Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 36: Acts, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
11. Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard this man speak blasphemous words against Moses and God. 12. And they moved the people, and the elders, and the scribes. And invading him, they took him and brought him into the council. 13. And they brought forth false witnesses) which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law. 14. For we have heard him say, That this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the ordinances which Moses hath given us. 15. And when all which sat in the council had beholden him, they saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.
12. Being overcome with the power of the Spirit, they give over disputing, but they prepare false witnesses, that with false and slanderous reports, they may oppress him; whereby it appeareth that they did strive with an evil conscience. For what can be more unmeet than in their cause to lean unto lies? 359 Admit he were a wicked man, and guilty, yet he must not have false witness borne against him. 360 But hypocrites, which shroud themselves under zeal, do carelessly grant themselves leave to do that. We see how the Papists at this day corrupt manifest places of Scripture, and that wittingly, whilst that they will falsely wrest testimonies against us. I confess, indeed, that they offend for the most part through ignorance; yet can we find none of them which doth not grant himself liberty to corrupt both the sense and also the words of the Scripture, that they may bring our doctrine into contempt; 361 yea, they slander us monstrously even in the pulpit. If you ask these Rabbins, whether it be lawful to slander a man or no, they will deny that it is lawful generally; but when they come unto us, good zeal doth excuse them, because they think that nothing is unlawful which may burden us or our cause; therefore they flatter themselves in lying, falsehood, and dogged impudence. Such hypocrisy did also blind them of whom Luke speaketh in this place, which used false witness to put Stephen to death; for when Satan reigneth, he doth not only prick forward the reprobate unto cruelty, but also blind their eyes, so that they think that they may do whatsoever they will. We are specially taught by this example, how dangerous the color of good zeal is, unless it be governed by the Spirit of God; for it breaketh out always into furious madness, and, in the mean season, it is a marvelous visor to cover all manner of wickedness.
14. We have heard It shall full well appear by Stephen’s defense, that he never spake anything touching Moses or the temple without reverence; and yet, notwithstanding, this was not laid to his charge for nothing, for he had taught the abrogating of the law. But they are false witnesses in this, and suborned to lie, because they corrupt purposely those things which were well and godly spoken. So Christ was enforced to clear himself, that he came, not to destroy the law, but to fulfill the law; because, when he had preached of abrogating the ceremonies, the wicked wrested this unto another purpose, as if he meant to abolish and take away the whole law. Furthermore, they wrested that wickedly unto the temple of Jerusalem, which he spake of his body. What, was it not objected to Paul, that he taught, “That evil is to be done, that good may come thereof?”
Therefore, there is no cause why we should wonder at this day that that is so falsely misconstrued which we teach godly, well, and profitably; yea, we must rather persuade ourselves thus, that the doctrine of the gospel can never be handled so warily and moderately, but that it shall be subject to false accusations; for Satan, who is the father of lying, doth always bestir himself in his office. Again, because there be many things which are contrary to the reason of the flesh, men are inclined to nothing more than to admit false reports, which corrupt the true and sincere sense of doctrine. This malice of Satan, and the sleights, ought to make us more wary and more circumspect that no preposterous thing, or anything that is improperly spoken, escape us, wherewith they may be armed to fight against us; for we must carefully cut off from the wicked that occasion whereat they snatch. And if we see that, doctrine, which is by us well and godly delivered, corrupted, deformed, and torn in pieces with false reports, we must not repent that we have begun, neither yet is there any cause why we should be more slack hereafter; for it is not meet that we should be flee from the poisoned and venomous bitings of Satan, which the Son of God himself could not escape. In the mean season, it is our part and duty to dash and put away those lies wherewith the truth of God is burdened, like as we see Christ free the doctrine of the gospel from unjust infamy. Only let us so prepare ourselves that such indignity and dishonest dealing may not hinder us in our course.
Because we teach that men are so corrupt, that they are altogether slaves unto sin and wicked lusts, the enemies do thereupon infer this false accusation, that we deny that men sin willingly, but that they are enforced thereunto by some other means, so that they are not in the fault, neither bear any blame; yea, they say farther, that we quench altogether all desire to do well. Because we deny that the works of holy men are for their own worthiness meritorious, because they have always some fault or imperfection in them, they cavil that we put no difference between the good and the evil. 362 Because we say that man’s righteousness consisteth in the grace of God alone, and that godly souls can find rest nowhere else, save only in the death of Christ; they object that by this means we grant liberty to the flesh, (to do whatsoever it will,) that the use of the law may no longer remain. When as we maintain the honor of Christ, which they bestow as it pleaseth them here and there, after that they have rent it in a thousand pieces like a prey; they feign that we are enemies to the saints, they falsely report that we seek the licentiousness of the flesh instead of the liberty of the Spirit. Whilst that we endeavor to restore the Supper of the Lord unto his pure and lawful use; they cry out impudently that we overthrow and destroy the same. Others also which take away all things, as did the Academics, because that doth not please them which we teach concerning the secret predestination of God, and that out of the Scriptures, lay to our charge despitefully, that we make God a tyrant which taketh pleasure in putting innocent men to death, seeing that he hath already adjudged those unto eternal death which are as yet unborn, and other such things as can be said on this behalf; whereas, notwithstanding, they are sufficiently convicted that we think reverently of God, and that we speak no otherwise than he teacheth with his own mouth. It is a hard matter to endure such envy, yet must we not therefore cease off to defend a good cause. For the truth of God is precious in his sight, and it ought also to be precious unto us, although it be unto the reprobate the savor of death unto death, (2Co 2:16.)
