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. When Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea It is probable that this was the second year of Pilate’s government: for since Tiberius had held the reins of government, he had, as Josephus informs us, (xviii. 2:2,) appointed Valerius Gratus to be governor of Judea, in room of Annius Rufus. This change might take place in his second year. The same Josephus writes, that Valerius was governor of Judea for “eleven years, when Pontius Pilate came as his successor,” (Ant. 18:2:2.) Pilate, therefore, had governed the province for two years, when John began to preach the Gospel. This Herod, whom Luke makes tetrarch of Judea, was the second heir of Herod the Great, and succeeded to his father by will. Archelaus had received the ethnarchy of Judea, but, when he was banished to Vienna (Jos. Wars, 2, vii. 3) by Augustus, that portion fell into the hands of the Romans. Luke mentions here two sons of Herod, — Herod Antipas, who had been made tetrarch of Galilee, and governed Samaria and Peraea, — and Philip, who was tetrarch of Trachonitis and Iturea, and reigned from the sea of Tiberias, or Gennesareth, to the foot of Lebanon, which is the source of the river Jordan.
Lysanias has been falsely supposed to be the son of Ptolemy Mennaeus, King of Chalcis, who had been long before put to death by Cleopatra, about thirty years before the birth of Christ, as Josephus relates, (Ant. 15:4:1.) He could hardly even be the grandson of Ptolemy, who, as the same Josephus records, kindled the Parthian war, (Wars, 1, xiii. 1;) for then he must have been more than sixty years of age at the time of which Luke speaks. Besides, as it was under Antigonus that the Parthian war commenced, he must even then have been a full-grown man. Now Ptolemy Mennaeus died not long after the murder of Julius Caesar, during the triumvirate of Lepidus, Antony, and Octavius, (Jos. Wars, 1, xiii. 1.) But as this grandson of Ptolemy bore the name of Lysanias as well as his father, he might have left a son who had the same surname. Meanwhile, there can be no hesitation in rejecting the error of those who make Lysanias to live sixty years after he had been slain by Cleopatra.
The word Tetrarch is here used in a sense not quite accurate, as if the whole country had been divided into four parts. But as at first there was a fourfold division into districts, so afterwards, when other changes took place, the names Tetrarch and Tetrarchies were retained by way of honor. In this sense Pliny enumerates seventeen tetrarchies of one country.
. Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests It is certain, that there never were two persons who held the office of high priest at the same time. Josephus states, that Valerius Gratus made Caiaphas high priest, a short time before he left the government. During the time that Pilate was governor of Judea, Josephus does not speak of him as having made any change in this respect; (244) but, on the contrary, states that, when Pilate had been recalled from the government, and sent to plead his cause at Rome, Vitellius, who was at that time governor of Syria, reduced Caiaphas to a private rank, and transferred the high priesthood to Jonathan, the son of Ananus, (Ant. 18:4:3.) When Luke says that there were two high priests, we must not understand him to mean, that both held the same title, but that the honor of the priesthood was partly shared with him by Annas his father-in-law. Luke’s narrative indicates such a state of trouble and confusion, that, though there was not more than one person who was actually high priest, the sacred office was torn in pieces by ambition and tyranny.
The word of the Lord came upon John Before relating, as the other Evangelists do, that John began to exercise his office of teaching, Luke asserts that he was divinely called to that office: and he does so, in order to assure us, that the ministry of John carried undoubted authority. Why the interpreters have chosen to translate the word, ἐπὶ ᾿Ιωάννην, UPON John, instead of TO John, I do not see: but because there is no ambiguity as to the meaning, that this commission was entrusted to him, and that he received a command to preach, I have followed the received version. Hence infer, that there are no regular teachers, but those on whom God has conferred the office; and that it is not enough to have the word of God, if there be not likewise a special calling.
Matthew and Mark do not speak of the preaching of John as extending beyond the wilderness, while Luke says, that he came into all the country around Jordan These statements may be reconciled by observing, that John discharged the office of teaching among the neighbors, with whom he dwelt; but that his Gospel spread more widely, and became known in many places, so that the report of it, in a short time, reached Jerusalem. Indeed, the whole of that tract of the Jordan might be called a wilderness: for the word does not mean “a solitude,” but “a rough, and mountainous, and thinly inhabited district.”
