Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 33: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part III, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
MATTHEW 27:39-44; MARK 15:29-32;
LUKE 23:35-37, 39-42
Luke 23:35-37, 39-43
39. And they that passed by reviled him, shaking their heads, 40. And saying, Thou who destroyedst the temple, and buildedst it in three days, save thyself; if thou art the Son of God, come down from the cross. 41. In like manner also the chief priests mocking, with the scribes and elders, said, 42. He saved others, himself he cannot save; if he is the King of Israel, let him now descend from the cross, and we will believe him. 43. He trusted in God. Let him deliver him now, if he favors him; for he said, I am the Son of God. 44. The robbers also, who were crucified with him, upbraided him in the same manner.
29. And they that passed by reviled him, shaking their heads, and saying, O, thou who destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, 30. Save thyself, and come down from the cross. 31. In like manner also the chief priests mocking, said among themselves, with the scribes, He saved others, himself he cannot save. 32. Let Christ the King of Israel descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe. And they that were crucified with him upbraided him.
35. And the people stood gazing, and the rulers along with them mocked him, saying, He saved others, let him save himself, if he is the Christ, the elect of God. 36. The soldiers also mocked him, approaching, and offering him vinegar, 37. And saying, If thou art the King of the Jews, save thyself. (And a little after.) 39. And one of the malefactors, who were executed, reviled him, saying, If thou art the Christ, save thyself and us. 40. And the other answering, rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou at least fear God, since thou art in the same condemnation? 41. And we indeed justly; for we receive what is due to our actions, but this man hath done nothing amiss. 42. And he said to Jesus, Lord, remember me, when thou shalt come into thy kingdom. 43. Jesus said to him, Verily, I say to thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.
Matthew 27:39. And they that passed by. These circumstances carry great weight; for they place before us the extreme abasement of the Son of God, that we may see more clearly how much our salvation cost him, and that, reflecting that we justly deserved all the punishments which he endured, we may be more and more excited to repentance. For in this exhibition God hath plainly showed to us how wretched our condition would have been, if we had not a Redeemer. But all that Christ endured in himself ought to be applied for our consolation. This certainly was more cruel than all the other tortures, that they upbraided, and reviled, and tormented him as one that had been cast off and forsaken by God, (Isa 53:4.) And, therefore, David, as the representative of Christ, complains chiefly of this among the distresses which he suffered; (Ps 22:7.) And, indeed, there is nothing that inflicts a more painful wound on pious minds than when ungodly men, in order to shake their faith, upbraid them with being deprived of the assistance and favor of God. This is the harsh persecution with which, Paul tells us, Isaac was tormented by Ishmael, (Ga 4:29;) not that he attacked him with the sword, and with outward violence, but that, by turning the grace of God into ridicule, he endeavored to overthrow his faith. These temptations were endured, first by David, and afterwards by Christ him-self, that they might not at the present day strike us with excessive alarm, as if they had been unusual; for there never will be wanting wicked men who are disposed to insult our distresses. And whenever God does not assist us according to our wish, but conceals his aid for a little time, it is a frequent stratagem of Satan, to allege that our hope was to no purpose, as if his promise had failed.
40. Thou who destroyedst the temple. They charge Christ with teaching falsehood, because, now that it is called for, he does not actually display the power to which he laid claim. But if their unbridled propensity to cursing had not deprived them of sense and reason, they would shortly afterwards have perceived clearly the truth of his statement. Christ had said,
Destroy this temple, and after three days I will raise it up,
but now they indulge in a premature triumph, and do not wait for the three days that would elapse from the commencement of its destruction. Such is the daring presumption of wicked men, when, under the pretense of the cross, they endeavor to cut them off from the hope of the future life. “Where,” say they, “is that immortal glory of which weak and credulous men are accustomed to boast? while the greater part of them are mean and despised, some are slenderly provided with food, others drag out a wretched life, amidst uninterrupted disease; others are driven about in flight, or in banishment; others pine away in prisons, and others are burnt and reduced to ashes?” Thus are they blinded by the present corruption of our outward man, so as to imagine that the hope of the future restoration of life is vain and foolish but our duty is to wait for the proper season of the promised building, and not to take it ill if we are now crucified with Christ, that we may afterwards be partakers of his resurrection, (Rom. 6:5, 6.)
If thou art the Son of God. Wicked men demand from Christ such a proof of His power that, by proving himself to be the Son of God, he may cease to be the Son of God. He had clothed himself with human flesh, and had descended into the world, on this condition, that, by the sacrifice of his death, he might reconcile men to God the Father. So then, in order to prove himself to be the Son of God, it was necessary that he should hang on the cross. And now those wicked men affirm that the Redeemer will not be recognized as the Son of God, unless he come clown from the cross, and thus disobey the command of his Father, and, leaving incomplete the expiation of sins, divest himself of the office which God had assigned to him. But let us learn from it to confirm our faith by considering that the Son of God determined to remain nailed to the cross for the sake of our salvation, until he had endured most cruel torments of the flesh, and dreadful anguish of soul, and even death itself. And lest we should come to tempt God in a manner similar to that in which those men tempted him, let us allow God to conceal his power, whenever it pleases Him to do so, that he may afterwards display it at his pleasure at the proper time and place. The same kind of depravity appears in the other objection which immediately follows: —
42. If he is the King, of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we shall believe him. For they ought not to embrace as King any one who did not answer to the description given by the prophets. But Isaiah (Isa. 52:14, Isa. 53:2) and Zechariah (Zec 13:7) expressly represent Christ as devoid of comeliness, afflicted, condemned, and accursed, half-dead, poor, and despised, before he ascends the royal throne. It is therefore foolish in the Jews to desire one of an opposite character, whom they may acknowledge as King; for, by so doing, they declare that they have no good-will to the King whom the Lord had promised to give. But let us, on the contrary, that our faith may firmly rely on Christ, seek a foundation in his cross; for in no other way could he be acknowledged to be the lawful King of Israel than by fulfilling what belonged to the Redeemer. And hence we conclude how dangerous it is to depart from the word of God by wandering after our speculations. For the Jews, in consequence of having imagined to themselves a King who had been suggested to them by their own senses, rejected Christ crucified, because they reckoned it absurd to believe in him; while we regard it as the best and highest reason for believing, that he voluntarily subjected himself on our account to the ignominy of the cross.
He saved others; himself he cannot save. It was an ingratitude which admits of no excuse, that, taking offense at the present humiliation of Christ, they utterly disregard all the miracles which he had formerly performed before their eyes. They acknowledge that he saved others. By what power, or by what means? Why do they not in this instance, at least, behold with reverence an evident work of God? But since they maliciously exclude, and—as far as lies in their power—endeavor to extinguish the light of God which shone in the miracles, they are unworthy of forming an accurate judgment of the weakness of the cross. Because Christ does not immediately deliver himself from death, they upbraid him with inability. And it is too customary with all wicked men to estimate the power of God by present appearances, so that whatever he does not accomplish they think that he cannot accomplish, and so they accuse him of weakness, whenever he does not comply with their wicked desire. But let us believe that Christ, though he might easily have done it, did not immediately deliver himself from death, but it was because he did not wish to deliver himself. And why did he for the time disregard his own safety, but because he cared more about the salvation of us all? We see then that the Jews, through their malice, employed, in defense of their unbelief, those things by which our faith is truly edified.
43. He trusted in God. This, as I said a little ago, is a very sharp arrow of temptation which Satan holds in his hand, when he pretends that God has forgotten us, because He does not relieve us speedily and at the very moment. For since God watches over the safety of his people, and not only grants them seasonable aid, but even anticipates their necessities, (as Scripture everywhere teaches us,) he appears not to love those whom he does not assist. Satan, therefore, attempts to drive us to despair by this logic, that it is in vain for us to feel assured o the love of God, when we do not clearly perceive his aid. And as he suggests to our minds this kind of imposition, so he employs his agents, who contend that God has sold and abandoned our salvation, because he delays to give his assistance. We ought, therefore, to reject as false this argument, that God does not love those whom he appears for a time to forsake; and, indeed, nothing is more unreasonable than to limit his love to any point of time. God has, indeed, promised that he will be our Deliverer; but if he sometimes wink at our calamities, we ought patiently to endure the delay. It is, therefore, contrary to the nature of faith, that the word now should be insisted on by those whom God is training by the cross and by adversity to obedience, and whom he entreats to pray and to call on his name; for these are rather the testimonies of his fatherly love, as the apostle tells us, (Heb 12:6.) But there was this peculiarity in, Christ, that, though he was the well-beloved Son, (Matt. 3:17, Matt. 17:5,) yet he was not delivered from death, until he had endured the punishment which we deserved; because that was the price by which our salvation was purchased. 273 Hence it follows again that the priests act maliciously, when they infer that he is not the Son of God, because he performs the office which was enjoined upon him by the Father.
