Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 36: Acts, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
38. This is he which was in the congregation in the wilderness, with the angel which had spoken unto him in mount Sinai, [or did speak to him in the mount,] and with our fathers; who received lively oracles, that he might give them to us: 39. Whom our fathers would not obey, but they refused him, and they turned back in their hearts into Egypt, 40. Saying unto Aaron, Make us gods to go before us: for we know not what is happened to this Moses which brought us out of the land of Egypt. 41. And they made a calf in those days, and they offered sacrifice to the idol, and they rejoiced over the works of their own hands.
38. Stephen proceedeth to set forth the frowardness 440 of the people, who though they were provoked [stirred up] with so many benefits of God, yet did they never cease maliciously to reject him. If they had been disobedient and unthankful to God before, yet this so wonderful a deliverance ought to have brought them into a better mind; but he declareth that they were always like themselves. It was meet that so many miracles should not only have stuck fast in their minds, but also have continued still before their eyes. But having forgotten all, they fly back suddenly unto the superstitions of Egypt. The memorial of their cruel servitude was yet fresh, which they had escaped by passing over the Red Sea; and yet they prefer those tyrants by whom they were more than cruelly handled, before their deliverer, This was, therefore, a heap of ungodliness most desperate, that their stubbornness could not be broken or overcome with so many benefits of God, but that they did always return unto their nature. This doth greatly augment the greatness of the offense, where Stephen saith that Moses was then with them in the wilderness. For besides that there appeareth here rare goodness and long-sufferance of the Lord, in bearing with them, they make themselves to be without all excuse, whilst that being beset on every side with so many straits, being brought into so great distress; having Moses to be their guide in their journey, and the faithful keeper of their life, they fall away nevertheless treacherously from God, Finally, it appeareth that they were like untamed beasts, whom God could not keep in obedience with so many bands. Therefore, inasmuch as Moses left not off to govern them even through the wilderness, under the conduct and aid of the angel, it is an easy matter to gather by this circumstance of time, how incurable and obstinate their frowardness was; as it was a point of monstrous rebellion, not to be humbled with miseries, 441 and even with the very sight of death.
Whereas he saith, that Moses was with the angel and the fathers, there is a contrary respect. 442 He was present with the fathers, that he might be their guide according to the commandment of the Lord; he was with the angel as a minister. Whereupon it followeth that he was no private person to whom this injury was done, but it was done to the governance of God, when the people could be kept back, with the reverence of neither, from running headlong into wicked rebellion. We have already spoken of the angel. But the participle [λαλουντος] or which spake, hath a double meaning. For it may be understood either of the first vision, whereby Moses was called to redeem the people, or of that speech which God had with Moses, after they were come over the Red Sea. And because Christ declared both ways, that he was the author of their deliverance, it is no great matter whether we choose; yea, there is no let but that it may be extended unto both. For he which began to speak to Moses from the beginning, that he might send him into Egypt, did continue the tenor of his speech afterward, until the work was finished.
Which received lively oracles. Erasmus translated it lively speech; but those which are expert in the Greek tongue, they shall know that I have more truly translated the words of Stephen. For there is greater majesty in Oracles than in Speech, I speak only of the word; for I know that whatsoever proceedeth out of the mouth of God, the same is an oracle. Moreover, he purchaseth authority for the doctrine of Moses in these words, because he uttereth nothing but that which proceeded from God, Whereupon it followeth, that they did not so much rebel against Moses as against God; whereby their stubbornness 443 is more discovered, And this is a general way to establish doctrine, when men teach nothing but that which is commanded them by God. For what man dare make Moses inferior to him, who (as the Spirit affirmeth) ought only to be believed for this cause, because he faithfully unfolded and delivered the doctrine which he had received of God? But some men may ask this question, Why he called the law a living speech? For this title seemeth to disagree much with the words of Paul, where he saith that the law is the ministry of death, and that it worketh death, and that it is the strength of sin, (1Co 3:7.) If you take lively speech for that which is effectual, and cannot be made frustrate by the contempt of men, there shall be no contrariety; but I interpret it as spoken actively, for that which maketh to live. 444 For seeing that the law is the perfect rule of godly and holy life, and it showeth the righteousness of God, it is counted, for good causes, the doctrine of life and salvation. And to this purpose serveth that solemn protestation of Moses, when he calleth heaven and earth to witness, that he hath set before them the way of death and life. In which sense the Lord himself complaineth, that his good law is broken, and his good commandments, whereof he had said, “He which shall do these things shall live in them,” (Ezekiel 20) Therefore the law hath life in itself. Yet if any man had liefer take living for that which is full of efficacy and strength, I will not greatly stand in contention.
