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SERMON XXV.

HEBREWS ii. 16.

For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but ht took on him the seed of Abraham.

IF we reflect upon the state of the world before the coming of Christ, we shall find, that a long and a dark night of ignorance had overspread almost the whole universe for about the space of four thousand years before God was pleased to permit this great Sun of righteousness to arise upon it. The improvements of their reason were but mean, but their religion scandalous: the most advanced results of both amounting to no more but this; that they did, or at least might, by the force of natural reason, know that there was a God; and knowing him to be God, they could not but know him also to be infinitely wise, powerful, just, holy, and the like. Upon the knowledge of this, (as it is easy to glance from one contrary to the other,) they could not but consequentially know themselves to be impure, unjust, and unholy. And being so, whether, upon the stock of nature or tradition, they could proceed to collect further, that this holy God would be concerned to punish them for not being so too; and in case he should, whether yet he would not accept of some other thing as vicarious, to bear the blow of divine justice due to themselves; I say, whether they gathered 493this from the conclusions of reason or the reports of tradition, certain it is, that this persuasion put the world upon sacrifices, as the great propitiations of a Deity, and arts of recompence to an offended justice.

This was then the sum of their religion, for them to sin, and the poor beast to die; for the man to do like a beast, and the beast to suffer for the man. Nay, it improved even to homicide; and to offer up the fruit of the body for the sin of the soul was a sublime satisfaction. To expiate impiety by inhumanity; to kill the innocent (as it were) to get his innocence; to let others blood for our distempers; this was all the religion of a world acted by the dictates of ignorance and the overruling fallacy of a brutish, inveterate custom.

It was now time for God to commiserate the ab surd and soul-ruining devotions of a besotted world, and for Christ to step forth and declare, that such sacrifice and burnt-offerings God would not, and therefore that a body was to be prepared for himself.

Hereupon, to rescue the deluded sons of men from their sins, and, what was much more sinful, from their religion; as the reserve of Providence, as the inheritance of the last ages; as it were to credit the concluding scene and last going off of the world, in the fulness of time, Christ was born, and sent by his Father, to be the great mediator and instructor of mankind; both to discourage and to expiate sin, and to teach the world the worship of their Maker.

And all this he was to effect by the strongest methods and most miraculous condescensions to our likeness, by being God manifested, or rather hidden, 494 in the flesh; clothing his divine nature with all the frailties of the human, suppressing his glories, and, in a word, by taking upon him the seed of Abraham.

As for the words that I have here pitched upon, it must be confessed that the translation represents them very different from what they are in the original, which runs thus; Οὐ γὰρ δήπου ἐπιλαμβάνεται τοὺς ἀγγέλος. Where we find that what we render by the preter tense, he took, the original has by the present, he takes: and what we render the nature of angels, the original has only τοὺς ἀγγέλος, angelos. Neither is it clear, that to take on him, or to assume, is the genuine signification of ἐπιλαμβάνεται. This text in deed is generally used by divines, ancient and modern, to prove Christ’s incarnation, or assuming the human nature, notwithstanding that this word ἐπιλαμβάνεται (as Camero well observes) is nowhere else in scripture taken in this sense. St. Paul uses it in 1 Tim. vi. 19, but with him there it signifies, to apprehend, to attain, or compass a thing. But its chief signification, and which seems most suitable to this place, is, to rescue and deliver; it being taken from the usual manner of rescuing a thing; namely, by catching hold of it, and so forcibly wringing it from the adversary. As David, when he rescued the lamb from the bear and the lion’s mouth, might be properly said ἐπιλαμβάνεται. And Grotius observes, that the proper sense of this word is, vindicare seu asserere in libertatem manu injecta. Though, if he will needs have that to be the signification of the word in this place, it may be feared that he does it out of too much favour to a bad hypothesis.

Before we proceed any further therefore, it will, I think, be of moment to settle the right interpretation 495of the word, and to see whether ἐπιλαμβάνεται may be more properly rendered, he takes hold of, or delivers, or, he takes on him, or assumes. That the word will bear both, is certain; and it is also as certain, that if the text be considered in itself, abstracted from what follows, it will properly enough bear the former sense, of delivering or taking hold of: according to which, it will run thus; Christ verily does not deliver or redeem angels, but he delivers and redeems the seed of Abraham. Which interpretation surely does not offer any violence to the sense of the text.

Those who will not allow Christ to have had any existence antecedent to his conception, nor a divine nature, which did afterwards assume the human, are earnest for this interpretation, utterly excluding and rejecting the other. I have already granted, that the words thus rendered contain in them a truth; but then we must remember, that every true proposition drawn out of a text is not therefore the true interpretation of it. The fathers generally take ἐπιλαμβάνεται in the sense in which it is here translated; namely, he assumed, or took on him the seed of Abraham. And besides the influence that antiquity and general consent ought deservedly to have upon us in expounding scripture, I conceive, that there are not wanting also solid arguments to evince, that this is the proper sense of the word, as it is here used, and not the other.

For the proving of which, I shall premise this one note, (which indeed is clear of itself from the very illative particle therefore,) that this and the following verse are so joined together, as to make up one argument; of which argument this verse is the antecedent, 496 and the other the consequent, or inference drawn from it.

Upon this consideration, I thus argue:

1. If in this verse is not signified Christ’s taking on him our nature, how comes it to pass, that, in the next verse, which has an illative dependence upon this, the seed of Abraham are called his brethren? for his being their deliverer only would not make them his brethren; but his taking of our nature properly does. According to which, the argument proceeds fully thus; That since Christ was pleased, by assuming our nature, to be our brother, it became him to be like his brethren in all the circumstances of that nature.

2. In the following verse, which is argumentatively inferred from this, the thing designed to be proved is Christ’s priesthood; but his being barely a deliverer is not a proper, specific medium to infer that; whereas his assuming of our nature is: forasmuch as a priest is to have a cognation or conjunction of nature with those for whom he is to offer sacrifices. For none but a man can be a priest to offer for men.

3. In the fourteenth verse of this chapter, the apostle had already expressed the very same thing here contended for, in these words: Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself took part of the same. So that it is probable, that the apostle is here still pursuing the same subject, namely, Christ’s incarnation, or investing of himself with the human nature. And therefore I cannot see what advantage it could be to any, to rend away this interpretation from the seventeenth verse, when the same sense is so clear and resplendent in the former verse, that it sets it above the attempts 497of any, either to pervert the meaning, or to evade the force of it.

Having thus given an exposition of the words, I shall cast the prosecution of them into these particulars.

I. To shew what is naturally inferred from Christ’s taking on him the seed of Abraham.

II. To shew why Christ took on him this, rather than the nature of angels.

I. For the first of these, there are four things that follow, and are inferred upon it.

I. As, first, the divine nature of Christ is unavoidably consequent from hence. There are those who assert Christ to be a mere creature, and not at all to have existed before his conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin: to cut asunder which blasphemous assertion, I need use no other argument than this; If Christ took upon him the seed of Abraham, or the human nature, then he had a being antecedent to the taking upon him this nature. The consequence is proved thus: Every action proceeds from some being or nature that does exist; but to assume the human nature is an action, and that not the action of the nature assumed; therefore it must be the action of some nature that did exist before. That this act of assumption could not be the action of the human nature is evident; because in transient actions the same thing cannot be the agent and the object, in reference to the same action. And therefore since the act of assuming did terminate in the human nature, as the thing assumed, it could not issue from the same human nature as the agent assuming.

This argumentation is clear and undeniable, that 498 Christ’s taking upon him the human nature infers, that he did it by virtue of a nature preexistent to that, which, since it was not the nature of angels, (as is here expressly denied,) it follows, that it was a divine nature.

And truly, those who confess Christ the Saviour of the world, but allow him not this, make him a Saviour without a power to save. This is a work to be carried on against enemies and oppositions insuperable by any thing under a deity. Nothing can conquer and break asunder the bars of sin and death but the arms of omnipotence: the Devil could not be his captive, had he not been his creature.

No conquest to be had over the strong man, but by a stronger; and nothing stronger than the angelic nature, but the divine. The strength of sin is the law; and no strength can master the law, but that strength which made it. He must command the gates of heaven who lets sinners into it; otherwise the seed of Abraham may be like the stars indeed for number, but not for place.

2. Upon the same ground is inferred the reality of Christ’s human nature. This certainly is so evident, that one would think it uncapable of being denied: but, between the contrariety of error and the clashings of heretics, Christ shall be allowed to be neither God nor man. Incredibly strange and ridiculous, and even monstrous, are the several opinions of heretics concerning this matter. The Marcionites and the Valentinians affirmed that Christ had no real, but an imaginary, aerial, celestial body; and that he appeared only under the external form and shape of a man, but was never really united to man’s nature. But this fancy is irrefragably refuted by this, that 499Christ is said so to have took upon him the nature of men, as not of angels; but that Christ, under the Old Testament, frequently appeared to the patriarchs as an angel, has been always held by the church. From whence it follows, that he took upon him the human nature, in a way much beyond a bare appearance under it; forasmuch as thus he might be said to have took upon him the nature of angels, under which, heretofore, he appeared so often.

The same Valentinians also, together with the Apollinarians, affirmed that Christ received not his body from the Blessed Virgin, but brought it with him from heaven. But how then could he have been said to have took upon him the seed of Abraham, since he could not do it any otherwise, but by descending from Abraham, according to the flesh; nor could he pretend to any such descent from him, but as he was the natural son of Mary?

Others, as the Arians and the Eunomians, admit ting that Christ took on him a real human body, yet denied that he took on him an human soul; asserting that his divine nature supplied the functions of that. But upon this supposition, with what shew of reason can it be affirmed that he took upon him our nature, since the human nature is adequately compounded and made up of body and soul, as its two essential, constituent parts: so that a body is no more a man’s nature, without the concomitance of a rational soul, than a carcass is a man; or that two units can make up a perfect number of four.

Others, as the heretics of Armenia, affirmed that the body Christ had from his mother Mary was absolutely impassible; uncapable of suffering, or being injured by any external impression. Which, as it is 500 a bold and absurd falsity, confuted by the whole history of Christ’s life, which was nothing else but a series of sufferings; so it is particularly dashed in Heb. iv. 15, where it is said, that he was tempted like unto us in all things, sin only excepted. And in the seventeenth and eighteenth verses of this second to the Hebrews it is eminently affirmed, that he was made like unto his brethren, for this very cause, that he might suffer, and by his sufferings become a merciful high-priest.

He took not only the privileges, the excellencies, and perfections of the human nature upon him, though these had been degradations enough to him, who was the express image of his Father’s brightness; but he clothed himself with all its weaknesses and infirmities, bowed down his glories to the limited meanness of our faculties, to the poorness and affliction of our appetites: he hungered and thirsted, and was weary; lay open to all the stings of grief, and the invasions of pain. So that whatsoever the boldness or ignorance of heresy may affirm of him, by all the instances of a sad experience he found himself to be really a man.

3. The third thing deducible from the same ground, is the truth of his office and the divinity of his mission. For by thus being of the seed of Abraham, he gave one grand evidence that he was the promised Messiah: forasmuch as from the loins of Abraham was to issue this universal blessing, the desire of the nations, and the centre of all the promises and prophecies, uniting all the remote and scattered predictions in himself.

Now, as the thing that fulfils the prophecy proves the truth of it, so the prophecy mutually confirms 501and proves the truth of the thing that fulfils it. And therefore, as the old prophecies, finding an exact completion in Christ, yield an invincible argument against all atheists, (Machiavel himself confessing an utter impotence to resolve the problem of prophecies, without allowing a Deity;) so Christ’s giving an event to them, undeniably proves, that he was intended by them against the Jews. Of whom, in this controversy, we have this vast advantage, that we profess not to prove Jesus Christ to be the Messiah, but by those records and arguments which they have in their own custody; nor to evince the truth of our New Testament, but by mediums drawn from their Old.

For is it imaginable, that all those various prophecies, commenced in such different periods of time, could meet so exactly in Christ by mere accident? and be drawn down through so many generations to a concurrence in his person, only by a lucky hit? Can chance, be so uniform, and casualty so certain? This is against the notions of reason, the course of nature, and the voice of experience; and consequently, to any considering mind, incredible, be cause in itself morally impossible.

4. The fourth and last inference that we shall gather from hence, shall be to discover to us Christ’s voluntary choice and design, to assume a condition here upon earth, low and contemptible. One would have thought, that if he had resolved to be a man, and to choose an alliance to dust and ashes; yet that he would at least have been framed out of the best clay, and cast into the noblest mould: but, that he might humble himself to the nethermost state of contempt, he chose to descend from the seed of 502 Abraham; who, if we set aside their religious privileges, (which yet they enjoyed only, but neither improved nor deserved,) were certainly, both upon a moral and political account, the most sordid and degenerate race of men upon the earth.

For, first, to rate them by the reports made of them by the penmen of holy writ, who, being Jews themselves, cannot be supposed to have been partial in transmitting the infamy of their countrymen to posterity; yet, how ugly do they appear, even in their own story! their whole narrative containing nothing but a continued vicissitude of their idolatry, impurity, and rebellion. Who would have thought that men, with the remembrance of such prodigious miracles, and immediate discoveries of the divine power and favour to them in Egypt, new and fresh in their minds, could, as soon as ever Moses had turned his back, deify a golden calf, and debase their reason to such a low and ridiculous instance of idolatry? How were they always murmuring after mercies, and doubting after experience! No sooner had God done one miracle before them, but they doubted whether he could do another. How unworthily did they treat Moses and Aaron, and most of their deliverers! particularly Gideon; after his death deserting threescore of his lawful issue, and giving the kingdom to his base son! How causelessly did they relinquish David, and revolt to Absalom! and then, how ridiculously and meanly did they cringe to him, to resume the kingdom! It were infinite to pursue all their baseness. There was scarce a prophet or messenger of God sent to them, but they murdered him: and at length, to consummate and heighten their villainy to the utmost, they imbrued their 503hands in the blood of their long expected, but at length mistaken Messias. And, which yet advances their sottishness, whereas they rejected Christ, not withstanding that he had done those miracles, that were never done by any before him; yet when several impostors and false messias’s rose up after him, who shewed them neither sign nor wonder, except of madness and impudence; yet (as appears out of their own Josephus) they were still acknowledged by a considerable number of followers.

And, to add the judgment of men to matters of fact, (of which those that have been mentioned are but very few,) there is no nation in the world, al most, but hates and contemns them. As early as the time of Jacob, we read, that they were an abomination to the Egyptians, Gen. xliii. 32. And since, they have been successively loathed by all the great and civilized nations, as the Chaldeans, the Persians, the Grecians. And as for the Romans, no Latin writer ever mentions them, but it is with scorn and contempt: Cicero, Suetonius, Tacitus, Pliny, Lucius Florus, Martial, Juvenal, all have left them branded with a mark of ignominy. And at this very day, how much are they disgusted in all those kingdoms and dominions where they are dispersed! They are like dung upon the face of the earth; and that not so much for their being scattered, as for being so offensive.

Now certainly this may be rationally collected, that it could not be, that all nations, in all ages, should thus conspire in a detestation of them; but that there was some peculiar vileness essentially fixed in the genius of this people, contrary to those natural and generous principles of morality and converse, 504 which universally possess and act the behaviour of the rest of mankind. Nothing could be more full and expressive than St. Paul’s testimony of them, 1 Thess. ii. 15, They please not God, and are contrary to all men. This is properly the Jewish temper and disposition.

I conclude, therefore, that it is one great instance of Christ’s humiliation, that he derived his nativity from this race: so that the prophet Isaiah might justly say, that he should spring up as a plant out of a dry ground. As one that had drained all the worth and goodness of that nation into himself; which made those who lived both before and after him to have so little of it. He appeared amongst them, like a single star in a dark night; or, indeed, as a sun: and that not so much shining upon, as rather shining out of a dunghill.

II. I come now to the other general thing proposed for the handling of the words; namely, to shew why Christ took upon him the nature of man, and not of angels.

In things that are the immediate results of the divine will, it is a bold venture to search into the causes of them; and when we speak either of God or of the king, to assign an antecedent reason of their actions, and to be peremptory in alleging why they should do this or this.

The divine will is absolute; it is its own reason: it is both the producer and the ground of all its acts. It moves not by the external impulse or inclination of objects, but determines itself by an absolute autocracy.

And therefore as to the present inquiry, why Christ rather assumed the nature of men than that 505of angels; it is a full, abundant, and satisfactory answer, that so it seemed fit to the good pleasure of the all-wise God. Yet, since God is sometimes pleased, in his transacting with man, to descend some steps from the throne of his majesty, and to bring down his great counsels to the level of our apprehension, so as to submit his actions to be canvassed and cleared, even at the bar of reason itself; it will be found, that there are not wanting arguments to evince the reasonableness and equity of this his proceeding.

The reasons, therefore, why Christ took upon him the nature and the mediatorship of men, and not of angels, may be these two.

1. The transcendent greatness and malignity of the sin of the angels above that of men. What that particular sin was, for which the angels were thrown down from their station, is hard, and perhaps impossible, to be determined; yet men inquire after it as freely, as if it might: and some pitch it upon pride; though, in their confident asserting of that which is no where delivered, they seem to discover no small pride and arrogance themselves. But whatsoever that sin was, (which to determine is not here material,) certain it is, that it did much exceed the guilt and provoking qualities of the sin of man; and that in these two respects:

(1.) As being committed against a much greater light, which is to be the proper guide and ruler of the will in all its choices. The light of man’s understanding, while innocent, was clear indeed, but small and diminutive, subject to the clouds of fallacy and inadvertency. But the angelical intellect was strong and intuitive, above the reach of those mists 506 and clouds, that the lower region of the human faculties was subject to. Now, proportionable to the means of avoiding sin, is the guilt of falling into it. Man stumbled, and fell under the light and direction of a star; but the angels fell headlong under the light and guidance of a sun: so that no plea, no rational extenuation of their offence could be alleged. Whereas the different nature of man’s transgression might afford such grounds to the ratiocinations of divine mercy, as though they did not excuse man’s sin, yet might excite God’s compassion.

(2.) The sin of the angels commenced upon a greater liberty of will and freedom of choice. There was no devil to tempt them to become devils; no seducer, of a stronger reason, to impose upon theirs. They moved entirely upon the motives of an intrinsic malice. But man was circumvented with fallacy, and tempted with importunity: and so great a share of the guilt may be devolved upon the temptation, that it is very possible, that if he had not been tempted, he had not fell. I confess, there is that inseparable prerogative of absoluteness in the will of every man, that it defies coaction, and cannot be forced by any external impression: for, indeed, if it might, so far it could not be said to sin, no action being sin that is not voluntary.

But then, the vehemence of persuasion, the restlessness of importunity, are great invasions upon this freedom and indifference of the will: and though they cannot wound or impair the faculty itself, yet they much hinder and perplex the actual use and exercise of it; and consequently, though they are not sufficient to acquit the sinner in an ill choice, yet they afford many grains of allowance, make 507great abatements, and alter the measures of his guilt. Strong and importunate persuasions have not the nature and formality of force; but they have oftentimes the effect of it: and he that solicits earnestly, sometimes determines as certainly as if he did force. The will of man, brought to sin by the tempter, is like a bowl running down an hill: its own weight and figure is, indeed, one cause of the motion; but the hand that threw it, is another.

2. The next, and perhaps the grand cause, that induced Christ to take upon him the nature and mediation of men, and not of angels, might be this; that, without such a Redeemer, the whole race and species of mankind had perished, as being all involved in the sin of their representative: whereas though many of the angels sinned, yet as many, if not more, persisted in their innocence; so that the whole kind was not cashiered by an universal ruin, nor made unserviceable to their Creator, in the nobler instances of active obedience.

Which mankind was, and had so continued, as in that estate; having no other motives to act them, but an horrid despair, and expectation of future torment: the material issue of which could have been nothing but a confirmed malice against God, exerting itself in the lives of men, to the overflowing of the world with an uncontrolled torrent of the highest villainies and enormities.

But now, was it not a proportionable object for the designs of divine mercy to rescue so great and noble a part of the creation from a total perdition? Was it not pity, that so fair a writing should be all dashed, and for ever defaced by one blot? that sin should be able to do so much mischief, and, as it 508 were, to counterwork the divine power and goodness, by lopping off one of the masterpieces of his work at a blow!

This had been more destructive than a deluge; it had been an universal ruin, without the mitigation of any exception. But this is not the genius and way of God’s working, who designs particular mercies in the midst of general judgments. Still he has a reserve of favour; and the flood that drowns the world bears up the ark.

Christ saw us ruined in the loins of our first parents; and it moved his compassion to behold our death, earlier than our nativity. Even amongst men, if a woman with child be condemned, there is yet mercy for the unborn infant; and it extends so far as to reprieve the guilty parent. No wonder then, if the divine mercy was not inferior in the methods of salvation, and if the mercies of a judge did not exceed the compassions of a saviour.

And now, what can the result and upshot of this whole transaction be, but to quicken, or rather transport us in our returns of gratitude; to advance gratitude into admiration, and admiration into astonishment? Why should the Son of God disrobe himself of his eternal excellencies, to come and wrap himself in dust and ashes, to converse with carcasses, with weakness and mortality, with vile creatures and viler sinners? and all this to rescue and pluck some wretched, smarting firebrands out of the eternal flame, where otherwise they must have lain consuming, but not consumed, for ever.

With what face or heart can any one, having this thought fresh upon him, resolve to sin? Has Christ passed over the fallen angels without any commiseration; 509so that, for want of a redeemer, they are passed into the state of devils? And shall we, by having and abusing a redeemer, make ourselves worse?

Still let us remember, that Christ so redeems us from wrath, that he will first redeem us from our vain conversation: and that, by this stupendous in carnation of the divine nature, he made himself the Son of man, that, by the change of our nature, we might become the sons of God.

END OF VOL. V.

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