« PreviousContinue »
This persecution lasted for ten years together; and as it exceeded all foregoing persecutions in the number of martyrs, so it exceeded them in the variety and multitude of inventions of torture and cruelty. Some authors who lived at that time, say, they were innumerable, and exceed all account and expression. -
This persecution in particular was very severe in England; and this is that persecution which was foretold in Rev. vi. 9, 10. “And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth 2°
And at the end of the ten years, during which this persecution continued, the Heathen persecutors thought they had finished their work, and boasted that they had utterly destroyed the name and superstition of the Christians, and had restored and propagated the worship of the gods.
Thus it was the darkest time with the Christian church just before the break of day. They were brought to the greatest extremity just before God appeared for their glorious deliverance, as the bondage of the Israelites in Epypt was the most severe and cruel, just before their deliverance by the hand of Moses. Their enemies thought they had swallowed them up just before their destruction, as it was with Pharaoh and his host, when they had hemmed in the children of Israel at the Red sea.
4. I come now, in the fourth place, to the great revolution which was in the world in the days of Constantine, which was in many respects like Christ's appearing in the clouds of heaven, to save his people and judge the world. The people of Rome being weary of the government of those tyrants to whom they had lately been subject, sent to Constantine, who was then in the city of York in England, to come and take the throne. And he being encouraged, as is said, by a vision of a pillar of light in the heavens, in the form of a cross, in the sight of his whole army, with this inscription, Tosa vona, In
Vol. II. 2 L
this overcome ; and the night following, by Christ's appearing to him in a dream with the same cross in his hand, who directed him to make a cross like that to be his royal standard, that his army might fight under that banner, and assured him that he should overcome. Accordingly he did, and overcame his enemies, and took possession of the imperial throne, and embraced the Christian religion, and was the first Christian emperor that ever reigned. He came to the throne about 320 years after Christ. There are several things which I would take notice of which attended or immediately followed Constantine’s coming to the throne. (1) The Christian church was thereby wholly delivered from persecution. Now the day of her deliverance came after such a dark night of affliction : Weeping had continued for a night, but now deliverance and joy came in the morning. Now God appeared to judge his people, and repented himself for his servants when he saw their power was gone, and that there was none shut up or left. Christians had no persecutions now to fear. Their persecutors now were all put down, and their rulers were some of them Christians like themselves. (2) God now appeared to execute terrible judgments on their enemies. Remarkable are the accounts which history gives us of the fearful ends to which the Heathen emperors and princes, and generals, and captains, and other great men came, who had exerted themselves in persecuting the Christians; dying miserably, one and another, under exquisite torments of body, and horrors of conscience, with a most visible hand of God upon them. So that what now came to pass might very fitly be compared to their hiding themselves in the dens and rocks of the mountains. (3) Heathenism now was in a great measure abolished throughout the Roman empire. Images were now destroyed and Heathen temples pulled down. Images of gold and silver were melted down and coined into money. Some of the chief of their idols, which were curiously wrought, were brought to Constantinople, and there drawn with ropes up. and down the streets for the people to behold and laugh at. The Heathen priests were dispersed and banished. (4) The Christian church was brought into a state of great peace and prosperity. Now all Heathen magistrates were put down, and only Christians were advanced to places of authority all over the empire. They had now Christian presidents, Christian governors, Christian judges and officers, instead of their old Heathenish ones. Constantine set himself toput honor upon Christian bishops or ministers, and to build and adorn churches; and now large and beautiful Christian churches were erected in all parts of the world, instead of the old Heathen temples. This revolution was the greatest revolution and change in the face of things that ever came to pass in the world since the flood. Satan, the prince of darkness, that king and god of the Heathen world, was cast out. The roaring lion was conquered by the Lamb of God, in the strongest dominion that ever he had, even the Roman empire. This was a remarkable accomplishment of, Jer. x. 11. “The gods that have not made the heavens and the earth, even they shall perish from the earth, and from under these heavens.”