When our Lord bowed His head on the cross and "gave up the ghost," the work of atonement was completed. The ceremonial law virtually expired when He explained, by His death, its awful significance; and the crisis of His passion was the birthday of the Christian economy. At this date the history of the New Testament Church properly commences.
After His resurrection Jesus remained forty days on earth, [51:1] and, during this interval, He often took occasion to point out to His disciples the meaning of His wonderful career. He is represented as saying to them -- "Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem." [51:2] The inspired narratives of the teaching and miracles of our Lord are emphatically corroborated by the fact, that a large Christian Church was established, almost immediately after His decease, in the metropolis of Palestine. The Sanhedrim and the Roman governor had concurred in His condemnation; and, on the night of His trial, even the intrepid Peter had been so intimidated that he had been tempted to curse and to swear as he averred that he knew not "The Man." It might have been expected that the death of Jesus would have been followed by a reign of terror, and that no attempt would have been made, at least in the place where the civil and ecclesiastical authorities resided, to assert the Divine mission of Him whom they had crucified as a malefactor. But perfect love casteth out fear. In the very city where He had suffered, and a few days after His passion, His disciples ventured in the most public manner to declare His innocence and to proclaim Him as the Messiah. The result of their appeal is as wonderful as its boldness. Though the imminent peril of confessing Christ was well known, such was the strength of their convictions that multitudes resolved, at all hazards, to enrol themselves among His followers. The success which accompanied the preaching of the apostolic missionaries at the feast of Pentecost was a sign and a pledge of their future triumphs, for "the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls." [52:1]
The disinterested behaviour of the converts betokened their intense earnestness. "All that believed were together and had all things common, and sold their possessions and goods and parted them to all men, as every man had need." [52:2] These early disciples were not, indeed, required, as a term of communion, to deposit their property in a common stock-purse; but, in the overflowings of their first love, they spontaneously adopted the arrangement. On the part of the more opulent members of the community residing in a place which was the stronghold of Jewish prejudice and influence, this course was, perhaps, as prudent as it was generous. By joining a proscribed sect they put their lives, as well as their wealth, into jeopardy; but, by the sale of their effects, they displayed a spirit of self-sacrifice which must have astonished and confounded their adversaries. They thus anticipated all attempts at spoliation, and gave a proof of their readiness to submit to any suffering for the cause which they had espoused. An inheritance, when turned into money, could not be easily sequestered; and those who were in want could obtain assistance out of the secreted treasure. Still, even at this period, the principle of a community of goods was not carried out into universal operation; for the foreign Jews who were now converted to the faith, and who were "possessors of lands or houses" [53:1] in distant countries, could neither have found purchasers, nor negotiated transfers, in the holy city. The first sales must obviously have been confined to those members of the Church who were owners of property in Jerusalem and its neighbourhood.
The system of having all things common was suggested in a crisis of apparently extreme peril, so that it was only a temporary expedient; and it is evident that it was soon given up altogether, as unsuited to the ordinary circumstances of the Christian Church. But though, in a short time, the disciples in general were left to depend on their own resources, the community continued to provide a fund for the help of the infirm and the destitute. At an early period complaints were made respecting the distribution of this charity, and we are told that "there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration." [53:2] The Grecians, or those converts from Judaism who used the Greek language, were generally of foreign birth; and as the Hebrews, or the brethren who spoke the vernacular tongue of Palestine, were natives of the country, there were, perhaps, suspicions that local influence secured for their poor an undue share of the public bounty. The expedient employed for the removal of this "root of bitterness" seems to have been completely successful. "The twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business." [54:1]
Had the apostles been anxious for power they would themselves have nominated the deacons. They might have urged, too, a very plausible apology for here venturing upon an exercise of patronage. They might have pleaded that the disciples were dissatisfied with each other -- that the excitement of a popular election was fitted to increase this feeling of alienation -- and that, under such circumstances, prudence required them to take upon themselves the responsibility of the appointment. But they were guided by a higher wisdom; and their conduct is a model for the imitation of ecclesiastical rulers in all succeeding generations. It was the will of the Great Lawgiver that His Church should possess a free constitution; and accordingly, at the very outset, its members were intrusted with the privilege of self-government. The community had already been invited to choose an apostle in the room of Judas, [54:2] and they were now required to name office-bearers for the management of their money transactions. But, whilst the Twelve, on this occasion, appealed to the suffrages of the Brotherhood, they reserved to themselves the right of confirming the election; and they might, by withholding ordination, have refused to fiat an improper appointment. Happily no such difficulty occurred. In compliance with the instructions addressed to them, the multitude chose seven of their number "whom they set before the apostles, and, when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them." [54:3]
Prior to the election of the deacons, Peter and John had been incarcerated. The Sanhedrim wished to extort from them a pledge that they would "not speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus," [55:1] but the prisoners nobly refused to consent to any such compromise. They "answered and said unto them -- Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye." [55:2] The apostles here disclaimed the doctrine of passive obedience, and asserted principles which lie at the foundation of the true theory of religious freedom. They maintained that "God alone is Lord of the conscience" -- that His command overrides all human regulations -- and that, no matter what may be the penalties which earthly rulers may annex to the breach of the enactments of their statute-book, the Christian is not bound to obey, when the civil law would compel him to violate his enlightened convictions. But the Sanhedrim obviously despised such considerations. For a time they were obliged to remain quiescent, as public feeling ran strongly in favour of the new preachers; but, soon after the election of the deacons, they resumed the work of persecution. The tide of popularity now began to turn; and Stephen, one of the Seven, particularly distinguished by his zeal, fell a victim to their intolerance.
