Calvin's Harmony of the Gospels: An Announcement (Luke 1:1-25)
Calvin begins his harmony with Luke’s gospel, wherein we read about two famous annunciations. The first of the two is the angel’s announcement to Zechariah that he will have a son named John (Luke 1:5-25); the second is the one properly called the annunciation, the angel’s announcement to Mary that she will conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit (1:26-38). In this post, we will attend to what Calvin has to say about Luke’s preamble (1:1-4) and the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth.
Luke 1:1-4 (NRSV): The Witness of the Spirit
1 Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
Calvin begins by establishing the authority with which Luke writes. That Luke acknowledges first that many accounts of Jesus have been written and yet he feels compelled to write one for Theophilus’s benefit means that already by the time of Luke’s gospel there were early Christian heresies that threatened the gospel message. That Luke claims the authority to provide such an account implies that these other authors were of a lesser authority; indeed, for Calvin, Luke’s authority ultimately is the Holy Spirit. Although Luke is not an eyewitness, his Gospel has the authority of eyewitnesses because he has investigated the matter carefully and relied on the words of “divinely entrusted” ministers of the Word. As such, his Gospel points us beyond the eyewitnesses to Christ himself.
Luke 1:5-13: Righteousness explained
5 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.
v. 5: Calvin begins by making the point that “King Herod of Judea” is a joke. Although the semblance of the Judean line of kings from the house of David existed, in reality the line of Judah was broken. Herod was the first “foreign king.” This makes the time particularly ripe for God’s messiah to arrive. The expectations of the people should have increased as a result.
v. 6: Luke describes Zechariah and Elizabeth as “righteous before God.” This affords Calvin the opportunity to address the question of human righteousness. Luke intends to suggest that John the Baptist’s line is beyond reproach; but we can learn about righteousness from this claim. Zechariah and Elizabeth are righteous before God because in their worship of God, they do not give too much weight to the rites and ceremonies performed in worship, but they devote themselves wholly to the God they worship. Calvin writes, “True worshippers of God, as these two were, do not snatch at empty, vain ceremonial, but practice it inwardly, in their spirits, aiming at sincerity.”
But even this, Calvin reminds us, is not enough to justify them. For if it were so, they would not need Christ. Instead, Calvin argues, we see in them the working of God’s grace in the form of an alien righteousness: “The righteousness that is praised in them depends upon the free kindness of God, whereby He does not lay to their charge such unrighteousness that lies in them still.”
A final and related point that Calvin establishes in his commentary on verse 6: the purpose of the law. For Calvin, the Law establishes the boundaries of human life, but no human is justified by the Law. The Law, in its second use, convicts us of our shortcomings. Even in its third use, as a Spirit-filled guide for the regenerate, no Christian can obey it perfectly.
vv. 7-13: Calvin returns to the narrative, noting that God chooses Elizabeth because she is barren and past child-bearing years. Therefore, her maternity will bear witness to God’s miraculous intervention (v. 7).
Zechariah’s priesthood is opportune for Calvin, allowing him to once again digress. Zechariah’s service as a mediator between Israel and God demonstrates the need we have for a mediator to receive God’s grace (v. 9).
Finally, Calvin addresses Zechariah’s prayer for a son (v. 13). Calvin argues that Zechariah would not have been praying this prayer in this moment. When he is acting as mediator, he is praying for Israel; not merely for himself. This must have been an often-prayed prayer of Zechariah’s. Perhaps he had even given up praying it by this point. So too, then, should the church’s pastors, when acting officially, think not of themselves but of the church.
Luke 1:14—17: Filled with the Spirit
14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
John’s unique calling is possible because the Holy Spirit empowers his ministry. Indeed, the Holy Spirit empowers all ministers; they are nothing without the work of the Spirit. For John, it happens from birth. But even this is a pale imitation of the measure in which the Spirit empowers Jesus. For us, the Spirit empowers us after our conversions. Calvin writes: “conversion to God restores [humans] to their spiritual life” (v. 16). Our conversions themselves, however, are also the work of the Spirit. God chooses his ministers in accordance with the gifts they have to build up the church. At the same time, the hidden work of the Spirit is what makes their efforts effective. In particular, Calvin speaks of preaching. Preaching, in and of itself, is not effective. But when it is used by the Holy Spirit as a divine instrument, it effects salvation.
Luke 1:18-20: A Case-Study in Faith
18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
For Calvin, Zechariah’s lack of faith regarding Gabriel’s promise is attributed less to his belief in God’s ability and more to his own expectations regarding the natural limits of his own age. Here Calvin draws a distinction between general and particular promises and faith. Zechariah never loses his general faith in God’s fulfillment of the promises of salvation and eternal life; however, he does demonstrate a lack of faith regarding the particular promise that Gabriel announces. This lack of faith never endangers his salvation, but it does demonstrate that he holds onto certain anxieties or fears that he cannot trust to God. It is these small particular instances when our faith waivers that become footholds for the devil.
Zechariah’s punishment—forced silence—is apropos. According to Calvin, “faith keeps its silence” (v. 20) in order to allow the Word of God to speak. Then faith speaks, responding with “Amen.” In the end, the faithfulness of God is proven, and Zechariah, with a restored voice, sings out his faith.