Excerpts from Calvin's Commentaries
Hebrews


The purpose of this paper is to present a selection of quotations from John Calvin's commentary on Hebrews. These excerpts represent exceptional insights either on the text itself or on Christian living. John Calvin was one of the great theologians of the Protestant Reformation. All excerpts are from the Baker edition in 22 volumes.


"Sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Heb. 1:3)

Having in the world procured salvation for men, he was received into celestial glory in order that he might govern all things. And he added this in order to show that it was not a temporary salvation he has obtained for us; for we should otherwise be too apt to measure his power by what now appears to us. He then reminds us that Christ is not to be less esteemed because he is not seen by our eyes; but, on the contrary, that this was the height of his glory, that he has been taken and conveyed to the highest seat of his empire. The right hand is by a similitude applied to God, though he is not confined to any place, and has not a right side nor left. The session then of Christ means nothing else but the kingdom given to him by the father, and that authority which Paul mentions, when he says that in his name every knee should bow (Phil. 2:10). Hence to sit at the right hand of the Father is no other thing than to govern in the place of the Father, as deputies of princes are wont to do to whom a full power over all things is granted. And the word majesty is added, and also on high, and for this purpose, to intimate that Christ is seated on the supreme throne whence the majesty of God shines forth. As, then, he ought to be loved on account of his redemption, so he ought to be adored on account of his royal magnificence.


"Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have
heard" (Heb. 2:1)

He now declares what he had before in view, by comparing Christ with angels, even to secure the highest authority to this doctrine. For if the Law given through angels could not have been received with contempt, and if its transgression was visited with severe punishment, what is to happen, he asks, to the despisers of that gospel which has the Son of God as its author and was confirmed by so many miracles? The import of the whole is this, that the higher the dignity of Christ is than that of angels, the more reverence is due to the Gospel than to the Law. thus he commends the doctrine by mentioning its author.

But should it seem strange to anyone, that as the doctrine both of the Law and of the Gospel is from God, one should be preferred to the other, inasmuch as by having the Law lowered the majesty of God would be degraded; the evident answer would be this--that he ought indeed always to be heard with equal attention whenever he may speak, and yet that the fuller he reveals himself to us it is but right that our reverence and attention to obedience should increase in proportion to the extent of his revelations; not that God is in himself less at one time than at another, but his greatness is not at all times equally made known to us.

Here also another question arises: Was not the Law also given by Christ? If so, the argument of the Apostle seems not to be well grounded. To this I reply, that in this comparison regard is had to a veiled revelation on one side and to that which is manifest on the other. Now, as Christ in bringing the Law showed himself but obscurely or darkly, and as it were under coverings, it is nothing strange that the Law should be said to have been brought by angels without any mention being made of his name; for in that transaction he never appeared openly; but in the promulgation of the Gospel his glory was so conspicuous that he may justly be deemed its author.


"Let us therefore fear, lest a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of
you should seem to come short of it" (Heb. 4:1)

He concludes that there was reason to fear lest the Jews to whom he was writing should be deprived of the blessing offered to them; and then he says, lest any one, intimating that it was his anxious desire to lead them, one and all, to God; for it is the duty of a good shepherd, in watching over the whole flock, so to care for every sheep that no one may be lost; nay, we ought also so to feel for one another that everyone should fear for his neighbors as well as for himself.

But the fear which is here recommended is not that which shakes the confidence of faith, but such as fills us with such concern that we grow not torpid with indifference. Let us then fear, not that we ought to tremble or to entertain distrust, as though uncertain as to the issue, but lest we be unfaithful to God's grace.

By saying, Lest we be disappointed of the promise left us, he intimates that no one comes short of it except he who by rejecting grace has first renounced the promise; for God is so far from repenting to do us good that he ceases not to bestow his gifts except when we despise his calling. The illative therefore, or then, means, that by the fall of others we are taught humility and watchfulness, according to what Paul also says, "these through unbelief have fallen; be not thou then high-minded, but fear" (Rom. 11:20).


"Let us therefore come boldly" (Heb. 4:16)

Or, "with confidence." He draws this conclusion--that an access to God is open to all who come to him relying on Christ the Mediator; nay, he exhorts the faithful to venture without any hesitation to present themselves before God. And the chief benefit of divine teaching is a sure confidence in calling on God, as, on the other hand, the whole of religion falls to the ground and is lost when this certainty is taken away from consciences.

It is hence obvious to conclude that under the Papacy the light of the Gospel is extinct, for miserable men are bidden to doubt whether God is propitious to them or is angry with them. They indeed say that God is to be sought; but the way by which it is possible to come to him is not pointed out, and the gate is barred by which alone men can enter. They confess in words that Christ is a Mediator, but in reality they make the power of his priesthood of none effect, and deprive him of his honor.

For we must hold this principle--that Christ is not really known as a Mediator except all doubt as to our access to God is removed; otherwise the conclusion here drawn would not stand, "We have a high priest who is willing to help us; therefore we may come boldly and without any hesitation to the throne of grace." And were we indeed fully persuaded that Christ is of his own accord stretching forth his hand to us, who of us would not come in perfect confidence? . . . The import of the whole is, that we are to call upon God without fear since we know that he is propitious to us; and that this may be done is owing to the benefit conferred on us by Christ . . . [who] covers with his goodness the majesty of God, which would otherwise be terrible to us, so that nothing appears there but grace and paternal favor.


"And labor of love" (Heb. 6:10)

By this he intimates that we are not to spare labor if we desire to perform our duty towards our neighbors; for they are not only to be helped by money, but also by counsel, by labor, and in various other ways. Great sedulity [diligence], then, must be exercised, many troubles must be undergone, and sometimes many dangers must be encountered. Thus let him who would engage in the duties of love prepare himself for a life of labor.

There is nothing to which we are more prone than to weariness in well-doing. Hence it is that though many are found ready enough to help their brethren, yet the virtue of constancy is so rare that a large portion soon relax as though their warmth had cooled. But what ought constantly to stimulate us is even this one expression used by the Apostle, that the love shown to the saints is shown towards the name of the Lord; for he intimates that God holds himself indebted to us for whatever good we do to our neighbors, according to that saying, "What ye have done to one of the least of these, ye have done to me" (Matt. 25:40), and "He that gives to the poor lends to the Lord" (Prov. 19:17).


"Who needs not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice" (Heb. 7:27)

He pursues the contrast between Christ and the Levitical priests; and he points out especially two defects, so to speak, in the ancient priesthood by which it appears that it was not perfect. And here, indeed, he only touches briefly on the subject; but he afterwards explains every particular more at large, and particularly that which refers to the daily sacrifices, as the main question was respecting these. It is briefly also that I will now touch on the several points. One of the defects of the ancient priesthood was that the high priest offered sacrifices for his own sins; how then could he have pacified God for others who had God justly displeased with himself? Then they were by no means equal to the work of expiating for sins. The other defect was that they offered various sacrifices daily; it hence follows that there was no real expiation; for sins remain when purgation is repeated. The case with Christ was wholly different, for he himself needed no sacrifice as he was sprinkled with no spot of sin; and such was the sacrifice that it was alone sufficient to the end of the world, for he offered himself.


"Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was
admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle" (Heb. 8:5)

This is a remarkable passage, for it contains three things entitled to special notice. First, we hence learn that the ancient rituals were not without reason appointed, as though God did by them engage the attention of the people as with the diversions of children; and that the form of the tabernacle was not an empty thing, intended only to allure and attract the eyes by its external splendor; for there was a real and spiritual meaning in all these things, since Moses was commanded to execute everything according to the original pattern which was given from heaven. Extremely profane then must the opinion of those be who hold that the ceremonies were only enjoined that they might serve as means to restrain the wantonness of the people, that they might not seek after the foreign rites of heathens. There is indeed something in this, but it is far from being all; they omit what is much more important, that they were the means of retaining the people in their expectation of a Mediator.

There is, however, no reason that we should be here over-curious, so as to seek in every nail and minute things some sublime mystery, as Hesychius did and many of the ancient writers who anxiously toiled in this work; for while they sought refinedly to philosophize on things unknown to them, they childishly blundered, and by their foolish trifling made themselves ridiculous. We ought therefore to exercise moderation in this respect, which we shall do if we seek only to know what has been revealed to us respecting Christ.

Secondly, we are here taught that all those modes of worship are false and spurious which men allow themselves by their own wit to invent, and beyond God's command; for since God gives this direction, that all things are to be done according to his own rule, it is not lawful for us to do anything different from it; for these two forms of expression, "See that thou do all things according to the pattern," and, "See that thou do nothing beyond the pattern," amount to the same thing. Then by enforcing the rule delivered by himself, he prohibits us to depart from it even in the least thing. For this reason all the modes of worship taught by men fall to the ground, and also those things called sacraments which have not proceeded from God.

Thirdly, let us hence learn that there are no true symbols of religion but those which conform to what Christ requires. We must then take heed lest we, while seeking to adapt our own inventions to Christ, transfigure him as the Papists do, so that he should not be at all like himself; for it does not belong to us to devise anything as we please, but to God alone it belongs to show us what to do; it is to be according to the pattern showed to us.


