« PreviousContinue »
View of the state of the Heathen Lands—First planting of Christianity, continued—Spread of the Gospel among the Gentiles
-Paul's preaching at Athens-Corinth— Ephesus—Success of the Gospel a Proof of its Divine Origin..
The history, travels, and preaching of the apostle Paul, constitute so important an article in the first planting of Christianity, that, to do any thing like justice to the subject, it is necessary to trace him in his labours, from year to year, from the time of his conversion to the period of his death. To do that, however, would, in the present instance, subject me to a prolixity incompatible with the limits of a Lecture; and it is rendered the less necessary by the circumstance that the inspired historian, in compiling the Acts of the Apostles, has supplied a compendium, which is already in the hands of every Christian, I shall, therefore, confine myself to the notice of a few leading particulars, such as may lay a foundation for some useful remarks. We have followed him during his first and second journeys, and left him, at the close of the last Lecture, reasoning with the Jews at Thessalonica out of their own Scriptures, to prove that Jesus of Nazareth, whom he preached, was the very Messiah they so ardently looked for. The effect of his preaching, we are told, was, that “ some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas, and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few,” Acts xvii. 4. Thus was the foundation lạid of the church of the Thessalonians, to whom the apostle wrote the two epistles which form a portion of the New
Testament Scriptures. Adverting to the success of his ministry among them, we find him thus expressing himself in his first epistle: “ We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers ; remembering without ceasing your work of faith and labour of love and patience of hope in the sight of God and our Father; knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God: for our Gospel came unto you, not in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and in much assurance”—and he afterwards adds, “ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come,” 1 Thess. i. 2–5; 9, 10. Such were the blessed effects of their receiving the apostle's testimony concerning Jesus of Nazareth : or believing him to be the true Messiah. But we now proceed with the narrative:
Driven by the ruthless hand of persecution from Thessalonica, we next find the apostles at Berea, where the people whom they addressed evinced a commendable disposition to examine into the things which were laid before them; and searching the Scriptures daily, whether the facts really were as testified by Paul, “many of the Jews believed, also of honourable women who were Greeks, and of men, not a few,” ver. 11, 12. But here, as in every other place, persecution followed in the apostles' train; and to avoid the malice and rage of Jewish zealots, who had pursued them from Thessalonica, Paul quitted Berea and proceeded to Athens; whence, after a time, he went to Corinth, and thence to Ephesus. Before I proceed, however, to narrate the astonishing success of the apostle's ministry in these three renowned cities, it will be useful for us to pause and take a survey of the actual state of matters among the Gentiles, or Heathen countries, at that period, in relation to religion and morals. The last Lecture gave us an opportunity of noticing the obstacles which Christianity had to encounter among the Jews, arising from their prejudices against a crucified Messiah, the present will furnish us with a similar view of its difficulties among the Gentiles, arising from Polytheism and a long established idolatry. I am aware that it is difficult for us, who live in the present age, and in a country too where the general diffusion of Gospel light has banished the grossness of idolatry, to
STATE OF THE HEATHEN COUNTRIES.
the knowlegard to religions as being in the
enter properly into this subject; but, without attention to it, we can never duly appreciate the value of the Gospel.
Universal history agrees with the oracles of God, in exhibiting the Pagan world, at the period referred to, as being in the most deplorable condition in regard to religion and morals. They were fallen from the knowledge and worship of the one true God, into a state of the most apalling idolatry and polytheism. The names, perfections, and attributes of the living and true God, were impiously and sacrilegiously applied to a multiplicity of idol deities. Instead of being led by the works of God to acknowledge and adore him, the glorious Author, they generally worshipped the works themselves, paying that adoration to them which was due to him alone. Temples were every where built, altars erected, prayers and sacrifices offered, to false and fictitious deities, unto many of whom the popular theology attributed the worst vices and passions of sinful mortals. So great was the general darkness which prevailed that they actually worshipped evil spirits, called dæmons, which they themselves acknowledged to be such; and many of their religious rites were so cruel, obscene, and impure, that they could only be applicable to evil and vicious beings. Some of their philosophers maintained tenets which tended to Atheism—to subvert the foundation of all religion-to sap the basis of all evidence and certainty, and introduce universal doubt and scepticism, with regard to the belief of a God and his providence. Even the sublime speculations of their most renowned and enlightened philosophers, who had the reputation of entertaining the noblest sentiments of God and religion, were mixed with dangerous errors, though happily confined, in a great measure, to the schools. And, while such was the case with their philosophers, what was to be expected from the common people, but that they should fall in with the prevailing idolatry and polytheism ? for the maxim will always hold good, “ like priest like people.”