But now I return unto Stephen’s accusation, the principal point whereof is this, that he blasphemed God and Moses. They do, for good considerations, make the injury common to God and to Moses, because Moses had nothing in his doctrine which was his own or separated from God. They prove this, because he spake blasphemously against the temple and the law; furthermore, they make this the blasphemy, because he said that the coming of Christ had made an end of the temple and the ceremonies. It is not credible that Stephen spake thus as they report; but they maliciously wrest those things which were spoken well and godly, that they may color their false accusation; but although they had changed nothing in the words, yet Stephen was so far from doing any injury to the law and the temple, that he could no way better and more truly praise the same. The Jews did suppose that the temple was quite dishonored, unless the shadowy estate thereof should endure for ever, that the law of Moses was frustrate and nothing worth, unless the ceremonies should be continually in force. But the excellency of the temple and the profit of the ceremonies consist rather in this, whilst that they are referred unto Christ as unto their principal pattern. Therefore, howsoever the accusation hath some color, yet is it unjust and wicked. And although the fact come in question, that is, whether the matter be so as the adversaries lay to his charge, notwithstanding the state [of the question] is properly [one] of quality, for they accuse Stephen, because he taught that the form of the worship of God which was then used should be changed; and they interpret this to be blasphemy against God and Moses; therefore the controversy is rather concerning right (as they say) than the fact itself; for the question is, Whether he be injurious and wicked against God and Moses, who saith, that the visible temple is an image of a more excellent sanctuary, wherein dwelleth the fullness of the Godhead, and who teacheth that the shadows of the law are temporal?
This Jesus of Nazareth. They speak thus of Christ disdainfully, as if the remembrance of him were detestable. Nevertheless, it may be gathered out of their accusations, that Stephen did, in the abrogating of the law, set the body against the shadows, and the substance against the figure; for if ceremonies be abolished by Christ, their truth is spiritual. The Jews, which would have them continue for ever, did consider nothing in them but that which was gross, carnal, earthly, and which might be seen with the eyes. Briefly, if the use of ceremonies were continual, they should be frail and should vanish away, because they should have nothing but the only external show, so that they should have no soundness. Therefore, this is their true perpetuity, when as they are abrogated by the coming of Christ; because it followeth hereupon that the force and effect thereof doth consist in Christ.
Shall change the ordinances. It is out of all doubt that Stephen meant this of the ceremonial part only; but because men are wont to be more addicted to external pomp, these men understand that which was spoken, as if Stephen would bring the whole law to nothing. The principal precepts of the law did indeed concern the spiritual worship of God, faith, justice, and judgment; but because these men make more account of the external rites, they call the rites which are commanded concerning the sacrifices, ordinances of Moses, by excellency. This was bred by the bone from the beginning of the world, and it will never out of the flesh so long as it lasteth. 363 As at this day the Papists acknowledge no worship of God save only in their visors; although they differ much from the Jews, because they follow nothing but the frivolous invention of men for the ordinances of God.
15. And when they had beheld. Men do commonly in places of judgment turn their eyes toward the party arraigned, when as they look for his defense. He saith that Stephen appeared like to an angel; this is not spoken of his natural face, but rather of his present countenance. For whereas the countenance of those which are arraigned useth commonly to be pale, whereas they stammer in their speech, and show other signs of fear, Luke teacheth that there was no such thing in Stephen, but that there appeared rather in him a certain majesty. For the Scripture useth sometimes to borrow a similitude of angels in this sense; as 1Sa 24:9; 2Sa 14:17; 2Sa 19:27
“Quam in mendaciis causae suae praesidium constituere,” than to place the defense of their cause in lies.
“Non tamen falsis testimoniis est oppremendus,” he ought not to be borne down with false testimony.
“Ut doctrinam nostram reddant odiosam,” that they may bring odium on our doctrine.
“Bonorum et malorum discrimen a nobis tolli,” that we destroy the distinction between good and evil.
“Hoc ab initio mundi fuit ingenium, et erit usque in finem,” this has been the disposition from the beginning of the world, and will be even to the end.