THE promise of the Holy Ghost, which our Saviour made to the disciples at his last interview with them, was well fitted to reconcile their minds to his departure, and to encourage them in the view of the various and difficult duties of the Apostolical office. There was but a short interval between his ascension and the performance of the promise; an event of great importance in the history of the Church, and of which the passage now read gives an account.
The first point which requires our notice, is the time when "the promise of the Father," as it is termed, was performed. We are told in the first verse, that it was when "the day of Pentecost was fully come." -- Pentecost is a Greek word signifying the fiftieth day, and is the name of that grand festival which the Israelites were commanded to celebrate fifty days after the passover, in commemoration of the giving of the law. God having delivered his people from Egypt, led them through the Red Sea into the wilderness, where they were conducted, by easy marches, to the spot which he had chosen for displaying the tokens of his Majesty. There he descended on the top of Sinai, a rugged and barren mountain; and from the midst of darkness and devouring fire, proclaimed his law with a voice which filled with terror the immense multitude assembled at its base. At the same time, he enjoined, by the ministry of Moses, that system of ordinances and statutes, which was the foundation of the civil and ecclesiastical polity of the Jews. That a law, published with such solemnity by God himself, should not pass away like the transient institutions of men, but should remain through all ages as a monument of the divine goodness to their nation, and as the rule of their worship and obedience, was an idea natural enough to men, who could not, as an Apostle observes, "steadfastly look to the end of it;" or were ignorant of its typical design. But it was destined to give place to a new and better dispensation. Aaron and his sons were to retire from the altar, when a priest of another order should appear, and by a more excellent sacrifice than that of rams and bullocks, make a true atonement for the sins of the people. That priest had now come, and by the oblation of himself, "had perfected for ever them that are sanctified." The veil had been rent from the top to the bottom; and the glory had departed from the temple of Jerusalem. A law was to go forth from Zion, by which the law from Sinai should be superseded; the pompous ritual of Moses was to be succeeded by a system of worship, simple and spiritual. It was with a design to signify this change, that Pentecost was chosen for the effusion of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles of Christ. On the anniversary of the promulgation of the ancient law, they were enabled to publish the good news of the reign of the Messiah, not to the inhabitants of Jerusalem alone, but, in their own language, "to men of every nation under heaven." And, surely, to every reflecting mind it is evident, that the interposition of God himself, in a miraculous manner, to qualify the Apostles, at this particular time, to preach a new religion, was an unequivocal declaration, that the old religion, having served its purpose, was to be no longer obligatory. Thus Pentecost was again rendered illustrious as the commencement of a new era. Besides the reason now given for the choice of this day, we may conceive Divine Wisdom to have pitched upon it, with a view to the opportunity which it afforded, of speedily conveying tidings of salvation to many distant parts of the earth, by means of the strangers who were assembled at the feast.
Our attention is next called to the subjects of this miracle, or the persons upon whom the Holy Ghost descended. "They were all with one accord in one place." Some suppose, that the historian refers to the hundred and twenty disciples mentioned in the fifteenth verse of the preceding chapter, among whom there were several women; and they add, that if the women be included, the prophecy of Joel, afterwards quoted, was literally fulfilled. "Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy: -- and on my servants, and on my handmaidens, I will pour out in those days of my Spirit." Others maintain, that the reference goes no farther back than the last verse of the first chapter, in which mention is made of Matthias and the eleven Apostles; and they consider the fourteenth verse of this chapter, which informs us that Peter stood up with the eleven as supporting this opinion. It seems; indeed, to be more probable than the other, because it was not to all the disciples, but to the Apostles, that Christ made the promise which was now performed; and because the gift of tongues, being intended as a qualification for preaching the gospel, there is no ground to imagine that it was bestowed upon women, to whom that office was never assigned by any but some wild enthusiast.
Let us now consider the account of the miracle. In the first place, we must take notice of the symbols, or external signs of it, which were two; the one addressed to the eye, and the other to the ear. We read, in the second verse, that "suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting." It is remarkable, that in the two languages in which the Scriptures are written, as well as in some others, the word which signifies spirit, signifies also breath or wind. For the use of the same term to denote two ideas so distinct, different reasons may be assigned. Perhaps the men who spoke those languages in remote ages, were so gross and ignorant as to form no conception of an immaterial soul, or of any living principle in man besides the air which he breathes; or from the penury of language which compels us to apply words expressive of sensible objects to intellectual and spiritual things, they gave the same name to the soul, and to the breath or air, because it is by the air that human life is sustained. Be this as it may, we are authorised to consider air in motion as a sort of emblem of the Holy Spirit and his operations. When speaking on this subject to Nicodemus, our Lord used the following comparison. "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit." At a meeting with his disciples after his resurrection,:" he breathed on them, and said unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost." To the Apostles therefore, a wind from heaven was a significant sign; a sign which must have immediately suggested the idea of the spirit and his influences, and have led them to expect that now the promise of their Saviour should be performed.
