WE are prompted by curiosity to inquire into the origin of nations, to trace their progress from rudeness to refinement, and to mark the steps by which they rose to eminence in power, in wealth, and in knowledge. To these subjects the researches of profane history are directed; and while its pages communicate instruction and entertainment to every reader, they particularly engage the attention of the statesman, who derives from them a more extensive acquaintance with mankind, and is enabled to add to his experience the accumulated wisdom of ages.
To a Christian the history of the Church must appear more worthy of notice than the revolutions of empire. A society, towards which Providence has, in all ages, exercised a particular care, presents an interesting object of inquiry; and must exhibit, in the detail of events, admirable proofs of the power, and wisdom, and goodness of God. Its history is the history of religion; of the accomplishment of a long series of prophecies; of the execution of a scheme, to which all the other parts of the divine administration are subservient.
The early periods of the history of nations are generally enveloped in fable; and although the truth could be discovered through the veil which conceals it, would, for the most part, present little that is worthy to be known. The human race may be considered as then in a state of infancy. Their ideas are few and gross, their manners are barbarous, and their knowledge of arts is confined to some simple operations performed without elegance or skill. The history of the first age of the Christian Church is more instructive and engaging than that of any subsequent period. It is splendid, because it is miraculous; it is edifying, as it records many noble examples of faith, charity, patience, and zeal; it arrests the attention and touches the heart, by displaying the triumph of the gospel over the combined malice and wisdom of the world.
As a record of the Acts, or proceedings of the Apostles, in collecting and modelling the Church, this book forms a valuable portion of Scripture. It contains information upon subjects of great importance; the miraculous manner in which those simple and unlettered men were qualified for their arduous work; the means by which the Church was founded, and rose to a holy temple in the Lord; the rapidity with which the gospel was propagated; the opposition which was made to it by Jews and Gentiles; and the causes to which its unexampled success should be ascribed. The narrative is written in a plain and artless manner; and our pleasure in perusing it suffers no abatement from the suspicion of misinformation, or partiality in the writer.
The historian, as we learn from the introductory verses, was the same person who published the Gospel, which, from the earliest ages, has been uniformly attributed to Luke. He was alive during the events which he records, was an eye-witness of many of them, and inquired, we may believe, into the rest, with the same diligence which he used in compiling his Gospel. Although he was not one of the Apostles, yet he lived in habits of intimate correspondence with them; and the Church has, from the beginning, received his writings as of equal authority with theirs.
I propose to deliver a course of Lectures on some passages of this book, selecting such as relate the more remarkable events in the history of the primitive Church. Of those passages it is not my intention to give a minute explanation, but to illustrate the principal topics, and to deduce such instructions as they seem to suggest. Conformably to this plan, I shall at this time confine your attention to three points, to which the verses now read have a reference; the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead; his last interview with his disciples; and his ascension to heaven.
I. The first point which claims our notice in this passage, is the resurrection of our Saviour, of which Luke makes mention in the third verse. "To whom also," that is, to the Apostles whom he had chosen, "he showed himself alive after his passion, by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days." The resurrection of Christ is an article of great importance in our religion, the foundation upon which its other doctrines rest, and by which the faith and hope of his followers are sustained. "If Christ be not risen," says Paul, "then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God, that he raised up Christ; whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not. For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised. And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which have fallen asleep in Christ are perished." Such evidence, as should leave no doubt in the cautious and inquisitive mind, was necessary to establish a fact upon which so much depended. Luke affirms, that Jesus showed himself alive to his disciples, "after his passion," that is, after his sufferings and death, by many "infallible proofs." The word signifies signs, tokens, or evidences, which were so numerous and decisive, that it was impossible for those who saw them to be mistaken. He refers to the frequent appearance of Christ, of which not less than eight are recorded by the Evangelists, besides many more which may have taken place during the forty days between his resurrection and ascension; and to the methods which he used to convince the disciples, by calling upon them "to handle him and see, that a spirit had not flesh and bones as he had," and by eating, drinking, and conversing with them in a familiar manner.
