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EPHESIANS iv. 10.
He that descended is the same also that ascended far above all
heavens, that he might fill all things. I religion were not to bear only upon the unshakeable
bottom of divine authority, but we might propose to ourselves in idea what could be fittest to answer and employ those faculties of man's mind that are capable of religious obligation, reason would contrive such a religion as should afford both sad and solemn objects to amuse and affect the pensive part of the soul, and also such glorious matter and bright representations as might feed its admiration, and entertain its more sprightly apprehensions : for the temper of all men in the world is either sad and composed, or joyful and serene; and even the same man will find that he is wholly acted, in the general tenor of his life, by the vicissitude and interchange of these dispositions.
Accordingly Christianity, in those great matters of fact upon which it is founded, happily complies with man's mind by this variety of its subject. For we have both the sorrows and the glories of Christianity, the dépressions and the triumphs, the mournings and the hosannahs : we have the affecting sadnesses of Christ's fasting, his bloody agony, his crucifixion, and the bitter scene of his whole passion in its
SOUTH, VOL. IV.
several parts and appendages : on the other side we gaze at his miracles, admire his transfiguration, joy at his supernatural resurrection, and that which is the great complement and consummation of all) his glorious ascension.
The first sort of these naturally suit with the composed, fixed, and monastic disposition of some minds, averse from all complacency and freedom; the second invite the joys of serener minds, happier constitutions, and brisker meditations.
Nay, such a divine chequer-work shall we find in the whole contexture of the story of our religion, that we have the light still with the advantage of the shade, and things exhibited with the recommending vicinity of their contraries; so that it is observed, that in the whole narrative of our Saviour’s life, no passage is related of him low or weak, but it is immediately seconded, and as it were corrected, by another high and miraculous.
No sooner was Christ humbled to a manger, but the contempt of the place was took off with the glory of the attendance, in the ministration of angels. His submission to that mean and coarse ceremony of circumcision was ennobled with the public attestation of Simeon concerning him ; his fasting and temptation attended with another service of angels; his baptism with a glorious recognition by a voice from heaven. When he seemed to shew weakness in seeking fruit upon that fig-tree that had none, he manifested his power by cursing it to deadness with a word. When he seemed to be overpowered at his attachments, he then exerted his mightiness, in causing his armed adversaries to fall backwards, and healing Malchus's ear with a touch. When he underwent the lash and violent infamy of crucifixion and death, then did the universal frame of nature give testimony to his divinity; the temple rending, the sun darkening, and the earth quaking, the whole creation seemed to sympathize with his passion. And when afterwards he seemed to be in the very kingdom and dominions of death, by descending into the grave, he quickly confuted the dishonour of that, by an astonishing resurrection, and by an argument ex abundanti, proved the divinity of his person over and over, in an equally miraculous ascension.
Which great and crowning passage of all that went before
it, however it is most true, and therefore most worthily to be assented to, yet still it affords scope for the nobler and higher actings of faith : for reason certainly would now very hardly be induced to believe that upon bare testimony and report, which even those who then saw it with their
that is, with the greatest instruments of evidence, scarcely gave credit to.
For it is expressly remarked in Matt. xxviii. 17, that of those who stood and beheld his ascension, though some worshipped, yet others doubted.
It seems things were not so clear as to answer all the objections of their eyes, or at least of their incredulity. But he ascended in a cloud, as it is said ; there was some darkness, something of mists and obscurity that did attend him. Yet a lively potent faith will scatter all such clouds, dispel such mists, conquer this and much greater difficulties : which faith, since it must rest itself upon a divine word, such a word we have here; and that a full, a pregnant, and a satisfying word, which, from the pen of a person infallibly inspired, assures us, that he who descended is the same also that ascended far above all heaoens, that he might fill all things.
In the words we have these four things considerable:
I. Christ's humiliation intimated and implied in those words; he that descended.
II. His glorious advancement and exaltation ; he ascended far above all heavens.
III. The qualification and state of his person in reference to both these conditions ; he was the same. He that descended is the same also that ascended.
IV. The end of his exaltation and ascension ; that he might fill all things.
Of all which in their order. And when I shall have traversed each of these distinctly, I hope I shall have reached both the full sense of the text and the business of the day.
I. And first of all for Christ's humiliation and descension. As every motion is bounded with two periods and terms, the one relinquished, the other to be acquired by it; so in Christ's descension we are to consider both the place from which it did commence, and the place to which it did proceed. The place from whence, we are told, was heaven.
But the difficulty is, how Christ could descend from thence: according to his divine nature he could not; for, as God, he filled the universe; and all motion supposes the mover to be sometimes out of the place to which he moves, and successively to acquire a presence to it; so that nothing that adequately fills a place, can move in that place, unless it moves circularly ; but progressively, or in a direct line, it is impossible. Whither then should the divine nature move where it is not prevented by its own ubiquity? whither should it go where it is not already? And as for Christ's human nature, that could not descend from heaven, forasmuch as it was not first in heaven, but received its first being and existence here upon earth.
This argumentation, we see, is clear and undeniable; how then shall we make out Christ's descension?
The Socinians, who allow Christ nothing but an human nature, affirm, that he is said to descend from heaven only in respect of the divinity of his original and production; as it is elsewhere said, that every good and perfect gift descends from above, namely, because it is derived from a divine principle. But his descending being here in the text opposed to his ascending, clearly shews, that there is a further and more literal meaning imported in the word.
I answer therefore, that Christ descended according to his divine nature, not indeed by a proper and local motion, as the former arguments sufficiently demonstrate, but because it united itself to a nature here below; in respect of which union to an earthly nature, it might metaphorically be said to descend to the place where that nature did reside: and thus much for the way and manner how Christ did descend.
We are now to direct our next inquiry to the place whither he descended; and for this we are to reflect an eye upon the former verse of this chapter, which tells us, that it was into the lower parts of the earth; but what those lower parts of the earth are, here lies the doubt, and here must be the explication.
There are several opinions to be passed through before we can come to the truth. I shall propose them all, that every one may be his own judge which of them carries in it the greatest probability.
1. Some understand it simply of the earth, as being the lowermost part of the world. But why then could not the apostle have said, that Christ descended eis tà Katátepa toll Kóopov, and not tñs yñs, to the lower parts of the world, not of the earth ? but to call the earth the lower part of itself is an apparent violence to the naturalness of the expression, and indeed not more forced than ridiculous.
2. Some understand it of the grave, which is called the heart of the earth in Matt. xii. 40. The Son of man shall be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. Now the heart or middle of the earth is the lowest part of it, forasmuch as every progression beyond that is an access nearer to heaven, which encloses and surrounds the whole earth, and the nearer we come to heaven, the higher we are said to go : but this exposition is more artificial than natural, more ingenious than solid, and only to be valued as we do those things that are far-fetched.
3. Some understand it of hell itself, the place of the damned; and our creed tells us, that Christ descended into hell: but to this I answer, that it relates not at all to our present purpose, whether Christ descended into hell or no; but the thing to be proved is, that hell, or the place of the damned, is the lower parts of the earth ; which we deny, as being contrary both to the judgment of the church and of reason ; it being hard to conceive what capacity there can be within the earth for the reception, not only of the souls, but of the bodies of all the persons that for six thousand years shall have peopled the world, the number only of those who shall be saved (which we are told are very few) being excepted.
4. But 4thly, the quicksighted Romanists, (forsooth,) who can see further into the earth than other men, have by the help of this text spied in it a place called purgatory, or rather the pope's kitchen, for certain it is that nothing so much feeds his table. Now here, they say, are those lower parts of the earth, whither Christ descended : but before they prove that Christ came down hither, I would have them prove that there is such a place.