"For the Law having a shadow of good things to come" (Heb. 10:1)

He has borrowed this similitude from the pictorial art; for a shadow here is in a sense different from what it has in Col. 2:17, where he calls the ancient rites or ceremonies shadows, because they did not possess the real substance of what they represented. But he now says that they were like rude lineaments, which shadow forth the perfect picture; for painters, before they introduce the living colors by the pencil, are wont to mark out the outlines of what they intend to represent.

The difference then which the Apostle makes between the Law and the Gospel is this--that under the Law was shadowed forth only in rude and imperfect lines what is under the Gospel set forth in living colors and graphically distinct. He thus confirms again what he had previously said, that the Law was not useless nor its ceremonies unprofitable. For though there was not in them the image of heavenly things finished, as they say, by the last touch of the artist, yet the representation, such as it was, was of no small benefits to the fathers; but still our condition is much more favorable. We must however observe that the things which were shown to them at a distance are the same with those which are now set before our eyes. Hence to both the same Christ is exhibited, the same righteousness, sanctification, and salvation; and the difference only is in the manner of painting or setting them forth.


"Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together" (Heb. 10:25)

The composition of the Greek word ought to be noticed; for επι signifies an addition; then επισυναγωγη, assembling together, means a congregation increased by additions. The wall of partition having been pulled down, God was then gathering those as his children who had been aliens from the Church; so the Gentiles were a new and unwonted [out of the ordinary] addition to the Church. This the Jews regarded as a reproach to them, so that many made a secession from the Church, thinking that such a mixture afforded them a just excuse; nor could they be easily induced to surrender their own right; and further, they considered the right of adoption as peculiar and as belonging exclusively to themselves. The Apostle, therefore, warns them, lest this equality should provoke them to forsake the Church; and that he might not seem to warn them for no reason, he mentions that this neglect was common to many.

We now understand the design of the Apostle, and what was the necessity that constrained him to give this exhortation. We may at the same time gather from this passage a general doctrine:

It is an evil which prevails everywhere among mankind, that everyone sets himself above others, and especially that those who seem in anything to excel cannot well endure their inferiors to be on an equality with themselves. And then there is so much morosity almost in all that individuals would gladly make churches for themselves if they could; for they find it so difficult to accommodate themselves to the ways and habits of others. The rich envy one another; and hardly one in a hundred can be found among the rich who allows to the poor the name and rank of brethren. Unless similarity of habits or some allurements or advantages draw us together, it is very difficult even to maintain a continual concord among ourselves. Extremely needed, therefore, by us all is the admonition to be stimulated to love and not to envy, and not to separate from those whom God has joined to us but to embrace with brotherly kindness all those who are united to us in faith. And surely it behooves us the more earnestly to cultivate unity, for Satan eagerly watches in order to either tear us by any means from the Church or stealthily to seduce us from it.


"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen"
(Heb. 11:1)

Whoever made this the beginning of the eleventh chapter has unwisely disjointed the context; for the object of the Apostle was to prove what he had already said--that there is need of patience. He had quoted the testimony of Habakkuk, who says that the just lives by faith; he now shows what remained to be proved--that faith can be no more separated from patience than from itself. The order then of what he says is this: "We shall not reach the goal of salvation except we have patience, for the Prophet declares that the just lives by faith; but faith directs us to things afar off which we do not as yet enjoy; it then necessarily includes patience." Therefore the minor proposition in the argument is this: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, etc. It is hence also evident that greatly mistaken are they who think that an exact definition of faith is given here, for the Apostle does not speak here of the whole of what faith is, but selects that part of it which was suitable to his purpose, even that it has patience ever connected with it. Let us now consider the words.

He calls faith the hypostasis, the substance of things hoped for. We indeed know that what we hope for is not what we have as it were in hand, but what is as yet hid from us, or at least the enjoyment of which is delayed to another time. The Apostle now teaches us the same thing with what we find in Rom. 8:24, where it is said that what is hoped for is not seen, and hence the inference is drawn that it is to be waited for in patience. So the Apostle here reminds us that faith regards not present things but such as are waited for. Nor is this kind of contradiction without its force and beauty. Faith, he says, is the hypostasis, the prop, or the foundation on which we plant our foot. The prop of what? Of things absent, which are so far from being really possessed by us that they are far beyond the reach of our understanding.

The same view is to be taken of the second clause, when he calls faith the evidence or demonstration of things not seen; for demonstration makes things to appear or to be seen, and it is commonly applied to what is subject to our senses.

Then these two things, though apparently inconsistent, do yet perfectly harmonize when we speak of faith; for the Spirit of God shows to us hidden things, the knowledge of which cannot reach our senses. Promised to us is eternal life, but it is promised to the dead; we are assured of a happy resurrection, but we are as yet involved in corruption; we are pronounced just, yet sin dwells in us; we hear that we are happy, but we are as yet in the midst of many miseries; an abundance of all good things is promised to us, but still we often hunger and thirst; God proclaims that he will come quickly, but he seems deaf when we cry to him. What would become of us were we not supported by hope and did not our minds emerge out of the midst of darkness above the world through the light of God's word and of his Spirit? Faith, then, is rightly said to be the subsistence or substance of things which are as yet the objects of hope and the evidence of things not seen. Augustine sometimes renders evidence "conviction," which I do not disapprove, for it faithfully expresses the Apostle's meaning. But I prefer "demonstration" as it is more literal.


"By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain" (Heb. 11:4)

The Apostle's object in this chapter is to show, that however excellent were the works of the saints, it was from faith they derived their value, their worthiness, and all their excellences; and hence follows what he has already intimated, that the fathers pleased God by faith alone.

He says, first, that Abel's sacrifice was for no other reason preferable to that of his brother except that it was sanctified by faith; for surely the fat of brute animals did not smell so sweetly that it could, by its odor, pacify God. The Scripture indeed shows plainly why God accepted his sacrifice, for Moses' words are these: "God had respect to Abel and to his gifts." It is hence obvious to conclude that his sacrifice was accepted because he himself was graciously accepted. But how did he obtain this favor except that his heart was purified by faith.


"By faith Noah . . . prepared an ark . . . by the which he condemned the world"
(Heb. 11:7)

Here is pointed out that obedience which flows from faith as water from a fountain. The work of building the ark was long and laborious. It might have been hindered by the scoffs of the ungodly and thus suspended a thousand times; nor is there a doubt but they mocked and derided the holy man on every side. That he then bore their wanton insults with an unshaken spirit is a proof that his resolution to obey was not of an ordinary kind. But how was it that he so perseveringly obeyed God except that he had previously rested on the promise which gave him the hope of deliverance; and in this confidence he persevered even to the last; for he could not have had the courage willingly to undergo so many toils, nor could he have been able to overcome so many obstacles, nor could he have stood so firm in his purpose for so long a time had he not beforehand possessed this confidence.

It hence appears that faith alone is the teacher of obedience; and we may on the contrary draw this conclusion, that it is unbelief that prevents us to obey God. And at this day the unbelief of the world exhibits itself dreadfully in this way, for there are a very few who obey God.

It were strange to say that Noah's deliverance condemned the world, and the context will hardly allow faith to be meant. We must then understand this of the ark. And he is said on two accounts to have by the ark condemned the world; for by being so long occupied in building it, he took away every excuse from the wicked; and the event which followed proved how just was the destruction of the world, for why was the ark made the means of deliverance to one family except that the Lord thus spared a righteous man that he should not perish with the ungodly. Had he then not been preserved, the condemnation of the world would not have been so apparent. Noah, then, by obeying God's command condemned by his example the obstinate disobedience of the world. His wonderful deliverance from the midst of death was an evidence that the world justly perished, for God would have doubtless saved it had it not been unworthy of salvation.


"Women received their dead raised to life again, and others were tortured"
(Heb. 11:35)

He had already mentioned instances in which God had remunerated the faith of his servants, he now refers to examples of a different kind--that saints, reduced to extreme miseries, struggled by faith so as to persevere invincible even to death. These instances at the first view widely differ: some triumphed gloriously over vanquished enemies, were preserved by the Lord through various miracles, and were rescued by means new and unusual from the midst of death; while others were shamefully treated, were despised by almost the whole world, were consumed by want, were so hated by all as to be compelled to hide themselves in the coverts of wild beasts, and lastly, were drawn forth to endure savage and cruel tortures. And these last seemed wholly destitute of God's aid when he thus exposed them to the pride and the cruelty of the ungodly. They seem then to have been very differently treated from the former ones, and yet faith ruled in both and was alike powerful in both. Nay, in the latter its power shone forth in a much clearer light. For the victory of faith appears more splendid in the contempt of death than if life were extended to the fifth generation. It is a more glorious evidence of faith and worthy of higher praise when reproaches, want, and extreme troubles are borne with resignation and firmness, than when recovery from sickness is miraculously obtained, or any other benefit from God.

The sum of the whole is, that the fortitude of the saints, which has shone forth in all ages, was the work of faith; for our weakness is such that we are not capable of overcoming evils except faith sustains us. But we hence learn that all who really trust in God are endued with power sufficient to resist Satan in whatever way he may assail them, and especially that patience in enduring evils shall never be wanting to us if faith be possessed. Therefore we are proved guilty of unbelief when we faint under persecutions and the cross. For the nature of faith is the same now as in the days of the holy fathers whom the Apostle mentions. If, then, we imitate their faith, we shall never basely break down through sloth or listlessness.


"Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord"
(Heb. 12:14)

Men are so born that they all seem to shun peace; for all study their own interest, seek their own ways, and care not to accommodate themselves to the ways of others. Unless then we strenuously labor to follow peace, we shall never retain it, for many things will happen daily affording occasion for discords. This is the reason why the Apostle bids us to follow peace, as though he had said, that it ought not only to be cultivated as far as it may be convenient to us, but that we ought to strive with all care to keep it among us. And this cannot be done unless we forget many offenses and exercise mutual forbearance.

As, however, peace cannot be maintained with the ungodly except on the condition of approving of their vices and wickedness, the Apostle immediately adds that holiness is to be followed together with peace; as though he commended peace to us with this exception, that the friendship of the wicked is not to be allowed to defile or pollute us; for holiness has an especial regard to God. Though then the whole world were roused to a blazing war, yet holiness is not to be forsaken, for it is the bond of our union with God. In short, let us quietly cherish concord with men, but only, according to the proverb, as far as conscience allows.


"And to the blood of sprinkling, that speaks better things than that of Abel"
(Heb. 12:24)

There is no reason why better may not be rendered adverbially in the following manner: "Christ's blood cries more efficaciously, and is better heard by God than the blood of Abel." It is, however, preferable to take the words literally: the blood of Christ is said to speak better things, because it avails to obtain pardon for our sins. The blood of Abel did not properly cry out; for it was his murder that called for vengeance before God. But the blood of Christ cries out, and the atonement made by it is heard daily.


"Marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled" (Heb. 13:4)

Some think this an exhortation to the married to conduct themselves modestly and in a becoming manner, that the husband should live with his wife temperately and chastely, and not defile the conjugal bed by unbeseeming wantonness. Thus a verb is to be understood in the sense of exhorting, "Let marriage be honorable." And yet the indicative is would not be unsuitable; for when we hear that marriage is honorable, it ought to come immediately to our minds that we are to conduct ourselves in it honorably and becomingly. Others take the sentence by way of concession in this way: "Though marriage is honorable, it is yet unlawful to commit fornication." But this sense, as all must see, is frigid. I am inclined to think that the Apostle sets marriage here in opposition to fornication as a remedy for that evil; and the context plainly shows that this was his meaning; for before he threatens that the Lord would punish fornicators, he first states what is the true way of escape, even if we live honorably in a state of marriage.

Let this then be the main point, that fornication will not be unpunished, for God will take vengeance on it. And doubtless as God has blessed the union of man and wife, instituted by himself, it follows that every other union different from this is by him condemned and accursed. He therefore denounces punishment not only on adulterers, but also on fornicators; for both depart from the holy institution of God. Nay, they violate and subvert it by a promiscuous intercourse, since there is but one legitimate union, sanctioned by the authority and approval of God. But as promiscuous and vagrant lusts cannot be restrained without the remedy of marriage, he therefore commends it by calling it honorable.

What he adds, and the bed undefiled, has been stated, as it seems to me, for this end--that the married might know that everything is not lawful for them, but that the use of the legitimate bed should be moderate, lest anything contrary to modesty and chastity be allowed.

By saying in all men, I understand him to mean that there is no order of men prohibited from marriage, for what God has allowed to mankind universally is becoming in all without exception; I mean all who are fit for marriage and feel the need of it.

It was indeed necessary for this subject to have been distinctly and expressly stated in order to obviate a superstition, the seeds of which Satan was probably even then secretly sowing, even this--that marriage is a profane thing, or at least far removed from Christian perfection. For those seducing spirits, forbidding marriage, who had been foretold by Paul, soon appeared. That none then might foolishly imagine that marriage is only permitted to the people in general, but that those who are eminent in the Church ought to abstain from it, the Apostle takes away every exception. And he does not teach us that it is conceded as an indulgence, as Jerome sophistically says, but that it is honorable. It is very strange indeed that those who introduced the prohibition of marriage into the world were not terrified by this so express a declaration; but it was necessary then to give loose reins to Satan in order to punish the ingratitude of those who refused to hear God.


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