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THE EVIDENCES OF THE TRUTH OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION.
But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: in whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.—2 Cor. iv. 3, 4.
I HAVE been considering the evidence which those who lived in oar Saviour’s time had of his Divine authority, from the power of working miracles, with which he was endowed.
The miracles which concern our Saviour, I reduced to three heads—those of his life; those wrought at his death; and the great miracle of his resurrection from the dead, together with those two that were consequent upon it—his visible ascension into heaven, and his sending the Holy Ghost.
As to the resurrection of our Saviour, I have produced the testimonies for it, and have added some considerations that may give strength and advantage to that testimony; and shall now proceed to take notice of the most considerable exceptions that may be made against it. And all the exceptions that can be brought against it, that are of any moment, and that I know of, are these three—that tradition of the Jews, that he was stolen out of the grave; or that he was not really dead; or that his appearance was an illusion from evil spirits. The 472first of these is ancient, and was the invention of the Jews, and denies the integrity of the witnesses of his resurrection, making them deceivers: the two last suppose the fidelity of the witnesses, but say, they were deceived, either as to his death, or as to his appearance afterward: and these have been since invented by atheistical spirits. I shall briefly answer them, and, first, in general, I say these two things:
1. That they who deny this, have this disadvantage, that they are to prove a negative, which is never capable of that evidence, which an affirmation is.
2. These exceptions look very like envy, for they do not concur to make up one strong objection against the testimony of Christ’s resurrection; but each of them contradicts the other, and is inconsistent with them: for if the tradition of the Jews be true, that he was stolen out of his grave after he was dead and buried, and that the story of his appearing to them was a forgery, then the two latter exceptions are false, and so of the rest; so that these exceptions look very like the false witnesses that were suborned against Christ, that “they do not agree together/ But to the objections themselves I answer,
First, The tradition of the Jews; that his body was stolen out of the sepulchre, and all that which is related afterwards, of his appearing to his disciples and conversing with them, and ascending into heaven, was a forgery and imposture.
Answer. We have early notice given of this in the history of the gospel, (Matt. xxviii. 11.) that when the chief priests heard that his body was gone out of the grave, they consulted together, and 473hired the soldiers to say that the disciples came by night, and, whilst they were asleep, stole him away. Observe what it was that the soldiers were to testify, that, whilst they were asleep, the disciples came and stole away his body. Very credible persons, that were to give testimony of what they saw done whilst they were asleep! A man had need be hired with a great sum to give such a testimony, so ridiculous; and it seems the pharisees looked upon the governor as very simple, that would be so easily persuaded of so unlikely a thing.
2. It should seem it was not believed by themselves; for Josephus, a knowing and learned man of that nation and religion, who lived immediately after that time, speaks positively in the 18th book of his Antiquities, that “Christ was crucified, and appeared to his disciples the third day, rising from the dead;” and he speaks not a word of the forgery, which had been much for the credit of his nation and religion.
3. If we compare the fidelity of the persons on both sides; the witnesses of Christ’s resurrection cannot be suspected of any worldly interest or design; but the priests and pharisees were concerned both in reputation and interest, to blast this miracle as much as they could; because, if it should be entertained, both their religion would be endangered, and they would be looked upon as murderers of him whose holiness and innocency were attested by such a miracle.
4. If this exception had been true, it had been easy to have discovered the imposture, and undeceived the people: the gospel would have fallen and sunk in a short time. Nothing but truth could have borne up and prevailed against so much opposition. 474If this had been the work of men, and an imposture, it “would have come to nought;” but it was truth, and of God, and therefore it “could not be overthrown.”
Secondly, That he was not dead when he was put into the grave, that he was but in a swoon or deliquium, and so might rise again without a miracle.
Answ. 1.—We may reasonably suppose, that the malice of the Jews took care to kill him. Besides, the circumstances of the story do sufficiently evidence it. Upon the piercing of his side, “water and blood came out;” which was an evidence that his heart was pierced. And after his body was exhausted of its blood, there could be no return to life again. But it seems the soldiers were satisfied in the thing, who, when they came to break his bones, spared him, “because they found he was already dead.”
2. If he was not dead yet, how could he rise again? It was a pitiful securing of the grave, and a little great stone that was rolled upon it, if a weak and wounded, and spent man, after so much pain, and the expense of so much blood, could roll it away!
3. Suppose he did rise, what became of him afterwards? How came we to have no particulars of what became of him? If those which the story gives us be true, that after forty days he was taken up into heaven, we need not doubt of his resurrection, for this is as miraculous as that.
Thirdly, The third and last exception is as unreasonable as any, which grants that he did seem to appear to his disciples, but they were imposed upon by the illusion of evil spirits.
Answ. 1. That which may be an evasion in any 475case, is to be admitted in no case. This exception supposeth as much evidence for his resurrection, as this or any other thing is capable of; and yet would make it an illusion: but this denies all certainty; for if we may be deceived when we have the greatest assurance of a thing that our senses can give us, then we may not only question the resurrection of Christ, but every thing else.
2. If we believe the providence of God, we cannot think it to be so little vigilant, as that honest and well-meaning persons should be continually exposed to the insolence and cheats of evil spirits, and in a matter of the greatest concernment should be ever liable to be deceived, and cannot help it.
Having thus considered our Saviour’s resurrection, and answered the objections against it, I proceed to those two miracles which followed his resurrection; namely, his ascension into heaven, and his sending the Holy Ghost upon the apostles and primitive Christians in such miraculous powers and gifts.
First, His ascension into heaven. And of this the disciples of our Saviour were also eye-witnesses. So St. Luke tells us, (Acts i. 4. 9.) “And when they were assembled together,” and Christ among them after his resurrection, and when he had given them in charge what he would have them do, “as they looked on, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.” What more visible demonstration could there be, that this man was sent of God, than that, after he had preached the doctrine which he came to deliver to the world and confirmed it by so many miracles, and God had given so great an attestation to him, by raising him up from the dead; I say, what more visible demonstration 476that he came from God, than to see him taken up into heaven, after he had finished the work for which God sent him into the world?
Secondly, The sending of the Holy Ghost upon the apostles and primitive Christians in such miraculous powers and gifts, whereby they were enabled to speak divers languages, in order to the more expedite publishing of the gospel to the world, to heal diseases, and to raise the dead, to foretell things to come, and (which was common with the apostles and all Christians for some ages) they had a power of casting out devils, by adjuring them in the name of Christ. Now what could be a clearer evidence that he came from God, and was returned to him, than the conferring of such miraculous powers and gifts upon men, after he was ascended into heaven, as a testimony that he was invested in his royalty, having a power conferred upon him to dispense those gifts to men?
But of the ascension1717 See Sermons CXCV. CXCVI. CXCVII. CXCVIII. vol. viii. p. 359, &c. and CCXXVIII. CCXXIX. CCXXX. p. 347, &c. of the present volume. of our Saviour, and the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost, having upon other occasions discoursed at large, I shall need to add no more here; only, before I conclude this head, I shall briefly mention the chief of those objections, which these miracles which were wrought by our Saviour, and on his behalf, are liable to, and endeavour to return a satisfactory answer to them. And there are two objections against his miracles in general.
First, That he wrought them by the power of the devil.477
Secondly, The other objection is taken from that expression of the evangelist, (Matt. xiii. 58.) where it is said, that when Jesus was in his own country, “he did not many mighty works there, because of their unbelief;” which saying is perversely abused by some, as if it signified, that the credulity, and strong imagination of the people, were a great ingredient into his miracles.
First, That he wrought them by the power of the devil. This was the objection which the Jews of old made against our Saviour, (Matt. xii. 24.) that he “cast out devils by Beelzebub, the prince of the devils,” who had power and authority over the rest, and consequently to cast out those that were subject to him; and the Jews at this day make the same objection against all his miracles. Celsus did the same.
To this I cannot render a better answer than our Saviour himself did, when this objection was first started, which was twofold:
1. That it was very unlikely that the devil should contribute to the ruin and overthrow of his own kingdom. (Matt. xii. 25, 26.) “Every kingdom divided against itself, is brought to desolation: and every city or house divided against itself, shall not stand. And if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself: how then shall his kingdom stand?” The force of which argument is this: that it cannot be imagined, that he who preacheth a doctrine so contrary to the design which the devil carried on in the world, and so destructive to his kingdom, as our Saviour did, should be assisted by him to confirm the doctrine by any miraculous effects; especially such as did so directly tend to the over throw of his own kingdom, and to dispossess him 478of the advantage of tyrannizing over men, which he was so desirous to get and hold.
