18. Now the birth of Jesus Christ. Matthew does not as yet relate
the place or manner of Christ’s birth, but the way in which his heavenly
generation was made known to Joseph. First, he says that Mary was found
to be with child by the Holy Spirit. Not that this secret work of God was
generally known: but the historian mixes up, with the knowledge of men,
the power of the Spirit, which was still unknown. He points out the time:
When she was espoused to Joseph, and before they came together. So far
as respects conjugal fidelity, from the time that a young woman was betrothed
to a man, she was regarded by the Jews as his lawful wife. When a “damsel
betrothed to an husband” was convicted of being unchaste, the law condemned
both of the guilty parties as adulterers:
“the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city;
and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbor’s wife,”
(Deuteronomy 22:23, 24.)
The phrase employed by the Evangelist, before they came together, is
either a modest appellation for conjugal intercourse, or simply means,
“before they came to dwell together as husband and wife, and to make one
home and family.” The meaning will thus be, that the virgin had not yet
been delivered by her parents into the hands of her husband, but still
remained under their roof.
19. As he was a just man. Some commentators explain this to mean,
that Joseph, because he was a just man, determined to spare his wife: taking
justice to be only another name for humanity, or, a gentle and merciful
disposition. But others more correctly read the two clauses as contrasted
with each other: that Joseph was a just man, but yet that he was anxious
about the reputation of his wife. That justice, on which a commendation
is here bestowed, consisted in hatred and abhorrence of crime. Suspecting
his wife of adultery, and even convinced that she was an adulterer, he
was unwilling to hold out the encouragement of lenity to such a crime.
And certainly he is but a pander to his wife, who connives at her unchastity.
Not only is such wickedness regarded with abhorrence by good and honorable
minds, but that winking at crime which I have mentioned is marked by the
laws with infamy.
Joseph, therefore, moved by an ardent love of justice, condemned the
crime of which he supposed his wife to have been guilty; while the gentleness
of his disposition prevented him from going to the utmost rigor of law.
It was a moderate and calmer method to depart privately, and remove to
a distant place. Hence we infer, that he was not of so soft and effeminate
a disposition, as to screen and promote uncleanness under the pretense
of merciful dealing: he only made some abatement from stern justice, so
as not to expose his wife to evil report. Nor ought we to have any hesitation
in believing, that his mind was restrained by a secret inspiration of the
Spirit. We know how weak jealousy is, and to what violence it hurries its
possessor. Though Joseph did not proceed to rash and headlong conduct,
yet he was wonderfully preserved from many imminent dangers, which would
have sprung out of his resolution to depart.
The same remark is applicable to Mary’s silence. Granting that modest
reserve prevented her from venturing to tell her husband, that she was
with child by the Holy Spirit, it was not so much by her own choice, as
by the providence of God that she was restrained. Let us suppose her to
have spoken. The nature of the case made it little short of incredible.
Joseph would have thought himself ridiculed, and everybody would have treated
the matter as a laughing-stock: after which the Divine announcement, if
it had followed, would have been of less importance. The Lord permitted
his servant Joseph to be betrayed by ignorance into an erroneous conclusion,
that, by his own voice, he might bring him back to the right path.
Yet it is proper for us to know, that this was done more on our account
than for his personal advantage: for every necessary method was adopted
by God, to prevent unfavorable suspicion from falling on the heavenly message.
When the angel approaches Joseph, who is still unacquainted with the whole
matter, wicked men have no reason to charge him with being influenced by
prejudice to listen to the voice of God. He was not overcome by the insinuating
address of his wife. His previously formed opinion was not shaken by entreaties.
He was not induced by human arguments to take the opposite side. But, while
the groundless accusation of his wife was still rankling in his mind, God
interposed between them, that we might regard Joseph as a more competent
witness, and possessing greater authority, as a messenger sent to us from
heaven. We see how God chose to employ an angel in informing his servant
Joseph, that to others he might be a heavenly herald, and that the intelligence
which he conveyed might not be borrowed from his wife, or from any mortal.
