Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 36: Acts, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
1. And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the highest priest, 2. Required epistles of him to Damascus unto the synagogues, that if he should find any of this sect, whether they were men or women, he might carry them bound to Jerusalem. 3. And as he was in the way, it happened that he drew near to Damascus: and suddenly there shined a light about him from heaven: 4. And falling flat to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? 5. And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against pricks.
1. And Saul. Luke setteth down in this place a noble history, and a history full well worthy to be remembered, concerning the conversion of Paul; after what sort the Lord did not only bring him under, and make him subject to his commandment, when he raged like an untamed beast but also how he made him another and a new man. But because Luke setteth down all things in order as in a famous work of God, it shall be more convenient to follow his text, [context,] that all may come in order whatsoever is worth the noting. When as he saith, that he breathed out threatenings and slaughter as yet, his meaning is, that after that his hands were once imbued with innocent blood, he proceeded in like cruelty, and was always a furious and bloody enemy to the Church, after that he had once made that entrance 569 whereof mention is made in the death of Stephen. For which cause it was the more incredible that he could be so suddenly tamed. And whereas such a cruel wolf was not only turned into a sheep, but did also put on the nature of a shepherd, the wonderful hand of God did show itself therein manifestly.
2. And Luke describeth therewithal that he was furnished with weapons and power to do hurt, when as he saith that he had obtained letters of the highest priest, that he might bring all those bound to Jerusalem whom he should find professing the name of Christ. There is mention made of women, that it may the better appear how desirous he was to shed blood who had no respect of sex whom even armed enemies are wont to spare in the heat of war. Therefore he setteth forth before us a fierce and cruel beast who had not only liberty given him to rage, but had also his power increased to devour and destroy godly men, as if a madman had a sword put into his hand. Whereas I have translated it sect, Luke hath way, which metaphor is common enough in the Scriptures. Therefore Paul’s purpose was quite to put out the name of Christ by destroying all the godly cruelly.
3. As he was in the way. In craving epistles of the high priest, he ran headlong against Christ willingly; and now he is enforced to obey whether he will or no. This is surely the most excellent mercy of God, in that that man is reclaimed unto salvation contrary to the purpose of his mind, whom so great a heat carried headlong into destruction. Whereas the Lord suffereth him to receive letters, and to come near to the city; (whereby we see how well he knoweth the very instants of times to do everything in due time; 570 ) he could have prevented him sooner, if it had seemed good to him so to do, that he might deliver the godly from fear and carelessness. 571 But he setteth out his benefits more thereby, in that he tieth the jaws of the greedy wolf, even when he was ready to enter the sheepfold. Also we know that men’s stubbornness increaseth more and more by going forward. Wherefore the conversion of Paul was so much the harder, forasmuch as he was already made more obstinate by continuing his fury.
Shined about him. Because it was no easy matter to pull down 572 so great pride to break such a lofty courage, to pacify such a blind heat of wicked zeal, and, finally, to bridle a most unbridled beast, Christ must needs have showed some sign of his majesty, whereby Paul might perceive that he had to do with God himself, and not with any mortal man;. although there were some respect had of humbling him, (because he was unworthy to have Christ,) to accustom him by and by to obey, by laying upon his neck the meek and sweet yoke of his Spirit. And he was scarce capable of so great gentleness, until his cruelty might be broken. 573 Man’s sense cannot comprehend the Divine glory of Christ as it is; but as God did oftentimes put upon him forms wherein he did show himself, so Christ did now declare and make manifest his divinity to Paul, and showed some token of his presence, that he might thereby terrify Paul. For although the godly be afraid and tremble at the seeing of God, yet it must needs be that Paul was far more afraid when as he perceived that the divine power of Christ was set full against him.
4. And therefore Luke saith that he fell to the ground. For what other thing can befall man, but that he must lie prostrate and be, as it were, brought to nothing, when he is overwhelmed with the present feeling of God’s glory? And this was the first beginning of the bringing down of Paul, that he might become apt to hear the voice of Christ, which he had despised so long as he sat haughtily upon his horse.
Saul, Saul! Luke compared the light which shined round about Paul to lightning, though I do not doubt but that lightnings did fly in the air. And this voice, which Christ did send out to beat down his pride, may full well be called a lightning or thunderbolt, because it did not only strike him, and make him astonished, but did quite kill him, so that he was now as nobody with himself, who did so much please himself before and did challenge to himself authority to put the gospel to flight. Luke putteth down his name in Hebrew in this place, Saul, Saul! because he repeateth the words of Christ, who spake unto him, undoubtedly, according to the common custom of the country.
5. Who art thou, Lord? We have Paul now somewhat tamed, but he is not yet Christ’s disciple. Pride is corrected in him, and his fury is brought down. But he is not yet so thoroughly healed that he obeyeth Christ; he is only ready to receive commandments, who was before a blasphemer. Therefore, this is the question of a man that is afraid, and thrown down with amazedness. For why doth he not know, by so many signs of God’s presence, that it is God that speaketh? Therefore that voice proceeded from a panting and doubtful mind; therefore, Christ driveth him nigher unto repentance, When he addeth, I am Jesus, let us remember that that voice sounded from heaven. Therefore it ought to have pierced the mind of Paul when he considered that he had made war against God hitherto. It ought to have brought him by and by to true submission, when he considered that he should not escape scot free, if he should continue rebellious against him whose hand he could not escape.
