« PreviousContinue »
It is generally believed, that St. Paul obtained a deliverance from his first imprisonment at Rome, and, after a short time, to have been carried there again. Particularly commissioned by his Divine Master to preach the gospel to the Gentile world, he became eminently useful, and in labours more abundant than all the other apostles. As an orator he shines to great advantage ; and even Longinus himself speaks of him in terms of approba. tion. Though the most humble, as well as most useful of mankind, none but his own inimitable pen has done justice to his truly great and exalted character, in the eleventh chapter of his second epistle to the Corinthians. In the city of Tarsus, where he was born, he had every advantage which a polite and learned edu. cation could bestow upon him, and finished his studies at the feet of Gamaliel, in Jerusalem. Ecclesiastical writers have said, that during his second imprisonment, he converted Poppea Sabina, the concubine of Nero. Certain it is, that he was beheaded by order of that tyrant, toward the close of his reign, who soon af ter fell a just sacrifice to the injured people of Rome.
HISTORY OF THE CHURCH,
THE CLOSE OF THE FIRST CENTURY.
It seems plain, that the apostles in general did not leave Judea, till after the first council held at Jerusalem. They seem never to have been in haste to quit the land of their nativity. Probably the threatening appearances of its desolation by the Romans, hastened their departure into distant regions. And before the close of this century it appears, that the power of the gospel was felt throughout the Roman empire.
It was about the year of our Lord 64, that the city of Rome sustained a general conflagration. The emperor Nero, lost as he was to all sense of reputation, was yet studious to avert the infamy of being reckoned the author of this calamity, wbich was generally imputed to him. But no steps that he could take were sufficient to clear him. There was, however, a particular set of people, so singularly distinct from the rest of mankind, and so much hated on account of the condemnation which their doctrine and purity of life affixed to all except themselves, that they might be calumniated with impunity. These were then known at Kome by the name of Christians. Unless we transplant our. selves into those times, we can scarce conceive how odious and contemptible the appellation then was. The judicious Tacitus calls their religion “a detestable superstition,* which at first was suppressed, and afterwards broke out afresh, and spread not only through Judea, the origin of the evil, but through the metropolis also, the common sewer in which every thing filthy and flagitious meets and spreads.” If so grave and cautious a writer as Tacitus, can thus asperse the Christians without proof and without moderation, we need not wonder, that so impure a wretch as Nero should not hesitate to charge them with the crime of burning Rome.
Now it was that the Romans legally persecuted the church for the first time. Their execution was aggravated with insult. They were covered with skins of wild beasts, and torn by dogs ; were crucified, and set on fire, that they might serve for lights in the night-time. Nero offered his gardens for this spectacle, and
exhibited the games of the circus. People could not, however, avoid pitying them, because they suffered not for the public good, but to gratify the cruelty of a tyrant.
Three or four years were probably the utmost extent of this tremendous persecution, as soon after the tyrant was himself, by a dreadful exit, summoned before the Divine Tribunal. He left the Roman world in a state of extreme confusion. Judea partook of it in an eminent manner. About forty years after our Lord's sufferings, wrath came on the body of the Jewish na. tion to the uttermost, in a manner too well known to need the least account in this history. What became of the Christian Jews, alone concerns us. The congregation were commanded, by an oracle revealed to the best approved among them, that before the wars began, they should depart from the city, and inhabit a village bevond Jordan, called Pella. Thither they retired, and were saved from the destruction which soon after over. whelmed their countrymen, at once observing the precept, and fulfilling the well-known prophecy of their Saviour. The death of Nero, and the destruction of Jerusalem, would naturally oce casion some respite to them from their sufferings; and we hear no more of their persecuted state, till the reign of Domitian, the last of the Flavian family, who succeeded to the empire in the year 81.
In the year of 96 Domitian was slain, and Nerva, the succeed. ing emperor, published a pardon for those who were condemned for impiety, recalled those who were banished, and forbad the accusing of any men on account of impiety, or Judaism. Others who were under accusation, or under sentence of condemnation, now escaped by the lenity of Nerva.
The apostles and evangelists of this period, were their story distinctly known, would afford materials indeed of the rarest pleasure to every Christian mind. But there never arose in the church any historians like Thucydides and Livy, to illustrate the actions of saints. Heroes and statesmen have their reward here, saints hereafter. Christ's kingdom must not appear to be of this world, and while large volumes have been filled with the exploits of heroes, and the intrigues of statesmen, those men who were the divine instruments of evangelizing souls, the New Testament history, excepted, are for the most part unknown. What I can collect the reader shall see ; though he will find it is but little.
The first of the twelve apostles who suffered martyrdom, we have seen, was James the son of Zebedee, who fell a sacrifice to Herod Agrippa's ambitious desire of popularity.