The reason why this mystery was not immediately made known to a greater
number of persons appears to be this. It was proper that this inestimable
treasure should remain concealed, and that the knowledge of it should be
imparted to none but the children of God. Nor is it absurd to say, that
the Lord intended, as he frequently does, to put the faith and obedience
of his own people to the trial. Most certainly, if any man shall maliciously
refuse to believe and obey God in this matter, he will have abundant reason
to be satisfied with the proofs by which this article of our faith is supported.
For the same reason, the Lord permitted Mary to enter into the married
state, that under the veil of marriage, till the full time for revealing
it, the heavenly conception of the virgin might be concealed. Meanwhile,
the knowledge of it was withheld from unbelievers, as their ingratitude
and malice deserved.
20. And while he was considering these things. We see here how
seasonably, and, as we would say, at the very point, the Lord usually aids
his people. Hence too we infer that, when he appears not to observe our
cares and distresses, we are still under his eye. He may, indeed, hide
himself, and remain silent; but, when our patience has been subjected to
the trial, he will aid us at the time which his own wisdom has selected.
How slow or late soever his assistance may be thought to be, it is for
our advantage that it is thus delayed.
The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. This is one
of two ordinary kinds of revelations mentioned in the book of Numbers,
where the Lord thus speaks:
“If there be a prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known
unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream. My servant Moses
is not so. With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not
in dark speechess,” (Numbers 12:6-8.)
But we must understand that dreams of this sort differ widely from natural
dreams; for they have a character of certainty engraven on them, and are
impressed with a divine seal, so that there is not the slightest doubt
of their truth. The dreams which men commonly have, arise either from the
thoughts of the day, or from their natural temperament, or from bodily
indisposition, or from similar causes: while the dreams which come from
God are accompanied by the testimony of the Spirit, which puts beyond a
doubt that it is God who speaks.
Son of David, fear not. This exhortation shows, that Joseph was
perplexed with the fear of sharing in the criminality of his wife, by enduring
her adultery. The angel removes his suspicion of guilt, with the view of
enabling him to dwell with his wife with a safe conscience. The appellation,
Son of David, was employed on the present occasion, in order to elevate
his mind to that lofty mystery; for he belonged to that family, and was
one of the surviving few, from whom the salvation promised to the world
could proceed. When he heard the name of David, from whom he was descended,
Joseph ought to have remembered that remarkable promise of God which related
to the establishment of the kingdom, so as to acknowledge that there was
nothing new in what was now told him. The predictions of the prophets were,
in effect, brought forward by the angel, to prepare the mind of Joseph
for receiving the present favor.
21. And thou shalt call his name JESUS. I have already explained
briefly, but as far as was necessary, the meaning of that word. At present
I shall only add, that the words of the angel set aside the dream of those
who derive it from the essential name of God, Jehovah; for the angel expresses
the reason why the Son of God is so called, Because he shall SAVE his people;
which suggests quite a different etymology from what they have contrived.
It is justly and appropriately added, they tell us, that Christ will be
the author of salvation, because he is the Eternal God. But in vain do
they attempt to escape by this subterfuge; for the nature of the blessing
which God bestows upon us is not all that is here stated. This office was
conferred upon his Son from the fact, from the command which had been given
to him by the Father, from the office with which he was invested when he
came down to us from heaven. Besides, the two words jIhsou~v and hwhy,
Jesus and Jehovah, agree but in two letters, and differ in all the rest;
which makes it exceedingly absurd to allege any affinity whatever between
them, as if they were but one name. Such mixtures I leave to the alchymists,
or to those who closely resemble them, the Cabalists who contrive for us
those trifling and affected refinements.