The martyrdom of Stephen appears to have occurred about three years and a half after the death of our Lord. [55:3] Daniel had foretold that the Messiah would "confirm the covenant with many for one week" [55:4] -- an announcement which has been understood to indicate that, at the time of his manifestation, the gospel would be preached with much success among his countrymen for seven years -- and if the prophetic week commenced with the ministry of John the Baptist, it probably terminated with this bloody tragedy. [56:1] The Christian cause had hitherto prospered in Jerusalem, and there are good grounds for believing that, mean while, it had also made considerable progress throughout all Palestine; but, at this date, it is suddenly arrested in its career of advancement. The Jewish multitude begin to regard it with aversion; and the Roman governor discovers that he may, at any time, obtain the tribute of their applause by oppressing its ablest and most fearless advocates.
After His resurrection our Lord commanded the apostles to go and "teach all nations" [56:2] and yet years rolled away before they turned their thoughts towards the evangelisation of the Gentiles. The Jewish mind was slow to apprehend such an idea, for the posterity of Abraham had been long accustomed to regard themselves as the exclusive heirs of divine privileges; but the remarkable development of the kingdom of God gradually led them to entertain more enlarged and more liberal sentiments. The progress of the gospel in Samaria, immediately after the death of Stephen, demonstrated that the blessings of the new dispensation were not to be confined to God's ancient people. Though many of the Samaritans acknowledged the divine authority of the writings of Moses, they did not belong to the Church of Israel; and between them and the Jews a bitter antipathy had hitherto existed. When Philip appeared among them, and preached Jesus as the promised Messiah, they listened most attentively to his appeals, and not a few of them gladly received Christian baptism. [57:1] It could now no longer be said that the Jews had "no dealings with the Samaritans," [57:2] for the gospel gathered both into the fold of a common Saviour, and taught them to keep "the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."
When the disciples were scattered abroad by the persecution which arose after the martyrdom of Stephen, the apostles still kept their post in the Jewish capital; [57:3] for Christ had instructed them to begin their ministry in that place: [57:4] and they perhaps conceived that, until authorised by some further intimation, they were bound to remain at Jerusalem. But the conversion of the Samaritans must have reminded them that the sphere of their labours was more extensive. Our Lord had said to them -- "Ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth," [57:5] and events, which were now passing before their view, were continually throwing additional light upon the meaning of this announcement. The baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch, [57:6] about this period, was calculated to enlarge their ideas; and the baptism of Cornelius pointed out, still more distinctly, the wide range of their evangelical commission. The minuteness with which the case of the devout centurion is described is a proof of its importance as connected with this transition-stage in the history of the Church. He had before known nothing of Peter; and, when they met at Caesarea, each could testify that he had been prepared for the interview by a special revelation from heaven. [57:7] Cornelius was "a centurion of the band called the Italian band" [57:8] -- he was a representative of that military power which then ruled the world -- and, in his baptism, we see the Roman Empire presenting, on the altar of Christianity, the first-fruits of the Gentiles.
