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Lectures On The Acts Of The Apostles by John Dick


Chap. v.34-42.

IT pleased God, as we read in this chapter, to enable the Apostles to work many miracles in confirmation of the gospel. But the stronger the light is, it is the more offensive to a diseased eye. The high priest and his adherents were filled with indignation against the men, who presumed, in defiance of their express prohibition, to preach Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Messiah; and by the wonders which they performed, were gradually undermining the authority of the rulers, in the opinion and affections of the people. They belonged to the sect of the Sadducees, who being a species of free-thinkers, and holding principles subversive of all religion, might have been supposed to view with indifference and contempt contests about articles of faith, and modes of worship. But the experience of late years has convinced us; by the scenes transacted in a neighbouring country, that infidelity and bigotry may be closely allied; and that the persecuting fury of the philosopher was never surpassed by the intolerant zeal of the most sanguinary religionist. There was, indeed, a particular cause for the violence of those impious men, the opposition made to their favourite doctrine, that there was no resurrection of the body; for the great theme of the Apostles' discourses was the illustrious manifestation of divine power in bringing Jesus from the grave, to establish the truth of his religion, and to give his followers the hope of a triumph over death. The pride of authority, and the pride of wisdom, could ill brook an insult so public, offered, too, by men, in their eyes, of despicable talents and character. |They laid hands, therefore, on the Apostles, and put them in the common prison.|

At this crisis, God miraculously interposed in favour of his servants, to encourage them to persist in their duty, and to convince their persecutors, that vain were their endeavours to arrest the progress of the rising religion. |The angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, and brought them forth, and said, Go, stand and speak in the temple to the people, all the words of this life.| But the rulers of the Jews were not diverted from their purpose by this unequivocal declaration of heaven against them. Having received information where the Apostles should be found, they brought them again before the council, and asked, why they presumed still to preach, and to persuade the people, that their priests and magistrates were guilty of innocent blood, The answer was firm and manly, and discovered a spirit which should animate every Christian minister, and every Christian man; a supreme regard to the authority of God. |We ought to obey God rather than men.| Not content with having disclaimed the jurisdiction of the Sanhedrim, they proceeded without fear of the consequences, to repeat the charge which had given so much offence, |to bring this man's blood upon them,| to accuse them to their faces of having put to death the Messiah; and, at the same time, to affirm, that |God had exalted him with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour.| It is not easy to conceive the feelings of those haughty rulers, when they were addressed with such boldness by some vulgar men, who should have been overawed by their presence, and should have received their mandates with reverence. Luke expressively says, that they were |cut to the heart.| In this state of mind they were purposing to proceed to violence, when the rising tempest was calmed by the wise and moderate counsel of one man, who remained cool and temperate amidst the general fermentation. |Then stood there up one in the council, a Pharisee, named Gamaliel, a doctor of law, had in reputation among all the people, and commanded to put the Apostles forth a little space.| This man has acquired reputation among Christians also, by his prudent and rational counsel at this conjuncture, and in consequence of the ret lation in which he once stood to the great Apostle of the Gentiles. Paul was brought up at the feet of Garmaliel. He is said to have been the son of that venerable old man, |to whom it was revealed by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ;| and who took up the infant Saviour in his arms, and said, |Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.| By profession he was a doctor of law, that is, one of those who expounded the law of Moses to the people, and, according to the fashion of the times, carefully instructed them in the traditions of the elders, as the best commentary on his writings. We may ree mark, by the way, what was the nature of the learning which Paul acquired under this master, and which has been greatly overrated. It is sufficient to observe that it was Jewish learning, to convince those who are acquainted with the history of that age, that as it could not recommend him to the Gentiles, so it was of very little value in itself, consisting chiefly in the knowledge of the superstitious notions and idle dreams of men, forsaken by sound reason, and the Spirit of God. The sect, to which he was attached, was that of the Pharisees, which was distinguished by the overstrained strictness of its precepts, and its minute attention to religious ceremonies. Intolerance was natural to such a sect. But Gamaliel was an honourable exception. History occasionally points out individuals who have been preserved from the narrow, violent spirit of their party, by mildness of temper, a strong feeling of hue inanity, and the suggestions of a well regulated judgment. In the bosom of a persecuting Church, and among the proud domineering members of an establishment, gentle measures sometimes find an advocate, and dissenters, an apologist and patron. We perceive, then, on what account Gamaliel was held in reputation by the people. His station, his learning, and his piety, recommended him to their esteem, and must have given weight to the advice which he now offered to the Sanhedrim.

We are not able to point out with certainty the motive, which induced him to stand up in behalf of the Apostles. It has indeed been affirmed, that he secretly favoured the new religion, and afterwards openly professed it. He has been represented as a second Nicodemus, who, when the rulers were taking counsel against Jesus, ventured to say, |Doth our law judge any man before it hear him, and know what he doth?| But this is one among many instances, in which men have permitted their wishes and hopes to supply the place of evidence. There can be no better foundation for this opinion, if we give credit to the Jews, who show in their liturgy, a prayer said to have been composed by him, imprecating divine vengeance upon the heretics, by whom are meant the followers of Jesus. Others have attributed his interference, not to any generous principle, but to the spirit of party. As those, who persecuted the Apostles, were Sadducees, this Pharisee felt himself engaged by interest and rivalship to support them. We do indeed meet with a case, which gives some plausibility to this conjecture. When Paul was brought before the Sanhedrim, and avowed his hope of the resurrection of the dead, the Pharisees arranged themselves on his side, and used nearly the same language, which was employed on this occasion by Gamaliel. It is possible, however, that this advice was dictated by a mind, which, although not free from prejudice against the truth, disapproved of compulsion in matters of conscience, and was willing that the new religion should be allowed a fair trial. It seems, indeed, to express a doubt, whether the cause of Christianity might not be the cause of God; but notwithstanding the cautious nature of his language, Gamaliel might be persuaded that it was an imposture, and would soon come to nothing. He might think that force was unnecessary, where the intrinsic weakness of the cause would speedily prove its ruin; or, as we have already hinted, he might, from principle, be adverse to employ it in the determination of controversies, which should be submitted to the decision of reason and Scripture. Upon this supposition, the Pharisee was more enlightened than some, who profess a religion which breathes a more liberal spirit. But our business is not with his motives, but with his counsel. Having ordered the Apostles to be removed for a short time, he addressed the council in the following words. |Ye men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what ye intend to do as touching these men. For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody, to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain, and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered and brought to nought. After this man rose up Judas of Galilee, in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished, and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed.| The opinion of Gamaliel with respect to the present case was not hastily formed, but was the fruit of mature thought, and was founded in the wisdom of experience. Accordingly, he quotes in support of it two cases, recorded in the annals of the nation, with which all who heard him must have been acquainted. I shall not trouble you with the chronological difficulties in this passage. Josephus, in his Jewish antiquities, mentions one Theudas, who was the ringleader of an insurrection, and perished by the arms of the Romans, some years after the meeting of the council. This Theudas, of whom he takes no notice, is said to have appeared before it. There is no reason to suspect that Luke was mistaken, and consequently that it is a forged speech which he has put into the mouth of Gamaliel. As Theudas was a common name among the Jews, it might easily happen to belong to more seditious leaders than one. The silence of Josephus should no more invalidate the testimony of Luke, than the silence of Luke would invalidate the authority of Josephus. It must have been about thirty or forty years before this time, that the Theudas, of whom Gamaliel speaks, was at the head of a party; for Judas rose up after him, |in the days of the taxing,| which probably means the taxing or assessment made by Cyrenius, governor of Syria, several years after the birth of our Saviour, when Archelaus, the son of Herod, was deposed, and Judea was reduced into the form of a province.

