Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 36: Acts, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
1. And in those days, when the number of the disciples grew, there arose a murmuring of the Greeks against the Hebrews, because their widows were despised in the daily ministry. 2. Therefore, when the twelve had called unto them the multitude of the disciples, they said, It doth not please [or it is not good] that we should serve tables, having left the word of God. 3. Therefore, brethren, look out seven men of you, of known honesty, full of the Holy Ghost, and of wisdom, whom we will appoint over this business, 4. And we will give ourselves unto prayer, and to the ministration of the word. 5. The speech pleased the whole multitude; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Ghost; and Philip, and Prochorus, [Nicanor,] and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch; 6. These did they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands upon them.
1. Luke declareth here upon what occasion, and to what end, and also with what rite, deacons were first made. He saith, When there arose a murmuring amongst the disciples, it was appeased by this remedy, as it is said in the common proverb, Good laws have taken their beginning of evil manners. And it may seem to be a strange thing, seeing that this is a function so excellent and so necessary in the Church, why it came not into the apostles’ minds at the first, (before there was any such occasion ministered,) to appoint deacons, and why the Spirit of God did not give them such counsel which they take now, being, as it were, enforced thereunto. But that which happened was both better then, and is also more profitable for us at this day, to be unto us an example. If the apostles had spoken of choosing deacons before any necessity did require the same, they should not have had the people so ready; they should have seemed to avoid labor and trouble; many would not have offered so liberally into the hands of other men. Therefore, it was requisite that the faithful should be convict [convinced] by experience that they might choose deacons willingly, whom they saw they could not want; and that through their own fault.
We learn in this history that the Church cannot be so framed by and by, but that there remain somewhat to be amended; neither can so great a building be so finished in one day, that there may not something be added to make the same perfect. Furthermore, we learn that there is no ordinance of God so holy and laudable, which is not either corrupt or made unprofitable through the fault of men. We wonder that things are never so well ordered in the world, but that there is always some evil mixed with the good; but it is the wickedness and corruption of our nature which causeth this. That was, indeed, a godly order, whereof Luke made mention before, when the goods of all men being consecrated to God, were distributed to every man as he had need; 306 when as the apostles, being, as it were, the stewards of God and the poor, had the chief government of the alms. But shortly after there ariseth a murmuring which troubleth this order. Here appeareth that corruption of men whereof I have spoken, which doth not suffer us to use our good things. We must also mark the subtilty 307 of Satan, who, to the end he may take from us the use of the gifts of God, goeth about this continually, that it may not remain pure and sound; but that, being mixed with other discommodities, it may, first, be suspected, secondly, loathed, and, lastly, quite taken away. But the apostles have taught us, by their example, that we must not yield unto such engines (and policies) of Satan. For they do not think it meet (being offended with the murmuring) to take away that ministry which they know pleaseth God; but rather invent a remedy whereby the offense may be taken away, and that may be retained which is God’s. Thus must we do. For what offenses soever Satan raise, 308 we must take good heed that he take not from us those ordinances which are otherwise wholesome.
The number increasing. We ought to wish for nothing more than that God would increase his Church, and gather together many 309 on every side unto his people; but the corruption of our nature hindereth us from having any thing happy in all points. For there arise many discommodities also, even of the increasings of the Church. For it is a hard matter to keep many hypocrites from creeping into the multitude, whose wickedness is not by and by discovered, until such time as they have infected some part of the flock with their infection. Moreover, many wicked, froward, and dissolute persons do insinuate themselves under a false color of repentance. And that I may pass over innumerable things, there is never such agreement amongst many, but that, according to the diversity of their manners, their opinions are also diverse, so that one thing cannot please all alike. This offense causeth many to be desirous to choose a few for a Church; it causeth them to loathe or else to hate a multitude. But no trouble, no irksomeness, ought so much to prevail, but that we must always be desirous to have the Church increased; but that we must study to enlarge the same; but that we must cherish so much as in us lieth unity with the whole body.