. The chief part of the world was now brought utterly to cast off their old gods and their old religion, to which they had been accustomed much longer than any of their histories give an account of. They had been accustomed to worship the gods so long that they knew not any beginning of it. It was formerly spoken of as a thing unknown for a nation to change their gods, Jer. ii. 10, 11, but now the greater part of the nations of the known world were brought to cast off all their former gods. That multitude of gods that they worshipped were all forsaken. Thousands of them were cast away for the worship of the true God, and Christ the only Saviour ; And there was a most remarkable fulfilment of that in Isa. ii. 17, 18. “And the loftiness of man shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be made low ; and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day. And the idols he shall utterly abolish.” And since that it has come to pass, that those gods that were once so famous in the world, as Jupiter, and Saturn, and Minerva, and Juno, &c. are only heard of as things which were of old. They have no temples, no altars, no worshippers, and have not had for many hundred years. Now is come the end of the old Heathen world in the principal part of it, the Roman empire. And this great revolution and change of the state of the world, with that terrible destruction of the great men who had been persecutors, is compared, in Rev. vi. to the end of the world, and Christ coming to judgment; and is what is most immediately signified under the sixth seal, which followed upon the souls under the altar crying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth " This vision of the sixth seal, by the general consent of divines and expositors, has respect to this downfal of the Heathen Roman empire ; though it has a more remote respect to the day of judgment, or this was a type of it. The day of judgment cannot be what is immediately intended ; because we have an account of many events which were to come to pass under the seventh seal, and so were to follow after those of the sixth seal. What came to pass now is also represented by the devil’s being cast out of heaven to the earth. In his great strength and glory, in that mighty Roman empire, he had as it were exalted his throne up to heaven. But now he fell like lightning from heaven, and was confined to the earth. His kingdom was confined to the meaner and more barbarous nations, or to the lower parts of the world of mankind. This is the event foretold, Rev. xii. 9. &c. “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the devil and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world : He was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him,” &c. Satan tempted Christ, and promised to give him the glory of the kingdoms of the world ; but now he is obliged to give it to him even against his will. This was a glorious fulfilment of that promise which God made to his Son, that we have an account of in Isa. liii. 12. “Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong ; because he hath poured out his soul unto death : And he was numbered with the transgressors, and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” This was a great fulfilment of the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the glorious time of the gospel, and particularly of the prophecies of Daniel. Now the kingdom of heaven is come in a glorious degree. It pleased the Lord God of heaven to set up a kingdom on the ruins of Satan's kingdom. And such success is there of the purchase of Christ’s redemption, and such honor does the Father put upon Christ for the disgrace he suffered when on earth. And now see to what a height that glorious building is erected, which had been build. ing ever since the fall.
INFERENCE. From what has been said of the success of the gospel from Christ's ascension to the time of Constantine, we may deduce a strong argument of the truth of the Christian religion, and that the gospel of Jesus Christ is really from God. This wonderful success of it which has been spoken of, and the circumstances of it which have been mentioned, are a strong argument of it several ways.
1. We may gather from what has been said, that it is the gospel, and that only, which has actually been the means of bringing the world to the knowledge of the true God. That those are no gods whom the Heathen worshipped, and that there is but one only God, is what now since the gospel has so taught us, we can see to be truth by our own reason : It is plainly agreeable to the light of nature : It can be easily shown by reason to be demonstrably true. The very Deists themselves acknowledge, that it can be demonstrated, that there is one God, and but one, who has made and governs the world. But now it is evident that it is the gospel, and that only, which has actually been the means of bringing men to the knowledge of this truth : It was not the instructions of philosophers. They tried in vain ; “The world by wisdom knew not God.” Till the gospel and the holy scriptures came abroad in the world, all the world lay in ignorance of the true God, and in the greatest darkness with respect to the things of religion, embracing the absurdest opinions and practices,