But, 2. He tells them, that, by the same reason that they attributed those miracles of his to the devil, all miracles that ever were wrought in the world, might be attributed to him. Did it appear by the tendency of his doctrine, or the course and design of his life and actions, or by any magical rites that he used, that he had any familiarity with the devil; or carried on any design for him? What colour of reason then was there to ascribe the miracles that he wrought to the devil, any more than the miracles that Moses had wrought; or any more than those dispossessions which were wrought by the children of their own nation, in the name of the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob? (ver. 27.) “If I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your children cast them out? therefore, they shall be your judges.” Several among yourselves do, or at least pretend to cast out devils, by the power of God, and you believe they do so; why should you not think that I do it by the same power? what reason have you to suspect me of correspondence with the devil more than them? No answer could have been more satisfactory in itself, and more opposite to those that made the objection.
The second objection is grounded upon a spiteful and malicious perverting of those words of the evangelist, (Matt. xiii. 58.) where it is said, that Jesus, when he was in his own country, “did not many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.” From whence some atheistical persons, as Cæsar Vaninus, and a wretched man of our own nation, who, I suppose, stole it out of him, have collected, that credulity and strong imagination in the people, 479were the principal ingredients in our Saviour’s miracles; and where he did not meet with persons so disposed, he could do no great matter.
This objection deserves rather to be abhorred and detested as a groundless and malicious insinuation, than to be answered; but because it seems to have some colour as well as spite in it, I shall briefly return an answer to it, and that by giving a plain account of this passage in the evangelist; and that is this: our Saviour comes to Nazareth, the place where he had been born, and he began to instruct them in his doctrine, and, as he used to do wherever he came, he wrought some miracles for the confirmation of his doctrine; but they, upon an unreasonable prejudice taken up against him, because they had known the meanness of his parents, and of his education, despised both his doctrine and his miracles. Our Saviour, perceiving that upon this prejudice they rejected the evidence of his miracles, the highest attestation that God can give, saw that there was no good to be done upon them; and therefore, leaving them to their own obstinacy and unreasonable unbelief, he for bore to do any more great works among them: for the text doth not say that he did no mighty works among them, because of their unbelief; but that he did not many mighty works among them; that is, finding them possessed with this unreasonable prejudice against him, he found they were not t6 be convinced by any miracle that he could work, and therefore, though he had done some mighty works among them, yet he forbore to do any more, as a just judgment upon them for their obstinacy and unbelief. And that this is the plain meaning of it, there needs no more to convince any man, but to read 480over this passage of the evangelist, (Matt. xiii. 54-58.) “And when he was come into his own country, he taught them in their synagogue, insomuch that they were astonished, and said, Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this man all these things? And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house. And he did not many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.” And now judge, how little reason there is from these words, for any such foolish and malicious objection.
I might add farther, if it were necessary, that many of his miracles were such, as no credulity or strength of imagination could assist to the working of them; as I could make evident from very many instances, particularly that of raising Lazarus, after he had lain four days in the grave. But enough of this.
Now to reflect upon this evidence of Christ’s Divine authority from the miracles which he did, and which were wrought to give testimony to him. What greater satisfaction can any one be imagined to have concerning any person, that he is sent from God, than the apostles had, and the rest of those who conversed with our Saviour, and saw the miracles that were wrought by him, and on his behalf? Suppose we had lived in our Saviour’s time and had conversed with him, what greater evidence could we have desired of his Divine authority, than to have seen with our eyes so many strange things done 481by him, exceeding any natural power that we know of, and things so beneficial to mankind; and all these wrought so frequently, and so openly? To have seen this person put to death, and at that instant the whole frame of nature disordered and put out of its course? To have seen this person, after he had lain three days in the grave, raised to life again; and to have the greatest assurance of this that our senses can give us of any thing: by frequent and familiar conversation; by discoursing with him; by eating and drinking with him; by touching and handling of his body: and afterwards to have seen this same person visibly taken up into heaven; and, according as he had promised before he left the world, to have found ourselves afterwards endowed with a miraculous power of speaking all on the sudden all sorts of languages; of healing diseases; of foretelling things to come; of casting out devils; of raising the dead: had we seen all this with our eyes and experienced this strange power in ourselves; could there have remained any doubt in us, but that this person was sent from God, and specially commissioned from heaven, to declare the mind of God to the world?
If, after all this, any man will say, that so many persons as were eye-witnesses of these things, might be deceived in a plain sensible matter; I would desire that man to prove to me that he is waking, or to evidence to me by better arguments, any thing else that he thinks himself most certain of.
IV. The fourth evidence which those who lived in our Saviour’s time had of his Divine authority, was the spirit of prophecy proved to be in him, and made good by the accomplishment of his own predictions. This also was a clear testimony that he 482was from God; for God challengeth this as peculiar to the Deity, to foretell future contingents. (Isa. xli. 23.) “Shew the things that are to come hereafter, that we may know that ye are gods.” The oracles of the heathen did give out some dark and doubtful conjectures about future things; but a clear and certain prediction of things was always looked upon as an argument, that the person that could do it was inspired from God; and therefore the spirit of prophecy which was in our Saviour, and by him conferred upon the apostles afterward, hath always been justly looked upon as a good testimony that he was from God. So the angel tells St. John, (Rev. xix. 10.) that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”
Now the predictions of our Saviour were many; and those very plain, and punctual, and particular; and such as all, or most of them, had their accomplishment in that age. That we may take a more distinct view of them, I shall reduce them to these five heads:
1. Those that foretold his death, and the circumstances of it.
2. His resurrection, and the particular circumstances of that.
3. The descent of the Holy Ghost upon the apostles, with the circumstances belonging to that.
4. The destruction of Jerusalem before the end of that age, with the signs foregoing it, and the concomitant circumstances of that.
5. Those that foretold the fate of the gospel in the world, the opposition it should meet with, and yet the admirable success it should have, notwithstanding that opposition.
1. Those that foretell his death? and the circumstances 483of it. This he did very particularly, and at several times; (Matt. xvi. 21.) he told his disciples, “That he must go unto Jerusalem, and there suffer many things of the elders, and chief priests, and scribes, and be killed.” Mark x. 33, 34. and Matt. xx. 18, 19. he foretells more particularly the manner of their proceedings against him, that “the chief priests and scribes should condemn him to death;” but that they should not put him to death, but “deliver him to the gentiles, to mock, and scourge, and crucify him,” which was afterwards done by Pilate, the Roman governor. He foretold likewise the manner how this should be brought about, (Matt. xx. 18.) that he should be “betrayed into the hands of men.” And he did particularly point out beforehand the man that was to betray him, (Matt. xxvi. 23.) “He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me.” He foretold that his disciples should forsake him, (Matt. xxvi. 31.) “All of you shall be offended because of me this night; for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered.” And when Peter declared his confident resolution to stick to him, he foretold that he should deny him, with very particular circumstances of the time and manner of it; (Mark xiv. 30.) “This night, before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice:” which was all punctually accomplished.
2. He punctually foretold his resurrection, with the circumstances of it, that “he should rise again the third day,” (Matt. xvi. 21.) and that “after he was risen, he would. go before them into Galilee,” (Matt. xxvi. 32.) which was accomplished. (Matt. xxxviii. 16.)
3. He foretold likewise the descent of the Holy 484Ghost upon the apostles in miraculous powers and gifts; (Luke xxiv. 49.) “Behold I send the promise of my Father upon yon, but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endowed with power from on high.” He specifies the place where the Holy Ghost should descend; and what the effects of this descent of the Holy Ghost upon them should be; he tells them particularly; (Mark xvi. 17, 18.) “And these signs shall follow them that believe: in my name shall they cast out devils, and they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” All which was punctually fulfilled in the second of the Acts, and the following part of that history.
There are yet two other instances of our Saviour’s prophetical spirit, which I mentioned; but those I reserve to the next discourse.485
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