Page images



“Have any of the rulers, or of the Pharisees, believed on him?"

This was a query put by the Pharisees themselves to certain officers whom they had sent for the apprehension of Christ, and who returned without executing their errand. It appears, that the officers, on repairing to the spot where our Lord was, found him engaged, as usual, in addressing the multitude on the subject of religion. With so much eloquence did he speak, that a powerful effect was produced on the whole assembly, and the officers themselves, favourably impressed, did not attempt to lay violent hands on him, but went back to those who had deputed them with the remark, “Never man spake like this man.” We think that we can almost see the indignant and sarcastic scowl with which the dignitaries of the Sanhedrim replied, “ Are ye also deceived ? Have any of the rulers, or of the Pharisees, believed on him ? But this people, who knoweth not the law, are cursed." There was, indeed, at least one upright and liberal individual in this band of swollen and infuriated bigots, for we read, that Nicodemus (the same who visited the Redeemer by night) endeavoured to lead them to something like moderation and propriety, by modestly asking, “ Doth our law judge any man before it hear him, and know what he doeth ?” This, however, was truly to cast pearls before swine. It was like talking to the wind. The virtuous and honourable Jew only brought upon himself the bitter taunt: 66 Art thou also of Galilee? Search and look : for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet."

You can be at no loss to perceive what we propose to make of the passage before us, when we remark, that interrogatory language is often employed to express, in the strongest manner, a proposition either affirmative or negative. The question, “ Have any of the rulers, or of the Pharisees, believed on him ?” implies, that none, or, at any rate, next to none, of the rulers and Pharisees of the wealthy, the honourable, and the powerful-had believed on Jesus. The text thus interpreted involves an interesting and important truth, which, if we are not mistaken, will be found applicable to the state of Christianity, in all times and places.

If we revert to the period of the Messiah's personal ministry, we observe, that very few of the rulers and Pharisees then believed on him. The prediction of the Old Testament, which announced, that he should be 6 despised and rejected of men,” was abundantly verified in the circumstances of his actual history. “ He came to his own, and his own received him not.” His career on earth was marked by an unexampled series of persecutions and sufferings. His very infancy was not exempt from perils, for the tyrant Herod sought his life, and his parents were compelled to provide for his safety by a precipitate removal to Egypt. On his return to his native land, the obscurity in which he lived for thirty years, did, indeed, shelter him, so far as we know, from calumny, insult, and violence. But it was a calm to be followed by a storm the darkest and most overwhelming. No sooner did he begin to publish the kingdom of heaven, and to perform miracles in evidence of his divine mission, than a host of enemies arose in every district of-Judea. The sneer of derision, and the strong arm of civil authority were alike employed to injure and to crush him. His motives were misrepresented—his discourses were misinterpreted—he was accused of a confederacy with infernal spirits—the charge of blasphemy was preferred against him—he was denounced as a fomenter of sedition, and one who aimed at usurping the highest authority in his country. In a word, every artifice was resorted to that malice could sug. gest or ingenuity invent, for the defamation of his character, and the accomplishment of his ruin.

Now, the opposition which the Saviour met with in the days of his flesh, proceeded chiefly from the higher ranks of society. The multitude, it is true, manifested, on several occasions, the most rancorous feelings of hostility. But in such instances they were evidently instigated by their superiors. The friends of Jesus—his devoted adherents -were, with scarcely an exception, individuals of humble parentage and scanty education. Look at the catalogue of his apostles. Simon Peter and Andrew his brother were fishermen. James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, were brought up to the same occupation. Matthew was a collector of the Roman revenue-an office so odious in the estimation of his countrymen, that no Jew of any standing in society could be prevailed on to accept it. Of the rest we know little more than the general fact, that their station and pursuits in life were about equally elevated. Such was the character of the Redeemer's open followers-his professed disciples. There were, indeed, one or two persons of a different description, who were secretly his friends, such as Nicodemus of whom we have already spoken, and Joseph of Arimathea, a man of considerable opulence, who procured from Pilate the crucified body of Jesus, and buried it in his own sepulchre. But these were rare exceptions. The converts of Christ, during his abode among men, were, for the most part, poor and powerless—no better than when, soon after his death, their enemies described them in the most contemptuous terms, as the “filth of the earth”-the 6 offscouring of all things.”

We see, then, that the words of our text are strictly applicable to the state of things during the period of the Saviour's personal ministry. Well might his adversaries sneeringly ask the question before us.

But these words are not to be restricted to the period of which we have been speaking. They may be shown to be true with regard to all the subsequent periods of Christianity. For about three centuries after the ascension of our Lord, his followers were doomed to indignities and outrages, such as the eloquence of human language is inadequate to depict. It is not exaggeration to say, that, if the testimony of the most eminent historians can be at all relied on, several millions of Christians must have perished, in various ways, from the commencement of the reign of Nero to the end of that of Dioclesian. Tbe wealthy, the powerful and the learned combined their efforts for the extinction of the gospel. The emperor and the philosopher, the patrician and the priest, arranged themselves under a common banner of hostility towards all who bore the name of Jesus of Nazareth. For any who made un undisguised profession of belief in his messiahship, there was neither peace nor safety. They who cared for the loss of property or of life, were under the necessity of concealing, with the most profound caution, their attachment to the cross. In short, the primitive Christians were hated by the Jews as bold innovators, while by the pagans they were spurned as weak enthusiasts. It is no wonder, that, under such circumstances, few of the rulers and Pharisees believed op Christ. There can be no doubt, that Gibbon, however sinister may have been the motive which prompted the representation, is not far from the truth in saying, that “the new sect was almost entirely composed of the dregs of the populace.”

It is true, that after the reign of Dioclesian, an order of things somewhat different began to arise. Christianity gradually ceased to be an object of persecution. · The gospel by this time had operated as an effective engine in enlightening and ameliorating mankind. The book of revelation, expounded by living apostles, had poured upon the world a flood of moral splendour, which undermined the temples of paganism, and swept away the abominations of polytheism. The power of divine truth proved too strong to be resisted by the sophistry of philosophers, and the artifice of priests. And now the rulers and Pharisees had sagacity enough to discern the course which it was their interest to pursue. They foresaw the rising of the tide, and by taking it at the ebb, were conducted on to fortune. Their policy now led them to court the religion which they had formerly persecuted. This memorable change commenced in the reign of Constantine, and was consummated in that of Theodosius. The latter potentate issued a formal edict for the abolition of the pagan, and the establishment of the Christian system throughout the Roman Empire. How far this revolution was favourable to the interests of pure and undefiled religion, is a question which has been frequently and warmly agitated. We believe that had Christianity never been allied to the civil authority in any land, the world would have been blessed at this day with a far more abundant measure of pure religious light and influence than it really enjoys.

Christianity, then, now appears under an aspect not altogether similar to that which it exhibited daring the

« PreviousContinue »