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The Ancient Church by William Dool Killen


A.D.52 TO A.D.54.

After leaving Philippi, and passing through Amphipolis and Apollonia, Paul made his way to Thessalonica. In this city there was a Jewish synagogue where he was permitted, for three successive Sabbaths, to address the congregation. His discourses produced a powerful impression; as some of the seed of Abraham believed, |and, of the devout Greeks, a great multitude, and of the chief women, not a few.| [100:1] The unbelieving Jews attempted to create annoyance by representing the missionaries as acting |contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying -- that there is another king, one Jesus;| [100:2] but though they contrived to trouble |the rulers| [100:3] and to |set all the city in an uproar,| they could not succeed in preventing the formation of a flourishing Christian community. Paul appeared next in Berea, and, when reporting his success here, the sacred historian bears a remarkable testimony to the right of the laity to judge for themselves as to the meaning of the Book of Inspiration; for he states that the Jews of this place |were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily| [101:1] to ascertain the truth of the apostolic doctrine. Paul now proceeded |to go as it were to the sea,| and soon afterwards arrived at Athens.

The ancient capital of Attica had long been the literary metropolis of heathendom. Its citizens could boast that they were sprung from a race of heroes, as their forefathers had nobly struggled for freedom on many a bloody battlefield, and, by prodigies of valour, had maintained their independence against all the might of Persia. Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, was their tutelary deity. The Athenians, from time immemorial, had been noted for their intellectual elevation; and a brilliant array of poets, legislators, historians, philosophers, and orators, had crowned their community with immortal fame. Every spot connected with their city was classic ground. Here it was that Socrates had discoursed so sagely; and that Plato had illustrated, with so much felicity and genius, the precepts of his great master; and that Demosthenes, by addresses of unrivalled eloquence, had roused and agitated the assemblies of his countrymen. As the stranger passed through Athens, artistic productions of superior excellence everywhere met his eye. Its statues, its public monuments, and its temples, were models alike of tasteful design and of beautiful workmanship. But there may be much intellectual culture where there is no spiritual enlightenment, and Athens, though so far advanced in civilisation and refinement, was one of the high places of pagan superstition. Amidst the splendour of its architectural decorations, as well as surrounded with proofs of its scientific and literary eminence, the apostle mourned over its religious destitution, and |his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.| [102:1]

On this new scene Paul exhibited his usual activity and earnestness. |He disputed in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.| [102:2] The Christian preacher, doubtless, soon became an object of no little curiosity. He was of diminutive stature; [102:3] he seems to have laboured under the disadvantages of imperfect vision; [102:4] and his Palestinian Greek must have sounded harshly in the ears of those who were accustomed to speak their mother tongue in its Attic purity. But, though his |bodily presence was weak,| [102:5] he speedily convinced those who came in contact with him, that the frail earthly tabernacle was the habitation of a master mind; and though mere connoisseurs in idioms and pronunciation might designate |his speech contemptible,| [102:6] he riveted the attention of his hearers by the force and impressiveness of his oratory. The presence of this extraordinary stranger could not remain long unknown to the Athenian literati; but, when they entered into conversation with him, some of them were disposed to ridicule him as an idle talker, whilst others seemed inclined to denounce him as a dangerous innovator. |Certain philosophers of the Epicureans and of the Stoics encountered him; and some said -- What will this babbler say? other some -- He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods, because he preached unto them Jesus and the resurrection.| [102:7] Upwards of four hundred years before, Socrates had been condemned to death by the Athenians as |a setter forth of strange gods,| [103:1] and it may be that some of these philosophers hoped to intimidate the apostle by hinting that he was now open to the same indictment. But it is very improbable that they seriously contemplated a prosecution; as they had themselves no faith in the pagan mythology. They were quite ready to employ their wit to turn the heathen worship into scorn; and yet they could point out no |more excellent way| of religious service. In Athens, philosophy had demonstrated its utter impotence to do anything effective for the reformation of the popular theology; and its professors had settled down into the conviction that, as the current superstition exercised an immense influence over the minds of the multitude it was inexpedient for wise men to withhold from it the tribute of outward reverence. The discourses of Paul were very far from complimentary to parties who valued themselves so highly on their intellectual advancement; for he quietly ignored all their speculations as so much folly; and, whilst he propounded his own system with the utmost confidence, he, at the same time, supported it by arguments which they were determined to reject, but unable to overturn. It is pretty clear that they were to some extent under the influence of pique and irritation when they noticed his deviations from the established faith, and applied to him the epithet of |babbler;| but Paul was not the man to be put down either by irony or insult; and at length it was found necessary to allow him a fair opportunity of explaining his principles. It is accordingly stated that |they took him and brought him unto Mars Hill saying -- May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is, for thou bringest certain strange things to our ears -- we would know, therefore, what these things mean.| [103:2]