When the Son of God came to us clothed in flesh, he received from the
Father a name which plainly told for what purpose he came, what was his
power, and what we had a right to expect from him. for the name Jesus is
derived from the Hebrew verb, in the Hiphil conjugation, [ycwh, which signifies
to save. In Hebrew it is pronounced differently, Jehoshua; but the Evangelists,
who wrote in Greek, followed the customary mode of pronunciation; for in
the writings of Moses, and in the other books of the Old Testament, the
Hebrew word [wcwhy, Jehoshua, or Joshua, is rendered by the Greek translators
jIhsou~v, Jesus. But I must mention another instance of the ignorance of
those who derive—or, I would rather say, who forcibly tear—the name Jesus
from Jehovah. They hold it to be in the highest degree improper that any
mortal man should share this name in common with the Son of God, and make
a strange outcry that Christ would never allow his name to be so profaned.
As if the reply were not at hand, that the name Jesus was quite as commonly
used in those days as the name Joshua. Now, as it is sufficiently clear
that the name Jesus presents to us the Son of God as the Author of salvation,
let us examine more closely the words of the angel.
He shall save his people from their sins. The first truth taught
us by these words is, that those whom Christ is sent to save are in themselves
lost. But he is expressly called the Savior of the Church. If those whom
God admits to fellowship with himself were sunk in death and ruin till
they were restored to life by Christ, what shall we say of “strangers”
(Ephesians 2:12) who have never been illuminated by the hope of life? When
salvation is declared to be shut up in Christ, it clearly implies that
the whole human race is devoted to destruction. The cause of this destruction
ought also to be observed; for it is not unjustly, or without good reason,
that the Heavenly Judge pronounces us to be accursed. The angel declares
that we have perished, and are overwhelmed by an awful condemnation, because
we stand excluded from life by our sins. Thus we obtain a view of our corruption
and depravity; for if any man lived a perfectly holy life, he might do
without Christ as a Redeemer. But all to a man need his grace; and, therefore,
it follows that they are the slaves of sin, and are destitute of true righteousness.
Hence, too, we learn in what way or manner Christ saves; he delivers
us from sins. This deliverance consists of two parts. Having made a complete
atonement, he brings us a free pardon, which delivers us from condemnation
to death, and reconciles us to God. Again, by the sanctifying influences
of his Spirit, he frees us from the tyranny of Satan, that we may live
“unto righteousness,” (1 Peter 2:24.) Christ is not truly acknowledged
as a Savior, till, on the one hand, we learn to receive a free pardon of
our sins, and know that we are accounted righteous before God, because
we are free from guilt; and till, on the other hand, we ask from him the
Spirit of righteousness and holiness, having no confidence whatever in
our own works or power. By Christ’s people the angel unquestionably means
the Jews, to whom he was appointed as Head and King; but as the Gentiles
were shortly afterwards to be ingrafted into the stock of Abraham, (Romans
11:17,) this promise of salvation is extended indiscriminately to all who
are incorporated by faith in the “one body” (1 Corinthians 12:20) of the
22. Now all this was done. It is ignorant and childish trifling
to argue, that the name Jesus is given to the Son of God, because he is
called Immanuel. For Matthew does not confine this assertion to the single
fact of the name, but includes whatever is heavenly and divine in the conception
of Christ; and that is the reason why he employs the general term all.
We must now see how appropriately the prediction of Isaiah is applied.
It is a well-known and remarkable passage, (Isaiah 7:14,) but perverted
by the Jews with their accustomed malice; though the hatred of Christ and
of truth, which they thus discover, is as blind and foolish as it is wicked.