It was not, however, very obvious, from any of the cases already enumerated, that the salvation of Christ was designed for all classes and conditions of the human family. The Samaritans did not, indeed, worship at Jerusalem, but they claimed some interest in "the promises made unto the fathers;" and they conformed to many of the rites of Judaism. It does not appear that the Ethiopian eunuch was of the seed of Abraham; but he acknowledged the inspiration of the Old Testament, and he was disposed, at least to a certain extent, to observe its institutions. Even the Roman centurion was what has been called a proselyte of the gate, that is, he professed the Jewish theology -- "he feared God with all his house" [58:1] -- though he had not received circumcision, and had not been admitted into the congregation of Israel. But the time was approaching when the Church was to burst forth beyond the barriers within which it had been hitherto inclosed, and an individual now appeared upon the scene who was to be the leader of this new movement. He is "a citizen of no mean city" [58:2] -- a native of Tarsus in Cilicia, a place famous for its educational institutes [58:3] -- and he is known, by way of distinction, as "an apostle of the nations." [58:4]
The apostles were at first sent only to their own countrymen; [58:5] and we have seen that, for some time after our Lord's death, they do not appear to have contemplated any more comprehensive mission. When Peter called on the disciples to appoint a successor to Judas, he seems to have acted under the conviction that the company of the Twelve must still be maintained in its integrity, and that its numbers must still exactly correspond to the number of the tribes of Israel. But the Jews, after the death of Stephen, evinced an increasing aversion to the gospel; and as the apostles were eventually induced to direct their views elsewhere, they were, of course, also led to abandon an arrangement which had a special reference to the sectional divisions of the chosen people. Meanwhile, too, the management of ecclesiastical affairs had partially fallen into other hands; new missions, in which the Twelve had no share, had been undertaken; and Paul henceforth becomes most conspicuous and successful in extending and organising the Church.
Paul describes himself as "one born out of due time." [59:1] He was converted to Christianity when his countrymen seemed about to be consigned to judicial blindness; and he was "called to be an apostle" [59:2] when others had been labouring for years in the same vocation. But he possessed peculiar qualifications for the office. He was ardent, energetic, and conscientious, as well as acute and eloquent. In his native city Tarsus he had probably received a good elementary education, and afterwards, "at the feet of Gamaliel," [59:3] in Jerusalem, he enjoyed the tuition of a Rabbi of unrivalled celebrity. The apostle of the Gentiles had much the same religious experience as the father of the German Reformation; for as Luther, before he understood the doctrine of a free salvation, attempted to earn a title to heaven by the austerities of monastic discipline, so Paul in early life was "taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers," [59:4] and "after the strictest sect of his religion lived a Pharisee." [59:5] His zeal led him to become a persecutor; and when Stephen was stoned, the witnesses, who were required to take part in the execution, prepared themselves for the work of death, by laying down their upper garments at the feet of the "young man" Saul. [59:6] He had established himself in the confidence of the Sanhedrim, and he appears to have been a member of that influential judicatory, for he tells us that he "shut up many of the saints in prison," and that, when they were put to death, "he gave his voice, or his vote, [60:1] against them" -- a statement implying that he belonged to the court which pronounced the sentence of condemnation. As he was travelling to Damascus armed with authority to seize any of the disciples whom he discovered in that city, and to convey them bound to Jerusalem, [60:2] the Lord appeared to him in the way, and he was suddenly converted. [60:3] After reaching the end of his journey, and boldly proclaiming his attachment to the party he had been so recently endeavouring to exterminate, he retired into Arabia, [60:4] where he appears to have spent three years in the devout study of the Christian theology. He then returned to Damascus, and entered, about A.D.37, [60:5] on those missionary labours which he prosecuted with so much efficiency and perseverance for upwards of a quarter of a century.
Paul declares that he derived a knowledge of the gospel immediately from Christ; [60:6] and though, for many years, he had very little intercourse with the Twelve, he avers that he was "not a whit behind the very chiefest apostles." [60:7] Throughout life he was associated, not with them, but with others as his fellow-labourers; and he obviously occupied a distinct and independent position. When he was baptized, the ordinance was administered by an individual who is not previously mentioned in the New Testament, [61:1] and when he was separated to the work to which the Lord had called him, [61:2] the ordainers were "prophets and teachers," respecting whose own call to the ministry the inspired historian supplies us with no information. But it may fairly be presumed that they were regularly introduced into the places which they are represented as occupying; they are all described by the evangelist as receiving the same special instructions from heaven; and the tradition that, at least some of them, were of the number of the Seventy, [61:3] is exceedingly probable. And if, as has already been suggested, the mission of the Seventy indicated the design of our Saviour to diffuse the gospel all over the world, we can see a peculiar propriety in the arrangement that Paul was ushered into the Church under the auspices of these ministers. [61:4] It was most fitting that he who was to be, by way of eminence, the apostle of the Gentiles, was baptized and ordained by men whose own appointment was intended to symbolise the catholic spirit of Christianity.
