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history of Jesus Christ, but rather as a selection of particular facts by each of the inspired authors, relating to his life and doctrines. Neither should you expect to find a regular form and plan of instruction, or articles of belief; for though all the principles of our holy Religion are contained in the New Testament, Christ's instructions are not intended so much to direct us in our conduct in particular cases, as to correct our hearts, to give us those pious principles and motives which, if properly established, will regulate our inclinations and guide our actions upon all occasions.
The history of the progress of the Christian Religion, after Jesus Christ had returned to that heavenly glory which for a time he laid aside for our sakes, next requires our consideration. The Acts of the Apostles, written by St. Luke, will furnish us the most satisfactory information on the subject, extending to a period of about thirty years after his ascension. At the moment of his departure, Christ, addressing his Apostles, said, "Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high." Accordingly, being soon after met together at the feast of Pentecost, the Holy Ghost descended upon them in a most awful manner, giving them the power of speaking in every language, to the astonishment of themselves and all who heard them, who flocked to them in crowds when this surprising event was noised abroad. St. Peter, to whom our Saviour had given a distinguished charge, taking this favourable opportunity of addressing the great multitude thus drawn together, so strongly persuaded them to " repent and be baptized" in the true faith, that "the same day there were added unto them 3000 souls." "Ánd fear and wonder came upon all, and many wonders and signs were done by the Apostles, and the Lord added to the Church daily." +
The miracles they performed, and the great success of their proceedings, soon raised the jealousy of the chief priests; who seized Peter and John, who had just then restored a well-known cripple to the perfect use of his limbs, in the name of Jesus Christ.
The council consulted together, saying, "What shall we do to these men, for that a notable miracle hath been done by them is manifest to all them that dwell at Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it? ‡ So having threatened them, they let them go, finding nothing how they might punish them, because of the people." The number of Christians was already increased in the city to 5000," and the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and soul." Their followers still increasing rapidly, the whole of the Apostles were seized and imprisoned, but were immediately set free by divine power ;-the council were prevented from taking the most violent measures against them, by one of their own number, who cautioned them, saying, "Refrain from these men, and let them alone; for if this work be of man, it will come to nought; but if it be of God, ye cannot over throw it." §
The Christians now becoming a very considerable body at Jerusalem, and sharing their property in common for their mutual support, the Apostles found the charge of their concerns interfered too much with their religious duties. They therefore desired the congregation to choose persons from among themselves, called deacons, to take charge of this particular office, saying, "we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word." Seven were therefore appointed, upon whom the Apostles devoutly laid their hands, bestowing on them the blessing of the Holy Ghost.
St. Stephen, the principal of these, "being full of faith and power, did great wonders among the people,* insomuch that his enemies were not able to resist the wisdom, and the Spirit with which he spake." He became the first martyr to the faith of Christ; for while preaching in the Synagogue with his usual zeal, they seized him, and having dragged him out of the city, stoned him to death. A furious persecution followed against the Christians, and they were scattered abroad, preaching the word nevertheless wherever they came, the persecution thus promoting the dispersion of the true faith.
Among the keenest enemies of the Christian Church at this time, was St. Paul, whom God ordained should afterwards become his most distinguished minister, in preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles. In the 9th chapter we read the account of his miraculous conversion to Christianity; and from that time forward he promoted the interests of Christ's Religion with unexampled zeal and success. The faith spread around, through the whole country of Judea, Galilee, and Samaria; and St. Peter is represented as "passing through all quarters," extending the benefits of the Gospel,† the Christians having at this time a respite from the fury of their enemies. But Herod once more renewed his cruel oppressions against them, and put to death St. James, the brother of John the Evangelist; seizing Peter also, who was saved from his vengeance by a miraculous release from prison. But Herod soon after was visited with a dreadful death, as a punishment for his wickedness. ‡
The Jews having, until the coming of Christ, enjoyed the peculiar distinction of receiving the communications of the Almighty, were naturally very unwilling to admit the Gentiles (that is, the rest of the world,) to share with them these holy gifts of the Spirit. Such of them as were converted to Christianity still kept these notions, notwithstanding the frequent declarations of Christ, that he came to deliver the knowledge of eternal life to the whole world, though it was to be first offered to the Jews. Even the Apostles themselves seem to have held the same opinion, until the miraculous conversion of St. Paul, for the declared purpose of preaching to the Gentiles; and the remarkable vision given to St. Peter, related in the 10th chapter, convinced them of the general acceptance of Jews and Gentiles alike. Paul and Barnabas being by Divine authority separated for this especial service,§ travelled into Upper Asia, teaching the faith at Antioch, Cyrene, and
other cities, prevailing on great numbers to join the true Religion. Considerable doubts were still held by some, however, as to the lawfulness of giving up the rites and ceremonies of the law of Moses. The matter was therefore referred to a general meeting of the Christian Apostles and Elders at Jerusalem, when St. Peter, addressing the assembly, at last put an end to their doubts by saying, " Men and brethren, ye know that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles, by my mouth, should hear the word of the Gospel and believe; giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us, and put no difference between them and us, purifying their hearts by faith." This important point being settled, letters by Divine command were written to the distant churches, to acquaint them with their determination, and the Christian ministry was carried on with increased zeal in every quarter; St. Paul and his companions extending their journeys into Europe, preaching the Gospel at Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, and other great cities, everywhere gaining over great numbers to the faith. The success of these exertions in the great cause of Christianity was amazing. "God wrought especial miracles by the hands of Paul, so that from his body were brought unto the sick, handkerchiefs, or aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them." He was even permitted to bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost on certain disciples; "and laying his hands on them, they spake with tongues and prophesied." +
In the 21st chapter we are informed, that after performing these great services for the increase of the Gospel, St. Paul returned to Jerusalem, knowing by prophecy he should there be seized by his enemies. Immediately on his arrival, the chief priests got hold of him, and when his life was in the greatest hazard, he was taken under the protection of the Governor, as he claimed the privileges of a Roman citizen. He nevertheless suffered a tedious confinement; and at last, being allowed to defend himself, he justified his conduct with great spirit, boldly maintaining the Christian faith before Festus and Agrippa, the rulers of the country, insomuch that the latter confessed, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian. And Paul said, I would to God that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost and altogether such as I am, excepting these bonds." Having appealed for justice to the Roman Emperor, he was sent, with other prisoners, to Rome; and in the 27th chapter St. Luke gives a most interesting account of their voyage and shipwreck on the island of Malta, from which they providentially escaped, and at length reached the Roman capital.
St. Luke ends his history by informing us that St. Paul was allowed to enjoy his liberty under the guard of a soldier, and "dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came to him; preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.” ‡
* Acts xv. 7.
+ Acts vi. 11.
Acts xxviii. 30.
In addition to these particulars concerning the progress of Christianity, much historical information may be gathered from the Epistles of St. Paul, and others of the Apostles, which follow this account of their acts.
These Epistles are twenty-one in number. The first fourteen are the work of St. Paul, and are addressed to the different societies of Christians in the cities of Rome and Corinth-those of the province of Galatia the cities of Ephesus, Philippi, Colosse, and Thessafonica. Three were written to his disciples and companions, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, when separated from him, in the service of the ministry; and the last is addressed to the Hebrews in general.
These letters were composed between the years 52 and 65, from various places, during his progress through those extensive countries in which he preached the Gospel ;-to encourage the Christian converts to a zealous and steady attachment to their new Religion, and instruct them concerning those matters in which they had fallen into errors, or were likely to be misled through ignorance of the doctrines of Christ, or by the evil counsel of persons unfriendly to their faith.
Our time will not permit us to go into an examination of each of these eloquent Epistles, which are highly deserving of your best attention. It seems that St. Paul was a person of great talents and learning, even before he was so eminently gifted by the Holy Ghost. He became the great teacher of the Christian faith to the Gentiles, amongst whom he pursued the ministry with unwearied zeal, and with the most astonishing success, leaving to others of his brethren to preach the Gospel to the Jews. The uncommon hardships and persecutions he endured, are partly recounted in the history of St. Luke; and in the 11th chapter of his Second Letter to the Corinthians, he himself tells, in few words, the severe sufferings he had undergone. St. Paul at length fell a martyr to the glorious cause in which he had so warmly engaged, and so successfully persevered; being beheaded about the year 65, during the great persecution of the Christians, at Rome.
St. James, the author of the General Epistle which next follows, was the kinsman of our blessed Saviour, and is called in Scripture the brother of our Lord, to express his near relationship. He was placed at the head of the Christian Church, at Jerusalem, probably for this reason; from whence he sent forth this Epistle, addressed to the Hebrew Christians at large, about the year 61. He was put to death shortly after in that city, in a tumult raised by the unbelieving Jews. He is called in the New Testament St. James the Less, to distinguish him from James, the brother of St. John the Evangelist, who, as related in the Acts of the Apostles, was destroyed in Herod's persecution of the Church. The Epistle of St. James is full of valuable instruction, plain and easy to be understood; and though originally addressed to the Jews, is applicable to all classes of Christians.
The two next Epistles are the work of St. Peter, one of the twelve Apostles, highly distinguished by the favour of his holy Master. He was a poor fisherman of Galilee, and attended our Saviour during his
whole ministry, from the time he was called to be one of his disciples. Peter was a witness of all our Saviour's great miracles; he was present at his transfiguration; his sufferings in the Garden of Gethsemane; his trial and condemnation; perhaps also of his death;-but we know certainly that he was with St. John at the tomb, when Christ first appeared after his resurrection. He was also present on the third occasion that Christ shewed himself to some of his disciples at the Lake of Tiberias, when our Saviour gave him the distinguished charge of shepherd to his religious flock; then prophesying to him the fate he should afterwards suffer for his sake. And accordingly St. Peter, after maintaining the honour of the Christian faith, and prosecuting its interests with the greatest zeal and resolution, suffered martyrdom with St. Paul at Rome, as already mentioned.
The three Epistles of St. John were written about the year 69. The first of them is addressed generally to the Christians under his care; the second to some pious female, who appears to have been a person of eminence; and the third to Gaius, who, we learn from the contents, had rendered great services to the cause of Christianity.
The personal evidence of St. John has already been noticed, when speaking of his Gospel. Having witnessed every fact which he records, and being the favoured disciple of our blessed Lord, every sentence from his inspired pen comes to us with peculiar authority. He is supposed to have survived all the other sacred historians, and lived to see the destruction of Jerusalem, as Christ had promised he should. He died at a very advanced age, about 100 years after the birth of Christ, upon his return from banishment.
The Epistle of St. Jude, the last which remains to be noticed, was written in the year 70. He was the brother of St. James the Less, already mentioned, and consequently the kinsman of our blessed Lord. This and the foregoing Epistles of St. John are extremely short, but are full of excellent instruction.
We come now to the Revelation of St. John, the author of the Gospel and of the three Epistles already noticed. This book was written soon after his recall from banishment in the island of Patmos, where he informs us he received the wonderful visions which were shewn him in that solitary retirement. They must be read with solemn awe and reverence, suitable to the mysterious things to which they relate. It will indeed require more learning in the sacred Scriptures than most of our readers possess, to understand the whole design of this extraordinary revelation. The language and representations are too obscure and difficult for such as have not given much time and reflection to religious concerns.
I shall only observe, that many of the prophecies herein recorded by St. John have since come to pass, and that in the present times, when national changes and revolutions of empires have become so frequent throughout the world, learned men have directed their attention with great earnestness to the interpretation of many passages in the Book of Revelation, which are considered as undoubtedly applying to the times in which we live, these prophetic declarations being