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History of the first propagation of Christianity, Accomplishment
of Christ's Prediction-Rapid Progress of the Gospel among the Jews-Peter's vision--Conversion of Saul of Tarsus-His call to the Apostleship— His first and second Missionary Journeys-His manner of preaching the Gospel at Thessalonica.
The rapid and unexampled progress which Christianity made, during the first century of the Christian era, is a fact that cannot be denied, and for which it has greatly perplexed the enemies of the Gospel to account. An attentive reader of the four evangelists must have observed that it is a subject on which the Son of God always spoke with great confidence during his public ministry, Adverting to the end of the Jewish state, he thus addressed his disciples, a little before his death :-“And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world, for a witness to all nations, and then shall the end come.” The end here referred to is the abrogation of the Sinai covenant, whereby the whole nation of the Jews was taken into a peculiar relationship with the Most High, and consequently it denotes the termination of their church state. The words must therefore refer to the interval between the delivery of the prediction and the subversion of the Jewish polity -a space of less than forty years, during which the Gospel was to be preached to all nations. And the Acts of the Apostles shows us the fulfilment of this prophecy, in recounting the multitude of early converts, the general dispersion of the Christians, and the success which crowned the labours of the apostle Paul and his companions in carrying the Gospel through every part of the Roman empire.
We learn from the historian Tacitus that during the reign of the emperor Nero, A. D. 63, or thirty years after the death of Christ, there was “an immense multitude,” of Christians in the city of Rome. From the metropolis of the empire, there was the greatest facility of communication to all the provinces, and no country then discovered was too remote for the Gospel to reach, it. Accordingly it is generally admitted that, before the destruction of Jerusalem, Scythia on the north, India on the east, Gaul and Egypt on the west, and Ethiopia on the south, had received the glad tidings of salvation. And even the British isles, which were then regarded as the extremity of the earth, being frequently visited during that period by Roman emperors or their generals, there is no improbability in what is affirmed by Christian historians, that the Gospel was preached in this city--the British metropolis-about thirty years after the death of Christ. A considerable part of the Acts of the Apostles is taken up with an account of the labours of the apostle Paul; and we find this one apostle preaching the Gospel both in the east and to the utmost boundaries of the west, planting churches in Asia and Greece, and travelling from Jerusalem to Illyricum-a tract of country which has been computed at not less than 2000 miles. But, if such were the labours of one apostle, what must have been accomplished by the journeyings of the twelve, who, after settling the church in Jerusalem, taking different districts, went forth to execute their Lord's commission, and be his witnesses to the uttermost ends of the earth. The apostle Paul says, in his epistle to the church of Rome, that “their faith was spoken of throughout the whole world”—and to the Colossians, “ that the word which they had heard was gone forth into all the world and preached to every creature," ch. i. 6, 23.
Such, then, being the indisputable fact, it becomes an interesting enquiry, How it is to be accounted for. That it is perfectly agreeable to our Lord's prediction has been already shown-but what could have given rise to the confidence with which he spoke of the general prevalence of his religion in the world ? It could not have been founded on any thing which he beheld during his public ministry. Numbers, indeed, then followed him out of curiosity, attracted by his miracles and his fame, but they were easily offended, and at length we see them eagerly demanding
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his crucifixion.' We see a few unlearned men, destitute of all worldly influence, affectionately attached to his person, but unhappily labouring under great mistakes respecting the nature of his kingdom, and destitute of the most likely means of spreading even their own notions of his religion through the world. And when we examine the state of the world we find it consisting of Jews, wedded to their own religion, and abhorring his doctrine as an impious attempt to supersede the law of Moses; and of heathens, or Gentiles, amongst whom the philosophers, full of their own wisdom, despised the simplicity of the Gospel, while the vulgar, devoted to childish abominable superstitions, and averse to the spirituality of the worship it enjoined, were disposed to execute the vengeance of jealous malignant deities upon a body of men who refused to offer incense on their altars-a world, too, in which every kind of vice abounded ; in which the passions of men demanded indulgence and spurned at the restraint of the holy commandment of the Lord and Saviour. Such was the actual state of things during the personal ministry of Jesus of Nazareth; yet, in these circumstances, with such obstacles to encounter, we find him, conscious of his divine character and mission, predicting with perfect assurance the spread of his Gospel throughout the world, and the triumphs of his cross. Thus we find him remarking to his disciples, a little before his passion,—“ The hour is come