"But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and god hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, and things which are not, to bring to nought things which are." *
* The two discourses on this text were originally one, and preached before Windham Association, at Thompson, October Session, 1798. Probably some of the ideas which they contain, may have been suggested by reading Paley's Evidences of Christianity; but as the author had not that book in his possession when he wrote on this subject, he is not able particularly to give credit to that excellent writer, if here his due.
The mercy promised to the fathers was Christ, the Savior. That "the desire of all nations should come," was a prediction of his incarnation; and his entrance here was announced by a heavenly messenger, with, "Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy -- to all people."
Yet "when he came to his own, his own received him not!" To many he hath been "a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense!"
The design and tendency of Christianity are most benevolent; but being opposed to men's lusts, which rule in their members, all the malevolence of depravity hath been excited against it. Jews and Gentile united in the opposition. "The kings of the earth stood up and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord, and against his Christ -- both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel." The Christian religion did not creep into the world in the dark. It first appeared at an enlightened period, and among the most enlightened of the nations. The sciences derived from conquered Greece, had been improved at Rome, and communicated to its dependencies. Syria was then a province of the Empire. Every movement in Judea was observed and reported at the metropolis. The crucifixion of our Savior was sanctioned by a Roman deputy; and the persecuted Christians were allowed an appeal to Caesar. Soon therefore, did the religion of Jesus make its way to Rome. The power of Rome had also reached its acme; and as the spirit of Christianity was diverse from that of the world, the learning and power of the Empire soon combined against it. That this religion would be crushed and vanish away as a dream of the night, was generally expected.
Every circumstance seemed to indicate such an event. Those reputed wise, considered the gospel scheme as foolishness; and the instrument which were chosen to propagate it were thought to be weak and contemptible. It was also observed to spread chiefly among the lower order of men, who had not the advantages of literature, nor been initiated in the mysteries of Judaism, all which served to inspire its enemies with confidence, that it would soon come to nought.
The apostle takes notice, in the context, of the contempt then so generally poured on Christianity, and declares the wisdom of God in the permission of it. He also predicts the triumph of the cross; especially over the powers then combined against it -- predictions which afterwards fulfilled: For those powers were all subdued and humbled, and Christ and the gospel exalted. The Christian religion was openly professed, and became the most reputable religion in many countries; particularly in Syria and at Rome and its numerous provinces; and by the means then ordered of God. This is the spirit of the text -- God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and the weak things of the world to confound the mighty, &c.
In discussing the subject, we shall consider the means used to propagate the gospel -- the opposition made against it -- and the wisdom of God in the choice of the means; which will bring up to view some of the objections which have been made against the truth of the gospel.
In treating of the means used to propagate the gospel, we pass over the preaching and miracles of Christ, and the wonders which took place at his inexcuseable in neglecting so great salvation; but they preceded sending the gospel to the gentiles, and the means used to spread it among them. The apostle had no reference to Christ, or any thing done or suffered by him, when he spake of the foolish and weak, and base things, used of God, to confound those which are wise and mighty. He spake only with reference to the instruments which were chosen to carry the gospel abroad and persuade the nations of the earth to receive it.
God hath all creatures at his command; he hath power to press the most reluctant into his service, and to compel them to bear his messages and execute his orders; as we see in the case of Balaam and Jonah. God can make use of man to this end, either by reconciling them to himself, and attaching them to his interest or by overruling their corrupt and vicious designs to effect his holy purposes, without their consent or knowledge. Most of the prophets were brought into his view, and made desirous to honor him. Many pagan princes, and others, who knew him not were yet made instrumental in doing his pleasure and executing his designs. The divine sovereign never wants for agents to accomplish his purposes. He sitteth on the circle of the heavens, and orders the affairs of the universe in such a manner as to do his pleasure. "None can stay his hand." Whether the agents which he employs are willing or unwilling, mean so, or not, is of no importance relative to the event. "His purposes stand, and the thoughts of His heart to all generations." The attempts of creatures to reverse his orders, and defeat his decree only help to their accomplishment. This was particularly the case respecting the measures adopted by the enemies of Christianity to prevent its spreading in the world.
