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Calvin's Commentaries 

 Acts 11:27--12:3


27. In those days came prophets from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28. And one of them, named Agabus, arose, and signified by the Spirit, that there should be a great famine throughout the whole world, which happened under Claudius Caesar. 29. And as every one of the disciples was able, they decreed every man to send succor to the brethren which dwelt in Judea. 30. Which thing they did, sending it unto the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.

27. Luke commendeth in this place the faith of the men of Antioch by the fruit, because they endeavored to relieve the poverty of that church, from whence they received the gospel, with their abundance; and that did they unrequested. Such earnest care for the brethren doth sufficiently declare how seriously they worshipped Christ, the head of all. Luke doth signify that the fame of that church was spread abroad, when he saith that there came excellent men thither from Jerusalem. But forasmuch as the word prophet is taken divers ways in the New Testament as we may learn by the former Epistle to the Corinthians, those are called prophets in this place who were endued with the gift of prophesying, as the four daughters of Philip shall have the same title given them hereafter. And forasmuch as the foretelling of the famine is attributed to Agabus alone, we may hereby gather that this was granted to every one by a certain measure to know things to come.

28. He signified by the Spirit. Luke doth plainly express that the Spirit of God was the author of this prophecy, that we may know that it was not a conjecture taken by the stars, or some other natural causes; again, that Agabus did not play the philosopher after the manner of men, but he uttered that which God had appointed by the secret inspiration of the Spirit. Barrenness may indeed be sometimes foretold by the disposition of the stars, but there is no certainty in such foretellings, both because of the opposite concourses, and also, especially, because God doth govern earthly things at his pleasure, far otherwise than can be gathered by the stars, that he may lead men away from the perverse beholding of stars. And although these foretellings have their degree, yet the prophecies of the Spirit do far exceed them. But it seemeth that the foretelling of the famine was unlucky, [of evil omen,] and not to be wished for; for to what end was it for men to be made miserable before their time, by having the unhappy event foretold? I answer, that there be many causes for which it is expedient that men should be warned before in time when the judgments of God hang over their heads, and punishments [are] due to their sins. I omit others which are usual [Note: Passim occurrunt,” everywhere occur, are everywhere mentioned.] in the prophets, because [viz. that] they have a space granted wherein to repent, that they may prevent God’s judgment, who have provoked his wrath against themselves; because [that] the faithful are instructed in time to arm themselves with patience; because [that] the obstinate wickedness of wicked men is convict; because [that] both good and evil learn that miseries do not come by chance, but that they are punishments wherewith God doth punish the sins of the world; because [that] those are awakened out of their sleep and sluggishness by this means, who took great delight in their vices. The profit of this present prophecy appeareth by the text, because the men of Antioch were thereby pricked forward to relieve their brethren which were in misery.

Which happened under Claudius. Suetonius also maketh mention of this famine, who saith that there were crusts or shards thrown at Claudius’ head in the midst of the market and that he was so sore afraid of stoning, that he had a singular care afterward, during his whole life, to make provision for victual. And Josephus, in his Fifteenth Book of Antiquity, saith, that Judea was sore oppressed with scarcity, by reason of continual drought.

29. But here ariseth a question, seeing that the misery was common to all, why ought they rather to have succored one people than all the rest? I answer, that forasmuch as Judea was impoverished with great destructions of wars and other miseries, the men of Antioch were not without cause more moved with the miseries of the brethren which were there; secondly, the greater the rage of the enemies was, the more wretched was the estate of the brethren. Finally, Paul doth sufficiently declare, in the Epistle to the Galatians, that Judea had certain especial necessities, whereof all other had regard, not without cause, (Galatians 3) And this thankfulness deserved no small commendations, in that the men of Antioch thought that they ought to help the needy brethren, from whom they had received the gospel. For there is nothing more just than that those should reap earthly things who have sown spiritual things. As every man is too much bent to provide for himself, every man might readily have excepted and objected: Why shall not I rather provide for myself? But when they call to mind how greatly they are indebted to the brethren, omitting that carefulness, [Note: Immodica illa anxietate,” that excessive anxiety.] they turn themselves to help them. In sum, this alms had a double end; for the men of Antioch did the duty of charity toward their needy brethren and they did also testify by this sign, what great account they made of the gospel, whilst that they honored the place whence it came.

As every man was able. We see the men of Antioch observe in this place that mean which Paul prescribeth to the Corinthians, (2 Corinthians 8:6,) whether they did this of themselves, or being instructed by him; and it is not to be doubted, but that he continued like to himself [Note: Sibi constiterit,” is consistent with himself.] in both places. Therefore we must follow this rule, that every one, considering how much is granted him, impart the same courteously with his brethren, as one that must give an account; so shall it come to pass, that he which is but poor shall have a liberal mind, and that a small reward [Note: Munus,” gift.] shall be counted a fat and gorgeous sacrifice. By this word determined, Luke giveth us to understand that their oblation was voluntary. Which thing ought so to be, as Paul teacheth, that we reach out our hand unto the needy not as constrained, but cheerfully, (2 Corinthians 9:7.) When as he nameth every one, it is all one as if he should say, that one did not prescribe another a law, neither did they burthen one another with their prejudice, but that every man did bestow his liberality as seemed good to himself; and we must note the word διακονιας, whereby we are taught that rich men have greater abundance given them upon that condition, that they may be the ministers of the poor in the dispensation committed to them by God. Lastly, Luke teacheth that the blessing was sent not to all the whole nation, but only to those that were of the household of faith, not because we ought never to use any bountifulness, or courtesy towards the unbelievers, seeing love ought to extend itself unto all mankind, but because those ought to be preferred whom God hath joined and linked to us move near, and with a more holy band.

