We're making big changes. Please try out the beta site at beta.ccel.org and send us feedback. Thank you!
« Prev § I. Actual Foundation of the Church on the Day… Next »

§ I. Actual Foundation of the Church on the Day of Pentecost. Its First Mission and First Persecution.

Fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, during the celebration at Jerusalem of the Feast of Pentecost, which was the feast of the ingathering,33Pentecost was spoken of in the time of Josephus as the feast of the great assembly. ("Ant.," iii, 10, 6.) According to Jewish tradition, Pentecost was the anniversary of the promulgation of the Jewish law. the Holy Spirit came down upon the apostles and disciples, assembled to the number of a hundred and twenty in an upper chamber. Some representatives of the sacerdotal theory—always disposed to confine the Spirit of God to his sanctuaries—have maintained that this place, consecrated by so glorious an event, formed a part of the large attached buildings of the Temple at Jerusalem.44Thiersch, "Die Kirche in dem Apostolischen Zeitalter," p. 66. But this is an entirely gratuitous hypothesis, of which the text bears no trace. The Holy Spirit breathes where he will, and does not suffer himself to be restricted to any 29religious institution. The Pentecostal miracle was, moreover, the inauguration of the glorious era foretold by Jesus Christ, when adoration should be no longer associated with certain sacred edifices, but when the whole world should become again the temple of God. We must carefully distinguish, in this miracle, the religious fact from the attendant circumstances and figurative symbols. The "mighty rushing wind," the tongues like as of fire, which rest upon the Apostles' heads, are sublime types of the inward miracle: the wind symbolizes the invisible action and sovereign freedom of the Divine Spirit, (John iii, 8;) the fire its purifying virtue, (Isaiah vi, 6, 7;) and the form under which this fire appeared suggests its chief mode of operation in the moral world. Speech is, in truth, as has been well said, a divine eloquence which sways human freedom. Speech is the noblest medium between the Creator and the creature; as between the creatures themselves, by it the Gospel is to fight and conquer. We fully admit the marvelous character of that scene in the upper chamber at Jerusalem. The sovereign God, who rules in the world of nature no less than in the world of spirit and of grace, has undoubtedly the right to borrow from the former effective symbols to set forth to the eye the great facts of the latter. "He maketh the winds his angels, and the flames of fire his ministers." Heb. i, 7. We must rise at once, however, from the sign to the thing signified. In this, as in every other instance, the miracle belongs essentially to the moral and invisible world. It is wrought in the hearts of the disciples, who, according to the testimony of sacred history, "were all filled with the Holy 30Ghost." Acts ii, 4. They had already received it in a measure, but they were not entirely filled with it till then. All the barriers between earth and heaven were removed. The fullness of God could now fill the human soul; by the Holy Spirit God himself could henceforth inhabit this living sanctuary, and the promise of the spiritual return of Christ was abundantly realized. Until this time, the young Church might be compared to a ship ready to depart, its sails spread for the wind. The breath from on high now blows upon it; it is no longer an inert mass, it is an animated body; it may set forth on its flight over all seas, and be they stormy or calm, it shall be ever advancing toward its appointed haven. This first outpouring of the Spirit of God was not restricted to the Apostles, for the sacred writer declares that all who were in the upper chamber were filled with it. Nor was it a simple illumination of the understanding: the Holy Ghost was first and most sensibly shed abroad in the hearts of the primitive Christians. His influence went down at once to the very center of their moral and religious life, that it might assimilate to itself one by one all their faculties. But this assimilation was not realized in a moment. They did not in one brief instant acquire all knowledge. That which they already knew was quickened, while the Spirit went on day by day to enrich them with understanding, and to "lead them into all truth." John xvi, 13.

His presence in their midst was marked by one miracle more extraordinary than those which had preceded it. The disciples began to speak in unknown tongues. This miracle, which, with some 31modifications, is repeated several times in the apostolic age, was in harmony with the essential character of this period, which we have called the period of the purely supernatural. The human element seems to pale and succumb in its first contact with the divine. The Spirit of God, on its descent from heaven, finds human language a vessel too small to contain it. The ordinary forms of speech are broken through; a language which is beyond all known forms takes the place of ordinary words. It is the burning, mysterious tongue of ecstasy. Thus we regard those unknown tongues, of which mention is made in the Church of the first century. To speak in an unknown tongue, was to use that ineffable language which has no analogue in human speech. The Pentecostal miracle had a special character, by which it was distinguished from kindred miracles; the disciples were understood by all who ran together on the first tidings of the prodigy wrought in the upper chamber. Was there in this exceptional language a marvelous power, which went from soul to soul, and triumphed over the diversity of idioms? or did these Jews, gathered at Jerusalem from all parts of the world, really catch the accents of their various dialects? The problem is beyond solution. It is, however, certain that the miracle, at least under this special form, was of no permanent character. Irenæus and Tertullian have erroneously asserted that the early Christians retained the use of the gift of tongues, and employed it in carrying the Gospel to the nations of the world.55Irenæus, "Adv. Hæres., Book V, c. vi; Tertullian, "Contra Marc.," Book V, c. viii. The style of the sacred 32writers clearly shows that they had learned the Greek language in an ordinary manner, and did not possess it by miraculous gift and by inspiration, for they wrote it incorrectly, and in a form surcharged with Hebraisms. We know also that Peter had an interpreter at Rome.66According to the testimony of Papias in "Eusebius," Book VII, c. xxxix. St. Paul seems not to have understood the language of the inhabitants of Lystra and Derbe, who wished to sacrifice to him as to a god. Acts xiv, 11-14.

The miracle of Pentecost was an enacted prophecy of the happy time when all the diversities created by evil will be lost in the unity of love. Is not this prophecy receiving a constant fulfillment as Christianity masters, one after another, the languages of mankind, and makes them the media for conveying its immortal truths? "The Church in her humility," says the venerable Bede, "re-forms the unity of language broken before by pride."77"Unitatem linguarum quam superbia Babylonis disperserate humilitas Ecclesiæ recolligit." See Note D, on the Pentecostal miracle.

We know with what success Peter replied to the raillery of some unbelieving Jews, who had found their way into the wondering crowd. Three thousand persons were won to the Church by that first preaching of the Apostle. This rapid increase was soon to bring about an open rupture between the young Church and Judaism. The Sadducean party took the lead in the persecution. It has been declared to be very unlikely that the Pharisees, who had been the most bitter enemies of Jesus Christ, would have let themselves be thus outstripped by their rivals.88Baur, "Paulus," pp. 34, 35. But it 33must not be forgotten that at this period the Church had not yet comprehended the doctrine of Christ in all its issues. It had not yet broken the outward bond with Judaism. The point on which it insisted most strongly was the resurrection of the dead; now this dogma was particularly odious to the Sadducees. Annas and Caiaphas, who presided over the council before which the Apostles were cited, were the well-known leaders of the Roman or Sadducean party. Acts v, 17. The only judge who showed himself impartial toward the Church was the Pharisee Gamaliel.

During all this early time the influence of the Apostle Peter predominates. The part thus taken by him has been urged as a proof of his primacy. But on closer examination it will be seen that he does but exercise his natural gifts, purified and ennobled by the Divine Spirit. Peter was the son of a fisherman named Jonas, of the village of Bethsaida, in Galilee. Matt. xvi, 17; John i, 44. He was among the disciples of John the Baptist, and was thus prepared to respond favorably to the call of Jesus Christ. He soon received his vocation as an apostle. His disposition was quick and ardent, but his zeal was blended with presumption and pride. Living in constant contact with the Master, as one of the three disciples who enjoyed his closest intimacy, he conceived for him a strong affection. His impetuous nature was, however, far from being brought at once under control. He had noble impulses, like that which prompted his grand testimony to the Saviour: "Thou art the Christ of God." Matt. xvi, 16. But he was also actuated by many an earthly motive, which drew down upon him the Master's sharp reproach. Once, 34under the influence of Jewish prejudice, he repelled with indignation the idea of the humiliating death of Christ. At another time he was eager to appear more courageous than all the other disciples, and again yielding to his natural impetuosity, he drew his sword to defend Him whose "kingdom is not of this world." It was needful that the yet incoherent elements of his moral nature should be thrown into the crucible of trial. His shameful fall resulted in a decisive moral crisis, which commenced in that moment when, pierced to the heart by the look of Christ, he went out of the court of the high priest and wept bitterly. He appears entirely changed in the last interview he has with the Saviour on the shores of the Lake of Tiberias. Jesus Christ restores him after his threefold denial, by calling forth a threefold confession of his love. John xxi, 15.

Nothing but determined prejudice could construe the tender solicitude of the Master for this disciple into an official declaration of his primacy. We are here in the region of feeling alone, not on the standing ground of right and legal institutions. Nor has the primacy of Peter any more real foundation in the famous passage, "Tu es Petrus." Jesus Christ admirably characterized by this image the ardent and generous nature of his disciple, and that courage of the pioneer which marked him out as the first laborer in the foundation of the primitive Church. The son of Jonas was its most active founder, and, as it were, its first stone. He was also the rock against which the first tempest from without spent its fury.99In the course of this history it will be seen that the Church, for three centuries, did not attach the Romish sense to Matt. xvi, 18. Beyond 35this, the narrative of St. Luke lends no countenance to any hierarchical notions.

