Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 36: Acts, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
14. And when the apostles which were at Jerusalem had heard that Samaria had received the Word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: 15. Who, when they were come down, they prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: 16. For he was not as yet come down upon any of them; but they were only baptized in the name of Christ Jesus. 17. Then they laid their hands upon them, and they received the Holy Ghost.
14. Luke describeth, in this place, the proceedings of the grace of God in the Samaritans, as he useth to enrich the faithful continually with greater gifts of his Spirit, for we must not think that the apostles took that counsel whereof Luke speaketh, without the instinct of the same God who had already begun his work in Samaria by the hand of Philip; and he useth his instruments diversely unto divers parts of his work, according to his good pleasure. He used Philip as an instrument to bring them unto the faith; now he ordaineth Peter and John to be ministers to give the Spirit and thus doth he foster the unity of his Church when one helpeth another, and not only knit man and man together, but whole churches also. He could have finished that which he had begun by Philip; but to the end the Samaritans might learn to embrace brotherly fellowship with the first Church, he meant to bind them herewith as with a band; secondly, he meant to grant the apostles (whom he had commanded to preach the gospel throughout the whole world — Mr 16:15) this privilege, that they might the better all grow together into one faith of the gospel; and we know that it was otherwise dangerous, lest, seeing the Jews and Samaritans were much unlike in mind and manners, being so divided, they should by this means divide Christ, or at least feign to themselves a new Church.
In the mean season, we see how careful the apostles were to help their brethren; for they stay not until they be requested, but they take this charge upon them of their own accord. The apostles do not this through any distrust, as if they did suspect that Philip did not his duty so uprightly as he ought; 512 but they set to their hand to help him in his work, and Peter and John came not only to help him, and to be partakers of his labors, but also to approve the same. Again, Philip is not grieved because other men finish that building which he had begun, but they one help another full gently and faithfully; and surely it is ambition alone which will not suffer holy fellowship and mutual imparting of duties to enter. 513 Whereas Luke saith that Peter was sent by the rest, we may hereby gather that he was not the chief ruler over his fellows in office; 514 but did so excel amongst them, that yet, notwithstanding, he was subject to, and did obey the body.
Which were at Jerusalem. This may carry a double meaning, either that all the apostles were at Jerusalem then, or that there were certain resident there when the rest went hither and thither; and I do rather allow this latter, for it is to be thought that they did so divide themselves, that always some of the number might take upon them divers embassages, as occasion was offered, that some might stay at Jerusalem, as in the principal standing. 515 Again, it may be that after every man had spent some time in his voyage, they were wont to assemble themselves there. It is certain, indeed, that that time which they spent at Jerusalem was not spent in idleness; and, secondly that they were not tied to some one place, forasmuch as Christ had commanded them to go over all the world (Mr 16:15.)
15. They prayed. Undoubtedly they taught first, for we know that they were no dumb persons; but Luke passeth over that which was common to them and Philip, and declareth only what new thing the Samaritans had by their coming, to wit, that they had the Spirit given them then.
16. But here ariseth a question, for he saith that they were only baptized into the name of Christ, and that therefore they had not as yet received the Holy Ghost; but baptism must either be in vain and without grace, or else it must have all the force which it hath from the Holy Ghost. In baptism we are washed from our sins; but Paul teacheth that our washing is the work of the Holy Ghost, (Titus 3:5.) The water used in baptism is a sign of the blood of Christ; but Peter saith, that it is the Spirit by whom we are washed with the blood of Christ (1Pe 1:2.) Our old man is crucified in baptism, that we may be raised up unto newness of life, (Ro 6:6;) and whence cometh all this save only from the sanctification of the Spirit? And, finally, what shall remain in baptism if it be separate from the Spirit? (Ga 3:27.) Therefore, we must not deny but that the Samaritans, who had put on Christ, indeed, in baptism, had also his Spirit given them; and surely Luke speaketh not in this place of the common grace of the Spirit, whereby God doth regenerate us, that we may be his children, but of those singular gifts wherewith God would have certain endued at the beginning of the gospel to beautify Christ’s kingdom. Thus must the words of John be understood, that the disciples had not the Spirit given them as yet, forasmuch as Christ was yet conversant in the world; not that they were altogether destitute of the Spirit, seeing that they had from the same both faith, and a godly desire to follow Christ; but because they were not furnished with those excellent gifts, wherein appeared afterwards greater glory of Christ’s kingdom. To conclude, forasmuch as the Samaritans were already endtied with the Spirit of adoptioni the excellent graces of the Spirit are heaped upon them, in which God showed to his Church, for a time as it were, the visible presence of his Spirit, that he might establish for ever the authority of his gospel, and also testify that his Spirit shall be always the governor and director of the faithful.
They were only baptized. We must not understand this as spoken contemptuously of baptism; but Luke’s meaning is, that they were only endued then with the grace of common adoption and regeneration, which is offered to all the godly in baptism. As for this, it was an extraordinary thing that certain should have the gifts of the Spirit given them, which might serve to set forth the kingdom of Christ and the glory of the gospel; for this was the use thereof, that every one might profit the Church according to the measure of his ability. We must note this, therefore, because, while the Papists will set up their feigned confirmation, they are not afraid to break out into this sacrilegious speech, that they are but half Christians upon whom the hands have not been as yet laid. This is not tolerable now because, whereas this was a sign which lasted only for a time, they made it a continual law in the Church, as if they had the Spirit in readiness to give to whomsoever they would. We know that when the testimony and pledge of God’s grace is set before us in vain, and without the thing itself, it is too filthy mockery; but even they themselves are enforced to grant that the Church was beautified for a time only with these gifts; whereupon it followeth that the laying on of hands which the apostles used had an end when the effect ceased. I omit that, that they added oil unto the laying on of hands, (Mr 6:13;) but this, as I have already said, was a point of too great boldness, to prescribe a perpetual law to the Church, that that might be a general sacrament, which was peculiarly used amongst the apostles, (Ga 3:7; Ro 6:6;) that the sign might continue still after that the thing itself was ceased; and with this they joined detestable blasphemy, because they said that sins were only forgiven by baptism, and that the Spirit of regeneration is given by that rotten oil which they presumed to bring in without the Word of God. The Scripture doth testify that we put on Christ in baptism, and that we are engrafted into his body, that our old man may be crucified, and we renewed into righteousness. These sacrilegious robbers have translated that to adorn the false visor of their sacrament which they have taken from baptism. 516 Neither was this the invention of one man only, but the decree of one council, whereof they babble daily in all their schools.
17. When they had laid their hands. The laying on of hands followeth prayers, whereby they testify that the grace of the Spirit is not included in the external ceremony, which they crave humbly at the hands of another. And yet when they confess that God is the author, they neglect not the ceremony which was delivered them by God to this use; and because they usurp it not rashly, the effect is also annexed. This is the profit and efficacy of signs, because God worketh in them, and yet he remaineth the only giver of grace and distributeth the same according to his good pleasure; but let us remember that the laying on of hands was the instrument of God, at such time as he gave the visible graces of the Spirit to his, and that since the Church was deprived of such riches, it is only a vain visor without any substance. 517
“Minus dextre quam par esset,” less dexterously than was meet.
“Quae sanctae communicatione januam claudit,” which shuts the door against holy communion.
“Non exercuisse in collegas imperium,” did not exercise authority over his colleagues.
“Detracta baptismo spolia,” the spoils taken from baptism.
“Inane duntaxat esset spectrum,” it was only an empty specter.