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—that he might fill all things.
THESE words exhibit to us the great end and design of Christ’s ascension, and, without any strain or force laid upon them, are capable of a threefold interpretation; a distinct survey of each of which shall be the business of the present exercise.
1. In the first place then, this term all things may refer to the whole series of prophecies and predictions recorded of Christ in the scriptures; which he might be said to fill, or rather to fulfil by his ascension; which signification, as it is most proper to the force of the Greek word, (forasmuch as all other places which we translate fulfil,) are expressed by this word πληρόω, so it is most agreeable to the method of the scriptures, speaking of Christ; of whom we never find any great action recorded, which was before pointed at by some prophecy, but it is immediately added, that it was done ἵνα πληρώσῇ, that such or such a scripture might be fulfilled. And for Christ’s ascension, and the consequent of it, his diffusion of the gifts of the Spirit, we have an eminent prediction of that in Psalm lxviii. 18, here referred to by the apostle; He ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.
Concerning which place it must be confessed, that 23both the Hebrew and the Septuagint from the Hebrew render it, not, he gave gifts unto men, but he received gifts amongst men, ἀνέβης εἰς ὕψος, καὶ ἔλαβες δόματα ἐν ἀνθρώποις: and for this the Jews, who at all hands lie upon the catch, charge Paul as a perverter of the prophet’s meaning, in a false rendition of the sense of the place.
But to repel their calumny, and to salve the credit of our apostle, there may be a double answer applied to this.
1. That the apostle did not precisely tie himself to the very words, but followed only the design and sense of the text: and this was the same in both those different words, ἔλαβε καὶ ἔδωκε, he received and he gave. For the prophet, speaking of it as of a thing at that time future, says, that Christ received gifts, namely, from his Father: which gifts he was afterwards, in the fulness of time, to pour forth upon men. But the apostle, speaking of it as of a thing in his time past and fulfilled, mentions only his giving and actual bestowing those gifts, which in deed was the end for which he first received them of his Father.
2. But, secondly, if the Hebrew be rendered, not he received gifts for men, but from or amongst them, as the Jews contend that it ought; forasmuch as the prophet, in that psalm, relates the conquest God gave his people over their enemies; where upon he is said to have received gifts from them; as it is the custom for conquerors to set apart and consecrate some of their spoils to their god: I say, if this be admitted, as the plea is very plausible, we affirm then, that it was not Paul’s design to use these words, he gave gifts unto men, by way of citation 24 out of David; but having by a kind of transumption and accommodation borrowed those former words of his, he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, to shew how great a triumph God made over those greater enemies, sin and death, in the ascension of Christ, that he might now also express how much this spiritual triumph did exceed those temporal ones that God wrought for his people over their temporal enemies; whereas the psalmist says, that upon those triumphs he received gifts from men. Paul here adds these words of his own, that upon this greater triumph in the ascension of Christ, he gave gifts unto men; according to which sense the words carry in them an elegant antithesis, designed to set forth the excellency of one above the other, by how much it is more excellent to give than to receive. And thus we have a full vindication of the apostle.
But here, for the further illustration of Christ’s filling all things in this sense, I cannot pass over that useful observation of Grotius about the word πληρόω, that it does not signify only a bare giving an event to a prophecy, many of which, though applied to Christ by the apostles, yet indeed were fulfilled before him; as particularly that place in Matt. ii, I have called my son out of Egypt, was fulfilled in the children of Israel, of whom it was first spoke. But because those prophecies had not only a literal and historical, but also a further and a mystical intention, therefore this word πληρόω signifies a completion even to a redundancy, a fulfilling them over and above; namely, such a one, as not only reaches their first and historical event, but also verifies their mystical and more remote sense.25
And such a filling or fulfilling of the old prophecies and predictions was proper and peculiar to Christ, to whom they all pointed, and in whom they all ended, as in their utmost period, their only centre, their great and last design. And thus much for the first interpretation.
2. But 2dly, the term all things may refer to the church; which sense I shall most insist upon, as carrying in it the subject-matter of this day’s commemoration.
Now Christ, it seems, would not have the fabric of his church inferior to that of the universe: it being itself indeed a lesser world picked or rather sifted out of the greater, where mankind is brought into a narrower compass, but refined to a greater perfection. And as in the constitution of the world, the old philosophy strongly asserts that nature has with much care filled every little space and corner of it with body, there being nothing that it so much abhors as a vacuity: so Christ, as it were, following the methods of nature in the works of grace, has so advantageously framed the whole system of the church; first, by an infinite power making in it capacities, and then by an equal goodness filling them.
