Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 31: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
MATTHEW 5:1-12; LUKE 6:20-26
1. And when Jesus had seen the multitudes, 357 he went up into a mountain, and when he had sat down, his disciples approached to him. 2. And opening his mouth, 358 he taught them, saying, 3. Happy are the poor in spirit: for their is the kingdom of heaven. 4. Happy are they who mourn: for they shall receive consolation. 5. Happy are the mmek: for they shall receive the earth by inheritance. 359 6. Happy are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be satisfied. 7. Happy are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. 360 8. Happy are those who are of a pure heart: for they shall see God. 9. Happy are the peace-makers: for they shall be called the children of God. 10. Happy are those who suffer persecution on account of righteousness: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11. Happy are you, when they shall throw reproaches on you, and shall persecute you, and lying, shall speak every evil word against you on my account. 12. Rejoice ye, and leap for joy: for your reward is great in heaven: for so did they persecute the prophets who were before you.
20. And he, lifting up his eyes on the disciples, said, Happy (are ye) poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. 21. Happy are ye who hunger now: for ye shall be satisfied. Happy are ye who weep now: for ye shall laugh. 22. Happy shall ye be when men shall hate you, and shall separate you, and shall load you with reproaches, and shall cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man. 23. Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, lo, your reward is great in heaven: for according to these things their fathers did to the prophets. 24. But woe to you (who are) rich: for you have your consolation. 25. Woe to you who are filled: for you shall hunger. Woe to you who laugh now: for ye shall mourn and weep. 26. Woe to you, when all men shall applaud you: for according to these things their fathers did to the false prophets.
Matthew 5:1. He went up into a mountain. Those who think that Christ’s sermon, which is here related, is different from the sermon contained in the sixth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, rest their opinion on a very light and frivolous argument. Matthew states, that Christ spoke to his disciples on a mountain, while Luke seems to say, that the discourse was delivered on a plain. But it is a mistake to read the words of Luke, he went down with them, and stood in the plain, (Lu 6:17,) as immediately connected with the statement that, lifting up his eyes on the disciples, he spoke thus. For the design of both Evangelists was, to collect into one place the leading points of the doctrine of Christ, which related to a devout and holy life. Although Luke had previously mentioned a plain, he does not observe the immediate succession of events in the history, but passes from miracles to doctrine, without pointing out either time or place: just as Matthew takes no notice of the time, but only mentions the place. It is probable, that this discourse was not delivered until Christ had chosen the twelve: but in attending to the order of time, which I saw that the Spirit of God had disregarded, I did not wish to be too precise. Pious and modest readers ought to be satisfied with having a brief summary of the doctrine of Christ placed before their eyes, collected out of his many and various discourses, the first of which was that in which he spoke to his disciples about true happiness.
2. Opening his mouth. This redundancy of expression (πλεονασμὸς) partakes of the Hebrew idiom: for what would be faulty in other languages is frequent among the Hebrews, to say, He opened his mouth, instead of, He began to speak. Many look upon it as an emphatic mode of expression, employed to draw attention to any thing important and remarkable, either in a good or bad sense, which has been uttered: but as some passages of Scripture countenance an opposite view, I prefer the former exposition. I shall also dismiss the ingenious speculation of those, who give an allegorical turn to the fact of our Lord teaching his disciples on a mountain, as if it had been intended to teach them to elevate their minds far above worldly cares and employments. In ascending the mountain, his design rather was to seek a retreat, where he might obtain relaxation for himself and his disciples at a distance from the multitude.
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. 361 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 any thing imaginary, — as the Stoics 362 were wont, in ancient times, to amuse themselves with their paradoxes, — 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 those are not unhappy who are oppressed by the reproaches of the wicked, and subject to various calamities. And not only does Christ prove that they are in the wrong, who measure the happiness of man by the present state, because 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.
