ANTIOCH of Syria was the first city, in which the gospel was publicly preached to the Gentiles. |The hand of the Lord was with his ministers: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord.| In the same city, the disciples received the appellation of Christians, by which they have ever since been distinguished. By these remarkable events, Antioch has acquired celebrity in the annals of the Church; and it appears to have been chosen by Providence as a central spot, from which the rays of divine truth should be diffused throughout the heathen world. In the beginning of the thirteenth chapter, there is an account of the separation of Barnabas and Paul, to the work of preaching to the Gentiles, in consequence of a command of the Spirit, addressed to the Prophets and Teachers in Antioch. The opposition which they encountered in the course of their mission was not strange, as their doctrine was new, and adverse to the opinions and corrupt passions of mankind; but it seems to have chiefly proceeded from the Jews. That incorrigible race discovered in every country the same hostile spirit to Christianity and its Author. Justin Martyr affirms, that they not only did not repent of their wickedness in crucifying the Messiah, but sent chosen messengers from Jerusalem to all nations, to inflame the minds of men against his religion. It is related, in the preceding chapter, that the Jews in Antioch of Pisidia, not content with contradicting and blaspheming the things which were spoken by Paul, |stirred up the devout and honourable women, and the chief men of that city, and raised persecution against him and Barnabas, and expelled them out of their coasts.| The same part was acted by the Jews of Iconium, who |stirred up the Gentiles, and made their minds evil-affected against the brethren. And when there was an assault made both of the Gentiles, and of the Jews, with their rulers, to use them despitefully, and to stone them, they were aware of it, and fled unto Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and unto the region that lieth round about: and there they preached the gospel.|
The passage which I have read, begins with the account of a miracle, performed in the first of those cities. |And there sat a certain man at Lystra, impotent in his feet, being a cripple from his mother's womb, who never had walked.| His case resembles that of the man who was cured by Peter and John at the gate of the temple; and a particular statement of it is given, to show the reality, and the greatness of the miracle. It was not an incidental, but a radical infirmity, which was removed. He was impotent in his feet; he had been lame from his birth; and the disorder was such, that at no period of his life had he been able to walk. His situation rendered him the proper object of a miracle. No person of humanity could look upon him without pity; and his cure would appear to all to be the effect, not of superior skill, but of supernatural power. Thus, the design of the miracle would be gained, which was not only to relieve the patient, but to demonstrate to the inhabitants of Lystra, that God was present with Paul and Barnabas, and consequently that their doctrine was true.
Miracles are a sign to |them that believe not.| They are not merely prodigies, or strange sights, intended to raise the wonder of the spectators, and to draw their attention to the person who performs them, but tokens, or proofs, of the divine approbation of him, and of the religion which he teaches. To the Jews, the argument from prophecy was sufficient to prove that Jesus was the Christ; and accordingly, we find the Apostles insisting much upon it, in their discourses to that people. But to the Gentiles, it would not have been addressed with propriety, or any hope of success, because they were not acquainted with the prophecies, and had no evidence, that the books containing them, were written prior to the event. Miracles were an obvious and easy species of evidence. It required no investigation or discussion; it pressed upon the senses; and the right inference could be drawn by the plainest understanding. |Rabbi, we know, that thou art a teacher come from God; for no man can do these miracles that thou dost, except God be with him.| The purpose for which the Apostles were furnished with the power of working miracles, was to prove to the ignorant, the illiterate, and the unthinking, who are the great majority of mankind, the divine authority of the gospel.
Paul perceived that the lame man had |faith to be healed.| This faith seems to signify either a general belief of the power of Barnabas and Paul, or rather of Jesus Christ, whose ministers they were, to heal infirmities and diseases or a persuasion, that a cure would be performed upon himself in particular. In the former case, his faith was founded on the account which he had heard of the character and miracles of Christ, and of the extraordinary gifts which he had bestowed upon his followers; in the latter, it was the effect of a supernatural impression upon his mind. This faith Paul perceived by the power of discerning spirits, or the power with which the Apostles were occasionally endowed, of discovering the thoughts and dispositions of men. |If thou canst believe,| said our Lord to a father deeply afflicted by the sufferings of his son; |if thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.| The expectation which the promises of God, or the suggestions of his Spirit have excited, shall not make him ashamed. |Paul therefore, steadfastly beholding this man, said with a loud voice, Stand up right on thy feet. And he leaped and walked.| The cure immediately followed the command. The disorder in his joints was removed; his limbs recovered strength, and with the fondness so natural to a man who has recently acquired a new power, which he had long and earnestly desired, but despaired of ever possessing, he tried it in every way, leaping and walking.
