Excerpts from Calvin's Commentaries

The purpose of this paper is to present a selection of quotations from John Calvin's commentary on Mark. 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.

"He did not permit the devils to speak" (Mark 1:34)

There might be two reasons why he did not permit them: a general reason--because the time of the full revelation was not yet come; and a special reason--that he refused to have as heralds and witnesses of his divinity those whose praise could have no other effect than to soil and injure his character. This latter reason is undoubtedly true; for he must have known that the prince of death and his agents are in a state of irreconcilable enmity with the Author of eternal salvation and life.There might be two reasons why he did not permit them: a general reason--because the time of the full revelation was not yet come; and a special reason--that he refused to have as heralds and witnesses of his divinity those whose praise could have no other effect than to soil and injure his character. This latter reason is undoubtedly true; for he must have known that the prince of death and his agents are in a state of irreconcilable enmity with the Author of eternal salvation and life.

"If You are willing, You can make me clean" (Matt. 1:40)

I enter into no dispute as to the feelings which moved the leper to pay reverence to Christ. But I look at what he attributed to him, that he was able to cleanse him if he were willing. By these words he declared that he acknowledged a divine power in Christ; and when Christ replies, I am willing, he shows that he claimed more for himself than belongs to man. He who by the mere expression of his will restores health to men must possess supreme authority. Whether the leper believed that Christ was the Son of God, or that he had received this power in the same manner as Moses and the other prophets, he entertains no doubt that he held in his hand and in his power the gift of healing. True, he speaks conditionally, if thou art willing, thou art able. But this is not inconsistent with that certainty of faith which God demands in our prayers; for men ought not to expect more than God promises. The leper had not learned by any inspired communication, or any promise of God, what Christ would do. It would have been improper in him, therefore, to go beyond these limits. For though we sometimes read that certain persons prayed without any condition, we ought to believe that they were guided by special movements of the Spirit, which must not be taken for a general rule. I am not even certain if we are at liberty to say, strictly speaking, that the leper offered a prayer. He only declares that he is so fully convinced of the power of Christ as to entertain no doubt that it is in his power to cure leprosy; and then presents himself to be healed, but uncertain as to the result because he did not yet know the will of Christ.

"So that Jesus could no longer enter openly into cities" (Mark 1:45)

Hence we learn the reason why Christ did not wish the miracle [of the healed leper] to be so soon made known. It was that he might have more abundant opportunity and freedom for teaching. Not that his enemies rose against him and attempted to shut his mouth, but because the common people were so eager to demand miracles that no room was left for doctrine. He wished that they would all be more attentive to the word than to signs. Luke accordingly says that he sought retirement in the deserts. He avoided a crowd of men because he saw that he would not satisfy the wishes of the people without overwhelming his doctrine by a superfluity of miracles.

"Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast and your disciples do not
fast?" (Mark 2:18)

Then come to him the disciples of John. Luke represent the Pharisees as speaking; Mark appears to connect both. And, indeed, there is no room to doubt that the Pharisees maliciously endeavored, by this stratagem, to draw the disciples of John to their party and to produce a quarrel between them and the disciples of Christ. A resemblance in prayers and fastings was a plausible pretext for associating at this time, while the different manner in which Christ acted was an occasion of enmity and dislike to men whose temper was unamiable, and who were excessively devoted to themselves.

This example reminds us that prudence and caution are necessary to prevent wicked and cunning men from sowing divisions among us on any slight grounds. Satan has a wonderful dexterity, no doubt, in laying those snares; and it is an easy matter to distress us about a trifle. But we ought especially to beware lest the unity of faith be destroyed or the bond of charity broken on account of outward ceremonies. Almost all labor under the disease of attaching undue importance to the ceremonies and elements of the world, as Paul calls them (Gal. 4:3; Col. 2:8); and accordingly they do not hesitate, for the most part, to prefer the merest rudiments to the highest perfection. This is followed by another evil arising out of fastidiousness and pride, when every man would willingly compel the whole world to copy his example. If anything pleases us, we forthwith desire to make it a law, that others may live according to our pleasure.

"And all the devils besought him, saying, Send us into the swine" (Mark 5:12)

Some conjecture that they wished to attack the swine because they are filled with enmity to all God's creatures. I do admit it to be true, that they are entirely bent on confounding and overthrowing the whole order of nature which God has appointed. But it is certain that they had a more remote object in view--to excite the inhabitants of that country to curse God on account of the loss of the swine. When the devil thunders against Job's house, he does so not from any hatred he bears to timber or stones, but in order that the good man, through impatience at suffering loss, may break out against God. When Christ consents, he does not listen to their prayers but chooses to try in this manner what sort of people the Gadarenes are. Perhaps, too, it is to punish their crimes that he grants to the devils so much power over their swine. While the reason of it is not known by us with certainty, it is proper for us to behold with reverence, and to adore with devout humility, the hidden judgment of God.

"He said to the ruler of the synagogue, Fear not, only believe" (Mark 5:36)

The message about her death had induced despair, for he had asked nothing from Christ but relief to the diseased young woman. Christ therefore bids him take care lest by fear or distrust he shut out that grace to which death will be no hindrance. By this expression, only believe, he means that he will not lack power provided Jairus will allow him; and at the same time exhorts him to enlarge his heart with confidence because there is no room to fear that his faith will be more extensive than the boundless power of God. And truly this is the case with us all. Our own scanty desires hinder him from pouring out his gifts upon us in greater abundance. In general we are taught by this passage that we cannot go beyond bounds in believing, because our faith, however large, will never embrace the hundredth part of the divine goodness.

"What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist" (Mark 6:24)

We need not wonder that Herodias attached so much importance to John's death. The conjecture thrown out by some--that she was actuated by revenge--is not at all probable. It was rather the dread of being cast off that inflamed and tormented her; as it usually happens that when adulterers are visited with feelings of uneasiness, they become ashamed of their own lust. But she hoped that this crime would bind Herod more closely to her than ever, if the disgrace of a pretended marriage were washed out by the blood of the prophet. That her power might be more secure for the future, she longed for the death of that man whom she imagined to be her only opponent. And this shows us the wretched anxiety by which a bad conscience is always tormented. John was detained in prison, and the haughty and cruel woman might have issued orders that no man should converse with or approach him. And yet she has no rest but is oppressed with anxiety and alarm till the prophet be removed out of the way. This likewise serves to show the power of the word of God, that the voice of the holy man, even when shut up in prison, wounds and tortures in the keenest manner the mind of the king's wife.

"Then he again laid his hands upon his eyes . . . and he saw them all clearly"
(Mark 8:22-25)

This miracle, which is omitted by the other two Evangelists, appears to have been related by Mark chiefly on account of this circumstance--that Christ restored sight to the blind man not in an instant, as he was generally accustomed to do, but in a gradual manner. He did so most probably for the purpose of proving, in the case of this man, that he had full liberty as to his method of proceeding, and was not restricted to a fixed rule so as not to resort to a variety of methods in exercising his power.

"Whosoever would follow me, let him deny himself and take up his cross" (Mark 8:34)

Though God lays on both good men and bad men the burden of the cross, yet unless they willingly bend their shoulders to it they are not said to bear the cross; for a wild and refractory horse cannot be said to admit his rider though he carries him. The patience of the saints, therefore, consists in bearing willingly the cross which has been laid on them. Luke adds the word daily--let him take up his cross daily--which is very emphatic. Christ's meaning is, that there will be no end to our warfare until we leave the world. Let it be the uninterrupted exercise of the godly, that when many afflictions have run their course they may be prepared to endure fresh afflictions.

"But many that are first shall be last, and the last first" (Mark 10:31)

This sentence was added in order to shake off the indolence of the flesh. The apostles, though they had scarcely begun the course, were hastening to demand the prize. And such is the disposition of almost all of us--when a month has elapsed we ask, like soldiers who have served their time, to receive a discharge. But Christ exhorts those who have begun well to vigorous perseverance (Gal. 3:3; 5:7), and at the same time gives warning that it will be of no avail to runners to have begun with alacrity if they lose courage in the midst of the course. As often, therefore, as we call to mind the heavenly crown, we ought, as it were, to feel the application of fresh spurs, that we may not be more indolent for the future.

"Watch and pray" (Mark 14:38)

As the disciples were unmoved by their Master's danger, their attention is directed to themselves, that a conviction of their own danger may arouse them. Christ therefore threatens that if they do not watch and pray, they may be soon overwhelmed by temptation. As if he had said, "Though you take no concern about me, do not fail at least to think of yourselves. For your own interests are involved in it, and if you do not take care, temptation will immediately swallow you up." For to enter into temptation means to yield to it. And let us observe that the manner of resistance which is here enjoined is not to draw courage from reliance on our own strength and perseverance, but on the contrary, from a conviction of our weakness, to ask arms and strength from the Lord. Our watching, therefore, will be of no avail without prayer.

"And they compelled one Simon, a Cyrenian . . . to bear his cross" (Mark 15:21)

This circumstance points out the extreme cruelty both of the Jewish nation and of the soldiers. There is no reason to doubt that it was then the custom for malefactors to carry their own crosses to the place of punishment. But as the only persons who were crucified were robbers, who were men of great bodily strength, they were able to bear such a burden. It was otherwise with Christ, so that the very weakness of his body plainly showed that it was a lamb that was sacrificed. Perhaps, too, in consequence of having been mangled by scourging and broken down by many acts of outrage, he bent under the weight of the cross. Now the Evangelists relate that the soldiers constrained a man who was a peasant and of lowly rank to carry the cross, because that punishment [crucifixion] was reckoned so detestable that every person thought himself polluted if he only happened to put his hand to it. But God exalts by his heralds the man who was taken from the lowest dregs of the people to perform a mean and infamous office. For it is not a superfluous matter that the Evangelists not only mention his name but inform us also about his country and his children. Nor can there be any doubt that God intended by this preparation to remind us that we are of no rank or estimation in ourselves, and that it is only from the cross of his Son that we derive eminence and renown.

"And it was the third hour" (Mark 15:25)

This appears not to agree well with the testimony of the Evangelist John, for he relates that Christ was condemned about the sixth hour (19:14). But if we consider (what is evident from other passages) that the day was divided into four parts, and that each of the parts took its name from the first hour of its commencement, the solution will not be difficult. The whole time from sunrise to the second part of the day they called the first hour. The second part, which lasted till noon, was called by them the third hour. The sixth hour commenced at noon and lasted till three or four o'clock in the afternoon. Thus, when the Jews saw that Pilate was wearing out the time and that the hour of noon was approaching, John says that they cried out the more vehemently, that the whole day might not be allowed to pass without something being done (19:15). But this is not inconsistent with the assertion that our Lord was crucified about the close of the third hour; for it is plain enough that no sooner was he hastily condemned than he was immediately executed, so eager was the desire of the Jews to put him to death. Mark therefore means not the beginning but the close of the third hour; and it is highly probable that Christ did not hang on the cross longer than three hours.

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