Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 31: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
76. And thou, child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest. for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways, 77. To give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins: 78. Through the bowels of the mercy of our God, by which the Eastern sky 79 hath visited us, 79. That he might give light to those who were sitting in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. 80. And the child grew, and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel.
76. And thou, child Zacharias again returns to commend the grace of Christ, but does this, as it were, in the person of his son, by describing briefly the office to which he had been appointed as an instructor. Though in a little infant eight days old he does not yet observe prophetical endowments, yet turning his eyes to the purpose of God, he speaks of it as a thing already known. To be called means here to be considered and openly acknowledged as the prophet of God. A secret calling of God had already taken place. It only remained that the nature of that calling should be manifested to men. But as the name Prophet is general, Zacharias, following the revelation brought to him by the angel, affirms that he would be the usher 80 or herald of Christ. He says, thou shalt go before the face of the Lord: that is, thou shalt discharge the office of turning men by thy preaching to hear the Lord. The reason why John, when he had nearly finished his course, affirmed that he was not a prophet of God, is explained by me at the proper place, (Joh 1:21,) and in what manner he was to prepare his ways we shall afterwards see.
77. To give knowledge of salvation Zacharias now touches the principal subject of the gospel, when he says that the knowledge of salvation consists in the forgiveness of sins. As we are all “by nature the children of wraths” (Eph 2:3,) it follows, that we are by nature condemned and ruined: and the ground of our condemnation is, that we are chargeable with unrighteousness. There is, therefore, no other provision for escaping eternal death 81 but by God
“reconciling us unto himself, not imputing our trespasses unto us,”
That this is the only righteousness which remains to us before God, may be easily gathered from the words of Zacharias. For whence comes salvation, but from righteousness? But if the children of God have no other way of obtaining the knowledge of salvation except through the forgiveness of sins, it follows, that righteousness must not be sought in any other quarter. Proud men attempt to forge and manufacture a righteousness out of the merits of good works. True righteousness is nothing else than the imputation of righteousness, when God, out of free grace, acquits us from guilt. Besides, it ought to be observed that Zacharias is not speaking of “strangers from the covenants of promise,” (Eph 2:12) but of the people of God. Hence it follows, that not only does the commencement of righteousness depend on the forgiveness of sins, but it is by imputation 82 that believers are righteous before God to the very end: for they cannot appear before his tribunal in any other way than by betaking themselves daily to a free reconciliation.
78. Through the bowels 83 of mercy In so great a benefit Zacharias justly extols the mercy of God, and not satisfied with merely calling it the salvation which was brought by Christ, he employs more emphatic language, and says that it proceeded from the very bowels of the mercy of God. He then tells us metaphorically, that the great mercy of God has made the day to give light to those who were sitting in darkness Oriens, in the Latin version of this passage, is not a participle: for the Greek word is ἀνατολή, that is, the Eastern region, as contrasted with the West. Zacharias extols the mercy of God, as manifested in dispelling the darkness of death, and restoring to the people of God the light of life. In this way, whenever our salvation is the subject, we ought to raise our minds to the contemplation of the divine mercy. There appears to be an allusion to a prediction of Malachi, in which Christ is called “the Sun of Righteousness,” and is said to “arise with healing in his wing,” (Mal 4:2,) that is, to bring health in his rays.
79. That he might give light to those who were sitting in darkness As to light and darkness, there are similar modes of expression in Isaiah: such as,
“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined,”
and in many other passages. These words show, that out of Christ there is no life-giving light in the world, but every thing is covered by the appalling darkness of death. Thus, in another passage, Isaiah testifies that this privilege belongs peculiarly to the church alone.
“Behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee,”
But how could it be said that the Israelites, on whose hearts the Lord always shone by faith, were sitting in the shadow of death? I reply, the godly, who lived under the law were surrounded on every side by the darkness of death, and beheld at a distance, in the coming of Christ, the light that cheered and preserved them from being overwhelmed by present death. Zacharias may have had in view the wretched condition of his own age. But it is a general truth, that on all the godly, who had ever lived, or who were afterwards to live, there arose in the coming of Christ a light to impart life: for it even diffused life over the dead. To sit is of the same import as to lie: 84 and so Isaiah enjoins the Church, “Arise, for thy light is come,” (Isa 60:1.)
To guide our feet By this expression Zacharias points out, that the highest perfection of all excellence and happiness is to be found in Christ alone. The word Peace might indeed be taken in its literal sense, which would not be unsuitable: for the illumination brought by Christ tends to pacify the minds of men. But as the Hebrew word שלום, peace, denotes every kind of prosperity, Zacharias intended, I doubt not, to represent Christ as the author of perfect blessedness, that we may not seek the smallest portion of happiness elsewhere, but may rest on Christ alone, from a full conviction that in him we are entirely and completely happy. To this purpose are those words of Isaiah,
“The sun shall be no more thy light by day, neither for brightness shall the moon give light unto thee: but the Lord shall be unto thee an everlasting light, and thy God thy glory,” (Isa 60:19.)
But if the mere sight of his Son, while still a child, led Zacharias to discourse in so lofty a strain respecting the grace and power of Christ, before he was born, are not they so much the more ungrateful, who, now that Christ has died, and risen, and ascended to heaven, and sat down at his Father’s right hand, speak disrespectfully of him and of his power, to which the Holy Spirit bore testimony, while he was still in his mother’s womb? We must bear in mind what I have already mentioned, that Zacharias spake not from himself, but that the Spirit of God directed his tongue.
And the child grew This is added by Luke for continuing the thread of the history. First, he mentions that John became strong in spirit: which implies that the great and uncommon excellence of the child gave proof that there dwelt in him a Heavenly Spirit. Next, he tells us, that John remained unknown in the deserts till the day of his showing, that is, till the day on which the Lord had pur-posed to bring him into public view. Hence we conclude, that John, though he was fully aware of his calling, made no advances before the appointed time, but awaited the call of God.
“Oriens ex alto.”
“Apparitorem.” — “Heraut.”
“Mortis;” — “La mort mortelle.”
“Imputative, ut italoquar.” — “Par imputation, c'est a dire, d'autant que la justice de Christ laur est imputee.” — “By imputation, that is to say, in so far as the righteousnes of Christ is imputed to them”
“Par les entrailles de la misericorde, ou, par l'affection misericordieuse.” — “By the bowels of mercy, or, by the merciful affection.”
“Estre assis emporte autant comme estre couch, ou veautre.”— “To sit is of the same import as to be lying or wallowing.”