Every thing is natural and spontaneous in the conduct of St. Peter. He is not official president of a sort of apostolic college. He acts only with the concurrence of his brethren, whether in the choice of a new apostle,1010"And Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples." Acts i, 15. or at Pentecost,1111"But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice." Acts ii, 14. or before the Sanhedrim. Peter had been the most deeply humbled of the disciples, therefore he was the first to be exalted. John's part being at this time inconspicuous, no other apostle is named with Peter, because he fills the whole scene with his irrepressible zeal and indefatigable activity.

The Christian mission during this period gained two altogether exceptional successes. A few weeks after the baptism of the three thousand converts of the day of Pentecost, five thousand souls were added to the Church as the result of the miraculous healing of the impotent man, and of another sermon of St. Peter. Acts iv, 4. The Church continued for a long time rapidly to receive adherents in numbers scarcely less surprising. This first offensive movement of Christianity was accomplished with a holy impetuosity and joyous enthusiasm. It has been asserted that the number of the conversions is too enormous not to indicate a mythical character in the sacred narrative.1212Baur, "Paulus," p. 27. Such an assertion does not take into account the extraordinary zeal displayed by the first Christians, the powerful inspiration by which 36they were animated, and the impressive miracles which accompanied their preaching. Acts v, 15, 16.

It would be a mistake also to imagine that all these new converts had reached the same stage of religious development. They differed in piety and in knowledge, but they had nevertheless received the Gospel with sincerity. In a short time the Church had gathered into itself more than ten thousand persons. This was assuredly a miracle not less amazing than that of the day of Pentecost.

To these triumphs Judaism replied by persecution. The Church has had time, during eighteen centuries, to become accustomed to this brutal and senseless appeal to force. We need not here dwell on the constitution of the Sanhedrim. We know that it was composed of seventy-one members, that it was presided over by the High Priest, and that from the time of the Roman conquest it constituted the religious tribunal of the nation. It was not always possible to distinguish with clearness the religious sphere from the civil, so closely had the two been united in the old theocracy. The Sanhedrim naturally assumed as its right to summon to its bar any who attacked the religion of the country. Now the apostolic preaching appeared, in the eyes of those who regarded Jesus Christ as a false prophet, to be an assault upon the national religion. A theocratic government is a government of constraint. Freedom of conscience would have been an unmeaning sound under the Jewish economy. But the abrogation of the ancient economy had abrogated the right of religious coercion. Persecution on the part of the Sanhedrim was now only an odious abuse of power. It must be 37further admitted that men like Annas and Caiaphas cared little for theocratic rights, for they belonged to the sect which repudiated the spirit of the ancient religion.

This first persecution revealed the deep-seated enmity which exists between skeptical Materialism and the Gospel. We shall often have occasion, in the course of this history, to show how intolerant is incredulity, and how impatient of the freedom of sincere belief. We shall see that the Sadducean spirit is always essentially a persecuting spirit. At this time we find that the people were not, as subsequently, in favor of the adoption of violent measures against the Church, for the persecutors feared to offend the multitude by maltreating the Apostles. Acts v, 26.

Immediately after the healing of the impotent man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, the magistrate in charge of the sanctuary, and who appears to have been a man of rank, since Josephus names him directly after the High Priest,1313Josephus, "Bell. Jud.," vi, 5, 3. seizes Peter and John, and casts them into prison. A solemn meeting of the Sanhedrim is convoked, and the Apostles appear before this iniquitous tribunal, in which fanaticism sits side by side with skepticism. The grandeur of the scene is beyond description. The entire world is at this time held under terrible oppression. A heavy yoke bows the heads of all. Every effort has been made to break it—open revolt, treason, force, and cunning. But the chains have been only riveted the firmer upon the struggling race. Now, for the first time, despotism finds a barrier that will not break, 38 and meets with invincible resistance. It must bend before these ignorant and unlearned men, who have no weapons of war in their hands, no inflammatory words on their lips, but who oppose an indomitable faith to all the threats hurled against them. In this first conflict between conscience and force victory remains with the former. This day is liberty born into the world, never to be destroyed.