To such a pitch of impudence have many of their Rabbins proceeded, as to
explain it in reference to King Hezekiah, who was then about fifteen years
of age. And what, I ask, must be their rage for lying, when, in order to
prevent the admission of clear light, they invert the order of nature,
and shut up a youth in his mother’s womb, that he may be born sixteen years
old? But the enemies of Christ deserve that God should strike them with
a spirit of giddiness and insensibility, should
“pour out upon them a spirit of deep sleep and close their eyes,” (Isaiah
Others apply it to a creature of their own fancy, some unknown son of
Ahaz, whose birth Isaiah predicted. But with what propriety was he called
Immanuel, or the land subjected to his sway, who closed his life in a private
station and without honor? for shortly afterwards the prophet tells us
that this child, whoever he was, would be ruler of the land. Equally absurd
is the notion that this passage relates to the prophet’s son. On this subject
we may remark, that Christian writers have very strangely misapprehended
the prediction contained in the next chapter, by applying it to Christ.
The prophet there says, that, instructed by a vision, he “went unto the
prophetess; and she conceived, and bare a son,” and that the child whom
she bore was named by Divine command,”Maher-shalal-hash-baz,” “Making speed
to the spoil, hasten the prey,” (Isaiah 8:3.) All that is there described
is approaching war, accompanied by fearful desolation; which makes it very
manifest that the subjects are totally different.
Let us now, therefore, investigate the true meaning of this passage.
The city of Jerusalem is besieged. Ahaz trembles, and is almost dead with
terror. The prophet is sent to assure him that God will protect the city.
But a simple promise is not sufficient to compose his agitated mind. The
prophet is sent to him, saying,
“Ask thee a sign of the Lord thy God;
ask it either in the depth, or in the height above,”
That wicked hypocrite, concealing his unbelief, disdains to ask a sign.
The prophet rebukes him sharply, and at length adds,
“The Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive,
and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel,”
We expound this as relating to Christ in the following manner: “You,
the whole posterity of David, as far as lies in your power, endeavor to
nullify the grace which is promised to you;” (for the prophet expressly
calls them, by way of disgrace, the house of David, Isaiah 7:13;) “but
your base infidelity will never prevent the truth of God from proving to
be victorious. God promises that the city will be preserved safe and unhurt
from its enemies. If his word is not enough, he is ready to give you the
confirmation of such a sign as you may demand. You reject both favors,
and spurn them from you; but God will remain steady to his engagement.
For the promised Redeemer will come, in whom God will show himself to be
fully present to his people.”
The Jews reply, that Isaiah would have been at variance with everything
like reason or probability, if he had given to the men of that age a sign,
which was not to be exhibited till after the lapse of nearly eight hundred
years. And then they assume the airs of haughty triumph, as if this objection
of the Christians had originated in ignorance or thoughtlessness, and were
now forgotten and buried. But the solution, I think, is easy; provided
we keep in view that a covenant of adoption was given to the Jews, on which
the other acts of the divine kindness depended. There was then a general
promise, by which God adopted the children of Abraham as a nation, and
on which were founded all the special promises. Again, the foundation of
this covenant was the Messiah. Now we hold, that the reason for delivering
the city was, that it was the sanctuary of God, and out of it the Redeemer
would come. But for this, Jerusalem would a hundred times have perished.
Let pious readers now consider, when the royal family had openly rejected
the sign which God had offered to them, if it was not suitable that the
prophet should pass all at once to the Messiah, and address them in this
manner: “Though this age is unworthy of the deliverance of which God has
given me a promise, yet God is mindful of his covenant, and will rescue
this city from its enemies. While he grants no particular sign to testify
his grace, this one sign ought to be deemed more than sufficient to meet
your wishes. from the stock of David the Messiah will arise.” Yet it must
be observed that, when the prophet reminds unbelievers of the general covenant,
it is a sort of reproof, because they did not accept of a particular sign.
I have now, I think, proved that, when the door was shut against every
kind of miracle, the prophet made an appropriate transition to Christ,
for the purpose of leading unbelievers to reflect, that the only cause
of the deliverance was the covenant that had been made with their fathers.
And by this remarkable example has God been pleased to testify to all ages,
that he followed with uninterrupted kindness the children of Abraham, only
because in Christ, and not through their own merits, he had made with them
a gracious covenant.
There is another piece of sophistry by which the Jews endeavor to parry
our argument. Immediately after the words in question, the prophet adds:
“Before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good,
the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings,” (Isaiah
Hence they infer, that the promised birth of the child would be delayed
for a very short time; otherwise, it would not agree with the rapidly approaching
change of the kingdoms, which, the prophet announeed, would take place
before that child should have passed half the period of infancy. I reply,
when Isaiah has given a sign of the future Savior, and declared that a
child will be born, who is the true Immanuel, or—to use Paul’s language—God
manifest in the flesh, (1 Timothy 3:16,) he proceeds to speak, in general
terms, of all the children of his own time. A strong proof of this readily
presents itself; for, after having spoken of the general promise of God,
he returns to the special promise, which he had been commissioned to declare.
The former passage, which relates to a final and complete redemption, describes
one particular child, to whom alone belongs the name of God; while the
latter passage, which relates to a special benefit then close at hand,
determines the time by the childhood of those who were recently born, or
would be born shortly afterwards.
Hitherto, if I mistake not, I have refuted, by strong and conclusive
arguments, the calumnies of the Jews, by which they endeavor to prevent
the glory of Christ from appearing, with resplendent luster, in this prediction.
It now remains for us to refute their sophistical reasoning about the Hebrew
word hml[, virgin. They wantonly persecute Matthew for proving that Christ
was born of a virgin, while the Hebrew noun merely signifies a young woman;
and ridicule us for being led astray by the wrong translation of a word,
to believe that he was born by the Holy Spirit, of whom the prophet asserts
no more than that he would be the son of a young woman. And, first, they
display an excessive eagerness for disputation, by laboring to prove that
a word, which is uniformly applied in Scripture to virgins, denotes here
a young woman who had known a man. The etymology too agrees with Matthew’s
translation of the word: for it means hiding, which expresses the modesty
that becomes a virgin. They produce a passage from the book of Proverbs,
“the way of a man with a maids,” hml[b, (Proverbs 30:19.) But it does not
at all support their views. Solomon speaks there of a young woman who has
obtained the affections of a young man: but it does not follow as a matter
of course, that the young man has seduced the object of his regard; or
rather, the probability leans much more strongly to the other side.
But granting all that they ask as to the meaning of the word, the subject
demonstrates, and compels the acknowledgment, that the prophet is speaking
of a miraculous and extraordinary birth. He exclaims that he is bringing
a sign from the Lord, and not an ordinary sign, but one superior to every
The Lord himself shall give you a sign.
Behold, a virgin shall conceive, (Isaiah 7:14.)
If he were only to say, that a woman would bear a child, how ridiculous
would that magnificent preface have been? Thus we see, that the insolence
of the Jews exposes not only themselves, but the sacred mysteries of God,
Besides, a powerful argument may be drawn from the whole strain of the
passage. Behold, a virgin shall conceive. Why is no mention made of a man?
It is because the prophet draws our attention to something very uncommon.
Again, the virgin is commanded to name the child. Thou shalt call his name
Immanuel. In this respect, also, the prophet expresses something extraordinary:
for, though it is frequently related in Scripture, that the names were
given to children by their mothers, yet it was done by the authority of
the fathers. When the prophet addresses his discourse to the virgin, he
takes away from men, in respect to this child, that authority which is
conferred upon them by the order of nature. Let this, therefore, be regarded
as an established truth, that the prophet here refers to a remarkable miracle
of God, and recommends it to the attentive and devout consideration of
all the godly,—a miracle which is basely profaned by the Jews, who apply
to the ordinary method of conception what is said in reference to the secret
power of the Spirit.
23. His name Immanuel. The phrase, God is with us, is no doubt
frequently employed in Scripture to denote, that he is present with us
by his assistance and grace, and displays the power of his hand in our
defense. But here we are instructed as to the manner in which God communicates
with men. For out of Christ we are alienated from him; but through Christ
we are not only received into his favor, but are made one with him. When
Paul says, that the Jews under the law were nigh to God, (Ephesians 2:17,)
and that a deadly enmity (Ephesians 2:15) subsisted between him and the
Gentiles, he means only that, by shadows and figures, God then gave to
the people whom he had adopted the tokens of his presence. That promise
was still in force, “The Lord thy God is among you,” (Deuteronomy 7:21,)
and, “This is my rest for ever,” (Psalm 132:14.) But while the familiar
intercourse between God and the people depended on a Mediator, what had
not yet fully taken place was shadowed out by symbols. His seat and residence
is placed “between the Cherubim,” (Psalm 80:1,) because the ark was the
figure and visible pledge of his glory.
But in Christ the actual presence of God with his people, and not, as
before, his shadowy presence, has been exhibited. This is the reason, why
Paul says, that “in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily,”
(Colossians 2:9.) And certainly he would not be a properly qualified Mediator,
if he did not unite both natures in his person, and thus bring men into
an alliance with God. Nor is there any force in the objection, about which
the Jews make a good deal of noise, that the name of God is frequently
applied to those memorials, by which he testified that he was present with
For it cannot be denied, that this name, Immanuel, contains an implied
contrast between the presence of God, as exhibited in Christ, with every
other kind of presence, which was manifested to the ancient people before
his coming. If the reason of this name began to be actually true, when
Christ appeared in the flesh, it follows that it was not completely, but
only in part, that God was formerly united with the Fathers.
Hence arises another proof, that Christ is God manifested in the flesh,
(1 Timothy 3:16.) He discharged, indeed, the office of Mediator from the
beginning of the world; but as this depended wholly on the latest revelation,
he is justly called Immanuel at that time, when clothed, as it were, with
a new character, he appears in public as a Priest, to atone for the sins
of men by the sacrifice of his body, to reconcile them to the Father by
the price of his blood, and, in a word, to fulfill every part of the salvation
of men. The first thing which we ought to consider in this name is the
divine majesty of Christ, so as to yield to him the reverence which is
due to the only and eternal God. But we must not, at the same time, forget
the fruit which God intended that we should collect and receive from this
name. For whenever we contemplate the one person of Christ as God-man,
we ought to hold it for certain that, if we are united to Christ by faith,
we possess God.
In the words, they shall call, there is a change of the number. But
this is not at all at variance with what I have already said. True, the
prophet addresses the virgin alone, and therefore uses the second person,
Thou shalt call. But from the time that this name was published, all the
godly have an equal right to make this confession, that God has given himself
to us to be enjoyed in Christ.
24. Joseph, being raised from sleep. The ready performance, which
is here described, serves not less to attest the certainty of Joseph’s
faith, than to commend his obedience. For, if every scruple had not been
removed, and his conscience fully pacified, he would never have proceeded
so cheerfully, on a sudden change of opinion, to take unto him his wife,
whose society, he lately thought, would pollute him. The dream must have
carried some mark of Divinity, which did not allow his mind to hesitate.
Next followed the effect of faith. Having learned the will of God, he instantly
prepared himself to obey.
25. And knew her not. This passage afforded the pretext for great
disturbances, which were introduced into the Church, at a former period,
by Helvidius. The inference he drew from it was, that Mary remained a virgin
no longer than till her first birth, and that afterwards she had other
children by her husband. Jerome, on the other hand, earnestly and copiously
defended Mary’s perpetual virginity. Let us rest satisfied with this, that
no just and well-grounded inference can be drawn from these words of the
Evangelist, as to what took place after the birth of Christ. He is called
first-born; but it is for the sole purpose of informing us that he was
born of a virgin. It is said that Joseph knew her not till she had brought
forth her first-born son: but this is limited to that very time. What took
place afterwards, the historian does not inform us. Such is well known
to have been the practice of the inspired writers. Certainly, no man will
ever raise a question on this subject, except from curiosity; and no man
will obstinately keep up the argument, except from an extreme fondness