3. Happy are the poor in spirit. Luke 6:20. Happy (are ye) poor. Luke gives nothing more than a simple metaphor: but as the poverty of many is accursed and unhappy, Matthew expresses more clearly the intention of Christ. Many are pressed down by distresses, and yet continue to swell inwardly with pride and cruelty. But Christ pronounces those to be happy who, chastened and subdued by afflictions, submit themselves wholly to God, and, with inward humility, betake themselves to him for protection. Others explain the poor in spirit to be those who claim nothing for themselves, and are even so completely emptied of confidence in the flesh, that they acknowledge their poverty. But as the words of Luke and those of Matthew must have the same meaning, there can be no doubt that the appellation poor is here given to those who are pressed and afflicted by adversity. The only difference is, that Matthew, by adding an epithet, confines the happiness to those only who, under the discipline of the cross, have learned to be humble.
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. We see that Christ does not swell the minds of his own people by any unfounded belief, or harden them by unfeeling obstinacy, as the Stoics do, but leads them to entertain the hope of eternal life, and animates them to patience by assuring them, that in this way they will pass into the heavenly kingdom of God. It deserves our attention, that he only who is reduced to nothing in himself, and relies on the mercy of God, is poor in spirit: for they who are broken or overwhelmed by despair murmur against God, and this proves them to be of a proud and haughty spirit.
4. Happy are they that mourn. This statement is closely connected with the preceding one, and is a sort of appendage or confirmation of it. The ordinary belief is, that calamities render a man unhappy. This arises from the consideration, that they constantly bring along with them mourning and grief. Now, nothing is supposed to be more inconsistent with happiness than mourning. But Christ does not merely affirm that mourners are not unhappy. He shows, that their very mourning contributes to a happy life, by preparing them to receive eternal joy, and by furnishing them with excitements to seek true comfort in God alone. Accordingly, Paul says,
“We glory in tribulations also knowing that tribulation produces patience, and patience experience, and experience hope: and hope maketh not ashamed,” (Ro 5:3-5.)
5. Happy are the meek By the meek he means persons of mild and gentle dispositions, who are not easily provoked by injuries, who are not ready to take offense, but are prepared to endure anything rather than do the like actions to wicked men. When Christ promises to such persons the inheritance of the earth, we might think it exceedingly foolish. Those who warmly repel any attacks, and whose hand is ever ready to revenge injuries, are rather the persons who claim for themselves the dominion of the earth. And experience certainly shows that, the more mildly their wickedness is endured, the more bold and insolent does it become. Hence arises the diabolical proverb, that “We must howl with the wolves, because the wolves will immediately devour every one who makes himself a sheep.” But Christ places his own protection, and that of the Father, in contrast with the fury and violence of wicked men, and declares, on good grounds, that the meek will be the lords and heirs of the earth The children of this world never think themselves safe, but when they fiercely revenge the injuries that are done them, and defend their life by the “weapons of war,” (Eze 32:27.) But as we must believe, that Christ alone is the guardian of our life, all that remains for us is to “hide ourselves under the shadow of his wings,” (Ps 17:8.) We must be sheep, if we wish to be reckoned a part of his flock.
It will perhaps be objected, that what has been now said is contradicted by experience. I would first suggest that it be considered, how greatly ferocious 363 people are disturbed by their own restlessness. While they lead so stormy a life, though they were a hundred times lords of the earth, while they possess all, they certainly possess nothing. For the children of God, on the other hand, I answer, that though they may not plant their foot on what is their own, they enjoy a quiet residence on the earth. And this is no imaginary possession; 364 for they know, that the earth, which they inhabit, has been granted to them by God. Besides, the hand of God is interposed to protect them against the violence and fury of wicked men. Though exposed to every species of attack, subject to the malice of wicked men, surrounded by all kinds of danger, they are safe under the divine protection. They have already a foretaste, at least, of this grace of God; and that is enough for them, till they enter, at the last day, into the possession of the inheritance 365 of the world.
6. Happy are they who hunger To hunger and thirst is here, I think, used as a figurative expression, 366 and means to suffer poverty, to want the necessaries of life, and even to be defrauded of one’s right. Matthew says, who thirst after righteousness, and thus makes one class stand for all the rest. He represents more strongly the unworthy treatment which they have received, when he says that, though they are anxious, though they groan, they desire nothing but what is proper. “Happy are they who, though their wishes are so moderate, that they desire nothing to be granted to them but what is reasonable, are yet in a languishing condition, like persons who are famishing with hunger.” Though their distressing anxiety exposes them to the ridicule of others, yet it is a certain preparation for happiness: for at length they shall be satisfied God will one day listen to their groans, and satisfy their just desires for to Him, as we learn from the song of the Virgin, it belongs to fill the hungry with good things, (Lu 1:53.)
7. Happy are the merciful This paradox, too, contradicts the judgment of men. 367 The world reckons those men to be happy, who give themselves no concern about the distresses of others, but consult their own ease. Christ says that those are happy, who are not only prepared to endure their own afflictions, but to take a share in the afflictions of others, — who assist the wretched, — who willingly take part with those who are in distress, — who clothe themselves, as it were, with the same affections, that they may be more readily disposed to render them assistance. He adds, for they shall obtain mercy, — not only with God, but also among men, whose minds God will dispose to the exercise of humanity. 368 Though the whole world may sometimes be ungrateful, and may return the very worst reward to those who have done acts of kindness to them, it ought to be reckoned enough, that grace is laid up with God for the merciful and humane, so that they, in their turn, will find him to be gracious and merciful, (Ps. 103:8, Ps. 145:8.)
8. Happy are they who are of a pure heart We might be apt to think, that what is here stated by Christ is in accordance with the judgment of all. Purity of heart is universally acknowledged to be the mother of all virtues. And yet there is hardly one person in a hundred, who does not put craftiness in the place of the greatest virtue. Hence those persons are commonly accounted happy, whose ingenuity is exercised in the successful practice of deceit, who gain dexterous advantages, by indirect means, over those with whom they have intercourse. Christ does not at all agree with carnal reason, when he pronounces those to be happy, who take no delight in cunning, but converse sincerely with men, and express nothing, by word or look, which they do not feel in their heart. Simple people are ridiculed for want of caution, and for not looking sharply enough to themselves. But Christ directs them to higher views, and bids them consider that, if they have not sagacity to deceive in this world, they will enjoy the sight of God in heaven.
9. Happy are the peacemakers By peacemakers he means those who not only seek peace and avoid quarrels, as far as lies in their power, but who also labor to settle differences among others, who advise all men to live at peace, and take away every occasion of hatred and strife. There are good grounds for this statement. As it is a laborious and irksome employment to reconcile those who are at variance, persons of a mild disposition, who study to promote peace, are compelled to endure the indignity of hearing reproaches, complaints, and remonstrances on all sides. The reason is, that every one would desire to have advocates, who would defend his cause. That we may not depend on the favor of men, Christ bids us look up to the judgment of his Father, who is the God of peace, (Ro 15:33,) and who accounts us his children, while we cultivate peace, though our endeavors may not be acceptable to men: for to be called means To Be Accounted the children of God
10. Happy are they who suffer persecution The disciples of Christ have very great need of this instruction; and the more hard and disagreeable it is for the flesh to admit it, the more earnestly ought we to make it the subject of our meditation. We cannot be Christ’s soldiers 369 on any other condition, than to have the greater part of the world rising in hostility against us, and pursuing us even to death. The state of the matter is this. Satan, the prince of the world, will never cease to fill his followers with rage, to carry on hostilities against the members of Christ. It is, no doubt, monstrous and unnatural, that men, who study to live a righteous life, should be attacked and tormented in a way which they do not deserve. And so Peter says,
“Who is he that will harm you,
if ye be followers of that which is good?”
Yet, in consequence of the unbridled wickedness of the world, it too frequently happens, that good men, through a zeal of righteousness, arouse against them the resentments of the ungodly. Above all, it is, as we may say, the ordinary lot of Christians to be hated by the majority of men: for the flesh cannot endure the doctrine of the Gospel; none can endure to have their vices reproved.
Who suffer on account of righteousness This is descriptive of those who inflame the hatred, and provoke the rage, of wicked men against them, because, through an earnest desire to do what is good and right, they oppose bad causes and defend good ones, as far as lies in their power. Now, in this respect, the truth of God justly holds the first rank. Accordingly, by this mark Christ distinguishes his own martyrs from criminals and malefactors.
I now return to what I said a little before, that as, all that will live godly in Christ Jesus “(Paul informs us), shall suffer persecution,” (2Ti 3:12,) this admonition has a general reference to all the godly. But if, at any time, the Lord spares our weakness, and does not permit the ungodly to torment us as they would desire, yet, during the season of repose and leisure, it is proper for us to meditate on this doctrine, that we may be ready, whenever it shall be necessary, to enter the field, and may not engage in the contest till we have been well prepared. As the condition of the godly, during the whole course of this life, is very miserable, Christ properly calls them to the hope of the heavenly life. And here lies the main difference between Christ’s paradox and the ravings of the Stoics, who ordered that every man should be satisfied in his own mind, and should be the author of his own happiness: while Christ does not suspend our happiness on a vain imagination, but rests it on the hope of a future reward.
11. When they shall cast reproaches on you Luke 6:22 When men shall hate you, and separate you, and load you with reproaches, and cast out your name as evil By these words Christ intended to comfort those who believe in him; that they may not lose courage, even though they see themselves to be detestable in the eyes of the world. For this was no light temptation, to be thrown out of the Church as ungodly and profane. Christ knew that there is no class of men more envenomed than hypocrites, and foresaw with what furious madness the enemies of the Gospel would attack his small and despised flock. It was therefore his will to furnish them with a sure defense, that they might not give way, though an immense mass of reproaches were ready to overwhelm them. And hence it appears, how little reason there is to dread the excommunication of the Pope, when those tyrants banish us from their synagogues, because we are unwilling to renounce Christ.
12. Rejoice ye, and leap for joy The meaning is, a remedy is at hand, that we may not be overwhelmed by unjust reproaches: for, as soon as we raise our minds to heaven, we there behold vast grounds of joy, which dispel sadness. The idle reasonings of the Papists, about the word reward, which is here used, are easily refuted: for there is not (as they dream) a mutual relation between the reward and merit, but the promise of the reward is free. Besides, if we consider the imperfections and faults of any good works that are done by the very best of men, there will be no work which God can judge to be worthy of reward.
We must advert once more to the phrases, on my account, or, on account of the Son of Man, (Lu 6:22;) and lying, shall speak every evil word against you; that he who suffers persecution for his own fault (1Pe 2:20) may not forthwith boast that he is a martyr of Christ, as the Donatists, in ancient times, were delighted with themselves on this single ground, that the magistrates were against them. And in our own day the Anabaptists, 370 while they disturb the Church by their ravings, and slander the Gospel, boast that they are carrying the banners of Christ, when they are justly condemned. But Christ pronounces those only to be happy who are employed in defending a righteous cause.
For so did they persecute This was expressly added, that the apostles might not expect to triumph without exertion and without a contest, and might not fail, when they encountered persecutions. The restoration of all things, under the reign of Christ, being everywhere promised in Scripture, there was danger, lest they might not think of warfare, but indulge in vain and proud confidence. It is evident from other passages, that they foolishly imagined the kingdom of Christ to be filled with wealth and luxuries. 371 Christ had good reason for warning them, that, as soon as they succeeded to the place of the prophets, they must sustain the same contests in which the prophets were formerly engaged. The prophets who were before you This means not only, that the prophets were before them with respect to the order of time, but that they were of the same class with themselves, and ought therefore to be followed as their example. The notion commonly entertained, of making out nine distinct beatitudes, is too frivolous to need a long refutation.
Luke 6:24. Woe to you that are rich. As Luke has related not more than four kinds of blessings, so he now contrasts with them four curses, so that the clauses mutually correspond. This contrast not only tends to strike terror into the ungodly, but to arouse believers, that they may not be lulled to sleep by the vain and deceitful allurements of the world. We know how prone men are to be intoxicated by prosperity, or ensnared by flattery; and on this account the children of God often envy the reprobate, when they see everything go on prosperously and smoothly with them.
He pronounces a curse on the rich, — not on all the rich, but on those who receive their consolation in the world; that is, who are so completely occupied with their worldly possessions, that they forget the life to come. The meaning is: riches are so far from making a man happy, that they often become the means of his destruction. In any other point of view, the rich are not excluded from the kingdom of heaven, provided they do not become snares for themselves, or fix their hope on the earth, so as to shut against them the kingdom of heaven. This is finely illustrated by Augustine, who, in order to show that riches are not in themselves a hindrance to the children of God, reminds his readers that poor Lazarus was received into the bosom of rich Abraham.
25. Woe to you who are filled. Woe to you who laugh now In the same sense, he pronounces a curse on those who are satiated and full: because they are lifted up by confidence in the blessings of the present life, and reject those blessings which are of a heavenly nature. A similar view must be taken of what he says about laughter: for by those who laugh he means those who have given themselves up to Epicurean mirth, who are plunged in carnal pleasures, and spurn every kind of trouble which would be found necessary for maintaining the glory of God.
26. Woe to you when all men shall applaud you The last woe is intended to correct ambition: for nothing is more common than to seek the applauses of men, or, at least, to be carried away by them; and, in order to guard his disciples against such a course, he points out to them that the favor of men would prove to be their ruin. This warning refers peculiarly to teachers, who have no plague more to be dreaded than ambition: because it is impossible for them not to corrupt the pure doctrine of God, when they, “seek to please men,” (Ga 1:10.) By the phrase, all men, Christ must be understood to refer to the children of the world, whose applauses are wholly bestowed on deceivers and false prophets: for faithful and conscientious ministers of sound doctrine enjoy the applause and favor of good men. It is only the wicked favor of the flesh that is here condemned: for, as Paul informs us, (Ga 1:10,) no man who “seeks to please men” can be “the servant of Christ.”
“Jesus donques royant la foulle;” — “Jesus then seeing the crowd.”
“Et luy apres avoir ourerr sa bouche, les enseignoit.” — “And he, after having opened his mouth, taught them.”
“Car ils possederont la terre.” — “For they shall possess the earth.”
“Car misericorde leur sera faite.” — “For mercy shall be shown to them.”
“Par l'estat de la vie presente;” — “by the state of the present life.”
Stoics were an ancient sect of philosophers, and received their name from the Stoa, (στοὰ,) or portico, in which Zeno, their master, delivered his instructions. The paradoxes referred to by Calvin are such as the following: that the distinction between pleasure and pain is imaginary; that happiness does not at all depend on outward circumstances; and that whoever chooses to acquire an absolute command over his passions may make himself perfectly happy in the present life. — Ed.
“Les gens fiers et farouches;” — “proud and ferocious people.
“Ce nest as une possession lma name et en l'air.” — “It is not an imaginary possession, and in the air.”
“De la seigneurie de tout le monde;” — “of the lordships of all the world.”
“Par une figure qu'on appelle Synecdoche;” — “by a figure which is called Synecdoche,” in which a part is put for the whole.
“Ceci aussi est un paradoxe, c'est a dire, une sentence contraire au jugement commun des hommes.” — “This also is a paradox, that is to say, a sentiment contrary to the general opinion of men.”
“A douceur et compassion;” — “to mildness and compass
“Nous ne pouvons pas batailler sons l'enseigne de Jesus Christ a autre condition.” — “We cannot fight under the banner of Jesus Christ on any other condition.”
The Anabaptists here named must not be confounded with the Baptists or Anti-poedo-baptists of the present day, who are, indeed, at issue with Calvin as to the subjects and mode of baptism, but who utterly disown the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century. Our notes are restricted by the plan of this work to the elucidation of our author, and to matters of criticism and history. It would, therefore, be out of place to enter here into the merits of a doctrinal controversy, or to vindicate brethren from the heavy charge which is here implied. But we are at liberty to say, that against them Calvin brings no such charge. Nowhere does he represent a departure from his views on the ordinance of Baptism as a fundamental error, or as necessarily connected with danger to society. He alludes to sentiments, which were openly avowed by the Anabaptists, and which he viewed as striking at the root of civil government. To any one at all conversant with their history, the name instantly awakens the recollections of Munster, and of the enormities which were perpetrated there, to the disgrace of the Christian name, — enormities which none are more ready to condemn than the esteemed brethren to whom we have referred. If we seem to discover excessive solicitude to remove the appearance of calumny, our apology must be found in our deep veneration for the author, and in our conviction that he was not less distinguished by a Catholic spirit than by the other great excellencies of his character. Never was there a human breast, in which there dwelt a stronger affection for all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. — Ed.
“Plein de richesses, magnificences, et delices terriennes;” — “full of riches, magnificence, and earthly luxuries.”