that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die it abideth alone; but, if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit;--Now is the judgment of this world ; now shall the prince of this world be cast out; and I, if I be lifted up from the earth (in allusion to the means of his death), will draw all men unto me,” Joh. xii. This was a memorable prediction concerning the triumph of his religion over all opposing obstacles, and it shows us that he looked forward to his death upon the cross as the grand attractive in gaining the hearts of his enemies, and drawing disciples unto him. Mighty and important ends, as he well knew, were to be accomplished by means of his death. It was necessary, for instance, in order that an atonement might be made for the sins of men and that sinners might be reconciled unto God. It was further necessary in order to abolish the old covenant, and thereby break down the middle wall of partition, which, during the existence of that covenant, had separated the Jews and the Gentiles. It was necessary in order to defeat and overturn the empire of Satan, who enslaved the Gentile world. In a word, it was necessary, in order that the new covenant might be established with the elect of all nations, consisting in the remission of sins through the blood of his cross. Such were the stupendous events to be accomplished by means of his death upon the cross, and, with the appalling scene full in his view, we find him saying, “Now is my soul troubled, and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour.” And so the divine substitute encourages himself under the dreadful weight of his sufferings by anticipating the glorious effects which were to result from them in the overthrow of Satan's kingdom and the spread of his religion in the world. And now let us enquire how far the event justified the Saviour's prediction. We have seen, in a former Lecture, that on the day of Pentecost, under the apostle Peter's first sermon, three thousand Jews were converted to the faith of Christ, baptized in his name, and added to his church. Shortly afterwards we read of five thousand more, who, having heard the preaching of the apostles, believed the saving truth, ch. iv. 4. And, as the historian proceeds with the narrative, he tells us that “ believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women,” ch. v. 14, insomuch that the rulers of the Jews took the alarm at the prevalence of this new religion, and complained that the apostles had “filled Jerusalem with their doctrine,” ver. 28. To counteract the spread of the Gospel, a violent persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem, in which, as we have formerly noticed, Stephen fell a martyr to Jewish rage ; but this only turned out to the furtherance of the cause of Christ, for the disciples being scattered abroad went every where preaching the word, throughout the regions of Judæa and Samaria; they also travelled as far as Phænicia, and Cyprus, and Antioch; and the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed the Gospel,” Acts viii. 1, ch. xi. 19, 20. In a little time “churches were gathered throughout all the cities of Judæa, Galilee, and Samaria; and these, walking in the fear of the Lord, and the comforts of the Holy Spirit, were edified and multiplied,” ch. ix. 31. Such were the triumphs of the cross among
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the Jews, in a few years after Christ's ascension into heaven. Thousands were drawn, by the report of his death and resurrection, to believe in him, to love him, to trust him for all their salvation, to live to him, and in innumerable instances, as we shall hereafter see, to die for his sake. They were delivered from a state of mental darkness, moral impurity, and degradation ;from a state of slavery to Satan, the god of this world, and of enmity to the true God—and they were drawn to Christ, to acknowledge him as the true Messiah, the Son of God, the alone Saviour of the guilty ; and, believing the truth which the apostles testified concerning him, they experienced peace with God, the enjoyment of his love, and the hope of a blessed immortality. But to proceed :
Hitherto we have confined our notice to the progress of Christianity among the people of the Jews, the conversion of myriads of them to the faith of Christ, and the planting of churches in Judæa, Galilee, and Samaria. But we must now turn our attention to the spread of the Gospel among the benighted heathen—the countries which lay without the pale of the Jewish church, and were consequently sunk'in idolatry, superstition, and vice; or, as the inspired records have it, “the lands that were sitting in darkness and the shadow of death,” Luke i. 79. What their actual state in relation to morals and the worship of God at that time was, may be gathered from many intimations of the sacred writers, the prophets, evangelists, and apostles, particularly from Acts xvii. and xix.; Rom. i. and Eph. ii. The times of this ignorance, indeed, the Most High had winked atbut the writings of the prophets abounded with intimations of mercy in store even for the Gentile lands, and of the choicest blessings that were to descend upon them through the Messiah. In relation to this important event, what language can be more explicit than the following :—“Thou shalt arise and have mercy upon Zion, for the time to favour her, yea the set time is come: -So the heathen shall fear the name of the Lord, and all the kings of the earth thy glory," Ps. cii. 13–15. And again, “ Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee; for behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee and his glory shall be seen upon thee; and the Gen