The president of the Sanhedrim asks Peter in what name he healed the impotent man. The Apostle replies with the utmost respect to the magistrates of his nation. He recognizes their authority like the most docile of their subordinates. Acts iv, 8. Peter is neither a rebel nor an agitator. He is a servant of God and of truth; therefore he is invincible upon the ground of religion. With what boldness does he avow, in the midst of that council, which a few days before had condemned Jesus Christ, the name of the crucified Lord! "If we be this day examined of the good deed done to the impotent man, by what means he is made whole; be it known to you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God hath raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole." Acts iv, 8-10. The Sanhedrim deliberate on this reply, so firm and courageous. The result of their deliberation is to forbid the Apostles to speak or to teach in the name of Jesus. Acts iv, 18. By such a decision the first step is taken in the path of persecution. Had the judges of Peter and John gone no further than this prohibition they would have even then deserved the name of persecutors. To hinder the manifestation of a conviction, 39to restrain the efforts at proselytism made by a sincere faith, is to persecute the immortal soul; it is to deny its right, and to prepare the way for violent persecution, since conscience does not allow of concessions to fear or danger. A duty becomes all the more sacred when obstacles are placed in the way of its accomplishment. Disobedience to an unjust command is dictated by the same motives which, in the ordinary course of things, would lead to a scrupulous conformity to law. The Sanhedrim thought they were taking a safe and inoffensive step. From that step, however, they will be fatally led on to violent persecution. Peter and John appeal from the authority of this iniquitous tribunal to the authority of God himself and to his clear command: "Whether it be right in the sight of God," they exclaim, "to obey you rather than God, judge ye." Socrates had made the same appeal before the Athenian judges. We admire it in the mouth of the great philosopher, but how is its power enhanced as the utterance of those who are guided not merely by the inspiration of a noble heart and a true genius, but by the light of revelation.

The Apostles, as they had declared, pay no heed to an unjust prohibition. They resume their preaching with the same success as before. They are thrown into prison. Miraculously set at large, they begin again to proclaim the Gospel. Cited anew before the Sanhedrim, they preserve the same attitude. They are calm and immovable, as becomes the disciples of that Jesus whom "God hath exalted to his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour." Acts v, 31. They would have been again incarcerated but for the 40intervention of Gamaliel, who takes up their defense, and gives wise counsel of toleration. The closing words of the speech of this venerable doctor, on the danger of fighting against God, show a great breadth of view. Acts v, 39. Was he expressing the general good-will of his sect toward the Christians, or did he personally stand aloof from the rest of the Pharisees, by a more independent spirit? Did his toleration cover, as has been asserted, contempt for the new religion, or was it founded on an exaggerated confidence in Judaism? Be the answer what it may, Gamaliel obtained from the Sanhedrim the liberation of the Apostles, after they had been scourged and again charged to speak no more in the name of Jesus. But they were men of purpose, and nothing could turn them from the accomplishment of their duty. Peter and John had shown, by their calm and firm attitude, that they were the conquerors in the struggle of force with conscience. Their readiness to endure all sufferings and ill treatment declared yet more clearly that their cause was not to be crushed. Heroic words, such as they had uttered, would be meaningless unless they were prepared to honor them by submitting to all the consequences of resistance. He who is resolved to suffer and to die for God cannot be vanquished. His noble endurance is also an ineffaceable disgrace to his persecutors, and every fresh victim to their rage makes persecution more detested. There is, then, no graver mistake than for a persecuted people to offer material as well as moral resistance; this is to subject themselves to the chances of strength, to the risks of a struggle of which the issue is always uncertain. He who takes the sword 41deserves to perish by the sword, for he implicitly admits the right of the strongest. Moral resistance, on the contrary, knows no chances, no risks. It is linked to an immortal principle, and destined to certain triumph.

The young Church thus persecuted took refuge in prayer. Hence the majestic calmness, the blending of gentleness and indomitable energy which distinguished it. In such conflicts the soul finds serenity only on the summits of faith. To what an elevation were the Apostles lifted in that sublime prayer which was inspired by the circumstances in which they had just found themselves. From the particular fact of the persecution, they rise to the general law of the religious history which it reveals. They see it in that opposition between the princes of this world and the Son of God, set forth in the prophetic strains of Psalm ii. They comprehend that the bloody and victorious strife of Calvary is to be ever renewed. They feel themselves close bound to Christ the crucified; therefore they ask not to be delivered from persecution, but only to be faithful to him under their cross, and to be filled with his Spirit that they may the better glorify the name of the Holy Child Jesus. Acts iv, 24-30. God manifested his presence in their midst by a miraculous token. The place where they were was shaken. This miracle contained a promise for every time of persecution. The Church of the catacombs and the Church of the desert alike received its fulfillment, for in both there was given a marvellous manifestation of the presence of God.

42
« Prev § I. Actual Foundation of the Church on the Day… Next »



| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |