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OF THE SECOND PERIOD OF CHRISTIANITY.
[That I may neither encumber the series of the history with too many digressions, nor deprive myself of the opportunity of making such observations as the subject will suggest, conducive to our main design, I propose, in the first chapter of this and the succeeding Book, to give a succinct view of the progress and state of Christianity during each period; and then, by way of Appendix, to add one or more chapters (as may be necessary) on such particulars as are of more immediate application to the circumstances of our own times.]
of the Progress of the Gospel, from our Lord's
Ascension to the close of the First Century. THE natural weakness of man is conspicuous
in his most important undertakings : having no fund of sufficiency in himself, he is forced to collect all from without; and if the greatness of his preparations are not answerable to the extent of his designs, he has little hopes of such cess. Farther: when he has planned and provided to the utmost of his power, he is still subject to innumerable contingencies, which he can neither foresee nor prevent; and has often the mortification to see his fairest prospects blasted, and the whole apparatus of his labour and care only contribute to make his disappointment more conspicuous and painful.
The reverse of this is the character of the wonder-working God. To his power every thing is easy; he knows how to employ every creature and contingence as a means to accomplish his designs; not a seeming difficulty can intervene but by his permission, and he only permits it to illustrate his own wisdoin and agency in making it subservient to his will. Thus, having all hearts and events in his hands, he fulfils his own counsels with the utmost ease and certainty; and, to show that the work is his own, he often proceeds by such methods as vain men account weak and insignificant, producing the most extensive and glorious consequences from small and inconsiderable beginnings. Thus the Lord of hosts hath purposed to stain the pride of all human glory.
This observation might be confirmed by innumerable examples taken from the common history and experience of mankind; but the subject of our present undertaking exhibits the most illustrious proof. When the Jews had seen Jesus crucified, dead and buried, they expected to hear no more of him. His disciples were few, men of no authority, learning, or influence; and since their Master, who had made them such large promises, was at last unable to save himself from death, it was probably expected that his followers would disperse of course, forsake their supposed delusion, and return to their fishing, and other employments suited to their capacities and talents.
They knew not that Jesus had arisen from the dead, and had frequently shown himself to his servants, to comfort and confirm their hearts. They little thought that he, whom they had seen expire on the cross, was immovably seated at the right hand of God, possessed of all power in heaven and earth; but his disciples knew this, and therefore continued to assemble in his name. We do not find that there was much notice taken of them till the feast of Pentecost, which was
about ten days after his ascension. At this season," by the Jewish law, the first fruits of the earth were presented at the temple: an appointment, typical of those more sublime first-fruits of spiritual gifts and graces with which the Lord on this day enriched his disciples (according to his promise,) enabling them to preach his Gospel, and make his word effectual to the conversion of a large multitude; as an earnest of that divine power by which he would support and extend his church and ministry to the end of the world.
When the hearts of God's people are united in love, and pleading his promises in the fervent exercise of faith and prayer, great things may be expected. Such was the happy state of his disciples on this solemn day. They were assembled with one accord; no jars or divisions had as yet taken place among them : they were animated with one desire, and praying with one mind : suddenly and wonderfully they obtained an answer; the place they were in was shaken as by a mighty wind; their hearts were filled with the powerful energy of the Holy Spirit, and they were instantaneously enabled to speak languages which till then they were unacquainted with. These inward powers were accompanied with the visible symbols of fiery tongues, which sat upon each of their heads: a fit emblem both of the new faculties they had received, and of the conquering, assimilating efficacy of the Spirit by whom they spoke; whose operations, like the fire, are vehement, penetrating, transforming, and diffusive; spreading from heart to heart,
Tiberius, A.D. 33. In fixing the dates of our history, I shall conform to what I think the most probable and authorized opinion, without perplexing either myself or my readers with the niceties of critical chronology.
b Acts, ii.
from place to place, till the flame, which was now confined within a few breasts, was communicated to many nations, people, and languages.
The effects of this divine communication were immediately manifest : they were filled with love, joy, and faith, and began boldly and publicly to praise God. Their emotion and zeal could not be song unnoticed: those who first observed it spoke of it to others, and a rumour was spread abroad. Jerusalem was at that time the occasional resort of the Jews and Jewish proselytes, who were dispersed throughout the known world, and multitudes had come from different countries to celebrate the feast. The promiscuous throng, who assembled upon the report, and had been accustomed to different languages, were therefore greatly astonished to hear of the wonderful works of God, every man in his own tongue. While some expressed their surprise at this, others ascribed it to the effects of wine, and showed their scorn and despite to the Spirit of grace, by reviling the apostles as drunkards. Thus they no sooner entered upon their public service, than they began to find the same treatment which their Lord had met with, and were, for his sake, the subjects of calumny and derision. This is a remarkable instance of the sagacity and temper which the men of the world discover in the judgment they form of a work of God; nor is it probable that our modern reasoners would have judged more favourably, if they could have been present at such a scene, where several persons were speaking loud at the same time, and each in a different language : since they account the operations of the same Spirit, madness and folly, even where they are not attended with such extraordinary circumstances.
This weak and perverse slander was immediately refuted by the apostle Peter, who addressed the people in a grave and solemn discourse : and having, in few words, explained the nature of the fact, and shown that it was an accomplishment of ancient prophecies, he proceeded to apply himself more closely to their consciences. He assured them, that what they saw and heard was wrought by the power of Jesus of Nazareth, whom they had rejected before Pilate. He informed them of that honour and glory which he now possessed, and charged them as accomplices in the murder of a person whose character and dignity God had vindicated, by raising him from the dead. Though our Saviour had but few disciples during his personal ministry, he had doubtless left a deep impression of his words and works in the hearts of many. This discourse of Peter would naturally recall him to the remembrance of those who had seen him in the flesh, and lead them to reflect how earnestly and unjustly they had, at the instigation of their priests, compelled Pilate to put him to death. These reflections, the closeness of Peter's address, and the power of the Spirit of God, concurred to give them a deep conviction of their sin. They were pierced to the heart. They no longer wondered as curious spectators; but were solicitous for themselves, and cried out, “ Brethren, what shall we do ?” Peter then proceeded to open the treasure of Gospel grace, and to direct them to Jesus, whom they had crucified, for salvation. The effect of this day's preaching (for though only Peter is named, it is probable there were more than one preacher or one discourse) was signally happy. Three thousand souls were converted, and, professing their faith and repentance, were, by baptism, publicly joined to the church.