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into the world when the strength of Heathen dominion and authority was the greatest under the Roman monarchy. All the strength of this monarchy was employed for a long time to oppose and persecute the Christian church, and if possible to destroy it, in ten successive attempts, which are called the ten Heathen persecutions.
The first of these, which was the persecution under Nero, was a little before the destruction of Jerusalem, in which the apostle Peter was crucified, and the apostle Paul beheaded, soon after he wrote his second epistle to Timotby. When he wrote that epistle, he was a prisoner at Rome under Nero, and says, chap. iv. 6, 7, I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. There were many thousands of other Christians slain in that persecution.The other nine persecutions were all after the destruction of Jerusalem. Some of these were very terrible indeed, and far exceeded the first persecution under Nero. One Emperor after another set himself with the utmost rag: to root out the Cbristian church from the earth, that there should not be so much as the name of Christian left in the world. Thousands, yea millions were put to cruel deaths in them; for they spared neitber sex nor age.
In the second general persecution, (under Domitian,) that which was next after the destruction of Jerusalem, the apostle John was banished to the isle of Patmos, where he had those visions which he has recorded in the Revelation. Under that persecution it was reckoned, that about forty thousand suffered martyrdom; which yet was nothing to what were put to death under some succeeding persecutions. Ten thousand suffered that one kind of cruel death, crucifixion, in the third persecu. tion under the Emperor Adrian. Under the fourth persecution, which began about the year of Christ one hundred and sixty. two, many suffered martyrdom in England, the land of our forefathers, wbere Christianity had been planted, it is supposed, in the days of the apostles. And in the later persecu. tions, the Roman emperors being vexed at the frustration of their predecessors, who were not able to extirpate Christianity, or hinder its progress, were enraged to be the more violent in their attempts.
Thus a great part of the first three hundred years after Christ was spent in violent and cruel persecutions of the church by the Roman powers. Satan was very unwilling to quit his hold of so great and distinguished a part of the world, as the countries contained in the Roman empire, of which he had had the quiet possession for so many ages: and therefore, when he saw it going so fast out of his hands, he bestirred himself to his utmost. All hell was raised to oppose it with its utmost power,
Satan thus exerting himself by the power of the Heathen Roman empire, is called the great red dragon, baving seven heads and ten horns, fighting against the woman clothed with the sun. (Rev. xii.) And this terrible conflict between the church of Christ, and the powers of the Heathen empire before Constantine, is represented (verse 7) by the war between Michael and his angels, and the dragon and his angels: And there was war in heaven; Michael and his angels fought, and the dragon fought and his angels.
II. I would take notice what success the gospel had in the world before the time of Constantine, notwithstanding all this opposition. Though the learning and power of the Roman empire were so great, and both were employed to the utmost against Christianity; yet all was in vain. They could neither root it out, nor stop its progress. In spite of all, the kingdom of Christ wonderfully prevailed, and Satan's Heathen kingdom mouldered and consumed away before it, agreeable to the text, “ The moth shall eat them up like a garment, and the worm shall eat them like wool.” And it was very observable that for the most part the more they persecuted the church, the more it increased ; insomuch that it became a common saying, The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.Herein the church of Christ proved to be like a palm-tree; of which it is remarked, that the greater weight is hung to its branches, the more it grows and flourishes. On this account probably the church is compared to a palm-tree, Cant. vii. 7. This thy stature is like to a palm-tree. "Justin Martyn, an eminent father in the Christian church, says, that in his days there was no part of mankind, whether Greeks or barbarians, or by what name soever they were called, even the most rude and unpolished nations, where prayers and thanksgivings were not made to the great creator of the world, through the name of the crucified Jesus.' TERTULLIAN, another eminent father in the Christian church, who lived in the beginning of the following age, testifies, that in his day the Christian religion had extended itself to the utmost bounds of the then known world, in which he reckons Britain; and thence demonstrates, that the kingdom of Christ was then more extensive than any of the four great monarchies. He moreover says, that though the Christians were as strangers of no long standing, yet they had filled all places of the Roman dominions, their cities, islands, castles, corporations, councils, armies, tribes, the palace, senate, and courts of judicature; only they had left to the Heathen their temples. He adds, that if they should all agree to retire out of the Roman empire, the world would be amazed at the solitude and desolation that would ensue upon it, there would be so few left; and that the Christians were enough to be able easily to defend themselves, if they were disposed to rise up in arms against the Heathen magistrates.And Pliny, a Heathen who lived in those days, says, That multitudes of cach sex, of every age and quality, were become Christians. This superstition, says be, having infected and over-run not the city only, but towns and countries, the temples and sacrifices are generally desolate and forsaken.