It is vain to insinuate, that the Apostles might be imposed upon by the power of imagination, which the eagerness of their wishes and expectations had excited, and might thus fancy that they saw what had no real existence. It does not appear that they actually expected the resurrection of their Master; but, on the contrary, there is reason to think, that they had almost given over all hope of that event. When the women, who had been at the sepulchre, told them of it, their words seemed as "idle tales;" and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus may be supposed to have expressed the sentiments and feelings of their brethren, when they said, "We trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel;" manifestly using the language of disappointment and despondency. In such a state of mind, there was no room for imagination to operate. It will be still more evident, that they were not under its influence, if we consider, that some of the appearances were made, not to a solitary individual, but to several of the disciples at once, in one instance to five hundred brethren, who could not all have been deluded at the same moment by a phantom of their own brain; that the appearances were not transient, but lasted for a considerable time, so that the spectators had full leisure to examine them; that some of them were sudden, or without warning, and others were the consequence of previous appointment; that they frequently took place, not in the night when the mind is more subject to illusion, but in the day when the disciples were composed, and all their senses were awake; and that the interviews were not distant and silent, but Jesus familiarly associated with the Apostles, and gave all the satisfaction which the most incredulous among them could demand. From these circumstances, there does not remain the slightest ground to suspect that the Apostles themselves were deceived; and the only question now to be determined is, whether they have deceived us.
Infidels object, that the Apostles, who were interested persons were the only witnesses of the resurrection, and that Jesus did not show himself to the Sanhedrim and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, as he ought to have done, that the reality of the event might be placed beyond dispute. They affirm, that on this account the whole narrative is suspicious. There is one important circumstance, which, perhaps, they willingly forget, that the enemies of Jesus were the first and immediate witnesses of the resurrection, that event having taken place, according to Matthew, in the presence of the Roman soldiers, not before the eyes of the disciples. Sufficient reasons have been assigned why he did not appear to the rulers and people of the Jews, which your time will not permit me fully to state. It may be remarked, that although this demand had been complied with, and our Lord had resorted after his resurrection to the temple, and walked in the streets of Jerusalem, it is by no means certain that the purpose which is pretended would have been gained. We have no ground to think, that the Jews, who would not believe the testimony of Moses and the Prophets, nor the evidence of our Saviour's miracles, would have believed, although they had seen him risen from the dead. But upon the supposition, that they had been convinced by this last and seemingly irresistible proof, the truth of his resurrection would have been as much perplexed as ever by the cavils of free-thinkers. We should have been told of the superstition and credulity of the Jews, and of their national pride, which disposed them fondly to embrace any story that seemed to realise their boasted hopes of the Messiah; and whereas now the testimony of the Apostles is corroborated by the trying and perilous circumstances in which they were placed, the whole would then have been represented as an imposture, concerted between them and their countrymen, and first promulgated where it was sure to be received, and no person had either inclination or power to detect it. I shall only farther observe, that if there be satisfactory proof that Christ did appear to the Apostles, we are bound to acquiesce in their solemn testimony; and that nothing can be more unreasonable than to demand more evidence than is sufficient, or to reject sufficient evidence, because it is not presented in that form which we prefer.
After this general observation, I may appeal to every unprejudiced person, whether there is any thing in the narrative of this transaction, in its general complexion, or its particular parts, which gives countenance to the suspicion of imposture; or rather, whether it does not bear unequivocal marks of simplicity, candour, and the sacred love of truth. Let it be farther considered, that the testimony of the Apostles was given in public, and before the persons who were above all concerned to detect a falsehood, and possessed the means of detecting it; that it was consistent and uniform, there not being a single instance of retractation or variation among the witnesses; that no motive can be assigned for their conduct if it was false, as in that case they could not expect to be believed, and the only prospect before them was that of persecution and death in this world, without the hope of a recompense in the next; that they did not require men to give credit to their simple testimony, but appealed, in confirmation of it, to miracles wrought, as they affirmed, by the power of him who had been raised from the dead; and, finally, that this testimony was believed by thousands of Jews and Gentiles, although their prejudices against it were the strongest imaginable. I challenge all the infidels in the world to produce a single fact, in the whole compass of history, supported by more decisive evidence.