44. And the robbers also. Matthew and Mark, by synecdoche, attribute to the robbers what was done only by one of them, as is evident from Luke And this mode of expression ought not to be accounted harsh; for the two Evangelists had no other design than to show that Christ was attacked on every hand by the reproaches of all men, so that even the robbers, who were fast dying, did not spare him. In like manner David, deploring his calamities, exhibits their violence in a strong light by saying, that he is the reproach of all sorts of men, and despised by the people. Now although they leave out the memorable narrative which Luke relates as to the other robber, still there is no inconsistency in their statement, that Christ was despised by all, down to the very robbers; for they do not speak of particular individuals, but of the class itself. Let us now, therefore, come to what is stated by Luke
Luke 23:39. And one of the malefactors. This reproach, which the Son of God endured from the robber, obtained for us among angels the very high honor of acknowledging us to be their brethren. But at the same time, an example of furious obstinacy is held out to us in this wretched man, since even in the midst of his torments he does not cease fiercely to foam out his blasphemies. Thus desperate men are wont to take obstinate revenge for the torments which they cannot avoid. 274 And although he upbraids Christ with not being able to save either himself or others, yet this objection is directed against God himself; just as wicked men, when they do not obtain what they wish, would willingly tear God from heaven. They ought, indeed, to be tamed to humility by strokes; but this shows that the wicked heart, which no punishments can bend, is hard like iron.
40. And the other answering. In this wicked man a striking mirror of the unexpected and incredible grace of God is held out to us, not only in his being suddenly changed into a new man, when he was near death, and drawn from hell itself to heaven, but likewise in having obtained in a moment the forgiveness of all the sins in which he had been plunged through his whole life, and in having been thus admitted to heaven before the apostles and first-fruits of the new Church. First, then, a remarkable instance of the grace of God shines in the conversion of that man. For it was not by the natural movement of the flesh that he laid aside his fierce cruelty and proud contempt of God, so as to repent immediately, but he was subdued by the hand of God; as the whole of Scripture shows that repentance is His work. And so much the more excellent is this grace, that it came beyond the expectation of all. For who would ever have thought that a robber, in the very article of death, would become not only a devout worshiper of God, but a distinguished teacher of faith and piety to the whole world, so that we too must receive from his mouth the rule of a true and proper confession? Now the first proof which he gave of his repentance was, that he severely reproved and restrained the wicked forwardness of his companion. He then added a second, by humbling himself in open acknowledgment of his crimes, and ascribing to Christ the praise due to his righteousness. Thirdly, he displayed astonishing faith by committing himself and his salvation to the protection of Christ, while he saw him hanging on the cross and near death.
Dost not thou fear God? Though these words are tortured in various ways by commentators, yet the natural meaning of them appears to me to be, What is the meaning of this, that even this condemnation does not compel thee to fear God? For the robber represents it as an additional proof of the hard-heartedness of his companion, that when reduced to the lowest straits, he does not even now begin to fear God. But to remove all ambiguity, it is proper to inform the reader that an impudent and detestable blasphemer, who thought that he might safely indulge in ridicule, is summoned to the judgment-seat of God; for though he had remained all his life unmoved, he ought to have trembled when he saw that the hand of God was armed against him, and that he must soon render an account of all his crimes; It was, therefore, a proof of desperate and diabolical obstinacy, that while God held him bound by the final judgment, he did not even then return to a sound mind; for if there had been the smallest particle of godliness in the heart of that man, he would at least have been constrained to yield to the fear of God. We now perceive the general meaning of his words, that those men, in whom even punishments do not produce amendment, are desperate, and totally destitute of the fear of God.
I interpret the words ἐν τῶ αὐτῷ κρίματι to mean not in the same condemnation, but during the condemnation itself; 275 as if the robber had said, Since thou art even now in the jaws of death, thou oughtest to be aroused to acknowledge God as thy Judge. Hence, too, we draw a useful doctrine, that those whom punishments do not train to humility do altogether resist God; for they who possess any fear of God must necessarily be overwhelmed with shame, and struck silent.