Chasms and emptinesses are the infelicities of the work, but the disgrace of the workman. Capacity unfilled is the opportunity of misery, the very nature and definition of want. Every vacuity is, as it were, the hunger of the creation, both an undecency and a torment.
Christ therefore would have his body the church not meager and contemptible, but replenished and borne up with sufficiency, displayed to the world 26with the beauties of fulness and the most ennobling perfections.
Now the church being a society of men combined together in the profession of Christian religion, it has unavoidably a double need or necessity emergent from its very nature and constitution. That is, one of government, the other of instruction; the first agreeing to it simply as a society, the second as it is such a society. And it is Christ’s great prerogative to fill it in both these respects.
1. And first in respect of its government, of which excellent and divine thing in general we may say this, that, as at first it could be nothing else but the invention of the infinite, eternal mind; so now it is the vital support, and very sinew that holds together all the parts of society. And being of such universal necessity, there must be a policy in church as well as state. The church indeed is a spiritual body, but government is the very spirit of that.
Hereupon it follows in the next verse, that Christ gave some, apostles; some, evangelists; same, prophets; some, pastors and teachers; part of which are names importing rule and jurisdiction.
But yet in all this catalogue of ecclesiastical officers we find no lay-elders, no church-aldermen, no spiritual furs; nor yet in the whole current of antiquity, till they dropped from the invention of a late impostor, who, being first expelled by the popular rout, became afterwards obnoxious to it, and so had no way to make himself chief in the government, but by allowing them a share.
But Geneva certainly is not the mother-church of the world, nor are Mr. Calvin and Mr. Beza fit correctors 27of antiquity or prescribers to posterity ; nor ought this new fashion in church-government to be therefore authentic, because derived to us from France.
2dly. The church being thus framed into the economy of a governed body, stands equally in need of instruction. For inasmuch as the doctrine it professes grows not upon the stock of natural principles, so as to be deducible from thence by the strength of reason and discourse, but comes derived from immediate and divine revelation; it requires the helps and assistances of frequent inculcation, to water and keep it alive upon the understanding and the will, where nature gives it no footing from any notions within, but what it receives from the force and arts of external impression.
Now for this also, Christ made a full and glorious provision by that miraculous diffusion of the Holy Ghost, after his ascension, upon those great pastors and representatives of his church, the apostles.
In which notable passage of his conferring the Holy Ghost, we have these two things observable.
I. The time when.
II. The manner how it was given.
As for the time in which it was conferred, this is remarkable in a double respect.
1. In respect of Christian religion itself, it being about its first solemn promulgation; which though it was a doctrine most true and excellent, yet certainly it was also very strange and unusual. And this we may observe, that there is no strange institution that can ever be of long continuance in the world, but that which first enters and ingratiates itself by something signal and prodigious.28
The beginning of every thing has a strange and potent influence upon its duration: and the first appearances usually determine men either in their acceptance or dislike. Nothing stamps itself so deep in the memory as that which is fresh and new, and not made contemptible by a former acquaintance; and the freshness of every thing is its beginning.
Had not Christ therefore ushered in his religion by miracle and wonder, and arrested men’s first apprehensions of it by something grand and super natural, he had hindered its progress by a disadvantageous setting forth, exposed it naked to infidelity, and so rendered it first disputable, and then despised. It had been like the betraying a sublime and noble composition by a low and creeping prologue, which blasts the reputation of the ensuing discourse, and shuts up the auditors approbation with prejudice and contempt.
Moses therefore, by the appointment of God, bringing in a new religion, did it with signs and wonders, the mountain burning, and the trumpet sounding; so that it was not so much the divine matter of the law, as the strange manner of its delivery, that took such hold of the obstinate Jews; and possibly Moses should never have convinced, had he not first frighted their belief.
And this is so necessary upon the very principles of nature, that even those impostors who have introduced false religions into the world, have yet endeavoured to do it by the same methods by which the true was established. Thus Numa Pompilius settled a religion amongst the old Romans, by feigning strange and supernatural converse with their supposed goddess Egeria. Apollonius Tyanaeus, who 29endeavoured to retrieve gentilism in opposition to Christianity, attempted it by such strange and seemingly miraculous actions. And Mahomet is reported to have planted his impostures by the same way of recommendation. Though in all these, the sober and judicious observer will easily perceive that their miracles were as false as their religions.
