Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said to Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brothers…
"Son of man, I send thee to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation They will not hearken unto thee; for they will not hearken unto Me;... yet thou shalt speak unto them, and tell them, thus saith the Lord God; whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear;... and they shall know that there hath been a prophet among them." Thus God formerly forearmed Ezekiel against the greatest discouragement that he was to meet with in his mission, I mean the unsuccessfulness of his ministry. For they are not only your ministers, who are disappointed in the exercise of the ministry: Isaiah, Jeremiahs, Ezekiels, are often as unsuccessful as we. In such melancholy cases we must endeavour to surmount the obstacles, which the obduracy of sinners opposeth against the dispensations of grace. If "the angels -of God rejoice over one sinner that repenteth," what pleasure must he feel who hath reason to hope, that in this valley of tears he hath had the honour of opening the gate of heaven to a multitude of sinners, that he hath "saved himself and them that heard him." This pure joy God gave on the day of Pentecost to St. Peter. In order to comprehend what passed in the auditory, we must understand the sermon of the preacher. There are five remarkable things in the sermon, and there are five correspondent dispositions in the hearers.
I. We have remarked in the sermon of St. Peter that NOBLE FREEDOM OF SPEECH, which so well becomes a Christian preacher, and is so well adapted to strike his hearers. How much soever we now admire this beautiful part of pulpit-eloquence, it is very difficult to imitate it. Sometimes a weakness of faith, which attends your best established preachers; sometimes worldly prudence; sometimes a timidity, that proceedeth from a modest consciousness of the insufficiency of their talents; sometimes a fear, too well grounded, alas I of the retorting of those censures, which people, always ready to murmur against them who reprove their vices, are eager to make; sometimes a fear of those persecutions, which the world always raiseth against all whom heaven qualifies to destroy the empire of sin; all these considerations damp the courage of the preacher, and deprive him of freedom of speech. But none of these considerations had any weight with our apostle. And, indeed, why should any of them affect him? Should the weakness of his faith? He had conversed with Jesus Christ Himself; he had accompanied Him on the holy mount, he had "heard a voice from the excellent glory," saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." Could he distrust his talents? The Prince of the kingdom, the Author, and Finisher of faith, had told him, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church." Should he dread reproaches and recriminations? The purity of his intentions, and the sanctity of his life confound them. Should he pretend to keep fair with the world? But what finesse is to be used, when eternal misery is to be denounced, and eternal happiness proposed? Philosophers talk of certain invisible bands that unite mankind to one another. A man, animated with any passion, hath in the features of his face, and in the tone of his voice, a something that partly communicates his sentiments to his hearers. Error proposed in a lively manner by a man, who is affected with it himself, may seduce unguarded people. Fictions, which we know are fictions, exhibited in this manner, move and affect us for a moment. But what a dominion over the heart doth that speaker obtain, who delivers truths, and who is affected himself with the truths which he delivereth! To this part of the eloquence of St. Peter, we must attribute the emotions of his hearers; "they were pricked in their heart."
II. A second thing which gave weight and dignity to the sermon of St. Peter, was THE MIRACLE THAT PRECEDED HIS PREACHING, I mean the gift of tongues, which had been communicated to all the apostles. The prodigy that accompanied the sermon of St. Peter had three characteristic marks of a real miracle.
1. It was above human power. Every pretended miracle, that hath not this first character, ought to be suspected by us. But the prodigy in question was evidently superior to human power. Of all sciences in the world, that of languages is the least capable of an instant acquisition. Certain natural talents, a certain superiority of genius, sometimes produce in some men the same effects, which long and painful industry can scarcely ever produce in others. We have sometimes seen people whom nature seems to have designedly formed in an instant courageous captains, profound geometers, admirable orators. But tongues are acquired by study and time. The acquisition of languages is like the knowledge of history. It is not a superior genius, it is not a great capacity, that can discover to any man what passed in the world ten or twelve ages ago. The monuments of antiquity must be consulted, huge folios must be read, and an immense number of volumes must be understood, arranged, and digested. In like manner, the knowledge of languages is a knowledge of experience, and no man can ever derive it from his own innate fund of ability. Yet the apostles, and apostolical men, men who were known to be men of no education, all on a sudden knew the arbitrary signs by which different nations had agreed to express their thoughts. Terms, which had no natural connection with their ideas, were all on a sudden arranged in their minds.
2. But perhaps these miracles may not be the more respectable on account of their superiority to human power. Perhaps, if they be not human, they may be devilish? No, a little attention to their second character will convince you that they are Divine. Their end was to incline men, not to renounce natural and revealed religion, but to respect and to follow both; not to render an attentive examination unnecessary, but to allure men to it.
3. The prodigy that accompanied the preaching of St. Peter had the third character of a true miracle. It was wrought in the presence of those who had the greatest interest in knowing the truth of it. The miracle being granted, I affirm that the compunction of heart, of which my text speaks, was an effect of that attention which could not be refused to such an extraordinary event, and of that deference which could not be withheld from a man, to whose ministry God had set His seal. They instantly, and entirely, surrendered themselves to men, who addressed them in a manner so extraordinary, "they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter, and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?"
III. We remark, in the discourse of the apostle, AN INVINCIBLE POWER OF REASONING, and, in the souls of his hearers, that conviction which carries along with it the consent of the will. Of all methods of reasoning with an adversary, none is more conclusive than that which is taken from his own principles. But when the principles of an adversary are well grounded, and when we are able to prove that his principles produce our conclusions, our reasoning becomes demonstrative to a rational opponent, and he ought not to deny it. Christianity, it is remarkable, is defensible both ways. The first may be successfully employed against pagans; the second more successfully against the Jews. It is easy to convince a heathen that he can have no right to exclaim against the mysteries of the gospel, because if he have any reason to exclaim against the mysteries of Christianity, he hath infinitely more to exclaim against those of paganism. The second way was employed more successfully by the apostles against the Jews. They demonstrated that all the reasons, which obliged them to be Jews, ought to have induced them to become Christians; that every argument, which obliged them to acknowledge the Divine legation of Moses, ought to have engaged them to believe in Jesus Christ. St. Peter made use of this method. What argument can ye allege for your religion, said they to the Jews, which doth not establish that which we preach? Do ye allege the privileges of your legislator? Your argument is demonstrative; Moses had access to God on the holy mountain. Do ye allege the purity of the morality of your religion? Your argument is demonstrative. The manifest design of your religion is to reclaim men to God, to prevent idolatry, and to inspire them with piety, benevolence, and zeal. But this argument concludes for us. Do ye allege the miracles that were wrought to prove the truth of your religion? Your argument is demonstrative. But this argument establisheth the truth of our religion. What, then, are the prejudices that still engage you to continue in the profession of Judaism? Are they derived from the prophecies? Your principles are demonstrative; but, in the person of our Jesus, we show you to-day all the grand characters which, your own prophets said, would be found in the Messiah. Close reasoning ought to be the soul of all discourses. I compare it in regard to eloquence with benevolence in regard to religion. Without benevolence we may maintain a show of religion; but we cannot possess the substance of it (1 Corinthians 13:1, etc.). In like manner in regard to eloquence; speak with authority, display treasures of erudition, let the liveliest and most sublime imagination wing it away, turn all your periods till they make music in the most delicate ear, what will all your discourses be if void of argumentation? a noise, sounding brass, a tinkling cymbal. Ye may surprise, but ye cannot convince; ye may dazzle, but ye cannot instruct; ye may, indeed, please, but ye can neither change, sanctify, nor transform.