I shall subjoin a remark upon the qualifications of the Apostles. What made those babblers so eloquent; those ignorant and illiterate men so profoundly skilled in the mysteries of redemption; those cowards so courageous, as to despise every danger, and maintain the truth amidst the most terrible sufferings? This change could not have been effected by their Master, if he was still lying in the grave; and it is, therefore, a proof that he had risen from it, and performed the promise which we shall immediately proceed to consider.
II. Our attention is next called to the interview, which took place between our Lord and his disciples prior to his ascension. It is mentioned in the sixth verse: "When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel." It seems to be the same meeting to which the historian refers in the fourth verse. "And being assembled together with them, he commanded them, that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye have heard of me." We are informed, that during the forty days which he spent upon earth after his resurrection, he spoke to his disciples of "the things pertaining to the kingdom of God;" explaining to them, as far as they were able to bear it, the nature of that dispensation which he was about to introduce. But still the old leaven of Jewish prejudices, and carnal ideas of the Messiah's reign, fermented in their minds. Although they had beheld his poverty and humility, and had seen him put to death in the most ignominious manner, they had not abandoned the fond and flattering thought, that he would assume the character of a temporal monarch, and establish the dominion of the chosen people over the tributary nations. Such were the notions with respect to the purpose of his mission and the nature of his kingdom, which their countrymen had adopted from the magnificent language of prophecy, describing his spiritual power and glory by metaphors and similitudes borrowed from the wealth and grandeur of earthly potentates. To the remaining influence of these notions upon their minds, after all his instructions, we must attribute the question which the disciples put to him, "Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?" Is the time now come, when thou wilt deliver thy people from the oppression of a foreign yoke, and give them the empire of the world?"
To this question Jesus did not return a direct answer, but one which implied a reproof of that vain curiosity which had led them to propose it. "It is not for you to know the times, and the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power." These words import, that the revolutions in the civil and religious state of the world were predetermined by God, as they are all brought to pass by his providence; that he only knows the order and series of events; and that, except in those instances in which he has revealed them to us in the word of prophecy, we should beware of attempting to discover his secrets, and to draw aside the veil which hangs over futurity. Let man remember the limited nature of his faculties, and the dependent condition of his mind. Let him be thankful for what he does know, and content to remain ignorant of what his Maker has been pleased to conceal.
This answer, being a rebuke to their unhallowed curiosity, was calculated to discourage the Apostles. That they might not be dejected, and no disagreeable impression might be left upon their minds, our Lord subjoined a promise, well fitted to comfort them. "But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you; and ye shall be witnesses unto me, both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth." In the fourth verse, "he commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father." What he teaches them, in both verses, to expect, is the Holy Ghost, in a more abundant measure of his influences than they had yet received, to qualify them for the duties of the Apostleship. They were appointed to be "witnesses" of Christ to the world; to bear public testimony to Jews and Gentiles, concerning his doctrine, his miracles, his death, and his resurrection. With this view, they had been admitted to attend him from the commencement of his ministry to the present moment; and had enjoyed frequent meetings, and intimate conversation with him, since his return from the grave. But now it was farther necessary, that they should be furnished with more profound knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom than they yet possessed, with higher capacity for reasoning, with a talent for public speaking, with the gift of tongues, with a power to work miracles for the confirmation of their testimony, with zeal, courage, meekness, prudence, and unwearied perseverance. Without these qualifications, they would have been unfit for the office which their Master had conferred upon them. This, then, is a promise of " power," of such vigour of mind, of such intellectual and spiritual endowments, as should fully prepare them for their various and difficult duties.
The promise, for which they were commanded to wait, our Saviour called "the promise of the Father," to inform his disciples, that it is the Father who sends the Holy Ghost, to give effect to the death of his Son in the conversion and sanctification of sinners; but chiefly, because his faithfulness was pledged for the mission of the Spirit in many passages of the Old Testament, particularly in he following words, which were fulfilled on the day of Pentecost: "And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions; and also upon the servants and upon the handmaids, in those days, will I pour out my Spirit."
From the mention of the promise of the Spirit, Jesus takes occasion to point out to the disciples the difference between his own administration and that of his forerunner. "For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence." The Baptist, although greater than the Prophets, could only sprinkle his disciples with water, to signify their purification from the guilt and defilement of sin; but Jesus was able to communicate the Spirit himself in his regenerating influences, and miraculous gifts. To apply the means of salvation is the province of the ministers of religion; but the wisest and holiest of them can contribute nothing to their efficacy. The source of spiritual life and power is the invisible Head of the Church, "from whom all the body, by joints and hands, having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God." The blessings of grace are entrusted to his disposal; and she gives or withholds them at his pleasure.
