Sermon 16. The Christian Church an Imperial Power

"And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it." Isa.. ii. 2.

{218} WHEN Christ came and took possession of His own House, it could not be but that some great changes would take place in its economy, and its condition. And such there were; it was exalted and established above all earthly power, and became a refuge and home for all nations. It remained what it had been before, a Church, in its inward and characteristic structure the same; but it became what it had never been before, or only in a partial measure in the time of David and some other princes, and that in type of what was to come, it became an imperial Church. It was the head of an empire.

And hence so much stress is laid upon its being a kingdom, and Christ a King. It was a prophecy even among the heathen at the time of His coming, that they who were to rule the world were to issue from Juda. Much more had Micah, with the voice of inspiration, {219} said of Bethlehem, "Though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto Me, that is to be ruler in Israel." [Micah v. 2.] And Daniel saw "one like the Son of man," "brought near before" the Ancient of days, "and there was given Him dominion and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve Him." [Dan. vii. 13, 14.] And the patriarch Jacob, long before them, had said, "The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come, and unto Him shall the gathering of the people be." [Gen. xlix. 10.] Well, then, might His own brethren rejoice and shout for joy, and sing Hosanna, when their King came unto them, "just and having salvation, lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass." [Zech. ix. 9.] And for Him, His first and last words were about His kingdom, or empire, as we now speak. For He began His ministry with the words, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." [Matt. iv. 17.] And before He ascended, He committed the work to His disciples, "being seen of them forty days," says St. Luke, "and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God." [Acts i. 3.]

1. When He was ascending, He said, "All power is given unto Me in heaven, and in earth." We believe in His power in heaven, but, strange to say, it is usual with us to grudge Him His power upon earth. We believe that He exercises His powerful intercession with the Father in heaven; but we seem to think that the Mediator has no earthly kingdom. As God indeed, of {220} course, we accord Him a rule upon earth; but that rule He had from the time He created land and sea, and all things therein. But on His resurrection as Mediator, a kingdom was given unto Him; do we believe that He has a kingdom? We know what is meant by a kingdom. It means a body politic, bound together by common laws, ruled by one head, holding intercourse part with part, acting together. We know what is meant by the kingdom of Chaldea, or of Persia, or of Rome, which the Prophet Daniel mentions; do we believe that Christ now has a kingdom, as those earthly powers once had? "Yes;" we reply, "He has a kingdom; it is an invisible kingdom." An invisible kingdom on earth? what is meant by an invisible kingdom? A kingdom is an organized body: do we mean then a secret society? no; what we really mean by the words is, that He has no earthly kingdom at all. We admit a truth and explain it away. We explain away His words into a mere metaphor, as when we speak of the animal kingdom, or the vegetable kingdom. When we say that Christ has an invisible kingdom, we mean, I suppose, that He has servants on earth, and gives them laws; that He interposes in the world's history, and punishes the guilty; but all this surely He did before He came in the flesh; and all this surely does not come up to the idea, does not answer to the name, of kingdom. It is as unmeaning to speak of an invisible kingdom on earth, as of invisible chariots and horsemen, invisible swords and spears, invisible palaces: to be a kingdom at all it must be visible, if the word has any true meaning.

But it may be said, that Christ Himself, the King, is {221} invisible, and therefore His kingdom may well be invisible also. It is true, He is the invisible King of a visible kingdom; for it does not at all follow, because a monarch is withdrawn from view, that therefore His kingdom must cease to be a fact in the face of day also. It is seldom that the monarch of any kingdom is seen, and then not by many, except on certain occasions. Kings are within their palaces, yet their power is in the public world. It is seldom they rule by themselves; they rule by instruments. Such is Christ's mode of governing; He is away; He has not resigned His rule; He does not simply abandon it to His servants: but still He rules through His appointed servants, and has committed His subjects to them. He resembles earthly sovereigns, not only in having a kingdom, but in His mode of governing it.

Now this description of Christ's kingdom is what He gives us of it Himself. "The kingdom of heaven," He says, "is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one." [Matt. xxv. 14, 15.] Another parable, spoken in warning, represents the officers of the kingdom under the image of a steward: "Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his lord shall make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of meat in due season? ... If that servant say in his heart, My Lord delayeth His coming, and shall begin to beat the men-servants and maidens, and to eat and drink, and to be drunken, the Lord of that servant will come in a day {222} when he looketh not for Him, and at an hour when he is not aware." [Luke xii. 42, 45, 46.]