The persons chosen of God and sent forth to propagate the religion of Christ, were such as human wisdom would have judged very unsuitable. Twelve poor, despised, illiterate men, were called to be apostles; -- most of them were fishermen. One was a publican; a collector of the Roman tribute, which had been imposed on the Jews as a conquered people. An employment so odious, that vile persons, regardless of character, would only accept it. Such men we should judge exceedingly unfit for ministers of religion, and not likely to succeed in making converts to it. Yet such were those who were appointed of God, to be prime ministers in the Christian church! Such the men who were sent forth to change the form and administration of Judaism, and overthrew the systems of Paganism, rendered venerable by a general establishment, and the religious reverence of ages. The Jews' religion was from God, who had given abundant evidence of its divine origin. This Christ came not to destroy. But its external administration was to be changed; and in apprehension of most of those who professed it, it was less opposed to the gospel scheme, than Paganism. No others had greater enmity to Christianity than the Jews, or entered into the opposition position with warmer zeal. They commonly stood foremost, and stirred up the Gentiles against it, and often with success.
In treating of the means used to propagate the gospel. We may observe the powers imparted to those who were employed in the work. These Were not such as human wisdom would have chosen. "Their weapons were not carnal, though mighty through God." They had none at their command, prepared to punish those who would not receive them, or the doctrines which they inculcated -- none to retaliate injuries done them. To abuse they had nothing to oppose, except a patient exhibition of his temper, who "when he was reviled, reviled not again, when he suffered threatened not, committing himself to him who judgeth righteously," and praying for his murderers on the cross.
False religions have often been propagated with the sword -- particularly that of Mahomet, and the Romish corruptions of Christianity. These, especially the latter, were urged with every species of cruelty -- a mode of attempting to proselyte, evincive of human folly. Arguments totally diverse are requisite to enlighten the mind and produce conviction of a divine mission. With these came the apostles of the Lamb. They were "endowed with power from on high;" and forbidden of their Lord to enter on their ministry until it was conferred upon them. This was accomplished on the day of Pentecost.
They had been previously convinced of Christ's truth. They seemed indeed to waver when he suffered, but his resurrection, the opportunities which they had with him after that event, and his ascension, which they had witnessed, must have removed every doubt. But this did not quality them for their work. It did not furnish them with means to convince others, who had not witnessed those things. But when the Holy Ghost came upon them, on that memorable occasion, they were furnished. The gift of miracles was then, more abundantly than before, imparted to them. In some respects, new and very necessary communications were then made to them -- particularly that of speaking in tongues, which at once carried evidence of their divine mission, and enabled them to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. This was the order of their Lord, but devoid of this gift they could not have obeyed it.
This gift, as imparted to them, seems to have carried greater evidence of their truth, than their barely speaking all languages. Men out of every nation heard them speak on the day of Pentecost, every man in his own tongue! Therefore were they amazed, and convinced that the apostles were sent of God and that the gospel was of heavenly derivation.
Those heralds of gospel grace were also inspired with courage to speak boldly in the name and cause of Christ, nothing terrified by their enemies; and "when brought before kings and rulers for his sake, a mouth and wisdom were given them, which all their adversaries were unable to gainsay or resist."
Such were the means used of God to propagate the gospel? such the agents whom he employed and such their qualifications.
We are next to consider the opposition which was made to its propagation.
Various circumstances combined the worlds against it. So far as Christianity prevailed, every other religion must fall. No other could stand in connexion with it. The Jewish was not to be overthrown; but such changes were to take place in its outward form, that those who did not know it to be typical of a better dispensation, considered it as included in the general proscription; as doomed to destruction if Christianity prevailed Against Stephen that was a principal charge -- "We have heard him say, that this Jesus, shall change the customs which Moses hath delivered us."