In the treatment of Paul by his unbelieving countrymen we have a most melancholy illustration of the recklessness of religious bigotry. These Jews must have known that, in as far as secular considerations were concerned, he had everything to lose by turning into "the way which they called heresy;" they were bound to acknowledge that, by connecting himself with an odious sect, he at least demonstrated his sincerity and self-denial; but they were so exasperated by his zeal that they "took counsel to kill him." [62:1] When, after his sojourn in Arabia, he returned to Damascus that city was in the hands of Aretas, the king of Arabia Petraea; [62:2] who seems to have contrived to gain possession of it during the confusion which immediately followed the death of the Emperor Tiberius. This petty sovereign courted the favour of the Jewish portion of the population by permitting them to persecute the disciples; [62:3] and the apostle, at this crisis, would have fallen a victim to their malignity had not his friends let him down "through a window, in a basket, by the wall," [62:4] and thus enabled him to escape a premature martyrdom. He now repaired to Jerusalem, where the brethren do not appear to have heard of his conversion, and where they at first refused to acknowledge him as a member of their society; [62:5] for he had been obliged to leave Damascus with so much precipitation that he had brought with him no commendatory letters; but Barnabas, who is said to have been his school-fellow, [62:6] and who had in some way obtained information respecting his subsequent career, made the leaders of the Mother Church acquainted with the wonderful change which had taken place in his sentiments and character, and induced them to admit him to fellowship. During this visit to the holy city, while he prayed in the temple, he was more fully instructed respecting his future destination. In a trance, he saw Jesus, who said to him -- "Depart, for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles." [62:7] Even had he not received this intimation, the murderous hostility of the Jews would have obliged him to retire. "When he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians, they went about to slay him -- which, when the brethren knew, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him forth to Tarsus." [63:1]
The apostle now laboured for some years as a missionary in "the regions of Syria and Cilicia." [63:2] His native city and its neighbourhood probably enjoyed a large share of his ministrations, and his exertions seem to have been attended with much success, for, soon afterwards, the converts in these districts attract particular notice. [63:3] Meanwhile the gospel was making rapid progress in the Syrian capital, and as Saul was considered eminently qualified for conducting the mission in that place, he was induced to proceed thither. "Then," says the sacred historian, "Barnabas departed to Tarsus to seek Saul, and when he had found him he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass that a whole year they assembled themselves with the Church, and taught much people; and the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch." [63:4]
The establishment of a Church in this city formed a new era in the development of Christianity. Antioch was a great commercial mart with a large Jewish, as well as Gentile, population; it was virtually the capital of the Roman Empire in the East -- being the residence of the president, or governor, of Syria; its climate was delightful; and its citizens, enriched by trade, were noted for their gaiety and voluptuousness. In this flourishing metropolis many proselytes from heathenism were to be found in the synagogues of the Greek-speaking Jews, and the gospel soon made rapid progress among these Hellenists. "Some of them (which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen) were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, [64:1] preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned unto the Lord." [64:2] The followers of Jesus at this time received a new designation. They had hitherto called themselves "brethren" or "disciples" or "believers," but now they "were called Christians" by some of the inhabitants of the Syrian capital. As the unconverted Jews did not admit that Jesus was the Christ they were obviously not the authors of this appellation, and, in contempt, they probably styled the party Nazarenes or Galileans; but it is easy to understand how the name was suggested to the Pagans as most descriptive and appropriate. No one could be long in company with the new religionists without perceiving that Christ was "the end of their conversation." They delighted to tell of His mighty miracles, of His holy life, of the extraordinary circumstances which accompanied His death, of His resurrection and ascension. Out of the fulness of their hearts they discoursed of His condescension and His meekness, of His wonderful wisdom, of His sublime theology, and of His unutterable love to a world lying in wickedness. When they prayed, they prayed to Christ; when they sang, they sang praise to Christ; when they preached, they preached Christ. Well then might the heathen multitude agree with one voice to call them Christians. The inventor of the title may have meant it as a nickname, but if so, He who overruled the waywardness of Pilate so that he wrote on the cross a faithful inscription, [65:1] also caused this mocker of His servants to stumble on a most truthful and complimentary designation.