This account of the matter is clearly demonstrated from the heathen writers themselves, and it is confirmed by all the remaining monuments of Paganism. And now if from profane history we turn our attention to the holy Scriptures, we shall find them fully justifying the representation that has been given of the state of religion in the heathen world. You all know how the apostle Paul describes the heathens in general, in Rom. i. 17, ad finem, especially those of the Roman empire, which was then the most learned and civilized part of the world. He exhibits them as having arrived at the most monstrous degree of idolatry and corruption of manners-so that notwithstanding the discoveries which God had made of himself in the works of creation, which left them without excuse, “they glorified him not as God, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like unto corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things;"-yea, “they changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator who is blessed for ever:”— and, " as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, so he gave them up to a reprobate mind," and they abandoned themselves to the most unnatural impurities, together with all kinds of abominable vice and wickedness. This is an appalling picture, but it agrees with the general current of divine revelation ; for thus the same apostle describes the state of the Ephesians when the Gospel came among them at the first :—They were “ Gentiles in the flesh, dead in trespasses and sins—without hope and without God in the world—having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, through the ignorance that was in them, because of the blindness of their hearts-and, being past feeling, they had given themselves over to lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness,” ch. iv. To the Galatians he says that, “ when they knew not God, they did service unto them which by nature are no gods,” ch. iv. 8. He describes the Thessalonians, who believed the Gospel, as “turning from idols to serve the living and true God.” And the same apostle tells the Corinthians that “the things which the Gentiles sacrificed they sacrificed to devils and not to God,” and he adds, “I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils,” ch. x. 20. These quotations depict in lively colours the state of the Gentile world, the kingdom of Satan, who is spoken of as “the god of this world,” an empire of moral darkness, idolatry, immorality, superstition, and vice—and this is the state of things which the apostles were sent forth to overturn by
STATE OF THE HEATHEN COUNTRIES.
means of the preaching of the everlasting Gospel. “For this purpose was the Son of God manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil”—and for this end he commissioned his apostles to preach his Gospel in all nations and to every creature. When Paul received his commission it was to go among the Gentiles in order that he might “ turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they might receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among all that are sanctified by faith in Christ Jesus,” Acts xxvi. 17, 18. This was a mighty enterprise to be achieved by the fishermen of Gallilee, who were unpolished and illiterate men, or the tent-maker of Tarsus, who was also“ rude in speech, though not in knowledge;" but so it was ordered, that the excellency of the power might appear to be of God, and not of man. The usurped empire and dominion of Satan, founded in idolatry and polytheism, had been growing and gradually accumulating strength and stability for more than two thousand years, and now seemed to be firmly established in the heathen world. It had long prescription to plead in its favour—the prejudices of the people were all on its side-and it was strengthened and upheld by the power and authority of the magistrates, by the arts and subtlety of the politicians, by the craft and influence of the idolatrous priests, and by the learning and eloquence of the philosophers and wise men of this world. It was interwoven with the civil constitution, and regarded as essential to the prosperity and happiness of the state. It was guarded with all the powers and all the terrors of the world on the one hand, and all its pomps and allurements on the other—besides which, it came recommended by every thing that was calculated to flatter the vices and passions of men, or add fuel to their sensuality and ambition. Such was the actual state of the heathen world, the established system of polytheism throughout the Roman empire, when the first publishers of the Gospel were sent forth to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified, and the result was that the empire of Satan instantaneously received a mighty shock. Never was there a more sudden and glorious change than that which Christianity wrought during the first three centuries, and before it became enlisted with the state. Thousands were every where turned from the worship of dumb idols to serve the living and true God;