22.He breathed on them. Not one of the sons of men is qualified for discharging so difficult an office, and, therefore, Christ prepares the Apostles for it by the grace of his Spirit. And, indeed, to govern the Church of God, to carry the embassy of eternal salvation, to erect the kingdom of God on earth, and to raise men to heaven, is a task far beyond human capacity. We need not be astonished, therefore, that no man is found qualified unless he be inspired by the Holy Spirit; for no man can speak a word concerning Christ unless the Spirit guide his tongue, (1Co_12:3;) so far is it from being true that there is any man who is competent to discharge faithfully and honestly all the duties of so excellent an office. Again, it is the glory of Christ alone to form those whom he appoints to be teachers of his Church; for the reason why the fullness of the Spirit has been poured out upon him is, that he may bestow it upon each person according to a certain measure.
Receive ye the Holy Spirit. Though he continues to be the only Shepherd of his Church, he must necessarily display the power of his Spirit in the ministers whose agency he employs; and this also he testified by the outward symbol, when he breathed on the Apostles; for this would not be applicable, if the Spirit did not proceed from him. So much the more detestable is the sacrilege of the Papists, who seize and claim for themselves the honor which belongs to the Son of God, for their mitred bishops, when they make priests, have the effrontery to boast of breathing the Holy Spirit on them. But the fact plainly shows how different their stinking breath is from the Divine breathing of Christ; for what else is it that they do than to change horses into asses? Besides, not only does Christ communicate to his disciples the Spirit which he has received, but he bestows it as his own, as the Spirit which he has in common with the Father. Consequently, all those who boast of giving the Spirit by breathing lay claim to the glory of Divinity.
It ought to be observed, that those whom Christ calls to the pastoral office he likewise adorns with the necessary gifts, that they may be qualified for discharging the office, or, at least, may not come to it empty and unprovided. And if this be true, there is no difficulty in refuting the foolish boasting of the Papists, who, while they employ lofty terms of commendation in extolling their hierarchy, cannot show a single spark of the Holy Spirit in their bishops. They wish us to believe that they are the lawful pastors of the Church, and, in like manner, that they are the apostles and vicars of Christ, while it is evident that they are utterly destitute of the grace of the Holy Spirit. A sure criterion is here laid down for judging of the calling of those who govern the Church of God; and that criterion is, if we see that they have received the Holy Spirit
What Christ chiefly, however, intended by it was, to uphold the dignity of the rank of the Apostles; for it was reasonable that those, who had been chosen to be the earliest and most distinguished preachers of the Gospel, should possess uncommon authority. But if Christ, at that time, bestowed the Spirit on the Apostles by breathing, it may be thought that it was superfluous to send the Holy Spirit afterwards. I reply, the Spirit was given to the Apostles on this occasion in such a manner, that they were only sprinkled by his grace, but were not filled with full power; for, when the Spirit appeared on them in tongues of fire, (Act_2:3,) they were entirely renewed. And, indeed, he did not appoint them to be heralds of his Gospel, so as to send them forth immediately to the work, but ordered them to take repose, as we read elsewhere,
Remain ye in the city of Jerusalem till ye are endued with power from on high,
And if we take all things properly into consideration, we shall conclude, not that he furnishes them with necessary gifts for present use, but that he appoints them to be the organs of his Spirit for the future; and, therefore, this breathing ought to be understood as referring chiefly to that magnificent act of sending the Spirit which he had so often promised.
Although Christ might have bestowed grace on his Apostles by a secret inspiration, he chose to add a visible breathing in order to confirm them more fully. Christ took this outward emblem from the ordinary manner of speaking in the Scriptures, which very frequently compare the Spirit to wind; a comparison which we briefly accounted for in the exposition of the Third Chapter of this Gospel (206) But let the reader observe, that with the visible and outward sign the word is also joined; for this is the source from which the sacraments derive their efficacy; not that the efficacy of the Holy Spirit is contained in the word which sounds in our ears, but because the effect of all those things which believers receive from the sacraments depends on the testimony of the word. Christ breathes on the Apostles: they receive not only the breathing, but also the Spirit. And why, but because Christ promises to them?
In like manner, in baptism we put on Christ, (Gal_3:27,) we are washed by his blood, (Rev_1:5,) our old man is crucified, (Rom_6:6,) in order that the righteousness of God may reign in us. In the Holy Supper we are spiritually fed with the flesh and blood of Christ. Whence do they derive so great efficacy but from the promise of Christ, who does and accomplishes by his Holy Spirit what he declares by his word? Let us therefore learn, that all the sacraments which men have contrived are nothing else than absolute mockeries or frivolous amusements, because the signs can have no truth unless they be accompanied by the word of the Lord. Now, since we never sport in this manner with sacred things, without wickedly pouring contempt on God and ruining souls, we ought to be most carefully on our guard against those stratagems of Satan.
If it be objected, that we ought not to blame the Popish bishops, when by breathing they consecrate their priests, because in those cases the word of Christ accompanies the sign, the answer is obvious. In the first place, Christ did not speak to the Apostles so as to appoint a perpetual sacrament in the Church, but intended to declare once what we said a little ago, that the Spirit proceeds from no other than from himself alone. Secondly, he never appoints men to an office without at the same time communicating strength to his ministers, and furnishing them with ability. I do not mention that in Popery the priests are ordained for a totally different, or rather a contrary purpose; namely, to murder Christ daily, while the disciples were made Apostles in order to slay men by the sword of the Gospel. Yet we ought also to believe that it is Christ alone who gives all the blessings which he represents and promises by outward signs; for he does not bid the Apostles receive the Holy Spirit from the outward breathing, but from himself.