That our Saviour when he made this promise, claimed no power of which he was not possessed, the disciples were soon to be convinced by experience. They were commanded to wait at Jerusalem till the promise should be performed. Accordingly, we know that more than ten days did not elapse between this meeting and the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Ghost descended upon them.
The interview now described took place immediately before his ascension; and the historian proceeds to relate the event.
III. "And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight." Jesus had now fulfilled all the designs of his mission. He had declared the counsels of God to mankind; he had offered himself upon the cross as a sacrifice for sin; and having triumphed over death, he had given his disciples sufficient opportunity to assure themselves of the truth of the fact. "I have glorified thee on the earth; I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do." There was no reason therefore, why he should prolong his stay. It was necessary that the great High Priest of our profession, having made atonement for his people, should go into the most holy place, to present his blood and make intercession for them. It was necessary, that the Lord and King of the Church, having vanquished his enemies, after a hard and bloody conflict, should ascend his throne and receive the sceptre of universal dominion. He had forewarned the disciples of his departure, both before and after his death; and lest they should suppose, when they heard of his resurrection, that he meant to associate with them as formerly, he sent his message to them by Mary Magdalene: "I ascend unto my Father, and your Father, and to my God, and your God." Accordingly, "when he had spoken these things," given them all the instructions which they needed, or were able to bear, "he was taken up while they beheld, and a cloud received him out of their sight." It appears from these words, which represent him as passive in his ascension, that it was effected by the power of his Father, who had engaged to reward his humiliation, by exalting him to glory; that it was not sudden, but gradual, the disciples having full leisure to observe his ascent from the earth; and, lastly, that when he had risen to a certain height in the air, a cloud intervened, and concealed him from their sight. They had seen enough to qualify them to be witnesses of the fact.
This event, however honourable to their Lord, and joyful to themselves, had they understood its design, could not fail to affect the disciples in a disagreeable manner, in the first moments of surprise, and while they were not acquainted with the important purposes to be served by the ascension. To his personal presence they had conceived a warm attachment, founded in esteem of his excellencies, and experience of his friendship. From his lips they had heard discourses replenished with wisdom and grace; and by his hand they had seen works of the most wonderful and beneficent nature performed. He had been their counsellor in difficulties, and their comforter in sorrow. To be deprived in a moment of his company; to be left alone in the midst of numerous and implacable enemies; to have the prospect of labours, and sufferings, and death, without their Master at their head, without their condescending and affectionate Saviour to advise and encourage them; these were circumstances sufficient to have discomposed the firmest mind, and which would have almost excused the Apostles, had they given way to lamentation and dejection. We are informed that they "looked steadfastly towards heaven, as he went up," continuing to gaze long after the cloud had concealed him. It was a look of astonishment and grief for the sudden loss of all that was dear to them; it was a look of eager desire to be again gratified with a sight of their Master.
They did not, however, remain long in this uncomfortable state. "Behold two men stood by them in white apparel; which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come, in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven." There is no doubt that these men in appearance were angels; and the splendour of their dress was a sign by which they must have been immediately known to be heavenly messengers. They were a part of that illustrious retinue, which came from the celestial regions to attend our Lord in his ascension, and to heighten the glory of his triumph. Thousands, and ten thousands of angels accompanied him as he passed from earth to heaven, celebrating his praises. "The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of angels: the Lord is among them as in Sinai, in the holy place. Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive." To the sorrowful disciples, the words of the angels were full of comfort. They seem to suggest a resemblance between the ascension of Jesus and his second appearance, and in this way have been frequently explained. But I rather think, that nothing more is intended than to assert, that as certainly as he had ascended to heaven, he would descend from it, at the time appointed by his Father; and that the Apostles should entertain no more doubt of the one event than of the other. Between the ascension and his coming at the end of the world, there is no great similarity of circumstances, unless we should choose to say, that as he departed in a cloud, so with clouds he will return, and that as he was now accompanied by angels, so the same glorious spirits will be his attendants and ministers, when he appears in the character of universal Judge.
But the chief thing to which the angels called the attention of the disciples, and ours should be directed, is the certainty of his second coming; for this is an event, which, although an object of dreadful expectation to the unbelieving and impenitent, is fraught with hope and joy to those who love and obey the truth. The person who shall appear, will be "that same Jesus who was taken up into heaven," clothed with the same nature, sustaining the same relations to us, animated with the same love, and carrying on the same gracious design. Ten thousand tongues will hail him with accents of exultation and triumph. "Lo, this is our God, we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the Lord, we have waited for him, we will be glad, and rejoice in his salvation." Then shall the disciples be again gathered to their Master, and the sheep to their Shepherd. Oh! how joyful the meeting, so long promised, so eagerly expected? It will be the day of the gladness of his heart, to behold around him those for whom he died upon the cross, and has ever since ministered in heaven: it will be a source of ineffable felicity to them, to see him whose glory was the subject of their contemplations in this world, to be taken under his immediate care, to be admitted to the most intimate fellowship with him, and to know that no event shall ever separate them again.
Such was the comfortable prospect which the words of the angels gave to the disciples; and we need not wonder, that their fears and sorrows were dispelled, and that, as we are informed in another place, "they returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God."
I conclude with the following reflections upon the passage.
First, We follow no cunningly devised fable, when we receive the gospel as an authentic record of the character and doctrine of Jesus Christ. It is confirmed by "infallible proofs," by ample and luminous evidence, which is sufficient to convince every ingenuous mind, every man who examines it with a candid, dispassionate temper. You may be assured, my brethren, that it is not for want of evidence that the gospel is in any instance rejected. Difficulties, indeed, there may be, which are apt to perplex ill-informed and superficial observers; but the chief objection to it, an objection level to the comprehension of every depraved heart, is its holiness. "Men hate the light, because their deeds are evil." This will appear to be no false charge, if you consider, that there is scarcely any thing that infidels believe, for which they have half the evidence that can be produced in favour of the truth of Christianity. It is not, therefore, to reason that their unbelief should be attributed, but to some other cause; a corrupt taste, an impatience of restraint, a wish to live without any law to control them, or any fear to disturb them in their pleasure.
In the second place, Christians may place unbounded confidence in their Redeemer, who having conquered their enemies, and triumphed over death and the grave, has ascended, in the most glorious manner, to heaven, where he sways the sceptre of universal government, and bearing his people, and all their interests upon his heart, makes continual intercession for them in the presence of his Father. Why should you be afraid to draw near to the throne of God, and to present your supplications? Is not the merit of our great High Priest sufficient to counterbalance your demerit? And shall not the efficacy of his prayers ensure the acceptance and success of yours, notwithstanding the imperfection which adheres to your best duties? Why should you be discouraged by adverse dispensations of providence, by the power and threatenings of your adversaries, by the afflictions of the Church, by the uproar and confusion of the nations? Is not he who reigns the friend and patron of the righteous, under whose protection they are safe, and by whose almighty agency, and unerring wisdom, the perplexities and turmoils of the present scene shall issue in perfect order and eternal felicity?
Lastly, The attention and the hope of Christians are now directed to the second appearance of their Saviour. The ancient Church looked for his coming in the flesh; we, according to his promise, look for his coming in glory. "Lift up your heads with joy, believers; for the day of your redemption draweth nigh." To them alone who are waiting for him, will he appear for salvation; but there is not an eye which shall not see him in the clouds, nor a knee which shall not bow before him. How alarming will be the sight, how mortifying the homage, to infidels and blasphemers of his gospel, to the enemies of his grace, to the despisers of his institutions, to the transgressors of his laws? Professed disciples of the Son of Man, are you prepared to go forth and meet him? To what class of mankind do you belong? to that which, standing on his right hand, shall be invited to enter into his kingdom? or to that which, being ranged on the left, shall be condemned to darkness and everlasting woe? Ask your consciences the important question; and that it may be satisfactorily answered, call in the assistance of the infallible word, by which we shall be finally judged. "Behold he cometh with clouds, and every eye shall see him." Happy are they who can say, with holy and earnest desire, "Even so, come Lord Jesus."