The Jews, who were a turbulent people, submitted with great impatience to the Roman yoke. They were indignant at the thought, that the chosen people, who hoped under the Messiah to possess the dominion of the world, should be enslaved and oppressed by foreigners and idolaters. Hence demagogues arose in frequent succession, and erecting the standard of liberty and religion,. collected a number of followers, inflamed with rage, and animated with the prospect of glory and independence. Of this description were Theudas and Judas. The former |boasted himself to be somebody;| pretended to be the Messiah, or a Prophet sent by God, for the deliverance of his people. As the latter rose up |in the days of the taxing,| he probably assumed no higher character than that of a patriot, who wished to emancipate his country from an ignominious and cruel subjection to strangers. But these, and all similar attempts, terminated in the destruction of those who were engaged in them. The wrath of God pursued the unbelieving, impenitent people. Their doom was fixed; and their repeated efforts, to withdraw themselves from the domination of their conquerors, only served to bring down upon them the full weight of their vengeance, by which both Church and state were overwhelmed.

Upon these instances of unsuccessful insurrection and imposture, Gamaliel founds the following advice. |And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men; and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought; but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.| He dissuades them from violent measures, as impious or superfluous. If the new religion was from God, its progress could not be arrested by their opposition, which would involve them in the guilt and ruinous consequences of a contest with heaven; if it was a human contrivance, it would fall through its own weakness. Such is the counsel of Gamaliel; but justice is not done to it, if it be considered as a general rule, applicable to every case which may arise. Neither Scripture nor experience will warrant us to affirm, that a work or imposture of man will always come speedily to nought, or that a work of God will always prosper, whatever obstacles are opposed to it; for although there is no want of power to remove those obstacles, yet reasons, unknown to us, may induce him not to exert it. Christianity itself has, in some instances, been overthrown by the united activity of error and force. I appeal for proof to those countries, in which there was once many flourishing Churches, but Mahometanism is now the established religion. The reformation from popery is regarded by every protestant as a work of God; but it was successfully resisted in some nations of Europe, in which it had met with a favourable reception, and promised ultimately to prevail. On the other hand, we can produce works undoubtedly not of God, of which the success has been extensive and permanent. The reign of Antichrist, the adversary of God and his Son, the patron of error, idolatry, and wickedness, once extended over a great part of Europe, and is to last, according to prophecy, during twelve hundred and sixty years. The religion of Mahomet was contrived by the impostor himself, who at first persuaded, with some difficulty, his own relations to embrace it; but having been disseminated, by various means, among the neighbouring tribes, it passed the limits of Arabia, and, spreading over the eastern countries with the rapidity of lightning, is now established throughout the whole extent of the Greek empire, the former set of Christianity. It has already subsisted during the long period of twelve hundred years.

From these incontrovertible facts, it is evident, that the observation of Gamaliel cannot be adopted as a maxim which will hold universally, but must be received with certain limitations, which, indeed, are suggested by himself. By attending to his words, you will find that he does not lay down a general rule, but strictly confines himself to the present subject of discussion. |If this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought,| And however rash and presumptuous it would be to pronounce, in this decisive manner, concerning every system of religion which may arise, the judgment of Gamaliel was well founded with respect to the religion preached by the Apostles. On the one hand, if this work was divine; if Jesus was the Messiah, and the gospel was his law sent out of Zion, Gamaliel was authorised, by the express declarations of Scriptures, to predict, that all the opposition of the Jewish rulers, and the combined efforts of earth and hell to obstruct it, should prove abortive. God had promised |to set the hand of his first born in the sea, and his right hand in the rivers; to beat down his foes before his face, and plague them that hate him; and to give him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him.| On the other hand, if this work or counsel was from men, it required neither the spirit of prophecy, nor uncommon sagacity, to foresee, that its duration would be transient. Let us for a moment suppose, that Christianity was merely a contrivance of the Apostles; and then let us inquire, whether every thing pertaining to it was not calculated to hinder its success.