The speech delivered by Paul on this memorable occasion has been often admired for its tact, vigour, depth, and fidelity. Whilst giving the Athenians full credit for their devotional feeling, and avoiding any pointed and sarcastic attack on the absurdities of their religious ritual, he contrives to present such an outline of the prominent features of the Christian revelation, as might have convinced any candid and intelligent auditor of its incomparable superiority, as well to the doctrines of the philosophers, as to the fables of heathenism. In the very commencement of his observations he displays no little address. |Ye men of Athens,| said he, |I perceive that, in every point of view, ye are carrying your religious reverence very far; for, as I passed by, and observed the objects of your worship, I found an altar with this inscription -- To the unknown God -- whom, therefore, ye worship, though ye know him not, him declare I unto you.| [104:1] The existence in this city of inscriptions, such as that here given, is attested by several other ancient witnesses [104:2] as well as Paul, and the altars thus distinguished appear to have been erected when the place was afflicted by certain strange and unprecedented calamities which the deities, already recognised, were supposed to be unable to remove. The auditors of the apostle could not well be dissatisfied with the statement that they carried their |religious reverence very far;| and yet, perhaps, they were scarcely prepared for the reference to this altar by which the observation was illustrated; for the inscription which he quoted contained a most humiliating confession of their ignorance, and furnished him with an excellent apology for proposing to act as their theological instructor.

His discourse, which treats of the Being and Attributes of God, must have been heard with no ordinary interest by the polite and intelligent Athenians. Its reasoning is plain, pertinent, and powerful; and whilst adopting a didactic tone, and avoiding the language and spirit of controversy, the apostle, in every sentence, comes into direct collision, either with the errors of polytheism, or the dogmas of the Grecian philosophy. The Stoics were Pantheists, and held the doctrine of the eternity of matter; [105:1] whilst the Epicureans maintained that the universe arose out of a fortuitous concurrence of atoms; [105:2] and therefore Paul announced his opposition to both these sects when he declared that |God made the world and all things therein.| [105:3] The Athenians boasted that they were of nobler descent than the rest of their countrymen; [105:4] and the heathen generally believed that each nation belonged to a distinct stock and was under the guardianship of its own peculiar deities; but the apostle affirmed that |God hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth.| [105:5] The Epicureans asserted that the gods did not interfere in the concerns of the human family, and that they were destitute of foreknowledge; but Paul here assured them that the great Creator |giveth to all life and breath and all things,| and |hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation.| [105:6] The heathen imagined that the gods inhabited their images; but whilst Paul was ready to acknowledge the excellence, as works of art, of the statues which he saw all around him, he at the same time distinctly intimated that these dead pieces of material mechanism could never even faintly represent the glory of the invisible First Cause, and that they were unworthy the homage of living and intellectual beings. |As we are the offspring of God,| said he, |we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device.| [106:1] After having thus borne testimony to the spirituality of the I am that I am, and asserted His authority as the Maker and Preserver of the world, Paul proceeded to point out his claims as its righteous Governor. |He hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained, whereof he hath given assurance unto all men in that he hath raised him from the dead.| [106:2] The pleasure-loving Epicureans refused to believe in a future state of rewards and punishments; and concurred with the Stoics in denying the immortality of the soul. [106:3] Both these parties were, of course, prepared to reject the doctrine of a general judgment. The idea of the resurrection of the body was quite novel to almost all classes of the Gentiles; and, when at first propounded to the Athenians, was received, by many, with doubt, and by some, with ridicule. |When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter. So Paul departed from among them.| [106:4]

The frivolous spirit cherished by the citizens of the ancient capital of Attica was exceedingly unfavourable to the progress of the earnest faith of Christianity. |All the Athenians, and strangers which were there, spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.| [106:5] Though they had acquired a world-wide reputation for literary culture, it is an instructive fact that their city continued for several centuries afterwards to be one of the strongholds of Gentile superstition. But the labours of Paul at this time were not entirely unproductive. |Certain men clave unto him and believed, among the which was Dionysius, the Areopagite, and a woman, named Damaris, and others with them.| [107:1] The court of Areopagus, long the highest judicial tribunal in the place, had not even yet entirely lost its celebrity; and the circumstance that Dionysius was connected with it, is a proof that this Christian convert must have been a respectable and influential citizen. He appears to have occupied a very high place among the primitive disciples; and the number of spurious writings ascribed to him [107:2] shew that his name was deemed a tower of strength to the cause with which it was associated. He seems to have been long at the head of the Athenian presbytery; and to have survived his conversion about forty years, or until the time of the Domitian persecution. [107:3]

From Athens Paul directed his steps to Corinth, where he appears to have arrived in the autumn of A.D.52. Nearly two hundred years before, this city had been completely destroyed; but, after a century of desolation, it had been rebuilt; and having since rapidly increased, it was now flourishing and populous. As a place of trade, its position, near an isthmus of the same name, gave it immense advantages; for it had a harbour on each side, so that it was the central depot of the commerce of the East and West. Its inhabitants valued themselves much upon their attainments in philosophy and general literature; but, whilst, by traffic, they had succeeded in acquiring wealth, they had given way to the temptations of luxury and licentiousness. Corinth was, in fact, at this time one of the most dissolute cities of the Empire. It was the capital of the large province of Achaia, and the residence of the Roman proconsul.

When Paul was at Athens he was led to adapt his style of instruction to the character of his auditors, and he was thus obliged to occupy much of his time in discussing the principles of natural religion. He endeavoured to gain over the citizens by shewing them that their views of the Godhead could not stand the test of a vigorous and discriminating logic, and that Christianity alone rested on a sound philosophical foundation. But the exposition of a pure system of theism had comparatively little influence on the hearts and consciences of these system-builders. Considering the time and skill devoted to its culture, Athens had yielded perhaps less spiritual fruit than any field of labour on which he had yet operated. When he arrived in Corinth he resolved, therefore, to avoid, as much as possible, mere metaphysical argumentation, and he sought rather to stir up sinners to flee from the wrath to come by pressing home upon them earnestly the peculiar doctrines of revelation. In the first epistle, addressed subsequently to the Church now established in this place, he thus describes the spirit in which he conducted his apostolical ministrations. |And I, brethren,| says he, |when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God -- for I determined not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ and Him crucified; and my speech and my preaching was, not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power -- that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.| [108:1]

The result demonstrated that the apostle thus pursued the most effective mode of advancing the Christian cause. It might, indeed, have been thought that Corinth was a very ungenial soil for the gospel, as Venus was the favourite deity of the place; and a thousand priestesses, or, in other words, a thousand prostitutes, were employed in the celebration of her orgies. [109:1] The inhabitants generally were sunk in the very depths of moral pollution. But the preaching of the Cross produced a powerful impression even in this hotbed of iniquity. Notwithstanding the enmity of the Jews, who |opposed themselves and blasphemed,| [109:2] Paul succeeded in collecting here a large and prosperous congregation. |Many of the Corinthians hearing, believed, and were baptized.| [109:3] Most of the converts were in very humble circumstances, and hence the apostle says to them in his first epistle -- |Ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble are called;| [109:4] but still a few persons of distinction united themselves to the despised community. Thus, it appears [109:5] that Erastus, the chamberlain, or treasurer, of the city, was among the disciples. It may be that this civic functionary joined the Church at a somewhat later date; but, even now, Paul was encouraged by the accession of some remarkable converts. Of these, perhaps, the most conspicuous was Crispus, |the chief ruler of the synagogue,| who, |with all his house,| submitted to baptism. [109:6] About the same time Gaius, who seems to have been an opulent citizen, and who rendered good service to the common cause by his Christian hospitality, [109:7] openly embraced the gospel. Two other converts, who are often honourably mentioned in the New Testament, were now likewise added to the infant Church. These were Aquila and Priscilla. [109:8] Some have, indeed, supposed that this couple had been already baptized; but, on the arrival of Paul in Corinth, Aquila is represented as a Jew [110:1] -- a designation which would not have been descriptive of his position had he been previously a believer -- and we must therefore infer that the conversion of himself and his excellent partner occurred at this period.

In this city, as well as in many other places, the apostle supported himself by the labour of his own hands. It was now customary, even for Israelites in easy circumstances, to train up their children to some mechanical employment, so that should they sink into penury, they could still, by manual industry, procure a livelihood. [110:2] Paul had been taught the trade of a tent-maker, or manufacturer of awnings of hair-cloth -- articles much used in the East as a protection against the rays of the sun, by travellers and mariners; It was in connexion with this occupation that lie became acquainted with Aquila and Priscilla. |Because he was of the same craft, he abode with them, and wrought.| [110:3] The Jew and his wife had probably a large manufactory, and thus they could furnish the apostle with remunerative employment. Whilst under their roof, he did not neglect the opportunities he enjoyed of presenting the gospel to their attention, and both soon became his ardent and energetic coadjutors in missionary service.

The conduct of Paul in working with his own hands, whilst engaged in the dissemination of the gospel, is a noble example of Christian self-denial. He could, it appears, expect little assistance from the mother church of Antioch; and had he, in the first instance, demanded support from those to whom he now ministered, he would have exposed himself and his cause to the utmost suspicion. In a commercial city, such as Corinth, he would have been regarded by many as a mere adventurer who had resorted to a new species of speculation in the hope of obtaining a maintenance. His disinterested behaviour placed him at once beyond the reach of this imputation; and his intense love to Christ prepared him to make the sacrifice, which the course he thus adopted, required. And what a proof of the humility of Paul that he cheerfully laboured for his daily bread at the trade of a tent-maker! The Rabbi who was once admired for his genius and his learning by the most distinguished of his countrymen -- who had once sat among the members of the great Sanhedrim -- and who might have legitimately aspired to be the son-in-law of the High Priest of Israel [111:1] -- was now content to toil |night and day| at a menial occupation sitting among the workmen of Aquila and Priscilla! How like to Him, who, though He was rich, yet, for our sakes, became poor, that we, through His poverty, might be rich!

Paul was well aware of the importance of Corinth as a centre of missionary influence. Strangers from the East passed through it on their way to Rome, and travellers from the Western metropolis stopped here on their way to Asia Minor, Palestine, or Syria, so that it was one of the greatest thoroughfares in the Empire; and, as a commercial mart, it was second to very few cities in the world. The apostle therefore saw that if a Church could be firmly planted in this busy capital, it could scatter the seeds of truth to all the ends of the earth. We may thus understand why he remained in Corinth so much longer than in any other place he had yet visited since his departure from Antioch. |He continued there a year and six months teaching the Word of God among them.| [111:2] He was, too, encouraged by a special communication from Heaven to prosecute his labours with zeal and diligence. |The Lord spake to Paul in the night by a vision -- Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace -- for I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee, for I have much people in this city.| [112:1] Though the ministry of the apostle was now attended with such remarkable success, his converts did not all continue to walk worthy of their profession. But if in the Church of this flourishing mercantile metropolis there were greater disorders than in perhaps any other of the early Christian communities, [112:2] the explanation is obvious. Even in a degenerate age Corinth was notorious for its profligacy; and it would have been indeed marvellous if excesses had not been occasionally committed by some of the members of a religious society composed, to a considerable extent, of reclaimed libertines. [112:3]

The success of the gospel in Corinth roused the unbelieving Jews to opposition; and here, as elsewhere, they endeavoured to avail themselves of the aid of the civil power; but, in this instance, their appeal to the Roman magistrate was signally unsuccessful. Gallio, brother of the celebrated Seneca the philosopher, was now |the deputy of Achaia;| [112:4] and when the bigoted and incensed Israelites |made insurrection with one accord against Paul, and brought him to the judgment-seat, saying -- This fellow persuaded men to worship God contrary to the law,| [112:5] the proconsul turned a deaf ear to the accusation. When the apostle was about to enter on his defence, Gallio intimated that such a proceeding was quite unnecessary, as the affair did not come within the range of his jurisdiction. |If,| said he, |it were a matter of wrong, or wicked lewdness, O ye Jews, reason would that I should bear with you; but if it be a question of words and names and of your law, look ye to it, for I will be no judge of such matters. And he drive them from the judgment-seat.| [113:1] On this occasion, for the first time since the arrival of Paul and his brethren in Europe, the mob was on the side of the missionaries, and under the very eye of the proconsul, and without any effort on his part to interfere and arrest their violence, the most prominent of the plaintiffs was somewhat roughly handled. |Then all the Greeks took Smoothens, the chief ruler of the synagogue, and beat him before the judgment-seat. And Gallio cared for none of these things.| [113:2]

When Paul was at Corinth, and probably in A.D.53, he wrote his two earliest letters, that is, the First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians. These communications must, therefore, have been drawn up about twelve months after the original formation of the religious community to which they are addressed. The Thessalonian Church was already fully organised, as the apostle here points out to the disciples their duties to those who laboured among them and who were over them in the Lord. [113:3] In the meantime several errors had gained currency; and a letter, announcing that the day of Christ was at hand, and purporting to have been penned by Paul himself, had thrown the brethren into great consternation. [113:4] The apostle accordingly deemed it necessary to interpose, and to point out the dangerous character of the doctrines which had been so industriously promulgated. He now, too, delivered his famous prophecy announcing the revelation of the |Man of Sin| before the second coming of the Redeemer. [113:5] Almost all the members of the Thessalonian Church were probably converted Gentiles, [113:6] who must still have been but little acquainted with the Jewish Scriptures; and this is perhaps the reason why there is no quotation from the Old Testament in either of these letters. Even the Gospels do not seem to have been yet written, and hence Paul exhorts the brethren |to hold fast the traditions,| or rather |ordinances,| [114:1] which they had been taught, |whether by word or his epistle.| [114:2]

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