Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,
says Yahweh of Hosts. Zechariah 4:6
Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, O ancient doors,
That the King of Glory may come in! Who is this King of Glory?
Yahweh of Hosts: He is the King of Glory. Psalm 24:9-10
The purpose of this paper is to present a selection of quotations from John Calvin's Commentary on Matthew. 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. Occasionally, expressions in older English are modernized by us.
This is a very remarkable narrative. God brought Magi from Chaldea to the land of Judea for the purpose of adoring Christ in the stable where he lay, amidst the tokens not of honor but of contempt. It was a truly wonderful purpose of God that he caused the entrance of his Son into the world to be attended by deep lowliness, and yet bestowed upon him illustrious ornaments both of commendation and of other outward signs, that our faith might be supplied with everything necessary to prove his Divine Majesty.
A beautiful instance of real harmony amidst apparent contradiction is here exhibited. A star from heaven announces that he is a king, to whom a manger intended for cattle serves for a throne because he is refused admittance among the lowest of the people. His majesty shines in the East while in Judea it is so far from being acknowledged that it is visited by many marks of dishonor. Why is this? The heavenly Father chose to appoint the star and the Magi as our guides to lead directly to his Son, while he stripped him of all earthly splendor for the purpose of informing us that his kingdom is spiritual. This history conveys profitable instruction, not only because God brought the Magi to his Son as the firstfruits of the Gentiles, but also because he appointed the kingdom of his Son to receive their commendation, and that of the star, for the confirmation of our faith, that the wicked and malignant contempt of his nation might not render him less estimable in our eyes.
It is truly an instance of base sluggishness that not one of the Jews offers himself as an escort to those foreigners to go and see the King who had been promised to their own nation. The scribes show them the way and point out the place where he was born, but they allow them to depart alone; not one moves a step. They were afraid, perhaps, of Herod's cruelty. But it displayed wicked ingratitude that, for the sake of the salvation which had been offered to them, they were unwilling to undergo any risk, and cared less about the grace of God than about the frown of a tyrant. The whole nation was so degenerate that they chose rather to be oppressed with the yoke of tyranny than to submit to any inconvenience arising from a change. If God had not fortified the minds of the Magi by his Spirit, they might have been discouraged by this state of things. But the ardor of their zeal is unabated; they set out without a guide. And yet the means of confirming their faith are not lacking, for they hear that the King who had been pointed out to them by a star was long ago described in glowing language by divine predictions. It would seem that the star, which hitherto guided them in the way, had lately disappeared. The reason may easily be conjectured. It was that they might make inquiry in Jerusalem about the new King, and might thus take away all excuse from the Jews who, after having been instructed about the Redeemer who was sent to them, knowingly and willingly despise him.
It is certain that the prophet describes the destruction of the tribe of Benjamin, which took place in his time (Jer. 31:15). For he had foretold that the tribe of Judah would be cut off, to which was added the half of the tribe of Benjamin. He puts the mourning into the mouth of Rachel, who had been long dead. This is a personification, which has a powerful influence in moving the affections. It was not for the mere purpose of ornamenting his style that Jeremiah employed rhetorical embellishments. There was no other way of correcting the hardness and stupidity of the living than by arousing the dead, as it were, from their graves, to bewail those divine chastisements which were commonly treated with derision. The prediction of Jeremiah having been accomplished at that time, Matthew does not mean that it foretold what Herod would do, but that the coming of Christ occasioned a renewal of that mourning which had been experienced many centuries before by the tribe of Benjamin.
He intended thus to meet a prejudice which might disturb and shake pious minds. It might be supposed that no salvation could be expected from him on whose account, as soon as he was born, infants were murdered. Nay more, that it was an unfavorable and disastrous omen that the birth of Christ kindled a stronger flame of cruelty than usually burns amidst the most inveterate wars. But as Jeremiah promises a restoration where a nation had been cut off down to their little children, so Matthew reminds his readers that this massacre would not prevent Christ from appearing shortly afterwards as the Redeemer of the whole nation; for we know that the whole chapter in Jeremiah, in which those words occur, is filled with the most delightful consolations. Immediately after the mournful complaint he adds, "Refrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work shall be rewarded, declares Yahweh, and they shall come again from the land of the enemy. And there is hope in your future, declares Yahweh, that your children shall come again to your own border" (Jer. 31:16,17). Such was the resemblance between the former calamity which the tribe of Benjamin had sustained and the second calamity which is here recorded. Both were a prelude of the salvation which was shortly to arrive.
Now let us see, in the first place, why Christ spoke to his disciples about true happiness. We know that not only the great body of the people but even the learned themselves hold this error, that he is the happy man who is free from annoyance, attains all his wishes, and leads a joyful and easy life. At least it is the general opinion that happiness ought to be estimated from the present state. Christ, therefore, in order to accustom his own people to bear the cross, exposes this mistaken opinion--that those are happy who lead an easy and prosperous life according to the flesh. For it is impossible that men should mildly bend the neck to bear calamities and reproaches so long as they think that patience is at variance with a happy life. The only consolation which mitigates and even sweetens the bitterness of the cross and of all afflictions is the conviction that we are happy in the midst of miseries, for our patience is blessed by the Lord and will soon be followed by a happy result.
This doctrine, I do acknowledge, is widely removed from the common opinion; but the disciples of Christ must learn the philosophy of placing their happiness beyond the world and above the affections of the flesh. Though carnal reason will never admit what is here taught by Christ, yet he does not bring forward anything imaginary...but demonstrates from the fact that those persons are truly happy whose condition is supposed to be miserable. Let us, therefore, remember that the leading object of the discourse is to show that they are not unhappy who are oppressed by the reproaches of the wicked and subject to various calamities. And not only does Christ prove that those who measure the happiness of man by the present state are in the wrong, since the distresses of the godly will soon be changed for the better, but he also exhorts his own people to patience by holding out the hope of a reward.
I interpret the words as having been spoken with the view to take away occasion for hatred and resentment, and to point out the method of cherishing good-will. For whence come all injuries but from this, that each person is too tenacious of his own rights, too much disposed to consult his own convenience to the disadvantage of others? Almost all are so blinded by a wicked love of themselves that even in the worst causes they flatter themselves that they are in the right. To meet all hatred, enmity, debates, and acts of injustice, Christ reproves that obstinacy which is the source of these evils. He enjoins his own people to cultivate moderation and justice, and to make some abatement from the highest rigor, that by such an act of justice they may purchase for themselves peace and friendship. It were to be wished, indeed, that no controversy of any kind should ever arise among us; and undoubtedly men would never break out into abuse or quarrelling if they possessed a due share of meekness. But as it is scarcely possible but that differences will sometimes happen, Christ points out the remedy by which they may be immediately settled--and that is to put a restraint on our desires and to act to our own disadvantage rather than follow up our rights with unflinching rigor.
We learn from these words how far believers ought to be removed from every kind of revenge; for they are not only forbidden to ask it from God, but are commanded to banish and efface it from their minds so completely as to bless their enemies. In the meantime, they do not fail to commit their cause to God till he take vengeance on the reprobate. For they desire, as far as lies in them, that the wicked should return to a sound mind in order that they not perish; and thus they endeavor to promote their salvation. And there is still this consolation by which all their distresses are soothed--they entertain no doubt that God will be the avenger of obstinate wickedness, so as to make it manifest that those who are unjustly attacked are the objects of his care. It is very difficult, indeed, and altogether contrary to the disposition of the flesh to render good for evil. But our vices and weakness ought not to be pleaded as an argument in our favor. We ought simply to inquire what is demanded by the law of charity. For if we rely on the heavenly power of the Spirit, we shall encounter successfully all that is opposed to it in our feelings.
Throughout the whole of this discourse, Christ reproves that excessive anxiety with which men torment themselves about food and clothing, and at the same time applies a remedy for curing this disease. When he forbids them to be anxious, this is not to be taken literally, as if he intended to take away from his people all care. We know that men are born on the condition of having some care; and, indeed, this is not the least portion of the miseries which the Lord has laid upon us as a punishment in order to humble us. But immoderate care is condemned for two reasons: either because in so doing men tease and vex themselves to no purpose by carrying their anxiety farther than is proper or than their calling demands; or because they claim more for themselves than they have a right to do, and place such a reliance on their own industry that they neglect to call upon God. We ought to remember this promise: though unbelievers shall "rise up early and sit up late, and eat the bread of sorrows," yet believers will obtain, through the kindness of God, rest and sleep" (Psalm 127:2). Though the children of God are not free from toil and anxiety, yet, properly speaking, we do not say that they are anxious about life; because,through the reliance on the providence of God they enjoy calm repose.
Hence it is easy to learn how far we ought to be anxious about food. Each of us ought to labor as far as his calling requires and the Lord commands. And each of us ought to be led by his own needs to call upon God. Such anxiety holds an intermediate place between indolent carelessness and the unnecessary torments by which unbelievers kill themselves. But if we give proper attention to the words of Christ, we shall find that he does not forbid every kind of care, but only what arises from distrust. Be not anxious, says he, what you shall eat, or what you shall drink. That belongs to those who tremble for fear of poverty or hunger, as if they were to be in want of food every moment.
Is not life of more value than food? He argues from the greater to the less. He had forbidden them to be excessively anxious about the way in which life might be supported, and he now assigns the reason. The Lord, who has given life itself, will not suffer us to lack what is necessary for its support. And certainly we do no small dishonor to God when we fail to trust that he will give us necessary food or clothing, as if he had thrown us on the earth at random. He who is fully convinced that the Author of our life has an intimate knowledge of our condition will entertain no doubt that he will make abundant provision for our needs. Whenever we are seized by any fear or anxiety about food, let us remember that God will take care of the life which he gave us.
These words of Christ do not contain an absolute prohibition from judging, but are intended to cure a disease which appears to be natural to us all. We see how all flatter themselves, and every man passes a severe censure on others. This vice is attended by some strange enjoyment, for there is hardly any person who is not tickled with the desire of inquiring into other people's faults. All acknowledge, indeed, that it is an intolerable evil that those who overlook their own vices are so inveterate against their brethren.
This depraved eagerness for biting, censuring, and slandering is restrained by Christ when he says, "Judge not." It is not necessary that believers should become blind and perceive nothing, but only that they should refrain from an undue eagerness to judge; for otherwise the proper bounds of rigor will be exceeded by every man who desires to pass sentence on his brethren. There is a similar expression in the Apostle James, "Be not many masters" (James 3:1). For he does not discourage or withdraw believers from discharging the office of teachers, but forbids them to desire the honor from motives of ambition. To judge, therefore, means here to be influenced by curiosity in inquiring into the actions of others. This disease, in the first place, draws continually along with it the injustice of condemning any trivial fault as if it had been a very heinous crime; and next breaks out into the insolent presumption of looking disdainfully at every action and passing an unfavorable judgment on it, even when it might be viewed in a good light.
We now see that the design of Christ was to guard us against indulging excessive eagerness, or peevishness, or malignity, or even curiosity in judging our neighbors. He who judges according to the word and law of the Lord, and forms his judgment by the rule of charity, always begins with subjecting himself to examination, and preserves a proper medium and order in his judgments. Hence it is evident that this passage is altogether misapplied by those persons who would desire to make that moderation, which Christ recommends, a pretense for setting aside all distinction between good and evil. We are not only permitted but are even bound to condemn all sins, unless we choose to rebel against God himself--nay, to repeal his laws, to reverse his decisions, and to overturn his judgment-seat. It is his will that we should proclaim the sentence which he pronounces on the actions of men; only we must preserve such modesty towards each other as to make it manifest that God is the only Lawgiver and Judge (Isa. 33:22.)
As God is the guardian of our life, we may safely rely on his providence. Nay, we do him injustice if we do not entrust to him our life, which he is pleased to take under his charge. Christ takes a general view of the providence of God as extending to all creatures, and thus argues from the greater to the less, that we are upheld by his special protection. There is hardly anything of less value than sparrows (for two were then sold for a farthing, or, as Luke states it, five for two farthings), and yet God has his eye upon them to protect them so that nothing happens to them by chance. Would He who is careful about the sparrows disregard the life of men?
There are here two things to be observed. First, Christ gives a very different account of the providence of God from what is given by many who talk like the philosophers and tell us that God governs the world, but yet imagine providence to be a confused sort of arrangement, as if God did not keep his eye on each of the creatures. Now, Christ declares that each of the creatures in particular is under his hand and protection, so that nothing is left to chance. Unquestionably the will of God is contrasted with contingence or uncertainty. And yet we must not be understood to uphold the fate of the Stoics, for it is one thing to imagine a necessity which is involved in a complicated chain of causes and quite another thing to believe that the world, and every part of it, is directed by the will of God. In the nature of things I do acknowledge there is uncertainty. But I maintain that nothing happens through a blind revolution of chance, for all is regulated by the will of God.
The second thing to be observed is that we ought to contemplate Providence not as curious and fickle persons are accustomed to do, but as a ground of confidence and excitement to prayer. When he informs us that the hairs of our heard are all numbered, it is not to encourage trivial speculations but to instruct us to depend on the fatherly care of God which is exercised over these frail bodies.
As Tyre and Sidon, in consequence of their proximity, were at that time abhorred for their ungodliness, pride, debauchery, and other vices, Christ employs this comparison for the express purpose of making a deeper and more painful impression on his Jewish countrymen. There was not one of them who did not look upon the inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon as abominable despisers of God. It is, therefore, no small heightening of his curse when Christ says that there would have been more hope of reformation from those places in which there was no religion than is to be seen in Judea itself.
Lest any should raise thorny questions about the secret decrees of God, we must remember that this discourse of our Lord is accommodated to the ordinary capacity of the human mind. Comparing the citizens of Bethsaida and their neighbors with the inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon, he reasons not of what God foresaw would be done either by the one or by the other, but of what both parties would have done so far as could be judged from the facts. The exceedingly corrupt morals and unrestrained debauchery of those cities might be ascribed to ignorance; for there the voice of God had never been heard nor had miracles been performed to warn them to repent. But in the cities of Galilee, which Christ upbraids, there was a display of very hardened obstinacy in despising miracles, of which they had seen a vast number without reaping any advantage. In short, the words of Christ convey nothing more than that the inhabitants of Chorazin and Bethsaida go beyond those of Tyre and Sidon in malice and incurable contempt of God.
And yet we have no right to contend with God for having passed by others of whom better hopes might have been entertained, and displaying his power before some who were extremely wicked and altogether desperate. Those on whom he does not bestow his mercy are justly appointed to perdition. If he withhold his word from some and allow them to perish, while in order to render others more inexcusable he entreats and exhorts them in a variety of ways to repentance, who shall charge him on this account with injustice? Let us, therefore, aware of our own weakness, learn to contemplate this height and depth with reverence. For it is intolerable fretfulness and pride that is manifested by those who cannot endure to ascribe praise to the righteousness of God unless it comes within the reach of their senses, and who disdainfully reject those mysteries which it was their duty to adore simply because the reason of them is not fully evident.
The leading object of both parables is to inform us that none are qualified for receiving the grace of the Gospel but those who disregard all other desires and devote all their exertions and all their faculties to obtain it. It deserves our attention, also, that Christ does not pronounce the hidden treasure or the pearl to be so highly valued by all. The treasure is ascertained to be valuable after it has been found and known, and it is the skillful merchant who forms such an opinion about the pearl. These words denote the knowledge of faith. "The heavenly kingdom," Christ tells us, "is commonly held as of no account because men are incapable of relishing it, and do not perceive the inestimable value of that treasure which the Lord offers to us in the Gospel."
The word soul is here used in the strictest sense. Christ reminds them that the soul of man was not created merely to enjoy the world for a few days, but to obtain at length its immortality in heaven. What carelessness and what brutal stupidity is this, that men are so strongly attached to the world and so much occupied with its affairs as not to consider why they were born, and that God gave them an immortal soul in order that when the course of the earthly life was finished they might live eternally in heaven! And, indeed, it is universally acknowledged that the soul is of higher value than all the riches and enjoyments of the world. But yet men are so blinded by carnal views that they knowingly and willfully abandon their souls to destruction. That the world may not fascinate us by its allurements, let us remember the surpassing worth of our soul. For if this be seriously considered, it will easily dispel the vain imaginations of earthly happiness.
As if it were a hard condition for husbands to be so bound to their wives that so long as they remain chaste they are compelled to endure everything rather than leave them, the disciples roused by this answer of Christ reply that it is better to lack wives than to submit to a knot of this kind. But why do they not, on the other hand, consider how hard is the bondage of wives but because, devoted to themselves and their own convenience, they are driven by the feeling of the flesh to disregard others and to think only of what is advantageous for themselves? Meanwhile, it is a display of base ingratitude that from the dread or dislike of a single inconvenience they reject a wonderful gift of God. It is better, according to them, to avoid marriage than to bind one's self by the bond of living always together. But if God has ordained marriage for the general advantage of mankind, though it may be attended by some things that are disagreeable it is not on that account to be despised. Let us therefore learn not to be delicate and saucy, but to use with reverence the gifts of God, even if there be something in them that does not please us. Above all, let us guard against this wickedness in reference to holy marriage. For, in consequence of its being attended by many annoyances, Satan has always endeavored to make it an object of hatred and detestation in order to withdraw men from it. And Jerome has given too manifest a proof of a malicious and wicked disposition in not only loading with calumnies that sacred and divinely appointed condition of life, but in collecting as many terms of reproach as he could from profane authors in order to take away its respectability. But let us recollect that whatever annoyances belong to marriage are accidental, for they arise out of the depravity of man. Let us remember that since our nature was corrupted, marriage began to be a medicine, and therefore we need not wonder if it have a bitter taste mixed with its sweetness.
Christ gives a warning of not only how dangerous and deadly a plague avarice is, but also how great an obstacle riches present. In Mark, indeed, he mitigates the harshness of his expression by restricting it to those only who place confidence in riches. But these words are, I think, intended to confirm rather than correct the former statement, as if he had affirmed that they ought not to think it strange that he made the entrance into the kingdom of heaven so difficult for the rich, because it is an evil almost common to all to trust in their riches. Yet this doctrine is highly useful to all. To the rich, that being warned of their danger they may be on their guard; and to the poor, that being satisfied with their lot they may not so eagerly desire what would bring more damage than gain. It is true, indeed, that riches do not in their own nature hinder us from following God. But in consequence of the depravity of the human mind, it is scarcely possible for those who have a great abundance to avoid being intoxicated by them. So they who are exceedingly rich are held by Satan bound, as it were, in chains, that they may not raise their thoughts to heaven; nay more, they bury and entangle themselves and become utter slaves to the earth.
As this parable is nothing else than a confirmation of the preceding sentence, the last shall be first, it now remains to see in what manner it ought to be applied. Some commentators reduce it to this general proposition--that the glory of all will be equal because the heavenly inheritance is not obtained by the merits of works but is bestowed freely. But Christ does not here argue either about the quality of the heavenly glory or about the future condition of the godly. He only declares that those who were first in point of time have no right to boast or to insult others, because the Lord, whenever he please, may call those whom he appeared for a time to disregard and may make them equal or even superior to the first.
If any man should resolve to sift out with exactness every portion of this parable, his curiosity would be useless; and therefore we have nothing more to inquire than what was the design of Christ to teach. Now we have already said that he had no other object in view than to excite his people by continual spurs to make progress. We know that indolence almost always springs from excessive confidence; and this is the reason why many, as if they had reached the goal, stop short in the middle of the course. Thus Paul enjoins us to forget the things which are behind (Phil. 3:13), that, reflecting on what yet remains for us, we may arouse ourselves to persevere in running. But there will be no harm in examining the words, that the doctrine may be more clearly evinced.
For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder. The meaning is, that such is the nature of the divine calling as if a man were, early in the morning, to hire laborers for the cultivation of his vineyard at a fixed price, and were afterwards to employ others without an agreement but to give them an equal wage. He uses the phrase kingdom of heaven because he compares the spiritual life to the earthly life, and the reward of eternal life to money which men pay in return for work that has been done for them. There are some who give an ingenious interpretation to this passage, as if Christ were distinguishing between Jews and Gentiles. The Jews, they tell us, were called at the first hour with an agreement as to the wage, for the Lord promised to them eternal life on the condition that they should fulfill the law; while in calling the Gentiles no bargain was made, at least as to works, for salvation was freely offered to them in Christ. But all subtleties of that sort are unseasonable, for the Lord makes no distinction in the bargain but only in the time; because those who entered last and in the evening into the vineyard receive the same wage with the first. Though in the Law God formerly promised to the Jews the wage of works (Lev. 18:5), yet we know that this was without effect, because no man ever obtained salvation by his merits.
Why, then, it will be said, does Christ expressly mention a bargain in reference to the first but makes no mention of it in reference to the others? It was in order to show that without doing injury to anyone, as much honor is conferred on the last as if they had been called at the beginning. For, strictly speaking, he owes no man anything, and from us who are devoted to his service he demands as a matter of right all the duties which are incumbent on us. But as he freely offers to us a reward, he is said to hire the labors which, on other grounds, were due to him.
If any man infer from this that men are created for the purpose of doing something, and that every man has his province assigned him by God, that they may not sit down in idleness, he will offer no violence to the words of Christ. We are also at liberty to infer that our whole life is unprofitable, and that we are justly accused of indolence until each of us regulate his life by the command and calling of God.
And when the evening was come. It would be improper to look for a mystery in the injunction of the householder to begin with the last, as if God crowned those first who were last in the order of time; for such a notion would not at all agree with the doctrine of Paul. They who are alive, he says, at the coming of Christ will not come before those who previously fell asleep in Christ, but will follow (1 Thess. 4:15). But Christ observes a different order in this passage because he could not otherwise have expressed, what he afterwards adds, that the first murmured because they did not receive more.
So the first shall be last. Christ only meant to say that everyone who has been called before others ought to run with so much the greater alacrity; and next, to exhort all men to be modest, not to give themselves the preference above others but willingly to share with them a common prize. As the apostles were the firstfruits of the whole church, they appeared to possess some superiority; and Christ did not deny that they would sit as judges to govern the twelve tribes of Israel. But that they might not be carried away by ambition or vain confidence in themselves, it was necessary also to remind them that others who would long afterwards be called would be partakers of the same glory, because God is not limited to any person but calls freely whomsoever He pleases, and bestows on those who are called whatever rewards He thinks fit.
Christ reminds them that as the subjection of their nation was attested by the coin, there ought to be no debate on that subject; as if he had said, "If you think it strange to pay tribute, be not subjects of the Roman Empire. But the money (which men employ as the pledge of mutual exchanges) attests that Caesar rules over you; so that, by your own silent consent, the liberty to which you lay claim is lost and gone." Christ's reply does not leave the matter open but contains full instruction on the question which had been proposed. It lays down a clear distinction between spiritual and civil government in order to inform us that outward subjection does not prevent us from having within us a conscience free in the sight of God. For Christ intended to refute the error of those who did not think that they would be the people of God unless they were free from every yoke of human authority. In like manner Paul earnestly insists on this point, that they ought not the less to look upon themselves as serving God alone if they obey human laws, if they pay tribute and bend the neck to bear other burdens (Rom. 13:7). In short, Christ declares that it is no violation of the authority of God, or any injury done to his service, if, in respect of outward government, the Jews obey the Romans.
He appears also to glance at their hypocrisy, because while they carelessly permitted the service of God to be corrupted in many respects, and even wickedly deprived God of his authority, they displayed such ardent zeal about a matter of no importance; as if he had said, "You are exceedingly afraid lest if tribute be paid to the Romans the honor of God may be infringed. But you ought rather to take care to yield to God that service which he demands from you, and, at the same time, to render to men what is their due."
This doctrine extends still farther--that every man, according to his calling, ought to perform the duty which he owes to men. That children ought willingly to submit to their parents, and servants to their masters; that they ought to be courteous and obliging towards each other according to the law of charity, provided that God always retain the highest authority, to which everything that can be due to men is, as we say, subordinate. The amount of it therefore is, that those who destroy political order are rebellious against God, and therefore, that obedience to princes and magistrates is always joined to the worship and fear of God. But that, on the other hand, if princes claim any part of the authority of God, we ought not to obey them any farther than can be done without offending God.
It is not unusual with the Evangelists, when a thing has been done by one, to attribute it to many persons if they give their consent to it. John says that the murmur proceeded from Judas, who betrayed Christ (John 12:4). Matthew and Mark include all the disciples along with him. The reason is that none of the others would ever have dared to murmur if the wicked slander of Judas had not served for a torch to kindle them. But when he began, under a plausible pretext, to condemn the expense as superfluous, all of them easily caught the contagion. And this example shows what danger arises from malignant and venomous tongues; for even those who are naturally reasonable, and candid, and modest, if they do not exercise prudence and caution, are easily deceived by unfavorable speeches and led to adopt false judgments. But if light and foolish credulity induced the disciples of Christ to take part with Judas, what shall become of us if we are too easy in admitting murmurers who are in the habit of carping wickedly at the best actions?
We ought to draw from it another warning--not to pronounce rashly on a matter which is not sufficiently known. The disciples seize on what Judas said, and, as it has some show of plausibility, they are too harsh in forming a judgment. They ought, on the contrary, to have inquired more fully if the action deserved reproof; more especially when their Master was present, by whose decision it was their duty to abide. Let us know, therefore, that we act improperly when we form our opinion without paying regard to the word of God. For, as Paul informs us, None of us lives or dies to himself, but all must stand before the judgment seat of Christ, where we must give our account (Rom. 14:7, 10; 2 Cor. 5:10). And though there was a wide difference between Judas and the others--because he wickedly held out a plausible cloak for his theft while the rest were actuated by foolish simplicity--still we see how their imprudence withdrew them from Christ and made them the companions of Judas.
Here Christ meets an offense, which might otherwise have greatly shaken pious minds. For what could be more unreasonable than that the Son of God should be infamously betrayed by a disciple and abandoned to the rage of enemies in order to be dragged to an ignominious death? But Christ declares that all this takes place only by the will of God. And he proves this decree by the testimony of Scripture, because God formerly revealed by the mouth of his Prophet what he had determined.
We now perceive what is intended by the words of Christ. It was, that the disciples, knowing that what was done was regulated by the providence of God, might not imagine that his life or death was determined by chance. But the usefulness of this doctrine extends much farther. For never are we fully confirmed in the result of the death of Christ till we are convinced that he was not accidentally dragged by men to the cross, but that the sacrifice had been appointed by an eternal decree of God for expiating the sins of the world. For whence do we obtain reconciliation but because Christ has appeased the Father by his obedience? Wherefore let us always place before our minds the providence of God, which Judas himself and all wicked men--though it is contrary to their wish and though they have another end in view--are compelled to obey. Let us always hold this to be a fixed principle, that Christ suffered because it pleased God to have such an expiation.
And yet Christ does not affirm that Judas was freed from blame on the ground that he did nothing but what God had appointed. For though God by his righteous judgment appointed for the price of our redemption the death of his Son, yet nevertheless, Judas in betraying Christ brought upon himself righteous condemnation because he was full of treachery and avarice. In short, God's determination that the world should be redeemed does not at all interfere with Judas being a wicked traitor. Hence we perceive that though men can do nothing but what God has appointed, still this does not free them from condemnation when they are led by a wicked desire to sin. For though God directs them by an unseen bridle to an end which is unknown to them, nothing is farther from their intention than to obey his decrees. Those two principles, no doubt, appear to human reason to be inconsistent with each other--that God regulates the affairs of men by his Providence in such a manner that nothing is done by by his will and command, and yet he damns the reprobate by whom he has carried into execution what he intended. But we see how Christ in this passage reconciles both by pronouncing a curse on Judas, though what he contrived against God had been appointed by God; not that Judas' act of betraying ought strictly to be called the work of God, but because God turned the treachery of Judas so as to accomplish his own purpose.
It had been good for that man. By this expression we are taught what a dreadful vengeance awaits the wicked, for whom it would have been better that they had never been born. And yet this life, though transitory and full of innumerable distresses, is an invaluable gift of God. Again, we also infer from it how detestable is their wickedness, which not only extinguishes the precious gifts of God and turns them to their destruction, but makes it to have been better for them that they had never tasted the goodness of God. But this phrase is worthy of observation, it would have been good for that man if he had never been born. For though the condition of Judas was wretched, yet to have created him was good in God, who, appointing the reprobate to the day of destruction illustrates also in this way his own glory, as Solomon tells us: The Lord has made all things for himself; yes, even the wicked for the day of evil (Prov. 16:4). The secret government of God, which provides even the schemes and works of men, is thus vindicated, as I lately noticed, from all blame and suspicion.
These circumstances carry great weight for they place before us the extreme abasement of the Son of God, that we may see more clearly how much our salvation cost him; and that, reflecting that we justly deserved all the punishments which he endured, we may be more and more excited to repentance. For in this exhibition God has plainly shown to us how wretched our condition would have been if we had not a Redeemer. But all that Christ endured in himself ought to be applied for our consolation. This certainly was more cruel than all the other tortures--that they upbraided and reviled and tormented him as one who had been cast off and forsaken by God (Isaiah 53:4). And therefore David, as the representative of Christ, complains chiefly of this among the distresses which he suffered (Ps. 22:7). And indeed there is nothing that inflicts a more painful wound on pious minds than when ungodly men, in order to shake their faith, upbraid them with being deprived of the assistance and favor of God. This is the harsh persecution, Paul tells us, with which Isaac was tormented by Ishmael (Gal. 4:29); not that he attacked him with the sword and with outward violence, but that by turning the grace of God into ridicule he endeavored to overthrow his faith. These temptations were endured, first by David and afterwards by Christ himself, that they might not at the present day strike us with excessive alarm, as if they had been unusual. For there never will be lacking wicked men who are disposed to insult our distresses. And whenever God does not assist us according to our wish, but conceals his aid for a little time, it is a frequent stratagem of Satan to allege that our hope was to no purpose, as if his promise had failed.
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