Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 31: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
14. And he shall be to thee joy and exultation, and many shall rejoice on account of his birth. 15. For he shall be great before the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb. 16. And many of the children of Israel shall he bring back to the Lord their God. 17. And he shall go before him with the spirit and power of Elijah, that he may bring back the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that he may make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
14. He shall be to thee joy The angel describes a greater joy than what Zacharias could derive from the recent birth of a child; for he informs him that he would have such a son as he had not even ventured to wish. He even proceeds farther to state that the joy would not be domestic, enjoyed by the parents alone, or confined within private walls, but shared alike by strangers, to whom the advantage of his birth should be made known. It is as if the angel had said that a son would be born not to Zacharias alone, but would be the Teacher and Prophet of the whole people. The Papists have abused this passage for the purpose of introducing a profane custom in celebrating the birth-day of John. I pass over the disorderly scene of a procession accompanied by dancing and leaping, and licentiousness of every description, strangely enough employed in observing a day which they pretend to hold sacred, and even the amusements authorized on that day taken from magical arts and diabolical tricks, closely resembling the mysteries of the goddess Ceres. It is enough for me, at present, to show briefly that they absurdly torture the words of the angel to mean the annual joy of a birth-day, while the angel restricts his commendation to that joy which all godly persons would derive from the advantage of his instruction. They rejoiced that a prophet was born to them, by whose ministry they were led to the hope of salvation,
15. For he shall be great He confirms what he said about joy, for John had been selected for a great and extraordinary purpose. These words are not so much intended to extol his eminent virtues as to proclaim his great and glorious office; as Christ, when he declares that among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist, (Mt 11:11,) refers less to the holiness of his life than to his ministry. What follows immediately afterwards, he shall drink neither wine nor strong drink, must not be understood to mean that John’s abstemiousness was a singular virtue, but that God was pleased to distinguish his servant by this visible token, by which the world would acknowledge him to be a continual Nazarite. The priests too abstained from wine and strong drink, while they were performing their duties in the temple, (Le 10:9.) The same abstinence was enjoined on the Nazarites, (Nu 6:3,) until their vow should be fulfilled. By a striking mark God showed that John was dedicated to him to be a Nazarite for his whole life, as we learn was also the case with Samson, (Judg. 13:3, 4.) But we must not on this ground imagine that the worship of God consists in abstinence from wine, as apish copyists select some part of the actions of the fathers for an object of imitation. Only let all practice temperance, let those who conceive it to be injurious to drink wine abstain of their own accord, and let those who have it not endure the want with contentment. As to the word σίκερα, I fully agree with those who think that, like the Hebrew word שכר, it denotes any sort of manufactured wine.
He shall be filled with the Holy Ghost These words, I think, convey nothing more than that John would manifest such a disposition as would hold out the hope of future greatness. By disposition I mean not such as is found even in ungodly men, but what corresponds to the excellence of his office. The meaning is, the power and grace of the Spirit will appear in him not only when he shall enter upon his public employment, but even from the womb he shall excel in the gifts of the Spirit, which will be a token and pledge of his future character. From the womb, means from his earliest infancy. The power of the Spirit, I acknowledge, did operate in John, while he was yet in his mother’s womb; but here, in my opinion, the angel meant something else, that John, even when a child, would be brought forward to the public gaze, accompanied by extraordinary commendation of the grace of God. As to fullness, there is no occasion for entering into the subtle disputations, or rather the trifling, of the sophists; for Scripture conveys nothing more by this word than the pre-eminent and very uncommon abundance of the gifts of the Spirit. We know, that to Christ alone the Spirit was given without measure, (Joh 3:34,) that we may draw out of his fullness, (Joh 1:16;) while to others it is distributed according to a fixed measure, (1Co 12:11; Eph 4:7.) But those who are more plentifully endued with grace beyond the ordinary capacity, are said to be full of the Holy Ghost. Now, as the more plentiful influence of the Spirit was in John an extraordinary gift of God, it ought to be observed that the Spirit is not bestowed on all from their very infancy, but only when it pleases God. John bore from the womb a token of future rank. Saul, while tending the herd, remained long without any mark of royalty, and, when at length chosen to be king, was suddenly turned into another man, (1Sa 10:6.) Let us learn by this example that, from the earliest infancy to the latest old age, the operation of the Spirit in men is free.
16. And many of the children of Israel shall he bring back These words show the shamefully dissolute conduct which then prevailed in the Church, for those in whom conversion to God could take place must have been apostates. And certainly corrupt doctrine, depraved morals, and disorderly government, were such as to render it next to a miracle that a very few continued in godliness. But if the ancient Church was so awfully dissolute, it is a frivolous pretext by which the Papists defend their own superstitions, that it is impossible for the Church to err, particularly since they include under this designation not the genuine and elect children of God, but the crowd of the ungodly.
But John appears to have more ascribed to him here than belongs to man. For conversion to God renews men to a spiritual fife, and therefore is not only God’s own work, but surpasses even the creation of men. In this way ministers might seem to be made equal, and even superior, to God viewed as Creator; since to be born again to a heavenly life is a greater work than to be born as mortals on the earth. The answer is easy; for when the Lord bestows so great praise on the outward doctrine, he does not separate it from the secret influence of his Spirit. As God chooses men to be his ministers whose services he employs for the edification of his Church, he at the same time operates by them, through the secret influence of his Spirit, that their labors may be efficacious and fruitful. Wherever Scripture applauds this efficacy in the ministry of men, let us learn to attribute it to the grace of the Spirit, without which the voice of man would have spent itself uselessly in the air. Thus, when Paul boasts that he is a minister of the Spirit, (2Co 3:6,) he claims nothing separately for himself, as if by his voice he penetrated into the hearts of men, but asserts the power and grace of the Spirit in his ministry. These expressions are worthy of remark; because Satan labors, with amazing contrivance, to lower the effect of doctrine, in order that the grace of the Spirit connected with it may be weakened. The outward preaching, I acknowledge, can do nothing separately or by itself; but as it is an instrument of divine power for our salvation, and through the grace of the spirit an efficacious instrument, what God hath joined together let us not put asunder, (Mt 19:6.)
That the glory of conversion and faith, on the other hand, may remain undivided with God alone, Scripture frequently reminds us that ministers are nothing in themselves; but in such cases he compares them with God, that no one may wickedly steal the honor from God and convey it to them. In short, those whom God, by the aid of the minister, converts to himself, are said to be converted by the minister, because he is nothing more than the hand of God; and both are expressly asserted in this passage. Of the efficacy of the doctrine we have now said enough. That it lies not in the will and power of the minister to bring men back to God, we conclude from this that John did not indiscriminately bring all back, (which he would unquestionably have done, if every thing had yielded to his wish,) but only brought those back whom it pleased the Lord effectually to call. In a word, what is here taught by the angel is laid down by Paul in his Epistle to the Romans, that faith cometh by hearing, (Ro 10:17,) but that those only to whom the Lord inwardly reveals his arm (Isa 53:1; Joh 12:38) are so enlightened as to believe.
17. And he shall go before him By these words he points out what would be John’s office, and distinguishes him by this mark from the other prophets, who received a certain and peculiar commission, while John was sent for the sole object of going before Christ, as a herald before a king. Thus also the Lord speaks by Malachi,
“Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me,”
In short, the calling of John had no other design than to secure for Christ a willing ear, and to prepare for him disciples. As to the angel making no express mention of Christ in this passage, but declaring John to be the usher or standard-bearer of the eternal God, we learn from it the eternal divinity of Christ. With the spirit and power of Elijah By the words spirit and power, I understand the power or excellency of the Spirit, with which Elijah was endued; for we must not here indulge in a dream like that of Pythagoras, that the soul of the prophet passed into the body of John, but the same Spirit of God, who had acted efficaciously in Elijah, afterwards exerted a similar power and efficacy in the Baptist. The latter term, power, is added, by way of exposition, to denote the kind of grace which was the loftiest distinction of Elijah, that, furnished with heavenly power, he restored in a wonderful manner the decayed worship of God; for such a restoration was beyond human ability. What John undertook was not less astonishing; and, therefore, we ought not to wonder if it was necessary for him to enjoy the same gift.
That he may bring back the hearts of the fathers Here the angel points out the chief resemblance between John and Elijah. He declares that he was sent to collect the scattered people into the unity of faith: for to bring back the hearts of the fathers is to restore them from discord to reconciliation; from which it follows, that there had been some division which rent and tore asunder the people. We know how dreadful was the revolt of the people in the time of Elijah, how basely they had degenerated from the fathers, so as hardly to deserve to be reckoned the children of Abraham. Those who were thus disunited Elijah brought into holy harmony. Such was the reunion of parents with children, which was begun by John, and at length finished by Christ. Accordingly, when Malachi speaks of “turning the hearts of the fathers to the children,” (Mal 4:5,) he intimates that the Church would be in a state of confusion when another Elijah should appear; and what was that state is plain enough from history, and will more fully appear in the proper place. The doctrine of Scripture had degenerated through countless inventions, the worship of God was corrupted by very gross superstition, religion was divided into various sects, priests were openly wicked and Epicureans, the people indulged in every kind of wickedness; in short, nothing remained sound. The expression, bring back the hearts of the fathers to the children, is not literally true; for it was rather the children who had broken the covenant and departed from the right faith of their fathers, that needed to be brought back But though the Evangelist does not so literally express that order of bringing back, the meaning is abundantly obvious, that, by the instrumentality of John, God would again unite in holy harmony those who had previously been disunited. Both clauses occur in the prophet Malachi, who meant nothing more than to express a mutual agreement.
But as men frequently enter into mutual conspiracies which drive them farther from God, the angel explains, at the same time, the nature of that bringing back which he predicts, the disobedient to the wisdom of the just. This deserves attention, that we may not foolishly allow ourselves to be classed with ungodly men under a false pretense of harmony. Peace is a sounding and imposing term, and, whenever the Papists meet with it in scripture, they eagerly seize upon it for the purpose of raising dislike against us, as if we, who are endeavoring to withdraw the world from its base revolt, and bring it back to Christ, were the authors of divisions. But this passage affords a fine exposure of their folly, when the angel explains the manner of a genuine and proper conversion; and declares its support and link to be the wisdom of the just Accursed then be the peace and unity by which men agree among themselves apart from God.
By the wisdom of the just is unquestionably meant Faith, as, on the contrary, by the disobedient are meant Unbelievers. And certainly this is a remarkable encomium on faith, by which we are instructed, that then only are we truly wise unto righteousness when we obey the word of the Lord. The world too has its wisdom, but a perverse and therefore destructive wisdom, which is ever pronounced to be vanity; though the angel indirectly asserts that the shadowy wisdom, in which the children of the world delight, is depraved and accursed before God. This is therefore a settled point, that, with the view of becoming reconciled to each other, men ought first to return to peace with God.
What immediately follows about making ready a people prepared for the Lord, agrees with that clause, that John, as the herald of Christ, would go before his face, (Mal 3:1;) for the design of his preaching was to make the people attentive to hear the instruction of Christ. The Greek participle κατεσκευασμένον, it is true, does not so properly mean perfection as the form and adaptation by which things are fitted for their use. This meaning will not agree ill with the present passage. John was commissioned to fit or mould to Christ a people which, formerly ignorant and uneducated, had never shown a desire to learn.