(244) The whole passage is remarkable, and proves that the appointment to the sacred office of high priest was entirely at the disposal of the Roman Governor. “This man (Valerius Gratus) deprived Ananus of the high priesthood, and appointed Ishmael, the son of Phabi, to be high priest. He also deprived him in a little time, and ordained Eleazar, the son of Ananus, who had been high priest before, to be high priest: which office, when he had held for a year, Gratus deprived him of it, and gave the high priesthood to Simon, the son of Camithus; and, when he had possessed that dignity no longer than a year, Joseph Caiaphas was made his successor. When Gratus had done those things, he went back to Rome, after he had tarried in Judea eleven years, when Pontius Pilate came as his successor.” — ( Ant. 18:2:2.)
. Preaching the baptism of repentance This form of expression shows first, generally, what is the right use of the Sacraments; and next, why baptism was instituted, and in what it consists. A sacrament, then, is not a dumb ceremony, exhibiting some unmeaning pomp without doctrine; but the Word of God is joined to it, and gives life to the outward ceremony. By the Word I mean, not mutterings of a magical character, made by some exorcist between his teeth, but what is pronounced with a clear and distinct voice, and leads to the edification of faith. For we are not simply told, that John baptized unto repentance, as if the grace of God were contained in a visible sign; but that he explained, in his preaching, the advantage of baptism, that the sign, through the word preached, might produce its effect. This is the peculiarity of baptism, that it is said to be an outward representation of repentance for the forgiveness of sins Now, as the meaning, power, and nature of that baptism are the same as ours, if we judge of the figure from its true import, it is incorrect to say, that the baptism of John is different from the baptism of Christ. (246)
(246) " Maintenant puis que le Baptesme de Jean a eu mesme signification, vertu et propriete que le nostre, si nous voulons juger de la figure et du signe selon la chose signifee, c'est 'a dire la verite, nous trouverons que le Baptesme administre par Christ, n'a point este autre que celuy que Jean a administre."—"Now, since the baptism of John had the same meaning, power, and nature as ours, if we wish to judge of the figure and of the sign according to the thing signified, that is to say the reality, we shall find that the Baptism administered by Christ was no other than that which John administered."
And all flesh shall see the salvation of God That salvation will not be at all obscure, or experienced by a small number of persons, but will strike every eye, and will be common to all. Hence it follows that this prediction was far from being accomplished, when the people returned from Babylon: (250) for though the Lord gave, at that time, a memorable display of his grace, yet he did not reveal his salvation to the whole world. On the contrary, the prophet’s design was, to present the uncommon excellence of the salvation which was to be manifested, in contrast with God’s former benefits, and thus to inform believers, that the dispensations of God towards his Church had never been so remarkable, nor his power so illustriously displayed in their deliverance. Flesh is here put for men, without being intended to denote their depravity. (251)
(250) “ In populi reditu;” — “ quand le peuple est retourne de Babylone.”
(251) “ Le mot de Chair n'est pas ice mis pour denoter la corruption de nature, mais il signifie simplement les hommes.” — “The word Flesh is not put here to denote the corruption of nature, but means simply men.”
As to the loud and open rebuke, which was administered to them in presence of all, it was for the sake of others; and that is the reason why Luke mentions, that it was addressed to multitudes, (Luke 3:7.) Though the persons whom John reproved were few in number, his design was to strike terror on all; as Paul enjoins us to regard it as the advantage of public rebukes, “ that others also may fear,” (1 Timothy 5:20.) He addresses directly the Pharisees and Sadducees, and at the same time, addresses, through them, a warning to all, not to hold out a hypocritical appearance of repentance, instead of a true affection of the heart. Besides, it was of great importance to the whole nation to know (263) what sort of people the Pharisees and Sadducees were, who had miserably corrupted the worship of God, wasted the church, and overturned the whole of religion; — in a word, who had extinguished the light of God by their corruptions, and infected every thing by their crimes.
It is probable, therefore, that John publicly attacked the Pharisees, for the benefit of the whole church of God, that they might no longer dazzle the eyes of simple men by empty show, or hold the body of the people under oppression by wicked tyranny. In this respect, it was a remarkable display of his firmness, that those, who were highly esteemed by others, were not spared on account of their reputation, but sternly reduced, as they deserved, to their proper rank. And thus ought all godly instructors to be zealous, not to dread any power of man, but boldly strive to “cast down every high thing that exalteth itself” against Christ, (2 Corinthians 10:5.)
If John, the organ of the Holy Spirit, employed such severity of language in his opening address to those who voluntarily came to be baptized, and to make a public profession of the gospel; how ought we now to act towards the avowed enemies of Christ, who not only reject obstinately all that belongs to sound doctrine, but whose efforts to extinguish the name of Christ are violently maintained by fire and sword? Most certainly, if you compare the Pope, and his abominable clergy, with the Pharisees and Sadducees, the mildest possible way of dealing with them will be, to throw them all into one bundle. Those, whose ears are so delicate, that they cannot endure to have any bitter thing said against the Pope, must argue, not with us, but with the Spirit of God. Yet let godly teachers beware, lest, while they are influenced by holy zeal against the tyrants of the Church, they mingle with it the affections of the flesh. And as no vehemence, which is not regulated by the wisdom of the Spirit, can obtain the divine approbation, let them not only restrain their feelings, but surrender themselves to the Holy Spirit, and implore his guidance, that nothing may escape them through inadvertency. (264)
Offspring of vipers. He gives them this name, instead of simply calling them vipers, in order to expose the envenomed malice of the whole class: for he intended to condemn, not merely those few persons who were present, but the whole body, and to charge both sects with producing nothing but serpents. They had vehement disputes, no doubt, with each other: but all were agreed in despising God, in a wicked desire to rule, in hatred of sound doctrine, and in a disgusting mass of numerous crimes.
Who warned you? As he had suspicions of their repentance, he puts the question with doubt and wonder, if it be possible that they repent sincerely. In this way, he summons them to the inward tribunal of conscience, that they may thoroughly examine themselves, and, laying aside all flattery, may institute a severe investigation into their crimes. Wrath is put here, as in many other places, for the judgment of God: as when Paul says, “The law worketh wrath,” (Romans 4:15,) and “Give place to wraths (265) ”, (Romans 12:19.) He calls it the wrath to come, which hangs over their heads, that they may not indulge in their wonted carelessness. For, though the wrath of God overflows, and his chastisements strike, the whole world, hypocrites always entertain the hope that they will escape. To flee from the wrath of God, is here taken in a good sense, that is, to seek the means of appeasing God, that he may no longer be angry with us. For a good part of men, in order to escape the wrath of God, withdraw themselves from his guidance and authority. But all that the sinner gains by fleeing from God, is to provoke more and more the wrath of God against him.
(263) “ Davantage, tout le peuple avoit grand interest d'estre advertis quelles gens estoyent les Sadduciens et Pharisiens.” — “Besides, all the people had a deep interest in being warned what sort of people the Sadducees and Pharisees were.”
(264) “ Afin qu'il ne leur eschappe aucun mot inconsiderement, et a la volee;” — “that no word may escape them inconsiderately, and at random.”
(265) “ Il fait mention du temps avenir, parce que les hypocrites, tandis que Dieu les espargne, desprisent hardiment toutes ses menaces, et ne se resveillent jamais, sinon qu’il frappe dessus a grands coups.” — “He mentions the future, because hypocrites, so long as God spares them, despise boldly all his threatenings, and never awake, till he strikes them with heavy strokes.”
And the multitudes asked him. A true feeling of repentance produces in the mind of the poor sinner an eager desire to know what is the will or command of God. John’s reply explains, in a few words, the fruits worthy of repentance: for the world is always desirous to acquit itself of its duty to God by performing ceremonies; and there is nothing to which we are more prone, than to offer to God pretended worship, whenever he calls us to repentance. But what fruits does the Baptist here recommend? The duties of charity, and of the second Table of the Law: (272) not that God disregards the outward profession of godliness, and of his worship; but that this is a surer mark of distinction, and less frequently leads to mistakes. (273) For hypocrites labor strenuously to prove themselves worshippers of God by the performance of ceremonies, — paying no regard, however, to true righteousness: for they are either cruel to their neighbors, or addicted to falsehood and dishonesty.
It was therefore necessary to subject them to a more homely examination, (274) if they are just in their dealings with men, if they relieve the poor, if they are generous to the wretched, if they give liberally what the Lord has bestowed upon them. This is the reason why our Lord pronounces “judgment, mercy, and faith,” to be “ the weightier matters of the law, ” (Matthew 23:23,) and Scripture everywhere recommends “justice and judgment.” We must particularly observe, that the duties of charity are here mentioned, not because they are of higher value than the worship of God, but because they testify the piety of men, (275) so as to detect the hypocrisy of those who boast with the mouth what is far distant from the heart.
But it is asked, did John lay this injunction, in a literal sense, on all whom he was preparing to be Christ’s disciples, that they should not have two coats? We must observe, first, that this is the figure of speech which is called a Synecdoche, for under one example it comprehends a general rule. Hence it follows, that we must draw from it a meaning, which corresponds to the law of charity, as it is laid down by God: and that law is, that each person should give out of his abundance to supply the wants of the poor. God does not extort a tax, to be paid “grudgingly or of necessity” by those who, but for that necessity, would have chosen not to pay it: “for the Lord loveth a” willing and “cheerful giver,” (2 Corinthians 9:7.) I make this observation, because it is of great consequence for men to be convinced, that the portion of their wealth which they bestow in this manner is a sacrifice pleasing and of good savor to God, — that “with such sacrifices God is well pleased,” (Hebrews 13:16.)
Those who lay it down as a law, that no man must have any property of his own, not only make consciences to tremble, but overwhelm them with despair. With fanatics of this sort, who obstinately adhere to the literal meaning, it is not necessary that we should spend much time in refutation. If we are not allowed to have two coats, the same rule will apply to dishes, to salt-cellars, to shirts, and, in short, to all the furniture of a house. But the context makes it evident, that nothing was farther from John’s intention than to overthrow the order of a state. Hence we infer, that all that he enjoined on the rich was, that they should bestow on the poor, according to their own ability, what their necessity required.“
Consider to what extent the necessaries of life, which you enjoy abundantly, are wanted by your neighbors, that your abundance may be a supply for their want,” (2 Corinthians 8:14.)
But the more liberty that God allows us, we ought to be the more careful not to allow ourselves undue liberty. (276) Let the necessity of our brethren affect us powerfully, and let the bounty of God, which is in our hands, stimulate us to acts of kindness and generosity.
(272) “ Des ceuvres de charite comprises en la seconde Table de la Loy;” — “works of charity included in the second Table of the Law.”
(273) “ Non pas que Dieu ne requiere aussi une profession externe de son service et de la crainte de son nom, mais pource que l’autre partie est la marque la plus certaine pour cognoians, et, laquelle vrals on est le moins abuse.” — “Not that God does not require also an external profession of his service and of the fear of his name, but because the other part is the surest mark to know true penitents, and one in which there is less risk of deception.”
(274) “ C'est a dire, ou ils ne peuvent pas si aisement tromper.” — “That is to say, in which they cannot so easily deceive.”
(275) “ De la crainte de Dieu qui est en l'homme;” — “of the fear of God which is in man.”
(276) “ Cependant, tant plus Dieu nous traite doucement, et nous donne de liberte, tant plus faut-il que nous prenions garde a ne nous flatter ou lascher par trop la bride.” — “Yet the more gently God treats us, and the more liberty he gives us, so much the more ought we to take care not to flatter ourselves, or loose the bridle too much.”
. And the publicans (277) also came. The publicans are not only exhorted, in general terms, to repent, but the duties peculiar to their calling are demanded: for we know that, besides the general rule of the law, each person ought to consider what is required by the nature of the employment to which he has been called. All Christians, without distinction, “are taught of God to love one another,” (1 Thessalonians 4:9 :) but then there follow particular duties, which a teacher, for example, is bound to perform towards the Church, — a magistrate or prince towards the people, and the people, on the other hand, towards the magistrate, — a husband towards his wife, and a wife towards her husband, — and finally, children and parents toward each other. The Publicans, viewed as a class, were covetous, rapacious, and cruel, and often oppressed the people by unjust exactions. In consequence of this, the Baptist reproves them for those offenses, with which that class was, for the most part, chargeable, when he commands them not to go beyond moderation in exacting tribute. At the same time, we draw this inference, that it is quite as lawful for a Christian man to receive or levy taxes, as for a magistrate to impose them.
In the same way we must judge about war. John does not order the soldiers to throw away their arms, and to relinquish their oath; but he forbids them to pillage the wretched people under the pretense of their duty as soldiers, to bring false accusations against the innocent, and to be guilty of extortions, — all of which crimes the greater part of them were accustomed to practice. These words obviously contain an approbation of civil government. It is a piece of idle sophistry to say, that John’s hearers were ignorant people, and that he gave them nothing more than elementary instructions, which fell very far short of Christian perfection. John’s office was, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord, (Luke 1:17) and there is no doubt that it was entirely and faithfully performed. Those men are guilty of calumny and sacrilege, who slander the Gospel, by declaring it to be opposed to human governments; (278) as if Christ destroyed what his heavenly Father sanctioned. But, without the sword, laws are dead, and legal judgments have no force or authority. Magistrates require not only an executioner, (279) but other attendants, among whom are the military, (280) without whose assistance and agency it is impossible to maintain peace. Still, the object must be considered. Princes must not allow themselves to sport with human blood, nor must soldiers give themselves up to cruelty, from a desire of gain, as if slaughter were their chief business: but both must be drawn to it by necessity, and by a regard to public advantage.
(277) “ Peagets;” — “tax-gatherers.”
(278) “ Qui veulent faire accroire qu'elle n'a rouve point les principautes, empires et gouvernements qui sont entre les hornroes; — “who wish to make it believed that it does not approve of the principalities, empires, and governments, which exist among men.”
(279) “ Un bourreau;” — “a hangman.”
(280) “ Les gendarmes.”
. Now Herod the tetrarch. Luke alone explains the reason why Herod threw John into prison: though we shall afterwards find it mentioned by Matthew 14:3, and Mark 6:17. Josephus says, (Ant. 18, v. 2,) that Herod, dreading a popular insurrection and a change of the government, shut up John in the castle of Macherus, (because he dreaded the man’s influence;) (318) and that Herodias was married, not to Philip, who was Salome’s husband, but to another Herod. But as his recollection appears to have failed him in this matter, and as he mentions also Philip’s death out of its proper place, the truth of the history will be obtained, with greater certainty, from the Evangelists, and we must abide by their testimony. (319) It is well known, that Herod, though he had been married to a daughter of Aretas, King of Arabia, fell in love with Herodias, his niece, and carried her off by fraud. This injury might possibly enough remain unrevenged by his brother Philip, to whom the same Josephus bears testimony, that he was a person of a mild and gentle disposition, (18:4:6.)
This history shows clearly, what sort of reward awaits the faithful and honest ministers of the truth, particularly when they reprove vices: for scarcely one in a hundred bears reproof, and if it is at all severe, they break out into fury. If pride of this sort displays itself in some of the common people, we have no reason to wonder, that cruelty to reprovers assumes a more hideous form in tyrants, (320) who brook nothing worse than to be classed with other men. We behold in John an illustrious example of that moral courage, which all pious teachers ought to possess, not to hesitate to incur the wrath of the great and powerful, as often as it may be found necessary: for he, with whom there is acceptance of persons, does not honestly serve God. When Luke says, he added this to all the evil actions which he did, he means, that Herod’s malice is become desperate, and has reached its utmost height, when the sinner is enraged by remedies, and not only refuses correction, but takes vengeance on his adviser, as if he had been his enemy.
(318) “ Pource qu'il savoit que c'estoit un homme de grande authorite envers le peuple, et pourtant se dutoit de luy.” — “Because he knew that he was a man of great authority among the people, and therefore had doubts about him."
(319) The solution usually given, we believe, for this apparent discrepancy, is, that the name of the person in question was Herod-Philip. — Ed.
(320) “ Les rois, princes, et grans tyrans.” — “Kings, princes, and great tyrants.”
This was also the reason why he delayed his baptism till the thirtieth year of his age, (Luke 3:23.) Baptism was an appendage to the Gospel: and therefore it began at the same time with the preaching of the Gospel. When Christ was preparing to preach the Gospel, he was introduced by Baptism into his office; and at the same time was endued with the Holy Spirit. When John beholds the Holy Spirit descending upon Christ, it is to remind him, that nothing carnal or earthly must be expected in Christ, but that he comes as a godlike man, (297) descended from heaven, in whom the power of the Holy Spirit reigns. We know, indeed, that he is God manifested in the flesh, (1 Timothy 3:16 :) but even in his character as a servant, and in his human nature, there is a heavenly power to be considered.
The second question is, why did the Holy Spirit appear in the shape of a dove, rather than in that of fire ? The answer depends on the analogy, or resemblance between the figure and the thing represented. We know what the prophet Isaiah ascribes to Christ.“
He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street. A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench,” (Isaiah 42:2.)
On account of this mildness of Christ, by which he kindly and gently called, and every day invites, sinners to the hope of salvation, the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the appearance of a dove And in this symbol has been held out to us an eminent token of the sweetest consolation, that we may not fear to approach to Christ, who meets us, not in the formidable power of the Spirit, but clothed with gentle and lovely grace.
He saw the Spirit of God That is, John saw: for it immediately follows, that the Spirit descended on Christ There now arises a third question, how could John see the Holy Spirit? I reply: As the Spirit of God is everywhere present, and fills heaven and earth, he is not said, in a literal sense, to descend, and the same observation may be made as to his appearance. Though he is in himself invisible, yet he is spoken of as beheld, when he exhibits any visible sign of his presence. John did not see the essence of the Spirit, which cannot be discerned by the senses of men; (298) nor did he see his power, which is not beheld by human senses, but only by the understanding of faith: but he saw the appearance of a dove, under which God showed the presence of his Spirit. It is a figure of speech, (299) by which the sign is put for the thing signified, the name of a spiritual object being applied to the visible sign.
While it is foolish and improper to press, as some do, the literal meaning, so as to include both the sign and the thing signified, we must observe, that the connection subsisting between the sign and the thing signified is denoted by these modes of expression. In this sense, the bread of the Lord’s Supper is called the body of Christ, (1 Corinthians 10:16 :) not because it is so, but because it assures us, that the body of Christ is truly given to us for food. Meanwhile, let us bear in mind what I have just mentioned, that we must not imagine a descent of the thing signified, so as to seek it in the sign, as if it had a bodily place there, but ought to be abundantly satisfied with the assurance, that God grants, by his secret power, all that he holds out to us by figures.
Another question more curious than useful has been put. Was this dove a solid body, or the appearance of one? Though the words of Luke seem to intimate that it was not the substance of a body, but only a bodily appearance; yet, lest I should afford to any man an occasion of wrangling, I leave the matter unsettled.
(297) “ Un homme rempli de Dieu;” — “a man filled with God.”
(298) “ A parler proprement, il ne descend point, et semblablement ne peut estre veu.” — “Strictly speaking, he does not descend, and in like manner he cannot be seen.”
(299) “ C'est une maniere de parler par Metonymie, (ainsi que parlent les gens de lettres.”)—”It is a way of speaking by Metonymy, (as learned people talk.”)
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Calvin, John. "Commentary on Luke 3". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29