SERMON XV.--THE JEWISH REBELLIONS
1 PETER ii. 11.
Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from
fleshly lusts, which war against the soul.
I think that you will understand the text, and indeed the whole of
St. Peter's first Epistle, better, if I explain to you somewhat the
state of the Eastern countries of the world in St. Peter's time. The
Romans, a short time before St. Peter was born, had conquered all the
nations round them, and brought them under law and regular
government. St. Peter now tells those to whom he wrote, that they
must obey the Roman governors and their laws, for the Lord's sake.
It was God's will and providence that the Romans should be masters of
the world at that time. Jesus Christ the Lord, the King of kings,
had so ordained it in his inscrutable wisdom; and they must submit to
it, not for fear of the Romans, but for the Lord's sake as the
servants of God, who believed that he was governing the world by his
Son Jesus Christ, and that he knew best how to govern it.
That was a hard lesson for them to learn; for they were Jews. This
epistle, as the words of it show plainly, was written for Jews; both
for those who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ as the true King of
the Jews, and for those who ought to have believed in him, but did
not. They were strangers and pilgrims (as St. Peter calls them), who
had no city or government of their own, but had been scattered abroad
among the Gentiles, and settled in all the great cities of the Roman
Empire, especially in the East: in Babylon, from which St. Peter
wrote his epistle, where the Jews had a great settlement in the rich
plains of the river Euphrates; in Syria; in Asia Minor, which we now
call Turkey in Asia: in Persia, and many other Eastern lands. There
they lived by trade, very much as the Jews live among us now; and as
long as they obeyed the Roman law, they were allowed to keep their
own worship, and their own customs, and their law of Moses, and to
have their synagogues in which they worshipped the true God every
Sabbath-day. But evil times were coming on these prosperous Jews.
Wicked emperors of Rome and profligate governors of provinces were
about to persecute them. In Alexandria in Egypt, hundreds of them
had been destroyed by lingering tortures, and thousands ruined and
left homeless. Caligula, the mad emperor, had gone further still.
Fancying himself a god, he had commanded that temples should be
raised in his honour, and his statues worshipped everywhere. He had
even gone so far as to command that his statue should be set up in
the Temple of Jerusalem, and to do actually that which St. Paul
prophesied a few years after the man of sin would do, 'Exalt himself
over all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he would
sit in the temple of God, and show himself as God.'
Then followed a strange scene, which will help to explain much of
this Epistle of St. Peter. The Jews of Jerusalem did not rise in
rebellion. They did what St. Peter told the Jews of Asia Minor to
do. They determined to suffer for well-doing,--to die as martyrs,
not as rebels. Petronius, the Roman governor who was sent to carry
out the order, was a strange mixture of good and bad. He was a
peculiarly profligate and luxurious man. He wrote one of the foulest
books which ever disgraced the pen of man. But he was kind-hearted,
humane, rational. He had orders to set up the Emperor's statue in
the temple at Jerusalem; and no doubt he laughed inwardly at the
folly: but he must obey orders. Yet he hesitated, when he landed
and saw the Jews come to him in thousands, covering the country like
a cloud, young and old, rich and poor, unarmed, many clothed in
sackcloth and with ashes on their heads, and beseeching him that he
would not commit this abomination. He rebuked them sternly. He had
a whole army at his back, and would compel them to obey. They
answered that they must obey God rather than man. Petronius's heart
relented; he left his soldiers behind and went on to try the Jews at
Tiberias. There he met a similar band. He tried again to be stern
with them. All other nations had worshipped the Emperor's image, why
should not they? Would they make war against their emperor? 'We
have no thought of war,' they cried with one voice, 'but we will
submit to be massacred rather than break our law;' and at once the
whole crowd fell with their faces to the earth, and declared that
they were ready to offer their throats to the swords of the Roman
For forty days that scene lasted; it was the time for sowing, and the
whole land lay untilled. Petronius could do nothing with people who
were ready to be martyrs, but not rebels; and he gave way. He
excused himself to the mad emperor as he best could. He promised the
Jews that he would do all he could for them, even at the risk of his
own life--and he very nearly lost his life in trying to save them.
But the thing tided over, and the poor Jews conquered, as the
Christian martyrs conquered afterwards, by resignation; by that
highest courage which shows itself not in anger but in patience, and
suffering instead of rebelling.
Well it had been for the Jews elsewhere if they had been of the same
mind. But near Babylon, just about the time St. Peter wrote his
epistle, the Jews broke out in open rebellion. Two Jewish orphans,
who had been bred as weavers and ran away from a cruel master,
escaped into the marshes, and there became the leaders of a great
band of robbers. They defeated the governor of Babylon in battle;
they went to the court of the heathen king of Persia, and became
great men there. One of them had the other poisoned, and then
committed great crimes, wasted the country of Babylon with fire and
sword, and came to a miserable end, being slaughtered in bed when in
a drunken sleep. Then the Babylonians rose on all the Jews and
massacred them: the survivors fled to the great city of Seleucia,
and mixed themselves up in party riots with the heathens; the
heathens turned on them and slew 50,000 of them; and so, as St. Peter
told them, judgment began at the house of God.
Whether this massacre of the Babylonian Jews happened just before or
just after St. Peter wrote his epistle from Babylon, we cannot tell.
But it is plain, I think, that either this matter or what led to it
was in his mind. It seems most likely that it had happened a little
before, and that he wrote to the Jews in the north-east of Asia
Minor, to warn them against giving way to the same lawless passions
which had brought ruin and misery on the Jews of Babylon.
For they were in great danger of falling into the same misery and
ruin. The Romans expected the Jews to rebel all over the world.
And, as it fell out, they did rebel, and perished in vast numbers
miserably, because they would not take St. Peter's advice; because
they would not obey every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake;
because they would not honour all men: but looked on all men as the
enemies of God.
Good for them it would have been, had they taken St. Peter's advice,
which was the only plan, he said, to save their souls and lives in
those terrible times. Good for them if they had believed St. Peter's
gospel, when he told them that God had chosen them to obedience, and
purification by the blood of Christ, to an inheritance undefiled and
that faded not away.
He said that, remember, to all the Jews, whether Christians or not.
St. Peter took for granted that Christ was Lord and King of all the
Jews, whether they believed it or not. He did not say, 'If you
believe in Christ, then he is your King; if not, then he is not;'
but--Because you are Jews, you are all Christ's subjects; to him you
owe faith, loyalty, and obedience. It was of him the old Jewish
prophets foretold, and saw that their prophecies of Christ's coming
would be fulfilled, not in their own time, but in your time--in the
time of the Jews to whom he spoke. Therefore they were to give up
the foolish practices which had been handed down to them from their
forefathers. Therefore they were to give up fleshly lusts, which
warred against the soul, and would only bring them to destruction;
therefore they were to be holy, even as God was holy; therefore they
were to purify their souls in sincere brotherly love; therefore they
were to keep their conduct honourable among the Gentiles, that,
though they were now spoken against as evil-doers, they might see
their good works, and glorify God in the coming day of visitation.
Therefore they were to submit to every ordinance of man for the
Lord's sake; and trust to Christ, their true King in heaven, to
deliver them from oppression, and free them from injustice, in his
own good way and time. Free men they were in the sight of God, and
unjustly enslaved by the Romans: but they were not to make their
being free men a cloak and excuse for malice and evil passions
against the Gentiles (as too many of the Jews were doing), but
remember that they were the servants of God; and serve him, and trust
in him to deliver them in his own way and time, by his Son Jesus
Those Jews who believed St. Peter's gospel and good news that Christ
was their King and Saviour, kept their souls in peace.
Those Jews who did not believe St. Peter--and they, unhappily for
them, were the far greater number--broke out into mad rebellion
again, and perished in vast numbers, till they were destroyed off the
face of the earth (as St. Peter had warned them) by their own fleshly
lusts, which warred against the soul.
But what has this to do with us?
It has everything to do with us, if we believe that we are Christian
men; that Christ is our King, and the King of all the world, just as
much as he was King of the Jews; that all power is given to him in
heaven and earth, and that he is actually exercising his power, and
governing all heaven and earth.
Yes. If we really believed in the kingdom of God and Christ; if we
really believed that the fate of nations is determined, not by kings,
not by conquerors, not by statesmen, not by parliaments, not by the
people, but by God; that we, England, the world, are going God's way,
and not our own; then we should look hopefully, peacefully,
contentedly, on the matters which are too apt now to fret us; for we
should say more often than we do, 'It is the Lord: let him do what
seemeth to him good.'
When we see new opinions taking hold of men's minds; when we see
great changes becoming certain; then, instead of being angry and
terrified, we should say with Gamaliel the wise, 'Let them alone: if
this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought; if it be
of God, you cannot overthrow it, lest haply you be found fighting
If, again, we fancied ourselves aggrieved by any law, we should not
say, 'It is unjust, therefore I will not obey it:' for it would seem
a small matter to us whether the law was unjust to us, which only
means, in most cases, that the law is hard on us personally, and that
we do not like it; for almost every one considers things just which
make for his own interest, while whatever is against his interest is
of course unjust. We should say, 'Let the law be hard on me, yet I
will obey it for the Lord's sake; if it can be altered by fair and
lawful means, well and good; but if not, I will take it as one more
burden which I am to bear patiently for the sake of him who lays it
on me, Christ my Lord and my King.'
The true question with us ought to be, Does the law force us to do
that which is wrong?
If so, we are bound not to obey it, as the Jews were bound not to
obey the law which commanded Caesar's image to be set up in the
Temple. But if any man knows of a law in this land which compels him
to do a wrong thing, I know of none. And let no man fancy that such
submission shows a slavish spirit. Not so. St. Peter did not wish
to encourage a slavish spirit in Jews and Christians. He told them
that they were free: but that they were not to use that belief as a
cloak of maliciousness--of spiteful, bitter, and turbulent conduct.
And as a fact, those who have done most for true freedom, in all
ages, have not been the violent, noisy, bitter, rebellious spirits,
who have cried, 'We are the masters, who shall rule over us?' but the
God-fearing, patient, law-abiding men, who would obey every ordinance
of man for the Lord's sake, whether it seemed to them altogether just
or not, unless they saw it was ruinous not to themselves merely, but
to their country, and to their children after them.
It is because men in their own minds do not believe that Christ is
the ruler of the world, that they lose all hope of God's delivering
them, and break out into mad rebellion. It is because, again, men do
not believe that Christ is the ruler of the world, that, when their
rebellion has failed, they sink into slavishness and dull despair,
and bow their necks to the yoke of the first tyrant who arises; and
try to make a covenant with death and hell. Better far for them, had
they made a covenant with Christ, who is ready to deliver men from
death and hell in this world, as well as in the world to come.
But he who believes in Christ, in the living Christ, the ordering
Christ, the governing Christ, will possess his soul in patience. He
will not fret himself, lest he should do evil; because he can always
put his trust in the Lord, until the tyranny be overpast. He will
not hastily rebel: but neither will he truckle basely and cowardly
to the ways of this wicked world. For Christ the Lord hates those
ways, and has judged them, and doomed them to destruction; and he
reigns, and will reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet.