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IX The Church
1. THE CONDITION OF THE CHURCH
On the next day much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna! Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord. And Jesus, when he had found a young ass, sat thereon; as it is written, Fear not daughter of Lion; behold thy king cometh, sitting on an ass’s colt. John 12:12–15.
Branches of palm trees. Among the ancients, the palm was a symbol of victory and peace. Moreover, they used palm branches when they invested someone with sovereignty, or when they came as suppliants before a victorious king or general. But these folk carried palm branches as a sign of festive joy at the coming of the new King.
They shouted, Hosanna! and so shouting, they voiced their conviction that Jesus Christ was the Messiah, promised by the fathers of old, their hope of deliverance and salvation. For Psalm 118, from which this exclamation is taken, was written about the Messiah, to the end that the saints might ardently hope for and continually desire his coming, and that they might receive him with reverence when he appeared. Therefore, it is a probable, if not a certain inference, that this prayer was common among the Jews, and was in everybody’s mouth. Therefore, the Spirit of God moved these people to address their prayer to Christ; and they thus became his chosen heralds to testify that the Messiah had come. Hosanna is made up of two Hebrew words, which mean, “save, I pray Thee.” The Hebrews pronounce it Hoshia-nna. The sound of words is often corrupted when transliterated into another language. Yet the Evangelists, who wrote in Greek, purposely kept the Hebrew word, to express properly the fact that the crowd used a solemn 362form of prayer which had come down from David and was kept by the people of God through the ages for the special and sacred purpose of blessing the Kingdom of Christ. The words which come next, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord, were used to the same end. For this is a propitious prayer for the joyful and prosperous success of Christ’s Kingdom, upon which depends the restoration and the happiness of the church of God.
And now we have to untie the knot that in this psalm David speaks of himself rather than of Christ; and this won’t be too difficult. We know that a kingdom was established in the hands of David and his posterity, in anticipation of that everlasting Kingdom which was to appear in its own time. We do not need to believe that David was thinking only of himself. What is more, the Lord himself sent prophets who turned the eyes of the godly in another direction. Therefore, what David sings about himself is rightly applied to the Redeemer who was to come from his seed. . . .
That cometh in the name of the Lord. We must first understand the meaning of this expression. A man comes in the name of the Lord when he neither rashly pushes himself forward, nor usurps honor under false pretenses, but when he has been called by God, accepts him as the author and the guide of his actions. This eulogy applies to all the true servants of God. A prophet comes in the name of the Lord, directed by the Spirit of God; and delivers to men the pure doctrine which he receives from heaven. So also, a king comes in the name of the Lord, when God governs his people by his hand. But since the Spirit of the Lord rested upon Christ, and since he is the Head of the church, all those who have ever been ordained to rule over the church are subject to him; they are indeed as streams flowing from a Fountain. Christ is said properly to have come in the name of the Lord; not only because he excels all others in authority, but also because God has totally revealed himself in Christ. For in him dwells the fullness of Deity bodily, as Paul says in Col. 2:9; and he himself is the living image of God; in short, he is truly Immanuel. He has a special right to this eulogy, because God manifested himself in him wholly, and not partially as he had done by the prophets. Therefore, if we want to honor God’s servants, we ought to start with the Head.
Rejoice, thou barren who didst not bear, rejoice and be glad, thou who hadst no children! For the sons of the widowed are more than the sons of the wife, saith the Lord. 363Enlarge the space of your tents and extend your tent cords. Isa. 54:1–2. (Calvin’s wording.)
After speaking of the death of Christ, the prophet rightly turns to the church to give us a better understanding of what Christ’s death has done and accomplished for us. There would be no such understanding if Christ’s death were considered by itself. Therefore we must turn to his body which is the church. Christ suffered for the church — not for himself.
The same order is followed in the Creed of our faith. After we confess that we believe in Christ who suffered for us and was crucified, we continue by affirming that we believe in the church which, as it were, flowed from his side. So Isaiah, after speaking of the death, resurrection, and triumph of Christ, rightly comes down to the church which is never to be separated from its Head. In this way, each one of the faithful may learn from his own experience that Christ did not suffer in vain.
If this teaching had been omitted, the faithful could not fortify their hearts with the hope of the restoration of the church. But the congratulation in these verses shows plainly that when Christ comes forth from death as conqueror, he conquers not for himself alone, but also to breathe life into his body, which is the church. . . .
Tents. The metaphor is taken from a kind of dwelling common in that region. The church is compared to tents because it has no solid structure in the world. It always appears unsettled and wandering, and is moved here and there in various migrations, as necessity requires. But I am sure the prophet was also thinking of that earlier liberation of God’s people, when they were led through the desert and lived in tents forty years. In memory of that liberation, they later held yearly a solemn feast, according to God’s commandment. And as we have said, the prophets habitually refer to it.
Someone will object that the structure built by the ministers of the Word is too solid to be compared to a tent. But I answer: The likeness to a tent refers to the external appearance of the church rather than to its spiritual or essential (if I may use the word) existence. The true structure of the church is the Kingdom of God, and this is neither frail nor like a tent in any way. But in the meantime, the external church is moved here and there because it has no firm habitation in which it can abide. It is more solid and stronger than the best-fortified citadels because, relying on God’s unconquerable power, it scorns all 364peril. But it is like a tent because it is not supported by earthly resources, wealth, and power.
Next we come to the reason the prophet orders that the cords be lengthened to enlarge the tent; obviously because no ordinary sized place was sufficient to hold the people whom God was going to gather from all parts of the world into one church.
Thus saith the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel, his Holy One, to the despicable of soul, to the abominable race, to the slave of masters: Kings will see and princes will stand up and adore, because of the Lord; because faithful is the Holy One of Israel and he who chose thee. Isa. 49:7. (Calvin’s wording.)
Isaiah continues the same theme to enable the people, who are suffering from a heavy disaster, to take hold of the hope of a better future. To strengthen their hope the more, he calls God who promises them deliverance, the Redeemer and the Holy One of Israel.
Someone will object that this is a contradiction. God is called the Redeemer of the very people whom he has abandoned to oppression. Where is the redemption, where is the holiness, when the people could see that they were wretched and ruined? I answer, The prophet reminds them of their past history as a ground for confidence and hope. Since the Jews were overwhelmed with despair, the prophet protested and argued that the God who had formerly redeemed their fathers was still mighty and still possessed the same power as of old. Therefore, although he had for a time hidden his salvation in order to exercise the faith of the godly, believers were commanded to stand firm with uplifted hearts, because their redemption by God’s hand was sure. Meanwhile, it was necessary for them to think thoughts far removed from the experience of the senses.
This passage is important for us, because from it we learn how great is the faith we need when God speaks to us. For his promises are not fulfilled immediately, and he lets us suffer and endure affliction for a long time.
Some translate bezoh as “despised,” and some as “despicable.” I prefer the latter. God adds to the people’s misery by declaring that their souls are despicable in his sight. Many who are despised by others are still worthy of honor because they are gifted men; such people do not cease to swell with pride, and they trample down the pride of those who despise them with their own greater pride. But God says here that he himself 365despises this people no less than they are despised by their fellow men. But his purpose in describing the extremity of their disgrace and misery is to assure them that the time of their deepest humiliation will also be the acceptable time when he shall bring them his help.
The abominable nation. I see no reason why some change the number of nation, goy, to the plural when the prophet uses the singular. It is certain that these words are addressed especially to the race of Abraham.
He adds serve masters, that is, “be oppressed by strong tyrants” for meshalim means those who have so much strength and power that it is not easy to escape from their hands.
When God says that kings shall see, he speaks magnificently of the liberation of his people; yet meanwhile he permits them to be tried in a fiery furnace, to make trial of their patience and faith. For if what God promised occurred immediately, before he had even finished speaking, there would be no place for the exercise of faith.
The repetition in naming the rulers is customary in Hebrew. We should say “kings and princes shall see; they shall stand up and adore.” The verb adore explains stand up. (Today we stand up to honor someone.) Briefly, the greatest princes of the world shall stand up, as they testify that the restoration of God’s people is God’s own glorious work, worthy of reverence
Because he is faithful. This is the reason for the admiration and honor which the princes show to God. They will come to know God’s faithfulness and constancy with regard to his promises. Moreover, God wishes to be known as true, not as an abstract concept, but through the experience of the way he preserves the people whom he has adopted. Therefore, let us learn that the promises of God are not to be estimated by our [immediate] situation, but by his truth. When nothing but destruction and death hangs over us, let us remember these words by which God constrained a despicable and contemptible people.
Also, we must realize how great and wonderful is God’s work in liberating the church. Proud kings who think nothing worth looking at or valuable are compelled to see, to wonder, to be amazed, and even against their will to reverence God. This new and unprecedented work of God is especially commended to us, and our own judgment tells us what and how great it is; for even if we ignore past history, we know our own liberation from the miserable tyranny of Antichrist. When we consider our own situation carefully, it must, in the psalmist’s words, seem to us 366a dream (Ps. 126:1). God has done a stupendous and incredible work in us who bear Christ’s name.
And who hath chosen thee. At the end of the verse the prophet repeats what he had mentioned before, that this people had been set apart by God. But we must realize that election is the beginning of sanctification. This people was God’s holy inheritance only because God had of his mere good pleasure thought it good to choose them, therefore [in these words], Isaiah points to the hidden will of God as the source from which sanctification flows. He thus prevents Israel from thinking themselves separated from others on account of their own merit; it is as though he had said, “The Lord who chose you confirmed his choice by his own work in you, and demonstrated it by its effects.” In the same way, God’s faithfulness must be known in our salvation, and our salvation must equally be ascribed to his election. Meanwhile, let all who desire to share in this great good become a part of Israel, that is, of the church, outside of which there can be neither salvation nor truth.
For behold, in those days, and in the time, when I bring again the captivity of Judah and Jerusalem, then I will also gather all nations, and I will bring them down to the valley of Jehoshaphat. . . . Joel 3:1–2.
The prophet said this when the Jews were an object of hatred to all peoples and were, so to speak, the dregs and filth of the whole world. The enemies of the Jews were as many as there were nations under the sky. And the Jews, seeing the hostility of the whole world, were likely to slip into complete despair. They would think: “Even if God wishes to save us, there are so many obstacles that we are certain to perish. The Assyrians are not our only enemies; we have met still greater hatred from all our neighbors.” For we know that the Moabites and Ammonites, Tyrians, Sidonians, Philistines, in fact whatever peoples were in that region, had been most hostile to the Jews. And since all roads to their country were closed [to the exiled Jews], it was difficult for them to imagine any hope except by the inspiration of the Lord himself.
For this reason, the prophet said that God would be the judge of the whole world, and that it is within his will and power to summon all nations. . . .
Moreover he says this summons will occur in those days and at that time when the Lord brings back the captivity of Judah and Jerusalem. Christian scholars force this into a prophecy of Christ’s 367coming. But they twist the words away from the sense which the context demands. For there is no doubt that the prophet here spoke of the return [from the exile]. Yet he included [in his prophecy] also the Kingdom of Christ. And as we have said elsewhere, this was a very common and frequent practice. When the prophets testified that God would be the Redeemer of his people and promised liberation from the Babylonian exile, they also led the faithful to Christ’s Kingdom as if by a continuous pull toward it.
For what was the restoration [from exile] but the prelude of the true and real redemption truly manifested in the person of Christ? Therefore, the prophet does not speak exclusively of the coming of Christ, nor of the return of the Jewish people; he embraces the whole process of redemption, which had only begun when God led his people back from the Babylonian exile, and continues from Christ’s first coming to the Last Day. And when it is said that God will redeem his people, we are not to think this redemption will be a brief and instantaneous act God will continue to exercise his grace until he has exacted the penalty from all the enemies of his church. . . . In brief, the prophet does not reveal God as a halfway redeemer. God will not make an end until he has finished whatever belongs to the felicity of his church and has perfected it in all things. . . .
Joel is saying: “God will not pour out a thin stream of grace. He will bring full redemption to his people. When the whole world rises against them, he will prevail because he himself will undertake to protect his church and defend the safety of his own.” Therefore, those who strive to delay or hinder the restoration of the church will accomplish nothing. God is its vindicator, and he will judge all peoples.
Now we must see why the prophet names the Valley of Jehoshaphat. Many think that valley was mentioned because it had been called the “valley of blessing” (2 Chron. 20:26). There, as we know, Jehoshaphat had won a great victory with only a small force, although many peoples had joined together against him. When he had fought against a great army and had conquered marvelously (for his followers were few), the people blessed God there, and the name Blessing was given to the place. Therefore, many think that the valley was mentioned here to recall to the Jews’ remembrance how wonderfully they had been saved in the past. For the memory of that would surely turn their minds to hope. . . . And this seems to me a probable explanation.368
Some locate the Valley of Jehoshaphat between the Mount of Olives and the city; but I do not know how probable that conjecture is. In my judgment, the important point is that the text reminds the people of God’s past goodness so as to inspire the faithful in all ages to hope for their own salvation.
Others indeed prefer to interpret Jehoshaphat from the meaning of the root from which it is derived. (And certainly Jeho-shaphat means “the judgment of God.”) They translate it as “the valley of God’s judgment.” If you prefer this meaning, I do not object. Certainly the name is appropriate, and even if the prophet is here speaking of the holy king in order to encourage the Jews to follow his example, there is no doubt that he is also referring to the judgment of God or to the verdict he will deliver in favor of his people. For the next words are I will decide upon them there; and the verb, like the name, is from the root shaphat. Clearly, if the name belongs to the place and was also the name of the king, the prophet wished to enlarge its meaning; it is as if he had said, “When God dwells in the midst of his people, he will call all nations to judgment; and this is what he now wills to declare and establish.”
Some twist the passage into a reference to the Last Judgment — but that is violently forced. From that misinterpretation arose the idea that the whole world will gather in the Valley of Jehoshaphat. But we know such mad dreams filled the world when the light of sane teaching was quenched. It is not strange, after the world had so profaned the worship of God, that all men became fascinated with crude absurdities. But when we consider the prophet’s purpose, there is no doubt that he names the Valley of Jehoshaphat to give hope to the Jews that God himself will guard their safety. He says frequently that God will live among them; later in this very chapter we read, And God will live in the midst of you.
And I fed the flock of slaughter, truly (or therefore) the poor of the flock; and I took for myself two staffs, the one I called Elegance (or Beauty) and the other I called Cords (or as some translate, Destroyers. This we shall discuss); and I fed the flock. Zech. 11:7. (Calvin’s wording.)
Here the prophet continues an earlier theme and clarifies what had not been sufficiently explained: namely, that the ingratitude of the people, especially since it was combined with obstinacy, was worthy of death and left no room for pardon. God’s Fatherly care had been basely and dishonorably rejected, 369as well as the gracious kindness which he had shown to the people.
God declares that he has fed the flock. Others take Zechariah as the subject; but as I said, God is enumerating the favors which in time of peace he had conferred on the people until he saw that they were unworthy of any kindness. We should remember that the prophet is speaking to the remnant. He is not here recounting God’s ancient favors to Israel, but describing the state of the people after their return from the exile in Babylon. In an earlier passage, God seemed to entrust this fraction of the people to Zechariah to feed. But as I have said, this whole address is intended to make it obvious that all guilt belonged to the people who had rejected God’s kindness and stubbornly fought against him, leaving no room or entryway for his mercy. This remonstrance is therefore in the name of God himself.
Truly the poor. Some translate because of. The word lakhen may introduce an explanation, or we may take the phrase to mean especially the poor. In any case, what the prophet means is that God had looked after the whole people because he hoped there were some sheep left who deserved mercy. God says that because he hoped there were some poor little sheep among the corrupt flock, he did not deem it hard or troublesome to lead his people as their shepherd. I fed the flock of slaughter, truly, he says, because there were in the flock some poor sheep whom I was unwilling to desert. I preferred to try everything rather than abandon one small sheep if there was one in the whole flock.
He says he took two staffs, one called no’am, the other hobelim. Those who translate the second “destroyers” do indeed interpret the Hebrew word literally if we stick to the vowel points. But since hebel and the plural habalim means “ropes” or cords,” I have no doubt that the prophet means here “small cords” or “binding twine.” You say, “But the grammar does not permit that!” As if Zechariah had written the vowel points, which were not then in use! I know, of course, the great care with which the ancient scribes worked out the points, when the language was no longer in ordinary and familiar use. And those who neglect the points or reject them entirely are certainly lacking in sense and good judgment. But some right of choice must be allowed. If we read destroyers here, the words make no sense; and if we read cords we alter only the two vowel points, and not a single letter. Since the context itself requires “cords,” 370I am astonished that interpreters have slavishly allowed themselves to be coerced [by two vowel points] and have not seen what the prophet was talking about.
Now the prophet says He took two staffs, but obviously not to do the ordinary work of a shepherd. Any shepherd is content with one crook. (Staff here means a shepherd’s crook.) And each shepherd works with his own crook. But here the prophet says that two crooks or shepherd’s staffs were needed, because when God leads his people his care of them surpasses that of any human shepherd.
But I leave the rest for tomorrow.
Yesterday we said that the name habalim, by which Zechariah called the second staff, ought not to be translated “destroyers,” as do all the Hebrews. God here teaches that he has done everything which can be done by a good and faithful shepherd, and that his people were perishing by their own fault. Now since God himself was discharging the duties of a shepherd, he could not have been carrying a staff for destruction. Besides, it is obvious that the prophet has put this word (habalim) together with the other, no’am. And finally, he says that the staff called habalim was broken to annul the brotherhood between Israel and Judah. What connection is there between “destroy” and “unite” ? It is correct therefore to take the name hobelim or habalim as “cords.”
Now we must see why the prophet names one staff Elegance or Beauty and the other Cords. Some think the no’am stands for natural law and habalim for the law of Moses. And those who translate “cords” (as Jerome rightly does here) think that since the law bound the ancient people to a hard yoke, it was called a rope because it constrained them. Others, like Jerome himself, refer to the words of Moses, When the Lord cast his cord, he chose a place in Israel, etc. (Deut. 32:8). And therefore they think that the cord stands for “inheritance.” But the first interpretation is too farfetched and forced. And at variance with the second is the prophet’s use of the word in the plural which is not consistent with inheritance. From the context it can be assumed, as we said yesterday, that cords are to be understood as union. Therefore, the text means that God had fulfilled the office of shepherd towards his chosen people and had prescribed for them the best possible order. This I understand from no’am. For nothing could more perfectly exemplify the beauty of order than the rule of life which God used for Israel. With good reason, therefore, he compares his 371shepherd’s crook to Beauty; as if he said that the rule had been so perfectly fashioned that nothing better could be imagined.
For the second staff he takes Unity or Concord, and this marked the height of his favor; for he had gathered together the scattered Israelites that they might once again be one people. It is true that few from the Kingdom of Israel had returned to their homeland; but it is clear that not all of the remnant was only from Judah, Benjamin, and the Levites; there were others mixed in with them. Therefore, the appropriate interpretation of this verse is that God had not only established a most beautiful order [of government], but had also added brotherly unity so that the sons of Abraham were joined together in one spirit and one soul.
Therefore, since theirs was so good a shepherd, their ingratitude was the more shameful and unendurable when they threw off his yoke and refused to be guided by his staff. Now we see why the prophet used these words Beauty and Union, when he described God as carrying two staffs.
Its waters will roar and toss tumultuously, and the mountains will be shaken with its swelling. Selah.
The streamlets of her river will make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved. Ps. 46:3–5. (Calvin’s wording.)
To understand the full meaning of this [third] verse, we should read it with what follows. Although the waters of the sea roar and roll wildly, and the mountains themselves shake at the violent impact, the City of God in the midst of such dreadful turmoil lies happy and calm, content with its narrow streams. The prophet means that the narrow channel of a small river is enough to give complete joy to the Holy City, even if the whole world should quake. I have mentioned before how useful a teaching this passage contains. Our faith is truly tested when in a time of great conflict hell seems ready to engulf us. And here we have pictured for us the victory of our faith over the whole world, whenever faith rises to conquer all fears amid confusion and threats of complete destruction. The sons of God do not find danger laughable, nor do they jest at death; but in danger they rejoice because they know that God’s promised aid outweighs all the evils which inspire terror. The sentiment of Horace appears very noble when he says of the righteous 372man, conscious of his own innocence:
Si fractus illabitur orbis
Impavidum ferient ruinae.
(When all the bulwarks of the earth crash suddenly to pieces he will face without fear the falling fragments.) But since no one has ever found a man such as Horace imagines, the words are empty. True courage is founded altogether in God’s protection; and those who rely upon God can boast not only that they are unafraid, but that they will be safe and secure when ruin overtakes the whole world. The prophet says explicitly that the City of God will be happy, although it does not possess a tumultuous sea which can throw its ever-surging waves against the assaults [of its enemies]. All it has is a little river. The prophet is referring to the brook which flowed from Siloah and went past Jerusalem. I have no doubt that he here blames obliquely the false confidence of those who are fortified with earthly resources and dream that they are beyond the reach of hostile weapons. Those who anxiously gather invincible garrisons appear indeed to be able to prevent invasion by foreign enemies, as though they were protected on all sides by the sea; but it often happens that they are overwhelmed by their own weapons as a tempest devastates and submerges an island in a flood. But those who trust themselves to God, although in the eyes of the world they are exposed to all kinds of injuries and have no defense to ward off attacks, nonetheless rest in security. For this reason, Isaiah (8:6) blames the Jews for despising the gently flowing waters of Siloah and seeking for deep and rapid rivers. . . .
In the same way today also, the Spirit encourages and inspires us to the same constancy: to despise the forces of those who march against us in splendor and confidence, to stand tranquil among all commotions and disturbances. Nor need we be ashamed of our nakedness if God’s hand is outstretched to preserve us. Therefore, although God’s help drips in a small stream like a rivulet, it brings us more of tranquillity than if all the powers of the world were all heaped up together at one time for helping us.
God in the midst of her. Now he shows how great the security of the church is, because God dwells in the midst of it. The verb will be moved is feminine in Hebrew and cannot refer to God as if he were going to remain stationary in the future. The statement means simply that the Holy City shall not be moved from its 373place because God dwells in it and is always ready to bring it help.
But ye shall be named the priests of the Lord. Isa. 61:6.
With these words the prophet shows the people how much more glorious their condition would be than it had been before; he means, “Up to now the Lord has chosen you for his own, but in the future he will honor you with much more splendid gifts, for he will elevate you all to priestly honor.” As we know although the whole people was called a priestly Kingdom, only the tribe of Levi performed the priestly office. The prophet here announces that in the future all will be priests. But this did not become manifest until the reign of Christ, although the restoration of the church began when the people returned from Babylon. At the coming of Christ, all the faithful were honored and exalted with priestly dignity.
We should consider the nature of this priesthood carefully. Animals are no longer to be slain as sacrifices to God; it is human beings that are to be brought as sacrifice — that is brought to obedience to Christ — as Paul said he did when by the sword of the gospel, he made an offering of the Gentiles that they might obey God (Rom. 15:16).
See then how childishly the papists misinterpret this passage when they use it to prove their own priesthood. Priests are set up by the pope and his followers to sacrifice Christ, not to teach the people. But Christ offered himself as a sacrifice for men’s eternal redemption and he alone officiated in that priestly act. He simply orders the fruit of his sacrifice to be brought to us in the teaching of the gospel. Those who usurp his office and wish to repeat the offering which he completed are sacrilegious.
But every one of us ought to offer himself and all his possessions to God in sacrifice, and so to perform his rightful priestly office. Secondly, ministers who are especially called to the office of teaching should use the sword of the Word to make men a sacrifice and to consecrate them to God. True ministers, certainly, are those who try or undertake nothing of themselves, but carry out faithfully and resolutely the commands which they have received from God.
And thou shalt be a crown of glory in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of thy God. Isa. 62:3.
A royal diadem. He calls the church God’s crown because God wishes his glory to shine in us. When we read this, we must 374see and wonder at the inconceivable goodness of God. For although we are by nature filthy and corrupt and more foul than the mire of the streets, he adorns us bounteously and desires to have us as the diadem of his Kingdom.
2. THE MINISTRY
From the Introduction to the Commentary on Isaiah.
It is usual to cover many subjects in discussing the office of the prophet. But no summary (or explanation) of it pleases me better than one which relates the prophets to the law from which they drew their teaching as brooks flow from their source. Since the prophets set the law as the rule for themselves and copied it, they may properly be called and counted its interpreters. There is no separation between the two.
The law contains three most important divisions: first, the teaching of the way of life; second, threats and promises; third, the covenant of grace, founded in Christ and including in itself all special promises. The sections dealing with ceremonies were exercises by which the people were kept to the worship of God and religion, and were appendixes to the first table.
The prophets explained the teaching of the law more extensively than was done in the law itself and interpreted more fully what the two tables covered in few words; and they made clear what the Lord particularly required at the moment. The threats and promises which Moses stated in general, they fitted to their own time and made specific. Finally, what related to Christ and his Kingdom, expressed rather obscurely by Moses, the prophets announced more plainly, bearing fuller and richer witness to the covenant of grace.
If we are to understand the relationship between the prophets and the law, we must discuss the matter in more detail. God established the law itself as the perpetual rule of his church, to be always in the hands of men, and to be followed by all posterity. But he saw the danger that the teaching transmitted by Moses would not be enough for a rude and unruly people. And further, he saw that the people themselves could scarcely be restrained except by a tighter rein. Therefore, since, he had forbidden them to consult either magi or soothsayers, either astrologers or observers of animals’ entrails, and had required them to be satisfied with his teaching alone, he added the promise that a prophet would never be wanting in Israel (Deut. 18:15).375
He did this with the purpose of meeting the anticipated complaint of the people that their situation was worse than that of any of the heathen, for the latter had their divining priests, pontiffs, interpreters of omens, casters of lots, astrologers, soothsayers, and such like, to whom they could go for advice; but they themselves had nobody to help them in case of doubt and uncertainty. To remove every excuse for their polluting themselves with the accursed rites of the nations, God promised to raise up prophets through whom he would disclose his purpose; they would faithfully proclaim whatever he commanded so that in the future the people could not complain of lacking anything.
The promise of a prophet is an exchange of number, ἑτερώσις (the singular stands for the plural). For although the passage looks ahead to (Fr. applies to) Christ, as Peter clearly, most appropriately and emphatically, interprets it (Acts 3:22), and although Christ is the chief of the prophets and on him all depend in their teaching and to him all with one consent look, yet the words apply also to the other prophets who are included collectively in the singular noun. Therefore, when God promised prophets through whom he would disclose his mind and purpose, he ordered the people to assent to their interpretations [of the law] and to their teaching.
God did not intend the prophets to add anything to the law. They were to interpret it faithfully and establish its authority. So when Malachi (in ch. 4) urges the people to be constant in sincere faith, and orders them to continue in the teaching of their religion, he says, Remember the law of Moses, my servant, which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel. He recalls them to the one law of God and commands them to be content with it. Does Malachi wish the prophets to be ignored? By no means! But since the prophets are dependent on the law, and the law summarily includes everything, his statement is sufficiently inclusive. Those who believe the teaching of the law in its main divisions and devote themselves to them will not neglect the prophets. It is absurd to boast of zeal for the law, when one neglects the divine interpretation of it. So today, many insolent men boast of their zeal for the Word, while they in no way accept the pious counsel and warnings drawn from the teaching of the Word.
When the prophets dealt with morals, they brought forward nothing new; they clarified the things in the law which were wrongly understood. For example, the people thought that 376when they offered sacrifices and kept the external ceremonies they had done their duty perfectly. For the world measured God by its own notions and worshiped him with material gifts. The prophets condemned this attitude severely and showed that all the ceremonies without sincerity of heart are worthless, that God is worshiped when men call upon him with true faith. Of course the law itself bears sufficient witness to this truth. But it needed to be taught more diligently and oftener brought to the people’s attention. Besides, it was necessary to expose the hypocrisy which leads men to cover themselves with the concealing garments of ceremonies. As for the second table of the law, it is from there that the prophets draw when they exhort men to desist from all injury, violence, and fraud. Thus they do nothing else but keep the people to the obedience of the law.
The prophets have a special task with regard to threats and promises. They note specifically, as if with a pointing finger, what Moses stated in general terms. Besides, they have their own vision by which the Lord unveils the future so that they may apply the promises and threats to the immediate need of the people, and bear witness more definitely and certainly to the will of God. Moses threatens, God will pursue you in battle. . . . The prophets say, Behold God will arm the Assyrians; he will hiss for the Egyptians.
Also the prophets are much more clear when they speak of the covenant of grace, and they establish the people more firmly in it. For they always call the people back to it when they wish to comfort them. And they set before them the coming of Christ, who was both the foundation of the covenant and the bond of mutual communion between God and the people. Therefore the whole sum of the promises must be referred to Christ. Anyone who believes this will easily understand what to look for in the prophets and what their purpose was in writing as they did. For the present, it is enough to point it out.
From the prophets, therefore, we should learn how we are to carry out the teaching of the Word. We must imitate them in seeking from the Word advice, judgment, threats, and consolations which are suited to the people in their present situation. For although the revelation given to us is not such that we can presume to predict the future, yet our teaching is valid when we exhibit the judgments of God from the history and example of the ancient people by comparing the ways of men in our time with those of theirs.
For what God formerly punished, he will punish no less today, 377since he is forever like himself. Let wise teachers keep this insight if they wish to treat the teaching of the prophets fruitfully.
And the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.
See, I have appointed you (or set you) today over nations and kingdoms.
And you, gird up your loins and rise, and speak. . . and fear not before them. Jer. 1:9–10, 17. (Calvin’s wording.)
Jeremiah is here describing his call so that his teaching may not be ignored as if it came from a man in his private capacity. He asserts that he did not come forward of his own accord, but was sent by God and instructed in his duty as prophet by Him. He says that for this purpose God put His words in his mouth.
This passage should be carefully studied, since Jeremiah here describes briefly how anyone who accepts the office of a teacher in the church ought to decide concerning his call. He must bring to his work nothing of his own. So Peter also says in his first letter, If any man speak, let him speak as it were the oracles of God (1 Peter 4:11); that is, he should not speak uncertainly as if he were giving out comments of his own, but he should be able to speak out confidently without hesitation in the name of God; just as Jeremiah in this passage demands to be heard because, as he declares, God has put his words in his mouth. We can be sure that whatever comes from man’s own cleverness may be ignored. God demands for himself alone the honor of being heard in his church (as I said yesterday).
Hence it follows that none should be recognized as servants of God, none should be counted just and faithful prophets or teachers, unless God is speaking through them, unless they invent nothing by themselves and teach nothing by their own will, but preach only what God commands.
For Jeremiah, a visible symbol was added to give greater assurance of his vocation. However, this is not to be made a general rule as if it were necessary for the tongues of all teachers to be touched by God’s hand. Here the reality is combined with the external sign. It is the reality which gives to all the servants of God the rule not to express their own comments but simply to transmit, as if from hand to hand, what they have received from God. It was peculiar to Jeremiah that God stretched out his hand and touched his mouth to show plainly that the prophet’s mouth was consecrated to God. For us, it is enough to understand clearly how important it is that the tongues of 378ministers of the Word are consecrated to God and that they are not to mix their own theories with his pure doctrine. In the person of Jeremiah, God intended to give us a visible sign of this consecration, by reaching out his hand to touch his mouth.
After God has testified that Jeremiah’s tongue is consecrated to Him and set apart from common and profane use, God assigns him his authority. See, he says, I have set you over nations and kingdoms. With these words, God shows the great reverence which he wishes done to his Word, even when delivered by mortal men. There is no one who does not profess that he is willing to obey God, but there is scarcely one in a hundred who welcomes his Word. As soon as it is spoken, men raise violent objections; or if they do not dare to show their fury and hostility, we see how they resist it, some by excuses, some by silence. Therefore the authority which God gives to his Word should be well noted.
God says, Behold, I have appointed you, and thus encourages the prophet to be high-minded, to remember his vocation, and not to flatter men slavishly nor comply with their selfish desires. See, he says. By this word we should understand that teachers cannot pursue their calling with full vigor unless the majesty of God stands vividly before their eyes. For they can despise whatever splendor and power and pomp they find among men only when they compare them with God’s glory. Experience teaches that when we turn our eyes on men, whatever dignity they possess, even though it be small, inspires us with fear.
Why are prophets and teachers sent? Truly to call the whole world to order; not to spare their hearers but to denounce them freely whenever there is need, even to threaten them when they appear obstinate. If the teacher allows himself to be impressed with any sort of superiority in men, he will not dare to offend those whom he thinks distinguished by power or wealth, or by some reputation for wisdom or honor. There is no remedy against such fears, except for teachers to keep God before their eyes and to be assured that he is the author of their words. When their minds are raised to God, they can look down on all human heights and excellencies. This is the purpose of the words God uses, See, I have appointed you over nations and kingdoms. Here God affirms that the authority of his Word is so great that it makes subject to itself whatever is high and mighty upon earth — even kings not excepted.
But what God has joined together, man may not separate. It is true that God here exalts his prophets above the whole world, even above kings. But just before, he had said, Lo, I put 379my words in your mouth. Therefore, whoever would claim such great authority for himself must proclaim God’s Word and prove himself to be a prophet in reality by injecting no comments of his own into it. . . . To conclude — we see from the context that it is not men who are so highly exalted, even if they are true ministers of the heavenly doctrine, but the content of the teaching itself. God here claims supreme authority for his Word, even though its ministers are men, ordinary, despised, poor, and with no superiority in themselves.
I have already explained that our text says this to give courage to true prophets and teachers, and to enable them to oppose kings and people boldly, because they are armed with the power of heavenly doctrine.
Rise and speak. We see that the reason God spoke privately to his servant Jeremiah was to enable him to assume publicly the office of teacher. Hence we conclude that those who are called to direct the church of God cannot be acquitted of guilt if they do not preach sincerely and boldly whatever is commanded them. Therefore Paul says that he is free from bloodguilt because he has spoken from house to house and in public whatever he received from God (Acts 20:26 f.). And elsewhere he says, Woe to me if I preach not the gospel, for the duty is laid upon me (1 Cor. 9:16).
When God orders the prophet to gird up his loins, this must refer to the garments worn in the Orient, then as now. Men wore long robes and whenever they began to work, or undertook some hard labor, they used to tuck them up. When God says, Gird your loins, he means, “Begin the course which I have enjoined upon you.” God requires hard work from his servant, and he is to go at it unhampered. . . .
Fear not before them. This exhortation was very necessary since Jeremiah was undertaking a most abhorrent task. He was to act as a herald, and to declare war against his people in the name of God. Jeremiah stated specifically that this calamity was the people’s own making, because their obstinacy had been so great that God now refused all leniency. This was a hard word to accept — especially when we remember the great pride of the Jews. They gloried in their holy race and further, as we shall see later, the Temple was in their minds an impregnable citadel, even against God himself. Sent to such a people, the prophet had no small need of being strengthened by God if he was to enter upon his work fearlessly. . . .
This passage contains a teaching which is useful to us. From 380it we learn that courage never fails God’s servants when their strength of heart comes from the knowledge that God himself has called them. When their hearts are lifted up by this assurance, God supplies them with indomitable strength and bravery, and they become formidable to the whole world. But if they are inhibited and timid, and shift back and forth, and are influenced by fear of men, God makes them contemptible and causes them to tremble at the slightest breath, and to waste away inwardly.
Why? Because they are not worthy that God should exalt them and reach out his hand to them, and arm them with his weapons, and give them a courage which could frighten both the devil and the whole world.
Truly, I am filled with power by the Spirit of the Lord, and with judgment and courage, to announce to Jacob his crime, to Israel his sin. Micah 3:8. (Calvin’s wording.)
Here Micah with heroic courage stands alone against all the false teachers, even though he is met with a multitude of them who, as usual, find their shield in their great number. He says, I am filled with power by the Spirit of the Lord. Such confidence befits all the servants of God and prevents them from yielding to the empty and windy boasts of their opponents who are upsetting the whole order of the church.
Whenever God for a time permits pure doctrine to be perverted by false teachers whom he allows to prevail because of their rank or number, we must turn our thoughts to this memorable example and keep our minds unperturbed, our firmness unwavering, and the power of the Holy Spirit indomitable in our hearts. Then we may continue on the way of our vocation and learn how to set the name of God against all human fallacies — provided we know that our obedience to God is approved by him as being faithful.
Therefore, when Micah says that he is filled with power, it is evident that he is taking his stand before the eyes of the whole nation, and that alone, by himself, he is challenging a great throng. False teachers were running around everywhere. The devil always has seed enough, when God lets him loose. Therefore their number was not small; yet Micah did not hesitate to come forward. “I myself,” he said (for the pronoun ’anokî is emphatic); “you despise me as only one man (or with a few others); you may imagine that I who serve God am alone. But I myself alone am enough for a thousand, or rather for numbers beyond counting, because God stands on my side, and approves 381of my ministry because it is his service. For I offer you nothing except what he has commanded.”
Then he expresses still more confidence by the word ’ulam. Truly, he says, I am filled. That word truly counters those magniloquent boasts by which false prophets are always winning fame and glory with the crowd. For Micah means that whatever they belch forth is empty wind. “You,” he says, “are wonderful prophets! You are certainly above the angels if your words are to be believed. But prove to us that what you boast of is real. Bring some sign which validates your calling. There is none. Therefore it follows that you are full of wind and not of the Spirit. What you boast of, I possess.”
Undoubtably Micah means that he was endowed with no common and ordinary power to meet the need of the time. As God uses the work of his servants, so also he is present with them and arms them with a stronger defense. When a man is performing the work of teaching without any great opposition, an ordinary measure of the Spirit is enough for doing his duty. But when anyone is drawn into a hard and difficult contest, he is at once armed by God. We see examples of this daily. For many simple men who had never tasted learning have been endowed, when their warfare began, with the Heavenly Spirit so that they shut the mouths of celebrated teachers who seemed to be oracles. By such evidence God testifies plainly today that he is the same God who formerly gave his servant Micah such rare and incredible power. This is why the prophet says he is filled with power.
Afterwards he adds by the Spirit of the Lord. Here he excludes every charge of pride and every appearance of claiming something for himself. He declares all to be a divine gift.
Now we must carefully note Micah’s situation. Although he rightly and deservedly claimed the title of teacher, yet he had nothing to distinguish him from the others in the eyes of the world. All his opponents had exercised the same office and had obtained the honor due to it. So much was common to all. But Micah was either alone or with Isaiah and a few more. And when he dared to set himself in opposition to the others, we see that it is not the vocation alone which must be considered. We know the greatness of Satan’s malice as he attacks Christ’s Kingdom. We also know the pride and ferocity of false teachers. Since both the devil’s fury and the pride of false teachers are well enough known, there is no reason why the faithful should take bare titles seriously. If the people who lived at that time 382claimed, as the papists do today, that they did not possess the discrimination or the judgment to decide between impostors and God’s servant, what was to be done? Micah was alone, and the others were very numerous. Besides, the others were prophets or at least had that title and reputation. As I said, this situation is worth considering. The vocation was common to them all. But the others were lying when they pretended to follow it; Micah alone, or with a few others, carried out faithfully whatever God commanded. And Micah alone is counted prophet and teacher.
Finally, the only way the false teachers can make sail against us is by appearing to be endowed with the Spirit of God. But whoever desires to be counted a servant of God and a teacher of the church should have the seal which Micah offers. If he is endowed with the Spirit of God, the honor belongs to God. On the other hand, if a man has nothing to show but the title, anybody can see how trifling a thing that is in God’s sight.
Then the prophet adds with judgment and courage. By judgment, he doubtless means all uprightness; that is a common meaning of the word. Then he adds courage, because these two qualities are especially necessary for all ministers of the Word. They must have great wisdom and must hold fast to what is true and right; they must be endowed with inflexible firmness to overcome Satan and the whole world, and not to swerve from their course though the devil mobilize all things against them. We see then what these two words express. First he put koach, power; then he put geburah, courage or strength of mind. By the word power, he means in general the gifts with which those who undertake the office of teaching should be endowed. The first requirement of a teacher is general ability. Micah divides the ability of the prophets into two parts: first, wisdom or judgment, and second, courage, so that they may understand what God demands and be effective in teaching. Then they must be firm, so that they may not yield to every breeze, nor be overcome by threats and terrors, nor be swayed back and forth by the favor of the world. They should yield to no seductions. Therefore, courage is added to judgment.
Afterwards he adds to announce to Jacob his crime and to Israel his sin. Here we see that a prophet does not seek the favor of the people. To gain favor, it was necessary to flatter with nice words people who sought adulation, the very ones who, corrupted by hatred and malice, had rejected Micah. It would have been necessary for him to please them with soft words; and he does 383not do it. In one place he says: “They sell their blessings to you and deceive you with the hope of peace. They declare war if their greed is not satisfied. They flatter you because you like it, and you seek teachers who promise you wine and strong drink. But I was sent to you for a different purpose. For God has not committed flatteries to me to make pleasant songs for you; he gave me reproofs and threats. I will therefore publish your sins and will not hesitate to condemn you before the whole world, because you deserve it.” Now we understand why the prophet says he was endowed with courage to announce his sin to Jacob.
From this we conclude that when we deal with wicked and criminal men, we need the support of heaven’s own constancy. And this is the almost universal and perpetual situation of all the servants of God. For those who are sent to teach the world are sent into warfare. It is not enough to teach faithfully what God commands unless we also contend. Although the wicked rise up against us with violence, let us be of a bronze countenance, as Ezekiel says (3:8 f.). Let us not yield to their fury, but present to it unconquered constancy. Since our battle is with the devil, with the world and all the wicked, if we wish to do our duty faithfully we need to be endowed with the courage of which Micah speaks. And as I have shown, the servants of God ought to persist in this firmness no matter by what obstacles Satan attempts to delay them or turn them back.
This doctrine should be taught to all the faithful so that they may distinguish wisely between the faithful servants of God and impostors who falsely claim his name. So it is that no one who truly and from his heart desires to obey God shall be deceived. For God will always give a spirit of judgment and discretion. But today unhappy souls are dragged to perpetual ruin, because in fact they shut their eyes, or blink voluntarily, or willingly involve themselves in obscurities, saying: “I cannot judge; I see on both sides learned or famous men, or at least men of some reputation and importance. Some call me to the right, others to the left. Where should I go? I prefer to shut my mouth and my ears.” Thus many make ignorance a pretext for inaction.
But we know that when God exercises our faith and tests it our eyes ought to be open. For this purpose it is that he allows dissensions and quarrels to rise in the midst of the church, with some men proposing one thing and some another. When God loosens Satan’s rein so that contests of this kind and disturbances are produced in the bosom of the church, we have no real excuse for not following whatever the Lord commands, because he 384always guides us by his Spirit — only we must not keep hugging our own indolence.
O sword (or spear), awake above my shepherd and above the man who is my associate, saith the Lord. Zech. l3:7. (Calvin’s wording.)
The word ’myth (’amith) some translate “relative,” some “kinsman,” some “one who adheres to God,” because they are sure that this passage can be understood only as referring to Christ. But, as I have already said, they have followed a false principle of interpretation. The Greek translation is τὸν πολίτην, “citizen.” Others translate, as does Theodotian, σύμθυλον, that is “relative.” Jerome preferred “one who adheres to me.”
But ’amith in Hebrew means “associate,” “neighbor,” or “close friend,” in fact anyone united to us for any reason. I have no doubt that God by this title refers to the pastors of the church, because they are his representatives to the people; and as we know, the better pastor one is, the nearer he is to God, Similarly, kings and judges who exercise sovereignty are called God’s sons. Thus also, pastors are called God’s associates because they have a part in God’s work of building the church. God is the head Shepherd, but he uses his ministers to carry out his work. They are called his associates, because they are coworkers with God, as Paul also taught. To conclude: the prophet calls the pastors God’s associates in the same sense in which Paul called them συνεργοὺς (1 Cor. 3:9).
Therefore I have also made you contemptible and base before all the people, according as ye have not kept my ways, but have been partial in the law. Mal. 2:9.
The prophet ends by saying that the priests glory in the honor of their office without reason, because they have ceased to be priests of God.
Now let us go back to the beginning. Let us have in mind the prophet’s purpose in this discussion. He attacks the priests particularly because they wished to reserve for themselves a special privilege which would set them above all criticism, and also because if the priests themselves are not kept in order, ordinary and common men are deprived of true doctrine. There is no doubt that the priests were flattering the people, and attempting to destroy their reverence for the prophets and to put an end to the influence of prophetic teaching. This is why our prophet denounces them so severely. . . . Now that we understand 385his purpose, it is easy to grasp the meaning of the whole matter.
But before I go further, we should note that in this passage [as a whole] we have a description of true and legitimate priesthood. The prophet does not argue here about the priestly office; he sets before our eyes a living picture which we cannot fail to understand, and from which those who are engaged in a pastor’s work may learn what it is that God requires of them.
Here I am omitting what I discussed in the first place: that God meant his priests to be feared; and I have already explained sufficiently that they ought not to abuse their authority as if unlimited power had been allowed them. God does not wish his church to be subjected to tyranny. He wills to be its only ruler, by the ministry of men. . . .
But we must now attend to the words of the prophet: Levi executed his office with good faith and from the heart because the law of truth was in his mouth, and iniquity was not found in him. To this we should add the statement which follows immediately after, For the lips of the priest should keep knowledge (v. 7). This rule cannot be set aside. Those who are priests or pastors in the church must be teachers. And Gregory wisely applies the above rule figuratively to teaching. We know that little bells were to be fastened on the priest’s robe, and Moses says specifically that the priest never walks but the bells tinkle. Gregory, whom I just mentioned, applies this to the matter of teaching. “Woe to us,” he says, “if we walk without sound, that is, if we boast of being shepherds and are only dumb dogs. For nothing is more unendurable than to count a man as a pastor in the church who does not speak, and whose voice does not ring out clearly for the upbuilding of the people.” This is what a Roman pope said. Let those who boast, proudly and with full mouths, of being his successors at least produce some sound so that we can hear their teaching. But since they exercise all their authority like barbarians, anybody can see how faithful they are in guarding God’s covenant!
But I come back to the words of our prophet. He says that this rule, prescribed by God, was not to be broken at man’s pleasure, or by any custom. The priest should keep knowledge on his lips. Malachi explains further and shows that the priest is the guardian of knowledge, not to keep it in private for his own benefit, but to teach it to the whole people. He says they will ask the law at his mouth (v. 7). This is one point.
Secondly, he restricts the word knowledge to the true doctrine 386which flows from the law of God; for that is the only fountain of truth. . . . Therefore, it is not enough for a man to keep his mouth open and be ready to teach everybody unless what he teaches is the pure doctrine. We see then that it is not just any kind of sermon which is required of priests, but the pure Word proceeding from the mouth of God himself, as is said in Ezekiel (3:17): You will take the word from my mouth and announce it to them from me. Here God shows that priests do not have the power and authority to come out with every useless thing that comes into their noddles, or with everything they think is fitting. They will be good teachers just so far as they are God’s pupils. . . .
Finally we ought to consider because the priest is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. These words may appear designed to honor the priesthood; but the prophet means that the priests have nothing of their own or apart from God. Therefore whatever reverence is due them belongs to God whose ministers they are. As I said, he is reasoning from the above definition, and as if that stated specifically, “Whoever wishes to be counted priest, let him also be a teacher.” And at the same time we must also realize that the prophet implies a certain relationship between God and priest, as though he had said, “Priests can take no more on themselves than to be God’s interpreters. . . .”
We see, therefore, how much the prophet has included in these few words. First, there is no priesthood without teaching; nor is there any true priest who does not sincerely perform the duty of teaching. Secondly, he shows that God’s right and power is in no way diminished when priests preside in the church, since God has assigned that office to them by the same law which also affirms that authority always belongs to God alone. Otherwise, the priest would not be the messenger of the God of hosts.
At the same time the prophet requires of priests also sincerity in the performance of their duties. For we know that many apparently excel, and teach eloquently, and even expend much energy eagerly in their work; but some of these are impelled by ambition and others by avarice. Therefore the prophet appends here another rule, that they walk uprightly before God: that is, that they do not seek to satisfy men or receive the world’s applause, but do their work with a clear conscience.
So I have shown that the prophet sets here an example before us, to show us what God demands of us, whom he has appointed pastors of his church.387
And the angel of the Lord bore witness to Joshua, saying: If you walk in my ways and keep my watch, you also will judge (or rule) my house (dwn means judge, but the word is used for any kind of government, therefore rule my house is preside over my temple). And you will keep my porch and I will give you passage among those who stand by. Zech. 3:6–7. (Calvin’s wording.)
. . . This whole passage has to do with the glory and worship of God, for it is profaned if it is applied to ourselves. We must especially guard against applying it to the church and its government. For we know how ready men are to divert to their own tyrannical use whatever power God assigns to his church.
Of course God wishes to be heard when he speaks through his servants and those whom he has made teachers. But we can now see how from the beginning of the world ambitious and proud men have used this as a pretext for gaining authority for themselves, and have expelled God from his own dominion. In fact, the regiments of Satan claim for themselves full and unlimited power over all the faithful on the ground that God wishes the priesthood to be honored and prescribes that it rule over his church. Since, therefore, in all ages Satan has misused the glorious praise with which God has honored his church, we must always add the caution as the prophet does here that God had no intention, such as some individual man might have, of exalting men by abdicating his own rank and position. The whole glory of the church is here presented to insure the pure worship of God and the submission of all in the church to God’s own dominion — not only of the common people but also of the priest himself. Whatever excellence there may be in the church God will have everything to be so ordered that he alone is supreme. And this is as it should be.
We now understand the prophet’s purpose. And to give this teaching the more weight, he says, the angel bore witness. The word he uses is a legal term. A man bears witness when he takes a solemn oath that he is speaking the truth. . . . The Holy Spirit intends by this word to make us more attentive, to show us that this is no ordinary matter, and to persuade us to have greater reverence for this command, since God himself introduces it by an oath or something similar. . . .
The angel teaches briefly that priests are not given their preeminence to enable them to run riot with their own lusts. The law is interposed to constrain them to do their duty faithfully and to obey God’s voice. We see therefore that there are two 388things which go together: the dignity of the priesthood and the faith shown by God’s servants who are called to that office. Those who wish to rule without any restraint prove clearly enough that they are not legitimate priests of God. . . .
But we must also see what is meant by ways and my watch or guardianship. For these certainly belong to the office of the priest. God commands all of us in general to follow where he calls; and what he requires as the rule of living faithfully and rightly is called a watch or guardianship, because God does not let us wander freely but guards us against errors and shows us what rules we must observe. There is therefore a general guardianship which concerns all the faithful.
But the priestly watch is, as I just said, restricted to the priestly office. We know that God does not resign his own Kingship when he elevates men. But he does give them a mandate to be his representatives, and they are truly his vicars when they teach from his Word purely and faithfully; God exercises his Kingship no less because he uses the work of men and employs them as his servants. We see then that God has established the guardianship of the priests [over the church] so that the church may be ruled by the pure Word of God. . . . In short, the pastors of the church rule by divine appointment, but they do not exercise their own domination. They are to govern the churches according to God’s own command, so that God himself may guide them by human hands.
I understand by the keeping of the courts not janitor service but whatever has to do with the worship of God. . . .
Whatever excellence there is in the pastors of the church must not be separated from the service of God. God does not resign his power to mortal men or in any way take away from his own rightful dominion. But he makes men his ministers, so that he alone by their hand may govern his church and he alone have pre-eminence over it. Whence it follows that those who do not do their work with sincerity do not deserve respect. And if they grasp for themselves what belongs to God, they are to be denied the name of priest. They are then nothing but a mask of Satan by which he would deceive the simple folk.
Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them, and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained. John 20:23.
Here without doubt the Lord has put together the whole sum of the gospel. Therefore we must not separate the power of forgiving sins from the office of teaching, for in this passage they 389are tied together. Christ had said shortly before, “As the living Father sent me, so I myself send you.” Now, he declares what this embassy means and involves. However, he insists that it was necessary for him to give them the Spirit, so that they would not act of themselves. This then is the principal purpose of the preaching of the gospel: that men be reconciled to God by the free remission of sins, as Paul teaches in 2 Cor. 5:18, where for this reason the gospel is called the ministry of reconciliation. There is of course much else in the gospel; but what God means to accomplish by it above all is this: to receive men into his favor by not imputing their sins to them. Therefore, if we want to act as faithful servants of the gospel, we must heed this matter most seriously. It is at this point that the gospel differs most from philosophy, since it teaches that the salvation of men is through the free remission of sins. It is from this that flow the other blessings of God: that God illumines and regenerates us by his Spirit, restores us to his image, and arms us with invincible fortitude against Satan and the world. Thus the whole doctrine of godliness and the spiritual building of the church rests upon the foundation that God makes us free from all sins and adopts us to himself [as his sons].
Thus Christ gives his disciples authority to remit sins; but he in no way yields to them what belongs to him. He alone remits sins. This honor, in so far as it is his due, he does not resign to the apostles. He commands them to testify to the remission of sins in his name, so that through them men may become reconciled to God. In short, properly speaking, he alone through his apostles remits sins.
And whosesoever sins ye retain. Christ adds the latter clause in order to terrify those who despise his gospel. He would have them know that such pride will not go unpunished. Since the apostles are entrusted with the embassy of salvation and eternal life, they are also to be armed, as the apostle Paul says, with vengeance against the godless who push aside the salvation set before them (2 Cor. 10:6). But this consequence of preaching is given last, that its true purpose [the salvation of the hearers] may receive the priority. It is the proper function of the gospel to reconcile us with God. The eternal death of unbelievers which issues from the preaching of the gospel happens not of itself but because of unbelief.
And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people: and the people stood by Moses from the morning unto the evening. . . . 390And Moses’ father-in-law said unto him, The thing that thou doest is not good. Ex. 18:13, 17.
This is a memorable event, and one especially profitable to know. When Jethro saw the government over which God presided and which he adorned with the rare splendor of his glory, he nonetheless criticized it because he found something reprehensible going on. He criticized Moses himself, the greatest of the prophets, with whom alone God spoke intimately, because he had been inconsiderate enough to exhaust himself and the people with too much labor.
Moses’ outstanding ability and heroic mind are evident in that he submitted to so many annoyances, endured so many troubles, and, unbeaten by weariness, every day undertook new labors. The greatness of his spirit can never be praised enough. He spent himself freely for a depraved and perverse people; and he did not desist from his purpose although he saw no gratitude for his kindness. . . . Surely, he possessed many virtues, worthy of highest praise. Yet in all that was praiseworthy, Jethro found a fault.
Thus we are warned that in the most excellent deeds of men there is always some defect; and nothing exists so perfect that it is without blemish. Therefore those who are set to rule the people should know that however devotedly they perform their office, their best plan, if it be examined, leaves something to be desired. Not only kings and magistrates, but also the pastors of the church, should know that even when they stretch every nerve to fulfill their duties, there is always something which can be corrected and improved.
Also, it is worth noting that no mortal possesses the maximum of every kind of gift or is capable of undertaking everything at once, however great and varied his talents. For who is the equal of Moses? Yet when he took upon himself the whole responsibility of ruling the people, we find him unequal to the burden.
The servants of God should learn to measure their strength; when they greedily take on too many jobs, they may well crack up. For πολυπραγμοσύνη, “too-much-to-do,” is a common disease and attacks most men so violently that it cannot be quickly checked. To keep us all within our limits, let us learn how God has designed and ordered the affairs of the human race, so that each individual is endowed with only a limited amount of gifts, on which depends also the distribution of duties. The world is not lighted by a single ray of the sun; light is produced by all its rays together, as each makes its own contribution 391at the same time. In the same way God, to keep men in mutual association and good will by a sacred and unbreakable bond, dispenses his gifts variously. He does not raise anyone inordinately above the rest by bestowing on him absolute perfection, and so he binds all men together.
Augustine writes truly that in this story God humbled his servant. And Paul records that he himself was inflicted with the breath of Satan’s messenger so that he might not be too much puffed up by the sublimity of God’s revelation to him.
And Joseph saw that they [Pharaoh’s butler and baker] were sad. . . . And they said unto him, We have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter of it. And Joseph said unto them, Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me then, I pray you. Gen. 40:6, 8.
Joseph offers his services in accordance with his vocation. This should be noted, to keep any of us from unconsciously taking more upon himself than he knows God has allowed him. Paul carefully warns us that the gifts of the Spirit are variously distributed, that a different role is assigned to each one of us, and that no one should encroach greedily upon the gift of another or take it for himself. Each individual should rather confine himself to his own vocation and its prescribed limits. Unless such modesty prevails, everything is confused; for God’s truth is rashly torn apart by the stupidity of many. Peace and concord are disturbed and in the end no kind of order will be secure. We know that Joseph was safe in promising to interpret the Pharaoh’s dream because he knew that he was taught and ordained for this manifestation of God’s grace. To this end he was given the gift of interpreting dreams. But he did not try to go beyond what his powers allowed. He did not divine the content of Pharaoh’s dreams; and he confessed that it was hidden from him. The case of Daniel was different. Daniel was provided with the spirit of divination to such a degree that he was able to interpret the king’s dream when it had escaped the latter’s memory. Thus we see that Joseph, who was given only half [as much as Daniel], kept himself within its proper limits.
Moreover, Joseph not only guarded himself from all presumption, but also declared that what he had was the gift of God. He said honestly that of himself he possessed nothing. He did not boast that he was keen or clever, but wished only to be known as the minister of God. Our vanity must be controlled, not only that God alone may be glorified and may not be defrauded of his due, but that the prophets, professors, and others who excel 392in heavenly gifts may humbly submit themselves to the direction of the Spirit.
Further we should note that Moses says Joseph was sorry for the grief of those who were with him in prison. Men are subjected to misfortunes to keep them from despising others who are in trouble; for sharing misery begets sympathy. Therefore, it is not strange that God trains us by various hardships. For nothing is more becoming for us than sympathy with our brothers who lie despised and weighed down under misfortunes. This sympathy has to be learned by experience because our inborn callousness becomes thicker and thicker with prosperity.
This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein. . . . Josh. 1:8.
The study of the law must be assiduous; because, when it is omitted even for a short time, many errors slip in, and our memory grows rusty. Besides, when continuous study is neglected, many things become strange and difficult to practice. Therefore, God orders his servant to persist in the daily study of the law and never cease to pursue it as long as he lives. Whence it follows that those who show contempt for this study are blinded by their intolerable arrogance.
But why does God forbid the law to depart from his mouth rather than from his eyes? To take mouth by synecdoche104104A figure of speech by which the part represents the whole. for face is inane. I am certain that the word mouth applies primarily to a man who studies not only for himself but also for the benefit of a whole people whose government is his responsibility. So he is commanded to attend to the teaching of the law, in order that when he speaks about it, he may be able to do so with benefit to the people as a whole, as his responsibility requires.
Meanwhile, he is commanded by his own teachableness to give others an example of obedience. For there are many who have the law in their mouths in public, while at the same time they are the worst keepers of it. Joshua is therefore given both commands: to teach others and to conform his own conduct and himself wholly to the same standard.
3. PREACHING AND TEACHING
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting 393doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. Ps. 24:7–8.
Since the magnificent splendor by which the Temple was to surpass the external dignity of the Tabernacle had not as yet been realized, David here is speaking of the future building of the Temple. In this way, he is encouraging the faithful to apply themselves more wholeheartedly and with greater faith to the ceremonies commanded in the law. God showed no ordinary kindness when he dwelt among them [giving them] a visible symbol [of his presence] and wished his heavenly abode to be seen on earth.
The value of this doctrine ought to be clear to us today; because it is a sign of the inestimable grace of God toward us also when, due to the weakness of our flesh, he lifts us up to himself by way of godly practices. For what is the purpose of the preaching of the Word, of the sacraments, of religious gatherings, and of the whole external order of the church except to unite us with God? Not without reason does David give such high praise to the cult ordained by the law, for in the Ark of the Covenant God offers himself to the faithful and gives them a sure pledge of his present help as often as men call upon him.
For God does not dwell in temples made with hands, nor does he find pleasure in external pomp. Yet because it pleased him to help a rude and, so to speak, childish people to be lifted up to God by the use of earthly things, David did not hesitate to propose the building of a splendid temple for the strengthening of their faith. He did this to assure the Jews that the temple is no empty theater but a place for worshiping God rightly according to the direction of his Word. He wanted the temple to stand out before their eyes so that by its effect they might feel the nearness of God. Hence in short, the Temple which God had commanded to be built on Mount Zion was meant with its greater splendor to surpass the Tabernacle, so that by its brilliance it might be a fitting mirror of the glory and power of God who dwelt among the Jews. Meanwhile, David himself burned with the desire for a great temple, and kindled the same zeal in the hearts of all the pious, so that aided by the rudiments of the law, they made progress in the fear of God.
Who is the King of glory? These words, which are in praise of God’s power, are meant to teach the Jews that he is not sitting idly in the Temple but coming in with might to bring help to his people. The question is twice repeated — which shows that it is highly emphatic. The prophet plays the role of an astonished 394questioner in order to teach the more impressively that God comes clothed with irresistible power to watch over the safety of his people and that under his shadow the faithful are safe.
We have already said that God did not dwell in the Temple as though his immeasurable essence were enclosed in it. But he was present there, with his power and grace, according to the promise given to Moses, Where I will set the memorial for my name, I will come to thee and bless thee (Ex. 20:24). This promise was not given in vain, for the faithful know that God truly stands in their midst. They do not look for him superstitiously, believing that he is affixed to the Temple; but with the aid of the outward worship of the Temple, they turn their spirits toward heaven. In truth, whenever the people invoked God in the Temple, by this very act the Ark of the Covenant was no empty or illusory symbol of the presence of God, for God always stretches out his mighty hand to protect the safety of the faithful.
The repetition also warns us that the faithful cannot be too zealous and untiring in their use of this mediation. When the Son of God, clothed in flesh, appeared as King of glory, the Lord of Hosts himself entered his Temple to dwell with us, not in a shadowy metaphor, but in reality. Therefore, nothing prevents our boasting that we by his power shall be unconquered. Although today the sanctuary is not on Mount Zion, nor is the Ark of the Covenant the image of God who dwells above the cherubim, our situation is the same as that of the fathers, because the preaching of the Word and the sacraments unite us with God. Therefore, we ought to hold on to these props with reverence, for if we spurn them in ungodly arrogance, it cannot be but that God shall remove himself far from us.
The Lord said to Cain, Why art thou wroth; why is thy countenance fallen? Gen. 4:6.
Moses does not specify how God spoke. Whether he [Cain] was presented with a vision, or heard an oracle from heaven, or was warned by a secret inspiration, in any case, he felt constrained by the judgment of God. To drag Adam into this, and to assume that as God’s prophet and interpreter he inveighed against his son, is forced and vapid. I understand the aim of various good men, no less eminent for piety than for doctrine, when they play about with such notions. They intend to glorify the visible ministry of the Word and to cut down Satan’s sleights of hand which he passes off under the guise of revelation. I admit that 395nothing is more helpful to the church than to keep pious minds submissive to the authority of preaching so that they may not seek the Word of God in erratic speculations. But in the beginning it is necessary to remember that the Word of God was given in the form of oracles in order that later when administered by human hands it might be held in greater reverence.
I admit that Adam was given the duty of teaching, and I do not doubt that he carefully instructed his children. But the words of Moses are too arbitrarily limited by those who think that God spoke only by his ministers.
. . . He cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. John 11:43.
Christ’s divine power is all the more evident in that he did not touch him, but called him with his voice; meanwhile, in so doing, he has commended to us the secret and astounding efficacy of his Word. How indeed did Christ restore life to the dead except by his Word? Wherefore, in reviving Lazarus, he gave us a symbol of spiritual grace, which we apprehend every day by faith, as he shows that his voice gives life.
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up. John 3:14.
Here he explains more clearly why he had said that heaven was opened to him alone: it was certainly in order that he might bring to it all who are willing to follow him as their guide. Moreover, he declares that he will appear publicly and openly to all, and will pour out his power upon all men. To be lifted up means to be placed in a high and lofty place, so that he may be seen by all. And this occurs by the preaching of the gospel. Some say that this verse refers to the cross; but this explanation does not fit the context and has nothing to do with the subject on hand. The simple meaning of the words is that by the preaching of the gospel Christ is raised up as a standard, so that the eyes of all men may be turned to him, as prophesied by Isaiah (2:2).
Then Jesus said unto them, Yet a little while I am with you, and then I go unto him that sent me. John 7:33.
By these words he testifies that death will not destroy him, that, rather, when he puts off his mortal body, he will declare himself the Son of God by the victory of his glorious resurrection. It is as if he had said: “In spite of all you can do, when I finish the mission enjoined upon me, my Father will receive me 396into his heavenly glory. Thus after my death I shall not only retain my present state, but shall also enter one far more excellent which is all ready for me.” This statement leads us to the larger admonition that, when Christ calls us to the hope of salvation by the preaching of the gospel, he is present with us. It is not for nothing that the preaching of the gospel is called Christ’s descent to us (Eph. 2:17).
. . . I speak to the world those things which I have heard from him. John 8:26.
Jesus says that he advances nothing which he has not received from the Father. The teaching of a minister should be approved on the sole ground of his being able to show that what he says comes from God. We know that Christ at this time was in the form of a servant; therefore it is not strange that he demands to be heard because he presented man with God’s mandate. Besides, by his example he set down a law for the whole church: namely, that no man ought to be heard except as he speak from the mouth of God. But while he lays low the wicked arrogance of men who force themselves upon others without having the Word of God, he instructs godly teachers who have a single-minded knowledge of their calling and fortifies them with an indomitable constancy, so that, guided by God, they may have courage to defy all mortals.
Then Jesus said unto them, When ye have lifted up the Son of Man, then shall ye know that I am he and that I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things. John 8:28.
It is true that on the cross Christ erased the handwriting of sin and abolished the condemnation of death, and that in so doing he triumphed over Satan before God and his angels. But it is only by the preaching of the gospel that this triumph at last began to be known by men. We ought to hope that what happened after the cross, namely, his coming out of the grave and his ascension to heaven, shall happen in our own day. For in spite of the fact that the impious are busy contriving how they may oppress Christ by way of his doctrine and his church, he not only rises but also turns their wicked zeal into a means of greater advance for his Kingdom.
But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost. . . shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. John 14:26.397
Isaiah threatens the unbelievers with the punishment that the Word of God shall be to them as a sealed book (Isa. 29:11). But the Lord also humbles many of his own people in the same way. When he does this, we should not reject the Word, but should wait calmly and patiently for his light. Besides, since Christ testified that it was the peculiar office of the Holy Spirit to teach the apostles whom he himself had already taught by word of mouth, it follows that outward preaching is vain and useless unless the Spirit himself acts as the teacher. God therefore teaches in two ways. He makes us hear his voice through the words of men, and inwardly he constrains us by his Spirit. These two occur together or separately, as God sees fit.
But notice how he promises the Spirit will teach. He says the Spirit will suggest or remind. Therefore, the Spirit will not be a maker of new revelations. With this one statement we must refute all the lies which Satan has introduced into the church, with the pretext that they are of the Spirit. Mohammed and the pope have this principle of religion in common: they pretend that Scripture does not contain perfect doctrine, and that they receive a higher revelation from the Spirit. The Anabaptists105105See Ch. 1, note 1. and the Libertines106106Libertines — a pantheistic and antinomian sect whose members called themselves spiritual. There is no evidence that they were a power inside Geneva. Calvin’s own enemies were libertines in the sense that they resented the moral and social discipline imposed upon the formerly gay city. (Opera, Vol. 7, pp. 145–248.) in our own time derive their mad ideas from the same notion. But any spirit that comes out with some fable got someplace outside the gospel is an impostor, not the Spirit of Christ. Christ promises the Spirit who shall confirm the gospel as the very one who has written and signed it.
Behold the Lord will proclaim to the end of the earth, Say to the daughter of Zion, Behold your Savior cometh. Isa. 62:11. (Calvin’s wording.)
When he says Say to the daughter of Zion, he leaves us in no doubt that the task of the ministers of the Word and of the prophets whose peculiar work God himself assigns is to promise freedom and security to the church. And we gather that these promises were not restricted to one age only but were to extend to the end of the world. For although a beginning was made by the return from Babylon to Judea, the promise continued in effect to the coming of Christ; for at his coming it was that this 398prophecy was finally fulfilled and redemption reached its goal. Moreover, the Savior comes whenever the grace of God is proclaimed by the gospel. In short, the prophet is announcing the future day when the voice of God will resound from the rising of the sun to its setting, and will be heard not by one people but by all people. The voice cries, Behold your Savior comes; and we know this refers properly to the gospel. Therefore the teachers of the church are commanded to lift up the minds of the faithful with the confidence of the Lord’s coming, even though God seems far away from his people. In fact, this promise applies especially to Christ’s Kingdom, in which these things are fully and solidly established. Christ has truly revealed himself the Savior of his church.
Of righteousness, because I go to the Father, and ye see me no more. John 16:10.
Of righteousness. Notice the order of Christ’s words. He now says that the world is convicted with regard to righteousness. For men do not hunger and thirst after righteousness; on the contrary they reject whatever is said about it unless they are touched by a sense of sin. We must understand, about the faithful especially, that they cannot make progress in living according to the gospel unless first they are humbled; but this does not happen unless they first know they are sinners.
It is the peculiar office of the law to call consciences before the judgment seat of God and to strike them with terror. But the gospel is not preached rightly unless it lead men from sin to righteousness and from death to life. Therefore, we must learn the meaning of the first clause, of sin, from the law. But we must here understand righteousness as communicated to us by the grace of Christ. So, it is with good reason that Christ makes it to depend upon his ascension to the Father. As Paul is witness (Rom. 4:25), He rose for our justification, and sits on the right hand of the Father, to exercise the dominion given him and thus to fill all things. In short, from the glory of heaven, he covers the earth with the sweet savor of his righteousness. The Spirit proclaims through the gospel that this is the only way we are accounted righteous. After the world becomes convicted of its sin, the Spirit convinces it of true righteousness. When Christ ascended to heaven, he established the Kingdom of Life; and he sits at the right hand of the Father to maintain true righteousness.399
And when he is come, he will convict the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgment. John 16:8. (Calvin’s wording.)
He will convict the world means that he will not remain enclosed in you, but will send forth his power from you into the whole world. He therefore promises his Spirit who shall judge the world and constrain to an orderly life those who formerly, without reverence or fear, lived in the frenzy of an unbridled license. But let it be clear that he is speaking here not of a secret revelation, but of the power of the Spirit which is manifested in the external teaching of the gospel, and that by the voice of men. But how does it happen that the voice of man penetrates the soul, and working at its very root, finally brings forth fruit, changing hearts of stone into hearts of flesh and renewing the whole man — how, unless this same voice be endowed with power by the Spirit of Christ? Otherwise it would be a dead letter and a mere sound, as Paul teaches beautifully in 2 Cor. 3:6, where he glories in being a servant of the Spirit because God has worked mightily through his teaching. All this means that the apostles were to receive the Spirit, who would endow them with a heavenly and divine power, and would enable them to exercise authority throughout the world. All this is ascribed to the Spirit rather than to themselves, because they were to have nothing of their own power; they were to be servants and instruments, ruled by the Holy Spirit alone.
By world, I understand all those who have been converted to Christ, including the hypocrites and the reprobates. There are two ways in which the Spirit convicts men by the preaching of the gospel. Some are affected seriously, so that they bow down readily and assent willingly to the judgment which condemns them. Others, even though convicted, are unable to escape condemnation, because they do not yield from the heart, and will not yield to the authority and dominion of the Holy Spirit. Even though overcome, they rage within themselves; and while confounded, they do not cease to revel in being obstinate. Now we understand how the Spirit was to convict the world through the apostles. God himself stands in judgment through the gospel; and thus it is that men begin to be disturbed in their consciences and to feel the grace of God.
And the Father himself, which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me: ye have neither heard his voice at any time, nor seen his shape. John 5:37.
It is wrongheaded to limit this statement to the voice heard at his baptism. When he says God has testified to him in the past, 400he means that he has not come forth as somebody no one had ever heard of, because God had already pointed to him in the Law and the Prophets, and given him certain marks which he might bring with him and by which he might be recognized. This means that God testified to his Son when long ago he held out the hope of salvation to the ancient people, or promised the full restoration of the Kingdom of Israel. Therefore, the Jews should have known Christ from Scripture, even before he appeared in the flesh. And now, since they despise and reject Christ, it is obvious that they have no taste for the law; hence Christ’s reproach is just. And yet they glory in their knowledge of the law, as if they had never left God’s bosom.
After Christ complains that they have not received him, he speaks even more bitterly of their blindness. When he says that they have not heard or seen God, he speaks in a metaphor and means that they are utterly turned aside from the knowledge of God. For as men make themselves known by face and speech, so God speaks by the voice of his prophets, and puts on a visible form in the sacraments, so that he may be known by us according to our own measure. Anyone who does not know God through the living image he himself has given us shows that he only worships a God of his own fabrication. Therefore Paul says that they do not see the glory of God in the face of Christ, because a veil is thrown over their eyes (2 Cor. 3:14).
Verily, verily, I say unto you, we speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen. . . . John 3:11.
Some say that we above refers to Jesus and John the Baptist. Others say that the plural pronoun has been put in the place of a singular. I myself do not doubt that Christ here speaks for all the prophets of God and for himself as one of them. Philosophers and other windy doctors often force upon us trifles which they themselves have invented. But here Christ vindicates himself and all the servants of God as men who hand down only teaching that is true and certain. God does not send his servants to babble of things of which they are ignorant or doubtful. He trains them in his own school, in order that what they have learned from himself they deliver to others. While with this eulogy Christ declares to us the certainty of his own teaching, he also prescribes the rule of modesty for all his servants. They are not to mouth their own dreams and opinions, or to offer human inventions in which there is nothing solid; on the contrary, they are to be faithful and bear a pure witness to 401God. Let everyone attend to what God has revealed to him, and let him not go beyond the bounds set by his faith. Finally, let no man allow himself to speak except as he hears from the Lord.
Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner: but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. Matt. 3:12.
In the former verse John dealt with the grace of Christ, so that Jews might turn to him and receive a new life. But now he speaks of judgment, in order to strike the scornful with terror. Since many hypocrites are proud enough to repudiate the grace which Christ offers them, it is necessary to proclaim the judgment which awaits them. For this reason John presented Christ as a dreadful judge toward unbelievers. We also must present our doctrine in this order, and let them know that their rejection of Christ will not go unpunished; they must be aroused from their torpor, and led to fear him as Judge, whom they despised as Savior.
Besides, I have no doubt John intended to teach that Christ would accomplish this judgment by means of his gospel. The preaching of the gospel is the winnowing fan. Before God sifts us, everyone flatters himself that he is wheat. The whole world is in a state of confusion, with the good and the evil thrown together. Hence it is necessary that the chaff be blown away. When Christ comes in our midst with his gospel, when he rebukes our consciences and brings us before the judgment seat of God, then the chaff, which took so much space on the floor, is blown away with the wind. Although the gospel purifies each one of us from chaff, John here compares the reprobate with chaff, and the believers with wheat.
Therefore, since the threshing floor is not the world, as some would have it, but the church, we must consider to whom it is that John speaks. The Jews flatter themselves that they alone were the church, since up to that time they alone were in it. But John tells them that their pride is foolish, since they would soon be thrown out on the threshing floor like so much chaff, and that rightly. He takes a look at the church at that time, which was filled with husks, straw, and other rubbish, and declares that it will soon be purified with the blowing of the gospel.
But how is Christ to separate the chaff from the wheat when there is nothing but chaff in us? The answer is easy. The elect 402shall be made into wheat; in this way, freed from chaff, they shall be gathered into the barn. This cleansing is begun by Christ, and continued day by day; but its effect shall not be realized fully until the Last Day. For this reason, John turns our minds toward our ultimate end. But we must remember that even now the faithful enter by hope into God’s granary which is their real and eternal home. The reprobate on the other hand even now, being under conviction of guilt, feel the heat of the fire which shall at the Last Day become a devouring conflagration. Many have given us subtle discourses about the eternal fire which shall torment the wicked after the Last Judgment. But many passages in Scripture make it plain that the word fire is a metaphor. For if the fire is real or as they call it material, so are the sulphur and brimstone mentioned by Isaiah (30:33). Surely, the fire is no different from the worm; and if, as everybody agrees, the worm is a metaphor, we must think the same of the fire. To put aside speculations with which silly people weary themselves for nothing, it is enough to hold that such forms of speech were used because of our own crudity. They were intended to convey to us a sense of dreadful torment which we can neither imagine nor express properly with our words.
Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die, saith the Lord God, and not that he should return from his ways and live? Ezek. 18:23.
Here the prophet reiterates in different words that God certainly desires nothing more than for those who are perishing and rushing toward death to return to the way of safety. This is why the gospel is today proclaimed throughout the world, for God wished to testify to all the ages that he is greatly inclined to pity. Even to pagans, deprived of the Law and the Prophets, some taste of this truth has always been given. They have often smothered it under many errors, yet we always find them being led by some hidden impulse to seek divine favor. The feeling is somehow ingrained in them that God is merciful to all who seek him.
But God has given clearer witness to this truth in the Law and the Prophets. Moreover, we know in what intimate terms he appeals to us in the gospel when he promises his forgiveness. Indeed, this is the knowledge of salvation: to embrace God’s mercy offered to us in Christ. It is in Christ that what the prophet says here is proved to be most true: [We know that] “God does not desire the death of the sinner,” because of his 403own will he comes forth to meet him. Not only is he ready to receive all who flee to his mercy, but he calls to himself with a loud voice those whom he sees cut off from every hope of safety.
We must also notice how God desires all to be made safe, that is, by turning from their own ways. God does not wish to save all men by destroying the distinction between good and evil. Before forgiveness comes repentance. How then does he wish all to be made safe? Truly, as formerly through the Law and the Prophets, so also today the Spirit through the gospel condemns the world for sin, by righteousness and judgment (John 16:8). In this way God reveals to men their misery, in order that he may receive them to himself. He wounds that he may heal; he kills that he may give life. We believe and are assured that God does not desire the death of sinners, because he calls all equally to repentance and promises that if they only repent he will be ready to receive them.
Then Jesus said unto them, I go my way, and ye shall seek me, and shall die in your sins; whither I go, ye cannot come. John 8:21.
First, we must consider how the people to whom he speaks sought Christ. If their conversion had been real, they would not have sought him in vain, because he has promised truly that no sooner does a sinner groan over his sin than He shall run to his help. Therefore, Christ means that they have sought after him not by the proper means of faith, but because of a desire to escape the anxiety which is an extreme evil. While the unbelievers want God to look on them with favor, they do not cease to run away from him. God himself declares to us that by repentance and faith we may come to him. But they, hard of heart, turn against God: and broken down with despair, they cry against him. In short, they are so far from seeking God that they will not let him help them, unless he be untrue to himself, which he will never be. Thus it is that the scribes, however impious, were willing to receive the redemption promised at the hand of the Messiah, provided Christ changed himself to suit their own nature. Wherefore by this word Christ denounces all unbelievers and threatens that if they despise the teaching of the gospel, even if they be filled with such anguish as to be forced to cry to God, their howling will do them no good, because as we have said already, seeking, they do not seek.
And Abraham took Ishmael his son and all that were born in his house and all that were bought with his money. . . and circumcised the flesh 404of their foreskins, in the selfsame day, as God had said unto him. Gen. 17:23.
Moses now praises the obedience of Abraham, because he circumcised his whole household as he had been commanded. . . . Two points are worth considering. First, Abraham was not deterred by the difficulty of the task from offering to God the sacrifice which he owed. We know that he had a great number of people in his household. . . . And there was danger of stirring up a riot in a peaceful community. But relying on God, he began what was an impossible task. Secondly, we see how well-ordered his household was. Not only the slaves born in the house, but also foreigners bought for money, quietly accepted the pain of circumcision. Obviously Abraham had taken great pains to train them in their duty. And since he had kept up a holy discipline, he now received the reward of the care he had taken. Discipline in easy things prepared the way for something hard.
Today, when God wishes his gospel to be preached in the whole world, so that the world may be restored from death to life, he seems to ask for the impossible. We see how greatly we are resisted everywhere and with how many and what potent machinations Satan works against us, so that all roads are blocked by the princes themselves. Yet each man must perform his duty without yielding to any impediment. At the end our effort and our labors shall not fail; they shall receive the success which does not yet appear.
These things I have spoken unto you in proverbs: but the time cometh when I shall no longer speak to you in proverbs, but I shall show you plainly of the Father. John 16:25.
Christ’s purpose at this point is to encourage his disciples. He does not want them to think that his teaching is of little help to them in their hope of progress toward the better, because there is so much in it they cannot follow. For, they might have suspected that Christ did not want to be understood, or that he was purposely keeping them in suspense. So, he promises them briefly that his teaching, which might offend them by its obscurity, will become fruitful to them. The Hebrew word mashal at times means “a proverb.” The Hebrews called riddles and remarkable sayings also meshalim because, like proverbs, they contained similes and figures of speech; and the Greeks called them ἀποφθέγματα because they are usually ambiguous and obscure. Christ means therefore that he is speaking to them in figures 405and not in a simple and plain language, but that soon he shall speak to them with familiar words, so that his teaching may not be to them perplexing or difficult.
Now we understand what I have already touched upon: namely, that he wants to encourage his disciples to expect further progress, and to keep them from rejecting his teaching because they do not understand it. Unless the hope of some benefit burns and glows within us, zeal for learning must necessarily cool off. Besides, we see clearly that Jesus spoke to his disciples in a simple and even homely style, and not in riddles; but they were so dull that they hung on to his words dumfounded but without understanding a thing. So the obscurity was not in the teaching but in their minds.
And the same happens to us. People praise the Word of God rightly as our very light. But still, our own darkness obscures the Word of God to such an extent that we think we are only hearing allegories. The prophet Isaiah threatened the wicked and the unbelievers, saying that he would be to them as a barbarian and would speak with a stammering tongue (28:11); again, Paul said that the gospel is hidden from those whose minds are blinded by Satan (2 Cor. 4:3). So, also, to weak and uneducated people, Christ’s words sound so confused as to be unintelligible. Even when their minds are not altogether darkened, as are those of the ungodly, they still are as it were in a cloud. And the Lord allows us for a while to be stupid, so that he may humble us with a sense of our poverty; but he enables those whom he illumines with his Spirit to make such progress as to know his Word and understand it.
The same is true of the next phrase, the hour cometh: that is, “the hour will come when I shall no longer speak to you in figures.” Certainly, the Spirit did not teach the apostles anything they had not heard from Christ’s own mouth. What he did was to fill their hearts with a new light, and thus to drive their darkness away, so that they heard Christ in a new and different way, and understood what he said.
When Jesus said that he would speak of the Father, he pointed to the proper goal of his teaching, which is to lead us to the Father in whom alone we shall find our true happiness. But another question remains, Why does he elsewhere say that it is given the disciples to know the mystery of the Kingdom of God (Matt. 13:11), whereas here he admits that he speaks to them in riddles? Why did he in the previous statement distinguish between the disciples and the crowd to whom he spoke in 406parables? I answer, The apostles were not such ignoramuses as to have no inkling of a notion as to what their Master was saying. Therefore, Christ had reason to distinguish them from crowds who were blind. But when in this place he says that he has spoken to them in allegory, he is turning their attention to the future when his gracious Spirit shall endow them with a new and bright light of understanding. Therefore, both statements are true. The apostles were far beyond those who had no taste for the Word of the gospel. Still, compared to the new wisdom which they were to receive from the Spirit, their knowledge was like that of children at their alphabets.407
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