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Some information, useful to a reader of the Gospels, which cannot so advantageously be inserted among the Notes, I have thought it best to give in the form of introductory explanations. The following are the subjects:-1. The meaning of the word Gospel. II. The civil condition of the Jews in the time of Christ. III. The meaning of certain names, or official titles, which frequently occur in the Gospels.
1. THE MEANING OF THE WORD GOSPEL.
The word Gospel, in such a phrase as the Gospel according to Matthew, is plainly the title of the account furnished by Matthew respecting Jesus Christ. In the very common expression, gospel of Jesus Christ, it means the religious dispensation established by him. These, however, are only secondary meanings of the word. Traced back to its origin, it properly signifies good tidings, joyful announcement.
In what way a term expressive of joyful announcement came to be used with so specific reference to our Lord Jesus Christ, can be easily shown. Immediately after our first parents had fallen from their holy state, God announced his purpose to frustrate the wicked designs of the evil one. With reference to this same purpose, he promised to Abraham, after having separated him from his kindred, that through him and his posterity all the families of the earth should be blessed. In accordance with this promise, the posterity of Abraham were separated, by peculiar civil and religious rites, from all the nations, and brought into a very peculiar relation to God. In the time of David, new assurances were given of God's care over his people, and of his determination to bestow on them distinguished blessings. They were at length led to expect that there would arise from among the descendants of David an illustrious individual, to whom a lasting dominion should be given; to whose sway all the nations should submit, and whose administration should be signally righteous, and glorious, and happy. Blessings of all sorts were to be connected with his reign. Ile would bind up the brokenhearted; he would give liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that were bound. In the time of Daniel, it was declared, that to this personage should be given dominion, glory, and a kingdom ; that all people, nations and languages should serve him;
his dominion should be an everlasting dominion, which should not pass away, and his kingdom should not be destroyed.
Thus the nation had been led to expect the coming of a glorious king, under whose reign times of signal prosperity and happiness would be enjoyed. To this expected king they applied, with special emphasis, the title Messiah a word signifying anointed, and originally applied to any king, or to any person who had been consecrated to his office by the ceremony of anointing. But he, whom they were thus expecting, came in process of time to be denominated the Messiah, the king.
The nation, though taught to expect times of distinguished glory, experienced great reverses in their condition from the time of the Babylonian captivity. They were, for the most part, subject to other powers, and at length fell under the dominion of Rome. Their religious, as well as their civil state, had suffered greatly. The holiness, as well as the royalty, which had at some former periods distinguished them, was gone. The promises in their sacred books, however, they still remembered ; and, though they did not rightly understand the nature of those promises, they fondly anticipated the time when a new order of things under the wished-for Messiah would commence. The announcement of his baving made his appearance would indeed be hailed as glad tidings, by some, through utterly erroneous views, for political reasons; by others, for higher and more becoming reasons. The former would soon experience a disappointment, and might easily become his opposers; the latter, the more they discovered his real character and purposes, would the more revere him, and confide in him as indeed the Holy One predicted by their ancient prophets.
In respect to us and to all men, the word gospel [glad tidings) is a truly appropriate designation of the system of religious truth and duty established by our Lord Jesus Christ. For it is, eminently, the system which clearly brings immortality to light, which proffers pardon and eternal life to the sinful, and points out the new and living way to heaven.
It may be interesting, too, to know that our English word gospel, when traced back to its original meaning, resembles the Greek word thus translated. Gospel is derived from the Saxon words god spell, signifying good account, cheering intelligence.
II. THE CIVIL CONDITION OF THE JEWS AT THE TIME OF CHRIST.
After the death of Joshua, by whom the Hebrews were established in Palestine, the promised land, they lived under the government of judges -a term which must be understood in a far more extensive sense than we understand it in respect to ourselves. A reader of the book of Judges will perceive that the rulers thus named had a large share of civil and military power. Towards the close of Samuel's life, the people eagerly sought to be under the government of a king. The desired change in their affairs was accordingly made. When Rehoboam, the fourth king, commenced his reign, ten tribes
revolted from his authority, and formed a separate kingdom, called the kingdom of Israel. Two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, remained, and were called the kingdom of Judah. The kingdom of Israel was overthrown by the Assyrians, 253 years after the revolt, and 722 before Christ. The people were mostly carried away captive into Media and Assyria.
The kingdom of Judah, that is, of the Jews, properly so called, was overthrown 387 years after the revolt of Israel, and 588 before Christ, by the Chaldeans, and the people were carried away captive to Babylon. The captivity continued seventy years. At the close of this period, they were permitted, by the favor of Cyrus, into whose power the government of Babylon bad fallen, to return to their own land. They rebuilt their temple, restored their worship, and enjoyed many privileges, both civil and religious. They never, however, acquired much power as a nation, being very considerably dependent on the neighboring nations. After various changes, they at length fell under the dominion of the Romans, and so remained till their national existence was terminated, about the 70th year of the Christian era.
