Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 36: Acts, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
1. And at that day there was great persecution raised against the church which was at Jerusalem. Therefore they were all scattered abroad throughout all regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2. And religious men dressed Stephen together, and they mourned sore for him. 3. But Saul made havock of the church, and, entering into houses, and drawing thence men and women, he cast them into prison. 4. And they being dispersed, did go about preaching the word of God.
1. At that day. The persecution began at Stephen, after that, when their madness was thereby set on fire, it waxed hot against all, both one and other. For the wicked are like brute beasts, for when they have once tasted blood they are more desirous thereof, and become more cruel through committing murder. For Satan, who is the father of all cruelty, doth first take from them all feeling of humanity when they are once imbrued with innocent blood; that done, he stirreth up in them an unquenchable thirsting after blood, whence those violent assaults to commit murder come; so that when they have once begun, they will never make an end with their will. Moreover, when they have power once granted them to do hurt, their boldness increaseth in tract of time, so that they are carried headlong more immoderately, which thing Luke also noteth when he saith, The persecution was great. Undoubtedly the Church had but small rest before, neither was it free from the vexation of the wicked; but the Lord spared his for a time, that they might have some liberty, and now they began to be sorer set on.
These things must be applied unto our time also. If the furiousness of our enemies seem at any time to be as it were fallen on sleep, so that it casteth not out flames far, let us know that the Lord provideth for our weakness; yet, let us not in the mean season imagine that we shall have continual truce, but let us be in readiness to suffer sorer brunts, as often as they shall break out suddenly. Let us also remember, that if at any time the constancy of one man have whetted the cruelty of our enemies, the blame of the evil is unjustly ascribed to him. For Luke doth not defame Stephen, 494 when as he saith, that by means of him the Church was sorer vexed than before; but he rather turneth this to his praise, because he did valiantly, as the standard-bearer, encourage others with his example to fight courageously. When he calleth it the Church which was at Jerusalem, his meaning is not that there were Churches elsewhere, but he passeth over unto these things which ensued thereupon. For whereas there was but this one only body of the godly in all the world, it was rent in pieces through flight; yet there sprung up more Churches by and by of those lame members which were dispersed here and there, and so the body of Christ was spread abroad far and wide, whereas it was before shut up within the walls of Jerusalem,
They were all scattered abroad. It is certain that they were not all scattered abroad, but the Scripture useth an universal note, for that which we say, Every where or abroad. 495 The sum is this, that not only a few were in danger; because the cruelty of the enemies raged throughout the whole Church. Many do oftentimes take themselves to their feet, through faintness of heart, even when they hear any light rumor, but these are in another case. For they fled not unadvisedly, being discouraged, 496 but because they saw no other means to pacify the fury of the adversaries. And he saith, that they were scattered not only through divers places of Judea, but that they came even unto Samaria; so that the middle wall began to be pulled down, which made division between the Jews and the Gentiles, (Eph 2:14.) For the conversion of Samaria was, as it were, the first fruits of the calling of the Gentiles. For although they had circumcision, as had the people of God, yet we know that there was great dissension, and that not without great cause, forasmuch as they had in Samaria only a forged worship of God, as Christ affirmeth, because it was only an unsavory emulation. 497 Therefore God set open the gate for the gospel then, that the scepter of Christ, sent out of Jerusalem, might come unto the Gentiles. He exempteth the apostles out of this number, not that they were free from the common danger, but because it is the duty of a good pastor to set himself against the invasions of wolves for the safety of his flock.
But here may a question be asked, forasmuch as they were commanded to preach the gospel throughout the whole world, (Mr 16:16,) why they stayed at Jerusalem, even when they were expelled thence with force and hand? I answer, that seeing Christ had commanded them to begin at Jerusalem, they employed themselves there until such time as being brought into some other place by his hand, they might know, for a surety, that he was their guide. And we see how fearfully they proceeded to preach the gospel; not that they foreslowed [shunned] that function which was enjoined them, but because they were amazed at a new and unwonted thing. Therefore, seeing they see the gospel so mightily resisted at Jerusalem, they dare go to no other place until such time as they have broken that first huge heap of straits. Assuredly, they provide neither for their ease, nor yet for their own commodities either for being void of care by staying at Jerusalem; for they have a painful charge, they are continually amidst divers dangers they encounter with great troubles. Wherefore, undoubtedly, they are purposed to do their duty; and especially, whereas they stand to it when all the rest fly, that is an evident testimony of valiant constancy. If any man object that they might have divided the provinces amongst them, that they might not all have been occupied in one place, I answer, that Jerusalem alone had business enough for them all.
In sum, Luke reckoneth up this as a thing worthy of praise, that they followed not the rest into voluntary exile to avoid persecution; and yet he doth not reprehend the flight of those men whose state was more free. For the apostles did consider what particular thing their calling had; to wit, that they should keep their standing, seeing the wolves did invade the sheepfold. The rigor of Tertullian, and such like, was too great, who did deny indifferently that it is lawful to fly for fear of persecution. Augustine saith better, who giveth leave to fly in such sort that the churches, being destitute of their pastors, be not betrayed into the hands of the enemies. This is surely the best moderation, which beareth neither too much with the flesh, neither driveth those headlong to death who may lawfully save their lives. Let him that is disposed read the 180th Epistle to Honoratus.