And whereas it is called the ministry of death, that is accidental to it, because of the corrupt nature of man; for it doth not engender sin, but it findeth it in us. It offered life, but we, which are altogether corrupt, can have nothing but death by it. Therefore, it is deadly in respect of men alone. Though Stephen had respect unto a farther thing in this place; for he doth not only speak of the bare commandments, but comprehendeth all Moses’ doctrine, wherein the free promises are included, and so consequently, Christ himself, who is the only life and health of men. We must remember with what men Stephen had to do. They were such as were preposterously zealous of the law, who stayed only in the dead and deadly letter of the law; and, in the mean season, they raged against Stephen, because he sought Christ in the law, who is, indeed, the soul thereof. Therefore, by touching their perverse ignorance glancingly, he giveth them to understand that there is some greater and some more excellent thing hidden in the law than they have hitherto known. For as they were carnal, and content with an outward show, they sought no spiritual thing in it, yea, they would not so much as suffer the same to be showed them.
That he might give them to us. This serveth to refute the false accusation wherewith he was falsely burthened. For seeing he submitteth his neck to the yoke of the law, and professeth that he is one of Moses’ scholars, he is far from discrediting him amongst others. Yea, rather he turneth back the fault which was laid to his charge upon those which were the authors of the slander. That was, as it were, a common reproach for all the people, because the fathers would not obey the law. And therewithal he telleth them that Moses was appointed to be a prophet, not only for his time, but that his authority might be in force with the posterity, even when he was dead. For it is not meet that the doctrine of God should be extinguished together with ministers, or that it should be taken away. For what is more unlikely 445 than that that should die whereby we have immortality? So must we think at this day. As the prophets and apostles spake unto the men of their time, so did they write unto us, and (that) the force of their doctrine is continual, because it hath rather God to be the author thereof than men. In the mean season, he teacheth that if any reject the word appointed for them, they reject the counsel of God.
39. They refused, and were turned away. He saith that the fathers rejected Moses; and he showeth the cause also, because they gave themselves rather unto the superstitions of Egypt; which was horrible, and more than blind fury, to desire the customs and ordinances of Egypt, where they had suffered such grievous things of late. He saith that they were turned away into Egypt in their hearts; not that they desired to return thither, (bodily,) but because they returned in mind unto those corruptions, which they ought not so much as to have remembered without great detestation and hatred. It is true, indeed, that the Jews did once speak of returning; but Stephen toucheth not that history now. Furthermore, he doth rather express their stubbornness, when he saith that they were turned away. For after that they had taken the right way, having God for their guide and governor, they start aside suddenly, as if a stubborn unbroken horse, not obeying his rider, should frowardly run backward.
40. Make us. Though the Jews be turned back divers ways, yet Stephen maketh choice of one notable example above all the rest, of their filthy and detestable treachery, to wit, when they made themselves a calf, that they might worship it instead of God. For there can no more filthy thing be invented 446 than this their unthankfulness. They confess that they were delivered out of Egypt; neither do they deny that this was done by the grace of God and the ministry of Moses; yet, notwithstanding, they reject the author of so great goodness, together with the minister. And under what color? They pretend they cannot tell what is become of Moses. But they know full well that he is in the mount. They saw him with their eyes when he went up thither, until such time as the Lord took him unto himself, by compassing him about with a cloud. Again, they know that Moses is absent for their health’s sake, who had promised that he would return, and bring unto them the law which God should give. He bade them only be quiet a while. They raise mad uproars suddenly within a small time, and without any cause; yet to the end they may cover their madness with the color of some reason, they will have gods present with them, as if God had showed unto them no token of his presence hitherto; but his glory did appear daily in the cloud and pillar of fire. Therefore we see what haste they make to commit idolatry through wicked contempt of God, that I may, in the mean season, omit to declare how filthy and wicked their unthankfulness was, in that they had so soon forgotten those miracles which they ought to have remembered even until the end of the world. Therefore, by this one backsliding, it appeareth sufficiently what a stubborn and rebellious people they were.