But however, this shews how the mind of man is naturally to be prevailed upon; and that in the proposal of so great a thing to it as a new religion, the natural openness and meeting fervours of men’s first acceptance are by all means to be secured and possessed; which is more successfully done by a sudden breaking in upon their faculties, with amazement and wonder, than by courting their reason with argument and persuasion.
2. But secondly, the time of Christ’s sending the Spirit is very remarkable in respect of the apostles themselves. It was when they entered upon the full execution of their apostolic office, and from followers of Christ became the great leaders of the world.
During the time of their discipleship, and Christ’s converse with them upon earth, we read of no such wonderful endowments, such variety of tongues, such profound penetration into the mysteries of the gospel. But, on the contrary, with many instances of very thick ignorance, childishness of speech, and stupidity of conception, as appears from their many weak and insignificant questions proposed to Christ; their gross dulness to apprehend many of his speeches, in themselves very plain and intelligible: so that Christ is almost perpetually upbraiding them upon this account, as in Luke ix. 41, How long shall I 30 be with you, and suffer you? and Matt. xv. 16, Are ye also yet without understanding? and Luke xxiv. 25, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have said; with many other such increpations; which shews, that while they were yet under Christ’s wing, and, as it were, in the nonage and minority of their apostleship, they were not the most seraphic doctors in the world.
But when Christ brings them forth upon the stage of a public office, to act as his commissioners and ambassadors, to gather and to govern a church in his name; immediately, like Saul upon his being anointed king, they step forth men of another spirit, great linguists, powerful disputants, able to cope with the Jewish sanhedrim, to baffle their profoundest rabbies, and to out-reason the very Athenians. With their faculties strangely enlarged, their apprehensions heightened, and their whole mind furnished with that stock of endowments and rare abilities, that in others are the late and dear-bought acquisitions of large parts, long time, and severe study.
I confess there is something in office and authority that of itself raises a man’s abilities; and the very air and genius of government does, as it were, inspire him with that largeness and reach of mind, that never appeared in the same person yet in the state of privacy and subjection: so that government oftentimes does not only indicare virum, but facere; insensibly mould and frame the man that has it, to a fitness for it; and at length equals him to his employment; raising him above all the personal defects and little nesses of his former condition; sublimating his parts, changing his thoughts, and widening his designs. 31The reason and philosophy of which I shall not inquire into, the thing itself being clear from experience.
Now that the apostles felt these natural influences from their apostolic employment, we have no reason to deny. Yet certainly these could not work in them such a stupendous change. This could be ascribed to nothing, but to those omnipotent assistances of the Spirit descending upon them from heaven, and investing them in their office by so magnificent and miraculous an installation.
And here I cannot but reflect upon the brutish folly and absurd impudence of the late fanatic decriers of the necessity of human learning, in order to the ministerial function, drawing an argument from this, that the first and greatest ministers of the church were persons illiterate, and not acquainted with the academy, but utterly ignorant of the arts and sciences, the study of which takes up so much of our time, and draws after it so much of our estimation.
Which argument though they vaunt in as their greatest and most plausible, yet there is none that so directly strikes at the very throat of their cause. For whereas God found the apostles upon their first access to the ministry thus naked of those endowments, he by a miracle supplies what their opportunities permitted them not to learn, and by immediate power creates in them those abilities which others by their industry acquire.
Had not the knowledge of tongues and the force of disputation been necessary to a divine, would God have put himself to a miracle to furnish the apostles 32 with such endowments, in themselves so useless, and in these men’s judgment also pernicious? But such persons are below a confutation, and made only to credit what they disapprove.
Now concerning the time of the effusion of the Holy Ghost, upon comparing one scripture with an other, there seems to me a very considerable doubt, very near a contradiction, and therefore worthily deserving our explication.
The giving of the Holy Ghost is, by many clear scriptures, affirmed to be after Christ’s ascension: nay, his ascension is made not only antecedent, but also causal to it, John vii. 39, The Holy Ghost was not yet given., because that Jesus was not yet glorified. And yet in John xx. it is said, that Christ, a little before his ascension, conferred the Holy Ghost upon his disciples, ver. 22, And he breathed upon them, and said., Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Now these places seem directly contradictory.