It may be thought, that a gentle breeze would have been a more proper emblem of the Holy Ghost than a loud and violent wind; that it would have accorded better with the purpose of his descent and with the mild and gracious nature of the new dispensation. But this fancy will be dismissed as soon as we reflect, that his coming was to be productive of the most astonishing effects, in endowing the minds of the Apostles with extraordinary powers, and in bearing down the opposition made to the truth, by ignorance and prejudice, by the wisdom of philosophers, and the policy of statesmen; and that nothing could more aptly represent the energy by which these effects should be produced, than "a rushing mighty wind." At the same time, the noise served to collect together the people to witness the miracle. It was confined to a particular spot, and filled the house in which the Apostles were assembled.
The other sign which accompanied this miracle is described in the third verse. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues, like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. When John announced the approach of the Messiah, he said to the people, "He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire;" by which we are not to understand some thing distinct from the Holy Ghost, but his influences, which are represented under the metaphor of fire, on account of the resemblance between the properties of the one and of the other. Fire, then, was an emblem equally significant as wind, which must have likewise recalled to the minds of the Apostles the promise of their Lord. The fire appeared in the form of tongues, cloven, or divided at top; and a flame of this figure rested upon the head of each of the Apostles. The shape of the flame was emblematical of the nature of the miracle, which consisted in enabling them to speak "with other tongues," or to speak languages which they had never learned; and the division of the flame pointed out the variety of those languages. But why, it may be asked, were the tongues of fire? To intimate, I answer, that in the languages which the Apostles were now enabled to speak, they should communicate to the world that heavenly doctrine, which, like fire, both illuminates and purifies; or rather to signify, that their tongues, touched as with a live-coal from the altar, should utter strains of glowing eloquence, not fashioned, it might be, according to the rules observed by the orators of Greece and Rome, but capable of producing far nobler effects; eloquence, which would terrify the boldest, and alarm the most careless sinner; which would humble the proud, comfort the dejected, inspire the timid with invincible courage, and, with an energy unknown to philosophy, kindle the living fire of devotion in the coldest and most unfeeling heart.
After this account of the signs, we proceed to inquire into the nature, of the miracle. "And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance." The general effect is manifest, namely, the communication of the knowledge of languages, with which the Apostles were formerly unacquainted; but it does not appear, whether the same languages were imparted to them all, or to one was given the knowledge of some, and to another, the knowledge of others. The Holy Ghost could " divide to every one of them severally as he pleased;" but as they were all destined to preach to different nations, there can be no doubt that they were all furnished with a diversity of tongues.
Language is composed of articulate sounds, which, when uttered by the mouth, or represented by characters or letters, signify certain ideas. The connexion between the sounds and the things which they signify is arbitrary, not founded in nature, but in convention; and, consequently, a sound can convey no information to the hearer till he have learned its meaning. Hence the acquisition of a foreign language requires close application and frequent practice. Much time must be spent, before a person can be acquainted with the signification of the great variety of sounds which are used in any country, and be able to understand them as soon as they are pronounced. It is still more difficult to attain the power of speaking a foreign language fluently and accurately; or to become so familiar with its words, as instantly to call them up, to express the ideas, which arise in the mind. What increases the difficulty is, that, in all languages, the same word has sometimes a variety of meanings, so that, if it be not skilfully used, it may suggest a sense very different from that which it was our intention to express; and that there is a mode peculiar to every language of combining and arranging its words, without observing which, a stranger shall speak unintelligibly to the natives. Those who have engaged in the study of languages can attest, that it is an arduous task, when one aims at a thorough acquaintance with them; and although, after much labour, some may be able to understand, with considerable ease, a book written in a foreign tongue, yet there is not one in twenty who is capable of carrying on conversation in it with facility. It may be added, that the sounds of a foreign language are, in some instances, so different from those to which we have been accustomed, that we feel ourselves at a loss to pronounce them; and that, unless we begin to learn in an early period of life, when our organs are flexible, we can hardly ever speak in such a manner as to please the ear of a native.
