy, humble conversation. And may a great blessing of God crown our labours! let us go on, and the Lord prosper us!
I have done ad clerum, and have but a word more ad Populum, to the People.
My brethren, you may possibly think yourselves altogether unconcerned in this whole discourse. But, if you do, you are mistaken; all this nearly concerns even you. I shall only point to you wherein.
I. If the Pastoral Office be so tremendous an undertaking, judge then, I pray you, of the sacrilegious boldness and impiety of those Uzzahs among the Laity, that dare touch this ark, the Priest's charge and care. If we (my brethren) that have been trained up in the schools of the Prophets, that have been educated with no small care and cost to this employment, that have spent a double apprenticeship of years in our studies, and most of us a great deal more; if we, I say, after all this, find reason to tremble at our insufficiency for such an undertaking; how horrible is the confidence, or rather impudence, of those mechanics, that have leaped from the shop-board or plough into the pulpit, and thus, per saltum, by a prodigious leap, commenced Teachers! What shall we say to these mountebanks in the church, these empirics in theology? I only say this. I can never sufficiently admire either their boldness in venturing to be Teachers, or the childish folly and simplicity of those that give themselves up to be their disciples. It is a miracle, that any such person should dare to preach; or, if he do, that any man, in his right wits, should vouchsafe to hear him.
2. This discourse concerning the difficulty and hazard of the Priestly Office, shews sufficiently all the people's danger. It is the danger jour own fouls are in, (my brethren) if not carefully looked to, that is the great hazard of our office. O therefore, if you do confider it, what need have you to look to yourselves!
3. Lastly, if our work and office be attended with this difficulty, sure, it is your duty to pity us, to pray for us, to encourage us, by all possible ways and means, to the vigorous performance of it; at least not to add to our load, or discourage us, either by your wayward factiousness, or stubborn profaneness, or sacrilegious injustice: if you do, sad will be your account.
Remember therefore, the advice of the Apostle, Heb. xiii. ver. 17. "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves; for they watch for your souls, as they that must give an acount; that they mad do this (i.e. attend on this work of watching over your souls) with joy and not with grief." Grotius' paraphrase is here most genuine: "Sweeten and allay the irksome labour of your Teachers, by performing to them all offices of respect and love, that they may with alacrity, and not with grief, discharge that function, which is of itself a sufficient burden, without any addition of sorrow from you."
Now to God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, be ascribed all honour and glory, adoration and worship, both now and for ever. Amen.