Calvin's Harmony of the Gospels: The Birth of John (Luke 1:56-80)
Luke 1:56-66: The Communal Context of Sacraments
56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. 57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” 61 They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” 62 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63 He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
Calvin’s comments on John’s birth narrative are unremarkable. For Calvin, the main point is that John’s birth is accompanied by several signs that foreshadow his importance. Calvin uses the public nature of John’s circumcision to remind his readers of the Reformed emphasis on the public nature of sacraments. For Calvin, the real meat of this passage is found in Zechariah’s song.
Luke 1:67-75: Covenantal Living
67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
Zechariah speaks of God’s salvation coming from the House of David, already directing the reader beyond John to Jesus. For Calvin, this refocuses us on the centrality of God’s covenant with Israel and reminds us that salvation comes from Christ alone, who is the basis of the covenant. This also means that how we read scripture ought to be governed by the thematic centrality of covenant and Christ. Obsessive study of each word of scripture profits nothing if it is not read in this context.
The nature of the salvation brought in Christ is manifold. For Calvin, there are a few key points. First, that this salvation comes as deliverance from our enemies reminds us that God’s kingdom is not of this world and that the church is always a pilgrim church, living in the midst of its enemies and trusting God to deliver it. Second, that the salvation that Christ accomplishes is for the faithful of all generations, reaching backwards and forwards historically. Third, that salvation is adoption into the family of God, making us children of God. As such, we are called to obedience to God our Father. The grace we receive in salvation must be applied “to its practical end” (v. 73), meaning that Christians aim for holiness in their lives.
Expanding upon this last point, Calvin writes “we give God rightful service when at last our life is ordered by holiness and righteousness” (v. 75). Holiness, Calvin contents, pertains to the first table of the law—those things we owe to God—while righteousness pertains to the second table—those things we owe to our neighbor.
Luke 1:76-80: Imputed Righteousness
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon[h] us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
In the final part of Zechariah’s song, Calvin latches on to John’s vocation “to give knowledge of salvation” (v. 77) and uses it to further clarify the theme of righteousness. That we need knowledge of salvation means that we are sinners and are incapable of knowing the things we need to be saved. The remission of sin and the righteous life are the reversal of this estate. And yet this righteousness is not of the sort that occurs through human endeavor or work. Instead, it is an imputed righteousness, accomplished by God alone on our behalf.