While under the Roman power, the Jews enjoyed the free exercise of their religion; and were subjected to a very slight interference with their internal policy. They were compelled to pay tribute to the Roman government, and the power of executing a capital sentence was taken away from their courts. The highest Jewish tribunal still had power to pass sentence of death on an accused person, but the power to execute the sentence was with the Romans, and permission was required to be obtained from the Roman authority, in order that such punishment might lawfully be inflicted.
At the time of our Lord's birth, Herod the Great was king of Judea. His power extended over the whole of Palestine, both on the east and on the west of the Jordan. This power he acquired by favor of the Romans, and held it as dependent on them. At his death, shortly after the birth of Jesus, his son Archelaus was appointed ruler of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, with the title of ethnarch ; and another son, Herod Antipas, was appointed ruler over Galilee and Perea, with the title of tetrarch. Archelaus, ten years after, was accused before the Roman emperor of excessive cruelty, and was banished. The districts over which he had ruled were then reduced to the form of a Roman province, and the Roman emperors intrusted it to an officer whom they called procurator, or governor. He was the emperor's representative in that province. At the time of our Lord's entering on his public ministry, and for several years after, Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor, or procurator, of Judea. Herod Antipas still remained tetrarch of Galilee.
III. THE MEANING OF CERTAIN NAMES, OR OFFICIAL TITLES, WHICH
FREQUENTLY OCCUR IN THE GOSPELS. 1. Pharisees. - This was the name of a numerous and powerful sect among the Jews. The origin of the name is generally traced
to a word which signifies to separate. Thus the name may have been intended to mark their claim to superior purity:
They were extremely rigid in interpreting the letter of the Mosaic law, and made great pretensions to piety. But they were far from the spirit of piety; considering of httle account the state of the heart, and regarding as chiefly worthy of their attention those minute, external forms of obedience which might secure the notice and good opinion of men. To those laws, which were not enforced by a penalty, they attached but little importance; and, in general, regarded the ceremonial precepts as the great and weighty commands.
They not only adhered very closely to the letter of the Mosaic laws in their injunctions upon the people, but also observed a multitude of traditions, which they represented as even superior to the laws of Moses. These traditions were unwritten commands, which originated with their ancestors at a comparatively early date, and which had at length grown up into a system.
With all their professions of strict moral integrity, they were avaricious and devoted to the pleasures of the world, and scrupled not to use unjust means to increase their riches. In general, they were a corrupt class of men ; yet there were doubtless among them persons of real integrity.
2. Sadducees. - This was the name of another sect among the Jews. In various respects, they were opposite to the Pharisees. They were not so numerous, nor so popular. They rejected the unwritten traditions, and held that only the written law was binding. They were also distinguished by denying the existence of any spiritual being besides God. Hence they denied the existence of angels, and of human souls as distinct from the body. They denied the resurrection of the dead. While the Pharisees were very assiduous in making proselytes, the Sadducees were not zealous in disseminating their opinions. When they sustained any public offices, they had no difficulty in conforming to the sentiments of the Pharisees, in order to secure the favor of the people.
Of the origin of the Sadducees, or of the name, we cannot speak with certainty. The Jews trace them to one Sadoc, or Sadducus, who lived about three centuries before the Christian era. The Sadducees and the Pharisees probably originated at about the same tine.
3. Scribes. — The Scribes were a class of men employed in preserving and explaining the sacred books of the Jews. To them it belonged to copy the Scriptures, to interpret the more difficult passages, and to decide doubtful cases of religious duty. They were thus, in an eminent sense,. religious teachers of the people; they doubtless gave tone and color to the sentiments of the nation. So important was this order of men, that they were eligible to a seat in the Sanhedrim, the highest court of the Jews.
4. Lawyers. Doctors of the Law. — These were the same as the scribes. The law which they taught and explained, was the law of Moses, or the religion of the nation. The use of our modern word lawyer is, therefore, different from the scriptural use of the word.
Among the Jews, the law of Moses regulated both civil and religious matters; and a lawyer among them, or a doctor of the law, was in reality a teacher of religion.
5. Publicans. — These were what we might call tax-gatherers, collectors of the revenue for the support of government. After the Jews became subject to the Romans, they were required, like the other subjugated nations, to pay tribute. The manner of collecting taxes, or tribute, was different from that which prevails among us. The Roman government was in the habit of selling to certain individuals the privilege of collecting the taxes in a particular region. What those individuals paid was all that the government received. Those individuals, having agreed with the government for a certain sum, would so levy the taxes as not only to raise the stipulated sum, but also to procure for themselves a large profit. Persons thus ernployed were usually Romans of considerable note; and sometime: wealthy Jews procured to themselves this employment. Probably Zaccheus (Luke 19: 12) is to be regarded as such a person. These men employed inferior collectors ; and it is these inferior collectors that are called in the New Testament publicans. They were sometimes Romans, and sometimes Jews; of low rank in society, of little worth as
to character, anxious for gain, and practising extortion. Hence they were despised and detested. Such persons were, among other nations, held in contempt; but probably the dislike was much stronger among the Jews, as the payment of tribute perpetually reminded them that they were not only in subjection to a foreign power, but were even contributing to the support of a heathen government.