Careful readers of Scripture see instruction in every turn of phrase. That’s how Calvin read the text. Trained as a humanist scholar, he was attentive to both the content as well as the form in which we receive it. Actually, more accurately, he understood that the way the authors said something was part of what they were saying. Commenting on Paul’s greeting to the Colossians, Calvin draws out the significance of his prayer of thanksgiving for the believers:
He praises the faith and love of the Colossians, that it may encourage them the more to alacrity and constancy of perseverance. Farther, by shewing that he has a persuasion of this kind respecting them, he procures their friendly regards, that they may be the more favourably inclined and teachable for receiving his doctrine. We must always take notice that he makes use of thanksgiving in place of congratulation, by which he teaches us, that in all our joys we must readily call to remembrance the goodness of God, inasmuch as everything that is pleasant and agreeable to us is a kindness conferred by him. Besides, he admonishes us, by his example, to acknowledge with gratitude not merely those things which the Lord confers upon us, but also those things which he confers upon others.
He notes first the rhetorical purpose of the greeting: to encourage his readers to faith and perseverance and endear himself to the readers at Colossae by assuring him of his warm affections for them. Calvin reads the text understanding that, though inspired and having apostolic authority, Paul writes at the human level as one who still uses common language, specific rhetorical forms, and rational approach to persuade his reader.
Next, and this is the significant portion, Calvin calls attention to the fact that when Paul wants to encourage them, he doesn’t congratulate them, he thanks God for them. Calvin not only sees what he says, but what he doesn’t say. Typically we would congratulate someone on their faith, hope, and love. Not Paul—he knows the true source of our goodness. Instead, Paul thanks God to acknowledge the theological reality that all blessings come from comes from his fatherly hand. Not only that, it points to a brotherly love grateful even for those things which don’t come directly to us. Again, even the shape of his encouragement is pedagogical.
Calvin was not a cursory or careless reader, and just as Paul teaches us in the way he encourages the Colossians, so Calvin gives us an example in our studies of the Word. Convinced that we are reading more than just an ancient text, but God’s own self-disclosure through human speech, we read that human speech with reverent sensitivity to every detail.
Soli Deo Gloria