30. Sending it unto the elders, [presbyters.] We must note two things in this place, that the men of Antioch did choose faithful men, and of known honesty, to carry their blessing; secondly, that they sent it unto the elders, that they might wisely bestow the same. For if alms be thrown into the midst of the common people, or be set in the midst where every one may take what he will, every man will by and by take it to himself as if it were some common prey; and so he that is most bold will defraud the needy; yea, through his greediness he will cut the throats of the hungry. Therefore, let us mark these places, which teach that we must not only deal uprightly and faithfully, but that there is also an order and wisdom required as well in making choice as in all our administration. Those are called elders in whose hands the government of the Church was, among whom the apostles were chief; the men of Antioch refer the holy money (which they had appointed for the poor) to their discretion. If any man object that this was the office of the deacons, forasmuch as the apostles did deny that they could both serve tables and attend upon doctrine, answer is easy, that the deacons were appointed over tables, in such sort, that yet, notwithstanding, they were under the elders, [presbyters,] neither did they any thing but at their appointment.


1. About that time Herod the king stretched out his hand to afflict certain of the Church. 2. And he killed James the brother of John with the sword. 3. And when he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to take Peter also. (Then were the days of sweet [unleavened] bread.)

1. Here followeth new persecution raised by Herod. We see that the Church had some short truce, that it might, as it were, by a short breathing, recover some courage against the time to come, and that it might then fight afresh. So at this day there is no cause why the faithful, having borne the brunts of one or two conflicts, should promise themselves rest, [Note: Perpetuam. quietem,” perpetual rest.] or should desire such a calling [Note: Vacationem,” discharge.] as old overworn soldiers use to have. Let this suffice them if the Lord grant them some time wherein they may recover their strength. This Herod was Agrippa the greater, [elder,] the son of Aristobulus, whom his father slew. Josephus doth no where call him Herod, it may be, because he had a brother who was king of Chalcis, whose name was Herod. This man was incensed to afflict the Church not so much for any love he had to religion, as that by this means he might flatter the common people which did otherwise not greatly favor him; or rather, he was moved hereunto with tyrannical cruelty, because he was afraid of innovation, which tyrants do always fear, lest it trouble the quiet estate of their dominion. Yet it is likely that he did shed innocent blood, that, according to the common craft of kings, he might gratify a furious people; because St. Luke will shortly after declare that Peter the apostle was put into prison that he might be a pleasant spectacle.

He killed James. Undoubtedly the cruelty of this mad man was restrained and bridled by the secret power of God. For assuredly he would never have been content with one or two murders, and so have abstained from persecuting the rest, but he would rather have piled up martyrs upon heaps, unless God had set his hand against him, and defended his flock. So when we see that the enemies of godliness, being full of fury, do not commit horrible slaughters, that they may mix and imbrue all things with blood, let us know that we need not thank their moderation and clemency for this; but because, when the Lord doth spare his sheep, he doth not suffer them to do so much hurt as they would. This Herod was not so courteous, that he would stick to win peace or the people’s favor with the punishment of an hundred men or more.

Wherefore, we must think with ourselves that he was tied by one that had the rule over him, that he might not more vehemently oppress the Church. He slew James, as, when any sedition is raised, the heads and captains go first to the pot, [Note: In duces et capita animadverti solet,” punishment is usually inflicted on the heads and captains.] that the common riff-raft may by their punishment be terrified. Nevertheless, the Lord suffered him whom he had furnished with constancy to be put to death, that by death he might get the victory as a strong and invincible champion. So that the attempts of tyrants notwithstanding, God maketh choice of sweet-smelling sacrifices to establish the faith of his gospel. Luke calleth this games which was slain the brother of John, that he may distinguish him from the son of Alpheus. For whereas some make him a third cousin of Christ’s, who was only some one of the disciples, I do not like of that, because I am by strong reasons persuaded to think that there were no more. Let him that will, repair to the second to the Galatians. Therefore, I think that the apostle and the son of Alpheus were all one, whom the Jews threw down headlong from the top of the temple, whose death was so highly Commended for his singular praise of holiness.

3. Seeing that it pleased the Jews. It appeareth more plainly by this that Herod was not moved either with any zeal that he had to Moses’ law or with any hatred of the gospel, thus to persecute the Church; but that he might provide for his own private affairs, for he proceedeth in his cruelty that he may win the people’s favor; therefore we must know that there be diverse causes for which the Church is assaulted on every side. Oftentimes perverse zeal driveth the wicked headlong to fight for their superstitions, and that they may sacrifice an offering to their idols by shedding innocent blood; but the more part is moved with private commodities only, so in times past, at such time as Nero knew, after the burning of the city, that he was loathed and hated of the people, he sought by this subtle means to get into favor again, or, at least, he went about to stay their slanders and complaints, by putting certain thousands of the godly to death.

In like sort, that Herod may win the people’s favor, who did love him but a little, he putteth the Christians to death. as a price wherewith he might redeem their favor; and such is our estate at this day, for though all men run by troops upon the members of Christ, [Note: Insaniant,” rage against.] yet few are pooked [Note: Incitat,” instigated by.] forward with superstition; but some sell themselves to antichrist, like profitable bond-slaves; other some bear with, and commend the outrageous outcries of monks and the common people. But we, in the mean season, being abjects, must be glad to bear their mocks; yet there is one comfort which doth excellently keep us on foot, in that we know that our blood is precious in the sight of Almighty God, which the world cloth shamefully abuse; yea, the more shamefully and reproachfully the wicked do handle us, so much the less shall God’s goodness forsake us.


[With gratitude to the Christian Classics Ethereal Library for this text.]