Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 36: Acts, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
Acts 7: 51-53
51. You stiff-necked, and of an uncircumcised heart and ears, ye have always resisted the Holy Ghost; as your fathers did, so do ye. 52. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain those which foretold of the coming of the Just; of whom you are now made the betrayers and murderers: 53. Who have received the law in the dispositions of angels, and have not kept it.
51. Forasmuch as Stephen doth not expressly answer the points of the accusation, I am of their mind who think that he would have said more, if his oration had not been broken off with some uproar. For we know what a session of judges he had; therefore, no marvel if they enforced him to hold his peace with noise and outcries. And we see, also, that he did use long insinuation of set purpose, that he might tame and appease them who were like brute beasts most cruel; but it is likely that their madness was then incensed, when he proved that they had most wickedly corrupted the law, that the temple was polluted with their superstitions, and that there is nothing sincere amongst them; because, whilst they did stick in bare figures, they did not worship God spiritually, because they did not refer the ceremonies unto the heavenly figure; but though Stephen did not enter the cause straightway, but essayed to make their fierce minds somewhat more gentle by little and little, yet did he reason very fitly, to purge himself of the crime laid to his charge.
These two things, as we have said, were the principal points of the question, that Stephen had blasphemed God and his temple; that he went about to disannul the law. That Stephen might clear himself of both these false slanders, he began at the calling of Abraham, and declareth that the Jews excelled the Gentiles, not of their own nature, not by any right of their own, not by any merits of works, but by a free privilege, because God had adopted them in the person of Abraham. This is also very pertinent to the cause, that the covenant of salvation was made with Abraham before any temple or ceremonies were, yea, before circumcision was appointed. Of which things the Jews did so boast, that they said there was no worship of God without them, neither any holiness. After that he set down how wonderful and manifold the goodness of God was towards Abraham’s stock, and again how wickedly and frowardly they had refused, so much as in them lay, the grace of God; whereby it appeareth that it cannot be ascribed to their own merits that they are counted God’s people, but because God did choose them of his own accord, being unworthy, and did not cease to do them good, though they were most unthankful. Their lofty and proud spirits might by this means have been subdued, tamed, and humbled, that being emptied of that wind of foolish glory they might come unto the Mediator. Thirdly, he declared that the Angel was the governor and chief, in giving the law and delivering the people, and that Moses did so serve in his function, that he taught that there should come other prophets hereafter, who should, notwithstanding, have one which should be the chief of them, that he might make an end of all prophecies, and that he might bring the perfect accomplishment of them all. Whereby it is gathered that those are nothing less than Moses’ disciples, who reject that kind of doctrine which was promised and commended in the law, together with the author thereof.
Last of all, he showeth that all the old worship which was prescribed by Moses is not to be esteemed of itself, but that it ought rather to be referred to another end, because it was made according to the heavenly pattern; and that the Jews have always been wicked interpreters of the law, because they conceived nothing but that which was earthly. Hereby is it proved that there is no injury done to the temple and the law when Christ is made, as it were, the end and truth of both, But because the state of the cause did consist chiefly in this, that the worship of God doth not properly consist in sacrifices and other things, and that all ceremonies did nothing else but shadow Christ, Stephen was purposed to stand upon this point if the Jews would have permitted him; but because, when he was come to the pith of the matter, they cannot abide to hear any more, (they were so incensed with fury,) the application of those things which he had said, unto this cause which he had in hand, is wanting. And he is enforced to use a sharp reprehension for a conclusion, Ye of an hard neck, saith he, (Exod. 32:9, Exod. 33:3, 5.) We see how soon he is offended with them with an holy zeal, but because he saw that he spake many things to small end, especially before deaf men, he breaketh off his doctrine. This is a metaphor taken from horses or oxen, which Moses useth often, when he will say that his people is a rebellious people, and disobedient to God, and also unruly.
The upbraiding which followeth was of greater force with them. Circumcision was unto them a vail and covering to cover all vices. Therefore, when he calleth them uncircumcised in heart, he doth not only mean that they are rebellious against God and stubborn, but that they were found treacherous and covenant-breakers, even in that sign whereof they did so greatly boast; and so he turneth that back most fitly to their shame, whereof they made boast to their glory. For this is all one, as if he should have said that they had broken the covenant of the Lord, so that their circumcision was void and profane. This speech is taken out of the law and the prophets. For as God hath appointed the sign, so he would have the Jews know to what end they were circumcised; to wit, that they might circumcise their hearts and all their corrupt affections to the Lord, as we read, “And now circumcise your hearts to the Lord,” Wherefore, the letter of circumcision, as Paul calleth it, is a vain visor with God, (Ro 2:28.) So, forasmuch as at this day the spiritual washing is the truth of our baptism, it is to be feared, lest that may well be objected to us, that we are not partakers of baptism, because our souls and flesh are polluted with filthiness.
Ye have always resisted. At the first Stephen vouchsafed to call these men fathers and brethren, against whom he inveigheth thus sharply, Therefore, so long as there remained any hope that they might be made more gentle, he dealt not only friendly with them, but he spake honorably unto them. Now, so soon as he espieth their desperate stubbornness, he doth not only take from them all honor, but lest he should have any fellowship with them, he speaketh unto them as unto men of another kindred. You, saith he, are like to your fathers, who have always rebelled against the Spirit of God. But he himself came of the same fathers; and yet that he may couple himself to Christ, he forgetteth his kindred, inasmuch as it was wicked. And yet for all this, he bindeth them not all in one bundle, as they say, but he speaketh unto the multitude.