A murmuring of the Greeks. Hereby it appeareth that they were not fully regenerate by the Spirit of God, to whom the diversity of nation and country ministereth occasion of disagreement. For in Christ there is neither Jew nor Grecian, (Ga 3:28.) Therefore, this indignation smelleth 310 of the flesh and the world. Wherefore we must take good heed that the like fault be not found in us. 311 There is another fault in that they declare their indignation by murmuring. Furthermore it is uncertain whether the complaint were true or no. For when Luke saith that the Greeks murmured, because their widows were not honored, he showeth not what was done in deed, but what they thought was done. And it may be that forasmuch as the apostles did prefer the Jews, 312 because they were better known, the Greeks did think (though falsely) that their widows were despised as strangers. And this seemeth to be more like to be true. Furthermore the word ministering may be expounded two manner of ways, actively or passively. For we know that at the first there were widows chosen unto the ministration. 313 Notwithstanding, I do rather think that the Greeks did complain, because their widows were not so liberally relieved as they wished. So that the ministration shall be that daily distribution which was wont to be made.
2. The twelve having the multitude called unto them It is a point [proof] of patience and meekness that the apostles are no more moved. 314 It is a point of prudence and godly carefulness, in that they prevent the evil which began to arise, 315 without deferring the remedy. For after that every dissension and division hath gathered strength, it is a wound hard to be cured. By this assembly it appeareth that the Church was governed by order and reason, so that the apostles had the chiefest authority, and that they did impart their counsels and purposes unto the people. 316 Again, we must note that the faithful, or Christians, are in this place called disciples, in whom that of Isaiah must be fulfilled, “That they were all taught of God.” And again, that of Jeremiah, “They shall all know God, from the least to the greatest.”
It pleaseth not. It is in Greek [ουκ αρεστον] By which word, the Grecians do now express every opinion or decree which is better than another, or which is to be preferred as being better. 317 I do rather think that the apostles declare what is profitable, than simply what they have decreed. But if it be not expedient for them to meddle with this business, 318 they seem [now] to acknowledge some fault in that they ministered hitherto. And surely that is true, that use is the father of wisdom. 319 Wherefore there shall be no absurdity if we shall say, that the apostles desire of the Church to be unburdened of that function, after that they have tried [experienced] that it is not meet for them. But if there were any fault, it ought rather to be ascribed unto necessity than unto them; for they took not this burthen upon them greedily, but seeing there was no other way as yet, they had better burthen themselves out of measure than that the poor should be forslowed. 320 And when as they say that it is not meet that they should be occupied in providing for the poor, their meaning is, that are unable to endure both burthens, so that they must needs let the one alone. For it is as if they should say, If thou wilt enjoy our ministry in the preaching of the gospel, deliver us from the charge of the poor, because we are not able to do both. But this seemeth to be spoken out of season by them, because they had not left the charge of teaching before, although they had the oversight of the alms. I answer, forasmuch as the administration was confused, they were so enwrapped, 321 that they could not wholly attend upon doctrine as was meet. Therefore, they refuse that function which draweth them away from the free and perfect 322 charge of teaching. Notwithstanding, we may not think that they had quite cast away all care of the poor, but that they did only seek somewhat to be lightened and eased, that they might attend upon their office. And, in the mean season, they declare that the ministry of the word is so painful 323 that it requireth a whole man, neither will it suffer him to be occupied about any other business; which, if it had been well considered, there had been a far other order taken in the Church.
The Popish bishops did suck 324 up great riches under color of the ministration or deaconship; nevertheless, they entangled themselves in divers businesses, which they were scarce able to overcome, 325 though every one of them had had ten heads. Notwithstanding, such is their wickedness, that they say that there can be no church unless it be drowned in this depth; 326 neither do they cease to brag and boast that they are the successors of the apostles, whereas there is nothing which appeareth to be more contrary. They were careful for this, that they might not be occupied about serving of tables, and so be compelled to leave their own banquets. For whosoever is careful for his own table, he taketh leave to be vacant 327 from other men’s tables.
But omitting these things, let us mark this sentence. We know what a holy thing it is to be careful for the poor. Therefore, forasmuch as the apostles prefer the preaching of the gospel before if we gather thereby that no obedience is more acceptable to God. Notwithstanding, the hardness is also declared, 328 when as they say that they cannot discharge both these duties. Surely we are not better than they. Therefore, let every one of us that is called unto the function of teaching addict himself wholly to order this his estate well. 329 For we are inclined to nothing more than to fall to slothfulness. Again, the flesh ministereth goodly cloaks and colors, so that those men cannot see by and by that they are led away from their calling which enwrap themselves in strange business. Wherefore, to the end ministers may prick forward themselves to do their duty, let them remember this saying of the apostles oftentimes, wherein they declare that, forasmuch as they are called unto the function of teaching, they must not any longer take charge of the poor. Therefore, what excuses have profane affairs 330 (taken in hand even for some private gain) where that is set aside, which is otherwise accounted no small part of the worship of God.