Moreover, it was more expedient for the cause which Stephen had in hand, to recite this history of their rebellion than the other. 447 For the people doth quite overthrow the worship of God; they refuse the doctrine of the law; they bring in a strange and profane religion. And this is a notable place, because it pointeth out the fountain from which all manner of superstitions did flow since the beginning, and especially what was the first beginning of making idols; to wit, because man, which is carnal, will, notwithstanding, have God present with him, according to the capacity of his flesh. This is the cause why men were so bold in all ages to make idols. 448 And God doth, indeed, apply 449 himself to our rudeness thus far, that he showeth himself visible, after a sort, under figures; for there were many signs under the law to testify his presence, And he cometh down unto us, even at this day, by baptism and the supper, and also by the external preaching of the word. But men offend two manner of ways in this; for, first, being not content with the means which God hath appointed, they boldly get to themselves new means. This is no small fault, because their fingers itch always to have new inventions without keeping any mean, and so they are not afraid to pass the bounds which God hath appointed them. But there can be no true image of God, save that which he appointed. Therefore, what images soever are reigned and invented by man besides his word, they are false and corrupt.
There is also another vice no less intolerable, that as man’s mind conceiveth nothing of God but that which is gross and earthly, so it translateth all tokens of God’s presence unto the same grossness. Neither doth man delight in those idols only which he himself hath made, but also doth corrupt whatsoever God hath ordained, by wresting it unto a contrary end. God cometh down unto us, indeed, as I have already said, but to this end, that he may lift us up into heaven with him. But we, because we are wholly set upon the earth, will, in like sort, have him in the earth. By this means is his heavenly glory deformed, and that fulfilled altogether which the Israelites say here, Make us gods. For whosoever he be that doth not worship God spiritually, he maketh unto himself a new god; and yet if ye thoroughly weigh all things, the Israelites will not have a god made of set purpose by them, but they think rather that they have the true and eternal God under the shape of the golden calf. For they are ready to offer the appointed sacrifice, and they approve that with their consent which Aaron saith, that those are the gods by whom they were brought out of Egypt. But God pusseth not for those frivolous imaginations; but he complaineth that men put strange gods in his place, so soon as they depart even a very little from his word.
41. And they made a calf. We may easily gather by that which goeth before, why they were more delighted in that figure than in any other. For although Egypt did swarm with innumerable idols, yet it is well known that they made the greatest account of an ox. And whence is it that they are so desirous to have an idol, save only because they were turned back into Egypt, as Stephen hath already said? We must note the speech when he saith that they offered sacrifice to the idol. Aaron commandeth the people to assemble themselves together to worship God; they come all together. Therefore they testify that they mean nothing less [any thing rather] than to defraud God of his worship, howsoever they translate the same unto the calf; yea, rather, they are determined to worship God in the image of the calf. But because they forsook the true God, by making an idol, whatsoever followeth afterward it is judged to be given to the idol, because God refuseth all wicked worshipping. For it is not meet to account that as bestowed upon him which he hath not commanded; and because he forbids them expressly to erect any visible image unto him, that is mere sacrilege whatsoever is done afterward in honor thereof.
They rejoiced over the works. This speech is taken out of Isaiah, yet, out of the prophets, who, in like sort, upbraid unto the Jews that they were delighted in their own inventions. And surely it is wonderful madness, when men arrogate unto themselves anything in God’s matters. I take this rejoicing to be that solemn dancing whereof Moses speaketh, in the thirty-second chapter of Exodus. Yet Stephen toucheth a common vice, wherewith idolaters are infected. For although it be altogether unlawful for men to attempt anything in religion which God hath not appointed, yet do they invent everything unadvisedly, and setting light by the Word of God, they make choice of the works of their own hands; but Stephen showeth that while they take such pleasure in this liberty, they displease God so much the more. But if we will have God to allow our worship, we must abstain from the works of our hands, that is, from our own inventions; for all that which men invent of themselves is nothing else but sacrilegious profanation. The idol is properly so called reproachfully, as it were a thing nothing worth, because no reason doth suffer man to make God. 450
“Tot malis,” so many miseries.
“Longe diversa est ratio,” the explanation (of the two things) is very different.
“Ferrea improbitas,” their stubborn wickedness.
“Minus consentaneum,” less befitting.
“Nihil... fingi potest,” nothing can be imagined.
“Quam alias referri,” than to refer to any other.
“Tanta in fingendis idolis, hominum lascivia fuerit,” there was such wantonness in men in forming idols.
“Deum... fabricari,” to fabricate a god.