The different systems of Paganism were not opposed to one another, as they were to that of the gospel. They admitted a plurality of God -- some superior? others subordinate. They considered them not only as holding different ranks, but as reigning over different countries and nations. If one of their systems was true another might be so. But Christianity admitted only "one God and one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus." It declared that all others who had been called Gods and worshiped as such, were not Gods -- that those who sacrificed to them, sacrificed to demons -- and it denounced utter, eternal ruin against those who did not forsake them and acknowledge Jehovah. Those peculiarities, apart from the nature of this religion, which is opposed to the lusts of men which rule in their members, would, of course, unite the world against it. Those of every other religion would make a common interest in opposing this, which had fellow-ship with none of them, but tended to their entire subversion and utter ruin. And it is a fact, that the world did unite against the religion of Jesus, and against those whom he had appointed to inculcate it. Christianity then appeared devoid of support -- the opposition to have everything on its side. Christ's followers were a little flock, destitute of power or learning, and in the world's view utterly contemptible. Rome, the mistress of the world, had reached the summit of her greatness; and she soon turned all her power against the feeble band, who were laboring to diffuse the knowledge of Christ. and calling men from dumb idols, to serve the living God.
To the eye of man how unequal the conflict? Had not those followers of the Lamb been assured that their redeemer lived -- that he was divine -- that he was with them, and would be with them, they would have declined a contest with those before whom the world trembled. But they entered, un-dismayed on the work assigned them, went through With and completed it! They prospered in that to which they were sent. This had never been done had not God been with them; for none of the advantages possessed by their enemies were neglected. The first effects of enmity to Christianity were directed against Christ's person. He had been some time teaching and doing miracles in Judea, and numbers had attached themselves to him. They considered him as a prophet mighty in "word and deed." Some who witnessed his mighty works, exclaimed, "When Christ cometh will he do more miracles than this man hath done?" Others, "Is this not the Christ?"
These movements among the Jews drew the attention of their rulers, and raised them to opposition. A humble, suffering Savior, did not suit their pride and lust of power. They looked for a temporal deliverer, who would lead them to victory, and subdue under them, the powers which held them in subjection. No other would they receive as the Messiah. As soon, therefore, as the fame of Jesus began to spread abroad, and numbers treated him with respect, they resolved to destroy him. At the feast of the passover, which called all the males of Israel to Jerusalem, they caused him to be apprehended -- tried him their great council -- condemned him to death, and importuned the Roman governor to sentence him to the cross, as a rebel against Caesar. The charge was not supported -- Christ did not aspire to temporal dominion -- "his kingdom was not of this world." The governor declared him not guilty. Had Christ, like the Arabian deceiver, which afterwards arose, assumed the sword, marked his way with blood and carnage, the Jews would have bid him welcome, and flocked to his standard. Then he might have been denominated a rebel against Caesar. But nothing of this nature was found upon him. Therefore were the Jews his enemies; but the imperial magistrate "found no fault in him;" though persuaded to consent to his death.
But though such were the temper and views of the Romans respecting Christ, at the time of his sufferings, they were different when his ministers went forth to set up his religion. When the nature of Christianity was discovered, and it appeared opposed to Paganism, and tending to its destruction, the Roman chieftains, who had been taught to venerate their Gods, and claimed to be high priests of the national religion, entered with zeal into the views of Christ's enemies, and reared the standard against his followers. All their powers were exerted to crush, the cause of the divine Immanuel. Ten general persecutions are said to have been raised against the Christians; and myriads of the faithful to have been sacrificed to heathen malice and bigotry.
Neither were these the only enemies of Christ. The learning of the age was applied to confound his followers. The sophistry of Grecian metaphysics directed against his unlettered disciples. Who could have expected Christ's little flock, devoid of every worldly advantage, to have maintained their ground against such formidable enemies? Who, judging by the rules of man's judgment, have entertained a suspicion that they would not soon be driven from the field? But their cause was that of God. Heaven was on their side, "In vain did the heathen rage and the people imagine vain things. He who sitteth in the heavens, laughed; the Lord had them in derision."