Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 31: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
8. And there were shepherds in the same country abiding in the fields, 134 and watching by night over their flock. 135 9. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them: and the glory 136 of the Lord shone round about them, and they feared with a great fear. 10. And the angel said to them, Fear not: for, lo, I announce to you great joy, which shall be to all the people: 11. For this day is born to you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David. 12. And this shall be a sign to you: 137 you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling-bands 138 laid in a manger: 13. And suddenly there was present with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, 139 praising God, and saying, 14. Glory in the highest 140 to God, and on earth peace, among men good-will. 141
8. And there were shepherds It would have been to no purpose that Christ was born in Bethlehem, if it had not been made known to the world. But the method of doing so, which is described by Luke, appears to the view of men very unsuitable. First, Christ is revealed but to a few witnesses, and that too amidst the darkness of night. Again, though God had, at his command, many honorable and distinguished witnesses, he passed by them, and chose shepherds, persons of humble rank, and of no account among men. Here the reason and wisdom of the flesh must prove to be foolishness; and we must acknowledge, that “the foolishness of God” (1Co 1:25) excels all the wisdom that exists, or appears to exist, in the world. But this too was a part of the “emptying of himself,” (Php 2:6:) not that any part of Christ’s glory should be taken away by it, but that it should lie in concealment for a time. Again, as Paul reminds us, that the gospel is mean according to the flesh, “that our faith should stand” in the power of the Spirit, not in the “lofty 142 words of human wisdom,” or in any worldly splendor, 143 (1 Cor. 2:4, 5;) so this inestimable “treasure” has been deposited by God, from the beginning, “in earthen vessels,” (2Co 4:7,) that he might more fully try the obedience of our faith. If then we desire to come to Christ, let us not be ashamed to follow those whom the Lord, in order to cast down the pride of the world, has taken, from among the dung 144 of cattle, to be our instructors.
9. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them He says, that the glory of the Lord 145 shone around the shepherds, by which they perceived him to be an angel. 146 For it would have been of little avail to be told by an angel what is related by Luke, if God had not testified, by some outward sign, that what they heard proceeded from Him. The angel appeared, not in an ordinary form, or without majesty, but surrounded with the brightness of heavenly glory, to affect powerfully the minds of the shepherds, that they might receive the discourse which was addressed to them, as coming from the mouth of God himself. Hence the fear, of which Luke shortly afterwards speaks, by which God usually humbles the hearts of men, (as I have formerly explained,) and disposes them to receive his word with reverence.
10. Fear not The design of this exhortation is to alleviate their fear. For, though it is profitable for the minds of men to be struck with awe, that they may learn to “give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name,” (Ps 29:2;) yet they have need, at the same time, of consolation, that they may not be altogether overwhelmed. For the majesty of God could not but swallow up the whole world, if there were not some mildness to mitigate the terror which it brings. And so the reprobate fall down lifeless at the sight of God, because he appears to them in no other character than that of a judge. But to revive the minds of the shepherds, the angel declares that he was sent to them for a different purpose, to announce to them the mercy of God. When men hear this single word, that God is reconciled to them, it not only raises up those who are fallen down, but restores those who were ruined, and recalls them from death to life.
The angel opens his discourse by saying, that he announces great joy; and next assigns the ground or matter of joy, that a Savior is born These words show us, first, that, until men have peace with God, and are reconciled to him through the grace of Christ, all the joy that they experience is deceitful, and of short duration. 147 Ungodly men frequently indulge in frantic and intoxicating mirth; but if there be none to make peace between them and God, the hidden stings of conscience must produce fearful torment. Besides, to whatever extent they may flatter themselves in luxurious indulgence, their own lusts are so many tormentors. The commencement of solid joy is, to perceive the fatherly love of God toward us, which alone gives tranquillity to our minds. And this “joy,” in which, Paul tells us, “the kingdom of God” consists, is “in the Holy Spirit,” (Ro 14:17.) By calling it great joy, he shows us, not only that we ought, above all things, to rejoice in the salvation brought us by Christ, but that this blessing is so great and boundless, as fully to compensate for all the pains, distresses, and anxieties of the present life. Let us learn to be so delighted with Christ alone, that the perception of his grace may overcome, and at length remove from us, all the distresses of the flesh. 148
Which shall be to all the people Though the angel addresses the shepherds alone, yet he plainly states, that the message of salvation which he brings is of wider extent, so that not only they, in their private capacity, may hear it, but that others may also hear. Now let it be understood, that this joy was common to all people, because, it was indiscriminately offered to all. For God had promised Christ, not to one person or to another, but to the whole seed of Abraham. If the Jews were deprived, for the most part, of the joy that was offered to them, it arose from their unbelief; just as, at the present day, God invites all indiscriminately to salvation through the Gospel, but the ingratitude of the world is the reason why this grace, which is equally offered to all, is enjoyed by few. Although this joy is confined to a few persons, yet, with respect to God, it is said to be common. When the angel says that this joy shall be to all the people, he speaks of the chosen people only; but now that, the middle wall of partition” (Eph 2:14) has been thrown down, the same message has reference to the whole human race. 149 For Christ proclaims peace, not only, to them that are nigh, “but to them that are, far off,” (Eph 2:17,) to “strangers” (Eph 2:12) equally with citizens. But as the peculiar covenant with the Jews lasted till the resurrection of Christ, so the angel separates them from the rest of the nations.