3. Therefore, brethren, look out. Now we see to what end deacons were made. The word itself is indeed general, yet is it properly taken for those which are stewards for the poor. Whereby it appeareth how licentiously the Papists do mock God and men, who assign unto their deacons no other office but this, to have the charge of 331 the paten and chalice. Surely we need no disputation to prove that they agree in no point with the apostles. But if the readers be desirous to see any more concerning this point, they may repair unto our Institution, chapter 8. As touching this present place, the Church is permitted to choose. For it is tyrannous if any one man appoint or make ministers at his pleasure. 332 Therefore, this is the (most) lawful way, that those be chosen by common voices 333 who are to take upon them 334 any public function in the Church. And the apostles prescribe what manner [of] persons ought to be chosen, to wit, men of tried honesty and credit, 335 men endued with wisdom 336 and other gifts of the Spirit. And this is the mean between tyranny and confused liberty, 337 that nothing be done without 338 the consent and approbation of the people, yet so that the pastors moderate and govern (this action, 339 ) that their authority may be as a bridle to keep under the people, 340 lest they pass their bounds too much. In the mean season, this is worth the noting, that the apostles prescribe an order unto the faithful, lest they appoint any save those which are fit. For we do God no small injury if we take all that come to hand 341 to govern his house. Therefore, we must use great circumspection that we choose none 342 unto the holy function of the Church unless we have some trial of him first. The number of seven is applied 343 unto the present necessity, lest any man should think 344 that there is some mystery comprehended under the same. Whereas Luke saith, full of the Spirit and wisdom, I do interpret it thus, that it is requisite that they be furnished both with other gifts of the Spirit, and also with wisdom, 345 without which that function cannot be exercised well, both that they may beware of the leger-demain 346 of those men, who being too much given unto begging, require 347 that which is necessary for the poverty of the brethren, and also of their slanders, who cease not to backbite, though they have none occasion given them. For that function is not only painful, but also subject to many ungodly murmurings. 348
4. And we will give ourselves unto prayer. They show again that they have too much business otherwise, wherein they may exercise themselves during their whole life. For the old proverb agreeth hereunto very fitly, which was used sometimes in the solemn rites, do this. Therefore, they use the word [προσκαρτερησαι] which signifieth to be, as it were, fastened and tied to anything. Therefore, pastors must not think that they have so done their duty that they need to do no more when they have daily spent some time in teaching. There is another manner of study, another manner of zeal, another manner of continuance 349 required, that they may 350 indeed boast that they are wholly given to that thing. They adjoin thereunto prayer, not that they alone ought to pray, (for that is an exercise common to all the godly,) but because they have peculiar causes to pray above all others. There is no man which ought not to be careful for the common salvation of the Church. How much more, then, ought the pastor, who hath that function enjoined him by name to labor carefully [anxiously] for it? So Moses did indeed exhort others unto prayer, but he went before them as the ringleader 351 (Ex 17:11.) And it is not without cause that Paul doth so often make mention of his prayers, (Ro 1:10.) Again, we must always remember that, that we shall lose all our labor bestowed upon plowing, sowing, and watering, unless the increase come from heaven, (1Co 3:7.) Therefore, it shall not suffice to take great pains in teaching, unless we require the blessing at the hands of the Lord, that our labor may not be in vain and unfruitful. Hereby it appeareth that the exercise of prayer 352 is not in vain commended unto the ministers of the word.