That I may return to the apostles, if they had been scattered here and there with fear of persecution, even at the beginning, all men might have rightly called them hirelings. How hurtful and filthy had the forsaking of the place been at the present time? How greatly would it have discouraged the minds of all men? What great hurt should they have done with their example among the posterity? It shall sometimes so fall out indeed, that the pastor may also fly; that is, if they invade him alone, if the laying waste of the Church be not feared if he be absent. 498 But and if both his flock and he have to encounter with the adversary, he is a treacherous forsaker of his office if he stand not stoutly to it even until the end. Private persons have greater liberty.
2. They dressed Stephen. Luke showeth, that even in the heat of persecution the godly were not discouraged, but being always zealous, they did those duties which did belong to godliness. Burial seemeth to be a matter of small importance; rather than they will foreslow [neglect] the same, they bring themselves in no small hazard of life. And as the circumstance of time doth declare, that they contemned death valiantly, so again, we gather thereby that they were careful to do this thing not without great and urgent cause. For this served greatly to exercise their faith, that the body of the holy martyr should not be left to the wild beasts, in whom Christ had triumphed nobly according to the glory of his gospel. Neither could they live to Christ, unless they were ready to be gathered unto Stephen into the society of death. Therefore the care they had to bury the martyr was unto them a meditation unto invincible constancy of professing the faith. Therefore they sought not in a superfluous matter, with an unadvised zeal, to provoke their adversaries. Although that general reason, which ought always and every where to be of force amongst the godly, was undoubtedly of great weight with them. For the rite of burying doth appertain unto the hope of the resurrection, as it was ordained by God since the beginning of the world to this end.
Wherefore, this was always counted cruel barbarism to suffer bodies to lie unburied willingly. Profane men did not know why they should account the rite of burial so holy; but we are not ignorant of the end thereof, to wit, that those which remain alive may know that the bodies are committed to the earth as to a prison, 499 until they be raised up thence. Whereby it appeareth that this duty is profitable rather for those which are alive than those which are dead. Although it is also a point of our humanity to give due honor to those bodies to which we know blessed immortality to be promised.
They made great lamentation. Luke doth also commend their profession of godliness and faith in their lamentation. For a doleful and unprosperous end causeth men, for the most part, to forsake those causes wherein they were delighted before. But, on the other side, these men declare by their mourning, that they are no whit terrified with the death of Stephen from standing stoutly in the approbation of their cause; considering therewithal what great loss God’s Church suffered by the death of one man. And we must reject that foolish philosophy which willeth all men to be altogether blockish that they may be wise. It must needs be that the Stoics were void of common sense who would have a man to be without all affection. Certain mad fellows would gladly bring in the same dotings into the Church at this day, and yet, notwithstanding, although they require an heart of iron of other men, there is nothing softer or more effeminate than they. They cannot abide that other men should shed one tear; if anything fall out otherwise than they would wish, they make no end of mourning. God doth thus punish their arrogancy jestingly, (that I may so term it,) seeing that he setteth them to be laughed at even by boys. But let us know that those affections which God hath given to man’s nature are, of themselves, no more corrupt than the author himself; but that they are first to be esteemed according to the cause; secondly, if they keep a mean and moderation. Surely that man which denieth that we ought to rejoice over the gifts of God is more like a block than a man; therefore, we may no less lawfully sorrow when they be taken away. And lest I pass the compass of this present place, Paul doth not altogether forbid men mourning, when any of their friends are taken away by death, but he would have a difference between them and the unbelievers; because hope ought to be to them a comfort and a remedy against impatience. For the beginning of death caused us to sorrow for good causes; but because we know that we have life restored to us in Christ, we have that which is sufficient to appease our sorrow. In like sort, when we are sorry that the Church is deprived of rare and excellent men, there is good cause of sorrow; only we must seek such comfort as may correct excess.
3. But Saul. We must note two things in this place, how great the cruelty of the adversaries was, and how wonderful the goodness of God was, who vouchsafed to make Paul a pastor of so cruel a wolf. For that desire to lay waste the Church wherewith he was incensed did seem to cut away all hope. Therefore his conversion was so much the more excellent afterward. And it is not to be doubted but that this punishment was laid upon him by God, after that he had conspired to put Stephen to death, together with the other wicked men, that he should be the ringleader of cruelty. For God doth oftentimes punish sins more sharply in the elect than in the reprobate.
4. And they were scattered abroad. Luke declareth in this place also, that it came to pass by the wonderful providence of God, that the scattering abroad of the faithful should bring many unto the unity of faith; thus doth the Lord use to bring light out of darkness, and life out of death. For the voice of the gospel, which was heard heretofore in one place only, doth now sound everywhere; in the mean season, we are taught by this example that we must not yield unto persecutions, but rather be encouraged unto valiantness; for, when the faithful flee from Jerusalem, they are not afterward discouraged either with exile or with their present miseries, or with any fear, that they degenerate into slothfulness; 500 but they are as ready to preach Christ even in the midst of their calamity as if they had never suffered any trouble. Moreover, Luke seemeth to note that they led a wandering life in that they changed their lodgings often. Therefore, if we desire to be counted their brethren, let us prick forward ourselves so diligently, that no fear or bitterness of cross discourage us, but that we go forward in showing forth the profession of faith; and that we never be weary of furthering the doctrine of Christ; for it is an absurd thing that exile and flight, which are the first exercises of martyrdom, should make us dumb and fainthearted.
“Neque enim Stephanum ignominia notat Lucas,” for Luke does not fix a stigma on Stephen.
“Consternati,” in consternation.
“Insipida... aemulatio,” an insipid, senseless rivalship.
“Propter ejus absentiam,” on account of his absence.
“Velut in custodiam,” as it were in custody.
“Ad ignaviam vel tarditatem,” unto sloth or cowardice.