And it was remarked by both Heathen and Christian writers in those days, that the famous Heathen oracles in their temples—where princes and others for many past ages had been wont to inquire and receive answers with an audible voice from their gods, which were indeed answers from the devil, were now struck dumb, and gave no more answers : and particularly the oracle at Delphos, the most famous in the whole world, which both Greeks and Romans used to consult, began to cease to give any answers, even from the birth of Christ. The false deity who was worshipped, and who used to give answers from his oracle in that temple, being once inquired of, why he did not now give answers as he was wont to do? made this reply, (as several Heathen historians who lived about those times relate,) There is a Hebrew boy, who is king of the gods, who has commanded me to leave this house, and begone to hell, and therefore you are to expect no more answers. -And
many Hleathen writers, who lived about that time, speak much of the oracles being silenced, at which they wondered, not knowing what the cause should be. Plutarch wrote a particular treatise about it, which is still extant. And Porphyry, who opposed the Christian religion, has these words: « It is no wonder, if the city for these so many years has been over-run with sickness; Esculapius, and the rest of the gods, having withdrawn their converse with men : for since Jesus began to be worshipped, no man has received any public help or benefit by the gods.” Thus did the kingdom of Cbrist prevail against the kingdom of Satan.
III. I now proceed to take notice of the peculiar circumstances of tribulation and distress just before Constantine the Great came to the throne. This distress they suffered under the tenth Heathen persecution, which, as it was the last, so it was by far the beaviest and most scvere. The church before this, after the ceasing of the ninth persecution, had enjoyed a time of quietness for about forty years together ; but, abusing their liberty, they began to grow cold and lifeless in religion, and contentions prevailed among them; by, which they offended God to suffer this dreadful trial to come upon them. And Satan baving lost ground so much, notwithstanding all his attempts, now seemed to bestir himself with more than ordinary rage. Those who were then in authority set themselves with the utmost violence to root out Christianity, by burning all Bibles, and destroying all Christians; and there
fore they did not stand to try or convict them in a formal process, but fell upon them wherever they could. Sometimes
, they set fire to houses where multitudes of them were assembled, burning them all together; at other times they slaughtered such multitudes that their persecutors were quite spent with the labour of killing and tormenting them; and in some populous places, so many were slain together, that the blood ran like torrents. It is related, that seventeen thousand martyrs were slain in one month's time; and that during the continuance of this persecution, in the province of Egypt alone, no less than one hundred and forty-four thousand Christians died by the violence of their persccntors, besides seven hundred thousand that died through the fatigues of banishment, or the public works to which they were condemned.
This persecution lasted for ten years together; and as it exceeded all foregoing persecutions in the number of martyrs, so it exceeded thein 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 is that 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, Ö Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? 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 before God appeared for their glorious deliverance, as the bondage of the Israelites in Egypt was the most severe and cruel just before their deliverance by the hand of Moses. Their enemies thought they had swallowed them up, and sealed their destruction, as Pharaoh and his host thought when they had hemmed in the children of Israel at the Red Sea.
IV. I come now, in the fourth place, to the great revolution by 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. He was encouraged, it 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 in. scription, Ev TOUTW vika, in 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 overcame his enemies, took possession of the imperial throne, embraced the Christian religion, and was the first Christian emperor that ever reigned. He came to the throne about three hundred and twenty 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 inorning. 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 of the fearful ends to which the Heathen emperors, princes, generals, captains, and other great men were brought, who had exerted themselves in persecuting the Christians; dying miserably, one after 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 to put honour upon Christian bishops or ministers, and to build and adorn churches, and now large and beautiful Christian churches