5. Stephen, full of faith. Luke doth not, therefore, separate faith from the Spirit, as if it also were not a gift of the Spirit; but by Spirit he meaneth other gifts wherewith Stephen was endued, as zeal, wisdom, uprightness, brotherly love, diligence, integrity of a good conscience; secondly, he expresseth the principal kind. Therefore, he signifieth that Stephen did excel first in faith, and, secondly, in other virtues; so that it was evident that he had abundance of the grace of the Spirit. He doth not so greatly commend the rest, because undoubtedly they were inferior to him. Moreover, the ancient writers do, with great consent, affirm that this Nicholas, which was one of the seven, is the same of whom John maketh mention in the Revelation, (Re 2:15,) to wit, that he was an author of a filthy and wicked sect; forasmuch as he would have women to be common. For which cause we must not be negligent in choosing ministers of the Church. For if the hypocrisy of men do deceive even those which are most vigilant and careful to fake heed, what shall befall the careless and negligent? Notwithstanding, if when we have used such circumspection as is meet, it so fall out that we be deceived, let us not be troubled out of measure; forasmuch as Luke saith that even the apostles were subject to this inconvenience. Some will ask this question, then, what good shall exhortation do? to what use serveth prayer, seeing that the success itself showeth that the election was not wholly governed by the Spirit of God? I answer, that this is a great matter that the Spirit directed their judgments in choosing six men; in that he suffereth the Church to go astray in the seventh, it ought to seem no absurd thing. For it is requisite that we be thus humbled divers ways, partly that the wicked and ungodly may exercise us; partly that, being taught by their example, we may learn to examine ourselves thoroughly, lest there be in us any hidden and privy starting-corners of guile; 353 partly that we may be more circumspect to discern, and that we may, as it were, keep watch continually, lest we be deceived by crafty and unfaithful men. Also it may be that the ministry of Nicholas was for a time profitable, and that he fell afterward into that monstrous error. And if so be it he fell in such sort from such an honorable degree, the higher that every one of us shall be extolled, let him submit himself unto God with modesty and fear.
6. Having prayed, they laid their hands upon them. Laying on of hands was a solemn sign of consecration under the law. To this end do the apostles now lay their hands upon the deacons, that they may know that they are offered to God. Notwithstanding, because this ceremony should of itself be vain, they add thereunto prayer, wherein the faithful commend unto God those ministers whom they offer unto him. This is referred unto the apostles, for all the people did not lay their hands upon the deacons; but when the apostles did make prayer in the name of the Church, others also did add their petitions. Hence we gather that the laying on of hands is a rite agreeing unto order and comeliness, forasmuch as the apostles did use the same, and yet that it hath of itself no force or power, but that the effect dependeth upon the Spirit of God alone; which is generally to be thought of all ceremonies.
“In commune,” in common.
“Quotidie,” daily, omitted.
“Quam plurimos,” as many as possible.
“Nobis obrepat,” creep in upon us.
“Judaeas,” the Jewish widows.
“Ad diaconiam,” for ministering, as deaconnesses.
“Quod non magis excandescunt apostoli,” that the apostles are not more inflamed or offended.
“Quod mature nascenti malo occurrunt,” that they quickly meet the growing evil.
“Cum plebe tamencommunicarent sua consilia,” yet did communicate with the people as to their purpose.
“Quo nominie Graeci nunc quod aliis praestat, et tanquam melius praeferendum est nunc quodvis placitum designant,” by which term the Greeks designate sometimes “whatever is better than, or is to be preferred to, other things;” and at others, “any thing whatever that pleases,” or “any decree.”
“Hac cura involvi,” to be involved in such business.
“Prudentiae usum esse patrem,” that use (or experience) is the parent of prudence.
“Sic fuisse implicitos,” were so encumbered by it.
“Ingurgitarunt,” ingulf, swallow up.
“Quibus vix sufficerent,” for which they could hardly suffice.
“Vacationem sibi sumit,” keepeth himself free.
“Difficultas monstratur,” the difficulty is shown.
“Spartae suae ornandae, (ut est in proverbio,”) to adorn his own Sparta, (as the proverb expresses it.)
“Tractent,” to handle.
“Constituat suo arbitrio,” constitute at his own pleasure.
“Elegi communibus suffragiis,” be elected by the common suffrages.
“Obidentia,” are to perform.
“Probate fidei,” of tried faith.
“Prudentia,” wisdom or prudence.
“Licentiam,” licentious freedom.
“Nisi ex,” except by.
“Pastores tamen moderentur,” let pastors, however, moderate.
“Ad cohibendos plebis impetus,” to curb the impetus (precipitancy or violence) of the people.
“Si fortuito quoslibet accipimus, “if we receive all persons whatsoever fortuitously.
“Summa religio ne quis sumatur,” the greatest care that none be chosen.
“Accommodatus fuit,” was accommodated.
“Ne quis putet,” let no man suppose.
“Imposturis et fraudibus,” the imposition and fraud.
“Exsugunt,” suck up.
“Non laboriosa modo, sed obnoxia sinistris murmuribus,” is not only laborious, but liable to sinister murmurings.
“Aliud studium, alius fervor, alia assiduitas exigitur,” another kind of zeal, another kind of fervor, another kind of assiduity, is required.
“Possint,” may be able to.
“Antesignanus,” as a standard-bearer or leader.
“Precandi studium,” zeal in prayer.
“Occulti fraudis recessus,” hidden recesses of guile.