Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 32: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
Matthew 17:22-23, 18:1-5; Mark 9:30-37;
22. And while they remained in Galilee, Jesus said to them, The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men: 23. And they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again. And they were deeply grieved.
1. At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? 2. And Jesus, having called a little child to him, placed him in the midst of them, 3. And said, Verily I say to you, Unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. 4. Whosoever then shall humble himself like this little child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5. And whosoever shall receive such a little child in my name receiveth me.
30. And departing thence, they passed through Galilee, and he was desirous that nobody should know it. 31. For he taught his disciples, and said to them, The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and, after being killed, he will arise on the third day. 32. but they knew not what he said, and were afraid to ask him. 33. And he came to Capernaum; 495 and when he was come into the house, he asked them, What were you disputing about among yourselves on the road? 34. But they were silent; for they had disputed among themselves by the way who was the greatest. 35. And when he had sat down, he called the twelve, and said to them, If any man choose to be first, he shall be last of all, 496 and servant of all. 36. And he took a child, and placed him in the midst of them; and when he had taken him in his arms, he said to them, 37. Whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name receiveth me; and whosoever receiveth me receiveth not me, but him that sent me.
43. But while all were wondering at everything that he did, he said to his disciples, 44. Put these words in your ears; for the Son of man shall be delivered into the hands of men. 45. But they understood not that saying, and it was hidden from them, so that they did not perceive it, and they were afraid to ask him concerning this saying. 46. And a dispute arose among them, which of them was the greatest. 47. But Jesus, seeing the thought of their heart, took a child, and placed him near him, 48. And said to them, Whosoever shall receive this child in my name receiveth me; and whosoever shall receive me receiveth him that sent me; for he that is least among you all shall be great.
Matthew 17:22. And while they remained in Galilee. The nearer that the time of his death approached, the more frequently did Christ warn his disciples, lest that melancholy spectacle might give a violent shock to their faith. It was shortly after the miracle had been performed that this discourse was delivered; for Mark says that he went from that place to Galilee, in order to spend there the intervening time in privacy; for he had resolved to come to Jerusalem on the day of the annual sacrifice, because he was to be sacrificed at the approaching Passover.
The disciples had previously received several intimations on this subject, and yet they are as much alarmed as if nothing relating to it had ever reached their ears. So great is the influence of preconceived opinion, that it brings darkness over the mind in the midst of the clearest light. The apostles had imagined that the state of Christ’s kingdom would be prosperous and delightful, and that, as soon as he made himself known, he would be universally received with the highest approbation. They never thought it possible that the priests, and scribes, and other rulers of the Church, would oppose him. Under the influence of this prejudice, they admit nothing that is said on the other side; for Mark says that they understood not what our Lord meant. Whence came it that a discourse so clear and distinct was not understood, but because their minds were covered by the thick veil of a foolish imagination?
They did not venture to make any farther inquiry. This must have been owing, in part, to their reverence for their Master; but I have no doubt that their grief and astonishment at what they had heard kept them silent. Such bashfulness was not altogether commendable; for it kept them in doubt, and hesitation, and sinful grief. In the meantime, a confused principle of piety, rather than a clear knowledge of the truth, kept them attached to Christ, and prevented them from leaving his school. A certain commencement of faith and right understanding had been implanted in their hearts, which made their zeal in following Christ not very different from the implicit faith of the Papists; but as they had not yet made such progress as to become acquainted with the nature of the kingdom of God and of the renewal which had been promised in Christ, I say that they were guided by zeal for piety rather than by distinct knowledge.
In this way we come to see what there was in them that deserved praise or blame. But though their stupidity could not entirely be excused, we have no reason to wonder that a plain and distinct announcement of the cross of their Master, and of the ignominy to which he would be subjected, appeared to them a riddle; not only because they reckoned it to be inconsistent with the glory of the Son of God that he should be rejected and condemned, but because it appeared to them to be highly improbable that the grace which was promised in a peculiar manner to the Jews should be set at naught by the rulers of the nation. But as the immoderate dread of the cross, which had suddenly seized upon them, shut the door against the consolation which was immediately added, arising out of the hope of the resurrection, let us learn that, when the death of Christ is mentioned, we ought always to take into view at once the whole of the three days, that his death and burial may lead us to a blessed triumph and to a new life.
Matthew 18:1. At that time the disciples came to Jesus. It is evident from the other two Evangelists, that the disciples did not come to Christ of their own accord, but that, having secretly disputed on the road, they were brought out of their lurking-places, and dragged forth to light. There is nothing inconsistent with this in the account given by Matthew, who hastens to Christ’s reply, and does not relate all the circumstances of the case, but passes over the commencement, and relates in a summary manner the reason why Christ rebuked the foolish ambition of his disciples for the highest rank. When Christ makes inquiry about a secret conversation, and forces the disciples to acknowledge what they would willingly have kept back, this teaches us that we ought to beware of all ambition, however carefully it may be concealed. We must also attend to the time at which this occurred. The prediction of his death had made them sad and perplexed; but as if they had received from it unmingled delight, as if they had tasted of the nectar which the poets feign, 497 they immediately enter into a dispute about the highest rank. 498 How was it possible that their distress of mind vanished in a moment, but because the minds of men are so devoted to ambition, that, forgetful of their present state of warfare, they continually rush forward, under the delusive influence of a false imagination, to obtain a triumph? And if the apostles so soon forgot a discourse which they had lately heard, what will become of us if, dismissing for a long period meditation on the cross, we give ourselves up to indifference and sloth, or to idle speculations?
But it is asked, what occasioned the dispute among the disciples? I reply, as the flesh willingly shakes off all uneasiness, they left out of view every thing that had given rise to grief, and fixed on what had been said about the resurrection; and out of this a debate sprung up among idle persons. And as they refuse the first part of the doctrine, for which the flesh has no relish, God permits them to fall into a mistake about the resurrection, and to dream of what would never take place, that, by mere preaching, Christ would obtain a kingdom, an earthly kingdom, and would immediately rise to the highest prosperity and wealth.
There were two faults in this debate. First, the apostles were to blame for laying aside anxiety about the warfare to which they had been called, and for demanding beforehand repose, and wages, and honors, as if they had been soldiers that had served their time. The second fault is, that, instead of laboring with one consent, as they ought to have done, to render mutual assistance, and to secure for their brethren as large a share of honors as for themselves, they strove with wicked ambition to excel each other. If we wish that our manner of life should receive the approbation of the Lord, we must learn to bear patiently the burden of the cross that has been laid on us, till the proper time arrive for obtaining the crown, and, as Paul exhorts, in honor preferring one another, (Ro 12:10.) To the first of these faults is closely allied the vain curiosity of those persons in the present day, who, leaving the proper duties of their calling, eagerly attempt to fly above the clouds. The Lord, who in the Gospel invites us to his kingdom, points out to us the road by which we are to reach it. Fickle persons, who give themselves no concern about faith, patience, calling on God, and other exercises of religion, dispute about what is going on in heaven; as if a man who was about to commence a journey made inquiry where a lodging-place was situated, but did not move a step. Since we are commanded by the Lord to walk on the earth, those who make the condition of departed saints in heaven the subject of eager debate will be found, in so doing, to retard their own progress towards heaven.
2. And Jesus called a child to him. The general meaning is, that those who desire to obtain greatness by rising above their brethren, will be so far from gaining their object that they do not even deserve to occupy the lowest corner. He reasons from contraries, because it is humility alone that exalts us. As we are more powerfully affected by appearances presented to the eyes, he holds up to them a little child as an emblem of humility. When he enjoins his followers to become like a child, this does not extend indiscriminately to all points. We know that in children there are many things faulty; and accordingly Paul bids us be children, not in understanding, but in malice, (1Co 14:20;) and in another passage he exhorts us to strive to reach the state of a perfect man, (Eph 4:13.) But as children know nothing about being preferred to each other, or about contending for the highest rank, Christ desires that their example should banish from the minds of his followers those eager longings after distinction, which wicked men and the children of the world continually indulge, that they may not be allured by any kind of ambition.
It will perhaps be objected, that children, even from the womb, have a native pride, which leads them to desire the highest honor and distinction; but the reply is obvious, that comparisons must not be too closely or too exactly carried out, so as to apply at all points. The tender age of little children is distinguished by simplicity to such an extent, that they are unacquainted with the degrees of honor, and with all the incentives to pride; so that they are properly and justly held out by Christ as an example.
3. Unless you are converted. To the example of little children must be referred the conversion of which he now speaks. Hitherto they had been too much habituated to the ordinary customs of men; and if they would gain their object, they must pursue a totally different course. 499 Every one wished for himself the first or the second rank; but Christ does not allot even the lowest place to any man who does not lose sight of distinctions and humble himself On the contrary, he says,
4. Whosoever shall humble himself like this little child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. This is intended to guard us against supposing that we degrade ourselves in any measure by freely surrendering every kind of distinction. And hence we may obtain a short definition 500 of humility. That man is truly humble who neither claims any personal merit in the sight of God, nor proudly despises brethren, or aims at being thought superior to them, but reckons it enough that he is one of the members of Christ, and desires nothing more than that the Head alone should be exalted.
5. And he that shall receive such a child. The term children is now applied metaphorically by Christ to those who have laid aside lofty looks, and who conduct themselves with modesty and humility. This is added by way of consolation, that we may not account it troublesome or disagreeable to exercise humility, by means of which Christ not only receives us under his protection, but likewise recommends us to the favor of men. And thus believers are taught in what way they ought to esteem each other: it is by every one humbling himself How is mutual friendship usually maintained among the children of the world but by every man complying with the wishes of another? The more desirous a man is to obtain renown, the more insolently does he grasp at power, that he may be raised to a lofty station, and that others may be ridiculed or despised; but Christ enjoins that the more a man abases himself, the more highly shall he be honored. Such, too, is the import of the words given by Luke, he that is least among you shall be great; for our Lord does not enjoin us to think more highly of those who justly deserve to be despised, but of those who divest themselves of all pride, and are perfectly willing to occupy the lowest place.
“Apres ces choses il veint en Capernaum;” — “after these things he came to Capernaum.”
“Il sera (ou, qu’il soit) le dernier de tous;” — “he shall be (or, let him be) servant of all.”
“Comme si tout alloit a souhait et comme si ce qu’on leur a dit estoit aussi doux a avaller que sucre;” — “as if every thing went to their wish, and as if what was said to them were as pleasant to swallow as sugar.”
“De la primaute;” — “about the primacy.”
“Il leur est besoin de tourner bride, et de s’accoustumer a tout cela;” — “they must wheel round, and get accustomed to all this.”
“La vraye definition;” — “the true definition.”