IV. There are, in the sermon of St. Peter, STINGING REPROOFS; and, in the souls of the hearers, a pungent remorse (ver. 22). And who can express the agitations which were produced in the souls of the audience? What pencil can describe the state of their consciences? They had committed this crime through ignorance. St. Peter tore these fatal veils asunder. He showed these madmen their own conduct in its true point of light; and discovered their parricide in all its horror. "Ye have taken, and crucified Jesus, who was approved of God." The apostle reminded them of the holy rules of righteousness, which Jesus Christ had preached and exemplified; and the holiness of Him, whom they had crucified, filled them with a sense of their own depravity. He reminded them of the benefits which Jesus Christ had bountifully bestowed on their nation. He reminded them of the grandeur of Jesus Christ. He reminded them of their unworthy treatment of Jesus Christ; of their eager outcries for His death; of their repeated shoutings. The whole was an ocean of terror, and each reflection a wave that overwhelmed, distorted, and distressed their souls.
V. In fine, we may remark in the sermon of St. Peter DENUNCIATIONS OF DIVINE VENGEANCE. The most effectual means for the conversion of sinners, that which St. Paul so successfully employed, is terror. St. Peter was too well acquainted with the obduracy of his auditors not to avail himself of this motive. People, who had imbrued their hands in the blood of a personage so august, wanted this mean. St. Peter quoted a prophecy of Joel, which foretold that fatal day, and the prophecy was the more terrible because one part of it was accomplished; because the remarkable events that were to precede it were actually come to pass; for the Spirit of God had begun to pour out His miraculous influences upon all flesh, young men had seen visions, and old men had dreamed dreams; and the formidable preparations of approaching judgments were then before their eyes. Such was the power of the sermon of St. Peter over the souls of his hearers! Human eloquence hath sometimes done wonders worthy of immortal memory. Some of the ancient orators have governed the souls of the most invincible heroes, and the life of Cicero affords us an example. Ligarius had the audacity to make war on Caesar. Caesar was determined to make the rash adventurer a victim to his revenge. The friends of Legarius durst not interpose, and Ligarius was on the point, either of being justly punished for his offence, or of being sacrificed to the unjust ambition of his enemy. What force could control the power of Caesar? But Caesar had an adversary, whose power was superior to his own. This adversary pleads for Ligarius against Caesar, and Caesar, all invincible as he is, yields to the eloquence of Cicero. Cicero pleads, Caesar feels; in spite of himself, his wrath subsides, his vengeance disappears. The fatal list of the crimes of Ligarius, which he is about to produce to the judges, falls from his hands, and he actually absolves him at the close of the oration, whom, when he entered the court, he meant to condemn. But yield, ye orators of Athens and Rome! Yield to our fishermen and tent-makers. Oh, how powerful is the sword of the Spirit in the hands of our apostles! But will ye permit us to ask you one question? Would ye choose to hear the apostles, and ministers like the apostles? Would ye attend their sermons? or, to say all in one word, Do ye wish St. Peter was now in this pulpit? Think a little, before ye answer this question. Compare the taste of this auditory with the genius of the preacher; your delicacy with that liberty of speech with which he reproved the vices of his own times. One wants to find something new in every sermon; and, under pretence of satisfying his laudable desire of improvement in knowledge, would divert our attention from well-known vices that deserve to be censured. Another desires to be pleased, and would have us adorn our discourses, not that we may obtain an easier access to his heart, but that we may flatter a kind of concupiscence, which is content to sport with a religious exercise, till, when Divine service ends, it can plunge into more sensual joy. Almost all require to be lulled asleep in sin. Ah! how disagreeable to you would the sermons of the apostles have been! Realise them. Ah! methinks I hear the holy man; methinks I hear the preacher, animated with the same spirit that made him boldly tell the murderers of Jesus Christ, "Jesus of Nazareth, a Man approved of God among you, by miracles and wonders, and signs, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain." Methinks I see St. Peter, the man who was so extremely affected with the sinful state of his auditors; methinks I hear him enumerating the various excesses of this nation, and saying, Ye! ye are void of all sensibility when we tell you of the miseries of the Church, when we describe those bloody scenes, that are made up of dungeons and galleys, apostates and martyrs.
Parallel VersesKJV: Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?