And those are said to resist the Spirit who reject 466 him when he speaketh in the prophets. Neither doth he speak in this place of secret revelations, wherewith God inspireth every one, but of the external ministry; which we must note diligently. He purposeth to take from the Jews all color of excuse; and, therefore, he upbraideth unto them, that they had purposely, and not of ignorance, resisted God. Whereby it appeareth what great account the Lord maketh of his word, and how reverently he will have us to receive the same. Therefore, lest, like giants, we make war against God, let us learn to hearken to the ministers by whose mouth he teacheth us.
52. Which of the prophets? Forasmuch as they ought not to bear their fathers’ fault, Stephen seemeth to deal unjustly, in that he reckoneth this amongst their faults unto whom he speaketh; but he had just causes so to do. First, because they did vaunt that they were Abraham’s holy progeny, it was worth the labor to show unto them how great vanity that was, as if Stephen should say, that there is no cause why they should vaunt of their stock, forasmuch as they come of those who were wicked murderers of the prophets. So that he toucheth that glancingly which is more plainly set down by the prophets, that they are not the children of prophets, but a degenerate and bastardly issue, the seed of Canaan, etc. Which thing we may at this day object to the Papists, when as they so highly extol their fathers. Furthermore, this serveth to amplify withal, whereas he saith that it is no new thing for them to resist the truth, but that they have this wickedness, as it were, by inheritance from their fathers. Furthermore, it was requisite for Stephen by this means to pluck from their faces the visor of the Church, wherewith they burdened him. 467 This was an unmeet prejudice against the doctrine of the gospel, in that they boasted that they are the Church of God, and did challenge this title 468 by long succession. Therefore, Stephen preventeth them on the contrary, and proveth that their fathers did, no less than they, rage against the prophets, through wicked contempt and hatred of sound doctrine. Lastly, this is the continual custom of the Scripture to gather the fathers and children together 469 under the same guiltiness, seeing they pollute themselves with the same offenses, and that famous sentence of Christ answereth thereto, “Fulfill the measure of your fathers, until the just blood come upon you, from Abel unto Zacharias.”
Who have foretold. Hereby we gather that this was the drift of all the prophets, to direct their nation unto Christ, as he is the end of the law, (Ro 10:4.) It were too long to gather all the prophecies wherein the coming of Christ was foretold. Let it suffice to know this generally, that it was the common office of all the prophets to promise salvation by the grace of Christ. Christ is called in this place the Just, not only to note his innocency, but of the effect, because it is proper to him to appoint justice in the world. And even in this place doth Stephen prove that the Jews were altogether unworthy of the benefit of redemption, because the fathers did not only refuse that in times past, which was witnessed unto them by the prophets, but they did also cruelly murder the messengers of grace, and their children endeavored to extinguish the author of righteousness and salvation which was offered unto them. By which comparison Christ teacheth that the wicked conspiracy of his enemies was an heap of all iniquities.
53. Who have received the law. They called that fury wherewith they raged against Stephen zeal of the law, as if he had been a forsaker of the law, and a revolt 470 and had enforced others to fall away in like sort. Although he was determined to clear himself of this false accusation, yet he did not go through with his answer. For he could not be heard, and it was to no end to speak to deaf men. Therefore, he is content, at a word, to take from them their false color and pretense. It is evident, saith he, that you lie, when you pretend the zeal of the law, which you transgress and break without ceasing; and as he objected unto them in the words next going before, the treacherous murder of the Just, so now he upbraideth unto them their revolting from the law. Some man will say that Stephen’s cause is no whit bettered hereby, because the Jews break the law. But as we have already said, Stephen doth not so chide them, as if his defense did principally consist in this issue, but that they may not flatter themselves in their false boasting. For hypocrites must be handled thus, who will, notwithstanding, seem to be most earnest defenders of God’s glory, though indeed they condemn him carelessly. And here is also a fit antistrophe, because they made semblance that they received the law which was committed to them, which was, notwithstanding, reproachfully despised by them.
In the dispositions of angels It is word for word, into the dispositions, but it is all one. Furthermore, we need not seek any other interpreter of this saying than Paul, who saith that the law was disposed or ordained by angels, (Ga 3:16;) for he useth the participle there whereof this noun is derived. And his meaning is, that the angels were the messengers of God, and his witnesses in publishing the law, that the authority thereof might be firm and stable.
Therefore, forasmuch as God did call the angels to be, as it were, solemn witnesses when he gave the Jews his law, the same angels shall be witnesses of their unfaithfulness. 471 And to this end doth Stephen make mention of the angels, that he may accuse the Jews in presence of them, and prove them guilty, because they have transgressed the law. Hereby we may gather what shall become of the despisers of the gospel, which doth so far excel the law, that it doth, after a sort, darken the glory thereof, as Paul teacheth, (2 Corinthians 3.)
“Contumaciter rejicient,” contumaciously reject.
“Gravabant,” burdened, brought a charge against him, or threw obloquy on him.
“Hunc qui titulum sibi... arrogabant,” and arrogated this title to themselves.
“Aggregare,” to sum up, include.
“Apostata,” an apostate.