The other James was preserved in Judea to a much later period. His martyrdom took place about the year 62, and his epistle was published a little before his death. As he always
resided at Jerusalem, and was providentially preserved through various persecutions, he had an opportunity of overcoming en. mity itself, and abating prejudice, in some measure. The name of just was generally given him on account of his singular innocence and integrity. And as he conformed to Jewish customs with more than occasional regularity, he was by no means so odious in the eyes of his countrymen, as the apostle of the Gentiles. But could he have fully overcome their enmity, he could not have been faithful to Christ. Many Jews respected the man, and admired the fruits of the gospel in him. The root and principle was still their abhorrence, and from the account of Euse. bius, the testimony of Hegesippus, an early Christian historian, whom he quotes, and of Josephus, it is plain, that it was thought a pitiable thing, that so good a man should be a Christian. Paul's escape from Jewish malice, by appealing to Cæsar, had sharpened the spirits of this people, and they were determined to wreak their vengeance on James, who was merely a Jew, and could plead no Roman exemptions. Festus dying president of Judea, before his successor Albinus arrived, Ananias the high-priest, a sadducee, and a merciless persecutor, held the supreme power in the interim, and called a council, before which he brought James with some others, accusing them of breaking the law of Moses. But it was not easy to procure his condemnation. His holy life had long obtained the veneration of his countrymen.
The great men were uneasy on account of the vast increase of Christian converts by his means, and endeavoured to entangle him, by persuading him to mount a pinnacle of the temple, and to speak to the people assembled at the time of the passover, against Christianity. James being placed aloft, delivered á frank confession of Jesus as then sitting at the right hand of power, and who should come in the clouds of heaven. Upon this Ananias and the rulers were highly incensed. To disgrace his character was their first intention. This had failed. To murder his person was the next, and the attempt was of very speedy execution. Crying out, that Justus himself was seduced, they threw him down, and stoned him. The apostle had strength to fall on his knees, and to pray, “I beseech thee, Lord God and Father, for them; for they know not what they do.” One of the priests moved with the scene, cried out, “ Cease, what do you mean? this just man is praying for you.” A person present, with a fuller's club, beat out his brains, and completed his martyrdom.
Very remarkable is the acknowledgment of Josephus. “ These things” (meaning the miseries of the Jews from the Romans) happened to them by way of avenging the death of James the Just, the brother of Jesus, whom they call Christ. For the Jews
slew him, though a very just man.” And from the same writer we learn, that Albinus severely reprimanded Ananias, and soon after deprived him of the high-priesthood.
After the death of James, and the desolation of Jerusalem, the apostles and disciples of our Lord, of whom many were yet alive, gathered themselves together with our Lord's kinsmen, to appoint a pastor of the church of Jerusalem in the room of James. The election fell on Simeon, the son of that Cleophas mentioned by St. Luke, as one of the two who went to Emmaus, and who was the brother of Joseph, our Lord's reputed father. We shall leave Simeon, the chief pastor of the Jewish church, at the end of this century.
Paul the apostle seems to have laboured with unwearied activity, from about the year 36 to the year 63, that is, from his conversion to the period in which St. Luke finishes his history. Within this period he wrote fourteen epistles, which will be the blessed means of feeding the souls of the faithful to the end of time. The second epistle to Timothy has been commonly supposed to have been written just before his martyrdom. From this epistle it is evident, that he had already been called before Nero, agreeably to the prediction, “ thou must be brought before Cæsar ;" and that no Christian durst appear for him ; he feelingly complains, “ all men forsook me." Yet he knew how to distinguish between malevolence and timidity; and therefore, though he could not excuse their neglect of him, he prays God that it might not be laid to their charge. But the grace of the Lord Jesus, which had hitherto been so eminently with the apostle, forsook him not in his trying moments. The Lord " stood with, and strengthened him.” He was enabled to testify for Christ and his gospel before Nero, with the same frank. ness, fortitude, and eloquence, that he had done before Felix, Festus, and Agrippa. And for the first time, and probably the last, the murderous tyrant Nero heard the glad tidings of salvation. It seems, by the expression, “ that all the Gentiles might hear,” that Paul was heard in a very full and solemn assembly, and had an opportunity of giving a clear account of Christianity. And as some of Cæsar's household are mentioned as saints in the epistle to the Philippians, there is reason to apprehend that the preaching was not in vain. He was, as he owns, “ delivered from the mouth of the lion.” Paul seems to have had this audience during the former part of his imprisonment at Rome, and to have been remanded to his confinement for the present.
Here he wrote the episties to the Philippians and Colossians before the end of the year 62. From the former of these it appears, that the whole court of Nero was made acquainted with his case, and that the cause of the gospel was promoted by this