These remarks are intended to show you the astonishing nature of the miracle which was performed on the day of Pentecost. The Apostles were illiterate men, who understood no language but that of their own country, and could speak it only according to the rude dialect of Galilee. They had never thought of learning the languages of foreigners; and it is probable, that even the names of some of the nations, mentioned in the following verses, had not reached their ears. Yet, in a moment were those men inspired with the knowledge of an immense number of words, which they had never heard before, and with the knowledge not only of the words, but of the connected ideas, and of the structure, the arrangement, and the peculiar phrases of the languages to which they belonged. At the same time, their organs were rendered capable of adapting themselves to sounds different from each other, as well as from those to which they had been familiarized from their infancy, Notwithstanding this diversity, there was not the smallest confusion in their minds, nor were they in danger of mixing the words of different languages together; but they spoke each as distinctly, as if they had been acquainted with it alone.
It may be safely affirmed, that there is not a more remarkable miracle recorded in the New Testament. It will not, however, appear incredible to any person, who considers, on the one hand, that the cause was adequate to the effect, for it was produced by that Being who made the tongue of man, and was the original Author of language; and, on the other, that it was necessary to qualify the Apostles for executing their commission to preach the gospel to every creature. Without the gift of tongues their ministrations must have been confined to their own countrymen; for it is not probable, that at their time of life, and with their habits, they could have acquired, by ordinary means, a single foreign language so perfectly, as to be able to deliver a discourse in it upon the subject of religion. We have been informed, by the missionaries in Otaheite, that after a residence of several years among the natives, in a situation the most advantageous of all for learning a language, they have not yet ventured to preach or pray publicly in the language of the country.
In the following verses, the historian relates the impression which the miracle made upon the multitude. "And there were dwelling at Jerusalem, Jews, devout men; out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed, and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galileans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God." It is probable, that the sound of the "rushing mighty wind" alarmed the persons in the neighbourhood, and drew them to the place from which it proceeded; and the report having spread through the city, a great number of spectators was speedily assembled. The Apostles immediately began to exercise the gift of tongues, as they observed in the crowd strangers from very different parts of the earth. These had now come to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, or, as the original term may import, had taken up their residence there, in the expectation, as some think, of the appearance of the Messiah. After the Babylonian captivity, many of the Jews remained in the countries in which they had sojourned during its continuance; and by subsequent revolutions they were dispersed over all the East, and through almost every province of the Roman empire. Hence, although they retained their religion and their peculiar manners, they unavoidably adopted the language of the natives. Together with the Jews of the dispersion, there were present also, on this occasion, several persons of heathen extraction, who, being convinced of the unity of God, and of the divine authority of the law of Moses, had received the seal of circumcision, and were incorporated with the peculiar people. These were the proselytes mentioned in the end of the tenth verse.
How great must have been the astonishment of this mixed multitude, to hear themselves unexpectedly addressed in the languages of the countries from which they respectively came: The assembly was composed of strangers from at least fourteen different nations; and every man heard the Apostles speak in his own tongue. The speakers, they perceived, were Galileans, common men, from a part of the country reputed the most unpolished and illiterate. The sacred historian uses three words to describe the state of their minds. They were "confounded;" they were "amazed;" and they "marvelled." At first they were so affected by the extraordinary nature of the event, that they could only gaze with silent wonder; but afterwards they gave vent to their feelings in words; and they began to inquire into the meaning of the miracle. "They were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this?" It was manifest that the hand of God was in the event, and that there must be some end worthy of so unusual an interposition. What that end was, they were at a loss to conceive; but perhaps some suspicion, some confused apprehension of it arose in their minds. They heard the Apostles speaking "the wonderful works of God;" proclaiming the incarnation, the doctrine, the death, the resurrection, and the ascension of the Lord Jesus. Comparing this account with the miracle, of which they were now witnesses, they began to doubt, whether he might not be the Messiah, and this extraordinary scene might not be a preliminary step to the establishment of his kingdom. In this perplexity they were desirous to know the real design of the miracle.
