Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 36: Acts, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
1. And there were in the church which was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon, called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, who had been brought up with Herod and Saul. 2. And as they ministered unto the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate to me Barnabas and Saul unto the work whereto I have called them. 3. Then after they had fasted and prayed, and laid the hands upon them, they let them go.
Here followeth an history, not only worthy to be remembered, but also very profitable to be known, how Paul was appointed the teacher of the Gentiles; for his calling was, as it were, a key whereby God opened to us the kingdom of heaven. We know that the covenant of eternal life was properly concluded with the Jews, so that we had nothing to do with God’s inheritance, forasmuch as we were strangers, (Eph 2:12;) and the wall of separation was between, which did distinguish those of the household from strangers. Therefore it had profited us nothing, that Christ brought salvation unto the world, unless, the disagreement being taken away, there had been some entrance made for us into the Church. The apostles had already received commandment touching the preaching of the gospel throughout the whole world, (Mr 16:16,) but they had kept themselves until this time within the borders of Judea. When Peter was sent to Cornelius, it was a thing so new and strange, that it was almost counted a monster, [prodigy.] Secondly, that might seem to be a privilege granted to a few men extraordinarily; but now, forasmuch as God doth plainly and openly appoint Paul and Barnabas to be apostles of the Gentiles, by this means he maketh them equal with the Jews; that the gospel may begin to be common as well to the one as to the other. And now the wall of separation is taken away, that both those who were far off and those which were nigh hand may be reconciled to God; and that being gathered under one head, they may grow together to be one body. Therefore Paul’s calling ought to be of no less weight amongst us, than if God should cry from heaven in the hearing of all men, that the salvation, promised in times past to Abraham, and to the seed of Abraham, (Ge 22:17) doth no less appertain unto us at this day, than if we had come out of the loins of Abraham. For this cause is it that Paul laboreth so much 772 in defense and avouching of his calling, (Gal. 1:17, 12;) that the Gentiles may assuredly persuade themselves that the doctrine of the gospel was not brought to them by chance, neither by man’s rashness, but, first, by the wonderful counsel of God; secondly, by express commandment, whilst that he made that known to men which he had decreed with himself.
1 There were in the church. I have declared in the fourth to the Ephesians, (Eph 4:11) and in the twelfth of the First to the Corinthians, (1Co 12:28,) what difference there is (at least in my judgment) between doctors and prophets. It may be that they are in this place synonyma, [synonymous,] (or that they signify both one thing,) so that this is Luke’s meaning, that there were many men in that church endowed with singular grace of the Spirit to teach. Surely I cannot see how it can hang together, to understand by prophets those which were endowed with the gift of foretelling things; but I think rather that it signifieth excellent interpreters of Scripture. And such had the office to teach and exhort, as Paul doth testify in the fourteenth of the First to the Corinthians, (1 Corinthians 45:37.) We must mark Luke’s drift: Paul and Barnabas were ministers of the church of Antioch; God calleth them thence now unto another place. Lest any man should think that that church was destitute of good and fit ministers, so that God did provide for other churches with the loss of it, Luke preventeth this, and saith, that there was such store there, that though it did help others, yet did there remain sufficient for the use thereof; whereby appeareth how plentifully God had poured out his grace upon the Church, whence rivers, as it were, might be deducted and carried into diverse places.
So even in our time God doth so enrich certain churches more than others, that they be seminaries to spread abroad the doctrine of the gospel. It must needs be that Manaen, who was brought up with Herod, came of some noble family. And this doth Luke recite of purpose that he may set forth to us his godliness who, despising worldly pomp, had coupled himself to the simple and despised flock of Christ. He might, indeed, have been a principal courtier if he had been ruled by ambition; but that he may wholly addict himself to Christ, he refuseth not to change those smokes of honor with [for] reproach and ignominy. For if we consider in what state the Church stood then, he could not give his name to the gospel, unless he should make himself subject 773 to common infamy. Therefore the Lord meant to teach us, by his example, to despise the world, that those may learn with a valiant and lofty mind to despise the world, who cannot otherwise be true Christians, unless they cast away those things which are precious to the flesh, as hurtful lets and hindrances.
2 And they ministered to the Lord. The word which Luke useth doth not only signify to be occupied about holy things, but also sometimes to bear public offices. And because the holy rites of the Gentiles did for the most part consist upon [of] burnt-offerings and sacrifices, it is oftentimes taken for to offer sacrifice; which sense did well like the Papists, that they might prove that the apostles did use some sacrifice. But admit it were so; yet do they foolishly pretend for defense of their mass, that the teachers of Antioch did sacrifice. First, forasmuch as the word is of the plural number, it followeth that every one of them did say mass. But letting toys pass, I say we must consider what manner of sacrifice Christ commended to his Church. The Papists feign that the office of priesthood is enjoined them, to sacrifice Christ and by sacrificing him to redeem peace with God. There is so little mention made hereof in Scripture, that the Son of God doth rather challenge this honor to himself alone. Wherefore Christ’s Church hath another priesthood, to wit that every man may offer himself and his to God; and that the public ministers may sacrifice to God, souls, with the spiritual sword of the gospel, as Paul teacheth, (Ro 15:16.) Moreover, the prayers of all the godly are the spiritual calves of the lips, (Ho 14:2,) wherewith God is well pleased, when they are offered up upon the holy altar; that is, in Christ’s name, [as] in the thirteenth to the Hebrews, (Heb 13:15.) Therefore, when Luke saith that the prophets and teachers ministered to God when the Spirit spake to them, I understand nothing else but that they were in the public action. He addeth fasting, that we may know that their minds were then free from all impediments, that nothing might hinder them from giving attendance to prophesying. But the question is, 774 whether they kept a common fast, or Luke doth only signify that they were fasting then until that time. This is, without question, that these circumstances were expressed, that Paul’s calling may carry the more credit amongst us.
Separate to me. God commandeth that Paul and Barnabas be sent by the consent of the Church, thither whither he had appointed them to be sent; whereby we gather that there is no lawful election of pastors, save only wherein God is chief. For whereas he hath commanded that the Church should elect pastors and bishops, he hath not therefore granted men so much liberty, but that he will bear the chief sway as the chief governor. The ordinary election of pastors differeth from this appointing of Paul and Barnabas, because it was requisite that they should be appointed by the heavenly oracle to be the apostles of the Gentiles; which is not necessary to be done daily in ordaining pastors. But they agree in this, that as God did testify that Paul and Barnabas were already appointed by his decree to preach the gospel, so none may be called unto the office of teaching save only those whom God hath already chosen to himself after a sort.
Furthermore, there is no need that the Spirit should cry to us out of heaven, that he is called of God about whom we are, 775 because we receive those, as it were, from hand to hand, (as they say,) whom God hath furnished with necessary gifts, forasmuch as they are framed and made fit by his hand. But whereas Luke saith in this place, that Paul was appointed by the voices and consents 776 of the Church; it doth seem not to agree with Paul’s own words, where he doth deny that he was called of men, or by men, (Ga 1:1.) I answer, that he was made an apostle long before, (and that by no voices [suffrages] of men,) before such time as he was sent unto the Gentiles; and he had now already executed the office of an apostle many years, when he was called to go unto the Gentiles by a new oracle. Wherefore, that he may have God for the author of his apostleship, it is not without cause that he excludeth men. And he doth not now command that he be ordained by the Church therefore, [viz.] that his calling may depend upon men; but God publisheth that his decree, which was as yet known to a few, and that with a public commandment, and he commandeth that it be sealed with the solemn subscription of the Church. Therefore, this is the meaning of the words, That this is the time wherein Paul must preach the gospel among the Gentiles, and the wall being pulled down, he must gather a Church of the Gentiles, who were before strangers from the kingdom of God, (Eph 2:14.) For although God had used him hitherto at Antioch and elsewhere, this was now added as a peculiar thing, that God did intend to adopt the Gentiles into the same inheritance of life with the Jews. But and if he were thus created a teacher of the Church from the beginning, he should not then have been called at that time by men. For, seeing the Lord doth pronounce that he had called him, what doth he leave for the Church, save only that they subscribe obediently? For men’s judgment is not here put as in a doubtful matter, neither have their voices and consents any freedom. But we must mark what I have already said, that Paul and Barnabas are not now only appointed teachers, but they have an extraordinary office enjoined them, that they may begin to bring the grace of God commonly unto the Gentiles. And that do the words import, when it is said, Separate to the work For undoubtedly he speaketh of a new work, and which had heretofore not been used.
But how is Barnabas in this place appointed to be Paul’s companion and fellow in office, who, as far as we can read, did never execute the office of teaching? yea, who did always give Paul leave to teach, without saying anything himself? I answer, that he had occasions enough offered him to speak in Paul’s absence, so that they had both of them enough to do. For one could not always be present in all places. It is not to be doubted but that he did faithfully discharge that duty which God had enjoined him, and that he was no dumb looker on. And why should we wonder that Luke doth not set down his sermons in plain words, seeing that he scarce repeateth one of a thousand of Paul’s?
The Spirit said. Whatsoever Macedonius and his sect object that they may turn their backs, 777 yet we have a more plain and sound testimony of the divine essence of the Spirit in this place, than that they can escape it and make it frustrate. There is nothing more proper to God than with his power and commandment to govern the Church alone; but the Spirit challengeth this right when he commandeth that Paul and Barnabas be separated to him, and testifieth that they were called by his beck. Assuredly we must needs confess that the body of the Church is lame and without a head, unless we confess that it is God who ordereth the same at his pleasure, who setteth teachers over it, who governeth the proceedings and order thereof. We shall have afterwards chapter 20, in Paul’s sermon, (Ac 20:28,) that all bishops are placed by the Holy Ghost, which govern the Church; but no man is to be counted a lawful pastor of the Church, as the same Paul witnesseth, save he which is called of God; neither doth God point out false prophets by any other mark, save only by this, that he hath not sent them; therefore, we gather that the Holy Ghost is God indeed, whose authority is sufficient to choose pastors, and who hath the chief rule in choosing them, which is likewise confirmed out of the words of Isaiah,
“And now, behold, the Lord hath sent me, and his Spirit,”
Furthermore, we must note out of these words, that he is a person truly subsisting in God; for if we admit Sabellius’s invention, that the word Spirit importeth no person, 778 but that it is a bare adjunct, [epithet] that shall be a foolish and absurd speech, that the Holy Ghost hath said, 779 Isaias also should foolishly ascribe to him the sending of a prophet.
3. When they had fasted and prayed. That they may obey the oracle, they do not only send Paul and Barnabas away; but also with a solemn rite they appoint them to be the apostles of the Gentiles; it is without question that this was a public fast. Luke said before, that they were fasting, forasmuch as they were busied in their ministry: it might be that that was according to the custom; but now there is another reason, for in appointing a public fast, which used to be done in hard matters and of great importance, they provoke both themselves and others unto an earnest ferventness in prayer, for this is oftentimes added in Scripture as a help to prayer; but (it was a matter of such weight to erect the kingdom of Christ amongst the Gentiles) the teachers of Antioch do not without cause earnestly pray the Lord, that he will enable his servants; 780 and that was not the end of their prayer, that God would, by his Spirit of wisdom and discretion, govern their judgments in choosing, because all disputation or doubting concerning this matter was taken away; but that God would furnish those with the Spirit of wisdom and strength whom he had already chosen to himself, that he would strengthen them with his power against all the invasions of Satan and the world, that he would bless their labors, that they might not be unfruitful, that he would open a gate for the new preaching of the gospel.
The laying on of hands which Luke reckoneth up, in the third place, was a kind of consecration, as we have said, (Ac 6:6.) For the apostles retained the ceremony which was used amongst the Jews, according to the old custom of the law; as also kneeling, and such rites, which were profitable to exercise godliness. In sum, this is the end why they laid their hands upon Barnabas and Paul, that the Church might offer them to God, and that they might with their consent declare that this office was enjoined them by God; for the calling was properly God’s alone, but the external ordaining did belong to the Church, and that according to the heavenly oracle.
“Multis locis,” in many passages, omitted.
“Quin se... subjiceret,” without subjecting himself.
“Dubium est,” it is doubtful.
“Divinitus vocatum esse eum de quo agitur,” that he of whom we treat (whose election is in question) is divinely called.
“Suffragiis,” by the suffrages.
“Tergiversandi causa,” for the sake of tergiversation.
“Hypostasin non designet,” does not designate a hypostasis.
“Inepta et absurda erit loqutio, quod Spiritus Sanctus dixerit,” the expression, “that the Holy Spirit said,” will be absurd and inept.
“Ut det pares servis suis humeros,” that he may make the shoulders of his servants equal to the burden, may fit them for the office.