41. And we indeed justly. As the reproof founded on the condemnation might be thought to apply to Christ, the robber here draws a distinction between the condition of Christ and that of himself and his companion, or he acknowledges, that the punishment which was common to all the three was justly inflicted on him and his companion, but not on Christ, who had been dragged to the punishment of death, not by his own crime, but by the cruelty of enemies. But we ought to remember what I said a little ago, that the robber gave a proof of his repentance, such as God demands from all of us, when he acknowledged that he was now receiving the reward due to his actions. Above all, it ought to be observed, that the severity of the punishment did not hinder him from patiently submitting to dreadful tortures. And, therefore, if we truly repent of our crimes, let us learn to confess them willingly and without hypocrisy, whenever it is necessary, and not to refuse the disgrace which we have deserved. For the only method of burying our sins before God and before angels is, not to attempt to disguise them before men by vain excuses. Again, among the various coverings on which hypocrisy seizes, the most frequent of all is, that every one draws in others along with himself, that he may excuse himself by their example The robber, on the other hand, is not less eager to maintain the innocence of Christ, than he is frank and open in condemning himself and his companion.
42. Lord, remember me. I know not that, since the creation of the world, there ever was a more remarkable and striking example of faith; and so much the greater admiration is due to the grace of the Holy Spirit, of which it affords so magnificent a display. A robber, who not only had not been educated in the school of Christ, but, by giving himself up to execrable murders, had endeavored to extinguish all sense of what was right, suddenly rises higher than all the apostles and the other disciples whom the Lord himself had taken so much pains to instruct; and not only so, but he adores Christ as a King while on the gallows, celebrates his kingdom in the midst of shocking and worse than revolting abasement, and declares him, when dying, to be the Author of life. Even though he had formerly possessed right faith, and heard many things about the office of Christ, and had even been confirmed in it by his miracles, still that knowledge might have been overpowered by the thick darkness of so disgraceful a death. But that a person, ignorant and uneducated, and whose mind was altogether corrupted, should all at once, on receiving his earliest instructions, perceive salvation and heavenly glory in the accursed cross, was truly astonishing. For what marks or ornaments of royalty did he see in Christ, so as to raise his mind to his kingdom? And, certainly, this was, as it were, from the depth of hell to rise above the heavens. To the flesh it must have appeared to be fabulous and absurd, to ascribe to one who was rejected and despised, (Isa 53:3) whom the world could not endure, an earthly kingdom more exalted than all the empires of the world. Hence we infer how acute must have been the eyes of his mind, by which he beheld life in death, exaltation in ruin, glory in shame, victory in destruction, a kingdom in bondage.
Now if a robber, by his faith, elevated Christ—while hanging on the cross, and, as it were, overwhelmed with cursing—to a heavenly throne, woe to our sloth 276 , if we do not behold him with reverence while sitting at the right hand of God; if we do not fix our hope of life on his resurrection; if our aim is not towards heaven where he has entered. Again, if we consider, on the other hand, the condition in which he was, when he implored the compassion of Christ, our admiration of his faith will be still heightened. With a mangled body, and almost dead, he is looking for the last stroke of the executioner and yet he relies on the grace of Christ alone. First, whence came his assurance of pardon, but because in the death of Christ, which all others look upon as detestable, he beholds a sacrifice of sweet savor, efficacious for expiating the sins of the world. 277 And when he courageously disregards his tortures, and is even so forgetful of himself, that he is carried away to the hope and desire of the hidden life, this goes far beyond the human faculties. From this teacher, therefore, whom the Lord has appointed over us to humble the pride of the flesh, let us not be ashamed to learn the mortification of the flesh, and patience, and elevation of faith, and steadiness of hope, and ardor of piety; for the more eagerly any man follows him, so much the more nearly will he approach to Christ.
43. Verily I tell thee. Though Christ had not yet made a public triumph over death, still he displays the efficacy and fruit of his death in the midst of his humiliation. And in this way he shows that he never was deprived of the power of his kingdom; for nothing more lofty or magnificent belongs to a divine King, 278 than to restore life to the dead. So then, Christ, although, struck by the hand of God, he appeared to be a man utterly abandoned, yet as he did not cease to be the Savior of the world, he was always endued with heavenly power for fulfilling his office. And, first, we ought to observe his inconceivable readiness in so kindly receiving the robber without delay, and promising to make him a partaker 279 of a happy life. There is therefore no room to doubt that he is prepared to admit into his kingdom all, without exception, who shall apply to him. Hence we may conclude with certainty that we shall be saved, provided that he remember us; and it is impossible that he shall forget those who commit to him their salvation.
But if a robber found the entrance into heaven so easy, because, while he beheld on all sides ground for total despair, he relied on the grace of Christ; much more will Christ, who has now vanquished death, stretch out his hand to us from his throne, to admit us to be partakers of life. For since Christ has
nailed to his cross the handwriting which was opposed to us,
and has destroyed death and Satan, and in his resurrection has triumphed over the prince of the world, (Joh 12:31,) it would be unreasonable to suppose that the passage from death to life will be more laborious and difficult to us than to the robber. Whoever then in dying shall commit to Christ, in true faith, the keeping of his soul, will not be long detained or allowed to languish in suspense; but Christ will meet his prayer with the same kindness which he exercised towards the robber. Away, then, with that detestable contrivance of the Sophists about retaining the punishment when the guilt is removed; for we see how Christ, in acquitting him from condemnation, frees him also from punishment. Nor is this inconsistent with the fact, that the robber nevertheless endures to the very last the punishment which had been pronounced upon him; for we must not here imagine any compensation which serves the purpose of satisfaction for appeasing the judgment of God, (as the Sophists dream,) but the Lord merely trains his elect by corporal punishments to displeasure and hatred of sin. Thus, when the robber has been brought by fatherly discipline to self-denial Christ receives him, as it were, into his bosom, and does not send him away to the fire of purgatory.
We ought likewise to observe by what keys the gate of heaven was opened to the robber; for neither papal confession nor satisfactions are here taken into account, but Christ is satisfied with repentance and faith, so as to receive him willingly when he comes to him. And this confirms more fully what I formerly suggested, that if any man disdain to abide by the footsteps of the robber, and to follow in his path, he deserves everlasting destruction, because by wicked pride he shuts against himself the gate of heaven. And, certainly, as Christ has given to all of us, in the person of the robber, a general pledge of obtaining forgiveness, so, on the other hand, he has bestowed on this wretched man such distinguished honor, in order that, laying aside our own glory, we may glory in nothing but the mercy of God alone. If each of us shall truly and seriously examine the subject, we shall find abundant reason to be ashamed of the prodigious mass of our crimes, so that we shall not be offended at having for our guide and leader a poor wretch, who obtained salvation by free grace. Again, as the death of Christ at that time yielded its fruit, so we infer from it that souls, when they have departed from their bodies, continue to live; otherwise the promise of Christ, which he confirms even by an oath, would be a mockery.
Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. We ought not to enter into curious and subtle arguments about the place of paradise. Let us rest satisfied with knowing that those who are engrafted by faith into the body of Christ are partakers of that life, and thus enjoy after death a blessed and joyful rest, until the perfect glory of the heavenly life is fully manifested by the coming of Christ.
One point still remains. What is promised to the robber does not alleviate his present sufferings, nor make any abatement of his bodily punishment. This reminds us that we ought not to judge of the grace of God by the perception of the flesh; for it will often happen that those to whom God is reconciled are permitted by him to be severely afflicted. So then, if we are dreadfully tormented in body, we ought to be on our guard lest the severity of pain hinder us from tasting the goodness of God; but, on the contrary, all our afflictions ought to be mitigated and soothed by this single consolation, that as soon as God has received us into his favor, all the afflictions which we endure are aids to our salvation. This will cause our faith not only to rise victorious over all our distresses, but to enjoy calm repose amidst the endurance of sufferings.
“Pource que c’estoit le prix de nostre salut et redemption;” — “because it was the price of our salvation and redemption.”
“Voyans qu’ils ne peuvent eschapper les tormens, ils se vengent en s’obstinant et rongeant leur frein, comme on dit.” — “Perceiving that they cannot escape torments, they take revenge by obstinacy, and by champing the bit, as the saying is.”
“Je les pren paur la condamnation presente, et laquelle ne menace point de loin, mais tient desja la personne, et se fait sentir.” — “I take them for the condemnation which is present, and which does not threaten at a distance, but already holds the person, and makes itself be felt.”
“Maudite soit nostre lacheté;” — “accursed be our sloth.”
“Ayant ceste efficace de purger et nettoyer tous les pechez du monde;” — “having that efficacy to cleanse and wash away all the sins of the world.”
“Au Roy celeste;” — “to the heavenly King.”
“De le faire participant.”