The doctrines which the Apostles preached were ill fitted to attract the attention, and to conciliate the approbation, of mankind. To tell the Jews, that the Messiah was of mean parentage, lived in poverty and affliction, died upon a cross, had now returned to heaven, without achieving the deliverance of his country from the power of the Romans, and had promised nothing to his followers but happiness beyond the grave, was to offend their pride, to disappoint their carnal expectations, to dissipate their dreams of glory and pleasure on the earth. To proclaim him to the Gentiles, was to speak upon a subject of which they had no idea, to recommend a person totally unknown, and whom they must have despised, both as a malefactor and a Jew. His resurrection, to which the Apostles referred as the decisive proof of his divine mission, was calculated to excite their derision, because they considered the resurrection of the body as neither credible nor desirable. To the Gentiles, acquainted only with their vain philosophy, and attached to its erroneous dogmas, the gospel must have seemed to be the wildest, most uncouth, and most unintelligible system, which ever insulted the human understanding.

The duties which this religion enjoined, were repugnant to the preconceived notions, and the corrupt passions of all classes of men. Faith in Christ for justification, was a subject of which a Gentile could form no conception, and which, if he had understood it, must have provoked his ridicule, educated, as he was, in a proud dependence upon his own virtue as the only means of recommending him to God. Nothing could give more offence to a Jew, than to be told, that he must renounce his own righteousness, account his painful and scrupulous obedience to the law mere loss, and expect salvation from a person, whom the supreme court in the nation had put to death as an impostor and blasphemer. Precepts of humility, self-denial, chastity, temperance, justice, love to our enemies; and the forgiveness of injuries, will not be generally relished at any time; and were particularly ill-suited to the luxurious and licentious age in which the gospel was promulgated. Above all, the command to take up the cross, to forego worldly enjoyments, and to submit to sufferings for the sake of Christ and a good conscience, had a direct tendency to deter men from becoming his disciples. We may be persuaded to assent to speculative principles, and may even be prevailed upon, through indolence, inattention, and sophistry, to acquiesce in speculative absurdities; but the heart revolts when practical lessons are inculcated; when we are called upon to perform difficult duties, and to part with favourite gratifications.

Christianity avowed an intention to overthrow all the religions of the earth, and had therefore to contend with the strong attachment, which men generally entertain, to the religion in which they have been educated. Of the zeal of the Jews for their religion, we have abundant proof from Scripture. They gloried in the law of Moses, believed that it would be perpetual, and rested their hope of the divine favour upon the observance of it. The regard of the Gentiles to their superstitions was equally strong. Besides being handed down to them from their remote ancestors, whose authority commanded profound respect, and being considered as intimately connected with private and public prosperity, they allured the senses and the passions, by splendid spectacles, by licentious festivals, by the charms of the fine arts, and by the unbounded toleration of the corrupt propensities of the heart. Christianity came to set aside those religions. It had nothing of the accommodating spirit of paganism, which easily adopted the Gods and rites of other nations; it claimed to be the only true religion, and commanded its own institutions to be exclusively observed.

Lastly, The preachers of this unsocial religion were not, fitted to diminish the prejudices of mankind against it. They were not illustrious by their birth, distinguished by their talents, celebrated for their wisdom and learning, and able to overawe and persuade others by their authority and eloquence. Upon the hypothesis that this work was of men, which is the foundation of our present reasoning, they were destitute of every qualification, natural and supernatural, for the undertaking in which they were embarked. Not having received the Holy Ghost, they could speak no language but their own, and that, too, in a clumsy, inaccurate manner; they could work no miracles; they could compose no regular discourses; they could only render themselves and their system contemptible, by their confusion and vulgarity. They were Jews, and on this account were held in contempt by the Gentiles, who looked down upon the whole nation as a superstitious, bigoted, unlearned, and unphilosophical people. It was sufficient to injure the reputation of any set of opinions, that it had originated in a country, the supposed seat of ignorance and barbarism.

Such were the improbabilities, that this religion, if it were a human contrivance, should succeed; or rather they were sure grounds, on which any man might have predicted, as Gamaliel did, that it would not succeed. It could hardly have maintained itself for any length of time in Judea; it could not have made its way at all into heathen countries. We know, however, that it did prevail in Judea, and gained over thousands and myriads of the inhabitants; that it spread over the whole extent of the Roman conquests, and found access to regions which their arms had never reached; that it humbled the proud philosopher, purified the slave of vice, tamed the fierce barbarian, and established the empire of truth and holiness over the fairest portion of the earth. |There is not a nation,| says one of the Fathers in the second century, |whether of Greeks or of barbarians, in which prayers and thanksgivings are not offered up to the Father and Maker of all things, in the name of the crucified Jesus.| |We are but of yesterday,| says another, addressing himself to the magistrates of the empire, |and we have filled every place, your cities, islands, garrisons, free towns, camp, senate, and forum; we have left nothing empty but your temples.| What, then, is the inference, which sound reason authorizes us to draw? Is it not, that the religion of Jesus Christ, which, in the circumstances, now detailed, was published with incredible success, was from God, and not from man? Infidels may torture their invention to account, on natural principles, for this strange fact, this moral phenomenon, the establishment of a religion so ungainly, so repugnant to the ideas, feelings, interests, and favourite pursuits of mankind, by the diligence and exertions of such weak instruments, upon the ruins of all the systems of philosophy and superstition which then existed; but their abortive malignity can only excite the pity, or the scorn, of every enlightened mind.

Thus far the reasoning has proceeded upon the supposition, that the Sanhedrim had adopted the counsel of Gamaliel, and that the gospel had been suffered to work its own way in the world. But, although the rulers of the Jews listened at this time to the voice of reason and moderation, yet it was not long till they recurred to violence, and began a furious persecution of the Christians. Their example was followed by the Gentiles; and for nearly three centuries, the disciples of Jesus were subjected to severe hardships, and cruel sufferings on account of their religion. Every motive of prudence and policy conspired to make men decline assuming the Christian name. The Heathens exhibited no portion of that tolerating spirit towards the new religion, which was exercised towards their different forms of idolatry; it was proscribed as a pestilent superstition, hateful to the Gods, and hostile to the peace and prosperity of the empire. If the seasons proved cold and barren; if fire consumed any of their cities; if earthquakes desolated the provinces; the Christians were accused as the cause of those calamities, and their punishment was demanded by the clamours of the people. The unresisting victims were driven into exile, doomed to perish amidst the unwholesome labours of the mines, exposed in the amphitheatres to be torn in pieces by wild beasts, that the eyes of their savage persecutors might be feasted with the spectacle, consumed at stakes, executed upon scaffolds, or put to death by slow tortures, in devising which, human barbarity, exasperated by hell, exhausted its ingenuity. Emperors and magistrates, forgetting the dignity of their character, philosophers their boasted moderation, relatives the sentiments of nature, and men their feelings of humanity, continued for ages to embrue their hands in the blood of the inoffensive and patient martyrs of Jesus. They hoped to subdue their courage, or to exterminate them from the earth. But all their efforts were baffled. Like the Israelites in Egypt, the more the Christians were afflicted, the more they grew. The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church. The places of those who fell were speedily supplied. The example of their virtues, and the power of the truth, induced many to become followers of their faith, at the hazard of all that was dear to them in the world. Hence, at the close of a long period of trial, when the Church might have been expected to exist only in the records of its enemies, the number of its members was so great, that Constantine found his interest united with his duty, when he declared himself its protector. The banner of the cross was displayed on the Capitol of Rome; and the religion of one, who had died the death of a slave, in a distant province, was embraced by the mighty conquerors of the earth. |The work was of God, and men could not overthrow it.| Its enemies were found to fight against God; and thev perished in the impious and unequal contest.

This event is totally different from the success of the Antichristian and Mahometan religions. These systems arose in a dark and ignorant age; were dexterously accommodated to the prejudices, the superstitious temper, and the licentious inclinations of men; and were propagated by the artifice of imposture, and the terror of the sword. In the success of Mahomet, there is nothing more extraordinary than that of any other conqueror, who flies, from province to province, at the head of a victorious army, and compels the subjugated, terrified inhabitants, to submit to his law. Christianity made its appearance in an age of science and literature, and professed an open hostility to all the sinful passions of men; but although unaided and unfriended, calumniated and opposed by the whole force of the Roman empire, it went forward in its course, like the sun, who sometimes eclipsed, and sometimes darkened with clouds, steadily advances to his meridian altitude, from which he pours a full tide of light and glory on the earth.

Thus I have considered, at some length, the celebrated counsel of Gamaliel. We have seen, that if the powers of this world had let the new religion alone, it was of such a nature, that, had it originated from man, it could not have succeeded. Its success, therefore, would, in these circumstances, have been a clear proof of its divinity. But since the rulers of the earth did not let it alone, the evidence acquires new strength from the formidable opposition against which it prevailed. Here we perceive the finger of God; and no man, who listens to the suggestions of reason, can refrain from saying, |Behold this hath the Lord wrought.|

We learn from the following verses, that the rulers of the Jews complied so far with the counsel of Gamaliel, as to desist from their intention to put the Apostles to death. They contented themselves with scourging them, and dismissed them with a command, not |to speak in the name of Jesus.| To this command they paid no regard; and the punishment inflicted upon them, instead of depressing their courage, served to animate their zeal. |And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name. And daily in the temple and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.|

I conclude with the three following reflections.

First, It was no easy task in which the Apostles engaged, when they went forth to preach among the nations the gospel of the kingdom. Their situation was very different from that of the old philosophers, who delivered lectures at their ease, to an admiring audience; and front that of ministers of the gospel in the present time, who enjoy the protection of the laws. They were men, |who hazarded their lives,| who rose superior to fear, and shame, and pain, who looked for nothing in this world but sufferings and death. How high does their character rise? It may be compared with that of the most distinguished patriots, and eminent benefactors of mankind. Who could have expected to find such philanthropy, such noble and disinterested sentiments, in persons taken from the lowest ranks of society, and bred to the meanest occupations? To what respect and gratitude is their memory entitled; respect for their illustrious virtues, and gratitude for their generous exertions to promote the best interests of the human race? How should we admire the grace of God, who called them to the arduous work, inspired them with the love, and zeal, and patience, and fidelity with which they performed it, supported them under manifold difficulties, and crowned their labours with success

Secondly, God can always find the means of preserving his servants in the discharge of their duty. He can make their deliverance come from an unexpected quarter. He saved the Apostles, on this occasion, by the interposition of Gamaliel, a Pharisee, and an enemy to the gospel. History furnishes many instances of persons, who have favoured and forwarded the cause of religion from motives of worldly policy, in pursuit of their schemes of ambition, love, avarice, and rivalship; and we cannot but admire the wisdom and power of God, in |restraining the remainder of the wrath of the wicked,| by the wrath or some other passion, of men as wicked as themselves. He makes the earth help the woman. He has the hearts of kings and of all men in his hands, and turns them |as the rivers of water.|

In the last place, from the success of the gospel in past times, we may confidently hope for the fulfilment of the predictions relative to its diffusion and establishment throughout the earth. After its. rapid progress under the Apostles and their successors, in the first ages, Christianity began to decline. Several countries, in which it was professed, were subdued by the Mahometan arms; and its light was almost extinguished in Europe, and the eastern church, by a dark cloud of superstition and idolatry. At the Reformation, it shone forth again; but how small a part of the civilized world enjoys the benefit of its salutary rays! And if we look to other regions of the earth, |behold darkness and sorrow, and the light is darkened in the heavens thereof.| The success of Christian missions has not equalled the examples of former times, and the eager hopes of those who projected them. A few converts, collected, after long labour, out of many thousands, give no animating prospect of the speedy triumph of our religion. If the husbandman should gather two or three straggling stalks of corn, who would call this a harvest? But let us not despond. Jesus Christ lives, and |the residue of the Spirit| is with him. The gospel has nothing more formidable to encounter than the opposition which it has already subdued. When we see the mighty empire of Rome prostrate at the feet of Jesus Christ, and presenting homage to him as its sovereign Lord, we cannot despair, that the time will come, when India and China, and the islands of the sea, shall be added to the trophies of the cross. Let us |remember the years of the right hand of the Most High;| and let us pray, that he would again |make bare his holy arm, and openly show his salvation in the sight of the Heathen.| |Then shall all the ends of the earth see the salvation of our God.|

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