2. So much is spoken in general; but next who are spoken of as the rulers in the kingdom, Christ's viceroys? the Twelve Apostles, and first of all Peter. To him our Lord addressed these wonderful words: "I say unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." [Matt. xvi. 18, 19.] By the "Church" must be meant a community or polity of men, and you see that St. Peter had the keys of this Church or kingdom, or the power of admitting into it, and excluding from it: and besides that, an awful power of binding and loosing, about which it does not fall within our present subject to inquire.

What is here spoken of St. Peter, is elsewhere spoken of the other Apostles. They too are rulers in Christ's kingdom. Christ said to them all, "Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." [Matt. xviii. 18.]

And more distinctly on another occasion: "I appoint unto you a kingdom, as My Father hath appointed unto Me, that ye may eat and drink at My table, in My kingdom, and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes {223} of Israel." [Luke xxii. 29, 30.] It had been prophesied of Christ that He should sit on the throne of David. Accordingly, they too, as His representatives, in His absence, were to sit on twelve thrones.

And their authority was equal to that of Him who appointed them. "He that receiveth you," He saith, "receiveth Me; and he that receiveth Me, receiveth Him that sent Me." [Matt. x. 40.] And as He had said to the seventy, "He that heareth you, heareth Me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth Me; and he that despiseth Me, despiseth Him that sent Me." [Luke x. 16.] Nay, it would seem as if their authority were even greater than that which it pleased our Lord to possess in the days of His flesh; for, whereas He breathed on them and said, "Receive ye the Holy Ghost," He had formerly said, "Whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him; but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come." [Matt. xii. 32.] Thus the Apostles, the ministers of the kingdom, as being the organs of the Spirit, were arrayed in more awful sanctions even than the King Himself during His abode upon earth; and hence St. Paul says, "He that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God; who hath also given unto us His Holy Spirit." [1 Thess. iv. 8.] And when St. Peter inflicted judgment upon Ananias, he said, "Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God." [Acts v. 4.]

Moreover, this kingdom was to extend all over the {224} earth; "Go ye therefore and teach all nations," [Matt. xxviii. 19.] or rather, "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them." And, especially, consider the parable of the mustard seed. "The kingdom of heaven," says our Lord, "is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; which indeed is the least of all seeds; but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree; so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof." Now what is especially remarkable here, is the concluding clause, which seems to refer us, by way of parallel, to the Chaldean power, as described by the Prophet Daniel, of which Nebuchadnezzar was the head. "The tree grew and was strong, and the height thereof reached unto heaven ... the beasts of the field had shadow under it, and the fowls of the heaven dwelt in the boughs thereof." [Dan. iv. 11, 12. Vide also Ezek. xvii. 23; xxxi. 6.] The parable then of the mustard seed, not only represents the kingdom of Christ as the greatest of kingdoms, but, like Nebuchadnezzar's, as a kingdom under which things external to it find shelter, or as an empire.

And further, let it be observed, that the visible appearance and display of this one kingdom in all lands, seems to have been intended as the means (which no doubt it really was in the event) by which all lands were to be converted. For our Lord prays for His followers, that they may be one; "that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me." Again, "that they may be made perfect in one, that the world may know {225} that Thou hast sent Me, and hast loved them as Thou hast loved Me." [John xvii. 21, 23.]

3. Now the only question that can here arise is this: whether this imperial power was vested only in the Twelve Apostles, or in others besides and after them.

I answer, we must conclude that the power was vested in others also, from the size of the empire; for a few persons, though inspired, cannot be supposed to have been equal to the care of all the Churches. As Moses found his charge too great for him, and was permitted to have associates in his office, so doubtless would it be with the Apostles.

But again, it is expressly said, that the Church is to last to the end of time, and the gates of hell are to fail in their warfare against it. But the Apostles were soon cut off; therefore the Church's power was vested in others besides the Apostles.

But further, let this be observed, that the promise was neither made nor fulfilled exactly to the Twelve Apostles; one of them fell, and another took his place. Again, St. Paul was "not a whit behind the very chiefest Apostles," yet he was added to their original company. Further, when, after his resurrection, He breathed on the Apostles, and gave them power to remit sins, St. Thomas was not present; was he then without the power which the rest had? Surely not; therefore others had it besides them on whom our Lord personally or primarily bestowed it. It appears from all this, that the Twelve {226} to whom our Lord first spake, were but representatives of the full number of His ministers, not commensurate with them.