This place containeth a most profitable doctrine, and the profit thereof is made manifold, for Christ showeth what great account he maketh of his gospel, when he pronounceth that it is his cause, from which he will not be separated. Therefore he can no more refuse to defend the same than he can deny himself. Secondly, the godly may gather great comfort by this, in that they hear that the Son of God is partner with them of the cross, when as they suffer and labor for the testimony of the gospel, and that he doth, as it were, put under his shoulders, that he may bear some part of the burden. For it is not for nothing that he saith that he suffereth in our person; but he will have us to be assuredly persuaded of this, that he suffereth together with us, 574 as if the enemies of the gospel should wound us through his side. Wherefore Paul saith, that that is wanting in the sufferings of Christ what persecutions soever the faithful suffer at this day for the defense of the gospel, (Col 1:24.) Furthermore, this consolation tendeth not only to that end to comfort us, that it may not be troublesome to us to suffer with our Head, but that we may hope that he will revenge our miseries, who crieth out of heaven that all that which we suffer is common to him as well as to us. Lastly, we gather hereby what horrible judgment is prepared for the persecutors of the Church, who like giants besiege the very heaven, and shake their darts, which shall pierce 575 their own head by and by; yea, by troubling the heavens, they provoke the thunderbolt of God’s wrath against themselves. Also, we are all taught generally, that no man run against Christ by hurting his brother unjustly, and specially, that no man resist the truth rashly and with a blind madness, under color of zeal.
It is hard for thee. This is a proverbial sentence, taken from oxen or horses, which, when they are pricked with goads, do themselves no good by kicking, save only that they double the evil by causing the prick to go farther into their skins. Christ applieth this similitude unto himself very fitly, because men shall bring upon themselves a double evil, by striving against him, who must of necessity be subject to his will and pleasure, will they nill they. Those which submit themselves willingly to Christ are so far from feeling any pricking at his hands, that they have in him a ready remedy for all wounds; but all the wicked, who endeavor to cast out their poisoned stings against him, shall at length perceive that they are asses and oxen, subject to the prick. So that he is unto the godly a foundation whereon they rest, but unto the reprobate who stumble at him, a stone which with his [its] hardness grindeth them to powder. And although we speak here of the enemies of the gospel, yet this admonition may reach farther, to wit, that we do not think that we shall get any thing by biting the bridle so often as we have any thing to do with God, but that being like to gentle horses, we suffer ourselves meekly to be turned about and guided by his hand. And if he spur us at any time, let us be made more ready to obey by his pricks, lest that befall us which is said in the Psalm, That the jaws of untamed horses and mules are tied and kept in with a hard bit, lest they leap upon us, etc.
In this history we have a universal figure of that grace which the Lord showeth forth daily in calling us all. All men do not set themselves so violently against the gospel; yet, nevertheless, both pride and also rebellion against God are naturally engendered in all men. We are all wicked and cruel naturally; therefore, in that we are turned to God, that cometh to pass by the wonderful and secret power of God, contrary to nature. The Papists also ascribe the praise of our turning unto God to the grace of God; yet only in part, because they imagine that we work together. But when as the Lord doth mortify our flesh, he subdueth us and bringeth us under, as he did Paul. Neither is our will one hair readier to obey than was Paul’s, until such time as the pride of our heart be beaten down, and he have made us not only flexible but also willing to obey and follow. Therefore, such is the beginning of our conversion, that the Lord seeketh us of his own accord, when we wander and go astray, though he be not called and sought; that he changeth the stubborn affections of our heart, to the end he may have us to be apt to be taught.
Furthermore, this history is of great importance to confirm Paul’s doctrine. If Paul had always been one of Christ’s disciples, wicked and froward men might extenuate the weight of the testimony which he giveth of his Master. If he should have showed himself to be easy to be entreated, and gentle at the first, we should see nothing but that which is proper to man. But when as a deadly enemy to Christ, rebellious against the gospel, puffed up with the confidence which he reposed in his wisdom, inflamed with hatred of the true faith, blinded with hypocrisy, wholly set upon the overthrowing of the truth, [he] is suddenly changed into a new man, after an unwonted manner, and of a wolf is not only turned into a sheep, but doth also take to himself a shepherd’s nature, it is as if Christ should bring forth with his hand some angel sent from heaven. For we do not now see that Saul of Tarsus, but a new man framed by the Spirit of God; so that he speaketh by his mouth now, as it were from heaven.
“Ab infausto trocinio,” from that ominous commencement.
“Domare,” to tame.
“Violenter fracta,” forcibly broken.
“Eadum ipsum sympathia tangi,” that he is touched with the same sympathy.
“Reditura,” recoil upon.