11. This day is born to you Here, as we lately hinted, the angel expresses the cause of the joy. This day is born the Redeemer long ago promised, who was to restore the Church of God to its proper condition. The angel does not speak of it as a thing altogether unknown. He opens his embassy by referring to the Law and the Prophets; for had he been addressing heathens or irreligious persons, it would have been of no use to employ this mode of speaking: this day is born to you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord For the same reason, he mentions that he was born in the city of David, which could serve no purpose, but to recall the remembrance of those promises which were universally known among the Jews. Lastly, the angel adapted his discourse to hearers who were not altogether unacquainted with the promised redemption. With the doctrine of the Law and the Prophets he joined the Gospel, as emanating from the same source. Now, since the Greek word Greek, as Cicero assures us, has a more extensive meaning than the Latin word Servator, and as there is no Latin noun that corresponds to it, I thought it better to employ a barbarous term, than to take anything away from the power of Christ. And I have no doubt, that the author of the Vulgate, and the ancient doctors of the Church, had the same intention. 150 Christ is called Savior, 151 because he bestows a complete salvation. The pronoun to you 152 is very emphatic; for it would have given no great delight to hear that the Author of salvation was born, unless each person believed that for himself he was born. In the same manner Isaiah says, “Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given,” (Isa 9:6;) and Zechariah, “Behold, thy King cometh unto thee lowly,” (Zec 9:9.)
12. And this shall be a sign to you 153 The angel meets the prejudice which might naturally hinder the faith of the shepherds; for what a mockery is it, that he, whom God has sent to be the King, and the only Savior, is seen lying in a manger! That the mean and despicable condition in which Christ was might not deter the shepherds from believing in Christ, the angel tells them beforehand what they would see. This method of proceeding, which might appear, to the view of men, absurd and almost ridiculous, the Lord pursues toward us every day. Sending down to us from heaven the word of the Gospel, he enjoins us to embrace Christ crucified, and holds out to us signs in earthly and fading elements, which raise us to the glory of a blessed immortality. Having promised to us spiritual righteousness, he places before our eyes a little water: by a small portion of bread and wine, he seals, 154 the eternal life of the soul. 155 But if the stable gave no offense whatever to the shepherds, so as to prevent them from going to Christ to obtain salvation, or from yielding to his authority, while he was yet a child; no sign, however mean in itself, ought to hide his glory from our view, or prevent us from offering to him lowly adoration, now that he has ascended to heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father.
13. And suddenly there was present with the angel a multitude An exhibition of divine splendor had been already made in the person of a single angel. But God determined to adorn his own Son in a still more illustrious manner, This was done to confirm our faith as truly as that of the shepherds. Among men, the testimony of “two or three witnesses” (Mt 18:16) is sufficient to remove all doubt. But here is a heavenly host, with one consent and one voice bearing testimony to the Son of God. What then would be our obstinacy, if we refused to join with the choir of angels, in singing the praises of our salvation, which is in Christ? Hence we infer, how abominable in the sight of God must unbelief be, which disturbs this delightful harmony between heaven and earth. Again, we are convicted of more than brutal stupidity, if our faith and our zeal to praise God are not inflamed by the song which the angels, with the view of supplying us with the matter of our praise, sang in full harmony. Still farther, by this example of heavenly melody, the Lord intended to recommend to us the unity of faith, and to exhort us to join with one consent in singing his praises on earth.
14. Glory to God in the highest The angels begin with thanksgiving, or with the praises of God; for Scripture, too, everywhere reminds us, that we were redeemed from death for this purpose, that we might testify with the tongue, as well as by the actions of the life, our gratitude to God. Let us remember, then, the final cause, why God reconciled us to himself through his Only Begotten Son. It was that he might glorify his name, by revealing the riches of his grace, and of his boundless mercy. And even now to whatever extent any one is excited by his knowledge of grace to celebrate the glory of God, such is the extent of proficiency in the faith of Christ. Whenever our salvation is mentioned, we should understand that a signal has been given, 156 to excite us to thanksgiving and to the praises of God.
On earth peace The most general reading is, that the words, among men good-will, should stand as a third clause. So far as relates to the leading idea of the passage, it is of little moment which way you read it; but the other appears to be preferable. The two clauses, Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, do unquestionably agree with each other; but if you do not place men and God in marked opposition, the contrast will not fully appear. 157 Perhaps commentators have mistaken the meaning of the preposition ἐν, for it was an obscure meaning of the words to say, that there is peace in men; but as that word is redundant in many passages of Scripture, it need not detain us here. However, if any one prefer to throw it to the last clause, the meaning will be the same, as I shall presently show.
We must now see what the angels mean by the word peace. They certainly do not speak of an outward peace cultivated by men with each other; but they say, that the earth is at peace, when men have been reconciled to God, and enjoy an inward tranquillity in their own minds. 158 We know that we are born “children of wrath,” (Eph 2:3,) and are by nature enemies to God; and must be distressed by fearful apprehensions, so long as we feel that God is angry with us. A short and clear definition of peace may be obtained from two opposite things, — the wrath of God and the dread of death. It has thus a twofold reference; one to God, and another to men. We obtain peace with God, when he begins to be gracious to us, by taking away our guilt, and “not imputing to us our trespasses,” (2Co 5:19;) and when we, relying on his fatherly love, address him with full confidence, and boldly praise him for the salvation which he has promised to us. Now though, in another passage, the life of man on earth is declared to be a continual warfare, 159 (Job 7:1,) and the state of the fact shows that nothing is more full of trouble than our condition, so long as we remain in the world, yet the angels expressly say that there is peace on earth This is intended to inform us that, so long as we trust to the grace of Christ, no troubles that can arise will prevent us from enjoying composure and serenity of mind. Let us then remember, that faith is seated amidst the storms of temptations, amidst various dangers, amidst violent attacks, amidst contests and fears, that our faith may not fail or be shaken by any kind of opposition.
Among men good-will 160 The Vulgate has good-will in the genitive case: to men of good-will. 161 How that reading crept in, I know not: but it ought certainly to be rejected, both because it is not genuine, 162 and because it entirely corruptsthe meaning. Others read good-will in the nominative case, and still mistake its meaning. They refer good-will to men, as if it were an exhortation to embrace the grace of God. I acknowledge that the peace which the Lord offers to us takes effect only when we receive it. But as εὐδοκία is constantly used in Scripture in the sense of the Hebrew word רצון, the old translator rendered it beneplacitum, or, good-will. This passage is not correctly understood as referring to the acceptance of grace. The angels rather speak of it as the source of peace, and thus inform us that peace is a free gift, and flows from the pure mercy of God. If it is thought better to read good-will to men, or towards men, 163 it will not be inadmissible, so far as regards the meaning: for in this way it will show the cause of peace to be, that God has been pleased to bestow his undeserved favor on men, with whom he formerly was at deadly variance. If you read, the peace of good-will as meaning voluntary peace, neither will I object to that interpretation. But the simpler way is to look upon εὐφοκία as added, in order to inform us of the source from which our peace is derived. 164
“Couchant es champs.”
“Gardant les veilles de la nuict.”
“La clarte;” — “the brightness.”
“Et vous aurez ces enseignes;” — “and you shall have these signs.”
“Pannis;” — “bandelettes.”
“Militiae;” — “des armees celestes;” — “of the heavenly armies.”
“es cieux treshauts;” — “in the highest heavens.”
“Envers les hommes son bon plaisir, ou, bonne volonte;” — “towards men his good pleasure, or, good-will.”
“En paroles magnifiques;” — “in magnificent words.”
“En quelque lustre et apparence du monde;” — “in any luster and display of the world.”
“Ex pecudum stercore;” — “sur la fiente des bestes.”
“La clarte du Seigneur;” — “the brightness of the Lord.”
“c'a este afin qu'ils cogneussent que c'estoit l'ange de Dieu qui parloit;” — “it was in order that they might know that it was the angel of the Lord that spoke.”
“Ce n'est que fumee;” — “it is only smoke.”
“Parquoy apprenons de prendre tellement notre contentement en Christ seul, que le sentiment de sa grace nous face surmonter toutes choses qui sont dures a la chair, et finalement en oste toute l'amertume.”— “Wherefore, let us learn to take our satisfaction, in such a manner, in Christ alone, that the feeling of his grace may make us rise above all things that are unpleasant to the flesh, and finally may take away all their bitterness.”
“Au reste, il est bien vray que l'ange parle seulement du peuple esleu, assavoir des Juifs; mais pourceque maintenant la paroy qui faisoit separation est rompue, la mesme ambassade s'addresse aujourdhui a tout le genre humain.” — “Besides, it is very true that the angel speaks only of the elect people, namely, the Jews; but because now the wall of partition which made a separation is broken down, the same message is addressed, at the present day, to all the human race.”
He refers to his use of the Latin word Salvator, for which there is no classical authority. The apology may be deemed unnecessary; but Calvin was entitled to be more sensitive on this point than many modern scholars. The purity of his style discovers so perfect an acquaintance with the writers of the Augustan age, that it must have given him uneasiness to depart from their authorized terms. He pleads high authority for the liberty he had taken. Cicero, whose command of the resources of his native tongue will not be questioned, acknowledges that there is no Latin word which conveys the full import of the Greek word σωτ́ηρ, and in this, as well as many other instances, calls in the aid of a richer and more expressive language than his own. — Ed.
“Au reste, ce n'est pas sans cause que ce mot Vous est adjouste: et il est bien a poiser. Car il ne serviroit gueres de savoir que le Sauveur est nay, sinon qu'un chacun appliquast cela a sa personne, s'asseurant que c'est pour lui qu'est nay le Fils de Dieu.” — “Besides, it is not without reason that this word You is added; and it is well to weigh it. For it would hardly be of service to know that the Savior is born, unless each applied that to his own person, being persuaded that it is for him that the Savior is born.”
“Et vous aurez ces enseignes;” — “and you shall have these signs.”
“Eternam animi vitam obsignat.”—Our rendering is close. But what is sealed? Is it meant, that the mere act of partaking the Lord's Supper places beyond a doubt the salvation of the worshipper, or even gives to it any additional certainty? In some loose sense of this sort, the phrase is often enough used even by Protestant divines. It is satisfactory to have Calvin's own authority for the meaning of this passage. “Il seelle la promesse.” — “He seals the promise.” The meaning is, that God ratifies his word. By condescending to employ outward symbols, together with his holy word, for expressing the blessings of salvation he holds out to his people an additional testimony, and in this manner grants a strong confirmation to their faith. — Ed.
It may be proper to exhibit the entire sentence referred to in the former note. “Comme nous ayant promis la justice spirituelle, il nous met devant les yeux un peu d'eau: par un petit morceau de pain et une goutte de vin, il seelle la promesse qu'il a faite de la vie eternelle de nos ames.” — “As, having promised to us spiritual righteousness, he places before our eyes a little water: by a small morsel of bread and a drop of wine, he seals the promise which he has made of the eternal life of our souls.”
“Comme si la trompette sonnoit, pour nous resveiller;” — “as if the trumpet were sounding to awake us.”
“Or si on ne mettoit les hommes au second membre, l'antithese ne seroit pas parfaite.” — “But if men were not put in the second clause, the contrast would not be perfect.”
“Quand les hommes estans reconciliez a Dieu, ont repos en leurs esprits, et en leurs consciences.” — “When men being reconciled to God, have rest in their minds and in their consciences.”
הלא צבא לאכוש על ארף,—”is there not a warfare to man upon earth?”
“Envers les hommes son bon plaisir, ou, bonne volonte;” — “towards men his good pleasure, or, good-will.”
“Hominibus bonae voluntatis.”
“Adulterina.” — “Pource que ce n'est pas la vraye et naturelle.” —”Because it is not the true and natural reading.”
“In hominibus;” — “Aux hommes, ou, Envers les hommes.”
In the Opuscula Theologica of the elder Tittmann, the critical scholar will find this beautiful passage discussed with that happy union of learning, discrimination, and piety, which distinguishes all his writings. — Ed.