This conclusion is strengthened by considering our Lord's language on another occasion, which certainly seems to show that the Apostles were not regarded by Christ in a personal light, but as representatives of others, or rather, I should say, of Himself. He truly is the only One, properly speaking, who sits on the throne of the kingdom; He is the sole Ruler in His empire, though invisible. They are but regents, or viceroys, in His absence; and whatever be their power, it is not their own, it comes from Him; and as it did not begin in them, so with them it did not terminate. They were but the accidental, though specially favoured, organs of his wonder-working operation. The text I allude to is as follows:—"Be not ye called Rabbi, for One is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren … Call no man your father upon the earth; for One is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters; for One is your Master, even Christ." [Matt. xxiii. 8-10.] What words can be clearer to show, that no honours which were accorded to the Apostles, were accorded to them for their own sake, or were, strictly speaking, vested in them? that they were theirs only as being instruments of Him who, being "immortal, invisible," governs His kingdom in every age in His own way, the one Master, the one Lord, the one Teacher, the one Priest, alone glorified in all His saints, while they live {227} and when they die? Whatever honours, then, and powers the Apostles possessed, needed not to die with them, for they never had really belonged to them.

It would seem then, that the ecclesiastical power held by the Apostles was intended for others also; but let us suppose the contrary, and see what will follow. This will follow: that we have no warrant in Scripture for any ministry under the Gospel at all; a ministry like the Apostles' being the only ministry for which we have any precedent in the New Testament. If we will be scriptural in our view of the Church, we must consider that it is a kingdom, that its officers have great powers and high gifts, that they are charged with the custody of Divine Truth, that they are all united together, and that the nations are subject to them. If we reject this kind of ministry, as inapplicable to the present day, we shall in vain go to Scripture to find another. If we will form to ourselves a ministry and a Church bereft of the august power which I have mentioned, it will be one of our own devising; and let us pretend no more to draw our religion from the Bible. Rather, we are like Jeroboam, who made his own religion. "Jesus I know, and Paul I know," said the evil spirit in the demoniac; "but who are ye?" Men now-a-days consider the Christian minister to be merely one who teaches the unlearned, rouses the sinful, consoles the afflicted, and relieves the poor. Great and Gospel offices these indeed, but who made them the privilege of a particular order of men? Great and Gospel {228} offices, so great, so full of Gospel savour, that they are the prerogatives of all Christians, and may not be confined to a class. If the ministerial office consist in these alone, then all Christians are ministers. Men have a notion, that the mere function of reading prayers in public worship, and preaching sermons, constitutes a minister of Christ: where is this found in Scripture? Let us be honest; we are but deceiving ourselves, if we keep up the name of a Church, and deny its Scripture definition.

4. These then being the characteristics of the Christian Church, as we find them stated in the New Testament, let us next turn to the Prophets of the Old, and observe whether the same are not represented to us even more explicitly in their inspired pages. If even from the texts which have been cited from the Gospels we might infer the imperial nature of Christ's kingdom, much more is this peculiarity of it drawn out in the prophetical writings. By an imperial state, or an empire, is meant a power which has wide extent over the earth, and that beyond its own limits. Thus, the kingdom of which we are subjects is small, consisting of two islands; but the empire vested in that kingdom extends all over the earth, consisting of our colonies, dependencies, fortified places, subject and tributary nations, and such allies as are materially under our influence and authority. It is the peculiarity of an imperial state to bear rule over other states; and it is another peculiarity, not indeed essential, but almost necessary, that it should be always in movement, advancing or retiring, never stationary, aggression being the condition of its existence. {229} Conquest is almost of the essence of an empire, and when it ceases to conquer it ceases to be.

Such is an empire of this world; and it is not difficult to show from Scripture, that such also in its substance is the kingdom of Christ. "In the days of these kings," says Daniel, speaking of the heathen empires, "shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever." [Dan. ii. 44.] Christ's religion was not a mere creed or philosophy. A creed or a philosophy need not have interfered with kingdoms of this world; but might have existed under the Roman empire or under the Persian. No; Christ's kingdom was a counter kingdom. It occupied ground; it claimed to rule over those whom hitherto this world's governments ruled over without rival; and if this world's governments would not themselves acknowledge and submit to its rule, and rule under and according to its laws, it "broke in pieces" those governments—not by carnal weapons, but by Divine Power—"without hands," to use the Prophet Daniel's language. Or, as another Prophet expresses it, "The nation and kingdom that will not serve thee shall perish; yea, those nations shall be utterly wasted." [Isa. lx. 12.]

The royal Prophet and the other Psalmists give the same account of the promised kingdom, as an enterprising, active, advancing power, or empire, conquering and ruling. "Gird Thee with Thy sword upon Thy {230} thigh, O Thou Most Mighty, according to Thy worship and renown … Thy arrows are very sharp, and the people shall be subdued unto Thee; even in the midst, among the King's enemies." [Ps. xlv. 4, 6.] And while conquest is spoken of, and sharp weapons, in order to conquest, it is also signified that these weapons are of a heavenly nature; "Ride on, because of the word of truth, of meekness, and righteousness." Again, "A sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of Thy kingdom; Thou hast loved righteousness and hated iniquity." [Heb. i. 8, 9.] Parallel to this are the passages in the book of Revelation, where our Lord is represented as on a white horse, the emblem of holiness: "I saw, and behold a white horse; and He that sat on him had a bow, and a crown was given unto Him; and He went forth conquering and to conquer." [Rev. vi. 2.] Again: "I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and He that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He doth judge and make war ... And the armies which were in heaven followed Him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. And out of His mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it He should smite the nations; and He shall rule them with a rod of iron." [Rev. xix. 11, 14, 15.]

These last words remind us of another celebrated Psalm, in which the conflict is described between Christ and the world, and the conquest of Christ predicted. "The kings of the earth stand up, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against His Anointed ... Thou shalt bruise them with a rod of {231} iron, and break them in pieces like a potter's vessel. Be wise now, therefore, O ye kings; be learned, ye that are judges of the earth. Serve the Lord in fear, and rejoice unto Him with reverence." [Ps. ii. 2, 9-11.] You see that Christ breaks whom He does not bend; and that it is the wisdom of kings of the earth to bow down to Christ.

In another Psalm: "They that dwell in the wilderness shall kneel before Him. His enemies shall lick the dust ... All kings shall fall down before Him; all nations shall do Him service. For He shall deliver the poor when he crieth, the needy also, and him that hath no helper." [Ps. lxxii. 9, 11, 12.] You see that Christ persuades or destroys; and that kings of the earth must fall down before Him, or lick the dust.

Again: "Let the saints be joyful with glory; let them rejoice in their beds. Let the praises of God be in their mouth, and a two-edged sword in their hands; to be avenged of the heathen, and to rebuke the people; to bind their kings in chains, and their nobles with links of iron." [Ps. cxlix. 5-9.] Such is the battle of the Saints, such the victory of the Christian army, though their weapons be not carnal.

Once more: "Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered: let them also that hate Him flee before Him … The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of Angels; and the Lord is among them, as in the holy place of Sinai ... God shall wound the head of His enemies, and the hairy scalp of such a one as goeth on still in his wickedness. The Lord hath {232} said, I will bring My people again, as I did from Basan; Mine own will I bring again, as I did sometime from the deep of the sea ... When He hath scattered the people that delight in war, then shall the princes come out of Egypt; the Morian's land shall soon stretch out her hands unto God." [Ps. lxviii. 1, 17, 21, 22, 30, 31.] You see God promised to fight for His people, and His people were to make progress, and to spread while He fought as of old time.

If we next take up the book of the Prophet Isaiah, we shall find promises made to the kingdom of Christ so many, and so high and awful, that there is neither time nor necessity to quote them at length. Thus in the text: "It shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it ... And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruninghooks ... The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day." [Isa. ii. 2, 4, 11.] "In that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people: to it shall the Gentiles seek: and His rest shall be glorious." [Isa. xi. 10.] Again, "The extortioner is at an end, the spoiler ceaseth, the oppressors are consumed out of the land. And in mercy shall the throne be established, and He shall sit upon it in truth, in the tabernacle of {233} David, judging and seeking judgment, and hasting righteousness." [Isa. xvi. 4, 5.]

But, you will say, such passages in the Prophet speak rather of the victory of the faith than of the Church; and that the faith might spread, even though there were no Church. Let us, then, consider the following passages in addition, and see whether, taken all together, they admit of being thus explained. "Arise, shine," says the Prophet to the Church, "for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee ... And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising ... The sons of strangers shall build up thy walls, and their kings shall minister unto thee ... The nation and kingdom that will not serve thee shall perish; yea, those nations shall be utterly wasted ... The sons also of them that afflicted thee shall come bending unto thee; and all they that despised thee shall bow themselves down at the soles of thy feet." [Isa. lx. 1, 3, 10, 12, 14.] Again, "Behold I will make thee a new sharp threshing instrument, having teeth; thou shalt thresh the mountains, and beat them small, and shalt make the hills as chaff." Again, "Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes. For thou shalt break forth on the right hand and on the left; and thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles, and make the desolate cities to be inhabited ... No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn." [Isa. liv. 2, 3, 17.] Again, {234} "Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, and the sons of the alien shall be your plowmen and your vine-dressers. But ye shall be named the priests of the Lord, men shall call you the ministers of our God; for ye shall eat the riches of the Gentiles, and in their glory shall ye boast yourselves." And again, "Kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers: they shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet." [Isa. xlix. 23.]

What is wanting in such passages to the picture of a great empire, comprising all that a great empire ordinarily exhibits? Extended dominion, and that not only over its immediate subjects, but over the kings of other kingdoms; aggression and advance; a warfare against enemies; acts of judgment upon the proud; acts of triumph over the defeated; high imperial majesty towards the suppliant; clemency towards the repentant; parental care of the dutiful. Again, these passages imply, in the subjects of the kingdom, a multitude of various conditions and dispositions; some of them loyal, some restrained by fear, some by interest, some partly subjected, some indirectly influenced. They involve, in consequence, though they do not mention, a complex organization, and a combination of movements, and a variety and opposition of interests, and other similar results of extended sway. Of course, too, they involve vicissitudes of fortune, and all those other characteristics of the history of a temporal power which ever will attend it, while men are men, whether, as in the case of the Jews, they are under a supernatural Providence or no. {235}

5. After this view of the Gospel Church, as set before us in our Lord's announcements, and in the prophecies which preceded His coming, let us turn, in conclusion, to its history, and see whether they have not been most exactly and marvellously fulfilled.

Even in the Apostles' lifetime the Gospel had spread east, west, and south, far and wide, and the Church with it. Multitudes had been converted in all nations, and the Apostles were the acknowledged rulers of those multitudes. So wide and well-connected a polity there was not on the earth, even before their martyrdom, except the Roman Empire itself, which was the seat of it.

And much more have the prophecies been fulfilled in later times. Many persons among us think that the history of the Church has been the fulfilment of those dark and fearful predictions, which speak of the city of confusion, and the man of sin. Now here I put the matter to a simple issue. Here are two sets of prophecies: one about the Gospel Dispensation, in the Prophet Isaiah and his brethren; the other in Daniel, St. Paul, and St. John, about the great enemy of the Gospel. I ask, then, which of the two sets of prophecy is the more literally fulfilled in the history of the Church? In which have we the less need to betake ourselves to allegories, and explanations, and forced statements? which of the two has the fewer difficulties? Has there not, in fact, been a great corporation, or continuous body politic, all over the world, from the Apostles' days to our own, bearing the name of Church—one, and one only? Has it not spread in spite of all {236} opposition, and maintained itself marvellously against the power of the world? Has it not ever taken the cause of the poor and friendless against the great and proud? Has it not succeeded by the use of weapons, not earthly and carnal, but by righteousness and mercy, as was foretold? Has it not broken in pieces numberless kingdoms and conquerors which opposed it, and risen again, and flourished more than before, after the most hopeless reverses? Has it not ever been at war with the spirit of the world, with pride, and luxury, and cruelty, and tyranny, and profaneness? Let us, then, glorify our Lord and Saviour for what He has said, what He has done. Surely we may use, and with fuller reason, if it be possible, the words of Solomon, "Blessed be the Lord, that hath given rest unto His people Israel, according to all that He promised; there hath not failed one word of all His good promise, which He promised by the hand of Moses His servant. The Lord our God be with us, as He was with our fathers: let Him not leave us, nor forsake us: that He may incline our hearts unto Him, to walk in all His ways, and to keep His commandments, and His statutes, and His judgments which He commanded our fathers; … that He maintain the cause of His servant and the cause of His people Israel, at all times, as the matter shall require; that all the people of the earth may know that the Lord is God, and that there is none else." [1 Kings viii. 56-60.]

Top | Contents | Works | Home

Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
Copyright 2007 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.