From his first appearance in Antioch Paul seems to have occupied a very influential position among his brethren. In that refined and opulent city his learning, his dialectic skill, his prudence, and his pious ardour were all calculated to make his ministry most effective. About a year after his arrival there, he was deputed, in company with a friend, to visit Palestine on an errand of love. "In those days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch. And there stood up one of them, named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world; which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren which dwelt in Judea. Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul." [65:2]
This narrative attests that the principle of a community of goods was not recognised in the Church of Antioch, for the aid administered was supplied, not out of a general fund, but by "every man according to his ability." There was here no "murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews," as, in the spirit of true brotherhood, the wealthy Hellenists of Antioch cheerfully contributed to the relief of the poor Hebrews of their fatherland. It does not appear that "the elders" in whose hands the money was deposited, were all office-bearers connected with the Church of Jerusalem. These would, of course, receive no small share of the donations, but as the assistance was designed for the "brethren which dwelt in Judea," and not merely for the disciples in the holy city, we may infer that it was distributed among the elders of all the Churches now scattered over the southern part of Palestine. [66:1] Neither would Barnabas and Paul require to make a tour throughout the district to visit these various communities. All the elders of Judea still continued to observe the Mosaic law, and as the deputies from Antioch were in Jerusalem at the time of the Passover, [66:2] they would find their brethren in attendance upon the festival.
It is reported by several ancient writers that the apostles were instructed to remain at Jerusalem for twelve years after the crucifixion of our Lord, [66:3] and if the tradition is correct, the holy city continued to be their stated residence until shortly before the period of the arrival of these deputies from the Syrian capital. The time of this visit can be pretty accurately ascertained, and there is perhaps no point connected with the history of the book of the Acts respecting which there is such a close approximation to unanimity amongst chronologists; for, as Josephus notices [66:4] both the sudden death of Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great, which now occurred, [66:5] and the famine against which this contribution was intended to provide, it is apparent from the date which he assigns to them, that Barnabas and Saul must have reached Jerusalem about A.D.44. [66:6] At this juncture at least two of the apostles, James the brother of John, and Peter, were in the Jewish capital; and it is probable that all the rest had not yet finally taken their departure. The Twelve, it would seem, did not set out on distant missions until they were thoroughly convinced that they had ceased to make progress in the conversion of their countrymen in the land of their fathers. And it is no trivial evidence, at once of the strength of their convictions, and of the truth of the evangelical history, that they continued so long and so efficiently to proclaim the gospel in the chief city of Palestine. Had they not acted under an overwhelming sense of duty, they would not have remained in a place where their lives were in perpetual jeopardy; and had they not been faithful witnesses, they could not have induced so many, of all classes of society, to believe statements which, if unfounded, could have been easily contradicted on the spot. The apostles must have been known to many in Jerusalem as the companions of our Lord; for, during His public ministry, they had often been seen with Him in the city and the temple; and it was to be, therefore, expected, that peculiar importance would be attached to their testimony respecting His doctrines and His miracles. Their preaching in the head-quarters of Judaism was fitted to exert an immense influence, as that metropolis itself contained a vast population, and as it was, besides, the resort of strangers from all parts of the world. And so long as the apostles ministered in Jerusalem or in Palestine only to the house of Israel, it was expedient that their number, which was an index of the Divine regard for the whole of the twelve tribes, should be maintained in its integrity. But when, after preaching twelve years among their countrymen at home, they found their labours becoming comparatively barren; and when, driven by persecution from Judea, they proceeded on distant missions, their position was quite altered. Their number had now at least partially [67:1] lost its original significance; and hence, when an apostle died, the survivors no longer deemed it necessary to take steps for the appointment of a successor. We find accordingly that when Herod "killed James, the brother of John, with the sword," [68:1] no other individual was selected to occupy the vacant apostleship.
It has been already stated that when Paul appeared in Jerusalem for the first time after his conversion, he received, when praying in the temple, a divine communication informing him of his mission to the heathen. [68:2] It would seem that, during his present visit, as the bearer of the contributions from Antioch, he was favoured with another revelation. In his Second Epistle to the Corinthians he apparently refers to this most comfortable, yet mysterious, manifestation. "I know," [68:3] says he, "a man in Christ fourteen years ago [68:4] (whether in the body, I cannot tell, or whether out of the body, I cannot tell; God knoweth) such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell; God knoweth) that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words which it is not lawful for man to utter." [68:5] The present position of the apostle explains the design of this sublime and delightful vision. As Moses was encouraged to undertake the deliverance of his countrymen when God appeared to him in the burning bush, [68:6] and as Isaiah was emboldened to go forth, as the messenger of the Lord of hosts, when he saw Jehovah sitting upon His throne attended by the seraphim, [68:7] so Paul was stirred up by an equally impressive revelation to gird himself for the labours of a new appointment. He was about to commence a more extensive missionary career, and before entering upon so great and so perilous an undertaking, the King of kings condescended to encourage him by admitting him to a gracious audience, and by permitting him to enjoy some glimpses of the glory of those realms of light where "they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever."