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Chapviii. 1-24.

IN the observations upon the martyrdom of Stephen, we have anticipated the remark with which this chapter begins. “And Saul was consenting unto his death.” His approbation of that murderous deed was attested by the activity with which he engaged in the persecution, carried on, at that time, against the Church in Jerusalem. “As for Saul, he made havock of the Church, entering into every house, and haling men and women, committed them to prison.” The death of Stephen did not appease the fury of the Jews; but having once tasted blood, they thirsted for it with insatiable eagerness. The immediate effect of their violence was the dispersion of many persons belonging to the Church, who, not finding it safe to remain in Jerusalem, followed the direction given by our Saviour: “When they persecute ye in this city, flee ye into another.” The remote effect, of which Saul and his accomplices were not aware, but which was one design of providence in permitting the persecution, was the propagation of the gospel, not only in Judea and Samaria, but, as we learn from the sequel of the history, in more distant regions, inhabited by the Gentiles. God is continually bringing good out of evil. He makes “the wrath of men to praise him; and turns the most adverse events into the means of promoting the cause, which it threatened to destroy.

I should pass on to the history of Simon the magician, without any other observation upon the introductory verses of the chapter, had they not been lately brought forward, and, I think, misrepresented, in the controversy with regard to the persons, who have a right to preach the gospel. “They were all scattered abroad, except the Apostles; and they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word.” Upon these passages thus connected, 124the following argument is founded. If the disciples, without exception, preached the gospel in the places to which they went during their dispersion, they must have proceeded upon this principle, as recognised and acted upon in the primitive Church, under the eye of the Apostles, that a right to preach is not exclusively vested in a particular order of men, regularly called and authorised, but belongs to Christians in general. The argument is not new; let us examine whether it is good.

Its strength depends upon the truth of this assumption, that the Church of Jerusalem was completely dispersed, all the private members, as well as the office-bearers, being driven from the city. This is supposed to be the obvious import of the words, “they were all scattered abroad.” It is questionable, however, whether this interpretation is just. Furious as the persecution was, it is not credible that it compelled all the individuals of a large body, consisting of many thousands, to leave their homes. Who ever read of a persecution, which caused, in the course of a few days or weeks, the dispersion of so numerous a society! Persecution may oblige the pastors and rulers of a Church, against whom it is chiefly directed, and such of the members as are distinguished by their rank and zeal, or are more easily intimidated than their brethren, to seek an asylum in some distant place; but history will support me in affirming, that, in such cases, the greater part have remained, sheltered by their obscurity, or by their friends, and that a Church was never completely scattered, but by a long and uninterrupted course of cruelty and blood. Besides, if the whole Church was driven into exile, so that neither man nor woman was left behind, except the few who were committed to prison, for what purpose did the Apostles continue in Jerusalem? During so dreadful a storm, they durst not have appeared in public, unless they had come forth solely with an intention to suffer martyrdom; they must have carefully concealed themselves. There was no Church to which they could minister; and, certainly, this was not a time when there was any prospect, or indeed any opportunity, of making converts. By staying, therefore, in Jerusalem, they exposed themselves to danger, without being able to perform any service which would counterbalance the hazard; and they spent that time in inactivity, which, had they gone abroad with their brethren, might have been employed in a more extensive publication of the gospel. This supposition is consistent neither with the prudence nor with the zeal of 125the Apostles; but we must have recourse to it, if we understand the passage to mean, that the persecution was so violent as to cause the flight of all the disciples.

Whoever attentively considers what has now been advanced, will, I trust, be convinced, that the words of Luke do not refer to the whole body of the people. At the same time, the universal term which he employs, points out some class of persons, to which it should be applied. And whom can we so reasonably presume to be meant as those who were associated with the Apostles in preaching the gospel, and dispensing the ordinances of religion, Evangelists, Pastors, and Teachers? This idea, I am disposed to think, would occur to a careful reader from the words themselves. “They were all scattered abroad except the Apostles.” Why are the Apostles excepted, if not with a design to intimate that the rest were of the same description, persons, who, as well as they, laboured in word and doctrine? How the Apostles could remain in the city, while others found it necessary to flee, I am not able to say. In a narrative so concise, the omission of several circumstances renders it impossible to explain every particular. Perhaps, they had more courage than their brethren; or, being willing to expose themselves to all the danger, they advised the other ministers of the word to retire, for a season, to those places in which they could freely employ themselves to the advantage of the common cause.

It is not a mere conjecture, that those who were scattered abroad were authorised preachers of the gospel. The supposition is confirmed by two facts afterwards recorded. The first among the dispersed disciples, who is said to have preached, was not a layman, to employ a term of ancient use in the Church, not a self-created teacher, who judged himself qualified, and therefore, called, to commence a public instructor. The preacher, as we shall soon see, was Philip, an Evangelist, that is, an extraordinary office-bearer, inferior only to the Apostles. The next of whom we have any account, were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who having gone to Antioch, preached to the Grecians. We are not informed, on this occasion, whether they held any office in the Church; but, when Antioch is again mentioned, we read, that there were Prophets and Teachers in that city, among whom, we find Lucius, a man of Cyrene. It is highly probable, that he was one of those Cyrenians by whom the Church of Antioch was founded; and it is a natural inference, from his being a Prophet or Teacher, that the rest were likewise 126Prophets, or persons invested with some ecclesiastical office. It may be presumed from these facts, that all those, who went every where preaching the word, were possessed of the same authority.y.

These remarks will at least show, that the argument for lay-preaching, which has been deduced from this passage, is not so clear as to justify the confidence with which it has been advanced. It is an instance, in which, by a mistake of the sound of Scripture for the sense, an opinion has been adopted, which is contrary to its explicit declarations in other passages. He who shall consider, that it was not to the Church at large, but to the Apostles, that Jesus gave the keys of the kingdom of heaven; that they, and not all the disciples, of whom there were more than five hundred, received a commission to go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature; that, when they planted Churches, they ordained elders in every city to instruct and govern them; that there is not, in the New Testament, a single case fairly made out, of a person who preached without authority, nor in the history of the Church, during the first century, as one, profoundly learned in Christian. antiquity, and unbiassed by any particular interest, has assured us;”1111Mosheim. de rebus Christian. ante Constantin. p. 151. 152. that Timothy was directed to commit the preaching of the gospel to faithful men, who should be able to teach others, and, consequently, that those, to whom it was not committed, had no right to teach; and, not to multiply particulars, that an Apostle expressly affirms that men cannot preach, that is, have no authority to preach, except they be sent: he who shall seriously and dispassionately consider these things, will reject as unscriptural the notion, however confidently and plausibly maintained, that every man who is qualified, or, in other words, judges himself qualified, may commence a preacher of the gospel; a notion manifestly calculated to foster vanity, ambition, and enthusiasm, and, when acted upon, to diffuse among the people ignorance, error, contempt for a regular ministry, and all the wild and pernicious effects of unenlightened zeal. Those who are unacquainted with the history of religion in this island, have no need to be told to what disorders it gave rise in the century before the last; and it is vain to expect that we shall ever “gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles.” We proceed to the account of the labours of Philip the Evangelist, ; 127in Samaria. “Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them.”

Samaria was the ancient capital of the ten tribes, who revolted from the family of David; but was now inhabited by the descendants of the mixed people, whom the king of Assyria, when he carried those tribes into captivity, planted in their room. At their first settlement, those foreigners practised the idolatry of the countries from which they respectively came; but afterwards, in consequence of the instructions of an Israelitish priest, who was sent to teach them “the manners of the God of the land;” they associated with their own rites the worship of Jehovah. It was probably from his hands that they received the five books of Moses; and these, corrupted in several places, were the only books of Scripture which they acknowledged. They built a temple on mount Gerizzim, in which they offered sacrifices; and they observed the Jewish festivals, practised circumcision, and expected the Messiah. Of their system of religion, as it existed in the days of our Saviour, it is difficult to obtain a distinct and satisfactory account, because the implacable enmity of the Jews led them to represent it in the most unfavourable light. From the words of Jesus to the Samaritan woman, it appears to have been extremely corrupt.. Ye worship ye know not what.” Yet, as they professed the same religion with the Jews, how much soever they differed in some material points, they are classed with them in the style of the New Testament, and are not reckoned among the Gentiles. The honour of having begun the conversion of the Gentiles, is not ascribed to Philip, who preached with success to the Samaritans, but to Peter, by whose ministry Cornelius, a Roman centurion, was brought to the knowledge of the truth.

From this imperfect view of the religious state of the Samaritans, it is evident, that they were not better disposed than their rivals the Jews, to embrace the doctrine of Christ. Their system was more erroneous, their prejudices were equally great, and their knowledge was less. When Philip visited them, there was less hope than ever that they would lend a favourable ear to the gospel, because their attention and affections were pre-engaged by one of those impostors, who, in all ages, have sported with the credulity of mankind. “There was a certain man called Simon, which before-time in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one: to whom they all gave 128heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God.” Magic, which he professed, was held in high estimation by the Chaldeans, Egyptians, and other eastern nations. It was an imaginary science, founded in a supposed intercourse with demons, a sort of intermediate beings between the Gods and men, who were believed to possess great influence over human affairs. Magicians pretended to be able, by their aid, to cure or to inflict diseases, and to perform many other wonderful works. In most cases, their miracles were undoubtedly of the same kind with. the juggling tricks of professed conjurors among ourselves. In some instances, they may have been effected by means of an acquaintance with the secret powers of nature. By a dexterous use of such knowledge, it was easy for an unprincipled man to raise the wonder of the ignorant, and to make himself pass for a superior being, or a person who was favoured with the immediate assistance of heaven. The opinion that magicians were assisted by evil spirits, although it could not perhaps be proved to involve any absurdity, is clogged with too many difficulties to be hastily admitted. The belief of such assistance has been generally entertained from certain principles in the human mind, which have given encouragement to the whole race of magicians, conjurors, necromancers, and fortunetellers; the credulity of a great past of men in both the higher and lower ranks, their love of the marvellous, their desire to penetrate into the secrets of futurity, their hope of protection from dangers and calamities, and of such success in their schemes of ambition, wealth, and pleasure, as it was vain to expect from their own prudence and ability.

To this class of deceivers Simon belonged. He “used sorcery” in Samaria, or, as the word signifies, exercised the magical art; and he “bewitched” the people, or astonished them. In the usual style of such impostors, he gave himself out to be “some great one.” We are not told what character he assumed. Perhaps, he avoided any specific claim, and asserted his dignity in general and mysterious terms, calculated, by their indefinite nature, to work upon the imagination of the crowd, and to raise their admiration to the utmost height of extravagance. The Samaritans, the dupes of his artifice, exclaimed, “This man is the great power of God.” They were at a loss by what title to distinguish him; but they regarded him, with reverence and awe, as a messenger from the God of heaven 129and earth, whom he had invested with his own almighty power.

Notwithstanding, however, the veneration in which Simon was held by the Samaritans, no sooner did the Evangelist appear, than the mimic wonders of magic shrunk before the genuine works of omnipotence. “What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the Lord.” Magic, with its spells and incantations, its mystic rites and vaunted powers, could not bear to be compared with that splendid train of miracles, by which the gospel was confirmed. Unclean spirits, the pretended agents in this diabolical art, crying out with terror, fled from the bodies of the possessed; the limbs of those who were afflicted with palsy in a moment recovered their vigour; and the lame, throwing away their crutches, or rising from their beds, leaped for joy. By these real wonders, the charm which attached the Samaritans to Simon was broken; their attention was turned to the Evangelist; and they were prepared to give his doctrine a patient and favourable hearing. They believed him to be an ambassador from God, whose instructions they were bound to receive. “And the people with one accord gave heed unto these things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did.”

The labours of Philip were attended with great success. “The power of the Lord was present, to heal the Samaritans,” to enlighten their iminds, and to render them obedient to the faith. Their conversion must be ascribed to the influence of divine grace upon their souls, and not to the external evidence of miracles addressed to their senses, or to the arguments and eloquence of the preacher. “Neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth but God, that giveth the increase.” “The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not, till God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, shine in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, in the face of Jesus Christ.” “The Samaritans believed Philip preaching the things concerning the, kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, and were baptized both men and women.” How did Simon behave on this occasion? He also believed and was baptized, wondering at the miracles of Philip, which so much surpassed the feats that the art of magic had' enabled him to perform. As it is manifest, however, from his subsequent conduct, that he was not a partaker of the grace of God, from which he should have never fallen, it is necessary to remark, that it is not always in the same sense that men are said, in the 130New Testament, to believe. Sometimes the meaning is, that, under the influence of the divine Spirit, they unfeignedly received the testimony of God concerning his Son; and at other times, faith implies no more than such an assent to the gospel upon external evidence, as we give to propositions in philosophy, or to historical facts, of which we perceive satisfactory proof. Of this nature was the faith of Simon. It is excessive refinement, therefore, or rather a pitiful quibble, to maintain that none can be said to believe the gospel, but those who have been savingly illuminated. It is right to study the greatest accuracy in our expressions upon the subject of religion; but when it is strained beyond the standard of Scripture, and impeaches the language of inspiration, we must be excused for neither adopting nor admiring it, and shall be content to blunder on with an Apostle or an Evangelist.

Simon was admitted to baptism, because he made a credible profession of faith, and Philip perhaps did not suspect his sincerity. He might have long continued to sustain the character of a believer, had not an event taken place, which presented a temptation too strong to be resisted. “Now when the Apostles, which were at Jerusalem, heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John. Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost. (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost.” The design of their mission was to assist Philip in his labours, to confirm those who believed, and, in particular, to impart spiritual gifts. Philip, it would seem, did not possess the power of communicating them, which appears to have been exclusively granted to the Apostles, to distinguish them as the immediate ambassadors of Christ, and the first ministers in his kingdom. As yet the Holy Ghost was fallen upon none of them;” that is, his extraordinary gifts had not yet been conferred upon the Samaritans. They had already received his regenerating influences, for they already believed, and faith is one of the fruits of the Spirit. Peter and John therefore prayed, that God would bestow upon them the same supernatural endowments, which had been so liberally distributed to the Jewish converts; and then “laid their hands on them.” This solemn rite, as we observed in a former Lecture, was used in the primitive Church, both in setting apart a person to a spiritual office, and in conveying miraculous powers. 131In the present case, and in all others of the same nature, it was merely a sign, with which the thing signified was connected, not by the authority of the Apostles, but by the will of the Spirit.

It is not necessary to suppose, that the Holy Ghost, in the sense already explained, was given to all the Samaritans who believed, and were baptized. It does not appear, that, even in the Church of Jerusalem, which we may conceive to have been at least as highly favoured in this respect as any other, there was an indiscriminate distribution of his extraordinary gifts. When an election was to be made of persons to take care of the poor, the Apostles commanded the multitude to look out among them men “full of the Holy Ghost;” and the command obviously imports, that every man was not so qualified. In that age, when the Spirit was poured out upon all flesh, upon persons of all ranks and conditions, it is certain that in some cases he was imparted to private members of the Church; but it is probable, that the communication was more commonly made to those who sustained a public character. “To one was given the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues. But all these wrought that one and the self same Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he willed.” In this manner, provision was made for the edification of the Church, as well as for the conviction of unbelievers. The first Christians were, for the most part, unlearned; and the pastors were on a level, in this respect, with their flocks. But the want was amply supplied, when “to one was given, by the Spirit, the word of wisdom; to another, the word of knowledge by the same Spirit.” Were any person still in the Church, who could confer the Holy Ghost by the imposition of hands, he might dispense with a regular education for the ministry, and employ missionaries recently taken, like Matthew, from the receipt of custom, and Peter, from the trade of a fisherman. It is a surprising mistake to neglect the ordinary means of preparation as unnecessary, when those of an extraordinary nature have ceased. But to preach the gospel seems now to be accounted by some men an undertaking so easy, that almost any person may engage in it.

The character of the Apostles never appears more august, than when we view them as possessed of the power which was exercised, at this time, by Peter and John. It seems to exalt them above the standard of human nature, and to throw around them some degree 132of the lustre of divinity. To see men, who could control the laws of nature by a word, or a sign, and were able to transfer a portion of their authority to others, excites our veneration for them, as beings raised above all that wealth and grandeur can bestow. How insignificant is the philosopher with his boasted science, the statesman with his political wisdom, or the monarch with his sceptre, which he sways over a hundred provinces, when compared with men, whose command could chance the established order of the universe! Here ambition might have beheld an object which would gratify its most extravagant wishes. By being endowed with the same power which the Apostles enjoyed, the possessor would be raised far above all his competitors for fame; or, if avarice were his predominant passion, would find an easy way to the acquisition of riches. Simon was unable to withstand the temptation. His pretended wonders were eclipsed by the real miracles which the Apostles performed; and, if he could prevail upon them to invest him with their power, and, above all, to enable him to communicate it to others, he flattered himself that he had discovered a certain road to distinction. He therefore offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost.” It was the proposal of a base and impious mind, which supposed that spiritual gifts might be bartered for gold, and that others were governed by the same low motives, of which itself was conscious.

Simon was speedily undeceived with respect to the character of Peter and John. With what confusion and dismay must he have heard this answer! “Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.” it is not to be understood as an imprecation of divine vengeance upon Simon. Notwithstanding the form of the words, which seem to contain a prayer or a wish, they amount to no more than a strong expression of abhorrence. “Let thy money perish as thou shalt, unless God give thee repentance.” It is the indignant language of religious principle, resisting a nefarious attempt to corrupt it. It is a zeal for God kindled into a flame, at the avowed wickedness of a man, who sought to prostitute the most sacred things in the service of his passions. Peter proceeded to reprove and admonish him in very solemn and alarming terms. “Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God.” He had thrown off the mask, and discovered his 133character in its genuine features. It was no violation of charity, but the judgment of truth, to pronounce him, notwithstanding his late profession, to be still in an unregenerate state. Yet Peter did not consider him as guilty of an unpardonable sin; and as the grace of God is rich and free, and is often exercised towards notorious transgressors, he concluded with the following exhortation. “Repent, therefore, of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thy heart may be forgiven thee. For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity.”

The spirit of Simon was appalled at the terrible words of the Apostle; and for a moment he trembled in the view of his danger. Hence he entreated Peter and John “to pray to the Lord for him, that none of these things which they had spoken should come upon him.” But the favourable symptoms were not of long duration; for we are assured, by the testimony of ancient writers, that he afterwards apostatized from the Christian religion, and openly opposed the Apostles. I shall conclude the account of him, by laying before you a summary of the blasphemous and licentious doctrines which he is said to have propagated, extracted from Irenæus, who, in the second century, composed a learned work against heresies. “This man,” he says, speaking of Simon, “was honoured by many as a God, and taught that it was he who had appeared among the Jews, as the Son, among the Samaritans, as the Father, and among other nations, as the Holy Ghost; and that he was the most sublime virtue, or the Father of all, by whatever name he was known among men. Having brought from the city of Tyre an infamous woman called Helena, he carried her about with him, affirming that she was the first conception of his mind, the mother of all beings, by whom in the beginning he formed angels and archangels. He persuaded those who believed in him and this woman, that they might live as they pleased, because men were saved by his grace, and not by good works; and that works are not good by nature, but by accident;” or, in other words, that virtue and vice are arbitrary and unfounded distinctions. The same Father goes on to inform us, “that his followers led flagitious lives, that they practised magic, and that they adored the images of Simon and Helena.” 1212Iren. contra Hæres. lib. i. cap. xx. It is plain from this account, that it is inaccurate in ecclesiastical writers to call Simon the first heretic, and the father of heresy; for 1341if a heretic signifies a person who corrupts, while he professes and teaches, the Christian religion, the appellation does not properly belong to a man who explicitly abandoned it, and endeavoured to establish an impious system of his own. It is farther related, by some of the Fathers, that a statue was erected to him at Rome with this inscription, “To Simon, the holy God;” and that an encounter having taken place in that city, between him and Peter, when the magician by demoniacal aid had ascended into the air, the prayers of the Apostle made him fall to the ground.1313Justin. Martyr. Apolog. ii. Euseb. lib. ii. cap. 14. Constit. Apostol. lib. vi cap. 9. But these stories are, with good reason, now exploded as fabulous.

The example of Simon admonishes us not to be hasty in the conclusions which we draw from the impression made upon the hearers of the gospel. We must not, like some persons of easy belief, reckon every man, who seems to be awakened, a convert, and account a few tears, shed in a moment of compunction, an evidence of genuine repentance. In this way a long list might be speedily drawn up; but a short time would compel us to make many erasures. Let us never forget, that a profligate sorcerer, when be heard the gospel preached by Philip, renounced the magical art, came forward to confess his sins and to be baptized, and for a time was numbered among the disciples of Christ. The conscience of a very hardened sinner may be disturbed with temporary terror; and the passions of the most careless may, by peculiar circumstances, be interested and agitated. But the emotion subsides; the world again prevails by its allurements; sin regains the empire of the heart; and it happens to them according to the true proverb, “The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed, to her wallowing in the mire.”

Let those, who, like Simon, have disappointed the good hopes which were once entertained of them, by turning away from the truth, beware lest “ their hearts be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” Having suppressed their convictions, violated the fidelity which they had solemnly pledged to Jesus Christ, renounced the friendship, and forfeited the esteem, of good men, they are placed in very perilous circumstances. Conscience has sustained an injury by which it may be rendered insensible; God is provoked 135to give them up to themselves; and pride, shame, habits of depravity, and the counsels of their wicked companions, are obstacles in the way of their return. How rarely are such persons reclaimed! How often do they proceed, by a slower or more rapid progress, till the devout penitent become an outrageous transgressor, and with the infidel or the atheist, “set his mouth against the heavens!” Stop, thou who hast strayed from the path of righteousness. Whither art thou going? Is not destruction before thee? Dost thou not see, at every step, the melancholy wrecks of those who have fallen and perished? And wilt thou, although forewarned of thy fate, press onward to ruin? Hear the voice of mercy, which calls to thee. “Return, O backslider, and I will heal thy backslidings.” “Repent of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps thy sins may be forgiven thee.” The Saviour, whom thou hast forsaken, prayed for his murderers; and why shouldst thou despair? His blood, which thou hast slighted, cleanses from all sin. Prodigal! hasten back to thy Father’s house, which thou shouldst have done well not to have abandoned. Thou shalt find him, although offended, not inexorable. He is gracious and compassionate; he will run to meet thee and to embrace thee in his arms; and “there shall be joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth.”

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