But a part of the audience did not discover so favourable a disposition. They attempted to turn the affair into ridicule, and imputed to intoxication what was manifestly the effect of supernatural influence. "Others mocking, said, These men are full of new wine." Some commentators suppose these mockers to have been inhabitants of Jerusalem, who understood no foreign language, and represent them as acting from ignorance rather than from malice. But the testimony of the strangers was sufficient to have convinced: such persons, that there was a real miracle in the case; and it might have been easily known, that the Apostles were sober, from the gravity of their appearance and gestures. The true reason of this calumnious charge is to be found in their opposition to Christ and his religion, which they heard his ministers proclaiming; for it appears from the ninth verse, that besides the languages of foreigners they spoke likewise that of Judea. As the Pharisees, when they saw the miracles of Jesus, malignantly ascribed them to the assistance of Satan; so these men sought to evade this proof of his resurrection and ascension, by pronouncing all that passed to be the effect of intemperance. The evidence in favour of the gospel may be sufficient to convince the understandings of some men, whose hatred to it is so great, that they will neither acknowledge its divine authority, nor abstain from impertinent cavils against it. Infidels sometimes tell us, that it is vain to appeal to the miracles of the New Testament, of which we have no knowledge but by questionable testimony; and that miracles should be wrought in every age, to give men an opportunity of seeing and examining them. But there is no reason to expect, that if this demand should be complied with, their hostility to our religion would cease. The infidels in the first ages of Christianity, are a specimen of the unbelievers of our times. With the most splendid proofs of divine interposition before their eyes, the former continued to contradict and blaspheme; and what ground have we to think that the latter would be more ready to yield? Their opposition proceeds, not from want of evidence, but from want of candour; a temper of mind upon which arguments and demonstration are thrown away. A mind full of prejudice, a heart attached to the world and its pleasures, will always find something to object to a religion which teaches the purest morality, and requires, from those who embrace it, the sacrifice of their corrupt propensities, and unhallowed gratifications.
I shall close this discourse with the following reflections.
Let us, sinners of the Gentiles, consider our interest in this miraculous dispensation, and the obligations which we are under to be thankful for it. It was preparatory to the accomplishment of the gracious designs of heaven towards the nations of the world; who were perishing without a vision, but to whom the salvation of God was now to be revealed. When the law was published from Sinai, it was delivered to the Israelites in their own language, because they were alone to enjoy the benefit of it; but the new law from Sion was promulgated in a diversity of languages, to signify that it was intended to be universal. "Every man was now to hear in his own tongue, the wonderful works of God." "Let us sing a new song to the Lord, because he hath done marvellous things. The Lord hath made known his salvation: his righteousness hath he openly showed in the sight of the heathen."
The event, recorded in this passage, leads us to reflect upon the means by which the Christian religion was established in the earth. "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord." The first missionaries were destitute of all natural qualifications for their arduous work; and the world was adverse to the reception of the faith. But the same Spirit, who endowed them with supernatural gifts, subdued, by his secret influence, the prejudices, and purified the hearts, of their hearers. The obstacle to the propagation of the gospel, arising from a diversity of languages, was removed when there rested upon each of the Apostles "cloven tongues, like as of fire;" but there remained other obstacles, of a moral nature, more formidable, which it was still less in the power of human means to surmount. Had the Holy Ghost operated only in a supernatural manner upon the minds of the Apostles, and by miraculous works, the new religion would not have made its way in the earth, opposed as it was by superstition, by philosophy, by the power of the state, and by all the corrupt passions of the soul. But the gospel was the ministration of the Spirit, in his graces as well as in his gifts, in his regeneration as well as in his miraculous virtue. Hence it was "mighty through God to pull down strong holds, and to bring every thought into captivity to Christ."
Lastly, "If the word spoken by angels was steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward; how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will?" These words are full of alarm to open infidels and to secret unbelievers. To the former they announce the certainty, and the dreadful nature of the punishment which awaits them, if they persist in rejecting and vilifying a religion, stamped with such characters of truth. Your sneers and cavils cannot make that false which is true; and if the gospel is true, as we know it to be, and the best and most enlightened men, in all ages, have believed, think for a moment what will be your doom! If the gospel is true, so are its threatenings; and they are awful beyond conception. To the other class of persons, who are secret unbelievers, but call themselves disciples of Jesus, the words of the Apostle suggest matter of serious consideration. You profess to give credit to the gospel, but you do not cordially assent to its doctrines, nor embrace its promises, nor submit to its authority, nor cultivate that holiness of heart and life which it enjoins. Shall a salvation, in its nature so desirable, in the means of its accomplishment so wonderful, be safely despised? Shall the Son of God be rejected with impunity? Shall men trample upon his blood, and refuse the testimony of his Spirit, and yet run no hazard? Is it nothing to call the God of truth a liar? nothing to disregard the wonders of his grace and power? Of all sins, unbelief is the greatest; and persistence in it will terminate in unavoidable and irretrievable ruin. Be persuaded to reflect seriously upon your guilt and danger, and to seek from God the influences of his Holy Spirit, to enlighten your minds and regenerate your hearts, that receiving the Lord Jesus Christ, and "setting to your seal that God is true," you may now obtain an interest in the "great salvation," and may be admitted to the full enjoyment of it in the world to come.