To which I answer, that if the giving of the Holy Ghost be in both places to be understood for one and the same thing, they certainly contradict one another. Wherefore, to avoid this, we must allow a double giving of the Holy Ghost: one, in which Christ conveys the ministerial power; the other, in which he confers ministerial gifts and abilities. Now it was the first of these that happened before Christ’s ascension, as is clear from the following words in ver. 23, Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted. Which we know is the great instance of ministerial power and authority. And this, by the way, excellently explains the sense of our church, as it uses the same words in the ordination of priests, Receive ye the 33Holy Ghost. Whereby she does not profess to convey to the person ordained ministerial gifts and abilities, but only ministerial power.
But this solemn giving of the Holy Ghost after Christ’s ascension, was a conferring gifts, graces, and abilities upon the apostles, to fit them for the discharge of their ministerial office and power, which had been conveyed to them by the former giving of the Holy Ghost before Christ’s ascension. And thus we have given a fair accommodation to these places of scripture.
And so having considered the first thing observable in Christ’s giving the Holy Ghost, viz. the time when; I pass now to the
Second; which is, the manner how it was conferred. And here the more brevity is required, the thing being so eminently known to us all upon that full description of it in Acts ii. 2, 3; as, That the Holy Ghost descended and sat upon the apostles in the form of cloven fiery tongues, ushered in with the sound of a rushing mighty wind. The various significancy of which circumstances would furnish out matter for a year’s discourse. And as for the popish writers and commentators, they are almost endless in this particular, so anatomizing the miracle into all its minute particles, and spinning out every circumstance into infinite allusions and metaphors: which indeed is their custom, in treating of most of the grand passages of the gospel, till they have even made their religion itself but a metaphor, that is, something like a religion, but not a religion.
But the design of this great action being to signify and to transmit spiritual notices by sensible conveyances, it must not wholly be passed over in silence.34
Briefly therefore, it exhibits to the world the great means chosen by God for the propagation of the kingdom of Christ. The apostles, beating upon that general misconceit of the Jews about the kingdom of the Messiah, in the preceding chapter, ver. 6, asked Christ, Whether he would at that time restore the kingdom to Israel f and questionless, in the strength of that prejudice, they expected here some strange appearance of angels that should conquer the world before them, and bring all nations to the Jewish yoke and subjection.
But suddenly, by a new kind of warlike preparation, they receive no other weapons but tongues, the proper badges of him that is the eternal Word, weapons that draw no blood, break no bones; their only armour and artillery was variety of languages, that fitted them more to travel over than to conquer the world: and thus was that first cause of the world’s confusion made the great instrument of its salvation.
And as these tongues were a proper representation of the gospel, so the peculiar nature and efficacy of this gospel was emphatically set forth by those attending circumstances of the fire and the mighty wind, both of which are notable for these two effects.
I. To cleanse. 2. To consume and destroy. The gospel came like a great and mighty wind, to dry and cleanse a dirty and polluted world; like a fire, to purge and carry off that dross that had spread and settled itself in the inmost regions of our nature. The design of Christianity was nothing else but to make virtue as universal and as natural to men as vice, as desirable to their thoughts, and as suitable to their affections. Christ’s intent was not so much to amuse men’s reason with the belief of strange propositions, 35but to refine their manners, to correct their tempers, to turn vultures into doves, goats into sheep; to make the drunkard once for all vomit up his sin; to bring the wanton only in love with purity, and to see no beauty but in holiness; to make men, of covetous, cruel, and intemperate, to become liberal, courteous, and sober; in a word, to be new creatures and excellent persons.
And therefore he that, in the profession of so pure and noble a religion, thinks not of the design of it, but only hears, and never feels the word; to whom it comes only in the sound of the wind, but not in the force and efficacy of the fire: who, in the midst of all spiritual helps, of the several methods of amendment and renovation; as, seasonable sermons, continual prayers, frequent sacraments, and the like; yet carries his old, base inclinations fresh and lively about him; and cannot say that he ever conquered so much as one habitual sin, nor got the better of any one vile appetite; but remains sordidly obnoxious, and a slave to all its motions and returns; so that by a desperate vicissitude of sin and duty, he hears and sins, prays and sins, partakes and sins; and that perhaps with a better stomach than before; till, by such a continual mockery of God, he comes at length to have finished the fatal round of reprobation: such a one will find, that that Word which could not cleanse him will be a wind to blast, and a fire to consume him; and that the same Spirit, that only breathed in gentle, but neglected persuasions, will at length, like a resisted tempest, rage in the sad effects of incurable breaches and a final confusion.36
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