Paul said, |with a loud voice,| Stand up right on thy feet. The miracle was wrought for the sake of the inhabitants of Lystra, as well as of the impotent man; and for this reason it was publicly announced. The circumstances in which the miracles of the gospel were performed, leave no room for suspecting, that they were dexterous impositions upon the credulity of mankind. That they were real miracles is evident from this important fact, that they were not done in a corner, but in the chief places of concourse; in the streets of cities, in the midst of assembled multitudes, in the presence of enemies as well as of friends. The miracles of false religions were performed, or are said to have been performed, in distant ages, of which we have only fabulous accounts; in remote countries, where any thing may be feigned to have taken place, without the risk of detection; in temples under the command of priests, who could securely practise there the arts of deceit; or in some obscure retreat, sheltered from every inquisitive eye, before witnesses, select, and favourably disposed. |If they shall say unto you, Behold he is in the desert, go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers, believe it not.| Truth courts the light, that it may be made manifest. The juggling tricks of heathenism and popery require only a strict examination, to be rejected with contempt; whereas, the miracles of Christianity are displays of omnipotent power, which will be the more admired, the more closely they are considered.
The evidence of miracles is not irresistible, but may be counteracted by the power of prejudice. The Jews attributed the miracles of our Saviour to Satanical influence; the Gentiles believed, that those of the Apostles were operations of magic; and the inhabitants of Lystra were disposed to turn this miracle into an argument in favour of their own idolatrous religion. |And when the people saw what Paul had done, they lift up their voices, saying, in the speech of Lycaonia, The Gods are come down to us in the likeness of men.| The Gentiles had corrupted the fundamental doctrine of the unity of God; and their various systems of religion were founded on the supposition of a plurality of Deities, male and female, differing in their rank, their attributes, and the provinces or functions assigned to them. These imaginary beings were conceived to superintend the affairs of the earth. There was, indeed, one sect of philosophers, the disciples of Epicurus, who, while they admitted their existence, denied that they governed the world; but they were justly suspected of atheism. Other sects of philosophers, and the common people, believed, that men were objects of the attention and care of the Gods, who observed their conduct, and interfered in their transactions, and, for this purpose, descended, on some occasions, to the earth in a visible form. Their histories and poems are& full of such appearances. When the inhabitants of Lystra, therefore, cried out, |The Gods are come down to us in the likeness of men;| they did not express surprise at the event as unusual, but rather joy because the Gods had deigned to honour their city with a visit. They have come down to us, |in the likeness of men.| They were supposed to appear in the human form, which was believed to be their real shape; for the heathen Deities were clothed with bodies like ours, and differed from men only in the extent of their power, and the attribute of immortality.
As soon as the idea was adopted, that Paul and Barnabas were Gods, the people assigned to them their respective names. |They called Barnabas Jupiter, and Paul Mercurius, because he was the chief speaker.| Jupiter was the Supreme Divinity of the heathens, whom they called the Father of Gods and men, and represented as swaying his sceptre over heaven and earth. Sometimes they speak of him in a style not unworthy of the true God, describing him as shaking heaven with his nod, and terrifying the world by his thunder; but, at other times, they degrade him below the dignity of a man, by portraying him with the basest passions, and foulest crimes, of a profligate. There is something mysterious and inexplicable in the creed of the Gentiles, affording a lamentable proof of the astonishing, and almost incredible, blindness and stupidity of the human mind. This Jupiter, whom they placed at the head of the universe, they believed to have been a man, who was born, reigned, and died, in the island of Crete. An inextricable confusion pervades the Pagan mythology; it is full of inconsistencies and absurdities, which,. one should think, could not have been digested by the most barbarous nation, and still less by the learned Greeks and Romans; and there is no way of accounting for the fact, that they did give credit to the tales of their priests and poets, but by the information of Paul, |that because they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind.| Mercury was one of the sons of Jupiter. Among the various offices with which he was invested, it is necessary to mention only, that he was reputed the messenger of the Gods, and the interpreter of their will. Paul was called Mercury, because he most frequently addressed the people. If he was a God, there was none whose character so exactly suited him, as that of the Deity who conveyed the messages of Jupiter to mankind. Barnabas was supposed to be Jupiter, because he was older than Paul, or of a more dignified appearance.
If the Gods had condescended to visit the city of Lystra, religion required that they should be received with appropriate honours. |The priest of Jupiter, therefore, which was before their city,| or had a temple without the walls, or in the suburbs, |brought oxen and garlands unto the gates, and would have done sacrifice with the people.| Sacrifices were a distinguished part of the worship of the heathens; and in this general feature, their religion resembled that of the Jews. The practice was undoubtedly derived from traditionary accounts of the original institution of sacrifices; for the death of irrational animals would not have occurred to the uninstructed human mind, as a proper expedient for propitiating the Deity. The victims were generally crowned with garlands of flowers. The religion of the Gentiles was of a cheerful nature. The eye was captivated with magnificent spectacles; the ear was charmed with the sound of musical instruments, and the melody of songs; and, at some festivals, the grossest debauchery was permitted in honour of their licentious Divinities.
The intended sacrifice was prevented by the zeal of Barnabas and Paul. |Which, when the Apostles, Barnabas and Paul, heard of, they rent their clothes, and ran in among the people, crying out, and saying, Sirs, why do ye these things?| In the usual sense of the term, Barnabas was not an Apostle; but it literally signifies a person sent, a messenger, or missionary, and the title is probably given to him in reference to his mission from Antioch, to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul, in one of his Epistles, speaks of certain brethren, who were |the messengers or Apostles of the Churches, and the glory of Christ.| When Paul and Barnabas were informed of the intention of the people, they |rent their clothes.| This was a custom of the Jews, at the death of their friends, in times of public calamity, and when they heard blasphemy, or witnessed any great transgression of the law. The Apostles therefore expressed, after the manner of their country, grief at the conduct of the people, and abhorrence of their idolatry. |They ran in among them, saying, Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you.| It has been remarked, that the word translated, |of like passions,| properly signifies, subject to the same infirmities and sufferings, or fellow mortals. Their being of |like passions| with them would not have appeared to the Gentiles a good reason why Paul and Barnabas should not be worshipped; for Jupiter and Mercury, and all the Gods and Goddesses of Paganism, were supposed to be actuated by the same passions with men, and, if history might be credited, had given many shocking displays of wrath, revenge, envy, and lust. But, if they were fellow-mortals, beings subject, like others, to disease and death, it was evident that they were not Gods; for the heathen Deities were accounted immortal, and were chiefly distinguished by this privilege from their worshippers. Mortals, indeed, there have been, who demanded religious honours; and base flatterers have not been wanting to comply with the extravagant request. Some of the Roman emperors were deified during their lives. But, surely, the worshippers and the worshipped must have secretly regarded each other with mutual contempt; the former scorning the inflated worm, who dreamed of divinity, because accident had raised him to a throne; and the latter despising the abject slaves who courted his favour by such degrading homage. The remains of his reason must have nauseated their incense, while it gratified his vanity. |Sirs, why do ye these things.| Jealous of the glory of the true God, the Apostles rejected, with abhorrence, any honour offered to them, which intrenched on his prerogative. |We are mere mortals like yourselves, and wish for no other token of respect, than that you should listen to us, while we call upon you to renounce your idolatry. We preach unto you, that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God.|
In the Old Testament, the heathen Gods are frequently styled vanities. It is a contemptuous title, which at the same time, is expressive of their nature. Of the Deities, whom the blinded nations adored, some had no existence, except in the imagination of their worshippers; and the rest were dead men and women, whom the gratitude and admiration of posterity had consecrated. Their images, in which a divine virtue was supposed to reside, were constructed of stone, and wood, and the precious metals; and were alike unworthy of religious honours, and incapable of doing either good or evil, as inanimate matter in any other shape. |They had eyes, but they saw not; and ears, but they heard not. They that made them were like unto them; so was every one that trusted in them.| All was vanity. These pretended Gods, and their unprofitable service, the apostles called upon the men of Lystra to forsake, and henceforward to worship |the living God.| The living God is Jehovah the self-existent being, who comprehends in himself the past, the present, and the future, and is the source of life to all who breathe and think. His existence alone is necessary and immutable; that of all other beings is contingent and fluctuating. He is here opposed to the Gods of the Gentiles, who were dead men, or imaginary beings, and whose lifeless images, enveloped in clouds of smoke, and adored with profound reverence, were as insensible of their unmerited honours, as the walls of their temples. |Choose now,| said the Apostles, |whether you will serve the living or the dead.| |None of the vanities of the Gentiles could give rain;| they had less power even than the men who implored their protection. |But the living God made heaven and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein.| The universe arose out of nothing at his command, was arranged by his wisdom, and is sustained by his power. It demonstrates his existence and attributes; and, in language understood in every nation, calls upon the spectators of his glory to adore and serve him.
But if the God, whom Paul and Barnabas preached, was the true God, the Creator of the world and its inhabitants, why was he so late in asserting his claim to their homage? Whence had he remained unknown for many ages, while other beings were suffered to usurp his place and his honours? To obviate this objection against the Christian doctrine as a novel system, which laboured under the great disadvantage of being opposed to the ancient established opinions of mankind, the Apostles subjoin the following remark. |Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways.| The cause of the recent introduction of his worship, was, not that he was an upstart God, a Divinity of yesterday, but that, for wise and holy reasons, he had permitted the nations, during a long succession of ages, to apostatize from himself, and follow the suggestions of their vain imaginations. Although, as we shall afterwards see, he did not leave himself altogether without a witness, yet he laid no restraint upon them in their deviations from truth; and employed no extraordinary means to stem the torrent of apostasy. No Prophet arose among them to reprove their errors, and restore the knowledge and service of the Creator. |The times of this ignorance he winked at,| seeming to take no notice of it, as a man closes his eyes, that he may not observe what is passing around him. Every nation was suffered to adopt whatever form of religion was most agreeable to its taste. Gods were multiplied by the creative power of superstition; temples rose in every city, and altars in every grove; so that the true God was banished from the greater part of his own world. The duration of this period of darkness and impiety is expressed by the indefinite phrase, |times past.| Idolatry seems to have begun early after the flood. It was practised in the family of Abraham prior to his call. But the true God continued to be known and worshipped long after, by individuals and families, amidst the general corruption. The covenant with Abraham and his posterity, by which they were constituted the peculiar people of God, did not operate to the exclusion of other nations, till about the time of the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt. The oracles of heaven were then committed to his descendants, and the rest of mankind were abandoned to their own conduct.
Notwithstanding the rejection of the Gentiles, their idolatry was inexcusable, because |God did not leave himself without a witness, in that he did good, and gave them rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling their hearts with food and gladness.| Canaan was a land |flowing with milk and honey,| and it is called |the glory of all the lands.| But notwithstanding the high character bestowed upon it, in consequence of the divine blessing, which rendered it uncommonly fertile, the other regions of the earth were not deserts, yielding only briers and thorns. Some of the countries, which the Gentiles inhabited, abounded in the choicest productions of the vegetable kingdom. The rain fell upon their fields, and the year was crowned with the goodness of the Lord. There is not a more agreeable prospect than a country smiling under the influences of heaven, presenting to the eye vallies covered with corn, and mountains clothed with pasture, or shaded with forests. As such a scene charms us with its beauties and cheers our hearts with the hope of plenty, so it is fitted to raise our thoughts to the source of all good, the almighty, and beneficent Parent of the universe. A reflecting mind learns wisdom from trees, and flowers, and every thing.
No man, who consults his reason, can consider the productions of the earth as the result of chance, because chance signifies no cause of any kind, but merely expresses our ignorance. It is not less irrational to imagine, that vegetation is the effect of certain independent qualities, or powers of matter. Men may impose upon themselves by words and theories; but it is impossible to conceive what is lifeless and inert to act, without being first acted upon by some external cause, or an unconscious substance to work according to a regular and uniform plan. Wherever we observe design, wherever we see an end aimed at, and a series of means employed to accomplish it, reason and experience point to an intelligent agent. It was never supposed by any man in his senses, that a watch was made by itself, or that a house was reared by the accidental meeting of wood, and stones, and mortar. The process, by which |out hearts are filled with food and gladness,| consists of so many steps, all conducting to a specific termination, that no person can survey them, without an immediate conviction of the existence and providence of God. From the surface of the ocean, of rivers, and of lakes, and from every part of the earth, water is raised, in the form of vapour, to the sky. There it is condensed by cold, and falls down by the law of gravitation. The rain penetrating the soil, cherishes the seeds deposited in it, and entering the roots of vegetables, ascends by the stem or trunk, and is circulated through the branches and leaves. At the same time, plants imbibe nourishment from the air and the sun; and arriving at maturity, by slower or more rapid progress, according to their nature, present their fruits to man, as a gift of the bounty of his Creator.
This process is so often repeated, that it attracts little notice. Many a careless spectator of the varied scenes of spring, summer, and autumn, never extends his thoughts beyond the objects before his eyes. But the changes produced upon the face of the earth, by the vicissitudes of the seasons, are unquestionable proofs of divine wisdom and beneficence. The heathens, amidst their ignorance, were not so atheistical as some modern philosophers, who would confine the attention of others, as well as their own, to the operation of natural causes. They erred only in overlooking the true Author of their enjoyments, and returning thanks for their fruitful seasons to Jupiter, and Ceres, and Pomona, instead of acknowledging the various productions of the earth to be the work of one God, |from whom cometh down every good and perfect gift.| The uniformity amidst variety, which is observable in the system of nature, the regularity of the seasons, the connexion and combination of the causes which contribute to the fertility of the earth, and the sameness of the result, afford evidence upon which we may safely rest this conclusion, that there is one First Cause, |who worketh all in all.| Thus in the darkest times of heathenism, there were not wanting testimonies to the existence and perfections of God. |The invisible things of him were clearly seen from the creation and government of the world, even his eternal power and godhead; so that the Gentiles were without excuse.| This is the important truth, which it was the intention of Paul and Barnabas to establish.
It was, however, with difficulty, that they prevailed upon the people to abstain from offering sacrifice to them. The men of Lystra were addicted to idolatry, in which they had been trained from their earliest years; and so fully were they persuaded of the divinity of the two Apostles, that their own testimony hardly sufficed to convince them of their error. It was with reluctance that they renounced the flattering idea, that their city had been honoured with a visit of the Gods.
We learn from this passage, that the contemplation of nature should be rendered subservient to the purposes of piety. God did not place so many glorious luminaries in the heavens, nor diversify the surface of the earth with mountains and vallies, nor collect the immense mass of water in the ocean, merely to furnish us with the pleasures of imagination. Man is delighted with the view of what is sublime and beautiful, and with the instances of curious contrivance, and exquisite workmanship; but the ultimate design of this delight, is to conduct him to the knowledge and love of its Author. All the objects around us bear witness to the existence of God. Philosophy will afford us much entertainment, by unfolding the secret operations of nature; but the pleasure of the unlettered Christian, who knows scarcely any thing about the laws of the material system, the structure of plants, and the mechanism of animals, is incomparably greater, when he traces, in the grand outlines of creation, the footsteps of his Father, and sees in its varying scenes, the wonders of his power, and the smiles of his goodness.
Let us give thanks to God for our deliverance from that gross idolatry, which once prevailed. among all nations except the Jews. It is not to reason that we are indebted for this deliverance. We indeed find no difficulty in proving, that there is only one God, the exclusive object of religious worship; but to demonstrate a truth already known, is a much easier task than to discover a truth buried under the rubbish of prejudice and superstition. The wisest and greatest men of antiquity were polytheists. They adored, with the vulgar, the Gods of their country. The doctrine of the unity of God has never been publicly professed by any people, who had not been previously enlightened by revelation. The Mahometans have learned this fundamental truth from our Scriptures. Notwithstanding the ignorant declamations of infidels concerning the powers of reason, and discoveries which may be made by its assistance, experience will justify us in affirming, that, without the gospel, we should have been as gross idolaters as our forefathers. Were Christianity banished from the earth, as some men earnestly wish, the absurd and exploded systems of Paganism would be restored; or some modification of folly not less extravagant would be substituted in their room. No sooner had the French nation, a few years ago, renounced the religion of Christ, than they began to revive the antiquated rites of Greece and Rome, and publicly adored a prostitute, under the title of the Goddess of Reason. It is the gospel which has turned us |from vanities, to serve the living God.|
In a word, As we profess to be the servants of the living God, let us remember, that it is a pure and spiritual worship which he requires. He must not be treated as one of the idols of the Gentiles, to whom their votaries presented the empty homage of ceremonies and oblations. Then only do we serve him, in a manner worthy of his character and attributes, when we present to him the offering of our hearts; when we love him above all things, confide in his power and faithfulness, commit ourselves to the direction of his wisdom, submit to his authority, and regulate our thoughts and actions by his law. Then only do we acceptably serve him, when we offer up praises from a grateful heart, and prayers expressive of holy desires; and when we perform all our religious duties in the name of the great Mediator, the High-Priest of our profession. |For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth (as there be gods many, and lords many,) but to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.|